Eastern Europe, December 2009

For our 2009 holidays were spent on a tour of Eastern Europe. We chose to use Globus again, after our very successful Southern England tour. For our holiday trips, Rosa and I prefer to either take a tour or to visit a non-Christian country. In some previous trips, simple tasks like finding somewhere to eat are very difficult from the evening of Dec 24 through Dec 26 or 27. Going on a tour will take care of that problem.

For our Eastern European jaunt, we were lucky that the huge East coast snowstorm or the smaller European storm did not impact our travel. Less than half of our tour made it to our welcome diner on the first evening.

The storms did impact my mother, niece and nephew, who had their flight from Halifax rebooked through Ottawa (instead of Toronto) on the way to St. Thomas, and by sheer chance it happened that we were able to have a short family reunion in the Ottawa International Airport before Rosa and I had to board our transatlantic flight.

Rosa in a heavy overcoat
Rosa in a heavy overcoat

When we arrived in Berlin, we checked-in and took or usual 5-hour jet lag nap. In the evening, we met a few of our fellow travellers during the welcome dinner.  After dinner, Rosa and I visited a wonderful Christmas market across the street from our hotel. It was quite large and parts were in huge heated tents. There was lots of food and drinks too. So many interesting crafts, although we didn’t buy anything. Rosa tried on a heavy handmade overcoat, but it was too big for her (and very expensive).

The next day, there was a bus-tour of the city.  The weather was cold, damp and drizzling, so it was not much fun for exploring. At some points, there was even a light, wet snow. We made three stops for photos. First, we stopped at the only preserved section of the Berlin Wall. I was a little surprised that it was thinner than I expected. But then again, it was designed to keep East Berliners from defecting, not for keeping NATO tanks out. Behind the wall was an excavation site, which we were told was the foundation of the Gestapo and SS headquarters – some of the torture cells could be seen from the street. It is being excavated for historical research and will be turned into a memorial and museum to those who were murdered during the Nazi rule.

Next, we stopped at Checkpoint Charlie, one of the flashpoints during the Cold War. In 1961, a war was almost started here, as US and Soviet tanks pointed at each other only a hundred or so metres apart. This was during the building of the wall.

Our final photo stop was at the Brandenburg Gate. This gate, one of the symbols of Berlin, was originally behind the Iron Curtain. I took a few photos and then went to see the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe just a block away. The snow was falling, and there was an eerie silence. No one else was around. The memorial fills an entire city block, and it is made of rows of black, concrete blocks (or stelae). There are 2,700 stelae in the memorial.

I had just enough time to run down the street to also take a picture of the Soviet War Memorial. It was guarded by two Russian T-34 tanks used to push the Nazi armies back from Moscow to the Battle of Berlin. 80,000 Soviet troops were killed in the Battle of Berlin in the final month of the European campaign.

Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche
Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche

The final stop of our city tour was near the remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Rosa and I discussed what to do for the evening, and we agreed to stay in the area and shop. Rosa went to all the clothing stores. Rosa loves H&M and we hit all three H&M stores in the area. We ended up with 5 bags!

I crossed the street to explore the church. It stands as it was at the end of World War II – only the bell tower, a bombed-out husk, remains. Next to it, and in huge contrast to it, is a new church with a 1960’s modernist feeling. I went inside; it was lit up blue and had a huge Christ figure above the altar. Another Christmas market was set up in the square around the two churches.

Rosa and I had dinner in the KaDeWe department store, the second largest in the world after Harrods. We had dinner here on my birthday 3.5 years previously. Instead of eating at the sixth floor food hall, we went to the Winter Garden on the top floor. After dinner, we took the subway back to the hotel.

The next day was a travel day to Prague. On the way, we stopped in the old part of Dresden. The city of Dresden was devastated by a firestorm started by Allied bombers in February 1945. The city centre was completed destroyed by the firestorm. While Rosa did more shopping, I walked around looking at the buildings, such as the Semper Opera, Hofkirche and Frauenkirche. The brick-by-brick restoration of the Frauenkirche completed only a few years ago. There was another large Christmas Market next to where the tour bus stopped.

We arrived in Prague late in the afternoon. Rosa and I went to Francouzská Restaurace Art Nouveau for supper. I had the traditional Svíčková na Smetaně (pot-roasted fillet of beef), which was very filling. The restaurant was decorated in the Art Nouveau style, dating from 1912. It was breathtaking!

Prague (and Budapest) was not completely destroyed in World War II, so there were many wonderful examples of original Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings around the city. It was a real treat to see so many fine examples.

On Karlův most
On Karlův most

In the evening, we took a walking tour of the Old Town. We started at a pub called Vojanův dvůr. It was a micro-brewery, with huge copper brewing kettles behind the bar. A local musician played some traditional accordion music. Rosa made some requests, and he was able to play some of them, including the Libertango by Piazzolla. After the pub, we took a walking tour along the river, and across the famous Karluv Most (Charles Bridge). The bridge dates back to the 14th Century. The evening grew cold and damp and our fingers, nose and ears were very cold.

The next day was a bus and walking tour, including Prague Castle and the huge gothic St. Vitus Cathedral. It was even colder inside the church; our breath fogged in the chill. I couldn’t imagine how the priests could perform a Sunday mass in the church when it is so cold. There were many tombs in the Cathedral, including a huge silver one for John of Nepomuk (1345-1393), the patron Saint of the Czech Republic. He was the confessor to the Queen. When the King asked him to tell the queen’s secrets, John refused. The King then killed him by throwing him off Karlov Most. John died without divulging any of her majesty’s secrets. We also watched the changing of the guards ceremony at the castle. Prague Castle is the largest castle in the world.

The tour ended at in the Old Town Square, perfectly timed to allow us to catch the 11am chiming of the famous astronomical clock. The clock dates back to at least 1410. On the hour, a skeleton starts to ring a bell in his hand and two doors open at the top. Models representing the 12 Apostles come one-by-one to peer out of the two doors. The mechanism ends with the chiming of the bell tower to give the hour.

For the afternoon, Rosa went shopping at the Palladium instead of braving the cold. I went out walking all over the city, taking photos everywhere. There are so many interesting things to see. I was not able to get into to see the ancient Jewish cemetery, as it was closed.  The city is so interesting visually, with the ancient (Karlův Most), and the semi-modern (the many spired churches), and the many exquisite examples of Art Nouveau and Art Deco style. Prague is known as “The City of 100 Spires”, and was once a capital of the Holy Roman Empire (14th C). It was also where Tycho Brahe and Johann Kepler lived in the 16th C – they were astronomers who started to break down the theory of celestial spheres, leading to the theories of heliocentrism.

Prague Astronomical Clock
Prague Astronomical Clock

In the main square, next to the Astronomical Clock and Church of Our Lady before Týn, was another large Christmas market. This was a common site all over Eastern Europe during the holidays.

After 3pm many places started to close, as it was Christmas Eve. I went back to the hotel to refresh and then joined Rosa at the Palladium.

The dinner was a buffet at our hotel. Rosa and I had wild boar for dinner! We found out that our hotel was once the Woerks Insurance Beaur, where Franz Kafka worked.

Christmas day was mostly a travel day from Prague to Budapest. At noon, the tour stopped in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Rosa and I had a chocolate fondue, with a mint-flavoured hot chocolate and cappuccino for our Christmas lunch at Café Maximilian. The chocolate store and café are 150 years old. It was situated along one side of a town square where there was another (now closed) Christmas market. We were also pleased that the weather was getting warmer. The coldest days of the trip were behind us.

We arrived earlier than planned in Budapest, so we took a quick bus tour to see all the illuminated buildings of this old city. It was so beautiful with all of the extra holiday lights.

Dinner was in the hotel again. This time it was a multi-course menu. A musical quartet was playing during, walking amongst the tables. Rosa again had some requests. She really enjoyed the music on this trip!

Boxing Day in Budapest started with a bus tour. We stopped at the Square of Heroes (Hősök tere) and the nearby Vajdahunyad vára (castle), which dates back about a hundred years.

Next we crossed the Danube River to reach the Castle Hill. From there we had a panoramic view of the magnificent Budapest Parliament.  The viewing area was next to the wonderfully Matthias Church (Mátyás-templom) (14th C). The roof of the church is covered in a mosaic of coloured tiles; it was quite arresting.

Leaving the viewing area, we drove by Buda Castle, which is really more of a palace than castle. It was huge. It dominated the top of the hill on which it was built. The façade is over 300 metres long. It was very imposing. I tried to find out how many rooms it contained, but could not find the number.

Hungarian Parliament Building
Hungarian Parliament Building

Around noon, we took a cruise on the Danube; a light lunch was served onboard.

The afternoon was free so Rosa and I went to see St Stephen Basilica (Szent István-bazilika). After that, we walked to the Magyar Állami Operaház (Hungarian State Opera House) although we did not have enough time to take the guided tour. This Opera House is considered to be one of the best in the world, acoustically.

The evening dinner was at Szeged Vendéglő Kft. It was a traditional Hungarian dinner. The restaurant had a quintet playing traditional Hungarian and gypsy music. Rosa had waited her whole life to hear gypsy violin and when they played her request, she was so touched that she cried. The lead violinist was quite good. Our entire tour group sang “Silent Night” before leaving.

Returning to the hotel, we went down to the bar for some light music and we started to talk with Janice and Richard from Florida. We grew fond of their company and stayed in touch after the tour. Before going back up to our room, one of the hotel staff directed us to another bar in the hotel where there was a belly dancer. She was pretty good. It was very unexpected in a Ramada hotel bar in Hungary.

The drive to Vienna the next day was short and by 1pm we were on a tour of the city.  Vienna was our final city of our tour – Rosa and I stayed here for 4 days.

Vienna was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unlike many other royal empires in Europe, it was not overthrown in revolution. This meant that much of the trappings of the great empire were well preserved. Everywhere there were palaces and displays of the royal family’s largesse. The empire lasted until 1918. It was also not a main battleground in World War II.

In the afternoon we had a walking tour of Vienna, starting with St Stephen Dom (Cathedral), originally consecrated in 1147. It was 70% destroyed by fire at the end of World War II; it was painstakingly restored in the post-war era. The pulpit was a masterfully carved sculpture, with the stairs leading to the pulpit winding around one of the tremendous columns supporting the high ceiling. In alcoves around the periphery were tombs of various royals, such as Frederick the III (1440-1493), the one of the Holy Roman Emperors. As with Matthias Church in Budapest, the roof is made of a mosaic of coloured tiles. This cathedral was a central location from which many of our walking tours of Vienna started or ended.

Vienna is a city of music. Nearly all of the greatest composers lived in Vienna at one time or another. For a musician seeking a living, you would of seek the wealthies cities to make a living. Beethoven discovered the totality of his deafness while living in Vienna when he saw birds flying out of the St Stephen’s bell tower but he could not hear the bells.

Marchfelderhof - photos of celebrities
Marchfelderhof - photos of celebrities

In the evening, we went on the optional diner at Marchfelderhof, which was about 20km from our hotel. The two-story building, situated in an area formerly used as hunting grounds for the royals, was absolutely amazing. Every room was filled to overflowing with various antiques. Our dining room had dozens of violins hanging from the ceiling. This was a popular spot for the rich and famous. Every wall, from floor to ceiling, was lined with hundreds of signed photos of all the famous people who have visited. Actors, singers, musicians, ballet dancers, and politicians from all parts of the world have visited. The dinner was delicious (BBQ ribs for me). After dinner, there was a couple that performed ballroom dancing and then they pulled people from the audience to dance as well, for which they get a signed certificate of the occasion.

Rosa went up to dance, while I declined so I could take pictures. After I took the pictures, I broken in and danced with Rosa as a romantic gesture. It was a memorable night.

After the dinner, we went to a gala concert in the Kursalon (Concert Hall). A small string orchestra played local folk music, some Mozart, some well-sung opera pieces and the well-known “Blue Danube Waltz” by Johann Strauss.

The next day was our final day with our tour.  It was a day of unscheduled activities, so Rosa and I went out to explore by ourselves. We walked past the classical architecture of the parliamentary buildings to the Hofburg royal palace (about 20 minutes from our hotel). We were looking for the Royal Apartments, but the first building we entered was the Austrian National Library (Hofbibliothek) (although it was formerly part of the palace). We circled the area and did find the entrance to the palace and went inside.

WOW! We started with the Royal Treasury (Schatzkammer). The Treasury contained a mind-blowing show of wealth from the Royal Family. There were multiple rooms for the silverware, multiple rooms for the fine china, multiple rooms for the candelabras and table settings. Even the napkins were unique – only 2 people in the world know how to fold them and the instructions are only given by word-of-mouth to the next 2 people who have to do it. In another part of the museum were the crown jewels, including the ancient crown of the Holy Roman Empire! Then we visited the Kaiserappartements (Imperial Apartments) where Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria lived. Included in the Kaiserappartements is the Sisi Museum, dedicated to the Empress.

In the afternoon, we stopped at Café Demel for a snack. Vienna is world famous for its cafés. After that, we slowly walked back to the hotel for the farewell dinner, as it was the final day with our tour.

After dinner, we sat with Janice and Richard for a long talk over drinks.

The next day, while Rosa went shopping, I went to see two sights in another part of Vienna. First, I took the subway out to the Augarten. It was a nice sunny day for a walk, with a slight chill in the morning air. I wanted to go to the Augarten because I had seen it during our bus tour on our first day in Vienna. In the Augarten were two hulking flak towers left over from World War II. They were built as towers for large German anti-aircraft guns. Built of heavily reinforced concrete, they were too massive to tear down or blow-up so they stand today as they were at the end of the war. Thousands of pigeons now inhabit the tops of the towers. The closer I got to them, the more stunned I was by their size. They were the first military installations I have seen that date to the Second World War.

After a nice stroll through Augarten, I got back on the subway for my next destination, the KunstHaus Wien. This very colourful art gallery was hosting an exhibit by Annie Leibovitz. There were 180 photographs on display from her last book “A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005”. I was so happy to see this exhibit. I was so disappointed when I went to the Fotografie Forum Frankfurt, which had advertised that they had Annie Leibovitz, only to find that they were no longer showing her work.

Around lunchtime, Rosa and I met up again near the shopping area. We stopped at another café and then went to buy tickets for the Opera.

Rosa and I then went in search of one of the more unusual museums in Vienna – the Bestattungsmusem – the Museum of Embalming! It was well out of the way in an industrial area. It was hard to find, and there was a very cold wind blowing down the streets. We eventually found the address listed. It was on the second floor of an office building. When we arrived, the door was locked.  There was no information about the open hours, although our tour book (“Eyewitness Travel Guides Top Ten Vienna“) indicated that it was open noon to 3pm. We rang the doorbell over and over and finally gave up. We went downstairs to speak with the security guard. He informed us that the museum was open only by appointment. We laughed and laughed and laughed – what kind of a museum is open by appointment only? How can they make any money? We asked the security guard if we could make an appointment for the same afternoon. He told us sternly, “No, you must book appointment 1 day in advance!”. We shook our heads in disbelief. We didn’t bother to go back another day.

After freshening up back in the hotel, Rosa and I went to Café Frauenhuber, Vienna’s oldest coffee house, for a snack before heading out for an evening on the town.

Vienna State Opera
Vienna State Opera

We had tickets to see the opera “The Barber of Seville” at the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper). It was my first full opera. We had box seats. Each seat had a small screen that would show the translations of what was being sung on stage. I knew some of the music at the start of the opera, but everything after that was new to me (but not to Rosa!).

Rosa wore the coolest boots ever made. Instead of a heal at the back of the boot, they have a short “foot” that comes from below the arch – the foot looks like the leg to a small office chair. Everyone was looking at her boots. She had bought them earlier in the day when I was off on my side-trip. And she got a good price – we had seen them before for nearly 800€, and she bought them for around 75% off.

The next day was our final day of the trip. We started by visiting the Upper Belvedere. This former palace is now a museum. It has the best collection of works from Gustav Klimt. I had not been a fan of his work before, but somehow seeing the originals (instead of poster reproductions), I came away with a new appreciation. They are really quite wonderful to see.

The Enraged and Vengeful Gypsy
The Enraged and Vengeful Gypsy

The Belvedere also had a room that had a small collection of “Character Heads” busts from Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. My favourite head was “The Enraged and Vengeful Gypsy” – what a fantastic name!

For a dinner snack, we went to the Café Central. Or rather, what we thought was the Café Central. It was hard to find and we had to ask directions; we were directed to a café of that name. But we found out that in fact there were two Café Central’s, about a block from each other. We were at the newer one (Konditorei Café Central). The food was very delicious, but we wanted go to the other more historic one.

For our last night, we went to see the world famous Lipizzaner stallions. We had front row seats on the upper level of the Spanish Riding School. This school is actually inside the Royal Palace. The hall is a magnificent enclosed space, done in white marble with three huge crystal chandeliers over the performance area. The horses can be exercised and performances held year round.

On our way home, we stopped at the older Café Central and had more exquisite desserts.  The older Café Central has had many patrons over the 140 years, infamously including Lenin, Hitler, Trotsky, Tito, and (not so infamously) Freud. Ignoring the horrific history of some of their patrons, it was a wonderful place to finish off our trip to Eastern Europe – sipping coffee at a café, having been out for an evening on the town, and being filled with the ambiance of history.

Our photo gallery is available here: http://gallery.myredbmw.net/v/Travel/Eastern2009/ (password protected). To see where we went, download and open this Google Earth file: Eastern Europe 2009.kmz.

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