Driving to Prague

We all packed up again, piled into the now familiar black bus, and hit the road for Prague.  I was surprised to find that, once we got out of Vienna, we were largely traveling on secondary roads – well paved and all that, but not freeways.  This gave us a better look at the countryside, and the countryside between Vienna and Prague is gorgeous. It’s some of the most beautiful, immaculately maintained farmland you could imagine, and almost all rural.  The photo below is just across the Czech border. (As always now, clicking on a photo will take you to the full Smugmug gallery.)

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Czechia (the new name for the Czech Republic) had more woodsy areas interspersed with the farms.  But I kept wondering about the road, until someone reminded me that, until the Soviet Union fell, Czechoslovakia (as it was then) was behind the old Iron Curtain, so you can drive from Vienna to Bratislava on a highway (Slovakia was not Soviet), but to Prague, you take back roads because nobody’s built the highway.

We made a modest stop at the Czech border – the Czech police pulled the bus over and asked to see everybody’s passport, or so the guide told us.  (I did see the police interviewing another driver behind us, a little while later; they must have been looking for someone.)  We all dived for wherever we’d put the passports, and the guide got off the bus, then shortly came back and said, no passports needed, she had convinced the police that we were just a group of traveling Americans. Then she said, oh, in case you need Czech money (korunas), there’s a currency exchange place here.  You can see the line of customers, all from the bus; some travelers apparently don’t get their foreign currency before they leave home.

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The more I thought about this, the smellier it got.  Your best foreign currency source is always a U.S. bank, preferably your bank, and Jim and I had korunas we’d brought with us.  As you can see, the place was a shack, holding at most 2-3 people, in the middle of the countryside, near a sort of outdoor tchotchke market called (in English) the “Asia Shopping Center.”  No town visible.  I suppose the shack might serve the tchotchke market; but it’s certainly going to charge the highest fees going for the transaction.  Frankly, I suspected our guide of having a side deal with the currency vendors; I still wonder about it.  As I looked around, though, I noticed something else, parked in the middle of beautiful fields of crops, which would certainly encourage people to get korunas:

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Yes, that says “American Chance Casino.” In English.  As close to the border as it can get.  Clearly a tourist trap.  As a resident of California who regularly travels to Nevada, this tells me that Austria doesn’t allow casinos!  For that matter, the Asia Shopping Center, also in the middle of nowhere (right across the road from the Casino), suggests that sales taxes may be lower in Czechia than in Austria, and the ad for Feuerwerks suggests that Austria may not allow sale of fireworks.

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I still think the casino would have had an in-house currency exchange operation.  It did have a play area for the gamers’ children, complete with at least one bouncy house and a large plaster dinosaur.

This was also the point at which a couple of travelers suddenly realized that their passports hadn’t made it onto the bus.  At this point I have to give our Executive Director, Steven Payne, his combat medal.  He phoned for a taxi (which took forever to come), and drove off to the nearest train station where he could ride into Vienna.  He returned hours later with the passports and a woman’s performance dress which somehow hadn’t got packed!

Eventually we moved along, having our in-transit rehearsal on the top deck of the bus, and stopped at the charming little town of Telč (pronounced “telch”) for lunch.  We parked the bus outside the town and walked in past some older buildings and a lake, with ducks (invisible in this shot but there are more photos in the gallery, click on the photo of the lake).

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Jim and I had a lovely lunch, all by ourselves – we stopped at the first restaurant we saw, on the edge of town, and found ourselves the only tourists in the place.  Everybody else trailed all the way into the town square and fought for tables at the restaurants there.  Feeding 70-odd people all at once is not trivial.  Telč was a walled town; here’s the old city gate, followed by the town square.

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And here’s one of the local restaurants trying to feed 70 English speaking Americans all at once:

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You may have noticed that some of the buildings in Telč are different colors.  We saw this all over Czechia.  Here are some more:

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One of the local guides we dealt with in Prague told me that, back under the Communists, all the buildings were grey, and almost immediately after the Communist regime fell, people started painting the colors back.  I can’t swear to this, but it’s a great story, let it stand.

On the way out of Telč, we passed the oddest wall clock I’ve ever seen, which I must share.  If any of my traveled friends knows why the Czechs would have a clock like this, I’m dying to hear it!

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After lunch we rolled on through into Prague, trading rural splendor for suburbs and finally, city.  Like many old European cities, the streets in Prague were built for horse-drawn vehicles, not 45 foot double decker buses holding 4 people abreast.  Here’s the street where Andy the driver dropped us off at the Hotel Majestic (no, really!), without a nick or a ding, and despite a driver who came up the street in the opposite direction and tried to pass him:

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All I can say is, you try it.  The angry driver finally gave up and backed down the block.

I was totally gobsmacked to find that the Hotel Majestic was – a Best Western!  I didn’t realize they had a “premium” line.  It was a very nice hotel, though, on this trip second only to the Lindner in Vienna.

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Eisenstadt and Esterhazy

The date stamps on my photos suggest that the last photo I took at the Schönbrunn Palace was time-stamped 10:53 AM, and the first photo I took at Eisenstadt was time-stamped 2:19 PM.  We didn’t spend 3 hours on the road to Eisenstadt, as I remember grabbing a sandwich at the cafe in the palace courtyard and eating it outdoors; but we may well have spent 2 hours, including collecting, loading, and unloading all 70-odd of us.  Google Maps says Eisenstadt is either 62 or 68 miles from Vienna depending on which road you take.

Music historians will already know why we went to Eisenstadt, but for the less informed (didn’t know this before the tour), Joseph Haydn is buried in the Bergkirche (which means “mountain church”), in the town of Eisenstadt, which was the family seat of the Princes of Esterházy, whom he served most of his life.  He lies there now, along with both of “his” skulls, and if you’ve never heard that story (I hadn’t), you really must read the Wikipedia article on Haydn’s head.

Our first stop in Eisenstadt, after we found the Bergkirche, was – the restrooms, which were out at the back of the church, and not very large.  Here is the line for the ladies’ room.  All of these women are on the tour.

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Christmas Day Walk

Yes, I know it’s May.  2016 has been an extremely weird year, and one of these days I’ll blog it.  But I recently got the photos sorted, processed and uploaded from the walk I took around Lake Temescal, in the Oakland hills, on Christmas Day 2015. In a sense, this was the calm before the storm, because 3 days later, I came down with an awful cold (took 3 weeks to get rid of), which was the start of all the things that have gone wrong so far this year.

But back to the lake.  Here it is.  Click on this or any other photo to go to my Smugmug account and see the whole collection.

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Vienna and the Schönbrunn Palace

The day after the Stephansdom concert, we had a bus tour of the Ring, followed by an organized group tour of the Schönbrunn Palace, then a drive into the countryside to visit Eisenstadt, where Haydn is buried, and Esterhazy Palace, where he lived and worked.  Jim and I toured Schönbrunn Palace in 2012 with the Viking River Cruise, and we considered skipping it; but after a little thought, we realized there would be no way to catch up with the bus to take the rest of the tour.  So we got on the bus with everyone else.

If you want to see more photos on any subject, just click on one that interests you; you’ll be redirected to the photo on either my Smugmug site or Jim’s, depending on the photo, then you can move back and forth in a slideshow to see others.  In every case, there are more photos there than I show here.

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Singing at the Stephansdom – Concert!

Soon enough, it was time to put on the performance dress, collect the music folder, and head for the bus, for an 8:30 performance.  The bus dropped us off across from the cathedral, right next to the place where the horse-drawn carriages wait – remember them?  We gathered in the Curhaus to warm up, then filed in through the cathedral side door, which put us right next to the performance space.  They obviously handle performances in the cathedral all the time.

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Singing at the Stephansdom – Waiting to Sing

Jim and I found that we could only handle 2 restaurant meals per day on this trip, because the food in Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic is so rich.  So after our nap on concert day, I walked down the Rennweg from the hotel to a small grocery store, Billa AG, to buy some bread and fruit for dinner.  The store was immaculate, the fruit was beautiful and ripe, and the lady behind the bakery counter spoke English.  I was extremely interested in what an Austrian grocery store looked like.  I’ve been in U.S. groceries that were much worse.

After dinner we walked up the Rennweg the other way to visit the Botanical Garden of the University of Vienna.  I took a few photos here which you can see at the site (click on the picture); this is the one I liked best:

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Singing at the Stephansdom – Rehearsal

Our first day in Vienna was very full.  Rehearsal was at 8:45 AM, which meant, be on the bus by 7:45 AM, and off to the cathedral.  Since we had a different orchestra in each location (all arranged by the tour company), we had to have an orchestra rehearsal in every location.

Since I was singing, I didn’t carry a camera around.  All the photos in this post come from a gallery on my husband’s photo site entitled Singing Vienna.  The link will bring up a slide show.  I’ve posted a minimum of videos here but there are numerous videos in the gallery if you want to listen.

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On to Vienna

The day after our successful concert in Budapest, we packed up, loaded the bus, and set off for Vienna.  This is how a performance tour works.  We had no agenda except to stop in Györ, a small town along the way, for lunch.  I remember a sunny, pleasant day.  The bus dropped us in the center of town, just across from the impressive town hall:

Town hall, Györ, Hungary

Town hall, Györ, Hungary

I’m not sure Györ was ready for 70 people who all wanted lunch at once.  Jim and I chose the restaurant in a hotel next to the bus stop.  We and I think one other couple were the only people in there.  The service was fast and pleasant, the food was good.  When we finished, we strolled down the plaza and found several tables of our friends at an indoor/outdoor restaurant, all complaining that they hadn’t been served yet.

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I Wasn’t Expecting This

Getting dressed this morning, I picked up my glasses to wash the lenses, and discovered there was only one lens. The right lens had fallen out, somewhere. My husband and I between us have been all over the house, but we couldn’t find the stupid lens. I wore the glasses last night and they had both lenses then. It’s somewhere in the house but we can’t find it.

So, you take the glasses down to the glasses shop and they fix them, right? Not exactly.

First, these are my driving glasses – progressive bifocals. Without them, I can’t legally drive a car – and really, I don’t want to.

Second, I don’t have a spare pair. I’ve never had more than one main pair of glasses, although I currently have two pair of “computer/reading” line bifocals.

Third, I have plane tickets for Las Vegas on January 7, to visit my sister – 10 days away. I planned this carefully, it’s in a space in my schedule where I won’t miss anything here. But I have to be able to drive a car.  Las Vegas has no options for people who can’t drive.  They say Uber is now there, but (a) I don’t trust Uber, and (b) they’ve only been there since September and I have no idea how available they actually are.

I’m flying to Las Vegas in 10 days and I have no glasses.  I do have all my glasses prescriptions, so we took them down to Oakland Kaiser optical shop and were told that any repairs would take a minimum of 3 weeks, because holidays.  I’ve noticed before that Kaiser personnel don’t like to work on holidays – I once spent an unnecessary day in the hospital after a knee replacement because it was the day after Thanksgiving and there were no physical therapists on duty to check me out to confirm that I could walk.  Sorry, Kaiser, this is true.

I do not want to have to reschedule that trip.  I’m already hoping I will throw off the cold I’ve caught, in time to spend an hour and a half on a plane.  So we took my prescriptions over to the Site for Sore Eyes on Piedmont Avenue.  They, thank God, can do the job in 3-5 business days, which will get my glasses back just in time to leave.  I think my next pair of glasses may come from them, and right after New Year’s, too.

Meanwhile, I have no glasses, except for the 2 pair of line bifocals, and I can’t drive a car.  I’ve worn glasses my entire life, since approximately the age of seven, and I keep looking for them, and remembering that they’re in the shop.  Since my cataract surgery, I can do close work without glasses – I’m typing this without glasses.  But anything farther away than about 3 feet starts to get fuzzy.  And I’ve never considered that a spare pair was worth the considerable expense.  I’ve changed my mind on that one, for sure.

And I’m absolutely gobsmacked by how weird and limiting it is, not to have my glasses available.

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Performing in Budapest

On our second full day in Budapest, we had the morning off, then an afternoon rehearsal with orchestra, then 2 hours off for dinner, and then a performance.  The rehearsal and the performance were all in Matthias Church, on Buda Castle Hill, where the bus can’t go, so when we set out, we had to have our performance clothing with us, and carry it up the hill from where the bus dropped us off.  I mentioned in yesterday’s post that the bus was too big to fit in the medieval streets on Buda Castle Hill.  This also meant that we had to eat dinner on the hill.

Photos for this post are in the gallery More BudapestIf you’d like to enlarge any of the photos please go look at them there.

But about that morning off:  the Lion’s Garden Hotel was about a mile from Heroes’ Gate, and in the same area there’s Budapest City Park (with lake), the Vajdahunyad Castle (in the park), a huge mineral water bath (which we didn’t visit, sigh), and the Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden.  We bought transit passes from the hotel and walked over to the main tram line to pick up a car. As we walked, I got the idea that the Lion’s Garden Hotel isn’t in the best neighborhood; the buildings were shabby, with some graffiti.  I remember passing one dingy little door with an inscription in Hungarian of which I only understood the English word “striptease”!

Here’s a view of the park and its lake.  We didn’t really explore the park much, as we wanted to see the Castle.

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