Saturday, August 28, 2010

Vienna Revisited

At last, more playtime with Denise and Sofian!

From Salzburg the New Yorkers and I boarded a train to Vienna and parted ways at Westbanhof Station with neither of us really knowing how to get to our destinations. Obviously I found mine and Denise and Sofian arrived soon after.

It's always great to see them and Sofian was perfect baby the whole time (except for one midnight meltdown that had us considering skipping breakfast the next morning to avoid the glares).

Although the weather was supposed to make a turn for the worse again, the entire time in Vienna was good (since we successfully dodged a few brief thunderstorms).
As is my way, our time in Vienna revolved around food and palaces. Believe it or not, we didN'T eat pastry every afternoon like last time I was in Vienna with Laura (the stand with the yummy pretzels and pastries was no longer there :-(

We did start out the trip with a visit to Cafe Tirolerhof, a lovely classic Viennese cafe complete with chandeliers and waiter in tux. At first our tuxedoed waiter didn't seem so fond of us, but then he warmed up to us after some cheesecake.

We then faithfully followed Rick Steve's walking tours around town.

First walk- Vienna's old center that included stops at the Opera and St. Stephen's, the Gothic cathedral at the center of town known for its 450-foot tower and colorful roof. Although there was a tour of the interior of St. Stephen's, we skimmed that one since Rick overestimated our level of interest.

It also took us to Albertinaplatz, with a really bleak monument to victims of war and violence entitled 'The Gates of Violence'-- the description was a downer!

Afterwards we strolled on Karntner Strasse and Graben, admiring the pretty buildings of varied architectural styles: Art Nouveau, Neoclassicism, Modernist and Postmodern.

We did not admire St. Peter's Church. Rick said it was "Vienna at its Baroque best," we thought it was tacky!

Before heading to see Hofburg Palace, we did make a brief pit stop at the Public WC's built underground in 1900 by a chemical company to prove their product got things clean- good marketing I'd say cause they were swanky.

We happened to stay slightly out of the center in what appeared to be close to the gay neighborhood. We were delighted since that also meant a lot of the good restaurants were nearby- in fact we never ate in the center. We did have a really tasty, although not healthy meal, it the most delightful garden thanks to the recommendation of a random bartender (we actually ended up at many yummy local restaurants thanks to random people in nice shops and bars).

We also picnicked since the produce in the Naschmarkt, an outdoor market created in 1898 when the city covered the Vienna River, looked delicious. (Dad- their tomatoes seemed to fare better than your crop).

We enjoyed our lunch in the gardens of the Schonbrunn Palace, the former summer residence of the Hapsburgs, with 1,441 rooms. Only 40 rooms are open to the public and we only saw about half of them since 1) I accidentally bought the wrong ticket for the shorter tour and 2) it was so crowded with huge tour groups we kept trying to get away from them (and failed when we just ran into another group ahead). Plus, Sofian wasn't the biggest fan of the palace- Denise claims he just doesn't like palaces since he wasn't fond of the ones in France either.

We decided to give it another try the following day with a visit to the Hofburg Palace's Imperial Apartments and the Sisi Museum.

The Sisi Museum was perhaps the worst laid out museum I have even been to, with NO AC and zillions of people. Despite Sisi (Empress Elizabeth, Franz Josef's wife) being Princess Diana wacky it was just too hot and crowded to enjoy.

Luckily things cleared up when we entered the Imperial Apartments which were really lovely. The private apartments and public meeting rooms that Franz Josef I used from 1857 to 1916 are on display and quite tasteful.

All that opulence certainly called for a glass of wine on Graben, the prettiest street. Sure, we broke a glass and annoyed the waiter by asking for the check as he was cleaning up the glass shards, but we enjoyed it. We later annoyed another waiter by ordering a cheeseburger and club sandwich instead of her Viennese recommendations ;-) (note: I have not had a burger since the ham version in Montenegro!)

In general we all enjoyed Vienna- the buildings and gardens are SO pretty, the city is spotless and it is really charming.

Sadly Denise and Sofian had to head back to London and I was back to the train station.

(BTW, if you are still interested in donating to the orphans in Nepal let me know- you can do it by PayPal since the other site is now closed).

Friday, August 20, 2010

Climb Every Mountain

No, I am not adding rock climbing to the list of adventures, I am singing along to the "Sound of Music"! :-)

Salzburg, Austria it was for 3 nights to kill time until I met Denise (and Sofian) in Vienna (a random destination we selected since she could fly direct from Heathrow for a reasonable sum with only a few days notice).

The train ride to Salzburg was a bit bazaaro (and pricey). Oddly, I was in a compartment with a Chinese man that seemingly spoke neither the local language nor English, but kept saying "mamma mia, mamma mia" and speaking to me and the British girl despite the fact that we had NO idea what he was saying. It was actually kind of amusing until the other three seats were occupied by loud, obnoxious Austrian teens (I guess teens are the same worldwide, thankfully they weren't there too long).

The rain continued so I was not about to tour the city upon arrival- nothing looks very nice in the rain anyway (plus, I had already walked to the guesthouse in the rain lugging my backpack).
Salzburg is the home of Mozart, so I spent my first afternoon visiting Mozarthaus, the apartment where he lived which is now a museum with old pianos and a fairly interesting audio guide about his life.

That evening I really just wanted a glass of wine at a cute wine bar I passed on my walk home from Mozarts. So, they don't have a menu, but they would be happy to make me a small fish meal. Yeah, that turned into a 4-course meal (good food makes me happy, even more so now). They left a full bottle of Slovenian wine on my table and just charged me for what I drank- everyone should do that! So what if it was twice what I paid for a bed that night ;-)

Alas, the rain plaguing the region for days has passed- sunshine!!!!!!!

But wait, I can't enjoy the sun just yet since the real purpose of coming to Salzburg was not classical music, it was "The Sound of Music."
I dedicated a whole day to the film, first watching the movie for 3 hours in the morning (all the hotels in Salzburg seem to show the film since so many tourists come for this reason) and then I went on the 4 HOUR tour of sites, including the gazebo, the family home (2 palaces were used- one for the front and one for the rear) and the church where they got married. In between the stops there was singing along to the soundtrack. It was really silly!

After (wasting) the whole day on nonsense, I felt I should take advantage of the fact that the famous Salzburg Festival happened to be going on while I was in town. Since all the cheaper tickets were sold out and the operas were going for 290 Euro, I opted for a Brahms violin and piano concert for 70 Euro. Sure, not traditionally my thing, but I was willing to expand my horizons. As it turned out, I didn't have to expand them for very long since the concert was ONLY 45 MINUTES! Yes, cost per minute wise the opera may have been more of a bargain!

On the walk to and from the concert I did get to stroll through Mirabell Gardens, the site where Doe-Ray-Me-etc. was filmed. Besides being amused by the movie sites, the gardens were beautifully landscaped with the backdrop of the Cathedral, Castle and mountains in the background- not bad (I actually never made it across the river to the old town to see those up close- where did the time go?)
That night I had a beer with some Dutch and Canadians laughing about my shock over the 45 minute concert (yes, I had considered it was only intermission, but it wasn't!) and other Salzburg sites. Not being a WWII buff (or "Band of Brothers" watcher) I had no idea that Berchtesgaden, German, only 11 miles away, was such a point of interest. What the hell, I'd go.

The next morning Matt and I boarded the 480 bus to Germany (which was 10 minutes late- so un Austrian!).

The Eagle's Nest Tour took us to all sorts of Hitler related sites in the Obersalzberg area- site of Hitler's former residence, the Berghof, and the SS' second seat of power.
We toured the bunker system that was underneath the former Nazi headquarters in the Alps. The tour claimed that many of Hitler's ideas and decisions can be traced back to this mountainside, including the thoughts expressed in Mein Kampf (a popular wedding gift at the time, interestingly).

Although the Allies destroyed nearly all the Nazi sites (whether in the original air raid or before their departure from Germany so the sites did not become shrines to Hitler or the Nazi party), we did see the locations of Hitler's and Albert Speer's homes, Martin Bormann's model farm, the Platterhof's theater and Nazi party headquarters. The SS-Officers' housing is actually still standing and rented out by the government to private citizens.

The tour culminated at the Eagle's Nest, the tea house built at 6017 ft. as a gift for Hilter's 50th birthday. It seemed like an awfully passive aggressive gift to me since it is atop the highest road in Germany and Hitler was afraid of heights.
The original brass-lined elevator is still used to bring visitors inside the building, which is really nothing special (despite that it was a feat of engineering back in the day based on where and how quickly it was constructed). The outside however- wow, what views (we were lucky, 50% of the time it is fogged in)!!!!!!!!

All that Hitler called for a beer. Coincidentally there were two New Yorkers on the tour, Matt and Phil, so the four of us went to the Augustiner Braustubl, a beer hall run by MONKS! I had never been to a beer hall before, but it is kinda cool- people of all ages were hanging in this huge garden picnicking and drinking beer from 1 liter mugs. Although our first pour was uber foamy (cause the guy just tapped the wooden keg with a giant mallet), the pretzels and other treats were yum.
See, now you can understand why I never got to the old town!

Monday, August 16, 2010

So Many Consonants

Ah Slovenia- so nice! But still so rainy :-(

Ljubljana (Lube-e-ana), the capital of Slovenia, is another really cute town with a castle atop a hill and a river running through it (the city was named after the river). They pride themselves on being just the right size, not too big or too small for their 250,000 residents.

The city's symbol is the Dragon, which symbolises power, courage and greatness and is pretty much everywhere: on top of the castle tower, in the coat-of-arms and on the Zmajski most (Dragon Bridge). As the Greek legend goes, Jason, the leader of the Argonauts, slayed a dragon after returning home from having taken the Golden Fleece.

Sadly all these former Yugoslavian towns are starting to look alike-- I am a little over them, and their churches and castles- good thing, cause this is my last stop.
However, Ljubljana did have a gourmet restaurant that I never wanted to leave. Ah, a healthy salad and soup, which wasn't super salty, and a yummy glass of Slovenian wine. We don't get Slovenian wine in the States since they don't produce enough for export (beyond their neighbors I guess, since I got some in Austria later), which is too bad since it was damn good.

Revived after my meal, I followed the tourist information's 'tourist route', which didn't take too long since the city is mini. It had all the standard stuff- the castle, veggie/fruit market, churches, bridges (one that went in 3 directions) and Austrian architecture, with a little Art Deco and graffiti mixed in for flavor. Ljubljana has a lively youth community where music, graffiti and other art are taken seriously, for example graffiti was displayed as art along the embankment walls.

Sadly, before I could find a wine bar to ply me with more Slovenian wine it started to thunder and the sky turned pitch black. I scrambled, but failed, getting absolutely SOAKED before I got back to my room (even with my REI umbrella).

The bulk of time in Ljubljana was spent hibernating (and planning the next few days) until it appeared to clear up for a few hours the next day, in fact only enough for a quick walk in Tivoli Park and a tour of the newer sites, including the US Embassy which looks about as un-American as you can imagine (I can't show you since they yelled when I attempted to photograph).

More cold rain. It was so bad I was forced to see "Knight and Day" with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz and actually didn't think it was SO bad- believe me, nothing else was playing! I told you, I am getting soft without my daily dose of NYC! Ljubljana was so mini, the movie actually started 15 minutes late because the projectionist was stuck in traffic due to the weather- this is a capital city??

On a separate note, I know I was talking smack about Nutella in the Zagreb post, but I also discovered in Ljubljana that it is actually pretty delish! Uh oh, now I am going to be eating chocolate for breakfast too. :-(

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Shhhh, Don't Tell

Everything seemed beautiful until....Slovenia!
It is gorgeous!!!!!!!

After a train and bus combo, I was in Lake Bled for a late lunch at my guesthouse on the top of a very steep hill (damn this backpack!).

Unfortunately the weather had started to deteriorate along the way, which isn't great when in a lake town full of outdoorsy activities.

When the downpour turned to a sprinkle I ventured back down the hill for a walk around the lake.

It is SO nice, with a swimming complex, fishing area, rowing center (Slovenia's first and only Olympic gold was in rowing) and cafes along the way. However, what it is most famous for is the church built on an island in the middle of the lake and a castle on the hill atop. Again, gorgeous!

It was so pretty I felt the need to leave it the next morning (it was sunny, yay) for a side trip to Lake Bohinj about 45 minutes away. This lake was reported to be even more beautiful.
The drive through the mountain towns was lovely and once there, it took all my willpower not to paraglide when I saw people flying around the lake and mountains (I might have done it had I not had 3pm plans already).

After a 4K power walk I was at the Vogel Ski Resort cable car. I definitely didn't have enough time for this excursion, but I went to the top to see the spectacular views. I was only up there for half an hour since the cable car schedule was limited, but enough time to marvel at the mountains and lake and question why there were cows at 1535 meters. These Alps are nice!

Rush- back on the bus to Lake Bled for a quick borek (the worst on the many I had sampled so I had to supplement with a slice of the cream cake for which Bled is known) and off to CANYONING!
Canyoning is kinda ridiculous, but I have never done it so figured I would check it off the list.
It basically consists of navigating canyons by jumping (only 4 meters) into icy, shallow pools, sliding down rock formations and rappelling down canyon walls. We were fully wet suited, but it was still damn cold (they said it was 8 degrees C). Like the other silly adventure sports I have done, it was also really fun. Mario and Allen, our guides, were not so friendly at the start (I was beginning to question the company name Fun Turist), but ended up being really cool, as were my Brit, Scot and Brazilians mates.
Some of the drops and slides were a bit dicey- with a rope burned hard here and a banged elbow there. It was about the thousandth time on this trip that I said "I can't believe we didn't have to sign any liability waiver.... we would never be allowed to do this in the States."
Sadly there are no pictures of this craziness since the 20 euro price tag seemed too hefty at the time (plus, we looked ridiculous).

Unfortunately my plan to swim in the Lake Bled pool was foiled the next morning by more rain. I now know that hiking and biking in the rain are not my things, so I decided to make my way to my next destination where the weather was reported to be better.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sleepy in Sleepy Zagreb

I arrived back in Croatia, in the capital of Zagreb, after a not so restful, 10-hour overnight train ride from Sarajevo (do they really need to check tickets three times AND cross the border in the middle of the night?).

It actually wasn't so bad thanks in part to the Berliners with whom I shared the compartment (and the young local boys that entertained us for the first hour- I hope the one's dive from the Mostar bridge went well).

Everyone told me to skip Zagreb, but I went since the Museum of Contemporary Art that opened last year was very well reviewed. I don't understand why everyone bypasses the city- it is super cute, like a mini Vienna.

Sure, there wasn't much going on, other than sitting in their beloved outdoor cafes, but it made for an enjoyable couple days. It is really peaceful (aka quiet) and the architecture, wide streets and landscaping are very pretty. It also had some good, healthy restaurants for a change- green veggies, yay!

I did hop the tram (without validating my ticket- I couldn't figure it out) to the new museum, which was cool, despite the fact that I couldn't figure out how to get in or out of the building- the automatic doors refused to open for me. I blamed it on being sleepy from the train ride, but I do think I may be getting a little less quick as the NYC edge softens.

The building was very modern and kinda interesting, mainly because it had a slide that was art and amusement all wrapped up in one, plus the guy insisting on giving me student admission which is always nice for the ego ;-)

The huge plus, the museum was across the street from a mall that housed a movie theater and mega supermarket. It was a land of plenty!! First, I saw "Inception" on the most enormous screen- my third movie in over 4 months (I used to do that in weeks)! What did I miss when they spoke in Japanese? (It was subtitled for the Croats, of course.)

After the movie I went looking in the mega market for peanut butter, something I have been unable to locate since leaving Africa (go figure). Alas, PB, complete with a picture of the Statue of Liberty!!!!!!!! :-) I don't get why the Euros find PB so disgusting when they eat Nutella for breakfast.

My tram ride home was a little bit of a fiasco since the tram didn't exactly go in a loop as I thought, but I found my way back and got to see another random bit of the city (I really must have been spacey that day!)

The other highlight was a drink with Ken and his girlfriend, who happened to be in Zagreb from NYC one night-- pretty random, but it was nice to see a face from home (and one that I hadn't even seen very recently at home).

After a couple days wandering about the pretty upper and lower towns it was time to finally bid Croatia farewell.

Friday, August 6, 2010

City of Roses

No, it isn't the City of Roses a la Pasadena! Sarajevo is called the City of Roses for a much more depressing reason!

This city was under siege for 4 years, the longest any capital city has been under siege in the history of modern warfare, so the Bosnian War is very evident.
One example: the roses. All over the city, in thousands upon thousands of places, craters where mortars landed and killed innocent Sarajevans are filled with red plastic as an ongoing memorial to those that perished in the war. These were typically around gather places, like churches or places that distributed water or supplies- anywhere that would cause maximum casualties.

Although I don't have a picture to demonstrate, Sarajevo is surrounded by the Olympic mountains (ah, remember how nice it looked in 1984). During the war, the Serb forces encircled Sarajevo and attacked a relatively defenseless population with mortars, artillery, tanks, snipers- reportedly making a sport of who (extra points/money for women or children) or how many they could kill. It is reported that over 10,000 people were killed in Sarajevo, of which 1,500 were children. People talk about the genocide in Srebrenica- Sarajevo was equally horrific.

Since the city was blockaded, a 800 meter long tunnel was created to link the city with Sarajevo Airport and the United Nations. During the time it was used, it is estimated that 20 million tons of food entered the city, and 1 million people passed in and out of it. They even had people checking for contraband since they didn't want to waste precious tunnel time on things like alcohol and cigarettes (impressive given how much these euros smoke).

I took the long (1 hr.) tram ride (did you know Sarajevo was the first city in Europe with trams? #2 to San Fran.), followed by a short taxi ride, to the Tunnel Museum where I walked through the remaining 20 meters of tunnel. During the trip I also experienced another Bosnian excited that I am American.

Although we left them hanging for 4 years, the Bosnians are greatly appreciative that the US came to their rescue. Several people I met expressed their pro America feelings, telling me that people name their kids after Clinton and Albright (and that maybe I would not be as well received in Serbia). The owner of the place I stayed said the day the Americans bombed was the best day of his life-- he was dancing in the streets. It is nice to be liked, since we are so often not, but I still felt bad it came so late.

Although very complicated, to simplify, the war was basically fought along religious lines for territory (Serbs = Orthodox, Bosnians = Muslim and Croats = Catholic). Interestingly enough, Sarajevo has always been known for its religious diversity- you can literally hear the mosques' call to prayer at the same time the Orthodox and/or Catholic bells are ringing and Jewish services are taking place.

In the end many men had to choose between fighting for their heritage or their city, a dilemma that apparently tore families apart.

Unfortunately, it isn't hard to see the scars of war as the people speak of the past when the river was the pride of the city (now polluted), the library was among the best in Europe (a bombed out shell), etc.

Perhaps they are appropriately down since they see limited progress. In order to maintain peace their government is comprised of three Presidents who rotate power EVERY 3 MONTHS! Couple that with corruption and you can see why nothing gets done.
There are lots of famous buildings that have yet to be reconstructed since they are owned by the government and are being left to rot since no one can agree (makes the US gov't look slightly more functional).

The city is really interesting and vibrant, with an Austrian district butting right up against the Turkish quarter-- it is really like crossing the street from Vienna into Istanbul. So odd, but so cool!

Unfortunately Sarajevo has lots of bad memories. As you recall, Sarajevo is also the site where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in 1914, leading to the start of WWI. They call the bridge the Princip Bridge after the assassin to remind people how one person can change the course of history.
On a happier note, I happened to be in town for the Sarajevo Film Festival. I was able to see three movies: a documentary from Turkey, a Thai film that won the jury prize at Cannes and the winner of this year's foreign language Oscar, "Secret in Their Eyes" (if you haven't seen it, it is very good) at the open air cinema. It was lovely and I met lots of other film buffs from all over the world.
Apparently Morgan Freeman was wandering about town, there for the showing of "Invictus", but I missed him.
I know this post is a little bit of a downer, but Sarajevo is one of the best places I've visited so far and definitely worth a visit! I didn't plan on visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina and so, so happy that I did. I hope their government figures out a better solution so they can restore the city to its former glory.

Don't Worry, I'm Not Going to Somalia

Seems I am hitting all the war torn countries of the early 90's- first Rwanda, then Croatia (not that you can still see many remnants of the war) and now Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

I haven't been mentioning too much about my long journeys from place to place, but everything isn't exactly right next door, as you may be thinking. And even if it is nearby, the mountains make it very hard to find a direct route. Hence, I had a 12 hour journey on 3 different buses from Zabljak, Montenegro to Mostar, BiH (really just H in Mostar, since the Croats consider it the capital of H).

Unlike other places that don't talk too much about the war, you hear and see a lot in BiH!
Like a lot of places in BiH, there was many a war crime committed in Mostar, including some ethnic cleansing, rape and the destruction of the Stari Most, aka the Old Bridge over the Neretva River, built during the Ottoman era.

Upon arrival in the city, you see evidence of a war that ending 15 years ago. There are still shells of buildings along the front line- the street that divides the east (Serbian) and west (Croats) sides of the city.

The former bank building, used by snipers, is still sitting abandoned. Although I didn't venture up, a lot of tourists climb to the rooftop for a snipers eye view. Apparently the building looks exactly the same inside, with random office furniture, papers, books and an occasional shell casing laying around.

Mostar is most famous for the Stari Most, which was destroyed with all the other bridges in Mostar (although not all by the same side), along with many churches and mosques. Stari Most was reconstructed, thanks in part to the US, and reopened in 2004.
In addition to being old, the bridge is also famous for people diving or jumping from it- a 20+ meter drop. I had the pleasure (and pressure) of being the photographer and videographer for Alex, a Brit I befriended who made the jump at 25 meters!

People on the bridge were delighted that there was someone crazy enough to do it when they were around since only 420-some people have done it since the bridge reopened. Sadly, the annual diving competition was held a week before we arrived--- now those people are crazy!

I met Alex on BATA's famous tour the day before. No one will tell you much about the tour, other than that Bata is crazy (which he is), but EVERYONE tells you to do it!

The epic tour started at 10:30am and lasted til near midnight!!!!! To sum it up in one word- reckless!

The tour started with a brief tour of Mostar and some famous war sites. Then it was off to sample some of the best Borek (the local delicacy), which now that I have had more, really was the best.
There were woman rolling dough and cooking the pastry filled with meat, cheese, spinach or potato in a 1000 degree kitchen. Toasty!

After our tummies were full, it was off to the waterfalls. The water was FREEZING!!!!!!!!!!!!
After shivering, it was time for some climbing behind the waterfalls on slippery rocks. After my fingers and toes turned blue and I slipped down a rock (which didn't hurt that much because I was NUMB!), I took a break to warm up.

Now that I was sure my finger was broken, it was time for a beer before the rope swing and a hike to yet another 10m cliff jump (as it turns out, I think I only sprained my finger since it is starting to hurt less after a little over a week, and the scrapes are healing nicely).

After we visited an old fortress town and sampled some local sweets and beverages, then had to run after the van which was now pumping "turbo folk" with disco lights. It sounds ridiculous, cause it was! It was also a ton of fun-- so silly you couldn't help but laugh, injuries and all.

The tour finally ended with a trip to a monastery built into the side of a mountain. It was probably really spiritual and enchanting, but at 11pm I was just too exhausted to care.