January 22, 2011
My brother had mentioned Strahov Monastery (Strahovský klášter) to me, from a previous visit he’d made. He had visited their famous library, and knowing how much I love libraries, suggested that I might like to visit. Of course I would!! We headed up to Strahov for a look at the monastery and library. The complex is on the same side of the river as Prague Castle. You catch the same tram that you can catch to the castle – number 22, but you get off a few stops later – at Pohořelec. From there it’s just a short walk up the hill and through the gates of the monastery complex.
When we got there we found the the library was under renovation, so we didn’t get to see it in its full glory. We did however still get to look into all the rooms and got a glimpse of what it must be like. It’s on my list for my next visit 🙂 The monastery also houses its own brewery – so again, sigh, we had to stop and sample. We had some yummy sweet afternoon pastries with our beer (the beer has to wash something down, doesn’t it?), before we headed back down the hill to Malá Strana. We decided to walk back, rather than take the tram and were happy with that choice – it’s a really nice walk downhill with lots of good photo opportunities of the view back over Prague.
As we came down through the town, we came across an Absinthe cafe – which sells, you guessed it! None of us are huge fans of the drink, but it seems to be rather the speciality from the Czech Republic and an interesting theme for a cafe, so we ducked in for a quick look and were quite impressed with their variety of not only Absinthes but other alcoholic beverages. However, we refrained from taking refreshment, and pushed on.
That evening we decided to go for a walk after dinner through the Old Town. It’s a lovely place to walk of an evening, you just need to make sure you stay aware of who is around you and how close they’re standing… The markets in the Old Town Square continued into the evening so there were lots of people around. The Astronomical Clock also goes off on the hour and it’s worth a watch (I especially like the little skeleton who rings his bell). We found a nice cafe to park for a while, and I found that they sold a glühwein-sibling – some sort of warm mulled wine. Just the thing for an evening of people watching!
January 21, 2011
Day two and it was time to do some walking around the Old Town. With a late start to the day, our first stop was the Old Town Square to get some lunch. The square had plenty of vendors selling all sorts of interesting food – massive hams being cooked over an open fire, a chunk of which would be carved off and served with ketchup, mustard, and a piece of brown bread; an enormous pan (the largest I’ve EVER seen) over an open fire, cooking lots and lots of little roast potatoes to be served with a wurst of some sort; a stall making fresh Trdelnik (a strip of dough wrapped around a wooden stick, rolled in sugar, nuts, etc and then cooked over a flame); and of course plenty of czech beer available to wash it all down with -YUM!
Once we’d filled our stomachs, we headed over to the Powder Gate. A climb to the top of the tower provides fantastic views over Staroměstská (Old Town). I love the architecture of the tower too – there are a few buildings in Prague that were built in this style (such as the towers of Charles Bridge, and the matching brother tower to the Powder Gate, the Jindřišská Tower – more about that one later!), with similar stone and they’re very distinctive. The view towards Prague Castle is stunning, with the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn getting in the picture too:
We had heard of the other tower in the Old Town, the Jindřišská Tower so we headed over to have a look. Imagine the guys’ delight when they found that this tower not only houses a great view, but also a Whiskeria! Well of course we had to stop for a while, so that they could sample the fine whiskies on offer 🙂 I’m definitely not a fan, so I contented myself with a nice coffee.
From there it was onwards, ever onwards (er..). We explored a bit more of the Old Town, mainly just taking in the funny little streets and shops that we found.
For dinner, we decided it was time to complete something else on our to-do list – go to an “official” Pilsner Urquell brewery restaurant. We chose U Vejvodů, which was not far from where we were staying. While one would mainly go there for the atmosphere and the er, thrill of going to a Pilsner Urquell restaurant (guess which beer they serve there), we had a lot of fun. The food was great – I had the loveliest steak I’d had for ages, and hubby got stuck into a pork knuckle which came on a specially-designed board complete with condiments. If you’re rather partial to cooking pork knuckles at home, you can even purchase one of those special boards to take home! At 3150kr (about 210AUD) it was more than we were willing to part with. Mind you, it does make for a spectacular looking meal…
January 20, 2011
Prague castle was something which hubby and I had never visited before – the rainy weather on our previous visit had rendered many of our outdoors plans null and void. So this time, it was the first thing on our list of to-do-s! We headed up to the Castle via a nice walk across the Old Town, across Charles Bridge and onto a tram up to the Castle.
The Castle complex is said to be the largest “coherent” (!?) castle complex in the world, and it’s a World Heritage Site. There’s quite a range of different sites within the complex, all offering something different – from the vast St Vitus Cathedral, to the Golden Lane.
Once we got to the Castle, we purchased our tickets (information about the types of tickets available and what you get for your money can be found here. We purchased the “Long” ticket, along with two photography passes (for the three of us). While the tickets are valid for a couple of days, we knew we would have spent enough time there in a single day, so we got to work!
First up, we headed over to watch the changing of the castle guard. This takes place each day at midday and comes complete with music and lots of marching. It goes on for quite a while, but is good to watch for a while.
From there we made our way over to St Vitus Cathedral. When we got there, we found the line to get into the cathedral was out the door and half way down the length of the catheral – so we decided to go look at some other parts of the complex and return later. We stopped next at St George’s Basilica. It’s quite simple inside, which is a refreshing change from so many of the highly ornate churches which tend to dominate.
From there we made our way to Golden Lane. We’d heard mixed reviews about this, but decided to take a look anyway. It’s quite kitsch and I certainly wouldn’t say that the little shops hold much that tempted me to purchase anything, but we took it as part of the whole experience. Upstairs you can find your way down a long hall past suits of armour to a small crossbow range. For a small fee you can shoot a rather-underpowered crossbow – but it’s still a bit of fun.
From there we skirted around to the far side of the complex, to the prison cells and torture chamber – complete with replica implements.
We did a walk through some of the State Rooms, and the Old Royal Palace. We then headed back towards St Vitus but first stopped in at the castle complex’s Powder Tower (not to be confused with the perhaps-better-known Powder Tower on the other side of the river!). The tower houses an exhibition of the Castle Guards and their history which I found quite interesting – particularly around some of their history and how things came to be how they are today.
Then it was over to St Vitus Cathedral – this has to be one of my favourite cathedrals to far, by virtue of its sheer scale and amount of detail. The outside of the cathedral is spectacular in its own right – there are so many little details to catch, and the cathedral looks quite different depending on what side you’re on. While tourists enter the cathedral on its western side, the southern side provides a grand view of the Golden Portal with its ornate golden ornamentation.
Inside the cathedral there is so much to look at. The main nave and the various chapels could have kept me occupied for a lot longer than I had time for.
One of the things I enjoy most about exploring places like the Cathedral is discovering the small details that many people just walk past. St Vitus has a magnificent set of timber doors (not sure where they go…) with so much detail and they really tell a story.
The various chapels also tell their own tales, as do the tombs around the space. St Wenceslas’ Chapel houses the grave of this patron saint, and is ornately decorated. The windows of the Cathedral are amazing and each one is its own work of art.
After spending a while in the cathedral, we decided we’d had enough of looking at old things, so we headed out of the Castle complex. As we headed out though, we found what turned out to be one of the highlights of our day (well, hubby’s day anyway!). A little sign told us that there was a birds of prey display – and of course, seeing as we’d seen such wonderful birds at Werfen, of course we had to stop and take a look. For a small donation (supposed to be for the upkeep of the birds), we were allowed into a little park area where a couple of people had a collection of birds of prey. We were able to walk quite closely to these birds, and hubby’s day was made when they asked whether he’d like to hold one – of course he said yes! He picked the largest of the birds (naturally) and we took the obligatory snaps with him grinning like it was Christmas. He later said it was like trying to hold a huge frozen turkey at arms length, and that the feel of the birds massive claws through his sleeve gave him a great idea of how powerful they really are. The gentleman who owns the birds told us that they were “working”‘ birds and were often used to cull pests (rats, pigeons) around the city.
January 18, 2011
Next day and it was off to Prague. During our time in Budapest we had made a stop at the main train station (Budapest Keleti pályaudvar) and pre-bought ourselves some train tickets. We managed to get tickets for the three of us for around 20EUR per person – nice! The trains aren’t super fast, but it’s a really nice journey with some great landscapes to look at on the way as you pass through Bratislava and towns such as Brno. Before we took the train, we made sure we had plenty of nibbles and drink for the trip. We left at around 9.30am and arrived in Prague main train station at around 4.30pm. A long day, but quite relaxing. With three of us travelling together, it was fairly easy to keep the compartment to ourselves for most of the trip.
Once in Prague, it was no problem to find our way to our apartment – off the train, onto the subway and once we got to our stop (Národní třída) we were only about 5-10 mins walk to our apartment. I had specifically chosen the apartment because of its proximity to a subway stop – I have learnt from previous experience how much of a pain it is, to have to walk for miles with a big backpack! I’d really recommend the apartment we stayed in – the landlord was so helpful and obliging when we were booking the place, and was very reassuring for us to ask any questions if we had any difficulties – I was very impressed. The place we stayed in can be found here – it’s in a building which seems to rent out other apartments for a company, so there was a reception office downstairs. For the three of us it was very useful – really close to the Old Town and lots of great restaurants, and plenty of space for us to chill out in the evenings. There’s a big Tescos next to the Národní třída subway station too. The apartment also looks over the Old Town rooftops which we quite enjoyed looking out over at different times of day – the way the colours change is rather cool.
Our first evening, and we decided to try dinner somewhere close-by. We found Kavárna Velryba which gave the impression of being a bit of a student pub, but which served good simple food for not many koruna. As the menu was all in Czech, we had to work a bit to try to remember the few words of Czech that we know, to make sure we didn’t end up with something tooooo interesting 😉 It was a bit smokey inside, but we found a corner that wasn’t too bad for those of us un-used to people still smoking indoors! We enjoyed our first Czech beer for the trip – ah!
December 16, 2010
Budapest – Libegő chairlift, János Hill, Elizabeth Tower (Erzsébet-kilátó), House of Parliament, and Heroes Square (Hősök tere)
Final day and first thing we were off to the House of Parliament to get tickets for a tour. We arrived at about 10am only to find the line waiting for tickets stretched forever and ever. Two years ago a booth stood outside the building where you could walk up and buy tickets. Now, the ticket office has been moved inside the building, and when we got there guards were only letting a couple of people in at a time. When we got in there, we found out why – the ticket office is tiny and doesn’t fit many people. I’m not sure why they’ve changed this way of ticketing – the old way seemed to work well, whereas this one is obviously failing. Anyway, after waiting and waiting, we got our tickets for a later tour. We had a couple of hours to pass so we raced across the river (thanks Budapest metro!) and out to the Libegő. Thankfully, we’d been up Libegő before, so we knew that getting there was a bit of an effort – you catch the metro to the Buda side of the river, to Moszkva Tér. From there, you can jump on Bus #22 or #22E and get off at Kuruclesi út. From there, head into Zugligeti út – you can either wait for the #291 Bus to take you to the end of the street, or you can walk the rest of the way (a bit under a km). Near the end of the street there’s the Libegő station where you can purchase your ticket – around 500HUF single or 1000HUF return ticket. This was something else that seemed a bit more organised and commercialised than last time we visited Budapest – there was actually an organised ticket booth at the lower station (last time we just jumped on and paid at the top). Once you’ve got your ticket, follow everyone else outside and follow the instructions to hop on the next available seat. It’s always a great view out over Budapest on the way up, but even better when you’re coming back down.
Once up the top of János Hill, head up the hill further to Elizabeth Tower (Erzsébet-kilátó) which is a lookout providing amazing views out over Budapest. On a clear day you can see over to the far side of the city and it’s great to get an idea of the layout of the city. The tower gives 360 degree views so you are also able to see some of the small surrounding towns.
Once we’d come back down the Libegő, we had just a couple of minutes left to duck into the little refreshment stand next to the chairlift station (it’s an old rail car) and stop for a Lángos – a Hungarian specialty – deep fried bread-type thing topped with sour cream, garlic and grated cheese. Definitely enough oil there to stop a heart but oh-so-yum! From there it was a quick dash over to the next bus back into town, and back to the Parliament building in time for our tour.
The Parliament building was something we just hadn’t gotten around to seeing previously, but had heard good things. I was quite surprised to find that they’re perfectly happy for you to take photos through all stages of the tour. The tour takes you through several areas of the Building and is very interesting – both the history of the building, along with bits of information about various rulers, and why things were done the way they were. The building is spectacularly decorated. We also got to see the Hungarian crown jewels along with the changing of the guards who look after them. Cost of the tour is 2520HUF but if you’re interested in learning some more about Hungarian history it’s well worth it.
Our last stop for the day was Heroes Square (Hősök tere) – again something we’d missed during our previous Budapest visit. Just the metro trip to get there was interesting – it was the first time I’d been on the yellow metro line (M1) – I hadn’t realised that being the oldest metro line in Budapest, all the stations are done in older style with tiling on the walls and timber features. Very nice.
Heroes Square was I guess what I had been expecting – a large square with lots of statues. It was only once I started walking around the square that I realised some of the significance. The figures around the base of the “cenotaph” in the middle of the square represent the Magyar chieftains who are considered to have founded the Hungarian nation, and the figures around the edges of the square represent other famous figures from Hungarian history.
Budapest – Castle Hill (Várhegy) – Matthias Church (Mátyás-templom), Fisherman’s Bastion (Halászbástya), and Hospital in the Rock (Sziklakórház)
Day two and it was time to head up to Castle Hill where there’s certainly enough to keep a person occupied for the day. First stop was a look out over the city from the Fisherman’s Bastion (Halászbástya). While we’d been past the Bastion before, we’d never paid the fee to actually climb up on to it. As the fee was only a dollar or so, and that money supposedly goes towards the preservation of the monument, we decided to pay it this time and go up and have a look around. It certainly does give a great view over the river – admittedly you can get a great view from other locations along Castle Hill for free, but this was rather nice. It gives a great view of the Parliament building across the river, all the way up to Margaret Island and beyond. To the south you can see quite a way as well, and it gives great views of the Chain Bridge.
From there we headed into St Mathias’ Church (Mátyás-templom) – this would have to be one of my most favourite churches in Europe. The history of the church along with the intricate artwork make it a great place to explore. While not as large as some of the huge cathedrals, it’s still pretty impressive. Entry into the church costs a couple of dollars, but it’s worth the cost.
After St Mathias, we decided that a walk around the rest of Castle Hill was in order while we waited for the next tour of the Hospital in the Rock to start. We walked up to the Palace, all the way to the southern end of the Hill. On the way there are ongoing archaological excavations – unfortunately there’s very little signage as to *what* they’re actually excavating, but it looks interesting!
From there it was back to the western side of Castle Hill to the Sziklakórház – the Hospital in the Rock. We had visited Sziklakórház back in 2007 when it had only just opened for tours. At that time only the hospital itself was open for regular tours – the other side (the bunker) was only open one day a week at a particular time. Now however, the tour has been extended to include the hospital and the bunker. As we had been through the hospital before, there wasn’t much new there – however the tour through the bunker was fascinating. The tour guide gave lots of interesting information about how the people in the bunker would have been expected to live, had nuclear war become a reality. The bunker has also been fitted out with plenty of Communist-era propaganda, the most interesting of which was a poster of a map representing the Communist-era division – portraying the east as light and bright, and the west as black and dark and evil. The logistics of running such a bunker are astounding – while not anywhere near big enough to take significant numbers of people (it was designed to house the high and mighty to keep the country running… but if everyone up-top has been exposed to a nuclear winter, wouldn’t there be no country to run?..anyway), the systems needed to keep things going are fascinating: the air filtration systems, the water filtration, the power generators. I loved that the air filtration system is pretty much the same one that filtered the air to the Budapest subway up until fairly recently!
The downside of the shiny-new tours at the hospital is that you’re no longer allowed to take photos inside the hospital / bunker. Quite a downside in my view, but fairly typical of a lot of tours, so not entirely unexpected. They’ve also spiffed-up the entrance to the hospital now – in 2007 we walked into a hole in the side of the hill and were locked in behind a big steel gate (eek) – but now there’s glass doors, and even some outdoor tables with umbrellas to make the place more welcoming. In my mind it’s become a little too touristy and kitsch (and selling WWII excess goods as memorabilia pushes the kitsch too), but perhaps that’s what tourists expect. It certainly looks like it’s become a well-known tourist attraction now, which is good as I think it’s a worthwhile thing for people to see. It still remains one of my favourite sights in Budapest.
September 10, 2010
Moving on to Budapest, we managed to secure cheap train tickets through ÖBB (Austrian Rail). Upon arriving, our first port of call was Memento Park. On our last visit to Budapest, hubby had visited the park, but I had been unable to see it, so was keen to check it out. It’s a bit of a hike to get out there but the directions provided on the website are really useful. The only thing we got wrong was that when we bought the bus ticket from the vending machine, the ticket was for a return journey – however our bus driver on the way out wasn’t terribly honest with us, and took the ticket and wouldn’t hand it back – so on the way back we had to purchase new tickets for the return journey. We all live and learn 🙂
The other option is to take a direct transfer to and from the park – but we like to be a bit more adventurous and try to find our own way. If you’ve never been to Budapest though, and aren’t familiar with the intricacies of its public transport system, it may well be worth paying the bit extra for the direct transfer (details on the website). Entrance to the park is 1500HUF (about 10AUD) and the park is open usually from 10am until dusk (more details on the website).
The park isn’t somewhere that you’d spend more than a couple of hours total, and it does take a while to get out there as it’s on the outskirts of the city. But it’s a worthwhile journey, to see the statues from a previous era. The park houses statues from the communist era – after the east started to open up, instead of melting down all the statues in the city, many of them were instead removed and eventually made their way to this park where they now all stand. The plaques on the statues are generally not in English – but there are enough familiar names amongst them that you can figure out who is what. There is also a small guide that may assist as you walk around. In the ticket booth there is some interesting memorabilia some of which is available for purchase. And don’t forget the Trabant sitting near the ticket booth – these are a well known relic of the era, and you’re able to sit in this one and really get a hands-on look at it.
August 2, 2010
Two more things that I wanted to see while in Vienna (my third trip, and I *still* hadn’t seen these things!) were a visit to the Spanische Hofreitschule, and the Naschmarkt.
The Spanische Hofreitschule (Spanish Riding School) is home to the famous Lippizaner stallions – the dancing horses. As a bit of a horse-nut in my younger years, I’d always wanted to see these elegant horses. Unfortunately, the price of attending one of the actual shows can be a bit more than my childhood fascination was willing to pay, so we took a compromise – the morning exercises (“Morgenarbeit”). This runs from 10am until midday each day, and costs only 12Euro. You can come and go as you please, and photography isn’t allowed (there are a number of very quietly spoken attendants who suddenly appear at the elbow of a would-be photographer, asking them to refrain). It doesn’t have the spectacle of a full show, but for 12 Euro it gave me a chance to see these beautiful animals. I was amazed at how refined their movements are, and how well the handlers and riders controlled them. To get a ticket for Morgenarbeit, you can either go to the ticket office in the entry to the school off Michaelerplatz, the day before, or take your chances with the day of your visit. It is quite busy though, as a lot of people seemed to have the same idea. We had pre-purchased our tickets the day before, so were able to pretty much walk right in.
Our final morning in Vienna we also visited the Naschmarkt. I had heard about the Naschmarkt and was a bit wary that it might be a bit disappointing. While there was a lot of the usual ‘market trash’, there were also a few gems to be found. The food stalls in the market were exceptional – and I could see that if I ever had to live in Vienna, they’d become a regular haunt! Every possible food was available, and at quite reasonable prices (most of it). Plenty of fresh food, as well as a range of vendors selling everything from liqueur and coffee to sushi. We particularly liked finding the turkish-dried fruits as we can’t get them back home – strawberries, mango, pineapple, kiwifruit, apple, banana, coconut, and the list goes on! As we knew we had a long train journey ahead of us the following day we each bought a few bits and pieces to nibble on. We also tried some different coffee and sushi. I loved the range of fresh produce that was available – at one stall I think I counted six different sorts of capsicum (bell peppers), and lots of different sorts of potatoes. They even had little baskets of truffles out – yum! If only we had visited the markets earlier, we might have grabbed a couple of try in a recipe…mm 🙂 Naschmarkt is also a good place to pick up some souveniers. Not all of it is particularly good value, but when we were there there were a number of vendors selling pashminas and the like – great presents for people back home.
Next visit to Vienna, and Naschmarkt will be one of the first places we visit, instead of the last!
We arrived in Vienna late Saturday afternoon – just enough time to get to our apartment, settle in, and do a quick trip down the road to the supermarket. The location of the apartment we had booked was perfect – on a bus route out from the central city, one minute’s walk to a supermarket, and nice and close to a number of restaurants. For dinner we thought we’d stay close to home, so walked a couple of blocks looking for a place which we thought looked good.
We found a very small, very atmospheric restaurant. We broke our golden rule of only eating at places where there were at least a few people – this place had just one other table (who finished up and left soon after we arrived). So, for most of the evening, we were the only guests. But what great food and service! The owner is the front-of-house guy, and his wife is in the kitchen. We got talking to them and they were so hospitable. Towards the end of the meal they both came out, took a seat and chatted to us for a while – we chatted about all sorts of topics from politics to religion (a good challenge for my german language abilities!). We even got to try some of the house specialty grappa after our meal – apparently made by the owner’s great uncle back home… 😉
The following day was my birthday, and the guys allowed me a bit of leeway so we went and did a few things that were particularly on my ‘to-do’ list. One of the main things I wanted to do was to go see a performance in the Wiener Staatsoper on the night of my birthday, so first up we headed over there to see what was on. While we were there, we found out that there were tours running during the day, so made a note of the time to come back.
While we waited, we dashed back into the centre of the city to St Stephen’s Cathedral, one of Vienna’s most iconic buildings. It’s a lovely cathedral to wander around, and while we were doing just that, we discovered that they also run tours of the crypts underneath the cathedral. That sounded just peachy to my other half, who likes exploring these types of places. If you find yourself there, you just wait around for the start of the tour (inside the cathedral, on the north-eastern side) and join the next tour that leaves. The cost of the tour is only a few Euros, but you pay at the end (be warned if you’re a little claustrophobic – the tour guide stands at the top of the stairs which are the way out, and takes people’s money as they exit which means standing on a fairly narrow little staircase for a while as everyone digs the coins out). The tour was really interesting – there’s so much history to a city like Vienna, and the royalty who have lived there add an extra dimension. The history of the cathedral was fascinating to hear about, from the perspective of those who are buried beneath and the little bits of information they’ve left behind.
That afternoon we headed back to the Staatsoper to do the tour – and for an opera fan like me it was a lot of fun! Even the guys said it was quite interesting. The tour runs a few times a day (in English), takes about 40 minutes, costs 5,00EUR and you can find more info here. It takes you through the auditorium, backstage (which was very cool for me!!), then through into the salons, and the emperors tea room. While we were there, the crew were busy setting up for that night’s show, “Mayerling“.
Most of the rest of the day we cruised around the city centre, taking in some of the atmosphere of Vienna. We stopped for coffee(s), ate a relaxing lunch, and wandered through parklands.
That evening, we went to see Mayerling. I always enjoy seeing shows in such a beautiful setting. We had seats high up in the top of the opera house, but they were still good enough to see the whole show. The ballet..well, it’s ballet but it’s not a traditional ‘everything-ends-nicely’ sort of one – and it’s more of an adults-only ballet! Nevertheless we all enjoyed the experience (although I know two guys who were keen to get out at the end of Act 3!). I loved being able to spend my birthday evening in the Wien Staatsoper 🙂
April 29, 2010
Our final morning in Abtenau, and the guys decided they wanted one more run down the Sommerrodelbahn. After bidding farewell to our fantastic hosts at Haus Franziska, we were at the Karkogel chairlift at opening. The guys went up in the chairlift, and came down the rodelbahn – very quickly! They left Abtenau as happy little vegemites 🙂
We decided to drive to Vienna from Abtenau via Salzburg. We had contemplated the winding mountain road as an alternative, but believe me, those roads give “winding” a whole new meaning. We took the quicker and less winding option. Why would I put a post up about a 3 1/2 hour drive on the autobahn? Because, as we drove through roadworks, we discovered that Austrians have a sense of humour – one that appealed to us. Every set of roadworks that we went through on the way from Abtenau to Vienna, as we entered the roadworks, we saw signs like this:
A bit further on we’d see one like this…
And towards the end, one like this…
Nice to see that someone has thought to try to make people stuck in roadworks a bit happier! The surprising thing was that they were at every roadworks we drove through!