Home again

Shhh....  Be quiet, it's not even 5:00 am yet.  But I'm home and ready to blog about the last few details of our trip.

We had a nice sleep in on Monday morning, meeting Wayne for breakfast later than usual.  It was nice not to have to set an alarm, especially knowing how early we'd have to get up the next morning.  We went for one last breakfast and then Wayne collected his bag and we walked down to the train station.  After putting Wayne on the train, we decided to head back down to the oldest part of Vienna for a bit of shopping.  Neither of us bought anything.

After that, we headed back to the room to relax/pack for a bit and then head out for one last meal of schnitzel and strudel.  The schnitzel was delicious but the strudel wasn't.  Sad.  Once we were back at the hotel, we got all packed up and headed to bed early.

Our 4:00 am alarm went off VERY early and we got the last of the packing done, checked out and were on our way to the airport by 4:30.  Everything was closed so we didn't get a chance to eat anything before our first flight, which didn't have service on it since it was only a short flight to Brussels.  The flight was smooth, though, I did have a gentleman beside me who got rather cranky when the flight attendant told him he had to put his tray up for landing.  Once in the Brussels airport, we had to cross from one end of the airport to another, going through customs & security without boarding passes as the flight hadn't opened up for the check-in lady in Brussels to print them.  We had seats but no passes - which seemed odd.  Our baggage tickets and printed itinerary were enough and we got to our gate about 10 minutes before boarding.  We got our boarding passes and then had to talk to security for a few minutes.  It looked like everyone picking up boarding passes was being questioned and ours was far less inquisitive than some of the others.  Then, we sat to wait for the 9:15 boarding call.  Which never came, they just started boarding!  So onto the plane we went and despite our boarding passes saying boarding would only go until 9:50, the plane kept boarding until our take-off time of 10:15.

This flight was also smooth, in the sense that there wasn't much turbulence but it sucked enough in other ways that I probably won't want to fly Jet Airways again unless I have to.  All of our flights were booked on Brussels airways but both coming and going, the Toronto to Brussels leg was operated by Jet Airways, an Indian airline.  They served drinks & a snack very quickly.  I have no idea what the snack was supposed to be but it was spicy enough I thought I would be breathing fire.  Neither Kevin or I could eat it, which was sad because we were both starving (though, I had grabbed a Twix from the vending machine just before boarding.)  Our first meal came shortly after and it was, without a doubt, the worst meal I've ever had on an airplane.  It was supposed to be chicken with couscous.  The couscous was completely inedible and the chicken was rather sausage-like in shape & colour so I wasn't even trying that.  Even the salad was awful.  And the dessert.  I ended up eating my roll & water.  We didn't get offered anything else to drink and the coffee cart zoomed right by us, too.

Then the crying started.  There was a set of twins on the plane.  Either one or both were crying the ENTIRE flight.  Their parents were doing their best and they moved around the plane so that it wasn't just us that got tortured but it was still so frustrating.  Oh, and one of the babies was right behind me and whenever it stopped crying and was put in its car seat, it thumped the back of my chair (hard enough that Kevin's chair was moving, too.)

Closer to Toronto, we got another meal - quiche with a bit of pasta.  It was edible but certainly isn't considered good, even for airplane food.  It was followed up with ice cream, which salvaged the flight for me but aside from that, there was nothing good about the flight.

Once we landed, we got through customs quickly & easily.  Kevin's friend, Bry, was picking us up and he was already waiting for us on the other side of customs.  Our bags took a long time to appear - there was some kind of jam in the baggage room and they couldn't get them onto the belt quickly.  Ours didn't take too long to appear, once they started arriving.  We found Bry, headed to the car, and drove home.

Overall, it was an amazing, fantastic trip.  I loved Prague - even though we feel like we saw everything, I'd go back in a heartbeat.  Vienna was also lovely but definitely had that big-city, Toronto-like feel to it.  I'd go back to Austria, for sure, but I wouldn't spend much time in Vienna.  I think the highlight of the trip, for me, was Durnstein (the kingdom far, far away) and it would be the first thing I recommended to anyone who was planning a trip to the area.

Now, it's time for a cup of tea and back to regular life.  When's the next trip?

A kingdom far, far away

Today we had success.  We booked a car last night and picked it up with no issues this morning.  It was a little white two-door Mini that served its purpose well.

We took a longer route, keeping us off the major highways so that we could see all the little towns between Vienna and our destinations and it quickly paid off.  Close to Krems, our first town, we started seeing vineyards all along the road.  We stopped at what appeared to be a winery and had a glass of wine on a patio that overlooked the Danube.  The wine was delicious and we would have bought some but only the restaurant was open, the store was closed because it was Sunday.  There was also a very friendly dog at the restaurant - I scratched her ears for just a second and she was laying down and rolling onto her back for a belly rub, which I happily gave her.  When I stopped, her eyes widened and she nuzzled at me to keep going, so I did.  It was very cute.  I would have loved to take her with us for the rest of the day.

After that, we got into Krems, the first of our three stops.  Again, it was Sunday so all of the shops were closed.  We enjoyed wandering the cobblestone streets, though, and there was some kind of festival or celebration going on outside one of the churches.  We never figured out what it was and when Wayne realized he didn't have the car key on him, our wandering was cut short to head back to the car to find the key.  Luckily, it was in the ignition.  Even more luckily, the car and all our stuff was still there.  We decided to continue on at that point and headed towards Durnstein.

I was looking forward to Durnstein the most - it's rumoured to have inspired the Brothers Grimm's kingdom far, far away in their fairy tales.  There's also the ruins of a old castle where Richard the Lionhearted was kept prisoner for quite some time during the crusades.  We arrived and managed to park and then headed towards the old town.  And yes, you could tell just by looking at it that it was the perfect setting for a fairy tale.  We found the path up to the castle and hiked up the steep, steep hill to get to the top.  It didn't take too long but it was a warm day and I was huffing & puffing the entire way.  The ruins were incredible and the views from them were almost indescribable.  It was so beautiful - you could see the town and the country side with the Danube flowing through it all.  So, so beautiful.

Then it was time for a bit of shopping in the town while the boys got some lunch.  I wasn't too hungry and I was more interested in the shops so we split ways for a little while.  I got to meander in and out of all the stores, buying some of the local wine and an apricot-flavoured soda, ice cream & grapes from the vines.  It was fantastic.  After meeting up with Kevin & Wayne again, we headed to Melk.

Melk is famous for their abbey.  And if I was understanding correctly, it was founded by a monk who was unimpressed with the opulent ways of Rome.  So he founded the abbey at Melk and welcomed monks with the characteristics he admired.  And compared to Italy & the Vatican, the abbey was very toned down.  The library was INCREDIBLE.  Somewhere around 100,000 books going back to the 1300s.  Many of these books would be original copies, written out by the monks themselves.  It was overwhelming.  Then, we moved into the church.  And to me, it seemed just as decorated and opulent as the churches we saw in Italy. After that, we wandered the abbey's gardens and headed down into the Old Town for an ice cream and a walk around before heading back to the car for the drive back to Vienna.

After dropping off the car and dropping our stuff at the hotel, we headed out for dinner, landing at an Italian place where we all really enjoyed our dinners.  Now, we're back in the hotel room, heading off to bed.  Wayne heads back to Germany tomorrow and then Kevin and I will be heading back to Toronto very early on Tuesday morning.  Hard to believe our trip is almost over :(

A good day after a slight change of plans

Our plan for today was to rent a car and drive out to Krems, Durnstein and Melk.  That didn't end up going so well since the car rental places were out of cars.  Oh well.  On to Plan B - Schonbrunn.

Schonbrunn is the most popular tourist site in Vienna.  It's a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the former summer residence of the imperial family of Austria.  And also, it's beautiful.

We took the subway up to the palace grounds and bought Gold passes for the day.  That got us admission to everything.  We started with the zoo, since we figured the animals might be a little more active in the morning before it got too warm.  We saw lots of cool animals, including hippos, elephants, a variety of small monkeys, flamingos, lions, rhinos, seals (that kept howling), penguins, a polar bear and a giant panda.  It was fantastic - and probably my favourite part of the day.

After about two hours in the zoo, we headed up to the Gloriette.  This is high up on a hill and gives you an amazing view of the palace and the city.  We all thought it would be an excellent place to have parties but according to Wikipedia, it was something Maria Theresa had commissioned to glorify the Hapsburgs' power and to use up some extra stone.  It was a bit of a steep walk up to the Gloriette but totally worth it.  From there, we headed into the labyrinth, the hedge maze - it didn't take us too long to find the centre but we did hit a few dead ends.  From there, it was into the Imperial Apartments.  This is where our Gold pass really paid off - not only did we get to skip the line but we also got free audio guides!  We wound through the first floor of the palace, seeing everything from where audiences were received to the children's room to where Napolean stayed when he occupied Vienna.  It was incredibly beautiful.

After that, it was time for an apple strudel demonstration (and sample.)  We got to watch an amusing young man demonstrate how to make the traditional apple strudel for us while enjoying a small piece.  I think I can probably make a passable version now so I'll be trying it when I get home.  I also bought an official Schonbrunn apple strudel cloth so clearly, I will be successful.

From there, we headed back to the hotel for a few minutes before heading into the oldest part of Vienna to quite literally, wander the streets.  After an early dinner (of schnitzel) We walked down the main tourist street, which was for pedestrians only before coming right up Danube and a pro-marijuana parade of some kind.  It was an odd combinations.  Then, we wound our way back up, eventually ending up at the Imperial Palace we visited yesterday.  We walked past that, found a place to get some dessert and then headed back to the hotel for a night cap.

Tomorrow, we're definitely off to Melk, Krems & Durnstein.  We reserved a car online and we just need to pick it up in the morning!

Made it to Vienna

We have left the Czech Republic and have made it to Austria!  Our train trip was uneventful and we found our way to our first hotel without a problem.  We had two hotels booked for Vienna as originally, we were going to take an overnight train from Prague to Vienna, leaving us with no need to get a hotel room for last night.  But then, we found out the cost of the overnight train was more than we expected (we saw a price and thought that was it - no, turns out, that's just for the sleeper car, you still have to buy your train ticket on top of that...  which made it less economical to do that than to come a bit earlier and get a hotel room.)  We tried to extend our hotel that we were booked at but it was fully booked up so I found another hotel nearby and booked it instead.

Once we found hotel #1, we dropped our bags and asked the hotel clerk for a recommendation on where to eat.  She gave us the name of a place, saying it was cheap several times and sent us on our way with directions.  Well, it wasn't cheap and we weren't appropriately dressed.  I suspect she was getting a cut for everyone she sent over.  We ended up just getting dessert - it was late so I wasn't in the mood for anything heavy and the only non-mushroom vegetarian dish they had was pickled pumpkin.  Kevin wasn't thrilled by the menu either.  Dessert wasn't anything to write home about and we ended up stopping at McDonalds on the way back.

This morning, we got up and walked over to our other hotel to drop our bags off there and meet up with Wayne, Kevin's friend who is currently posted in Germany.  After stowing our luggage, Wayne guided us back to a major subway station where we could buy our 72-hour Vienna cards (unlimited access to transportation and discounts on most major attractions) before we headed down to the Imperial Treasury to check out the crown jewels, jewelry, treasures of the Golden Fleece and more.  It was really neat to see all the robes from the knights and emperors, etc.  And I was really pleased with myself for remembering that Marie Louise from the Hapsburg line was Napolean's second wife.  Yay for podcasts!

After that, we wandered for a bit before sitting down to lunch and then heading back to the hotel to check in and get ready for the Vienna Boys Choir.  It was quite a lovely concert.  The first half was just the choir and a piano.  The second half was the choir and a chamber orchestra.  The music was beautiful and so was the concert hall.

After that, we headed back to the hotel for a drink and dinner.  Our hotel is really quite an odd place - the lobby has disco balls and shelves of books and large stuffed cats and pillows made of something that seem to resemble horse hair.  Our room is pleasant enough but has a weird colour scheme and cubby holes.  But it's spacious and the bed is very comfortable.  And they put out jars of gummi bears in the lobby around 6:30.  All signs are pointing to a great stay but I'll reserve my final review for after tomorrow's shower.

For now, it's off to bed, we're heading to Melk, Krems, and Durnstein tomorrow to check out an abbey and some ruins that are rumoured to be where the Brothers Grimm took their inspirations for their kingdom far, far away.

Our last day in Prague

So where was I?  Oh yes, we were heading out to explore the Jewish Quarter and the Old Town yesterday.

It was mainly a day of walking, heading down to the Jewish Quarter and walking around.  We didn't go into the cemetery or any of the synagogues, just admired the beautiful buildings.  We eventually stopped at a bakery for some lunch and met a lovely couple from Bancroft who were partway through spending a month in and around the Czech Republic.  After that, it was more wandering, poking in and out of shops before heading back to the hotel to get ready for the opera.

We walked down to the National Theatre, which was about as challenging as you'd expect it to be in three-inch heels.  But the theatre was amazingly beautiful and the opera we saw, The Bartered Bride, was really enjoyable.  We were in box seats, which was a nice way to see the show.  Then, it was back to the hotel for our last sleep in Prague.

This morning, after breakfast, we headed into a couple of the puppet shops.  I found a beautiful marionette that I was seriously considering buying until Kevin did the conversion and advised me it was $1,600.  I bought something else, instead.

Now, we're waiting at the train station to catch our train to Vienna.  We're here a bit longer than we would have liked but we wanted to book specific seats, instead of just having an open-ended ticket.  After we had been sitting for a while, we realized we had tickets for tomorrow, not today.  Kevin was able to get them changed without a problem but by then, it was too late to get seats on the 1:39 train so we're hanging around for a 2:30 train instead.

Prague has been amazing and I think I could just wander around here for days.  We made sure to rub the plaque on Charles Bridge to make sure we come back so I'm sure this won't be the last we see of the Czech Republic.

Karlovy Vary

Yesterday was our day trip to Karlovy Vary.  As soon as we were dressed and fed, we headed over to the bus station by way of the metro to get seats on the next bus.  After just over two hours on the bus, we arrived. We found a map and headed into the centre of the city.  We stopped for lunch and then wandered around the pedestrian street towards the Diana Tower, a look out tower at the top of a huge hill at one end of the town.

Originally, we had planned to hike up the hill to the tower.  But then we saw how steep it was and it was starting to rain a little and I was starting to come down with a cold so we took the trolley or tram or whatever it was called up to the top.  Once at the top of the hill, we headed for the top of the tower to see the town.  It was beautiful.  The rumours about some of the most beautiful architecture in the world being in the Czech Republic are true.  Kevin stayed at the top far long than I did (I did go to the top, though - and I wasn't even drugged) and I suspect he got some really good photos.  I went back down to the base of the tower and hung out with the goats and the pigs at the petting zoo.  Kevin joined me after a bit and then we headed back down to the main street to find the thermal swim at Hotel Thermal.

I had hoped this would count as relaxing in a hot spring but it wasn't very warm at all.  I got bored rather quickly and once Kevin was done, we started to head back towards the bus station, stopping at whatever little shops caught my eye.  Not too far into this, it started to pour, cutting short my shopping.  We took shelter in a little alley way, hoping the rain would pass quickly.  Eventually, we decided it wasn't going to let up so we bought some umbrellas and headed back to the bus station.

After the bus trip back to Prague, we got some dinner - goulash for Kevin and chicken soup for me (I have a full blown cold now) - and then back to the hotel for a good night's sleep.

Today, we're off to explore the old town and the Jewish quarters.  We're also headed to the opera tonight so it's going to be a full day!

What a beautiful day in Prague

Turns out, I'm a little bit jet lagged.

 This morning, I woke up at a respectable 7:30. But then, when I couldn't keep my eyes open to check my Twitter, I put the phone back down and went back to sleep. Until 9:30. Breakfast is only served in the hotel until 10 so we headed straight down to eat and then came back up to shower and get ready for the day. The plan was to spend the day at Prague Castle.

 The castle is very, very close to our hotel. Our room has a view of the street but some rooms have views of the castle. that's how close we are. The castle, and the street our hotel is on, is on quite a steep hill. So we started going up the hill and were at the edge of the castle grounds in about 7 minutes. The castle grounds are quite extensive and there are two different ticket options - the long visit or the short visit. We bought tickets for the long visit and headed off. The castle is made up of quite a number of buildings that have been built over a very long time. The earliest artifacts they've found on the site came from 3800 BC. Buildings started going up around the 800s. But, really - you know something is really old when you read that one of the building underwent renovations in 1400.

 Our first stop was the Story Of Prague Castle museum. It gave an overview of the major events in the castle's history and had extensive exhibits with everything from being able to see the original furnace (from around the 1400's) to china from the 1800's. It was a good intro and helped us understand a bit more about Prague's history. From there, we went into the Old Royal Palace, where we saw a massive, massive hall along with a few of the other rooms. After that, we checked out St. George's Basilica. For the most part, it was lovely - but there was a rather macabre room with skulls wearing crowns painted on the walls and a terrifying skeleton statue. I also wasn't a huge fan of the tomb of St. Ludmila since her bones were on display but the ceiling of the room with her tomb was incredible. From there, it was into the National Gallery where we got to see some beautiful paintings by Czech artists. After that, the goal was to head into Rosenberg Palace but we somehow managed to miss it and were at the edge of the castle grounds before we knew it. We decided it would be a good time to break for lunch and after looping around, we ended up back on the hotel our street is on. We had a quick lunch and then headed back to the castle for the rest of the our visit.

We caught the changing of the guard on our way back in, which was a nice little accident. Then it was into the Picture Gallery, which is where some of the best pieces of art in the Czech Republic are featured. Moving on from there, we went to St. Vitus's Cathedral, which we think may have been larger than anything we saw in Italy. It wasn't as opulent (as everything wasn't covered in gold and marble) but it had beautiful stained glass and soaring ceilings. Then it was onto the Powder Tower to see some of the history of the guard at Prague Castle (not really my cup of tea) before wandering down to Golden Lane, which I fell in love with. It was this picturesque little alley with brightly painted, tiny houses all along one side. These houses were built into the exterior walls of the castle when a new outer wall was built. People continued to live in Golden Lane into the 1940s, including Franz Kafka. Now, the houses were little exhibits and shops. We left Golden Lane to head toward Rosenberg Palace, stopping at the dungeons on the way. Once we were done there, we wandered around the castle's moat and the royal gardens for a bit. Then, we headed back to the hotel for a bit of a rest before dinner.

We ended up at an Italian restaurant for dinner. Kevin really liked the look of the menu and after saying something about spaghetti on our way out, it was all I could think of. Our meal was fantastic. Aside from Italy, I'd say it was some of the best pasta I've had. Kevin ended his dinner with tiramisu but I had the dessert the Czech are famous for - a pancake with fruit, ice cream and whipped cream. It was amazing. It was sort of like a thick crepe and it was piled with strawberries and ice cream and whipped cream. I loved it. Despite thinking I wasn't very hungry, I gave a completely different impression when I finished my pasta and my pancake without any troubles.

After dinner, I came back to the hotel while Kevin went back to the castle to take some more photos. He's been taking most of our pictures on his camera but I've had my point-and-shoot out. I'll leave you with a few photos from my camera. The good photos will have to wait :)