Saturday, March 3, 2012

The architecture of Prague(Praha) makes me think of Dragons

So, of the three cities we visited, Prague was probably my favorite, although I think all three cities had their Pros and Cons.   Prague actually had the most tourists of the three (which surprised me).  I also felt like it was the most expensive (for some reason I expected Vienna to be the most expensive).  It was also the coldest, in my opinion.  I don't know if the weather reports would support my conclusion or not, however.  Also, when I saw the architecture in Prague, the movie title "How to Slay a Dragon" came to mind.  I've never seen the movie.  Don't know if it's even about slaying dragons.  The point is basically it made me think of Dragons.  I also told my brother that the architecture was very Bohemian.  He agreed, and pointed out that Prague is a part of Bohemia, which may account for the architecture looking Bohemian.  Prague is also the city where I probably tried the most ethnic food (of the country itself).  In Austria I did have a Kebab Box and a Falafel Box.  Those are technically ethnic foods, but I wouldn't really consider them to be Austrian foods.  In Prague I tried Beef Goulash, Goulash Soup in a bread bowl, and Sirloin Steak in a cream sauce.  I forget what the sides were.  Something that I should note, however, about restaurants in Europe that is different from the restaurants I've been to in the US - If they put potato chips or a basket of bread and spread for the bread on the table, don't eat it unless you are prepared to pay for it.  The sirloin steak was a pork sirloin, but it tasted great.  Probably my favorite of the meals.  I will admit this is the only city where I did get some American fast food as well.  We ate at KFC the first night.  Not my favorite of the meals.  Enough Dialogue - onto the vacation info.
Day 8 (continued) - When we arrived in Prague, we of course started by catching the Metro and then walking to our hotel.  Since it was a Sunday, the metro ride with the luggage was not bad at all.  Our hotel had a great location, It was only a few steps away from The Charles Bridge (Karlov Most) - a very famous pedestrian bridge in Praha.  We didn't waste much time before utilizing the Bridge.  We headed across it and wandered through the souvenir shop-lined streets of Prague and along the way we happened upon the Astronomical Clock and the town square.  We then went back to the hotel, and later we headed across the bridge again to find something to eat (and we ended up eating at KFC).  I think that pretty much sums up Day 8.
Day 9 - Castle Hill and Petrin Hill

Ceiling - St. Vitus - Praha
Exterior - St. Vitus - Praha

The Bookcase in the Old Castle

So, in Prague, Castle Hill was more easily identifiable as a castle.  We bought the ticket for the long tour, and went to every single one of the exhibits to which we were entitled with the ticket.  I really loved some of the architecture, particularly the ceiling architecture, and St. Vitus Cathedral (our first stop) was very nice.
Stained Glass Window - St. Vitus - Praha
After eating lunch on Castle Hill, we visited Petrin Hill.  On Petrin Hill, we went to the Mirror Maze, saw the funicular (which looks more like a tram going up and down a hill), and went to the tower.  I did not climb the tower, but my brother did.  In the basement of the tower was an exhibit about an inventor.  We meandered our way down the hill, and stopped by the riverside on our way back.  At the riverside we saw either some lighted penguin statues or some penguin lights.
The Mirror Maze

Fire Bicycle

The Penguins at the river side
Day 10 - Josefov, The Market, The Astronomical Clock again

On Day 10 we went to Josefov and saw a synagogue.  There were a few options.  We could either visit Old New Synagogue or we could visit a number of synagogues and the cemetery.  I decided on Old New Synagogue, thinking we could visit the cemetery as well.  It is the one of the largest Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.  Unfortunately, we could not buy a separate ticket for this, but were able to catch a few glimpses anyway.  The Old New synagogue was where legends say the Golem's body was stored.  Initially, I was very disappointed with the synagogue.  We were given a little pamphlet and were able to see one room (where the men sat) and the gallery where the ladies sat.  We went back out and asked if that was all, and an old woman was just arriving.  She took us back into the main room, and she started explaining many things about the room, the culture, and the Golem legend to us.  This made it much more worth my money.  I also learned that she was 90 years old, and had lived through World War 2.  I wanted to ask her about that, but I was to chicken to ask her.  I didn't want to stir up unpleasant memories for her.

The Jewish Cemetery in Praha

After the synagogue, we wandered through some more of Josefov, and then back across the river at another location so that we could visit the market.  The streets on the other side were a big difficult to navigate as a pedestrian, as sometimes it was hard to find places and opportunities to cross the road.  In the end, the market was a bit disappointing.  It was mostly Asian people selling cheap clothes and bags.  Not things I was interested in.  We were going to take the metro back across the river as we had already done quite a bit of walking, but in the end there was a misunderstanding on my part, so we ended up walking back to the astronomical clock area.  While we were there this time, we were able to see it go off a couple of times (it goes off on the hour).  When it goes off, there is a parade of figures through a couple of windows in the clock and a skeleton rings a bell.  After it finishes, a trumpeter at the top of the tower plays a little fanfare.  Most of the rest of the day was spent searching for souvenirs for family whom we had not found souvenirs for yet (and for ourselves).
The Astronomical Clock

Trumpeter atop the tower at the astronomical clock

Oh, we did also go to the shop at the Franz Kafka museum.  I'm not a fan of Mr. Kafka, as I find Metamorphosis very disturbing, so I didn't want to go to the museum itself.  A minute or two after we arrived, I did hear one of the shopkeepers telling someone else who wanted to go to the museum that it was too late as they would only have 30 minutes to go through if they bought a ticket at that time, and they really needed at least 45 minutes.  So, he probably wouldn't have let us go in if we would have wanted to.  Mostly I wanted to see it because it had been on The Amazing Race.  I do have to say that despite writing disturbing stories, Franz was a nice looking young man, and based on the pictures of him, he did not look like a disturbed person.
Day 11 - Leap Day
This year, my leap day was 32 hours long.  I started it off in Prague and ended it in Billings.  The day started early as we woke up at 4 a.m. so that we could catch our 4:40 a.m. airport transfer.  I do have to say, the driver knew the streets of Prague well, and maneuvered through them very deftly.  As many of the streets seemed to be for pedestrians and cars, I think I would be afraid to drive the streets of Prague.  The flight home involved going through airport security 3 times.  The first security check was in Prague; the second,  Paris as we had to change terminals, and the security in the CDG airport it at each terminal; The third, Salt Lake City, as I had to go through customs there and security was located after customs.  The layovers were also pretty short and we spent most of our layover in Paris getting from one terminal of the airport to the other.

After arriving in Billings, I called a cab to take me back to my car that I was able to keep in the hotel parking lot.  It took the cab 45 minutes to an hour to arrive.  The cab was also picking up a couple at the airport, and they wanted to be dropped off first.  I was fine with that because I wasn't in any hurry.  When I arrived back at my car, however, I discovered that the battery was dead because I had left the dome light on the night before I flew out.  I went into the hotel to see if there was anyone who could help me jump my car.  There was a man who worked in the kitchen who could help, but he didn't have cables with him, and neither did I.  I went in search of cables at the nearby Home Depot, and when they didn't have any, I bought some at Walmart.  He attempted to jump my car, but I do have to say that I really don't think he knew what he was doing.  As I popped the hood, I saw the battery terminals and commented that my battery was really corroded.  He told me there wasn't much corrosion.  He hooked the battery up; and, after a few minutes, my car still wouldn't start, but was making the dinging noise it makes when the key is in the ignition and the door is open.  After a few more minutes, it still wasn't starting, so he decided the battery was not the problem.  I was tired, so I wasn't thinking and I didn't dispute him, but as I went to my car later and the power door locks didn't work I thought to myself, "It has to be the battery."

In the end I ended up calling a garage to come jump my car the next morning.  I felt bad asking someone at the hotel to jump my car again, and I felt awkward about the idea of hanging out in the parking lot stalking people who were staying at the hotel and asking them if they would help me jump my car.  The garage had one of those handy little chargers(I had considered buying one of those myself) that can jump a car in a few seconds. The guy who came did tell me that the battery terminals were pretty corroded and that they probably should be cleaned, and he did say that without the charger it probably would have taken awhile to get it charged enough to start.  I felt validated.  He told me to be on the safe side I should probably drive my car for 45 minutes before stopping, so instead of staying in Billings and stopping by a few stores, I decided I should probably just drive back home.  

That concludes the report on my vacation.  Feel free to ask questions in the comments section if you have any.  Also, I hope you enjoy the pictures that my brother took.  There were so many other good ones that I did not include in the post.

Vienna (Wien) - The Prater, Sisi, Franz Joseph, and the Rest of the City

Day 5 (Continued) - We arrived in Austria; and, after all the walking we did in Budapest, we decided to get the 72-hour metro pass.  We considered the Vienna Card, but the person selling the various passes told us that if we didn't have children, then it wasn't worth it to get the card.  I must say that the 72 hour passes are very convenient as we only had to buy one for the whole trip, and we only had to validate it with our first use.  After arriving, we headed off to our apartment (once again obtained through  I liked this apartment very much, and it looked exactly like it did in the pictures, right down to the chocolate on the towels at the foot of the bed.  I especially loved the water pressure in the shower.  After the owner's dad showed us around the place, we settled in and then we headed off to the Prater to take a ride on the Giant Ferris Wheel, which was featured on the Amazing Race (sometime in the past few seasons).  Just before we entered our Ferris Wheel "waggon", we saw them setting up one of the other waggons for a special event, and just before we exited, we saws the people who had reserved that waggon get in (and there were a lot of them - I didn't realize how many people could fit in one waggon.  Needless to say, I am not afraid of heights, but I am afraid of falling from heights.  While the waggon was fully enclosed, it was very windy while we were in Vienna, and being higher up, it was even more windy.  Let's just say the I enjoyed the ride down much more than I enjoyed the ride up.

A Catered Car on the Giant Ferris Wheel

 After experiencing the Giant Ferris Wheel, we headed downtown to check out the sights at night.  We started at city hall, where they had a huge area set up outside that included and ice skating rink, and ice skating track (for lack of a better word), and a curling rink.  We were excited when we saw posted on the curling rink that children and beginners could practice on the rink daily, for free, from 9-4.  As we had never curled before, we thought this would be fun, and put it on our list of things to do over the next few days if we had fine.  Unfortunately, when we did return a day or two later, we were greeted with the site of children and beginning skaters (not curlers).  It made me a little sad as I thought it would be fun to try curling, and the fact that we could try for free had been even more exciting.
Wien City Hall

A map of the skating track in front of city hall
After City Hall, we walked around some more and saw The Hofburg and several museums.  We took some pictures, but didn't go in anything (most of them were closed anyway). Afterwards, we decided to head back to the apartment and pick up something from the supermarket across the street for dinner.  Unfortunately, we learned that it closed a little sooner than we thought, so we ended up eating Poptarts for dinner.

Day 6 - The main part of Vienna
The next day, we headed back downtown again.  We started out by finding an information center, and getting a better map.  Then we went to the market, which was an outdoor market.  It primarily had meat, produce, and bakeries on one side, and restaurants on the other side.  There were a few food vendors on the meat and produce side - selling the cheaper items.  In the end, we did end up buying a pastry that was topped with fruit.  It was very yummy.  After we hit the market, it was time to see the tourist sites.  We saw Stephensdom.  I call this the "tie-dye" church.  You'll see why based on the picture I'm posting below.  The effect is from the stained glass windows.  My brother was not a huge fan of this church.
The Inside of Stephensdom -  Wien, Austria

We then hit a few souvenir shops on the way from Stephensdom to the Church of St. Peter.  My favorite was a little shop that had Cuckoo clocks.  The ones that I liked ran in the $400+ range, however, so I decided against getting one for now.  It did have some other fun stuff too, though, and we ended up buying a cowbell for my dad at the shop.
Inside the Churh of St. Peter in Wien, Austria

Things get a bit foggy after this, but generally, after we went to this Church, we checked things out at the Hofburg.  We did not go and see the Lipizzan Stallions, but we did go to the shop and saw some video clips of them.  He then bought the Sisi Ticket which included entrance to the Silver Collection at the Hofburg, the Imperial Apartments at the Hofburg, and exhibit on Sisi, and also entrance to Schonbrunn Palace.  It also included entrance to other exhibits which we did not decide to see.  These exhibits all included free audioguides, which I thought was great.  The silver collection (which included more than just the silver) was fine, but I'm not really super excited about looking at table settings.  The Sisi exhibit was very informative (as I had never heard of Sisi, and it was interesting to here her story, however overall she seemed like a very depressed person.  I think the only reason she became such and icon in Austria after her death was because of her beauty. The Imperial Apartments was fine, but much of the same information was presented at Schonbrunn, but I don't think you really need to go to both.  Having gone to both, I would definitely recommend the Schonbrunn Palace over the Hofburg.  The grounds at both places are large and beautiful, however.

I'm sure we did more this day, but I forget what, so I'll leave it at that.

Day 7 - Schonbrunn Palace, The Belvedere, Kunst Haus Wien, The Hundertwasser House, and the Johann Strauss Museum

As I mentioned before, Schonbrunn and the Imperial apartment tours had a lot of the same information, but I feel like Schonbrunn had more information on the Habsburgs besides Sisi and Franz Joseph.  The grounds were also beautiful, but unfortunately the maze was closed for the winter.  
The Gloriette at Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
A fountain at Schonbrunn

 After the Schonbrunn, we went to the Belvedere.  We took "the scenic route" there (meaning we may have took a few wrong turns on our way to the site.  There are actually two building at the Belvedere - the Upper Belvedere and the Lower Belvedere.  They both now house the museums.  We did not go in the museums, but we did enjoy the exterior and grounds of the building.

The Upper Belvedere
The Lower Belvedere (with the Vienna skyline in the background).  How many cranes can you count in this picture?

After all the Classic Architecture, we decided to visit some more modern architecture in the city.  We went to Kunst Haus Wien and Hundertwasser House.  Vienna being a city with an impressive musical background, we also decided to visit the Johann Strauss House where he and his wife lived and where he composed the Blue Danube Waltz.  I randomly chose this museum.  I would not really recommend it.  Even though I didn't go to the Mozart museum or the Haus der Musik, I would probably recommend spending a few dollars more and going to one of these museums if you are into musik.  What I did like about the museum was that the method of the displays was unique, and I enjoyed being able to put on the headphones and listen to various song selections by Strauss (although I would have expected at least a portion of the Blue Danube Waltz to be one of the selection choices - which it wasn't).

Kunst Haus Wien
Hundertwasser Haus

Day 8 - Train Ride to Prague

We headed out pretty early the next morning to catch our train to Prague.  On our train ride we enjoyed the company of an importer/exporter from New York who primarily buys and sells expensive Italian goods.  Okay, so mostly my brother talked to him, but I eavesdropped as I played a game on my Kindle, and I added a comment here and there.  I also periodically looked out the window.  Let me tell you, I much prefer train rides over planes.  Well, European train rides.  Honestly, that is probably my preferred mode of transportation, although the slight rocking a cruise ships also makes for a very calming ride for me as well.  Day 8 will be continued on the next blog post, as it starts out our adventures in a new city.

No Kangaroos in Austria

So, remember the post I wrote last year.  The one about moving to Australia?  Well, I must have gotten confused, because instead of moving to Australia for 6 months to a year, I ended up taking a vacation to Austria (and Hungary and the Czech Republic).  While in Austria, I saw the following on shirts, hats, keychains, and post cards.

While I do not know if this is true (I think there may be one at a zoo somewhere), you get the idea.

Instead of hearing about kangaroos and Austria and Australia, you probably want to hear about the vacation.  Here it goes:

Day 1: Flight - not much to say about that, except that flying is still not my favorite mode of transportation.  Sure, its faster than many other modes, but I feel like there is no circulating air on planes, and Delta is definitely not the airline to fly if you have long international flights.  Also, my ears and planes don't get along too well (although my ears are okay when we land at high altitudes).

Day 2:  Arrival in Budapest, Hungary.  Upon arrival, we (my brother and I) take an airport transfer to the apartment we are staying at (booked through  The owner meets us there and gives us the keys, a little tour of the apartment, and advice on places to see in Budapest.  By this time I think its about 5 p.m. (okay, maybe after a short nap it's 5 p.m.).  The lateness of the hour does not deter us.  We exchange money, check out the local supermarket, and then climb the many steps to castle hill on the Buda side of Budapest.  We take several pictures from the hill and of sites on the hill, and search for a while for the castle, but to no avail.  Eventually we discover that the whole hill is the castle.  Oops, our mistake...but we didn't discover where the Palace was on the hill until a day later.  After that we wandered around trying to find a place to eat and we ate - I had some chicken covered with sliced apples and melted cheese.

(Picture of Matthias Church (Mátyás templom) on castle hill - taken by my brother)

Day 3:  The Pest side of Budapest.  Yes, we crossed the chain bridge and journeyed over to Pest.  This was our big walking day.  I think we easily walked over 10 miles.  We started out by crossing over the river and going to see "The Shoes" memorial along the side of the Danube.  It was a tribute "to the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by arrow cross militiamen" in 1944 and 1945.

(Photo courtesy of my brother)
After visiting the memorial, we headed over to Magrite Island.  It's a nice outdoor park type area.  We enjoyed a stroll there and saw some old ruins, and some busts of famous Hungarians, and an outdoor theatre, and a few other things.  Below is a picture of some of the ruins - once again taken by my brother.

After the island, it was time to head back towards Parliament, as we had a reservation to tour the building @ 1200.  Unfortunately, we were unable to watch a session.  Apparently, unlike in England, only citizens are allowed to sit in the gallery in the Hungarian Parliament.  Due to Hungary's government adopting a unicameral legislature in place of it's previous bicameral legislature at some point after the Parliament building was built, we were still able to see what the chambers looked like.

(Photos Courtesy of my brother)
After Parliament, we took a quick jaunt over to the Museum of Ethnology, looked around the shop there and then headed over to the market down by the Freedom Bridge.  Our landlord told us that the upper level of the market is where many working Hungarians went for lunch.  The Market was full of little stalls selling fresh meats or produce or bakery items or souvenirs, as well as a few stalls selling cooked dishes.  I had some sort of potato dish.  The next day we returned there to eat and I had a sausage and fries, and I bought a little souvenir of Paprika, despite the fact that I did not try any goulash while in Hungary.

After the market we walked down to city park, on the way there we visited the Dohany Street Synagogue (I did not want to go inside, so we didn't).  I believe my brother told me that it is the largest synagogue in Europe.

At City Park, we saw Heroes' Square, several museums (but we did not go inside) including Vajdahunyad Castle (the agricultural museum), and people ice skating.  We also decided we would try to walk by and see the famous Széchenyi Baths, which are kind of like geothermal swimming pools.  They are outside, but they were surrounded by a building, and we did not attempt to go in.  We also walked by the Grand Circus and the Amusement Park, but did not go in either of them. 
Heroes' Square (courtesy of my brother)
The Agricultural Museum (courtesy of my brother)

On our may back to the apartment, we stopped by the Opera House to take a few shots from the outside, and by St. Stephen's Basilica.  We did not go inside the Basilica that night, but did drop by again the next day to check out the inside.  After a long day of walking, we didn't feel like eating much, so we stopped by Grannie's Pancakes and had a couple of fruit filled crepes.
(St. Stephen's Basilica taken by my brother)

Day 4 - We decided to make this day a combination Buda and Pest day.  We started out by hitting Castle Hill in Buda again.  We were going to go to the Bunker Hospital, which was halfway down the other side of the hill.  After seeing the price, we decided we didn't want to see it that much.  We wandered around for a bit, and then decided to check out the Labirintus, but after walking down in and seeing what it actually was, we decided we weren't as interested as we thought.  So, we went over to the Palace.  We decided that the President was probably going somewhere that day, as the guards seemed to be readying for something.  We didn't wait to see.  As the Palace these days is comprised mostly of Museums, we decided to go inside one of the Museums so we could check out the inside.   We were sorely disappointed, as the inside was very modern and looked like pretty much any other art gallery.  For others, I would suggest just taking in the outside of the building, which is pretty grand itself.  After the Palace, we took a ride down the funicular and walked back to Pest. 
A statue at the Palace - I like it because it's more of an action shot of a man sitting on a horse, not just your usual, garden-variety man-sitting-on-a-horse-regally type of statue

This was not my brother's best shot from/of the funicular, but I love the fact that it looks like the two people on the bridge are posing for the shot.

On the Pest side of the Danube that day, we took in the interior of St. Stephen's Basilica, returned to the market for lunch and souvenirs, and then went to the train station to scope it out, pick up our tickets, and see where the metro stops were in relation to the train station and our apartment in preparation for the next day.  We then went to the supermarket to get some food for supper and headed back to the apartment early.

(The Dome of St. Stephen's Basilica)

Day 5 - As we'd already seen pretty much all we'd planned to see, we slept in a bit and hung out at the apartment.  We did spend the night before and that morning re-packing our bags, so that we had less bags to take on the metro.  We made it to the train station safely, (and quite a bit early, as we were tired of sitting at the apartment and we were also planning on putting our bags in a locker and exploring the area around the train station some more).  We had a hard time finding where the lockers were, however, and by the time we finally did ask someone, he told us our train would be there in less than half an hour so there was no point in getting lockers.  So, we didn't get lockers and he showed us to the waiting room.  We did get something to eat for lunch at the station, however.  Our train arrived, we got on, and we took off for Austria.  As this posting is already quite long, I will continue with the Austria (where there are no kangaroos) portion of the trip in the next posting.  

But first, a few tips for travel in Budapest:
1.  If you are going to exchange money, exchange it on the Pest side of Budapest.  
2.  If you are going to buy souvenirs or food, the market usually has cheaper prices than the souvenir shops (although the market doesn't always have everything the souvenir shops have and vice versa;  As for the food, the food at the market is Hungarian.  There is a Burger King Across the street from the Market, however, if you prefer eating at American chains when abroad, however).
3.  I think Budapest is a very walkable city, and you get to see more if you walk; but, for those who prefer not to get blisters, can't or don't want to spend their whole vacation walking, or who only have a limited time in the city, the metro is a very convenient mode of transportation.