Our European Odyssey

This blog covered our month-long trip to Eastern Europe -- specifically the countries of Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria and Slovakia.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Prague Recap Photos

Here are 10 more photos from our time in Prague.

The male peacock at Wallenstein Gardens.

Prague's radio/TV tower. It has statues of babies crawling on its sides, as seen in the picture. Unsurprisingly, it is considered by most Czechs to be an eyesore.

A second wedding we happened upon in Prague's Old Town Square.

The door to St. Peter and Paul Church.

One of Prague's panhandlers. For some reason, almost all of them struck this penitent pose, but we only saw this done in Prague.

View of the below street from the Old Town Hall tower.

We lack the words to describe this store we saw in a shopping mall.

A panel on a door in Old Town.

This is a ceramic stove in Prague Castle formerly used to heat rooms. We saw these in every castle we went into.

Even the manhole covers in Prague were quite fancy.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Krakow Photo Recap

Here are five more photos from Krakow.

A policeman working crowd control before the pope's arrival. This picture was taken shortly before the infamous flag incident.

Wood carving on the back of a choir seat in one of Krakow's beautiful churches.

The Dominican Church at night.

More photos of Prague, Cesky Krumlov, and Vienna to come.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Picture Recap: Budapest

Here are some of the pictures we didn't get to post while we were in Europe. These are all from Budapest. Click on any of the images for a larger version.

The Parliament building.

Stained glass inside Matthias Church.

Escalators to get from the surface to the Budapest subway system. They were at least 3 stories tall and moved very quickly.

The 12 Apostles on the outside of a church.

Andrea with Chain Bridge, the Danube and Parliament in the background.

A view through one of the turrets on Castle Hill.

Parliament and the Danube.

Parliament and the Danube with extra saturation added in Picasa.

Bathroom Differences

For this, the last of the differences posts, we wanted to discuss something that affects each of us: going to the bathroom. As this is a function one must do several times a day, we noticed some differences from the bathrooms we are accustomed to in the U.S.

First, the porcelain throne. The universal symbol for toilet in Europe is apparently "WC," which comes from the British abbreviation for "water closet," the Brits' name for toilet. Also, it seemed like everywhere we went had a slightly different toilet bowl shape, none being the standard U.S. design.

The flushing mechanism was almost never a handle but generally a button on the back of the tank -- even in homes. We did see several of the old elevated tanks with pull handles. When one flushed the toilet, it appeared to use less water, but the water moved more quickly.

In several of the homes we stayed in, the toilet was in a separate room from the sink. This seemed a bit unsanitary, as we had to open two doors to wash our hands. But at least one person could use the sink while the other was using the toilet. Also, many of the bathrooms in homes we stayed in locked via a skeleton key. We didn't realize that anyone still used skeleton keys, but apparently they are quite common in Eastern Europe.

The showers were also different. Generally, the shower was a bathtub with a showerhead that had to be held and a water heater fixed on the wall. This was annoying, as it was impossible to soap up and hold the shower head at the same time. Oddly, although everywhere we stayed had a showerhead, there were few shower curtains. It made it hard not to get water on the floor.

The below pictures show a fairly typical shower/tub with the unfixed showerhead, water heater and missing shower curtain. Notice the open flame of the gas-powered water heater in the first picture. (We only saw an open flame in a tub at this particular hostel. It was an old bathroom... When you turn the water to hot, the flame grows bigger and flares out of the hole.)

Finally, the most annoying thing about the bathrooms is that you have to pay to use the public toilets. As you enter, you pay the attendant, who is generally an older lady. The cost when we were there was usually between 10 and 50 cents, but it could be more than a dollar in train and bus stations. We just held it in those places.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Food Differences

As you may know, here in the Mongler household, food comes before everything else, so it is no surprise that when we travel, food (and eating well) is a chief concern. Therefore, we couldn't help but notice some cultural differences between American eating and Eastern European eating, whether we were enjoying a grocery store feast or a restaurant supper.

The primary difference was the abundance of cheap, good bread in the countries we visited. We enjoyed good rolls that cost somewhere between 10 and 25 cents each. In grocery stores, they were fresh-baked daily and put in large tubs. Several times, we arrived just as they were replenishing the supply, so we were able to snag hot-out-of-the-oven rolls. Mmmm mmmm.

Because of this, our breakfast was usually of the European style -- a sandwich made from a roll and filled with some combination of veggies, meat, cheese and a spread. It was excellent and a very easy meal to make and eat on a train or park bench. For dessert (yes, we had dessert at breakfast sometimes), we would spread some Nutella on a roll. Nutella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread, is definitely a good thing. When we returned to the U.S., we brought five jars with us.

The other big difference we saw was the less processed nature of the food. As one of our hosts described it, "American food is plastic-y. It is meant to be shelf-stable and prepared quickly." Which we had to agree is true. The difference was most apparent in the produce. The produce at the markets there was brighter and fresher-looking and generally tasted better. The tomatoes all still had a bit of the vine. In Eger, we enjoyed the best strawberries we have ever had.

Sauerkraut was everywhere. In markets and grocery stores, we often saw 30-gallon wooden barrels full of sauerkraut with a long-handled spoon provided for scooping it out. Cabbage in general is very popular. If we saw salad on a menu, typically it was cabbage- and not lettuce-based.

Little pastry shops were ubiquitous there also. Generally, their prices were good, and their offerings were always gorgeous. Unfortunately, while the pastries looked great, they weren't as great-tasting. Like some of the meals we had in restaurants there, the pastries were bland. They weren't usually that sweet -- a quality we value in pastries.

Speaking of sweets, we were a bit disheartened by the method of ice cream cone preparation. In the U.S., when you order a cone, they make sure to fill the entire thing with ice cream before adding the scoop on top. In Eastern Europe, however, you get the scoop on top and nothing else. One of the saddest things in the world is getting to that usually desirable last bite of your ice cream cone and realizing it's nothing but cone.

The final differences we will mention are all restaurant differences. Items are generally a la carte; if you want a side dish, you have to order it separately. The weight of a dish is always given, which is helpful for figuring out how much to order. Condiments are usually absent from the meal. If you want ketchup or some other condiment, you will have to pay extra for a serving of it.

Salt and pepper were generally absent from the table even though many of the meals could have used more salt. If salt and pepper were provided, they weren't in shakers but in cellars.

While bread from grocery stores is cheap, bread is not given free at restaurants, as it is in the U.S. They might set a basket of it on the table, but if you eat some, then you will pay for it.

On the beverage front, there is no free tap water or free drink refills. However, with the exception of Austria, beer (and sometimes wine) was cheap -- even cheaper than water. In the Czech Republic, we enjoyed a pint of beer for about a buck with our meals.

Also, every drink seemed to have its respective glass. If you order Gambrinus beer or Naturpure water, it will be delivered in a Gambrinus glass or a Naturpure glass, respectively. The glasses were also marked with a line showing the correct level for the full serving. We guess that prevents the establishment from cheating its patrons out of that last bit of precious liquid.

Mmmm, cheap Czech beer...

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Eastern European Differences (The Bad and the Ugly)

Yesterday we talked about things that were better in Eastern Europe than here in the U.S. Now for our list of things that made us miss the good ol' U.S. of A while we were away.

Friendliness is a big one. After we spent some time with people in Eastern Europe, they were quite friendly and jovial, but when we dealt with strangers, they were much less so. This goes for cashiers, wait staff, bus drivers, etc. In Eastern Europe, you rarely hear "hello" (which made it difficult for us to learn how to say it in any language), and when you smile at someone, your smile is rarely returned. We passed a nun in full dress one day, and she didn't even smile back at us. And we were so happy when a waiter told us to have a nice day that we almost jumped up and hugged him. No one had told us that since we left the U.S. A smile and a simple greeting really go a long way toward making you feel more comfortable in a strange environment.

Along the same lines, the service in stores and restaurants in Eastern Europe is relatively nonexistent. The server in a restaurant takes your order, brings your food and never comes back. It is even difficult to get his or her attention when you want the check. Tipping (10 percent to 15 percent) is expected, however. Similarly, cashiers in grocery stores expect you to bag your own food. While we were in Zakopane, four non-hard-working cashiers in a grocery store shared a laugh at our expense (we think) as we bagged our own items while they did nothing (except laugh at us).

Speaking of cashiers, for some reason, they don't seem to like it when you pay with "big" bills. This was incredibly annoying when big bills were all the ATM gave us. But the worst part was that they really weren't that big. For example, if something cost the equivalent of $5.15 in U.S. money and we paid with the equivalent of a $20 bill, the exasperated cashier might ask us in her most pissed-off voice whether we had anything smaller. We guess we were being difficult... Also, it's common in the U.S. to, for example, give a cashier $20.25 if something costs $15.24 just to avoid getting back so much change. We tried to do this several times in Eastern Europe, and cashiers frequently handed us the coins back. We don't know whether they just assumed we were dumb tourists who couldn't figure out their money, but we actually would have made their lives just that much simpler. Oh well.

The prevalence of smoking in Eastern Europe was a major concern for us. We breathed in more secondhand smoke in our month there than we had in a long time. It seems like smoking rates are much higher there, and unfortunately, we didn't see non-smoking sections in restaurants (except in Pizza Hut). Although plenty of people smoke in the U.S., it is a lot easier to avoid secondhand smoke here. We should mention that Krakow seemed to be an exception. We saw few smokers there.

We realized while traveling around Eastern Europe that someone in a wheelchair or disabled in some other way would struggle to get around at all there. If the countries we visited have laws like our Americans With Disabilities Act, we certainly couldn't tell. It was disheartening. Almost none of the sights we visited had wheelchair ramps or elevators. Most of the public transportation systems weren't handicap-accessible either. We actually almost never saw people in wheelchairs, quite possibly because they can't go anywhere in their wheelchairs.

Many of the sights charged you to get in and then tacked on an extra cost if you wanted to take photos. What a rip-off. We really didn't understand the point of this. It was especially bothersome when we didn't know a sight charged extra for photos and some cranky museum worker marched up as Jake was trying to snap a picture of something.

Lastly, we should mention that these differences became less pronounced as we progressed through our trip and moved into more Westernized countries. While strangers were unfriendly in Hungary and Poland, they were more friendly in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and especially Austria. Almost every Austrian we met appeared to be very courteous, whether he or she was giving us directions or allowing us to cross the street in front of him or her.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Eastern European Differences (The Good)

For the most part, the countries we visited were a lot like the U.S. The one glaring difference was the different languages, but other than that, they are very similar to the U.S. There were some cultural differences we noticed, however. Some of the differences were better and some worse than what we experience here in the States. In this post, we will talk about the good: the differences that make Eastern Europe better than the U.S. in some ways. Tomorrow we will write a bitchier post in which we complain about the bad and the ugly of Eastern Europe. We also plan to write a post devoted entirely to bathroom differences and one to food differences.

As we have never traveled to any European countries but the five we visited, we cannot claim that these differences are common across Europe, especially Western Europe. Also we only spent about a week each in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria and two days in Slovakia, so our impressions are rather cursory and might be a bit ill-formed. Now that the general disclaimer is over, we will begin.

The main difference that we witnessed was the less wasteful behaviors. We mentioned how small the cars were -- no gas-guzzling SUVs -- but that's just one example. The toilets use less water, we saw less food go uneaten in restaurants (perhaps because the portions were smaller) and in grocery stores, people brought their own baskets or sacks to carry home their purchases. (This could be annoying, though, as some grocery stores didn't have sacks at all.)

Many people seem to walk and take public transportation. The public transportation system is much more efficient than in the U.S.
Whether we were going by subway, bus, tram, trolley or some combination, it was easy to get anywhere quickly in the cities we visited.

Furthermore, it was very easy to get from town to town by utilizing the rail system. The trains were quick and comfortable, especially in Austria (at a higher cost, however, than elsewhere). If you are taking an international train that leaves at 8:10, then you can plan to arrive at the station at 8, find the correct platform and get a seat in the train with time to spare. It is nothing like going to the airport, where you need to arrive at least two hours before your flight to check in, clear security and whatnot.

Maybe the extra walking and the lack of waste are why there does not seem to be an obesity epidemic in Eastern Europe. We very, very rarely saw any overweight people.

Another plus for Eastern Europe (and the rest of the world, for that matter) is that it uses the metric system. This makes everything a lot easier than trying to keep track of how many miles 20,000 feet is or how many ounces are in a pound (or a quart).

We were also pleased that in all the countries we visited, they had the numeric values of the coins or bills printed on them. In the U.S., the bills have numerals, but the coins do not. American coins spell out their values in English (like "five cents" or "quarter dollar"), which is only helpful if you speak English. If not, you have to memorize the values of the coins. In the countries we visted, however, the numeric value was printed on one side of each of the coins. See the pictures of Polish coins versus the American penny and dime below for an example. This made our lives as monolingual tourists much easier.

Finally, one of the more impressive things about Eastern Europe was the ability of people to speak several foreign languages. Luckily for us, English is becoming the standard second language to learn for most Europeans, but it was amazing to regularly meet cashiers, waitresses and people on the street who spoke very good English. We met quite a few people who spoke four or more languages. It made us wish we could speak another language or at least be able to say "hello" in Polish without embarassing ourselves.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Home Sweet Home

Well, we're all moved in now. Most of our things are unpacked and in their proper places, though there is still work to do. After moving in Saturday, we were unpleasantly surprised to find out that the cleanliness standards of the property management company don't live up to Andrea's expectations. We weren't happy when we realized we'd have to do some thorough cleaning in addition to unpacking and arranging. But we really like our new digs.

This having-a-job thing must be getting to Jake because he sure has been throwing the money around in the past couple of days (much to Andrea's enjoyment). Today we purchased two area rugs, curtains, a gas grill and -- drum roll, please -- a washer and dryer (and not even the cheapest models). We decided to buy a front-end loading washer instead of the traditional top loader. Front-end loaders are much more energy-efficient and water-saving. They are also supposed to be quieter, hold more and do a better job. We hope ours lives up to expectations because front-end loaders have a higher upfront cost.

We're also enjoying being able to cook our own food again. Since being home, we've satisfied our cravings for Mexican, a big salad and gazpacho. And when we were done, we put our dishes in the dishwasher. We feel like rich people. Rich people with a craving for chili beans...

We promise to do a couple more Europe-themed posts this week, including our thoughts on food, bathrooms and differences between Europe and the U.S. and the ever-popular pictures.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

"Airport" Isn't a Four-Letter Word, but it Should be

Everything we write here is the complete truth. Although in composite, it may seem a bit far-fetched, each of these events did happen as described. Please bear with us as we do a bit of venting.

After spending one last interesting night in a hostel, we awoke Thursday morning to fly home. (Well, the hostel wasn't that interesting, but the owner was. He was a bit more concerned with being your friend than running a business. We almost had to beg him to take our payment for the night.)

We had just discovered the previous night that our nonstop flight from New York's JFK airport to St. Louis had been changed to a flight from JFK to Cincinnati and then a flight from Cincinnati to St. Louis, with an hour-later arrival. This change meant that our already-long travel day became even longer (approximately 22 hours from the time we left the hostel to our arrival at Andrea's parents' house.)

In Budapest, we spent a little more than an hour in transit to the airport, including walking to the subway, taking the subway and then taking a bus. At Budapest's Ferihegy Airport, we waited about an hour in line to check in. We got directed to a line that was stuck in neutral. The cause of the neutrality was the Hungarian Olymipic fencing team checking in for the same flight. It seems that it takes a while getting security checks done when you are checking bags full of swords...

After clearing check-in, we passed the 30 minutes until boarding by chatting with an Orthodox Jewish man from Brooklyn. We sure have met some interesting people on this trip. We don't encounter people like them much in rural Missouri.

The flight to New York was as nice as a 9½-hour flight can be. We were served lunch, snacks, a sandwich and drinks in the course of the flight. We were also shown two movies, "Walk the Line" and "Ice Age," which helped to pass the time nicely. Malev Airlines (Hungary's national carrier) was great both times we flew with it. We got plenty of food, and the crew was very friendly by Eastern European standards. The check-in process, however, was slow and torturous for both flights. (Not that U.S. carriers do any better, though, as we will soon describe.)

After arriving at JFK at 3:30 p.m. EST, we had two hours till our flight left for Cincinnati, and we needed every minute of it. We cleared customs in about 30 minutes, including rechecking our luggage. Leaving customs, we were directed to Terminal 2 for our connecting Delta flight. We hurried through corridor after corridor to get to the Air Train, which transports people to other terminals. JFK is apparently going through some kind of monumental construction because they have these detours that take you through never-ending hallways just to go to the next room.

Upon arriving at Terminal 2 and finding it completely deserted, we discovered that we needed to go to Terminal 3 instead. It was right next door, but when we opened the door, we stepped into mass chaos. There were hundreds of people standing in a lobby area -- some waiting to go through security, some to check in, some to check bags and some trying to get information about the flights they were missing by waiting in line. All of the lines joined into a massive jumble with no apparent end. No one was certain which line was the correct one. One employee was directing people to the "correct" lines and answering questions from the masses.

We were directed to a relatively short line because we had already checked our bags. After standing there for a bit, we were directed to another line. The woman checked our itinerary and told us that because our flight to St. Lous had been changed, we would need to be reissued tickets. Of course, that required moving to another longer, slower-moving line.

After standing there and not moving for 10 minutes, Jake got impatient and decided to try the initial short line we were directed to. What do you know, that was the correct line after all. Unfortunately, Andrea had stayed in the previous line to save our place. Jake waved frantically to get her attention, and thankfully, she saw him. After Andrea wound her way through the maze of people, we were able to check in and get our new tickets.

With that task complete, we went to stand in line for the security check. It was now 5 p.m., and our flight was scheduled to leave at 5:30. After explaining our predicament to a passing security guard, he said to cut to the front of the line. However, at the front were 20 other people with 5:30 flights who were also trying to cut in line. We were thankfully able to get through security in about 10 minutes.

Once we were through that chaotic mess, we arrived at the gate just in time for the final boarding call. We had just made our flight.

On board, we settled down for a nice wait before takeoff. The place was 15th in line to take off with an expected 30-minute wait. We were up to seventh in line when the skies opened up and it began to pour. The rain was accompanied by large wind gusts (The captain said 50 mph.), which meant no planes could take off. Thankfully, the rain passed in 15 minutes, and planes began to take off again. Our plane finally lifted off the tarmac at 6:30 (an hour later than scheduled), which meant we were expected to arrive in Cincinnati at 8:15 instead of 8.

We should now mention that when our flight itinerary was changed without our knowledge, the layover in Cincinnati was only 30 minutes. We were supposed to arrive at 8 and leave for St. Louis at 8:30 -- not much time to catch a flight. And now we were down to 15 minutes tops.

When we landed at 8:15, we got off the plane as quickly as we could and started running through the airport, following the signs to Terminal C. Come to find out, Terminal C is in another building, and we had to take a shuttle there. It was one intense shuttle ride. When we got to the terminal, we sprinted to our gate, where an airport employee smiled and said: "St. Louis? We've been waiting for you." We let her know that there were more people behind us and then took our seats with sighs of relief. We really thought we'd be spending the night in Cincinnati.

We landed on time in St. Louis, and our moms were there to drive us home. (Miraculously, our bags made it, too.) By the time we got to Andrea's parents' house in Mexico, we'd been awake for about 25 hours. We got to bed shortly before midnight but woke up at 6 a.m., unable to go back to sleep. We guess the time difference will affect us for a little while. Luckily, we haven't been too tired (yet) and hope the jet lag doesn't get to us.

After taking care of some errands yesterday and preparing a slide show of our travels, we enjoyed swimming and a barbecue at Jake's parents' home last night. (It was a birthday celebration for Jake's nephew Brit, who just turned 7.)

Today we're moving to our new apartment in Edwardsville with the help of Jake's parents, Andrea's mom and Jake's nephew Cayce. They're calling for rain, and we very much hope they're wrong.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Our Last Day...

Well, this is it. It's almost time to go home.

Tomorrow is a 19-hour travel marathon. We just found out that our itinerary has changed, and we'll be flying from Budapest to New York to Cincinnati to St. Louis. How fun...

But once we finally get there, we'll be glad to be home.

There is really no sightseeing to report on today. We basically just traveled from Bratislava to Budapest and are relaxing and making sure we're packed and ready to go.

Stay tuned for more photos from the trip and other thoughts about European culture, food and more.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Bratislava's (Un)beautiful Block Buildings

We've seen remnants of Communist rule in Eastern Europe over the past month, but nothing like this. These concrete slabs masquerading as apartment buildings are packed into the outskirts of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. We saw these eyesores in the other countries we've visted but never in such great numbers. They have no beauty; they're just horrid.

Also an ugly Communist remnant is New Bridge with its UFO-like topper. In the background are nothing but the cement apartment buildings.

We are actually staying in one. When we got off the bus and realized this, we were a bit leery. But the husband and wife we are staying with have furnished their apartment very nicely. Our bedroom overlooks a beautiful red field of poppies. (Our hosts were quick to assure us that no one is making heroin around here.)

Although their apartment is the nicest and cleanest we've stayed in, we unfortunately didn't know beforehand that they're heavy smokers. We hope we don't reek too badly.

Last night we watched the U.S. get crushed by the Czech Republic 3-0 in the World Cup. Apparently, Czechoslovakia's split wasn't too divisive because our host had to restrain himself from rubbing the score in our faces too much.

Despite the lifeless Communist-era buildings, Bratislava has a very nice Old Town. We started our day by strolling past several of the city's whimsical statues. Andrea had fun embarassing Jake by making him pose. He tried to embarass her back, but she's happy to ham it up for the camera (including by playing the part of the paparazzi, like the statue).

After that, we visited Bratislava Castle. We're not sad to say we won't be visiting any more castles high atop hills for a while.

We checked out the exhibit inside the castle, including a temporary one from Italy on Leonardo Da Vinci. It was about his inventions and scientific drawings, not his art. We saw copies of his drawings along with notes written in his backward handwriting style. We also saw models of some of his inventions, including his flying machine and an underwater breathing suit. The exhibit was obviously sponsored by several European companies because mixed in with the Da Vinci stuff, we saw displays that were little more than advertisements, such things as "What do Leonardo and BMW have in common?" Capitalism at its best...

Next we climbed St. Michael's Tower for the views of the castle, Old Town and the breathtaking Communist apartment buildings towering everywhere.

All the climbing left us ready for lunch. We headed to Slovak Pub, recommended by our hosts and our guidebook as a good, cheap place to get authentic Slovak meals. "Cheap" might be an understatement. We paid $10 for two entrees, an appetizer, two drinks and the tip. Eating is easy on the pocketbook here.

Jake ordered dumplings with bryndza (Slovak sheep cheese) and sausage. Andrea tried the pierogi stuffed with meat and served with a cream and bacon sauce. Jake couldn't resist trying the "fat" bread with lard and onions. It was OK but nothing like the lard we enjoyed in Warsaw. To drink, Andrea had a red wine, and Jake accidentally ordered the Slovak national soda, which is a cola-like beverage with a licorice aftertaste.

After filling up on our traditional Slovak lunches, we visited the Primate's Palace. Unfortunately, it was no monkey's mansion, just a former palace of the archbishop. We had read that it is the most beautiful palace in Slovakia. If that's true, then we will pass on seeing the others. There wasn't much to it, and it wasn't very beautiful. (Oh well; it was free for those younger than 26.)

Tomorrow we take a train to Budapest, where we'll spend one more day before we fly home. We are looking forward to returning home after a month on the road. We can't wait to take a good shower, eat a home-cooked meal and -- yes, Doug -- even start our new jobs in the real world.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Cookies and Sausage for Dinner

Apparently, very little is open on Sundays here. We've learned this the hard way.

We've stayed pretty stocked up on food but had planned to make a trip to the grocery store yesterday to buy food for a picnic lunch and a home-cooked dinner. Unfortunately, after passing a couple of closed grocery stores and asking around, we discovered that grocery stores (and almost everything else) are closed on Sunday. Even some restaurants in the tourist areas were closed.

We've run into this problem in every place we've been on a Sunday. It was especially bothersome when we planned to make a Sunday a shopping day in Budapest.

Anyway, we ended up eating lunch at a bar (where we tried the uninspiring weiner schnitzel -- little more than pork tenderloin) and made due with the groceries we already had for dinner -- snacks and a bit of sausage.

Despite our food woes, we had a nice day in Salzburg, where the weather was gorgeous -- almost hot. We started out by walking through the beautiful gardens at Mirabell Palace. They didn't compare to Vienna's rose gardens, but not much does. We spent some time just wandering around the city's Old Town, viewing historic churches and buildings, including former homes of Mozart.

We then climbed Monchsberg to reach Hohensalzburg, another castle on a -- very steep -- hill. We've seen our share of castles on this trip, so when we saw the $10 admission cost for this one, we opted to forgo touring the interior in favor of strolling along the hilltop. We think we made the right decision.

The views of the city below and the surrounding Alps were spectacular. We were in awe of the mountains. Coming from a prairie state, we couldn't get over how enourmous they really are. Pictures don't do them justice, but here are a few for good measure.

After descending the hill, we were just in time to catch the opening of the day's first World Cup match, the Netherlands versus Serbia and Montenegro. In one of the city squares, they had set up a giant TV screen and bleachers for viewing the game. Needless to say, the area was packed. Only standing room was available.

There was a large group cheering for Serbia and another cheering for the Netherlands. The excitement was palpable. Each side regularly cheered on its team and booed the opponent.

Though it was an exciting atmosphere, it was also a smoky, hot and crowded one, so after about 30 minutes, we decided to retreat to the cool confines of the apartment we stayed in, where we soon enjoyed our gourmet eat-what-you-have dinner.

This morning we're taking a train to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia and our last sightseeing stop before our return on Thursday.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Rail World: Austria

"This is the true story of one American couple picked to travel together and have their lives blogged to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start riding the rails. The Rail World: Austria."

Just a little nod to the MTV generation. We had a very nice day yesterday and managed to stay polite.

After checking out of our hostel in Vienna, we met with Gabi, the woman who is allowing us to stay at her home in Salzburg for the weekend. She works in the Austrian Parliament and lives in Vienna but inherited her parents' apartment in Salzburg and spends some weekends there. She has to work this weekend, so she gave us the key and directions to the apartment.

After saying our goodbyes, we caught a tram to Vienna's south train station. We found out which platform our train was leaving from, and then we went our separate ways. Andrea elected to fiercely guard the bags at the station while Jake walked to the Military History Museum to spend the hour and a half until the train's departure.

Because of limited time, Jake focused on the artifacts from World War I and World War II. The World War I exhibit was phenomenal. It includes the actual car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo along with the uniform he was wearing when he died. His assassination was the event that sparked the outbreak of World War I.

It was amazing to see artifacts from a single event that drastically changed world history. After we return home, Jake will post more pictures he took there along with further descriptions (including that of a Nazi throw pillow).

After Jake left the museum, he met up with Andrea, and we got on our train to Villach for the first leg of our journey to Salzburg. We enjoyed some beautiful views of the Alps, but it was nothing compared to the views we experienced in the second leg of our journey. After arriving in Villach, we caught our train to Salzburg. That's when the truly breathtaking views began.

Our trip took us through the heart of the Austrian Alps. Mountains rose up from the clouds enveloping them as mountain streams ran beside the train. Some mountains were lush-green with trees, while others were rough, jagged, snow-covered peaks. Unfortunately, it is hard to take good landscape pictures from a moving train, but we got a couple.

Interestingly, we passed large lakes in the mountains that had sailboats on them. It isn't very often that you see sailboats in the mountains.

We are now in Salzburg, a small city nestled among the mountains. Salzburg is the birthplace of Mozart, and this is his 250th birthday, so they are a bit Mozart-obsessed.

As a bonus for the lack of pictures, here is one more rose picture we took in Vienna's Volksgarten.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Wien and Roses

Yesterday was a museum day in Vienna (or Wien, as the Austrians spell it). We spent about four hours in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, German for "Fine Arts Museum." We spent almost the entire time in the picture gallery, one-half of which contains works by Northern European masters (primarily from the Netherlands and Belgium). The other half contains works from Southern European masters, almost entirely Italians.

You can't view these masterpieces cheaply, however. It cost nearly $10 apiece to get in -- by far the most we've paid for any museum. This price is more the rule than the exception for popular sights in Vienna. It's not a cheap city to visit.

Nevertheless, we saw rooms full of works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Brueghel, Raphael, Titian and others.

We splurged and rented English-language audio guides for the museum. We are very glad we did. The guide is just a cell phone-like device that gives backgrounds, descriptions and analyses on some of the artwork. It made the experience much more meaningful, especially since we don't speak German, which made the written descriptions useless.

We learned some very interesting things from our audio guides. For instance, "Bravo" was a Renaissance Italian slang term for "assassin." At 16th-century Flemish wedding feasts, the groom was not allowed to attend, and the bride -- though she could attend -- was not allowed to speak or eat. (We guess they did their celebrating later ...)

Our two favorite facts we learned from the audio guide: In Renaissance Italian paintings, a small froufrou dog symbolized marital fidelity. Makes perfect sense (?) Also, if you see a man with a duck on his shoulder, he must be a Quaker. (Or was it a Quacker?)

After we finished viewing the paintings, we decided to leave the museum, as our stomachs were rumbling since it was 3:30 p.m. and we hadn't eaten since breakfast. We decided to head to the beautiful Volksgarten to sup amongst the roses. (More like eat ravenously, but that's not as poetic.) We enjoyed our late lunch and the sunshine but decided to head back to the hostel when the skies started looking ominous.

We made it back to the hostel just in time for the opening match of the World Cup, Germany vs. Costa Rica. As you might guess, soccer is a big deal over here. We could feel the excitement building over the past three weeks in every country we have been in. The hostel we are staying in has seven TVs, and every one was showing the match. We enjoyed it. We've been a bit TV- and sports-deprived.

Today is our day of riding the train to Salzburg. We are taking a bit of a sightseeing detour -- a route that will take us through the heart of the Alps.

Also, we forgot to mention that the ballet we watched at the State Opera House was "Sleeping Beauty."

Vienna Pics

We were finally able to find an Internet cafe in Vienna that allowed us to upload pictures. (For some reason most don't have accessible USB ports.) Here are six pictures we took yesterday.

Volksgarten with its beautiful roses and Hofburg Palace in the background.

One of the beautiful roses with Andrea's lovely hand.

The paternoster elevator. There was a posted warning before you reached the topmost or bottommost floor.

The Rathaus, Vienna's town hall.

Austria's Parliament.