Archive for August, 2013


Tour guide Zara

Tour guide Zara

Our cheesy bus

Our cheesy bus

Our real tour guide

Our real tour guide

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Leopoldskron Palace

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The Gazebo

The Gazebo

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The church where the Captain and Maria tied the knot

The church where the Captain and Maria tied the knot

Post-tour beer garden

Post-tour beer garden

Full disclosure.  I’m one of those Sound of Music freaks.  I’ve probably seen the movie at least a 100 times, was in the musical with my sister, Amanda, at the Wharf Theater in 1982 and performed it with my siblings at home more times than was fair to my parents.  My two sisters and I donned dirndls, my brother wore lederhosen and we recruited friends to fill out the rest of the Von Trapp family.  In fairness, my mom was born in Austria during WW II, so we felt an especially close tie to the story.

I’d dreamed of visiting Austria with my mother since I was in my teens, and had even made a point of going out of my way to avoid Austria on prior European trips, preferring to wait until I could do so with my mother at my side.  Once her ticket was booked, I had to add Salzburg to the itinerary.  And was there ever ANY doubt that we’d take a Sound of Music tour in Salzburg?

Interestingly, there are at least two tour companies that lay claim to the “original Sound of Music tour”.  We went with Panorama Tours and had a fantastic time, owing in very large part to our very entertaining guide.  Zara eagerly dressed in the dirndl we had recently bought her in Grossraming, my mom’s hometown.

I was just a wee bit excited and determined to snag good seats on the bus, so we arrived nearly half an hour early.  The bus was already there, as was our tour guide, but Zara took it upon herself to climb into the driver’s seat. By the time the other passengers started arriving, she was playing the part of official tour guide, requesting their tickets and asking them whether they’d like a beverage.

The actual tour was relatively light on sights, but our guide’s humorous banter regarding Sound of Music trivia, the soundtrack playing in the background, the gorgeous scenery and the general enthusiasm on the bus made it a complete blast.

So what did we see?

  • Leopoldskron Palace:  This is on the lake where the famous boating scene was filmed and served as the Captain’s backyard, although the interior scenes of the Von Trapp home were filmed elsewhere.
  • Hellbrunn Palace and the Gazebo: The gazebo where the “16 going on 17” scene was filmed was originally located at Leopoldskron Palace, but due to constant trespassing from crazed SOM fans, they moved it to this location and reconstructed it.  It is a lot smaller than I’d expected and the gazebo’s interior scenes actually were filmed on a sound stage, because the gazebo wasn’t large enough.  (In fact, you can no longer even enter the gazebo, as they locked it after an elderly woman injured herself trying to channel Liesl leaping from bench to bench.)
  • Nonnberg Abbey: A quick drive by of this still active convent where the real Maria was a novice.
  • Salzburg Lake District: Where the picnic scenes were filmed high on a hill…
  • Mondsee: Where the wedding scene was actually filmed (although it was supposed to be Nonnberg Abbey).

As our tour bus climbed the verdant hills towards Mondsee, “Edelweiss” was piped through the bus’s speakers, transporting me back 30+ years as we unabashedly sang along (and I fought back a few tears).  The only thing that could have made the experience sweeter would have been to have my siblings by my side (but then I would have required a full box of tissues).  And special thanks to my sister, Amanda, who was always our musical director —

p.s. Even Jonathan enjoyed the tour, although he did admit to one cringe-worthy moment when he saw a group of tourists burst into laughter when they saw our tour bus.

 

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Magical Lake Bled

After Prague, we were desperate for something relaxing, especially for Jonathan’s birthday week.   (With approximately 17 destinations in the past six weeks, we’ve strayed seriously far from our original plan to have a couple of European bases and tempers were fraying and moods were, well, moody.)  I’d heard positive reports on Slovenia generally, but still didn’t know whether it would fit the bill. But, we needed to move on so we booked a last minute place at Lake Bled and headed south.

We broke up the long drive with one night in Bratislava, which used to be part of Czechoslovakia but has stronger German roots.  It’s situated on the Danube, is not as grand and exciting as Prague and retains a bit more of the Communist era feel, but it’s a welcoming place with a charming old town packed with outdoor restaurants and cafes.  We also enjoyed a much welcome break from the price inflation we’ve felt in our other European destinations. The following morning we drove through Austria (best highway roadstops ever!), and crossed the border into Slovenia with a gorgeous drive over the Julian Alps down into Lake Bled.

Bled was perfect. It felt like being at summer camp in a fairytale setting. The lake is small enough to easily circumnavigate on foot (under 7 km), so the setting felt cozy, yet incredibly picturesque.  Lake Bled even comes with a miniature island, which houses a pilgrimage church. We never made it out there, but a set director could not design a more photographic scene.

For me, lake swimming typically conjures up images of murky waters hiding unknown horrors, but Lake Bled’s waters were as pristine as any we’ve experienced.The water’s temperature, although a bit too bracing to slowly wade into, was perfectly refreshing when  jumping off of the high dive at Grajsko kopališče (the Castle Bathing Area).  The lake has several designated swimming areas, but people line the banks along its entire circumference for picnics and swims and by the end of our week Zara had swum in all four quarters of the lake.

Another day we rented bikes and cycled through the surrounding countryside and its tiny hamlets in 90-degree heat.  It was Zara’s first independent bike ride on roads with cars so I was a bit of a nervous nelly each time a car barreled by at 40 mph, but I did my best to remain calm.  (I’m not sure that Zara would agree that I succeeded.)  Once we reached the lake side, we cooled down with ice cream cones, cycled to the top of the lake where Z further cooled down with another swim and then raced against (and lost) a fast-moving thunderstorm for a very soggy but exciting ride back to our place.

In keeping with the summer camp theme, we also summer tobogganed at the Straza and Z and J spent hours enjoying a ropes course at Pustolovski Park at the top of that same ski hill.

Another day we took a 20 minute stroll up to Bled Castle, which is a cozy castle with panoramic views of the verdant hills and dramatic alps.  Although the castle is worth a visit for the views alone, it also has a printing shop with a reconstructed Gutenberg printing press, so we had an interesting demo from the apprentice printer on the printing method. We had hoped to dine in the restaurant there one evening as the setting can’t be beat, but we ran out of time.

We stayed at the Apartment Gaja and were lucky enough to snag the apartment with a postcard view towards Bled Castle.  In five minutes, we could walk to the lake or almost any restaurant in town.  The Slovenians were incredibly friendly, English was widely-spoken, wifi worked well, the cuisine was not one-dimensional (we even found Indian and Mexican) and, perhaps most importantly, even in the peak of the summer tourist season, it didn’t feel unbearably crowded.  (Oh, and I almost forgot, no mozzies!) If I lived in Europe, Bled, Slovenia would be a top choice for a summer cabin and I would happily return for a longer stay.  I was eager to explore more of Slovenia but my mom was flying into Vienna in two days so Austria beckoned…and, we were on the road again, but with moods a lot sunnier.

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My two fish in their first swim in Lake Bled

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Biking in the Bled countryside

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Waterslide fun at the Castle Bathing Area

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Atop Castle Bled

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Famous Lake Bled Cream Cake

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Printing Press at the Castle

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Ropes course at Pustolovski Park.

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Geronimo!

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Summer Tobogganing at the Straza

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Last evening in Bled

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Dinnertime antics…

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High in the trees…

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Walking towards the Old Town

Walking towards the Old Town

In front of the Charles Bridge

In front of the Charles Bridge

Astronomical clock

Astronomical clock

Chasing bubbles in the Old Town Square

Chasing bubbles in the Old Town Square

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Red rooftops

Red rooftops

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View from the Bell Tower at Prague Castle

View from the Bell Tower at Prague Castle

No explanation required!

No explanation required!

Contributing to the Art Brick wall

Contributing to the Art Brick wall

Bucket List

Bucket List

A new friend!

A new friend!

Zara's contribution to the John Lennon Wall

Zara’s contribution to the John Lennon Wall

Exploring on Segways

Exploring on Segways

Chicken Joe

Chicken Joe

We spent a wonderful five days in Prague, in which I rediscovered a city I’d first become acquainted with in college and Zara discovered Chicken Joe.

I turned 21 in Prague, exactly half my lifetime ago, in an apartment rented for three days, an act that felt so decadent in the decades before Airbnb.  I still remember it cost only $20/night for 2 bedrooms and a full kitchen.  In 1992, only three years after the Velvet Revolution, Prague was still emerging onto the global travel scene.  Returning after two decades, I was relieved to see that although it has long since transformed into a tourist mecca, it hasn’t lost its ability to enchant.  There are more street performers, kitschy museums, tourist restaurants offering mediocre fare and crowds (and a hotel room is 10x what it was on my first visit), but its red rooftops, cobbled streets, fascinating history, gorgeous architecture and  music make it a place where I could easily imagine staying.  We’d originally booked only three nights in Prague, but extended for two more days.

The first night we soaked in the views as the sun set over the Charles Bridge with drinks at one of the several restaurants now sitting on the banks of the Vltava River.  The setting was perfect and something I could have happily done every evening.

We spent another day exploring Prague Castle, an impressive complex set on a hill across the river looking back over the city. The views are magnificent from almost anywhere on the grounds, but seeking out even a better bird’s eye view, we climbed to the top of the Bell Tower.  The tower houses Prague’s largest bell, named Zikmund, and legend has it that the bell breaking portends bad news.  (The most recent example of this was in 2002, when the bell broke and Prague suffered its worst flooding ever.)  Zara concluded that this was just a coincidence.

What else did we do…

Franz Kafka Museum:  An oddly affecting museum, its dimly-lit rooms presumably are designed to evoke Kafka’s depression and personal struggles.  At times, however, it was too dark to even read the exhibit explanations.  Not sure if that was be design or due to burnt out bulbs!  Not the most kiddy-friendly place to visit, however.

The Chocolate Museum: Just because…it was a toss up between this and the adjacent Torture Museum.

The Toy Museum: We have a 6-year old… But, this would also be a must for Barbie fans (and a must-not for those who think Barbie is evil).

The Globe:  Feeling a bit burnt out by the crowds and the heat, we passed a very relaxing afternoon at this bookstore/cafe.  It’s been a fixture on the Prague expat scene since opening in 1993 and I can see why.  With its delicious Western fare, a full bar, tasty coffee,  pleasant courtyard and strong wifi, its easy to wile away the hours here.  While Zara devoured countless books in the kiddie section, we enjoyed some much needed peace and quiet.  We’ve been moving at too fast a pace since arriving in Europe mid-June–we all are feeling it.

Mozart’s Requiem:  We enjoyed a lovely performance of one of Jonathan’s favorite musical pieces at  St. Nicholas Church off the Old Town Square.  The city lives and breathes music and if we’d had more time, there were countless other concerts on offer.

Segway: One of the highlights of our time in Prague happened the last evening. We’d been on our way to dinner and the next thing we knew we were on Segways when they informed us that Zara was old enough.  (In comparison, one of SF’s Segway tour companies requires kids to be at least 12 years old and 100 pounds and requires all riders to take a 45-50 minute on board training session, watch a 9 minute safety video and wear reflective safety vest.  My impression is that the Czech Republic doesn’t share the US lawsuit culture!)  Zara took to the Segway immediately, leaving me in the dust, and our tour guide, Ondřej, was wonderfully fun and informative and took us through neighborhoods we had previously missed, including past the John Lennon Wall, where Zara wrote her own message of peace.

And because we are always on the hunt for tasty Indian fare (especially after an involuntary hiatus for several weeks in Italy), we were thrilled to discover Indian Jewel, a lovely restaurant with seating in a small courtyard in the Old Town.  We went back for seconds two nights later (and overheard another touring English family mentioning how they were there for the 5th time)!   It’s a relief to know that some curry lovers are even more fanatical than we are.

Still, there was a lot we left unexplored…another excuse for a visit!

And you may be wondering about this Chicken Joe?  He’s a Belfast-born street performer whose act includes reclining on a bunch of crushed beer bottles while an audience member stands on top of him and he makes off-color jokes.  He made quite an impression on our 6-year old who insisted on watching his performance in the Old Town Square at least five times…travel, the best education.

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