Friday, August 31, 2012

Munich -- Day 0

   Frankly not a lot to report today, so I'll keep it brief. We traveled from Vienna to Munich via railway, arriving in the city around 2pm. By the time we figured out how the city transit worked, got our outrageously expensive city passes (25 euro for 3 days), and navigated our way to the hotel, it was 3. We unpacked in our hotel room, which is a bit nicer than the room in Vienna, though still lacking in a kettle, much to my displeasure. (What's a guy gotta do for a cup of tea in the evening, huh?)
   Around 4:00 we left the hotel and figured out the way to the city center. Downtown Munich is pretty! I had pretty high standards set by Vienna, but the city center of Munich is quite charming, with the city hall and cathedral next to each other and all-mashed-together-building streets fanning out in all directions from there.
   We ate at the Spaten Guesthouse which is connected to the Munich Opera. Father had some veal sausages and I ordered the veal sweetbreads (which, I shall repeat to everyone, are *not* testicles. Look it up.) Unfortunately the kitchen or the waiter got my order wrong and I got...well to be honest I have no idea what they were aside from being ...patty shaped and made of what I think was minced veal. If they *were* sweetbreads, they did a miraculous job of disguising them as something entirely different.
   Tomorrow we have to be up bright and early to catch the tour we're taking of Ludwig's castles. It goes from 8:30am until 7:30pm that night -- an 11 hour tour, mostly because the castles aren't actually in Munich, they're in the Bavarian Alps. This tour will be the most expensive single thing we've done at 75 euro a piece, so I hope it's worth it.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Vienna -- Day 5

"Red Hair...Russian Fur Hat...quiet, reserved, attentive...always behind the scenes...'Of course, I'll throw you out if you don't pay'...'No saving seats!'...everybody's right hand man...dependability plus...future diplomat." That's the description next to the senior class picture of my father in the 1967 year book of the American International School in Vienna, and that was where we spent the first half of the day today -- visiting the campus of my dad's old high school. 
   We had hoped to have a walk around the campus and see the changes. What we got instead was a full private tour of the entire school from Denise, the alumni liason. She's a bright, cheerful, crazy-haired Turkish woman with a nice smile -- an alumni herself of the school from the 1980's. She and my father apparently shared the same German teacher, Herr Fischer, who is since retired but occasionally pops in for alumni reunions.
   Naturally, the school has changed quite a bit since 1967 -- there are no longer dorms, the gym has two levels, the theatre is being revamped. Because of a rather picky diplomat's demands, the school installed a perimeter fence and gates in the 1990s with barbed wire and everything (it *is* an American school, afterall.) The barbed-wire has since been removed, but the perimeter fence remains, and the gate guards are very snippity about taking pictures of the buildings. We still snuck a few in though. I wasn't about to drag my father halfway across the world to his old high-school and not get a few pictures in.
   All through the bus trip, the tour, and the return voyage, my dad would get glassy-eyed and disappear into his past with a wistful smile. That was, of course, the very reason I organized this part of the trip, so I'm glad for the pay-off.
   Next up, the classic tourist destination in the heart of Vienna, St. Stephan's Cathedral. It's massive, gothic to the hilt, beautiful, and dripping with Catholicism. We were even there for the midday mass, though we watched from a distance and only briefly. I took a few HDR shots that I sure hope come out well.
   I had it on the internets authority that a cafe near St. Stephan's has the best Apfelstrudel in the city, so we headed to the Café Hawelka to test the theory. This is the most authentic apfelstrudel experience we've had so far to be sure. It looked just like it does in all the wikipedia reference photos and tasted magnificent, so if you're ever in Vienna and want the real deal...Café Hawelka. Believe it.
   At this point, 5 days into Vienna, we'd extracted just about everything we had wanted from the city. We'd hit all the top tens, as it were. Still, it was only 2pm and I'd be damned if I was going to allow us to retire to the hotel room, so we did a little research and chose to hit up the Botanical Garden at Vienna University.
   It was a little tricky getting there, as there is no U-Bahn station nearby. I suppose I failed to mention this in earlier paragraphs, but the trip to and from dad's school went far more smoothly than any other transit experience to date. It figures, doesn't it? All this bloody technology and the written directions prevailed.
  Anyway, off the sidetrack. We did get to the botanical garden eventually. It's a big space with several sections dedicated to herbs, alpine plants, conifera, vegetables -- there's even a little bamboo patch that my father took a break to meditate near. (I got a totally bitchin' picture of it, too, but you'll have to settle for the crappy iphone pic I took for now.
  Alas, the garden seems like it had seen better days. Perhaps it's because the university has been out for the Summer and is only just now returning, coupled with the tremendous heat this year, but many of non-conifers were wilted and brown when we visited. The herb gardens still had some life in them, though even they had casualties. Still, it was a nice walk and a nice change of pace from the city. Boy was it hot, though -- 86 today, and air conditioning is *not* prevalent here, especially on the mass transit lines.
   After a few hours of not eating and lengthy connections between tram and subway, I was intent on a particular restaurant that was on the north side of town. It was a little out of the way, but known for its Viennese offal dishes. Boy do I loves me some offal. Unfortunately, after a good half hour journey to the restaurant, which the internet swore to me was open from noon until 11pm every day, we found the place completely closed. It seems that the restaurantier had gone on a summer holiday for a week.
   I was pretty broken up about it, I have to say. We found another restaurant nearby that seemed ok, and I had another non-German meal of housemade pasta with trout caviar, anchovies and lime in a light cream sauce. It was quite good, really. I was just really looking forward to some heart..or...brain...or...lungs. Don't judge me.
   Tomorrow we leave for Munich around 10am. The train ride takes about 4 hours which will put us in the city around 2pm. We're staying in an area called Harra, at a highly recommended hotel called the K+K. We'll probably just get a sense for the downtown area and find a place to eat. The next day we'll take a tour of the castles outside Munich -- those belonging to Mad King Ludwig.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Vienna -- Day 4

   Today was spent almost entirely in three locations -- the art history museum of Vienna, the Lower Belvedere Palace, and the Naschmarkt. We arrived at the museum a little too early, so we took a stroll through the grounds of Hopfburg again, stopping briefly at the National Library to have a look at the foyer. I got a pretty good hdr iphone shot of it, so I thought I'd share.
   The art history museum is a massive collection of paintings from French, Italian and Dutch masters including several Brügels and Dürer works as well as a very formitable collection of ancient artifacts from Egypt, Sumeria, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. We went through 2 of the 3 branches of the museum. The third was closed for the installation of a new exhibition that begins in January.
   Lower Belvedere is the smaller of the two palaces on the Belvedere grounds, literally lower than its counterpart at the end of the gardens. Here is housed a large private garden, two collections of artwork, an orangerie, a marble hall, a marble gallery, a "grotesque" room. and a room that Maria Theresa renovated into a "golden cabinet." The two artwork collections currently on display are a showcase of Artwork from Austrian artists from across eastern Europe and Asia, and a comprehensive collection of the work of Carl Schuch, a little known but important artist that preempted modernism with his stylish brushwork and use of color in still life and landscape.
   The architectural contrasts in Lower Belvedere showed the jump from Neo-romanticism in the marble gallery and hall, to the vain Rococo of Maria Theresa's "golden cabinet" room.
    Lower Belvedere also apparently houses a Treasury with more regalia from the Hapsburg empire, but it is open from (and I kid you not) 10am to 12pm Wednesday through Sunday. Two hours a day. We missed the window by half an hour.
   Last on our list of locales today was the Naschtmarkt, an international food market of which my father has fond memories from the years in which he lived in Vienna. The market stretches across two city blocks just below the city centre, and houses a plethora of foodstalls, cafes, restaurants, butchers, vegetable and fruit vendors. We took the opportunity to eat something entirely *not* German or Austrian for a change and my father gave me carte-blanche to pick the restaurant. Unfortunately, with the amount of choices, I was decision-paralyzed for a good half an hour, walking through all the restaurants and snatching up menus trying to figure out what I wanted.
   In the end, I picked a Vietnamese restaurant. It was a welcomed change of pace from our food adventures thus far. I had a fish dish with tamarind sauce served with rice and a carrot salad. Dad had a chicken dish of some kind with sauteed veggies. The reason I picked the fish dish was because the fish was a name I had never seen before, but I'll be damned if I can remember what it was now, and I forgot to write it down. The meal finished with a warm coconut soup with bananas and tapica that was the surprise of the day. Really delicious. I hope I can find it again somewhere.
   After NaschtMarkt we detoured to the Westbahnhof train station to reserve our seats to Munich on Friday. We're scheduled for two days in Munich, which gives us three days afterward before we have to be back in Berlin. We were told by some restaurant buddies in Berlin that we should try to go to Leipzig, so we may do that or try to go to Heidelburg. The options are still open.
   Tomorrow we take a trip to my father's old high school located at the edge of the Vienna woods. Considering our penchant for getting lost on transit systems, I worry for us being able to get there, but dad has pretty detailed instructions and I am *not* going to try and adjust them with my google maps skills this time. We're in his hands.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Day Trip -- Bratislava

   Today was the day we scheduled to take a day trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, which is a mere hour east of Vienna just over the Danube. Since Slovakia joined the Eurozone, it has done rather well by Vienna's popularity as a tourist destination, and has started to become a bit of a destination in its own right, albeit not a *large* destination. What it lacks in size, it makes up for by being at once similar to Vienna, or the way Vienna was 20 years ago, and being different. Culinarily they have pushed their Hungarian heritage to the fore. Their signs are all in Slovak, with Austrian-German and English being secondary, if they used at all.
   Neither my father, nor I knew much about the history of Bratislava before we stepped off the train and into the city. The first thing we did was took a bus into the pedestrian district at the city center, which is loomed over by Bratislava's own castle-on-a-hill. Slovakia is another country who's history is fragmented by Soviet occupation, unification and division, and the whim of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was a major coronation site during the Hapsburg dynasty, joined with the Czech republic in 1993, and only became its own soverign state again 18 years ago.
   Bratislava is a charming little city filled with the same sort of architectural diversity as old-town Vienna, along with a few Soviet architectural scars and a monstrosity of a 1960's neo-futurist bridge across the Danube. We started things off with an hour-long tour around the old town and the castle to familiarize ourselves with the area and history. Sites of interest included the state opera house, the president's house (still in use), the castle (created as a fortress but quickly convered by the Hapsburgs into a getaway castle), St. Martin's Cathedral (a coronation venue of Hugarian royalty) and Pálffy Palace.
   Afterward we spent a few hours wandering around the town center pedestrian district stopping at various plazas which, in Slovak, are called Námestie. Then we stopped in a cafe for our inevitable "Ryan eats his way through the city" stop. Here, my father had a bowl of a creamy garlic soup in a bread bowl and I had a local cabbage soup with bits of ham and *oodles* of Hungarian paprika. Then my father went for some potatoe dumplings loaded with smoked meat, and I had another local speciality called 'halusky s bryndzou' which are potatoe gnocchi with a sheeps milk cheese and bacon. The sheeps cheese was very salty, and coupled with the bacon, made this dish very full-bodied and a little too salty for my taste. Still, it was a unique experience and it was washed down with a pint of Zlaty Bazant, a Slovak beer.
   The other crucial thing I wanted to have a try of in Slovakia is a juniper brandy called Borovička, but it turned out the only way I was going to get a taste was to buy a bottle of it at a local corner market...and I mean a full 750ml bottle, not the airplane-sized portions. But it was only 9 euro, and if we can't manage to finish that bottle in the next 7 days, we'll probably make some Berlin hotel cleaning staff very happy by letting them finish the rest. On the flavor -- it's not gin. When you think juniper berries, I know that's where the mind wants to go, but this is a brandy flavored exclusively with juniper. It's slightly sweet and very herbal and not at all what I would describe gin to taste like.
   Around 5pm we took the hour-and-change train back to Vienna. No one, between Germany, Austria, and Slovakia, has ever asked to see our passports, by the way. I guess during the tourist season it's not worth the hassle, or there are border arrangements between all the countries to not bother, much like we used to have between Canada and the US.
   We closed off the day with some pastry from a bakery and a snifter (ok, a hotel water glass) of Borovička, and we'll be resting up for tomorrows adventures. Tomorrow it's the Art History museum, which we've read is far too large to actually complete in a day, so we'll just have to see. Then, we'll see the lower Belvedere Palace and the wander the Naschmarkt. Thanks for reading, everyone, and thanks for the concern about my health. I'm pretty much recovered now from the chest cold other than a few hacks every now and then. The knee is still acting up; I'll have that looked at when I get back to the States.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Vienna -- Day 3

   A packed schedule today. We started out with breakfast downstairs again at the hotel. It's free and they have enough good stuff to keep us energized until I make dad have lunch (he's never hungry by then for some reason.) We left the hotel and headed for the Westbahnhof train station to pick up our train tickets to Bratislava for tomorrow. The tickets are, get this, 15 euro per person, round trip. I sure am glad I didn't go for the 3-country Eurail pass, as this was a much cheaper option. 
   Next, we were headed to Hopfburg Palace, and I decided to trust google maps instead of my father's written instructions from the guidebook on how to get there -- silly me. The building it took us to was in no way a palace. It *did* however, have some very unique faces festooned on the exterior walls, so I took a few shots of those. I never did figure out what the hell that building was, but after walking the entire perimeter and finding no public entrance, we decided something was amiss and followed dad's instructions to the actual palace.
   The only thing we were really keen on visitng at Hapfburg was the Royal Treasury, which houses the crown jewels of the Hopsburg royal family. This is, dare I say, a priceless collection. Many millions of dollars worth of diamond and ruby encrusted crowns, solid gold serving trays and shimmer samite regalia are housed behind the modern vault doors that protect the treasury. The most impressive pieces to me were a huge Turkish Opal and a sword of which the hilt and the scabbard were bored from a narwhal tusk, but just about every piece was worthy of our attention.
   From a vault filled with precious, life-affirming treasure, we decided to get a little perspective by heading to the royal crypt down the road. On the way there, however, we ran into a bit of a food and beer festival and, as it was almost noon, figured a nice refreshing beer would be in order. We had that and bought a small bottle of apricot schnapps (a new personal favorite) for later.
   Then still further along the way to the crypt we happened to pass by the Hotel Sacher, home of the world-famous Sachertorte, a chocolate and apricot cake that was high on my list of "things I have to try" in Vienna. Dad didn't want lunch, but I wasn't going to let that stop me from trying this thing out, so we sat down and ordered up a slice (and then another, after my father saw one pass by), a coffee for me, and a still water for him. Yet again, the Viennese surprise me with their ability to take something that I would find too overpowering (a big hunk of chocolate cake covered in ganache) and make it into something sweet enough, but not *too* sweet to enjoy.
   Finally after an hour of distractions, we made it to the royal crypt. The caskets in the crypt range from the fairly humble (eg: Emperor Leopold I) to the madly decadent (eg: Maria Theresa), They are all similarly styled bronze, copper and alloys of each, some of which are ornately decorated with cherubs, veiled mourners, skulls, eagles and armor. There are 9 chambers housing the caskets, but the entire journey through the Hapsburg family line takes no more than an hour or so unless you're really pouring over the details.
   The last thing on the list for the day was Schönnbrunn Palace, a UNISECO site and probably the most famous landmark in Vienna. Schönnbrunn was a summer residence for the Hapsburg family, and though the interior is impressive, more impressive are the enormous gardens of the palace, which are home to: a formal english rose garden, a maze, a zoo, an alpine garden, 32 pieces of statuary, a palm house, an orange grove, a french garden and a bunch of other stuff I probably missed. The palace grounds are an all day, free of charge amble, and amble we did, through several of the gardens and up the tremendous hill to the gloriette.
   By the time we were done with our walk, it was 5:00 and we hadn't even found the maze or the orange grove. We were exhausted however, so it was back to town, where I did a little research to find "the best Wiener schnitzel in Vienna" which according to many reviews on Trip Advisor was at a guesthaus off of Stephansplatz called Guesthaus Pöschl. One thing was for certain, the schnitzel there is humongous, crisp and made from veal. I had all kinds of intentions of ordering a dessert that was also on my list, but after eating that thing, there was no way I was going to have dessert as well. 
   With all the trams and connections and station switches and walking, it was about 7:00 by the time we left the Guesthaus and we were feeling the walking and the sun from Schönbrunn, so we wound up the day. We have decided to stay a sixth night in Vienna though before we head to Munich on Friday. Tomorrow, after breakfast, we'll hop the train to Bratislava (they leave and return every hour until 7pm). Neither of us know much about the city, so the first thing we'll probably do is get a bus tour just to familiarize ourselves with the area. Then I plan to eat my way through the rest of the town before headed back to Vienna in the evening.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Vienna -- Day 2

   Sunday, the day for rest -- yeah right. We got up at 8:30 and went downstairs to the hotel breakfast...nook. We supped on coffees from the far east and yoghurts from presumably closer to town, speck bacon and bread and all that good stuff. We ended up passing out early yesterday and skipped dinner entirely (probably for the best considering how much we'd been stuffing our faces with pork products and potatoes). We were understandably voracious at breakfast.
   Immediately following our bacchanalian breaking of fast we took the tram to Karlzplatz in the center of town. Ok, first things first. Vienna is beautiful. Salzburg was nice and the fortress is different and intriguing, but Vienna is just a lovely town with exquisit architecture, statuary at every turn, museums every few blocks, palaces, art, history, and culture.
   The first stop we made was to the Museum quarter, which is a large block of the city dedicated to several art museums. There's the Modern Art Museum, the Leopold Gallery, the Art History museum and several other smaller outcroppings thereof. We had jumped the gun a little bit, as the museum quarter doesn't actually open until 10:00 and we arrived at 9:15, so we walked across the street to the Maria-Theresien Platz, which is flanked by the Natural History museum and the Art History Museum. Both of those twin-buildings are nice to look at but both are also half-scaffolded for construction. Still, you can sort of squint and pretend.
   At 10:00 we returned to the ticket office, got our 2-museum passes and went into the Modern Art Museum. My father has had a craving for viewing some more modern exhibits, so we decided to skip the art history museum (hey, sometimes you have to take one for the team.) I have to say, and I'm sure my father will read this some day...but I thought most of the modern art museum was disappointing. There are a few examples of modern art I find interesting, particularly a few works by Warhol that were fascinating to see in real life, but on the whole, I find modern art to be pretentious and self-serving, and this museum didn't help improve on that position.
   There were 3 exhibits -- the first was an exhibit on modern fashion which held a few moments of interest, including a clearly very recent piece with the words "Freedom to Pussy Riot" plastered over a dress. For the unitiated, the awkwardly named "Pussy Riot" is a Russian all-female punk band, several members of which were recently arrested by the Russian government for "hooliganism", which essentially means they were bad mouthing Putin and the Russian Orthodoxy. The story has brought up a lot of talk about freedom of speech in Europe and the former Soviet states.
   The second exhibit was a multimedia installation by David Ter-Oganyan on social issues. The installation consisted of several projectors cycling through extremely crude drawings that looked like they were made either on smart phones or in Microsoft Paint. There was an electronic music soundtrack playing over the flashing images. It...sorry, it just seemed like a bunch of crap to me. I could see the political commentary he was trying to make, but it was hard to look past the absolutely lack of subtlety or structure or style.
   The third exhibit was the most polarizing for me. It was an exhibit on 60's pop art, some of which I find interesting (there was a particularly good Lichtenstein, a fantastic Jaspar Johns, and a few Warhols that were great), and some of which I find to be total rubbish (anything that David Hockney ever touched.) I'm not disappointed that we went there for the few gems of the collection, but ugh...the rest.
  After we finished up there, we walked 500 meters south to the Leopold Museum. Here there are two permanent exhibitions and two transient exhibitions. The two permanent exhibitions are the metamorphosis of the artist Egon Schiele from his early work to immediately before his death, and a collection of Viennese art from the early 1900s. The Schiele exhibit is really good. He was a great artist, a typically tormented soul and a formitable student of Gustav Klimt.
   The Vienna in the 1900 exhibition was difficult to pin down, mostly because striding atop the exhibit currently is an absolutely splendid exhibition of the work of Gustav Kilmt, Vienna's most prodigious 20th century painter. This collection was breathtaking, particularly the large reproductions of his "Faculty Paintings" which were originally created for the ceiling of the University of Vienna (to many outraged cries of indecency and pornography.) The highlight of this particular exhibit was Klimt's masterpiece "Death and Life".
   After slaking our thirst for art museums, we decided to appease our appetites for palaces with a trip down the road to the Schloss Belvedere. Belvedere is acutally two palaces with a large lawn betwixt them -- The Upper Belvedere and the Lower Belvedere. We procured a ticket to both, but we only managed to see Upper Belvedere today. Lower Belvedere will have to wait until Wednesday, as the entire palace is closed to the public on Monday and Tuesday.
   Upper Belvedere has been turned almost entirely into a large art gallery. Each of its wings are dedicated to particular time period from Medieval to early 20th century. There is a large marble foyer and grand staircase leading up to an opulent dark marble hall. A lot of the accenture is heavily gilded in typically Hapsburgian fashion.
   Aside from the great examples of both Baroque and Romantic painting, my favorite exhibition in the Belvedere hides within a small atrium on the second floor -- it's a circle of busts by the sculptor Franz Xavier Messerschmidt depicting various comically posed faces in the throes of emotion. The animator in me finds them to be great examples of extreme facial posing. The eleven year old in me finds them amusing because it looks like a ring of old men trying desperately to use the toilet in the middle of an extravagant palace atrium.
   The other spectacular jewel in the crown of the Belvedere's collection is *its* collection of Klimt paintings, including his most famous work "The Kiss" and my personal favorite of his "Judith." Both are amazing in person. "The Kiss" practically glows with inner light and the true gold gilding on "Judith" can only be really experienced in the flesh. On top of the terrific collection of paintings at the palace, quite literally, are the ceiling frescos, one of which (the aptly-named "painted" room) is a great example of false perspective.
   By the time we finished Upper Belvedere we needed to stop and refuel. We took the tram back to the Opera House -- that is to say we would have taken the tram to the opera house, but the tram before us broke down on the tracks halfway there and we had to hoof it the rest of the way. We stopped at the Cafe Schwarzenberg and, lamenting the slow service, had a beer and food. Dad had a Wienerschnitzel and I had Tafelspitz. Tafelspitz is boiled beef, and as unappetizing as that sounds, it's really quite good. It has the texture and even the flavor of prime rib and was served with, as usual, a warm potatoe salad and some root veggies, along with a nice apple-horseradish sauce and a dill-cream sauce.
   Afterwards, just so I could check it off my 'list of things I have to eat' mind you, I had Bucht'ln -- a sweet yeast roll filled with apricot preserves and served with vanilla custard. So far, it's been my favorite dessert, though I'll grant you I haven't tried many desserts yet.
   By the time we finished dinner it was around 7:30 and Dad was feeling the walks. I must admit my knee had tricked out a few times today and I was feeling the walks too, though my chest cold has subsided quite a bit. That was an unexpected blessing as it has persisted on raining all day and I was worried that the inclimate weather would slow my recovery.
   So we returned to the hotel room and we'll rest up for tomorrow.  Tomorrow we're going to the famous Schoneburg Palace, the Hopfburg, the Vienna Treasury, St. Stefan's Cathedral, the archeological museum and the Hapsburg royal crypt, all of which lie within a block of each other. It should be a pretty full day.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Salzburg (and Vienna) -- Day 3

   I woke up this morning with much less of a cough and much more chest congestion. I really hope this isn't leading to something really crappy like a sinus and/or lung infection, not only because I'm not even half-way through this trip, but also because I don't want to have to deal with the rigamaroll of a doctor's visit and insurance claims from another country.
   At any rate, today was our last day in Salzburg and though we decided to forego a trip to the salt mine, we did visit the Mozart Birth House and the Mozart Family residence downtown, both of which were pretty good experiences. The Birth House probably had more information, while the family residence had a nice audio tour with lots of accompanying Mozart music. 
   We had lunch at the Mozart cafe across the street. Dad had a goulash soup and I had goulash as well, but mine was more traditional with the chunks of meat, knodel, a gherkin and a fried egg just for the hell of it.
   Afterward we strolled around a drizzly downtown Salzburg until about 3:30, then decided it was time to hop on a train to Vienna. The high-speed line from Salzburg to Vienna is a 3 hour trip and the train itself was really nice, with power outlets at the seats and all that good stuff.
   I'm starting to wonder if my ability to get completely bloody lost is some sort of magical power. When we arrived in Vienna Westbahnhof we proceeded to take the U-Bahn to Meidling station where I *thought* it would be a simple matter of getting on the tram and going three stations to our hotel. Well, sometimes they say that given enough time, you can talk yourself out of anything, and that's what I had done by the time we figured out where the tram station was even located in relation to the U-Bahn.
   We skipped the first tram headed towards our hotel because I wasn't convinced it was the right one, then when I finally deciphered the cryptic tram map and decided it *was* going in the right direction, one station in I was convinced the tram was headed too far north and that we clearly missed some sort of connection. Luckily a couple next to us overheard my frantic babbling and in English explained to me that we were, in fact, going the right way and that the next stop in fact was our station.
   They goodness for cool-headed people.
   The hotel we are staying at was a little bit of a risk on my part. For the 5 nights we are staying in Vienna, it came to a grand total of 350 Euros, which by Vienna standards is damn cheap. It's also very near the train station -- it's across the street in fact -- but I read a lot of reviews of this place and everyone said it was "nicer than it seemed to be" and the train station noise really wasn't bad...and that they had a good organic breakfast in the morning and free wifi.
   So far, they seem to be right on all accounts. The exterior of the hotel isn't much to look at, but the room is fine. It's clean, and pretty quiet, the hotel staff is amicable and there *is* free unlimited wifi. Since the tram station is right next door, everything is close by, too. It's only a few stops to the Opera House and subsequently the Ringstrasse, to where a lot of things worth checking out in Vienna are near.
  Tonight, however, is probably a wash. We'll find a place to eat nearby and take it easy. Dad's tired and I'm trying to fight off this chest thing. Tonight is one of those off-nights on the travel itenary. So be it. If I'm worse tomorrow, we'll probably be forced to go to a doctor and get me an antibiotic script, but we will cross that bridge if and when we come to it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Salzburg -- Day 2

   Day 2. We wake to find it raining again. Luckily the hotel has spare umbrellas and let us borrow them for the day. The first thing we do is walk down to the river. On the way, we stop at a local cafe to get a little 
breakfast. Dad goes for the apfelstrudel; I decide on a croissant-like bread filled with ground hazelnuts and a little round donut. Of course, we both get coffees.
The first adventure of the day is a trip up the funicular to the large fortress at the center of Salzburg -- the Festung Hohenssalzburg.
   The funicular is jammed with people. Maximum load 50? Get 50 people on there, damn it.  As a result of the sardine treatment, it isn't the most relaxing ride ever.  The view from the fortress, however, is tremendous, and I won't ruin it with crappy pictures from my iphone. We did the audio tour, saw the sights, visited the multiple museums and the state rooms. I even decided to give in to the temptation to pay a euro to shoot 3 crossbow bolts at a target at 10 meters. I got 2 kill shots.  Take that, target. If you had been an invading french soldier...  you'd have been 10 meters away from me and chances are you wouldn't have been alone.
   It is about 1:00 when we leave the Hohensalzburg and start to head back to town. During the adventure in the fortress, I knelt to take a picture and twisted the hell out of my left knee. Perhaps the better word is *re-twisted* as it reawakened a very similar pain to the time when my car attacked me a few months ago by kicking off the intrusion alarm while I was getting out of the vehicle. Anyway, it's not a nice sort of pain. It's the kind of pain that startles you when you step incorrectly by how sharp it is...not the best thing to happen 4 days into a 15 day trip that consists of lots and lots of walking. I also contracted a pretty nasty cough at some point during the day, but I refuse to believe it had anything to do with walking in the rain the previous evening.
   We sto at a beerhall for lunch. There I have the first of the two dishes I wanted to try in Salzburg: Salzburg Nockerln. It is spaetzl with local cheese, covered in caramelized onions and herbs. It is savory and certainly filling, but I can't help but feel like it's glorified mac-and-cheese. I also have an herb bier, which was very nice and only available in the summer.
   Post-lunch we go to the Salzburg museum, "rated best museum in Europe for 2009", as it reminds us in the brochure. There are 2 permanent exhibits there: sacred art (a display of church artifacts  and paintings, mostly Catholic),  and exhibit entitled "the Myth of Salzburg" which, somewhat ironically, is a frank eexhibit about Salzburg's popularity as a tourist attraction since the Arch-bishops of the church decided to make it their playground. The exhibit feels a little bitter, actually. It makes clear the point that Salzburg was its own independant city-state before being claimed first by Bavaria, then by Austria, and how all the annexing has affected their economy quite negatively over the years. It then goes on to a pretty cool interactive exhibit that talks about how each Arch-bishop affected the city through two actors on LCD screens below paintings of each arch-bishop, arguing their individual influences.
   Next we return to the area around the cathedral where there is a huge romanesque fountain and several common squares. The Salzburg festival is just winding down here, so the public plazas are still filled with tourists, street performers, artists, et al. We go to another coffee shop. It's hot and I decided to have an iced coffee while dad goes for an apfelsoft, which is a sort of self-mixed soda with slightly fermented apple juice and fizzy water and sugar. We then walk around the shopping streets for a while, just looking at window displays, then head back to the hotel for a late afternoon break.
   After the heat has diminished a bit, its out again, this time to the north side of the river front, where we decide to have dinner. I have pike with butter sauce and a green salad (which believe it or not was my *second* salad in the same day, an amazing feat for Germano-Austria.) Pike is very flavorful. I had never tried it before and after doing so, I wish it were more readily available in the states.
  At this point there is only one thing left on my "things I have to eat"  list for Salzburg, and they have it here. It's called Salzburg Nockerln and you have to order it *before* your meal so the kitchens have time to prepare it. It's best described as a feather-light cream cheese souffle with a sour berry compote. It says it feeds 2 people, but I assume that means 2 people that haven't eaten anything else that day because it's monstrous. Oh, and also delicious.
    By now the sun is down and we're both exhausted, so back to the hotel to do some reading and write thiis blog post. Tomorrow we go to the Mozart House and possibly a few other attractions, then take a 3 hour train to Vienna where we will spend the next 5 days. Once more into the breach!

Salzburg -- Day 1

  It is not entirely fair to say that we've spent 2 days in Salzburg, when Day 1 was really almost entirely spent on trains and buses. The trip from Berlin to Salzburg started for us at 5:30 in the morning, when we woke up and took the S-Bahn to the Berlin Hauptbahnhof. We waited there for about half an hour for the high-speed train from Berlin to Munich. The train was fast, but the Shinkansen it was not. We made several local stops along the way, and rail delays made the trip that was *supposed* to be 6 hours, more like 7. It was a comfortable trip though, as we have first class train tickets thanks to yours truly. The biggest issue with being an hour late to Munich was that we summarily missed our connection to Salzburg. This was not a huge problem, as there are several trains from Munich to Salzburg leaving all the time. We had to wait an extra 20 minutes but the more noteworthy was that the local line that we ended up taking had a broken air conditioning unit and it is pretty damn hot in this part of Europe right now -- it gets up into the high 80's every day and most of the smaller venues like restaurants don't have air. Blessedly most of them also have outdoor seating so it's usually not a big deal unless it's very crowded.
   We did eventually arrive in Salzburg and decided to catch a bus to the hotel. This may be news to some people, but I am absolutely *horrendous* at directions, and I got that flaw from my father, who happens to be the only other person that's on this trip with me. We got the right bus...going the wrong way. Of course, we didn't realize that until about 15 minutes into the trip. (The buses also have no air conditioning, and these backpacks don't help with the sweat factor.) 
  We got off, waited 15 minutes for a bus going in the right direction, corrected course, and were on our way to the hotel when the bus, which runs along power-supplying cables over the road, managed to shake loose one of its power connections. The bus driver had to stop and use a big metal crook to get the connector back on. Good story, but we were totally destroyed at this point from the train ride and really wanted to get to the hotel.
  45 minutes after our initial snafu with the bus direction, we were back at the train station where we started, and then on to the hotel. Coincidentally, we are staying at another Holiday Inn. It was the cheapest, centrally located hotel I could find in Salzburg. It is definitely not as nice as the Berlin Holiday Inn, but still servicable. Total travel time to get here? Well if you count from 6:00 when we left the Berlin hotel, it was 12 hours door to door. Longer than the flight to get from New Jersey to Berlin by far and we have to do it *again* on the way back. Hopefully we won't hit as many snags...
   We rested up a little then headed to, translated, the "Wild Man Guest House" for dinner. Here we each dined on a "Farmer's Platter." Apparently farmers eat well, or at the very least eat a great deal of meat. Before this trip, the Executive Producer at my office said that when he went to Germany and Austria he thought he was going to die of gout -- ok, I get it now, Ben. 
   But I couldn't leave it at just the Farmer's platter. Oh no. One of the desserts I'd been dying to try is called Kaiserschmarnn which means the Kaiser's...schmarnn. 
I dunno. Anyway, it's a type of fluffy, pan-fried sweet dough torn into bits and served with powdered sugar and plum preserves. It was terrific. I may just have to get that one again before I go. I may just.     
   We walked back to the hotel, over the Salzach river, past the  Hohensalzburg Fortress...and then it started to rain. It was big, unreasonable rain, and naturally, we had left our rain gear in the hotel room when we left for dinner -- a sensible place to leave rain gear. But again, we were tired, and I wasn't about to sit under an awning and hope that the rain would stop, so we walked it. I don't think my father has experienced walking a mile in the rain in a while. I hadn't. It reminded me of hiking part of the Apalachian Trail when I was a kid, actually. Except with more...urbana.
   When we finally got back to the hotel, soaked to the bone, i wasn't going to go back to that hotel room without a stiff drink -- to warm the spirit, mind you. The hotel has a little bar, so I got us a pair of schnapps. It's a local area schnapps called marillenschnapps and it was pure heaven. Really great. I had always associated the word "schnapps" with the cloying, super-sweet cheap stuff you find in American liquor stores. This was nothing like that. It was mildly sweet, very strong, and with just a little fruit flavor. I think it is pear, but I haven't looked it up yet.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Berlin -- Day 2

We started off the day well. We woke up around 8:30, much to my surprise. I thought we were going to be up at some madly early time. The hotel was serving breakfast and it looked like a nice spread, so we had breakfast there. I got my first taste of quark, which is a mild spreadable cream cheese, and had a boiled egg, toast, some smoked salmon and other little things.

Then we took the S-Bahn to Hauptbahnhof and reserved our seats on the train. We've decided to go directly to Salzburg and we'll hit Munich on the way back. All good and well. After getting confused by the strange numbering system, we figured out how to take the U-Bahn to the Brandenburg Gate, which is a memorial of the division of East and West Berlin done in a neo-classical style. It's large and impressive, with golden statues annointing the top and freizes on the sides depicting various greek-heroic figures in struggle. There is a narrow brick outline on the ground on the west side of the gate that represents the previous location of the Berlin wall. People ride their bikes across it and otherwise pay it little mind while they pose for pictures with the gate itself. There were also several people on the west side of the gate dressed in the uniforms of British, American and German troops of the time.

We then turned to the west and set our sights on the Victory Tower, which is a huge memorial to the reunification that sits across the Tiergarden Park along the 'Strasse des 17th of June'. We decided to bravely stroll the perimeter and paths of the Tiergarden, which promised canopied walks, oak trees and statuary. All going good, so far. The walk was long, but we saw sculptures of Goethe and Wagner and Prince Wilhelm. 

   We then walked along the southern edge of the park and saw many of the global embassies. Particularly attractive was the new Turkish Embassy, and the Saudi Arabian building also impressed. After taking some photos of the enormous Victory tower, topped with the gold statue of the goddess Victoria, we hit our first snag of the day. The get-on-get-off tour bus we decided to use, though extremely popular with the tourists, has a small flaw -- there is no indication by the road where the bus is going to stop. And with a ring-road like the one surrounding the Victory Tower, trying to figure out how to get the drivers to stop to let you on is a challenge at best. 

   To cut the story short, after 3 busses passed us because we weren't standing in the right 5 feet of unmarked area, we decided to slough off the idea altogether and just take a city bus where we needed to go. We found a stop, located the line we needed, and promptly discovered that the line doesn't start operating until after 1:00 pm. It was 12:00. We weren't to wait that long. Father spotted a train going down a nearby cross street, so we decided to follow the beast to its lair. Eventually it took us to a U-Bahn station, but we would have to make 2 connections to get to our destionation. So be it. Oh. oops. No that wasn't the staircase we needed to go down. This staircase is for the train going to other way on this line. You need to go up the stairs, turn left, then go down another set of stairs to get to the train on that line leading east. Of course. Signs? Anyone? You put them on things and they help people know where to go.

   Connection made. Destination reached. Only about 2 hours later than we had initially expected, but there we were, the Jewish History Museum in Kreuzberg. Having walked quite a bit and consumed all my water by this point, we decided to stop in to the connected cafe for some jewish snacks. My father and I both had creme of zuchini soup, and i had a salad plate with olives, carrot salad, tomatoes, tuna caprese and so forth. I was pretty hungry, so I failed to take a picture of that one.  

     We then spent the next 2 or 3 hours wandering through the guided path of the Jewish Museum. The museum was constructed by architect Daniel Libeskind to be an unusually architectural space. Angles and lines do not line up properly, Corrodors shoot off with promise and end in nothing. There are sections of the floor that are designed at strange angles to give the onlooker and sense of disorientation. Within the museum space there are areas called "voids" that are purposefully empty spaces. One of the voids is walkable, but in order to enter it, you have to step through a sea of abstracted iron faces looking up at you.

The more traditional part of the museum is a maze of exhibits through which you follow a dotted line and use an ipod tuned to your language to find out information about certain exhibits. The whole museum talks about the jewish people from the very begginings,  focuses quite a lot on the time just before WWI and during WWII, and spends very little time talking about the actual atrocities of the holocost itself. The holocost exhibit is there, but it is more like an uncomfortable gap in a history lesson about the spirit of culture of the Ashkenazi. The museum is not small. The entrance building seems simple enough, but to reach the real museum, you have to tread down a dark flight of stairs into an underground passageway where the architect has created his "Arcs" piece. There are 3: The Arc of the Holocost, The Arc of Exile and the Arc of Unity. The Arc of Holocost leads to a dead end, and a heavy iron door. When you go into the room, it is a dark, unventilated stone tower, Triangular in form, with a single slit of light at the top as the only illumination. Very eerie.

The Arc of Exile leads the walker to the Garden of Exile, which is a series of columns filled with dirt and topped with chestnut trees. Observers are encouraged to walk between the tall towers and feel the disorientation and nausea of the space, walking at a slight sloped angle through perfectly symmetrical columns.

The arc of Unity brings you into the main exhibit hall, were one is innudated with thousands of artifacts, interactive installations, and datasheets talking about life in Judaism through the years.

It was an information overload for sure, and after our debaucle at the Victory Tower earlier, and the 3 hour walk through the museum, we had to take a break. We took a few exchanges on the U back to Alexanderplatz and went back to the hotel room for a powernap.

By the time we got up it was 6:30. Dinner was calling. I had found a place on the internet that people we saying good things about called Lebensmittel in Mitte. Indeed we had tried to go there the night before, but it was full so they couldn't take us. Today, we got in, and spent the first few minutes of our beer-drinking in the company a pair of italian cousins who were just back from a trip to Scandinavia. They loved it, said it was extremely expensive but beautiful and fun. She was a reporter, and he is a photographer, and they travel around for business and pleasure. I want that life.

They were finished their meal when we sat down, so quickly they said their goodbyes and another couple sat down next to us. What luck that we were getting people that spoke English so well. This couple was a fashion designer and her photographer boyfriend, and father talked and talked with them about just about everything. The differences between America and Germany from poitical, medical, cultural and social angles The lady, Paula, runs a fashion consulting company and travels a lot between New York and Berlin, so she gaves us a good comparative viewpoint. We talked for a little under 3 hours.

The food, which my father largely ignored for wont of conversation, was very nice. Done in a modern style. I had slices of venison with a red wine reduction and a mushroom ragout with oven baked dumplings, my father had pork cut from the shank with potatoes and kraut. He drank a Pilsner and I tried the heffeweissen.

I admit, we didn't get to see as much of Berlin's art museums as I had hoped to. There's a lot of good stuff here, but Berlin was never a priority city on this trip. It was an affordable access point to Germany, and another notch on the belt. But I do find Berlin to be fascinating. The people are young, they want their city to grow into something great and even though they've got some work to do, I have hope that they can pull it all together at the velocity they are going.

Tomorrow we have an early train (6:40) to Salzburg. First class tickets so hopefully that makes a difference. By coincidence, staying at *another* Holiday Inn there. It seemed like the nicest rooms for the best price. I wonder if the train will have wifi access....gotta have something to do besides look at the beautiful German countryside rolling by for 9 hours...or *do* I?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Berlin -- Day 1

Today was our first day in Berlin. We arrived at Tegel airport, which is in the process of being replaced by the much nicer Brandenburg Airport. After getting a few Berlin Welcome! Tickets which give us 2 full days of all-you-can-ride rail and bus access, we grabbed a shuttle to Hauptbahnhof, the central train station, and from there took the rail line to Alexanderplatz, named in honor of the Russian Emperor Alexander's visit to the city. Alexanderplatz is in East Berlin and is loomed over by the Berlin Television Tower, which is a sort of bulb shooting into the sky above the once Soviet-controlled East Berlin. Having just spent 9 hours on a plane and 5 hours before that in an airport...and 2 hours before that on another plane...and 2 hours before that waiting for our first flight, we were understandably jet-lagged and travel-weary. Still, it was only 8:00 Berlin time, and even though we could have used a rest, our room wasn't available until 3pm that afternoon. So, we dropped our bags off at the front desk and did what any sensible people would do after sitting for 9 hours -- we took a bus tour of Berlin.
Berlin really is a city of contrasts. More than 70% of the city was leveled during 1945. That coupled with the Soviet division of the city, which only ended in 1990, means that Berlin is a city still in the midst of being rebuilt. Big time. There is construction absolutely everywhere, and the architecture a curious mixture of Rococo, Neo-classical, Soviet and modern. It's less a great city and more a monument to a great city that once stood there, coupled with history's various attempts at erasing its memory.

Naturally the first thing I decided to try as far as food was the ubiquitous currywurst -- Berliner street food extraordinaire.

 Most Berlin street food is "soak up all the alcohol in your system" food, and currywurst is no exception. It's veal and bacon sausage, devoid of its casing, and deep fried with a pile of pommes, then cut into slices and topped with tomato ketchup and sprinkled with curry powder. Real rib-sticking food. It was a little sweet for my taste with all that ketchup, but the sausage itself was awesome and the curry, which was a mild style, added a really interesting flavor.

With that and a Berlin Pilsner in our bellies, and 3 o'clock nearing, we tried our luck with the hotel room. Alas, at 2:30, the room was still not ready, so we sat in a stupor in the lobby for 30 minutes, then finally got into the room. The room itself is small, very nice and new, with laminate flooring, two single-beds side-by-side, a bathroom and a flat-screen tv, small table and 300 megs of free-wifi. Oh and a kettle. Pretty much everything I need.
The beds have feather pillow tops, so before I could even contemplate a shower or a blog entry, I had to sleep off some jet-lag, and so did my father. I learned very quickly that the 33 decibel earplugs I bought for the trip were going to be very much needed; my father's snores are the sort of noises I can only imagine rutting rhinocerii (rhinoceruses? rhinocopodes?) make.We slept until about 6:30pm. I try to accept that the first day of a trip is always sort of mucked up with jet-lag issues. Afterward we headed out under threat of rain to the Mitte district, a short walk northeast from Alexanderplatz, to find some more food.
We found a charming 6 table pub with several locals milling about, so we gave that a go.
The pub featured several beers from a local brewery and we both decided on a dunkel pilsner. I chose to go the traditional route of veal schnitzel with fried potatoes and a little cabbage salad, along with a huge portion of great chantrelle mushrooms, which is also apparently one of the pub's specialities. It was prosaic. The potatoes, slightly salty from the bacon it was fried in...the cantrelles were meaty and flavorful, and of course the schnitzel itself was...well certainly better than any I'd ever had in the states

Dad had a  "Berliner" Schnitzel, which up researching could either hhave been chicken  or cow's udder, depending on who you ask. It wwas an adventure anyway, and quite delicious, service with a warm potato salad with dilll. We were going to try the flamm-kuchen  apple dessert, but after the beers and the schnitzel and the rain and the chaos of the day, we decided  to take a small walk back through the Alexanderplatz and then start winding down.

Tomorrow we're headed to a few places. We can't seem t be able to book a train on Thursday to Munich on the internet, so we;re going to have to book it at the actual station tomorrow to make sure we get a spot. Then we're off to the Jewish Museum and the Tiersgarden. Lunch somewhere, then explore some art galleries on the aptly named "Museum Island". I also broke my sunglasses on day one, so I might try to drag my father into the shopping district to get a new pair.

By the way, you'll notice that most of the in-article posts are going to be of food. that's because I usually take those from my iphone, and those images are easily accesible when writing this blog. Any pictures I'm taking with my nice camera are large and will need post processing and all that mess, so you probably won't see too many of those before I get back. Anyway, I'm going to try to read myself to sleep now. Until tomorrow, avid readers!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Tomorrow Is the Day!

Tomorrow we leave Tampa at 10am, arrive in Newark at noon-thirty, then sit on our collective thumbs for 5 hours awaiting the connection to Berlin. That flight leaves Newark at 6pm (barring any...technical difficulties, as evidenced by yesterday's United snafu) and arrives in Berlin at 8:30am-ish on the next day. That makes our arrival time midnightish EST. That first day is going to be surreal: a new culture coupled with an enormous city, a full-day schedule and undoubtably heinous jet-lag.
As I type, my father is pouring through travel guides taking copious cursive-laden notes on what to do and see. He also informed me that, just before I arrived, he picked up 800 euro in traveller's cheques -- an anachronistic, albeit amusing indication of how long it's been since he has travelled abroad. While I'm sure they technically still *work*, I don't think I've heard of anyone using them in ages. But my father is a very cash-minded person, and I respect that. If no one takes them I've got things covered and I can just take the cheques and cash them at home...assuming someone will take them here.

Anyway, onward!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Eating my way through the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Anyone who knows me, knows that I remember trips mostly by the food I eat along the way. On top of being a great mnemonic device, I also happen to love food, particularly street food.
Street food is a great way to get the pulse of a place. Sure it's a little more risky than eating at restaurants, and believe me, I do plenty of that as well, but street food is the food of the people; It's the local food, and it defines the tastes of a region.

Every time I take a trip, I make a list of stuff I want to try in the places I'm headed. Usually those things are pretty easy to come across. Sometimes they're seasonal, sometimes they're national treasures. My research into food in Germany, Austria and Slovakia have given me a good many key dishes I'd love to try. The list is long, so I'm only going to show a few highlights from each region here.


The ultimate Berliner street food. Steamed, then fried pork sausage cut into bits. Then covered with curry ketchup and curry powder. Mmmm. Heartburn.
Berliner Pfannkuchen
Let's call it what it is -- a jelly doughnut. But usually filled with plum jelly.


Fine line between Austrian and German food here.

Always eaten before noon. Always with the hands. Sausage made with minced veal and pork bacon.
Caramelized sweet pancake, fried in butter, topped with powdered sugar. It's like funnel cake +. Served with fruit compote.


Salzburger Nockerln
Sweet Souffle made with raisins.
Cheesey, dumplingy thing.


By far the most things I'm interested in eating.

How could I not? Breaded veal cutlet with lemon.

Paper-thin layers of pastry filled with apples? Oh my.
Potato Dumpling filled with apricot.


The culinary departure of the trip. Lots of Hungarian influence.

Halusky Bryndzou
Potato dumplings with sheep's milk cheese and bacon
Bryndzove Pirohy
Who doesn't love a good peroshki?
Juniper brandy. The Slovak national drink.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Berlin hotel booked!

Just booked the hotel for our first two nights in Berlin. To ease ourselves into the euro-transition, I've got us in the Holiday Inn Berlin, right in the heart of downtown, on the Alexanderplatz.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Countdown to Germany-Austria-Slovakia, Summer 2012

It's August 1st, so I'm officially starting my travelogue for Germany-Austria 2k12.
On August 18th, I'm flying out of Salt Lake City to Tampa, Florida to pick up my father who's joining me on this trip. On August 20th, we fly from Tampa to Berlin, Germany, via Newark, arriving on the 21st of August. 

We have 15 days to explore (August 21st - September 4th.) The meat of the trip is flexible, as we haven't booked hotels. We plan on spending a full day in Berlin, then taking a train to Munich. We may spend a few days in Munich, then we're headed to Salsburg, Austria for a few days. From Salsburg, we go to our primary destination, Vienna. We have 5 days planned for Vienna, but we're planning on a day trip to Bratislava, Slovakia as well. From there, it's back to Berlin via Munich to catch a return flight on the 5th of September.

I fly back to Salt Lake City on the 7th, just in time for a week-long visit from my mother and step-father. Everything is set. We've got our passports up-to-date, backpacks ready, eurail and plane tickets purchased, cameras primed. I'll be posting reports on this page occasionally.