Friday, December 30, 2011

Kristmas in Karlovy Vary

We are headed to Prague through Paris. Our Air France plane is an A380 double-decker and our tickets have us on the upper deck....nice! The flight is uneventful except for a 50 minute delay, usual turbulence over the Atlantic and despite the size of the plane we are still shaken around. It also appears that my personal TV is the only one busted and ofcourse the Parisian flight attendant was apologetic in so a Parisian way that translated in to call some one who cares!!! Given the late departure from Dulles International, we arrive about 45 minutes behind schedule which is not particularly fun given we had to hustle about 1 mile, through passport control and security in Paris. Now passport control is a joke in Paris given they are supposed to be the gate keeper to all & sundry entering the EU....perhaps they know something about their future that we don't. Charles De Gaulle appears to be hobo-central at 6am this is a sad state. So despite a poor lit and even poorly marked airport, we manage to find our gate through security which again is a joke given the TSA equivalent lady who is really more a helper of pushing your stuff through the Xray machine is also the decider of if you wear your shoes through the metal detector or not...I wish I had those super powers to glance at a pair of shoes and determine if they are secure or not. Perhaps TSA can learn a few tricks that the French have clearly mastered. They then bus us to the plane which is really close to where our plane from Dulles is parked.....more to wonder about French systems.

Prague, (pictures and movie)
The short hop to Prague is a breeze as they serve stale croissants and coffee. No passport control at Prague and we drag our luggage out and cross the street to check in at the airport Marriott. It made sense to stay here given my car rental is next door and downtown they say is easy to get to...we will see about that shortly.

Our first 30 mins in Prague and I am liking it very much. There is a certain calm here that is very serene...wondering if this is a mirage. We are told we need to catch a bus to the metro to get to downtown or catch a cab. We figured we get adventurous and use public transport. So we catch Bus 119 to Dejavick metro (our bus fare of less then $2 covers metro too) and on the metro we get of Staromesteska which is a block away from the old town square (Staroměstské náměstí) & Christmas market. What has me fascinated is the level of trust permeating this place. I have my ticket electronically validated on the bus, but after that no-one or machine challenges me or the others. It is an honor system that prevails...or perhaps the punishment is so severe, no one attempts to cheat...I will think it is the honor system and the Czech's have jumped to the list of good people (close to the Brazilians). The metro is clean and efficient and resembles Moscow's metro. I would not be surprised if during the Soviet Union times, the good ol'ruskies set it all up here. The old town square is 2 blocks east of the metro and so begins our vacation. The square hosts the Christmas markets and is home to the Church of our Lady before Tyn with its imposing Gothic spires that I understand are the symbol of the city. Also across is the Staromestska Radnice S Orlojem (Astronomical clock) that on the hour chimes and has the 12 Apostles peek out. The number of Apostles peeking out depends upon the hour and we had the good fortune to watch all 12 of them at the noon hour. It is cold...about 32F with wind chill and so we are freezing. However Saritha reminds me that Prague is famous for its Svařák (Hot Wine) and so we partake in it which as a kick to it owing to some spice in it...cinnamon we think. The Svarak surely starts warming us up. We begin heading west to Karlovy Most (Charles bridge) which was built in the 14th century (1357 to be precise) by the latest construction techniques of the time. The bridge is a foot bridge across the Vltava river now and has the original cobble stones I am led to understand. The bridge is fortified and has variety of statues on both sides and has a Gothic feel to it. Lunch is on Nerudova street that has plenty of choices however our meal while palatable at U Lary restaurant is nothing to write home about. We head up to the Prazsky Hrad (Prague Castle) that was founded in the 9th century and continues to be developed. While in the medieval times it was home to princes and kings of Bohemia (Prague is in Bohemia), since 1918 is home to the President of the republic. The complex is typical of European castles though more modern due to all the modifications. The flags are flying half mast due to Vlac Havel's (the 1st president and communist dissident) recent death and there is a impromptu shrine inside. World leaders are expected to arrive in the next day or so for the funeral. What caught our attention inside the castle complex is the golden mile, dwarf homes constructed for the stable keepers of the time. Homes are small in size and height due to the limited space they had but certainly look very cute. The vistas from the castle are wonderful as we can see the entire city of Prague, Charles bridge and even the US embassy. We start heading back as it is beginning to get dark about 4pm. Back on the Charles bridge we find a gentlemen in top hat walking to every single street lamp and turning them on...looked like a scene from Sherlock Holmes. Back in the Christmas market we enjoy the local fares of potato dishes, sausages, Trildo (sweet pretzels) and ofcourse more HeisWein/Svarak. The market is very festive and the mood certainly matches it with families and kids running around with food and glee. Despite all the festivities and wanting to stay longer, we have been sleepless for 36 hours, jet lagged and freezing (HeisWein I realize has limited powers) it is back to the hotel on the trusted metro system. 
As I reflect the day, I am pleasantly surprised by the general honesty, friendliness and calm of Prague. It is definitely one of my favorite cites and hope to spend more time here again. But for now time to get some rest as we are driving to Nuremberg in the morning. - Dec 20

Nuremberg, (pictures)
The rental company that is next door to the hotel here in Prague gives me an upgrade and of we head south-southwest from Prague to Nuremberg. Excited that our GPS is working given I am a little tentative with the road signs in Czech to say the least. Nuremberg is about 200KM's (yeah need to make the conversions in my head) away and takes about 3.5 hours to get there on very good highways both in the Czech republic and Germany. We do stop at McDonald's and realize that McDonald's here in the Czech republic is an upscale establishment (no dollar menus!) and they charge relatively higher than the US....premium for US brands it appears, same with Starbucks, Subway etc. The border crossing is non existent except for a small sign that suggests that we are entering Deutschland in the EU. The only way one realizes that you are in Germany is the change in the cars and the lack of speed limits on the Autobahn's. I found that the hard way as BMW's, Mercedes and Audi's beared down on the fast lane literally making me scurry out of the way. I estimated some of them were doing about 120-130 miles easily.....oh how I missed having my car on these Autobahn's!!!
Our hotel in Nuremberg is inside the old city and minutes away from the Hauptmarkt Christimas markets we have come to visit. After managing to park in what is typical of European parking, small spaces where you have to park and crawl out somehow, we are on our way to explore Nuremberg. While the town is perhaps best known for its war time trials, we have decided that we are not going to explore that part of the history of Germany to keep with the current festive time. We walk through the town that is an interesting blend of the old and new....old churches snugly fit between new shopping stores. Saritha tells me Nuremberg Christmas markets at the Hauptmarkt are the most famous dating back to the late 16th century and we welcome ourselves with Glühwein (Hot spiced wine) and Bratwurst.....& we could not be happier. The market starts at the Nassauer Haus and is quite large with over 200 stalls selling all kinds of decorations, knick-knacks and the fruit cake, marzipan and the Gluhwein has to go with everything given it is about 32F and lightly windy. The trek up to the Nuremberg castle at Kaiserburg, I chalk of to getting some exercise as there is not a lot to see. Apparently this was where the Kaiser(s) would stay when they visited Nuremberg and does not seem they did much of that. So after more Gluhwein, Bratwurst, Ginger bread and Fruitcake we decide to call it a night....with a nightcap in the hotel bar....we are of course in Germany and not tasting their beer would have been impolite :). - Dec 21

Munich (pictures)
Well we had decided to hit the road to Munich by is 9am when we wake up! The drive out of Nuremberg to Munich was atypical of large city traffic and we chalk that to the holidays. The distance is not much (170KM) and given we are driving the Autobahn it did not take too long (less then 2 hours)......despite me having to scurry along every so often as some of the fastest cars got on my tail. Despite the speeds I did not experience any road rage....perhaps we can learn to drive with speed and patience in the US. Also everyone drives on the slow right lanes except when you have to pass and they do that diligently....they don't need a law like us, that is broken egregiously. Our 1st impression of Munich is one of sadness......the city lacks color and has a very distinct pre-war feel to its architecture, roads etc. The 32 degree cloudy & rainy weather certainly contributed to the added gloom about the city. Drive through downtown to our hotel was a breeze (thank you Saritha & GPS!) which is smack-dab in the center of the city. More crawling about to park the car and of we head to explore Munich. We catch a hop-on-hop-off greyline bus to check out the highlights. Unless it is rainy, this is not how we would have explored the city. Despite the research Saritha has conducted, we quickly find out that there is not much that really interests us. The Alte Pinakothek art gallery is quite underwhelming....they had some focus on Albrecht Dürer who Saritha introduced to me as a famous German artist and whose statue we had seen in Nuremberg, the rest that I was familiar with such as Reuben, Raphael, Rembrandt, da Vinci, Canaletto....have a very limited footprint here. We see Hitler's HQ and his adminstrative buildings, a couple of arches (Siegestor), pyramids and columns (Friendens-Engels). The weather has been downright poor with the constant rain. Outdoor Christmas markets in Marienplatz are not quite conducive despite the attraction of the Gluewein and this gives me a chance to get my BMW Museum in to play :). But before that we head to the biggest and oldest Brew House in Munich - Hofbrauhaus located here in Marienplatz. This place is humongous, apparently they can seat up to 4,300 people  and serve giant steins of beer (1 litre jugs)...we don't partake in the giant steins but the beer is delicious and so are the sausages, sauerkraut and mustard sauce. Satisfied we catch the UBahn (underground) and head to the BMW museum located across the Olympic Park station. I did not see much of the Olympic park complex, perhaps the memories are dark and about 4 decades old. The Museum is part of a complex about 15 mins north of downtown that has a manufacturing plant, museum and a dealership where you can drive your car out. Plant tours were closed so we had to stick to the museum. The museum begins with BMW's roots in aircraft engines and how the light weight engines they built were adopted for cars. The museum has a particular focus on the 3 series which it considers core to its car building....all other models are just an adaptations to market conditions. 
We also see the cars used in the latest Mission Impossible movie Ghost Protocol as well as those driven by James Bond in "The world is not enough" and "Golden Eye". The next generation concept cars are interesting but don't hold my attention and so it is back to the Christmas market for more Gluhwein, German Brucheta and Bratwurst. We find over the day that Munich seems to have a fairly large Arab population...lots of people speaking Arabic in downtown, kabob eateries and more. So we decide to partake in kabob's and must admit it was the best darn kabob's we had in a long long time. However one thing I found very strange, it seems quite difficult to exchange money or buy beer in Germany. There is only one place in the main station that doubles as Western Union and Cambio or the other choice is to use an ATM, which personally I avoid overseas for the ridiculous charges everybody and their brother charges. As far as beer goes, the super markets barely stocked a brand if at all...some thing wrong in Germany? The notion of a global village could not be any more real here as a bunch of Indian transplants to the US, eating Kabob's made by Arabs in Munich, Germany....we are truly blessed to live in a generally peaceful world.-Dec 22

Pilsen (pictures)
Today we drive to Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, also known as Karlsbad. We are going to stay at the 300 year old Grand Hotel Pupp over Christmas. The hotel can be seen in movies such as the James Bond in Casino Royal as Hotel Splendide and Queen Latifa in The Last Holiday.  We are led to believe that it is also the hotel that Beethoven and other famous artists and royalty have stayed. By the time we leave Munich it is about 10am & the Marriott we are at says parking is on the house...apparently its their Christmas gift...much appreciated. But before we go to Karlovy Vary, we plan to stop at the home of beer...Pilsen (Plzen). The drive back in to the Czech republic was nice and I am not as concerned about the fast BMW's or Mercedes driving me of the Autobahn's anymore given traffic is a lot slower in CZ. Pilsen is an industrial town that looks like you don't want to be here unless you have to be and that is our case. We are here to visit the Pilsner Urquell brewery. Before going through the tour, we lunch at Pilsen restaurant, Na Spilce that serves the beers they brew here and some Czech dishes that are surprisingly tasty....I guess if you don't see how sausages are made, it is hard to not like them. We head to the packaging plant that is closed for Xmas but is modern and fully automated from handling the recycled bottles to cleaning, filling, labeling and packaging them. Apparently, each production line can do 60,000 bottles per hour and there are 3 of them....I am convinced Pilsen will never run out of beer. The actual brewery shows us how the Barley, local water (from underground springs that gives it special taste) and hops (we see fields of hops all the way to Pilsen that look like Vineyards) come together. The large copper kettles are now slowly transitioned to stainless steel for better brewing apparently. They then take us through deep caverns and tunnels where the beer is fermented. 

Tasting occurs here and the group is suddenly full of life...wonder how that happens without fail. We are glad we made it to Pilsen and tasted the nectar from its well! It is 4pm but the sun is gone and we are going to have to drive through Czech back roads to get to Karlovy Vary...not by choice mind you. Our GPS decides to play games and gets us out in the boonies on roads full of snow that has not been cleared, the conditions got down right treacherous with visibility down to perhaps 15 meters if that and roads suddenly without lane markings. The 80 KM/50 Mile drive takes us almost 2 hours, but I am glad we made it in one piece...with some splendid driving on my part even if I say so and navigation on Saritha's part. Due to our late arrival we miss out on some of the festivities but head out on the main boulevard of this little hill side town and stumble in to U Svejka a local eatery where we are welcomed in typical Czech fashion....plenty of beer and sausages is how we end the 1st night here in Karlovy Vary. Night cap is at the Becher's Bar in the hotel where Saritha samples the local Becherovka drink which tastes very rummy. - Dec 23

Karlovy Vary (pictures and movie)

Christmas eve is bigger than Christmas day in the Czech republic. We start the day with Champagne and a large I wonder why this should not be how we start every day? The day is spent exploring Karlovy Vary, its refreshing architecture, shops selling Bohemian Crystal and many water spouts that deliver the "curative" water from far below the earth. Of particular interest is the geyser (Sprudel Colonade) in the middle of the town where it gushes out about 30 feet from about 2000 feet below the surface. The water is about 72C and there people lining up to drink it given it ejects 2000 liters of curative water per minute. Given the distinct smell of sulfur we decide to pass. The rest of the town includes a theatre, museum of some sort and several churches. We will come back later this evening to the Maria Magdelana for the Xmas midnight mass. After this walk-about we head back to the hotel to join the concert in the Festival Hall that is playing this afternoon. The concert is a combination of choir singers and a symphony (here is a sample)...all of which we enjoy very much. I am pleasantly surprised that our hotel has a very nice concert hall and sells tickets to non hotel residents. Tonight we will partake in a festive dinner after we exchange gifts. The Festive Hall is transformed into a banquet hall and looks breathtaking with its rococo ceiling and chandeliers. As I mentioned Christmas eve is the biggest festivity of the year and the dinner is reflective of that. At dinner we are paired with a lovey American/Russian family with a 7 year old who is such a delightful gentlemen at that age and not to mention is fluent in German, Russian and English. This couple validated to me that we are capable of collapsing any geographic, cultural or political spectrum to form a happy union. Dinner is a medley of all sorts of meats, fish (Carp is the traditional Christmas meal here), salads, local wines and fascinating conversations. This is certainly a lovely way to enjoy Christmas. After dinner Saritha and I walk up halfway through town to the Maria Magdelana church for the midnight mass.  The mass is a bit of a let down, not so much because the service is in Czech but because the padre looks like he does not want to be there....there is no energy in his sermon which we clearly do not understand or feel. His helper seems half asleep and the padre only offers bread as part of the oblation and drinks all all the wine by himself and not sure with us....would I have much preferred if he shared! That said I am sure the worshippers in the church more than made for the sleepy padre with their devotion. Merry Christmas. - Dec 24

We are spending Christmas day in Karlovy Vary. After a late and large breakfast we head out to explore some more of the city. We decide to go up the Diana (pronounced Dee-Ana) lookout which provides us some very beautiful sights of the town of Karlovy Vary and beyond. It is snowing a little up here which adds to the beauty. While one can hike up to the lookout point, we decide to catch the strange looking train given the path is slushy and not particularly conducive to walking. The afternoon has us enjoying an Opera (here is a sample) or so I pretend given I don't recognize any of the renditions. To top it the Tenor; whose name I don't catch given they don't believe in providing programs; looks like he is going to pop a nerve while the Soprano who is beautiful can certainly shatter glass with her voice. Even more amusing was when they cut to an intermission, the audience thought it was over and kept applauding until the pianist had to come out and let us know....all in all an amusing afternoon. Dinner tonight was a much more sedate affair with limited variety in the dishes served. We end the night with a few cocktails at the Bechers bar. - Dec 25

Vienna (pictures)
Today we are going to drive to Vienna in Austria, about 5 hours south of us which essentially takes us through the entire length of the Czech republic. As we leave Karlovy Vary I am tickled pink to find trees full of red and green apples line the roads and more hop fields. While we drive on the highway to Brno, from there on the roads are a cross between highways and back roads. We meander to some of the most quaint yet lovely villages and enter Austria.
 The border again while non existent, has remnants from the time Czech was Chechoslovakia...crossings then could not have been pleasant. We stop here to appreciate freedom but also to buy a "vignette", which is a road tax for Austria. Driving in to Austria we are welcomed by a bevy of vineyards and windmills. Vienna is about a 90 minutes from the border at Mikulov | Poysdorf (7/E461) and time flies as we enjoy our way through. By the time we are settled in at our hotel close to the Schoenbrunn Palace it is about 4pm. Today is the last day of Christmas Markets and we hear it is about 2 hours from the close on the grounds of the Schunbrunn Palace and so we walk down the street from our hotel to the now familiar cadence of Gluhwien, food of all sorts and knick-knacks. The mood is lively and Austrians and tourists are milling about with Gluhwien and food.
Gluhwein is served in ceramic cups both here in Germany and Austria and they charge a deposit of EU2.00 or EU3.00 that they return in exchange for the cup. I love this as it saves the use of tons of plastic or Styrofoam. Germany in particular is so strict that they charge a premium on all plastic containers (Coke bottles, Beer etc) in the grocery motivating recycling. If only our plastic lobby was not as strong we could be more responsible.
We find a roadside kabob vendor on our trek back to the hotel who serves the best Donner kabob we have had...ever! - Dec 26

We start our day with a visit to the Schonbrunn palace (Shoon Bruun) that was the summer palace of the Habsburg empire made grand under the rule of Maria Theresa. I quickly realize that I am very ignorant of this dynasty but thankfully Saritha is a fountain of information that helps me appreciate the importance of this palace and empire in the context of Europe and pre-war world. As usual they won't allow us to take pictures inside the palace which makes it hard to recall the beauty of it all. The palace as some stunning gardens and fountains that I will walk tomorrow. The palace has quite the history...Mozart played here when he was 6 (apparently the child prodigy impetuously climbed up Maria Theresa's lap and kiss her), Kennedy and Kruschev met her at the peak of the cold war and more. 

For now we go catch the hop-on-hop-off grayline bus to get to town center through the Military Museum. We get of the bus at the Hofburg, the winter palace of the Hapsburg. The
palace is open to the public to view the empires silver collection, Sisi (Empress Elizabeth) Museum and the Imperial apartments. The silver collection                
has some 150000 pieces, but only 7ooo of them are displayed. The apartments are interestingly not very ostentatious like many other of the period....apparently the Emperor Franz Joesph I liked to live in an austere fashion. The palace is crowded despite the fact it is not the season...then again Vienna is the 5th most visited placed in the world according to the local guide/collateral; but my research indicates Vienna does not even make the top 10. Saritha visits the Treasury while I wander outside capturing pictures and enjoying the weather. Following the Hofburg we visit the 12th century St. Stephen's cathedral about 10 minutes away from the Hofburg palace complex. The cathedral I find quite similar to many we have seen in Europe and also allows tourists to climb either of its 2 towers. I pass the opportunity given it has become cloudy at this time. After grabbing some very delicious sandwiches at the local "Billa", we head to drive around the city some more as it gets dark. We wander the lovely pedestrian streets around Karlsplatz that are decked for the holidays, street performers are enthusiastically performing and for a change it is not freezing. We stumble in to St. Peter's church that looks like it is hidden away for the most curious visitors only. The church from the middle ages has a special vibe as it hosts the local symphony to practice in there. After an attempt at souvenir shopping we catch the UBahn and head back to the hotel for the night. - Dec 27

This next morning I decide to walk up Schonbrunn hills past the Neptune fountain to Glorietta at the top of the hill....& what a view of the early morning Vienna this renders. The romanticism of the city is legendary and to experience it is exciting. So we head to the last museum we want to visit...the Belvedere. The Belvedere is famous for its collection of Gustav Klimt and his most famous painting, The Kiss as well as Franz Messerschmidt sculptures about man's reactions.  

It is time to drive back to Prague and catch a plane to return home. It has been a glorious vacation...lots of relaxation, plenty of learning's and the richness of experiences. It has been a few years since we last visited Europe and it has not changed much. That said I feel we can learn from their politeness and penchant for being green. They can learn a little about personal space and the discipline of queuing up....then again most of the world could learn that. 

Looking forward to spending more time in Europe and wishing the union despite their current challenges will endure.  - Dec 30