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Trip 3 -- Mongolia to Eastern Europe

Part 4: Austria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic (15 Oct to 24 Oct 1999)

Exchange rate: US$1 = 11.8 Austrian Schilling (ATS)
= 36 Slovak crowns (SKK)
= 33.6 Czech crowns (CSK)

15 Oct
Train and bus: Sopron to Vienna
(7:07)
My passport was checked in Sopron; there was no sign of the actual border when we crossed into Austria. I had to change trains in Ebenfurth, but the second train stopped for construction, and we had to take a bus instead. My ticket from Sopron was good for one hour on the subway in Vienna, though that was moot, as I bought a Vienna Card, which allowed me unlimited transportation and discounts on museum fees for three days for ATS 210.
15 Oct-17 Oct
Vienna (Austria)

Royal palaces; theatre and opera; a clock museum...

Schloss Schönbrunn, the royal palace from the 1700s, was near the train station where I arrived in Vienna, so that's where I started my tour. The place was enormous, and a helpful audio guide led me around the richly decorated rooms. I also walked around the extensive gardens. From there I took the subway to the western part of the city center, near many of the museums, and checked in to the friendly Quisisana for two nights - about $33 per night including rolls and tea for breakfast.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts) had a huge display, and the building itself was attractive. The Jüdische Museum (Jewish Museum) was a bit bizarre, with one display of history told through holograms - I didn't quite get the point. The collection of pre-World War II articles and the exhibit devoted to printer Karl Klaus were interesting, though.

The opera house and several theatres are all near each other, so I headed in that direction and got a HUF 730 ticket for Mozart! (a new pop-rock musical based on the composer's life) that night and a HUF 1750 ticket for Strauss's Salome at the Staatsoper the next night. It was over half an hour before Mozart!, so I tried to get some strudel at a nearby café first - but after I waited 20 minutes for it, I gave up. Mozart! had some beautiful music, and it did a good job of showing the conflict between Mozart (who became enamored of Vienna and wanted to stay there) and his father (who wanted him to stay in Salzburg, where he was born). Mozart was quite the rebellious youth. After the show I had a festive meal at Zu den Drei Hacken.

The Uhren Museum (Clock Museum), where I started my touring the next morning, was exceptionally wonderful: multiple floors of ancient and modern clocks, including some grandfather clocks that showed the date, day of the week, year, and moon cycle, and some specimens from 250 years ago that were still ticking perfectly. In Stephansdom (St. Stephan's Cathedral), I visited the catacombs (which include the remains of the Habsburgs), and for lunch, I headed for the western part of the city, to Schnitzelwirt Schmidt, where I had the Mexico-style schnitzel (with spicy pepper and ham) and sampled the wonderful Sturm (partially fermented wine; it tastes a bit like cider and is served only during the harvest season).

Heading back to the city center, I visited the Hofburg, the Habsburg palace from 1279 to 1918. There were several museums, all interesting. The Silberkammer (silver room) had collections of silverware, tableware, and menus detailing what the royal family ate in the 1800s, and it explained which sets of dishes were used on what occasions and why. The Kaiserappartements (imperial apartments) were appropriately ornate. In the Sammlung Alter Musikinstrumente (collection of old musical instruments), I walked around with the aid of an infrared audio receiver; when I approached an instrument, I'd hear an explanation of the instrument and a sample of what it sounded like. It was interesting to watch the string and wind instruments evolve over several centuries. The instrument collection was in the same building as the Ephesus Museum, with Turkish art, but I got there too late to have more than a quick look.

Before Salome, I stopped in at the Hotel Sacher Café to try the famous Viennese Sachertorte and a luscious hot chocolate; while there I talked with a few other tourists about Vienna, the opera, and other places we'd been. The opera was magnificent, as expected; my seat was at the front of a box in the first ring above the orchestra. After the opera, I dined on hare-and-autumn-greens salad, venison with chestnuts and apples, and pear-vanilla ice cream at Greichenbeisl (ATS 741), located in a historic inn.

The next morning I walked along an island in the Danube; then I visited the Eroicahaus (where Beethoven lived briefly and wrote his "Eroica" Symphony), which didn't have much except for some recordings of Beethoven's music and copies of handwritten scores, and Schuberts Geburtshaus (Schubert's birthplace), which contained his old piano and some interesting pictures and relics. Then I got a Bratwürst at a Würstel stand and made my way to the bus station for Bratislava.

17 Oct
Bus: Vienna to Bratislava
(13:00; 1h 26m; ATS 120)

The bus was comfortable and quick, and we made only a brief stop at the border.

17 Oct
Bratislava (Slovakia)

Cafes; the Municipal Museum...

It was Sunday, and it took a while to find a place to change money once I walked the 15 or so minutes into town. The city center was largely a pedestrian area, and where cars could go, there was very little traffic. I visited the Municipal Museum, which had a good collection of old scientific instruments, weights, and signs, as well as a torture chamber.

The central plaza had some good pastry shops, and I stopped in at the Roland Cafe for a black-currant cake and a Coke (SKK 72) and listened to the drum players outside. I made my way to the train station to buy a ticket to Prague, and then I headed to Jewish quarter, near Bratislava Castle, where I had dinner at the friendly Chez David pension: pumpkin-and-mushroom salad (perhaps) and turkey-stuffed pancakes. With time to spare before my train, I had a mini-Sachertorte and an orange soda at another cafe.

17 Oct-18 Oct
Train: #374, Bratislava to Prague
(23:53; 5h 43m; SKK 293)
This was not the most comfortable train I'd ever tried to sleep on. Seats were unreserved, and there were no individual seats - the compartments each had long benches for however many passengers could fit on them. The lights stayed on, and the train made several stops, including one at the border, where someone came around to stamp our passports. At least I could choose a non-smoking compartment.
18 Oct-20 Oct
Prague (Czech Republic)

Waiting it out; centuries-old buildings; an Icelandic restaurant; the Jewish Museum...

Prague's train station was not the most pleasant place to be at 5:30 in the morning. It was an enormous, though manageable, place, but I didn't feel like dealing with whatever characters happened to be there. So, in the dark, I found my way to Václavské námęstí, a giant square flanked by hotels and restaurants. It was cold, but not uncomfortably so, and that's where I sat for a couple of hours, until someplace opened for breakfast. I tried to have the Swedish-style buffet breakfast at Gany's, but the restaurant was no longer there, so I had some sausages and cheese at the Louvre, the café that replaced it.

I did a walking tour of the Royal Way, the path that used to be taken to Prague Castle during coronation ceremonies. The route took me along several ancient streets lined with historic buildings and then across Charles' Bridge. The early morning was a good time to walk the bridge, as I got there before all the crowds, hawkers, and pickpockets.

Back near Václavské námęstí, I booked a hotel room at the Bulharský Klub (known just as the B-Klub), south of the city center, near the Námęstí Miru subway station. I also found out that Evita was playing, so I took a tram to the theatre to get tickets. Then I toured Prague Castle's ancient buildings, most of which were more than 200 years old; the castle itself dates from the ninth century. It's really a small walled city, as it contains restaurants, museums, and a post office. I walked around the residential area just outside the castle walls and visited the Toy Museum, which contained a huge collection from simple figurines to giant doll houses.

Just across Charles' Bridge from the castle, I couldn't resist visiting the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments. The way it was advertised outside, it seemed like the biggest tourist trap in Prague, but it was a refreshingly interesting place, unlike any other museum I'd seen. Most of the torture devices consisted of iron spikes to pierce the skin; the simplest idea was probably the standing coffin, whose inside spikes would stab the victim from various directions when closed.

I had a large, early dinner at Rejkjavik, an Icelandic restaurant: three kinds of salmon, fish soup, and Icelandic cod (there wasn't much on the menu that hadn't spent most of its life swimming). Then I caught a concert of the Philharmony Hradec Králové at the Rudolfinum (Berlioz's overture from the Roman Carnival, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," and Dvorák's "New World" Symphony) and retired to the B-Klub.

The next day I walked to Staré Męsto, the old city, most of whose buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries. In Staromęstské námęstí, the central square of Staré Męsto, I joined a couple dozen other tourists in watching the astronomical clock, an impressive and beautiful timepiece on the wall of the old town hall. The clock, more than 500 years old, shows the time of sunrise and sunset, signs of the zodiac, and other celestial events; on the hour, one of four allegorical figures - the one representing death - turns an hourglass, Apostles march by, and a rooster announces the hour.

A ticket to the Jewish Museum cost CSK 450. That may sound like a lot, but since the Jewish Museum consists of seven buildings - five synagogues, a cemetery, and a ceremonial hall - , it was worth it. The ticket indicated the order in which I was supposed to visit the museums and the time I was supposed to spend at each, but if I'd kept to the "schedule" of 20 minutes per synagogue, I'd scarcely have gotten to see anything at all! I noticed, as I visited the last few buildings, that when my ticket was scanned, a machine indicated that I was entering late - fortunately, it did not actually stop me from entering.

The Nazis spared all these buildings, intending for them to be the only memorial of an exterminated race. Each building contained a different reminder of the Jews in Prague before World War II. Most moving were the Old-New Synagogue, dating from 1270, and the Pinkas Synagogue, which was used for prayer from 1535 to 1941 and now austerely contains the names of tens of thousands of Nazi victims written on its walls. It was also moving to walk the streets of the old Jewish quarter, an area still being revived after the events of the 1940s.

I had lunch at a restaurant in Smichov (the district just south of Prague Castle), on Victor Hugo Street: bouillon soup; the "Prague Plate," consisting of three kinds of meats; sauerkraut; and potato dumplings. Later on, I walked through the pleasant, hilly Kinský Gardens and had a dinner of basic Czech stuff at a small, cozy restaurant. That night, and the following night, I stayed at the Unitas pension, which used to be the jail where Václav Havel was once imprisoned. It's a lot nicer as a hotel.

20 Oct
Bus: Prague to Terezín
(7:00; 56m; CSK 48)
Hoping to get to Terezín before too many tourists arrived, I set out on an early bus. It was easy to tell where to get off: a cemetery stood in front of the intimidating black-and-white-striped archway leading to the Terezín small fortress - the part of Terezín used as a death camp. I arrived just as it opened, at 8:00 in the morning. For much of the morning, I was the only tourist.
20 Oct
Terezín (Czech Republic)

A haunting memorial...

Terezín was an awesome, formidable place. Not much has changed to the fortress's architecture since the end of the war, and each building's purpose is clearly explained, from the place where prison uniforms were assigned to the overcrowded cells to the blocks used for solitary confinement to the room set up for prison guards to watch movies. The phrase "Arbeit macht frei" is still painted on one archway, and numbers are still painted on the three- and four-tier barracks: One cell, for instance, had the numbers 1 through 14 painted across a row of barracks, but two or three times that many were squeezed onto each tier.

Some of the buildings had special exhibitions while I was there - most notably exhibitions of art produced by children of the camp. It was known who did each piece, and for what occasion, and it was interesting to walk through the camp and recognize the same names over and over again: I started to know the prisoners individually.

The small fortress, on the east side of the Ohre River, was not the only thing to see in the town of Terezín. Along the river were a memorial or two, and on the west side of the river was the town proper - the main fortress - , which was used as a ghetto for people on their way to the small fortress after the Nazis drove the prewar inhabitants out. The main fortress contained a couple of museums related to the ghetto, including an exhibit showing the function of the town's buildings during the war, an exhibit explaining the lives of ghetto prisoners during the war, and an exhibit showing how children's barracks in the town looked during the war. Also within the town were the remains of a railway siding built by prisoners, a cemetery, and a crematorium.

20 Oct
Bus: Terezín to Prague
(16:50; 1h 2m; CSK 48; 8m late)
After a long day of touring, I had a late lunch at the Restaurace U Hojtásü, and then I waited for the bus to go back to Prague.
20 Oct-21 Oct
Prague

Evita...

Evita was in the Divadlo Spirála, a theatre-in-the-round in an amusement park in the northern part of Prague. The performance was superb: The aspects of theatre-in-the-round were used extremely well, and the cast performed emotionally and sounded strong. (It helped that I had a seat in the front row.) Martin Havelka, as Che, was especially excellent: He sang with passion and cynicism and showed just enough disrespect for the Argentina he disapproved of. After the performance I had an OK meal at the Restaurant U Zlatých andęlü: onion soup and stuffed pork with ham and egg.

21 Oct
Bus: Prague to Kutná Hora
(8:15; 1h 20m; CSK 40)
Once again I got out early, to take in the pretty town of Kutná Hora and the bizarre ossuary in nearby Sedlec.
21 Oct
Kutná Hora (Czech Republic)

A visit to a mine shaft; a chapel decorated with bones...

Kutná Hora was once an important silver-mining town. It's got plenty to see, and abundant signs point people to sites of interest. I started with the Cathedral of St. Barbara, a Gothic church brilliantly decorated with mining and minting scenes. Then I visited the Hrádek Mining Museum, where I took a tour of the narrow mine shaft.

But the most peculiar sight was the ossuary in Sedlec, a 20-minute walk northeast of Kutná Hora. The ossuary is a chapel decorated by Frantisek Rint, who arranged the bones of 40000 monks and plague victims into crosses, window ornaments, attractive heaps, and the like - even a giant chandelier made of bones. He even spelled out his name on the wall using bones.

For lunch I got some pub grub (meat, sauerkraut, berries, and a Fanta) in a smoke-filled, woman-less restaurant (there was not much else around).

21 Oct
Train: Kutná Hora to Prague
(14:37; 1h; CSK 50)
At the train station, a tourist trying to buy a ticket approached me and asked whether I spoke English. I replied, "Yes. Very well." She was probably in her sixties, and she'd been all over - she described a trip to Greenland at length. One exceptionally plush train - something to be used on the Orient Express, perhaps - passed the station before we boarded our relatively mundane second-class car for Prague.
21 Oct
Prague

Snacking until the train's departure...

Back in Staromęstské námęstí, I had some hot wine, which they sell from a counter in front of the old town hall. It was chilly, and it rained slightly, but it was a pleasant way to pass the time. For my last meal in Prague, I had dumpling soup, ham, boar with vegetables, and borovicka at Makarská. To pass the time until my train, I went to a café and had a fruit sundae and banana juice.
21 Oct-22 Oct
Train: #375, Prague to Bratislava
(23:00; SKK 293)
At the train station, I inquired what the price would be for a reserved seat - I thought that might make the trip more comfortable than the trip from Prague. It would have cost twice as much, though, and so I decided to stick with the unreserved car. I arrived back in Bratislava at an ungodly hour, and I waited it out at the station. I bought my train ticket to Vienna for the following day, and it took three explanations for the ticket seller to convince me that she was correct to sell me a round-trip ticket rather than a one-way ticket: Due to an odd ticket-pricing quirk, the one-way fare to Vienna was more than SKK 400 but the round-trip fare was only SKK 248!
22 Oct-23 Oct
Bratislava

Bratislava Castle; another clock museum; spending the night a long way out...

I spent my second day in Bratislava taking in a few of the museums and walking around Bratislava Castle, built in the 15th century and located up a steep hill from the Jewish quarter. Bratislava's clock museum wasn't as impressive as Vienna's, but the Museum of Jewish Culture was interesting, the Slovak National Gallery was worth a look, and the panoramic view from the top of the St. Michael Tower was outstanding. I very much wanted to visit the Museum of Folk Music, within the castle walls, but, unfortunately, it was closed.

I was to spend the night at the Hotel Flóra, where I'd reserved a room a few days earlier, on my first day in Bratislava. The Hotel Flóra was a 25-minute tram ride from the city center, but as it was at the end of a tram line, I knew it was a place I'd be able to find late at night - and since it was therefore at the beginning of a tram line, I knew when I could get a tram the next morning to take me to the train station for an early-morning train to Vienna; I wouldn't have to find my way through Bratislava's winding streets in the dark early-morning hours. To get from the tram stop to the hotel, I had to cross a footbridge over an expressway.

After visiting museums, I made my way to the Flóra to check in; then I took the tram back into the city for dinner.

23 Oct
Train: #400, Bratislava to Vienna
(SKK 248)
It was an eerie walk across the footbridge from the Hotel Flóra to the tram station at around 4:30 the next morning, but the tram left on time, and I arrived at the train station in plenty of time to catch the first train to Vienna.
23 Oct
Train: Vienna to Salzburg
(ATS 546 to Munich)
Once in Vienna, I caught the next train to Salzburg. I bought a ticket all the way to Munich, however: You can buy a through ticket from Vienna, stop off at any point along the line, and get back on another train using the same ticket. The train to Salzburg was fast and comfortable.
23 Oct-24 Oct
Salzburg (Austria)

Mozart museums; trying to decide what to do next; the Glockenspiel...

It was hard to see why Mozart hated Salzburg so much. I guess Vienna was more bustling and more renowned, but Salzburg was gorgeous, with pretty, narrow pedestrian streets (I suppose there were no cars in Mozart's day, at any rate) and lush hills. Salzburg had impressive churches, a river, and lots of tourists.

I booked a room at the Hotel Goldene Krone, on the busy Linzer Gasse in the center of town. I visited two Mozart museums - his birthplace and his residence later in life - and got to see early instruments of his, paintings of family members, and a slide show explaining how Mozart's father took the family on tours throughout Europe to show off the young boy. It also explained how Mozart depleted the family fortune.

Late in the afternoon, I got the end-of-trip jitters: I knew there was much more to see in Salzburg, but too much for me to decide what to do; I really wished I'd had one more day in Salzburg - heck, even another two weeks in Austria; I was running out of cash and not sure whether it was worth it to cash more (eventually I decided that it was). I walked around frantically, trying to figure out what I could see in the few hours left of my trip. I sat in the rain in Residenzplatz, the large square in front of the Dom (a huge cathedral), and waited until the Glockenspiel atop the adjacent building chimed the hour of 18:00. I had a scrumptious set meal at Zum Mohren and then walked around for an hour or two, taking in the nightlife.

24 Oct
Train: Salzburg to Munich
(ATS 546 from Vienna)
I got up early to catch the train to Munich, a fast train that made no stop at the German border. There was, in fact, no sign that we had crossed a border at all.
24 Oct
Air: US Airways #15, Munich to Philadelphia
(12:35; $350 to New York La Guardia)
I had just enough time to take a walk around the train station in Munich and grab a sausage at a little sausage stand in the station before catching the regional train to the Munich airport. At the airport, I had an interesting conversation with the customs official, a stern-looking bearded man, who was surprised that I had no German stamp in my passport.

"I came from Austria," I explained.

"So you started your trip in Austria?"

Did he really want the whole story?"I started in Mongolia, then went to Russia, then took the train through Ukraine to Hungary...."

He laughed and sent me on my way.

24 Oct
Air: US Airways, Philadelphia to New York La Guardia
(15:30; $350 from Munich; about 1h 15m late)

24 Oct
Bus and subway: New York La Guardia to 49 St
($1.36)

I was supposed to have a four-hour layover in Philadelphia, flying the short hop to New York at 20:00. Before I'd left the United States, I'd done some research and found that the previous flight to New York operated by US Airways left at 15:30. I'd hoped that that flight would be late and I'd be able to save myself a few hours.

And it was true! I rushed off the plane from Munich, looked at the departure monitor, and saw that the 15:30 flight was delayed by an hour or so - in fact, it was the only delayed flight on the entire screen! I ran to passport control and customs (which I usually do anyway - it's silly to waste time in line at the airport) and rushed to the gate from which the 15:30 flight would be departing. There was exactly one empty seat, and they let me on, saving me over three hours!