Euroadventure 2014: Treasure Hunt in Vienna

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After three nonstop days in Prague , including a ghost tour, beer festival and torture chamber (I’m realizing Prague in a nutshell sounds a little extreme), it was time for us to make our way to Vienna. I’ve dreamed of going to Austria since I was a child, even before I fell in love with France. The Sound of Music was on repeat, along with Dirty Dancing and West Side Story. What can I say? I have a penchant for song and dance!

Our hotel arranged for a cab to take us to the train station. It looked quite different in the daylight! On the platform I overheard two girls talking about Chilifest and felt fairly confident that they must be Aggies. I know other places have chilifests, but nothing compares to THE Chilifest held just outside College Station in Snook, TX each spring. Just as I saw their Aggie rings, everyone ran to catch the train so I didn’t get to say “Howdy!” but I was still happy to come across fellow Ags halfway across the world!

We were on a morning train that arrived in Vienna around lunchtime. Lucky again, we were able to check in to the Hotel de France early and drop our bags in the room before heading back out to explore. De France has beautiful chandeliers and dark wooded hallways thoughout, giving it a very grand feel. The rooms were a bit dated, but we had a very friendly welcome message on the TV screen!

Our hotel was right along the Ringstrasse, which is the loop around the inner city, making it a very convenient location. We found a restaurant known more for ambiance than food. Nestled back in a narrow alleyway, Brezl Gwölb had picnic tables and friendly waitstaff. Our waitress was a translator for the Army and may even end up in DC next year! I selected spinach fritters with a blue cheese sauce and Dave opted for pork, sauerkraut and more dumplings. From there we made a plan based on our priority sites and their hours of operation.

The first stop was the Imperial Treasury, which housed an endless display of valuable artifacts from over a thousand years, including those of the Habsburgs. The 21 rooms contained jewels, crowns, religious relics and even items claimed to be from the time of Christ, including John the Baptist’s tooth! From the Treasury, we walked through the palace garden Burggarten, famous for its statue of Mozart.

Even though we had been on the train all morning, our feet were tired and we thought that Rick Steves’ Ringstrasse tram tour would be a good way to rest while orienting ourselves with the city. It starts at the Opera House and then works counter clockwise around the city center. Our tickets allowed us to hop on and off within a certain period of time, so we stopped to stroll through Stadtpark, the “City Park” full of musicians, couples, families and windy paths, before hopping back on. The second time we stopped because we had to switch trams, and I took the opportunity to taste the world famous gelato from Eissalon am Schwedenplatz.

We finished the tour and then walked toward St. Stephen’s Cathedral. After spending a decent amount of time walking the perimeter and following along with Rick, we went inside – just in time for my camera battery to die! I got one photo, but it didn’t turn out too well. We walked throughout the city center looking in shop windows and stopping to watch the street artists. One in particular was quite impressive – she had a full piano in the middle of a square!

Finished with sightseeing for the day, we hunted for a place to have dinner and came across a tapas restaurant in another alley. It wasn’t the best Spanish food I’ve had, but it was a change from dumplings, and for that I was thankful. Back at the hotel we had a nightcap and called it a day!

Euroadventure 2014: Happy Birthday, David!

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We managed to get out and about at a decent time Saturday morning. It was Dave’s birthday and we were headed straight to the Prague Castle via the #22 tram, which took us west across the Vltava and through the Little Quarter. Our stop was also directly in front of the castle entrance, and though for a second I was confused, the hoards of people confirmed we were headed in the right direction. Before entering the grounds, we I stopped to take a picture with the guards at the entrance.

with the Prague Castle guard

with the Prague Castle guard

Inside we bought the short tour tickets, an audio guide to share and a photography permit, which we could have done without considering no one was policing the taking of pictures at any of the sites. The audio guide was super helpful, especially with my y-splitter so Dave and I could each plug in our headphones. Rick Steves has a great guided walk as well, but it was nice to just listen to commentary and have the opportunity to look around rather than keeping your head in a book half the time.

Our first stop in the castle was St. Vitus Cathedral. This is the soaring building that can be seen from most anywhere in Prague, as it sits atop a hill. Construction began in 1344, but the church was not officially finished until 1929. Inside we saw beautiful stained glass, tombs of many great Czech saints and kings, intricate carvings (a beautiful relief of Prague) and sculptures and far too many large tour groups. (Hint: Click on the pictures in these galleries if you want to enlarge them.)

Next we toured the Old Royal Palace, with a massive Gothic-style hall that has been used for a great variety of happenings, from banquets to markets to jousting. I was fascinated with the high flower-shaped vaulted ceilings and chandeliers in Vladislav Hall. Dave was disappointed that the display of Czech crown jewels only held the replicas.

The palace exit put us in place to enter the Basilica and Convent of St. George, the oldest surviving church within the castle grounds, originally founded in 920. Taking a seat in the pews, we were happy to rest our feet and I was once again amazed with the ceiling, which was a deep, rich wood accentuated by the light stone walls. Walking toward the altar we passed under old archways and by beautiful frescoes then followed the stairs down to the crypt where tombs of several historical figures are kept. Just before exiting, visitors pass through a chapel dedicated to St. John of Nepomuk, where a skull and bones are enclosed under the altar. (Rick Steves says they aren’t real … but I say believe what you like.)

We were nearing the end of our audio guide rental (word to the wise: pay the extra money for an “all day” rental rather than the three hours for the regular rental) so we decided to listen to a bit of the commentary around the outside of the buildings about various sculptures and fountains in the courtyard areas. Snapping pictures along the way, we were glad that the morning tour rush had subsided a bit.

After turning in the audio guide, we made our way to the last main site of our castle tour, Golden Lane. The narrow street is lined with tiny colorful houses that were originally built to be homes for those who worked at the castle and on the grounds. Eventually it became a popular area for artists, and at one point Franz Kafka spent a couple years writing in #22. Now the houses are filled with souvenir shops, a pub and museums of sorts. At the end of the lane, we stepped into the creepy torture chamber in a medieval dungeon. It was super creepy especially as Dave began to fit in …

At this point we were ready to sit down and eat, so our mission was to find a nice spot with outdoor seating and maybe a view. We visited a couple places Dave noted on his list, but struck out twice. Finally we settled on Malostranska Beseda Restaurant in Little Quarter Square across from the Church of St. Nicholas. As it was after the lunch rush, we scored a nice table outside perfect for people watching. We toasted to Dave’s birthday with Czech wine and beer, ordered salads and hearty main dishes – beef and dumplings for Dave, gnocchi and lardon for me.

Stuffed, happy and ready to continue, we walked through the Little Quarter’s little boutiques, making our way toward Kampa Island and the Lennon Wall. We found several “love lock” covered bridges and allowed ourselves to stroll a little more aimlessly, enjoying the quaintness of it all while the storm clouds rolled in – luckily the rain blasted through pretty quickly while we ducked into some shops.

It was finally time to walk the pedestrian-only Charles Bridge (after almost three days in Prague) and I was fully prepared with the guidebook to provide history of the various statues. We took note of the spot where St. John of Nepomuk was thrown off the bridge after being tortured for refusing to tell the King his wife’s confession secrets.

Returning to our hotel, we showered and dressed up for Dave’s birthday dinner at Bellevue, a riverside restaurant with beautiful castle view. I made a reservation far enough in advance that we were even able to get window-side seating perfectly timed with sunset. The menu offers several tasting options and we both decided on the “build your own” version with wine pairings – Dave chose the broader European wines, while I decided to go local with the Czech wines. Presentation was perfect, the food exquisite and service exceptional. We enjoyed all the wines, especially one from Italy, and Dave got a nice pre-dessert treat from the restaurant staff and then an after dinner surprise back at the hotel!

There is so much more that we could have seen and done. I definitely would like to go back, but after three busy days, I was ready for our next stop – Vienna!

 

Euroadventure 2014: Blackout Curtains and Beer

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I woke up on our first official morning in Prague to Dave saying, “Shit!”

“What?”

“It’s noon!”

Confused, I thought to myself, “Maybe it’s just midnight in DC and he forget to change his watch?” and said, “But it’s still dark out.”

“Um, I closed the curtains last night before we went to bed.” And thats how we found out they were blackout curtains. Womp, womp.

We jumped out of bed, showered and got ready as fast as humanly possible (well, as fast as possible for these humans). Even though we slept for close to twelve hours, my body ached with that haven’t-slept-in-days feeling and my head was so foggy. Dave was pretty agitated at having lost half of a day, so I tried to assure him that we had plenty of time and we could be flexible with our departure train for Vienna.

My plan was for us to walk through Charles Square (Karlovo Náměstí) to Wenceslas Square, then follow Rick Steves’ self-guided walk, which would take us from the National Museum, past the statue of Wenceslas and other notable spots. From there we would go to the Old Town Square, but with the huge loss of time slight disruption to our schedule, we decided to head straight for the Old Town Square instead.

A few blocks from the hotel, I saw a cafe with iced coffee to-go and we made a pit stop. It was honestly one of the best iced coffees I’ve ever had! Since it was almost 1 p.m., we figured we should eat lunch in an attempt to get our bodies on track.  We both had restaurants picked out, so we went to Dave’s choice, Mlejnice, and it actually turned out to be the same restaurant with traditional Czech fare I had in mind. (I kept referring to the nickname “The Mill” that Rick Steves uses so we didn’t realize it was the same place until we got there.) The Mill had the best goulash out of any place we tried, and we tried a lot! I added a side of spinach (still looking for those greens!) and Dave had a side of potato fritter balls.

Even though The Mill is tucked down a narrow alley, it’s only a block or two off the Old Town Square. My top priority was to visit the St. James church to see the legendary “thief’s hand.” The story goes that late one night a jewel thief tried to steal from the statue of the Virgin Mary on the altar. She grabbed his hand and would not let go. In the morning he was found by a group of monks who could not pry his arm from the statue’s grip and eventually were forced to cut off his hand. As a warning to other thieves, the hand was hung about 15 feet up from the ground to the left of the door before you exit the church, where it hundreds of years later it remains today.

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St. James Church

Our next stops were the Church of Our Lady before Týn and the Jan Hus Memorial in the square’s center. We weren’t allowed photos inside the church, but I snuck one in. (Shhh!) The memorial is dedicated to the reformist, Jan Hus, who eventually was burned at the stake when he refused to renounce his beliefs. This led to the Hussite Wars, a Protestant uprising against the Catholic Church. (Photo of the memorial is in the panoramic below.)

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Church of Our Lady before Týn

At this point, the skies were about to open so we made a game time decision to buy tickets to the Astronomical Clock. An elevator took us up to the top and a narrow platform led us clockwise around for stunning views of the city. I thought it was much better than Petřín Tower.

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panoramic of Prague from the Astronomical Clock looking toward the Church of Our Lady before Týn

On the way down, we winded around on a slow sloping walkway stopping periodically to read the  historical placards lining the walls. I also noticed some odd repetitive graffiti; in several places people had written, “Cake is a lie!” I’m still not sure what that means … Back at the bottom the downpour had subsided, and the square was practically empty, which gave us a great view of the “twenty-seven crosses.” It is the location in the square where in 1621, 27 Protestants were beheaded for rebelling against the Catholic Church.

From the square, we walked north along the ritzy, tree-lined Pařížská Street, featuring Prada, Louis Vuitton and a fancier version of the WCs we usually encountered. The street leads to the Jewish Quarter where our next stop was the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Eastern Europe circa 1270. We bought our tickets and Dave donned the required (but complimentary) kippah. Like the Týn Church, pictures were not allowed, and this time I felt more obligated to follow the rules – maybe because I’m not Jewish? Back outside we passed by the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Ceremonial Hall. (We had been by there the night before on our walking tour, but since we slept through half of it, we were more than happy to see it again.)

After all the sightseeing, it was time to enjoy a different side of Prague – the Czech Beer Festival! We continued walking north and crossed the Vltava River to Letná Park, where we caught some cool views before making it to the festival. We paid the equivalent of $15 total, which covered both our entrance fees and five beers to share. It was a steal! Multiple tents housed hundreds of beers, food and music. It wasn’t yet Dave’s birthday, but he thought this was the best way to celebrate.

To continue the beer tour, we returned to the Jewish Quarter and went to the Prague Beer Museum. No, we were not doing more sightseeing. Despite its name, the Prague Beer Museum is actually a brewpub. We tasted a few  different beers and shared a sausages plate before heading out to our next stop – dinner, finally! We hadn’t eaten since The Mill and had covered a lot of ground.

Our walk to the restaurant took us past the Powder Tower, which was the gate of the town wall in the 1400s, and then toward the New Town area. We picked another restaurant that served traditional Czech food, Restaurace U Pinkasů. It has an interesting history and was originally founded in 1843. Dave had schnitzel with potato salad and I ordered the meat roll, which according to the menu was the favorite course of brewer Josef Groll and first cooked October 5, 1842.

Since we were somewhat close to the train station, I insisted that we go there to buy our tickets for the trip to Vienna, even though it was pouring and the clock was nearing midnight. It was quite a trek and we were both happy once we landed back in bed! This time we set an alarm … to be continued.