Friday, September 26, 2014

Podyji Nat'l Park - Telc - Day 18

Sunday, September 21
Much of our journey in the Czech Republic skirts the border with Austria. Today in the forest it is not obvious where one country ends and the other begins, but that was not the case for many years before 1989.
We began our day with a drive to South Moravia to see the Podyji National Park.
We started in the village of Lukiv and hiked through some pine, spruce and deciduous forests and ultimately came to the ruins of an old castle - Novy Hradek (1319 ft).
This castle is noteworthy for several reasons:
First, it was built in 1358 by the brother of the famous Czech emperor Charles IV and was used as a hunting lodge. In the next century, another castle was built next to it which became part of a series of castles that were built during the 15th century to defend the borders.
Secondly, it has not been inhabited for 250 years and the last owner lost it in 1920 due to land reform. The state took it over and tried to run a tourist club. 
Third, when the communists took it over, they built a wire fence right through it, eliminating any possibility of using it for the public. They wanted to destroy the castle, but it was too expensive so they left it alone.
Fourth, after 1989, the state took it over again and decided to leave it as an aspect of nature.  The castle has provided a support system as well as some diversity to the environment. For example, the mortar used contains limestone which is a contrast to the normally acidic soil in the area, allowing some different plant life.
We prowled around the ruins, going into some of the remaining enclosures, and then climbed to the top where we could see the ruins of the tower of the newer castle. From here we could also see the the Dyje River, which makes an "S" from this angle. 
We had a picnic lunch seated on wood stumps in the castle courtyard, but, unfortunately, it started to rain.
Then we continued our hike back to our green bus and it was a short drive to the tiny town of Cizov near the Austrian border. There we visited the only stretch of the "Iron Curtain" that has been preserved. It was an eerie thing to see and not as forbidding as what it had actually been.
Lada, our guide, was 22 when the border opened so he was quite knowledgeable. He said that originally there was a fence along the border. But that was too easy So they kept moving the fence until it was 3 miles from the border. That way, if you got across, they still had time to find you. Secondly, they put up one fence, then 2 and then 3. The one in the middle was electrified until the mid 60s. They also put in mine fields, but they ended up maiming or killing the guards.  All the inhabitants of the land between the Iron Curtain and the border were forcibly removed and their villages demolished. A total of 390 people were killed on the Czechoslovakia border between 1948 and 1989 while trying to escape. However, a total of 655 border guards also died here, although only 10 died in conflicts with border violations. The others died from suicide, electrocution, drowning, or accidents with guns.  The Iron Curtain stretched 7250 km from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Sea and 930 km lay in Czechoslovakia.
Why escape?
In 1948, when the Communists were elected in, 20,000 people immigrated. Then a train full of people ran through the border, and the wall started going up. In the 1950s, there were 15 million people in the country. Of those, 262,000 were sent to jail, 80,000 were sent to work camps.  Everyone was taught to be suspicious of one another and you had to be careful what you said even with your children. Lada told us some personal stories that were very sad.
The we boarded our bus for about an hour's ride to Telc, our home for the next 3 nights. We checked into the Hotel Anton and had dinner there. We were all tired so an early evening.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lednice-Valtice - Day 17

Saturday, September 20
Today I learned a new definition for an old word - "folly." It is an architectural feature constructed on one 's property merely to enhance the view. Our hike today visited several of these on the former Liechtenstein property. They were built over a period of  300 years by the Liechtensteins and were designed by the most prominent architects of the time.
We started our hike by walking up to "Colonnade," an arch built in the classical style in 1820 on Rajsna Hill.  
When we walked through, there was a paved road on the other side. Our guide Lada told us that the road is exactly where the iron curtain was built in the 50s. It ran from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic.
For decades, this beautiful park was not able to be visited by the public. We walked along the hillside where we had a great view of Vatice. Unfortunately, it was very hazy so no good photos. 
We walked into the village and passed the homes. They are currently celebrating "harvest" and are decorating pumpkins. Our other guide, Lucy, said that growing, eating and decorating pumpkins is a new thing, maybe only 10 years or so. I was impressed with some of the artistic decorations for newbies.
 Valtice Castle is located in town but we did not tour it. 
Instead, we went to the Wine Salon of the Czech Republic located in the basement of the castle. It was like going into a cave, complete with cool temperature and moisture everywhere. They have been using this cellar for wine making for 600 years. We were treated to a discussion of winemaking and samples of at least 6 wines. We are in Moravia and it is known as the  "wine capital" of the Czech Republic. This is the largest winery with 2200 acres of vineyards; and it produces 4 million bottles a year. One-third of their business is red wine and 2/3 is white.  The Czechs do not export their wine - they drink it and have to import 30% more .
After the winery we walked to the wall of an old cemetery where our bus driver Radick (sp?) had sent up cold cuts and vegetables and put out stools for us for a picnic lunch. Quite lovely.
Then we continued our walk on the estate (now owned by the state).  
We walked along some vineyards and through an old oak and pine forest, with many of the trees aging out.
Since it was Saturday, we found it was a popular place with cyclists, too. And since the land is somewhat marshy anyway, we were plagued with mosquitos. But our repellent worked. 
We came upon another "folly," the Rendezvous, which resembles a triumphal arch.
It was actually used as a hunting lodge where the sportsmen would have cold meat and wine before heading out for the kill. Today the top level had been rented out for a wedding reception. However, they never retrofitted it with an elevator. How do you get grandma to the reception?
Later we came to a chapel dedicated to St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters,
and finally to another folly, the Three Graces, which was built as a place to display some statues collected over the years.
We returned to the hotel in time to attend a little wine festival down the street. I went for a short time, had no wine because I wasn't sure what I was ordering, but did enjoy the folk shows.
We had a special treat tonight. We had dinner at a local winery, again at a cave-like, bricked in facility. The vintner, a young man in his early 30s, was very excited to have us. He served the wine straight from the barrels using a special pipette. We must have had at least a half dozen samples. He said there are about 180 wineries in the area, but very few are young, like him. He inherited the business from his grandfather. We had a great dinner with chicken schnitzel.
Afterwards, a trio I had seen earlier performed for us - a violin, accordion and bass. They were very entertaining. Quite a day! 

Lednice-Valtice - Day 16

Friday, September 19
Leaving Vienna, I caught a cab to the airport and met my new group from Roads Scholar for a 9 day hiking trip. There are 19 of us and we all fit comfortably on a little green bus that whisked us away across the Austrian border to the Czech Republic.
Our first stop was Mikulov, an important border town on the ancient "amber road" from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic.
We stopped here for lunch at a local cafe.
Afterwards, we took a tour of the city, which once had a very prominent Jewish population. When Austrian kings expelled Jews from Austria in the early 1400s, they settled here, ultimately making up half the town's population and forming the largest Jewish community in what is now the Czech Republic outside of Prague.  In the 19th C, the railway line bypassed Mikulov, causing economic stagnation. Consequently, most of the Jews left, long before WW II and none live here today.
The town has been beautifully restored and has a lively main square.
On one side is an old church facade (the actual church burned centuries ago) and it was later used as the tomb of the Dietrichstein Family, an aristocratic family who ruled the city from the 16 th C to 1945 and the people who owned the castle.
Behind it on Holy Hill you can see a church on top covered in scaffolding . It is the church of St. Sebastian and the destination of the annual pilgrimage to the Black Madonna of Mikulov.
Then it was a short walk to Mikulov Castle.
Our guide pointed out that castles are fortresses and chateaus are the palaces often built on top when defense is no longer the priority. This is a beautiful castle/chateau that sits high above the city. It was burned down at the end of WW II but was rebuilt in the 1950s by the Communists. They did not want to be perceived as barbarians and wanted to show their appreciation for art and culture. Consequently, they picked 150 of the approximately 1500 castles that dot the landscape to restore.
We walked through the wrought-iron gate  and along the side of the chateau. Outside we could still see the original stone foundations of the castle but no reason to go inside - it is all new. However, the views from the top were spectacular.
The path took us to the former Jewish neighborhood, where others live now, and back to our bus.
We then headed to our hotel Hranicni Zamecek in Hlohovec.
After checking in, we boarded the bus and went to Lednice Chateau Park, a -19th century English style park which extends for 4 miles between Lednice Castle and Valtice Castles. We walked past the English neo-gothic style castle but did not go in.
The castle was built by the Lichtensteins, who also owned Valtice Castle. (More on that tomorrow.) Together, the 2 castles and land comprised 100 sq. miles during their reign. Today Lednice Castle houses a university for winemakers. Anyone is welcome to sign up for a summer short course. One of the key features of the castle was an elaborate greenhouse.
Since the technology had not been invented to make curved glass, the structure is made of cast-iron (like many train stations and market halls throughout Europe) and then 65,000 small rectangular pieces of glass are layered and assembled into the frame. Every two years they are cleaned. What a nightmare that must be!  
The walk around the garden was beautiful, offering various views of the castle.
There are a number of water features and we discovered they are actually fish ponds that have produced fish for food since the 1400s. We will study more about that later. Then we headed back to our hotel for dinner in the restaurant there, which overlooked a beautiful pond. After introductions all around. We all turned in early.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Vienna - Day 15

Thursday, September 18
Gorgeous sunny day in Vienna and I headed to the Hofburg Palace to see the Sisi Museum, the Imperial apartments and the silver collection.
The Palace itself is imposing, taking up a large piece of city real estate. It is in a complex of other buildings that were once used by the Habsburgs, who ruled Austria for over 600 years ending in 1918. Now they are museums or government offices. There are 2600 rooms in the complex and 5,000 people are employed there in various capacities.
The combination ticket leads you first through the silver collection, which was far more interesting than I thought it would be. After the end of the Habsburg monarchy, the objects became the property of the Republic of Austria. First there were some beautiful silver pieces from the reign of Franz Joseph (mid 1800s to 1918). They prefaced the exhibit by saying there are very few pieces of Royal silver left from before then because it was melted down to make coins for the Napoleonic Wars. As a result, porcelain came into frequent use. Previously, it had only been used for soup and dessert.  There was a huge display of Imari Porcelain from the estate of Duke Alexander of Lorraine, brother-in- law of Maria Theresa.  Also, part of the display was a traveling tea set, which I found quite interesting,
and Empress Elizabeth's traveling silverware, complete with salt cellar.  
There were also exquisite table settings for 12. The note said that silverware was done in settings of 12 because there were 12 apostles.
There were also some interesting napkin folds which are said to take 1 sq. meter of fabric.
One of the highlights is the Habsburg Service centerpiece ensemble that expands up to 90 ft in length.
One really odd piece was a "duck squeezer," used to squeeze the juice from the bones of ducks to use in a rich sauce. It was said that the Empress made a diet of meat juice squeezed from bones.
From there the route leads to the Sisi Museum, the nickname for the Empress Elizabeth, wife of Franz Joseph I who lived from 1837-1898.  The museum was impressive, with 21st century displays, subdued lighting, and interesting displays of artifacts.
The six rooms explore the personality and life of this unusual Empress. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photos, because there were exquisite gowns, jewelry and mementos I would like to remember. Elizabeth was the 15 year old Duchess of Bavaria when she was introduced to the Emperor. She was with her mother and older sister, who was supposed to be the one chosen. But the monarch fell head over heels in love with Elizabeth and married her when she turned 16. She was very shy and really did not enjoy the public life. She was very beautiful but felt the need to maintain that beauty with obsessive dieting, sporting manias, and romantic, melancholy writings. 
Highlights include a copy of the dress she wore at the ball given before her wedding, famous portraits, parasols and fans, and the luxuriously-appointed imperial saloon car from a private yacht.
More than 20 original items of clothing including 2 light-colored gowns from the 1900s that she wore in Corfu, underwear such as culottes and a silk chemise and a belt measuring just 21 inches and an ermine cape, with the tails randomly stitched on.  He only son committed suicide in 1889 and her mourning clothes were also on display. Sisi, who from her writings and behavior, would be diagnosed as clincally depressed, was tragically assassinated by an Italian anarchist while traveling in Serbia in 1898. The Emperor's comment, when he heard about her death was, "You will never know how much I loved that woman." Following her death, her memory became bigger than her life, with statues and memorials erected throughout the Empire. Even today, the reluctant princess would be compared to Princess Diana.
The final section were the Imperial Apartments. There were 19 state and private rooms on display, which provide an insight into both the official and personal lives. Many of the rooms were decorated in red wallpaper with a pineapple motif while others were white with gold painted accents. Included were the emperor's audience chamber, his study and bedroom, which was very sparse. In his study, he had an 8 ft portrait of Sisi positioned across from his desk so he could constantly gaze at her. 
Her apartments adjoined his. In her bedroom/sitting room and dressing room, you could see evidence of her daily exercise routine - hoops hanging from a door casing and an odd ladder on a pedestal for climbing. There was also a huge mirror and it is said that it took 2 hours each day to prepare her hair, which hung to her ankles. Of particular interest was the empress's bathroom. She was the first member of royalty to have one installed in 1876 and her toilet was porcelain designed in the shape of a dolphin.
I spent several hours there and only had time for one other museum.  I chose the Albertina because they had 2 exhibits I thought I would like. One was an extensive temporary exhibit of Miro and the staircase promotes this exhibit.
The other was the permanent collection of Monet to Picasso. It was a gift in 2007 from Herbert and Rita Batliner and it comprised works from Monet, Matisse, Modigliani, Chagall, Degas, Renoir, Braque as well as Giacometti and Picasso.
Emerging from the museum was a great view overlooking Albertina Square.
Now it was time for dinner. I headed to Demel's for little fancy sandwiches and Vienese iced coffee. Delicious.
I headed back to the hotel to get ready for tomorrow.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Prague to Vienna - Day 14

Wednesday, September 17
Prague is such a beautiful city that I hate to give it up. But I can knowing I will be back in 10 days.
I woke up to this beautiful view from my hotel room at the Clarion overlooking the Ministry of Finance and a bridge over the Vltava.
I then had breakfast at the hotel with a lovely young Danish woman who was here for an educational conference. I mentioned I had walked the Camino last year and she was very interested. Said it was something she wants to do.
The sun was shining and it was a gorgeous day so I just spent some more time walking the city. I had been curious about this building on Republic Square near the Marriott so I finally went in. It blew me away -- a super, modern shopping mall hidden inside this old building!
I checked out of the Clarion and the very nice clerk promised me my room with a view when I return.
The train station was also very interesting.  From the outside it looks like something from the last two centuries but inside it is new and bustling. No problem getting a first class ticket for 69 euros for a train departing at 1:30 to Vienna. 
Easy to board, I had a single seat all to myself for the 4-1/2 hour train ride to Vienna.
Caught a cab outside the station (not as easy to find as I would have liked) but escorted me safely to my hotel, the Schweizerhof, in old town. Exhausted from some long days, I decided to go to the grocery on the corner, the Merkur, to pick up some food.  It it the whole Foods of the US on steroids. Finally found some bread, cheese and yogurt,  back to the room, and called it a night.

Prague - Day 13

Tuesday, September 16
I kissed Ed good-bye at 6 am as he headed for a plane back to Louisville. I repacked for the next leg of my journey and then took a walk.  I wanted to see some of the sights before the herds of tourists showed up.
I left the Marriott and walked to nearby Republic Square where the Municipal House is located. It is a beautiful combination of neo-baroque and Czech Art Nouveau built in 1911.
Unfortunately the tours are sold out for days, because I understand it houses Prague's largest concert hall and is gorgeous. Ed said he visited this building when he was here in 2000.
Then I walked through the Powder Tower next to it.
This is the only surviving bit of the defense wall built in the 1400s.
On to the Old Town Square.  This is the location of the Astronomical Clock (enough from yesterday) but you can see how the square is lined with restaurants.
The square is actually very large and wide open but always full of people. This photo of the Hussite Gothic Tyn Church with buildings in front intrigued me.
You have to walk through a narrow lane to get to the front of the church. Either the building codes weren't enforced or the church forgot to buy the property in front.
And what about the tomato soup can?
Apparently, Andy Warhol was Czech and he has an exhibit there.
At noon I checked out of the hotel and Tauck took me to the Clarion Hotel Old Town, only about 6 blocks away but closer to the river. I headed out for touring again, this time to Josefov or the Jewish section. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Prague had one of the biggest ghettos in Europe with 11,000 Jewish inhabitants.
I bought a combo ticket at the Pinkas Synagogue and paid the extra for photos. Built in 1535, this was the site of Jewish worship for 400 years.  Today it is a memorial to the 77,297 Czech Jews who were sent from here to the gas chambers at the concentration camps. The walls are covered with each of their names, in family groupings, with birth date and last date known alive.
The communists closed the synagogue and whitewashed the walls. But after the end of communism in 1989, the Pinkas was reopened and the names rewritten.
The tour, which had already put me in a sober mood, lead from there to the Old Jewish Cemetery. From 1439 until 1787, this was the only burial ground allowed for the Jews of Prague. Consequently, the tombs were piled on top of one another because of limited space. It is estimated there are 12,000 tombstones with tombs layered 7-8 deep. As the ground settled over time, the tombstones became crooked.
Adjacent to the cemetery is the neo-Romanesque mortuary house, built in 1911 for the purification if the dead. It is now an exhibit hall on Jewish medicine, death and burial traditions. 
Next was the Klaus Synagogue, built in the 1600s, and devoted to artifacts used in religious practices.
Down a block is the Old-New Synagogue, still standing after 700 years and still the central building in Josefov. That's the Jewish Town Hall in the background.
Built in 1270, the Old-New Synagogue is the oldest in Eastern Europe.  It still has hard wooden seats lining the perimeter of the main room with the Shrine of the Ark in front as the focus of worship.
The grand finale is the Spanish Synagogue, so-named because of its  Moorish style.  
Built in the 1800s, it now displays Jewish history through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with circa 1900 photos of Josefov.
I still had some daylight left so I took Rick Steves' advice and boarded the #22 tram  (32 kc) at Tesco Department store and rode it across the river and back up Castle Hill. (I love those little trams.)  
I only got off after I passed the main sights and then took the opposing car back down. I got off at the bottom of Legi Bridge and caught a great shot of the Charles Bridge with the castle in the background.
The walk back along the river to my new hotel was charming .
Tonight I had dinner at my hotel and then took a  1 hr boat ride for 250 kc ( about $13) on a little boat on the Vltava.
It was a chilly night and it was only about half full. It was fun to see the city lit up at night, especially the bridges.