Friday, July 29, 2011

Ummm ... Beetroot soup, perogies, and potato pancakes

It was our last night in Krakow. Of course we had a full day of touring planned, which began with a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter (which was really interesting), followed by a bus trip to the local Salt Mines (which was less interesting ...) 15 kilometers out of town. On the way back, we managed to hop on a – literally – moving mini bus to get back to town in time for a last meal before boarding our night train to Budapest. The Salt Mine tour was longer than we had expected and we had a train to catch – so when a mini bus stopped, with beeping cars behind him, he started moving before we were all on board! Doug jumped on last just making it, before the bus gained full speed.

Safely back in familiar territory, Devora had picked out a restaurant close to our hotel (where we had left our bags), and close to the train station (for a quick get away), called Kuchnia U Doroty. We had limited time, so we reviewed the menu for vegetarian options and ordered a magnificent assortment of perogies, potato pancakes (latkes yay!), sides of beets, cabbage and kasha with mushroom sauce, and of course beetroot soup. This has been our staple since arriving in Poland, and we were not at all unhappy to eat this combo over and over again. Wash it down with Polish beer and you are in heaven.

The gals serving us were adorable. They served us quickly, and we managed to lick our plates clean of every last fried onion, morsel of kasha, and spoon of beet root soup. Off we went back to the Hotel Eden where we ordered a cab large enough to take all of us and our luggage to the train station. Our driver was amazingly kind and helpful, and dropped us off at the train station with instructions in broken English on how to figure out which track our train would be on.

With his help, we sent Devora as our scout, to find out the platform information and we made it down to our track in plenty of time to find our train, and our specific car. We had not left ourselves enough time to find a grocery store to use up our remaining Polish currency, so we were left with the bottle of Cherry Vodka we had bought earlier in the day, and the – oh so delectable – packaged chocolate croissant that were complimentary with our train ticket! Good thing we had a big dinner!

We divided the small bottle of Vodka between us in plastic glasses as the train left the station, with all of us squeezed into one berth for a nightcap. We can't keep up with the proper toast in the proper language in all of the countries we have been in, so we have kept to the one we know. "L'chaim", we all chimed in as we clicked our wobbly plastic glasses. After a few sips, Devora and I were giggling and appropriately sedated to hopefully fall into a deep sleep with the help of the lullaby of clicking tracks all the way to Budapest ... The adventure continues!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I wonder if we can swim laps in the Mikveh?

We took the overnight train from Prague to Krakow. Finding our train, was a bit like the madness of New York's Penn station, except that everything was in Czech. Hence the added fun of trying to figure it all out once the actual track showed up on the revolving train schedule board. Just to add to the excitement, Krakow was not listed on the schedule for the time of our train, so a quick run to the ticket booth was required to be sure we were going to infact wake up in Krakow!


We did manage to find the track and board the train, just to find that in fact we were on the right train, but the wrong car. Off we went again with all of our luggage to the end of the train (about 100 cars away, or so it seemed). We were all in a communal shvitz, by the time we climbed aboard, and situated ourselves in our overnight cabins side by each. A few minutes later the train departed.

The night train cabins were exactly like the one Marc, Aaron and I took in Egypt from Luxor to Cairo, so we knew the ins and outs of converting the beds into seating and visa-versa. The train left the station at 9:17 pm so we got ourselves ready for the night. We had used up all of our last Czech Kroner on "provisions" for the journey, so we were set!

The train arrived in Krakow an hour late (8:00 am). We had all slept like babies – which of course is a misnomer as babies notoriously don't sleep – and that was our fate, at least for some of us. Devora and I, after some cosmetic help, managed to look human. The guys had snored through the night and were in perfect shape.

Ah, Krakow in the rain ... A bit gloomy at 8:00 am, but for Devora and I, it seemed somehow like home. For her – because she comes from good Polish stock and for me – because it looked so much like Israel. Not the gloominess or the rain, but the people and the shops and the sesame bagel stands.

New day, a new country, new currency and a new language. Certainly keeps you sharp!

Devora and I were tasked with getting tickets for the tram. A bit of experience with this in Prague made it much easier, and Devora figured it out in no time. We had converted some currency in Prague so we were good there. The only problem was that no matter what country I am in, the ticket machines don't seem to like my coins! After several tries, we managed to get it done and we were on our way to the Eden hotel in the heart of the preserved Jewish Quarter of Krakow called Kazimierz. There are no Jews living in the Jewish Quarter, but there are many buildings that survived the war and a Jewish Cemetery. The buildings have been converted into restaurants and hotels.

The Eden Hotel is a jewel down a narrow lane in the Quarter. There have been complaints about the mattresses from three of the four of us, but other than that, I am in love with the place! There is beautiful art on all of the walls, including posters of Jewish events that have taken place in the area. Winding stairways take you deeper into the subterranean rooms – spa – salt grotto – and of course the mikveh! Some of you reading will not know what this is. Here is a nice description I found on the internet: Ritual immersion in a mikveh - a gathering of living water (mayyim hayyim) - marks a change in status. People immerse at Mayyim Hayyim to celebrate moments of joy, to heal after times of sorrow or illness, or to commemorate transitions and changes.

So we are in a real Jewish hotel (mezuza on each door), with it's own mikvah, in a sadly, once thriving, now non-existant, Jewish community. After a very emotional day at Auschwitz/Berkanou, the mikveh, if we use it, will (all joking aside) not be for laps, but for healing from the sorrow that is embedded in this place.

It is important to be here, but extremely difficult. A large number of Marc's family took the incredibly long and inhuman train journey from Salonika Greece to Auschwitz, where their lives came to an unthinkable end. It is somehow comforting being in the Jewish Quarter, where we hear Klezmer music coming from the restaurants in the square. A reminder of the joyful sounds of the community that was once a large part of the tapestry of Polish life.

It has been raining (a lot) and gloomy. All my packing decisions were sadly wrong and I have been living in one outfit for days ... Devora and I have let the boys go out on their own for a few hours and we are sitting comfortably in a cafe/laundramat. Devora on her ipad, me on my mac, listening to great music and thinking about how great it is to be together. And how incredibly lucky we are to be able to share this experience.

Tomorrow, the night train to Budapest!

BTW we are in perogie and blinz heaven!!!!

(post title credit goes to Doug!)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Czech it out!

Wow it has been days since I had a good connection. Let's catch up. 

We spent four amazing days in Prague. The architecture takes your breath away. The hotel Devora chose for us was the first clue that we were going to be swept away by the experience. 18 foot ceilings, a jacuzzi tub, taffeta floor to ceiling curtains ... need I say more? D & D's room was like a salon in a castle. They complained that they had a hard time hearing each other from one side of the room to the other!

I am realizing as we get further into this trip, that finding the time to blog about all of our experiences, is weighing a bit to heavily on me and it really is not possible to dedicate as much time as it would take to really do this justice. I have had internet frustrations, and general fatigue to deal with. Our days are really long and we usually crawl into bed close to midnight, and are up bright and early for the next day of touring, so finding the time to be clever and entertaining every day, just isn’t in the cards.

Sunday morning the girls had another concert in the Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle which we attended. The acoustics were absolutely wonderful, and the concert was superb. It was their last performance of the tour, and our last chance for a hug until we see them in October.

Enjoy the photos!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Leaving Gasse Fhart and Platz behind ...

I couldn't help but take this picture! This is the street where our hotel was located on!

We crossed the border yesterday into the Czech Republic, and immediately, the road signs reminded us we had passed into another world. Interestingly, the first signs we saw were in English as we approached a casino. But soon after that, we entered the Czech countryside and the signs were unpronounceable, and extremely long once again but different. And since none of us have any semblance of Czech ancestry – completely undecipherable!

Although none of us Sprechen Sie Deutsch, Devora and I recognized many words from our parents and grandparents speaking Yiddish, so between laughs at the language, we actually felt by the time we had been in Austria for a few days, that we had at least a small handle on the language.  Oh well. Another day another country. New language challenges. New adventures.

So quaint, and so friendly!

Our first destination was Cesky Krumlov. The Unesco World Heritage town is only reachable by car, bus or shuttle from Spitz. Devora had arranged for our shuttle driver to pick us up at the train station in Spitz and an hour later we arrived at our quaint hotel in the heart of the town. We deposited our bags and took advantage of the rest of the afternoon and evening to explore.

Decoratively painted Castle tower and some kind of sugary delight in the street market

We were all enchanted by the town at first glance. Narrow cobblestone streets, with beautifully decorated exteriors, and delightful local delicacies being made in front of us as we strolled the alleyways. Devora had researched the area and had two restaurants highlighted for our evening meal. After a quick perusal of both  establishments, we chose a restaurant serving authentic medieval fare located on the banks of the river that runs through the town. We ate outside on wooden tables, drinking local beer and mead, and partaking in a feast of home made soups and various grains and root vegetables. Fabulous!


We had visited the local information centre when we first arrived and were delighted to find that a music festival was in progress – and as if it was arranged especially for our arrival, the concert for that evening was a performance of Saphardic Ballads by Hana Blochova and Premysl Vacek. The concert took place in a small venue. Wine and snacks were served and the musicians mingled with the audience members prior to the start of the concert. We were a bit under-dressed for the event, but tried to fit in as best we could. But of course the language of music is international and as soon as the concert began, we were mesmerized by Hana's incredible voice and the music from all of their period instruments. We walked back to our hotel in a trance. What a night!

What was left of the night was spent catching up on email in our hotel lobby.

This morning, we visited the Castle Museum and tower, and tried to catch a beer tasting and brewery tour but couldn't quite keep up the pace of our last day in Salzburg. Doug and I had a beer instead, Marc had time to have a cup of chocolate (and I mean a cup of melted dark chocolate ... he is still in heaven) and Devora picked up a local baked delicacy. We still had 20 minutes to catch an exhibit of the artist Shiele, before heading back to our hotel to pick up our bags and walk the 10 minutes to the bus station.

I am writing this post aboard our bus equipped with wifi! The wonders of the modern world. We just left a medieval town behind aboard a modern bus with wifi, a movie playing and coffee and tea being served by our hostess. Pinch me, I must be dreaming!

Next stop Prague!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

24 hours of Salzburg for 25 Euro

We had one more day in Salzburg. What to do? So many possibilities, and so little time. We had been introduced to the “Salzburg card” at the train station. 24 hours to visit as many tourist attractions as you can for one price, including all public transportation and a couple of ferry boats.

After a quick discussion and group vote, we decided this was a challenge we were ready to take on! We contemplated how many attractions we could manage to squeeze in (which depended on whether Marc and Doug could control their time in each museum). Team work was required to take the best advantage of the pass. Shall we pack a lunch? What time should we activate the pass to get the ideal 24 hour period? Could this be the pilot for a new reality show? Or at least a dry run for the Amazing Race?

We hit the ground running at 9:00, after our hearty hotel breakfast. We has great success and by 6:00 in the evening, we had visited the Dom Church – Taken the Hohensalzburg Fortress Cable Car up to, and visited the Hohensalzburg Fortress, and toured the grounds – We had taken a quick visit to the Catacombs before a more thorough visit to the Residenz Gallery of European paintings from the 16th-19th Century – Hopped on the Salzach Cruise, which dropped us at the Hellbrunn Palace and Trick Fountains, with a guided tour  – Took a bus back to town, which gave us just enough time to visit Mozart’s Residence Museum, before closing time.

Now – if you are expecting a detailed description of all of the places we visited – I am afraid you will be disappointed. Remembering all of the names of these places, was almost as exhausting as visiting them! And ditto for the photos. I also have to admit, for this post and all others to follow, that I am the kind of traveler that really appreciates the details and doesn't connect them necessarily to names and places. So – I can promise you images of the details that caught my eye. I will be sure to tell you what city they are in, but exactly what location, what century, what artist or which museum, may not be forthcoming!

Here you go. Lots of photos with no captions! This is our last day in Salzburg.  Many museums, many memories!

Four good friends, good red wine, and Mozart

We arrived mid day Monday in Salzburg, and easily walked from the train station to our hotel. We settled in and headed out to explore. Salzburg is Mozart’s birthplace, and a quick walk around town made it very clear, that they take this very seriously. The place of his birth is a museum, the house he lived in is a museum, there is a chocolate confection in his name, and his likeness can be seen everywhere!

We took it easy the first afternoon and evening here, and took a self-guided walking tour of the old town to familiarize ourselves with our surroundings. After inquiring about the best coffee shop in town, we ended up at café Tomaselli.

We have been very confused about what they call coffee here, and also to be honest with the quality of it. Doug and I (the only two coffee drinkers in our group) ended up with something between a Latte and an Americano heaped with whipped cream. Sounds really promising, but in fact, it was quite mediocre. It beat the coffee we had at the hotel’s complimentary coffee and cake, earlier that day, but let’s just say, the coffee has been less that spectacular thus far.

For our evening’s entertainment, we noticed that our hotel had a DVD library. Appropriately the movie “Amadeus” was available. We purchased a bottle of good red wine, sliced up the hearty loaf of bread we brought with us from Vienna, slathered it with butter (that we also carried with us from Vienna) and settled in, to learn about the man behind the museums!

The movie was great, the wine superb. The bread, magnificent. Four good friends enjoying it all together – priceless.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hundertwasser is to Vienna, what Gaudi is to Barcelona

Works by Friedensreich Hundertwasser

In 1975 (I think), I went to a traveling exhibit of the work of Friedensreich Hundertwasser with my mom and my aunty Irene, in Tel Aviv. We were all taken by his work and the awe that I felt then, never dissapated, even though I had never had the chance again to see his work in person. We all had a copy of the book from the exhibit and mom had bought a couple of other things in the gift shop, so I had reminders, around the house so to speak all these years.

On Tuesday as I prepared for our flight to Vienna, I Googled to find some things to do on our first day. One of the first items that came up in my search was an exhibit at the Museum Hundertwasser. "Wow", I thought. A chance to see another exhibit of his work in a museum that he designed ... what could be better than that!

And I was not disappointed. Not only was I able to see hundreds of his paintings/silk screens and woodblock prints, but I also learned that he was a stamp designer, and architect and a visionary ecologist. I immediately thought about Gaudi's architectural wonders in Barcelona and thought about how similar these two men were in their vision for an organic world. And maybe too, the fact that both have been misunderstood.

You can read about his biography here, his manifestos and texts here, and is view of the world here.

Hundertwasser House

Hundertwasser died in 2000, before actualizing all of his dreams for a better world, but he managed to leave behind ideas that are in the forefront in today's green architecture movement. I enjoyed reacquainting myself with this amazing human being and his inspiring paintings and view of the world.

Waldspirale (wooded spiral in english) which is colorfully painted with earth tones, is located in Darmstadt, Germany and was built in the 90's. It features 105 units, a green roof, an inner courtyard and playground, small artificial lake, 1000 unique windows and unique handles on every door.

Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Swedenplatzstrassefartgasse?

OK —I made that up — but not by much. It seems that every street name in Vienna has at least 20 characters. And they are impossible to pronounce or remember. All of the tourist city maps are unreadable. Why? Well, in my opinion, it is because it is a physical impossibility to fit all of these incredibly long street names onto a small map. Then add to that, the quirky (giggle inducing) word endings like Gasse and Fhart and Platz, and you simply can't concentrate long enough to find your way.

It has been a laugh fest since Doug and Devora arrived yesterday morning. We are quickly developing a language of our own consisting of all of the incredibly funny parts of words we see on the maps we can't read, and the street signs we can't pronounce. Add a beer or two to the mix and the hilarity escalates dramatically.

Between fits of laughter, we continue to move forward with our itinerary. Here are the highlights from Saturday.

Hanging out at the the local flea market
Bright and early Saturday morning we hit the weekly flea and food market, several blocks away from our apartments at Pension Sacher. We dined on local delicacies, sipped on lattes and perused the hundreds of stalls in the flea market. Doug, a flea market afficianado found and purchased a wonderful hand coloured print of the skyline of Vienna circa 1550, to add to his ever growing collection. The rest of us just marvelled at the people watching opportunities.


We took the subway to the train station and boarded a train for the nearby town of Melk, home to the Melk Abbey. We hiked up the hill to the Abbey and walked through the exhibits with Doug as our guide, reading from his guide book.

Melk Abbey details

From there we hoofed it down the hill and through the town to the ferry dock where we just managed to catch the last ferry of the day for a ride down the Danube, via Spitz, to the town of Krems, with views of vineyards  and churches along the way.
Ferry ride to Krems

Us taking a nap on the ferry captured by Devora :)

After a quick tour through Krems, we boarded the return train for Vienna, with pizza and a kilo of apricots in hand, for a picnic on the return trip. We arrived back in Vienna with little time to spare. A quick freshening up, and a hop on the subway to catch the opening concert of Gabi and Sophie's choir tour.

When we entered the Church one minute before the performance began, we were thrilled to see that it was standing room only! We managed to find seating just as the concert began. The performance was superb, and I can report that parents and godparents were gushing with pride!

We stopped for gelato on route back to the apartment, where our full day of activities ended with the compulsory pastry fix, and some final laughs. Not bad for day three!

As you can see we are having a Gasse and Platzing at every turn!