Pack your bags: Prague to Regensburg.

So this was the moment we’d been waiting for: someone else was going to lug around our luggage!

I know, I know. How can that even be a deal? You just heft that overstuffed carry-on in and out of the car, up and down stairs,  loft it up to the bin on the airplane. Nothing to it. Except if, between two of you, there is a collective deficit of age, bad back, bad feet, bad shoulders, it becomes a deal. Which is how we ended up on this tour in the first place.

We could sit at home and roll our eyes at how we’d never be part of a group tour, or we could swallow our pride and end up on the Danube. And so, here we were in Prague on a fine fall morning, gazing hopefully at our hotel room door, waiting for someone to knock. And because this was Tauck, the knock came exactly when they said it would. Off went our bags, and we headed downstairs to the bus.

The bus. Yes. Oh, how far we’ve fallen. Remember those stories about how people used to hitch-hike through Europe in the 60’s? Yeah, well, those people are old now. Pride swallowed? Check. And as for the bus, they don’t even call it that. They call it a coach. Like we’re in a fairy tale or something. And as we board, we see why. It’s sleek, it’s spacious, it has phone chargers by every seat, and you’re riding high enough to sit back, relax and look out and survey your kingdom.

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One last look at the Vltava:

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and we were off on our three-hour drive from Prague to our destination of Regensburg, Germany. Our guide from the tour the day before in Prague accompanied us on the bus,  and as we left the city, she pointed out the vast landscape of socialist bloc apartment buildings from the ’60’s, ’70’s and ’80’s. They were prefab concrete, of “Soviet design”.  The Czech people call them “rabbit hutches”, she said. “Everything was gray”, she remembered of the era under Communist rule.

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But soon everything became green as we departed the city and headed southwest through the countryside toward Regensburg. I didn’t mind the coach. The ride was smooth enough to read, or you could look out the window and take in the scenery. As our guide pointed out the site of the seventeenth century Battle of White Mountain, I settled in and thought there might be worse things than riding in a tour coach.

And there are far worse places than Regensburg. As we alit from our coach and walked across the Steinerne Brücke (Stone Bridge) I could tell this Bavarian town was going on my “places I would go back to” list. It was lovely! Like a fairy tale!

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We were on our own for lunch and fell in with a couple we’d sat with at dinner the first night of the tour. (What? Were we actually talking to people?) Laura and Jerry were also from California and over a convivial lunch together on the terrace of Bischofshof am Dom, we discovered those proverbial six degrees of separation and all the places and people we had in common. We toured the village and the imposing Regensburg Cathedral together before joining back up with the tour and our knowledgable new day guide, who had lived all her life in Regensburg.

Lunch on the terrace:

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Our sweet new friend Laura:IMG_6344

St. Peter’s Cathedral:

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Our guide explained that the town of Regensburg dates back to 179 A.D. when it was originally a Roman military camp housing 6,000 soldiers. After the Stone Bridge was built in the 1100’s, Regensburg became the cultural center of southern Germany. In modern history, the town escaped serious damage during WWII and the nearly intact medieval city center is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After the war, Regensburg was the site of the largest Displaced persons (DP) camp in Germany, and, notably, was briefly the home of WWII legend Oskar Schindler. It was, she said, the closest city to the Iron Curtain during the era of Communism.

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The town bustled with happy tourists and we would like to have stayed longer, but like Cinderella, we had to mind the clock and return to our coach or risk turning into pumpkins. Our guide led us down the main street, past the fanciful 13th century David and Goliath wall mural and back over the Stone Bridge to where our buses awaited.

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But our fairy tale day was not yet at an end. We clambered aboard our coach and began the last leg of our drive: an hour’s trip to Vilshofen an der Danau where we would trade our coach for a boat and our river journey would officially begin. Soon we would be cruising the Danube!

 

 

 

 

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Traveling with the herd.

Oh they are smart, these Tauck professionals.

They could tell some of us were outliers, the nervous renegades at the edge of the herd, snorting and stomping at the idea of being rounded up.

So they gentled us in to it. First with an elegant evening of fine dining, and then, oh, just a little walk through old-town Prague the next morning. No big deal, of course, but here, hang this Vox Box around your neck and follow us.

Vox Box? What the…?

It’s kind of like lasso-ing the wild stallion, getting that Vox Box around the neck of a solitary wanderer. But Tauck has their ways.  They are the travel whisperers. One day the CE viewed himself as a proud lone-wolf traveler. The next day, he gave it up, swang the lariat over his head and full-up joined the herd:

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We went from never having heard of a Vox Box to obsessing over its whereabouts at all times. Did you remember the Vox Box? Is the Vox Box charged? Is your Vox Box turned on, is it on the right channel? Don’t step too far away from the group because your Vox Box won’t work and then all is lost!

Okay, so maybe you look like an idiot drone tourist, yes, but the Vox Box is actually a great little accoutrement. Your tour gaggle can proceed in almost monastic silence, not disturbing others around you, and your guide, well ahead of you, can almost whisper into her microphone, with just the occasional flag raise to keep stragglers in line. She eased us into it with a brief stop at Prague’s lovely St. James Basilica:

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And then, assured that we were all behaving, she moved on to the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia. This is one of those experiences we probably would have missed if we had been on our own. Left to my own devices, I would probably have spent the day walking back and forth across the Charles Bridge because I love it so, but Tauck gave us a glimpse of this jewel instead.

Agnes was the sister of thirteenth century King Wenceslaus I, who donated the property along the Vltava River for the convent. Agnes and her followers were influenced by the Poor Clares, dedicated to caring for the ill.

Today the convent houses an exquisite trove of medieval art. The quiet, austere setting of the convent makes it a perfect showcase for sacred paintings and sculpture. A few of my favorites:

Madonna of Vyšehrad (Prague, after 1350):

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Madonna from the Franciscan Monastery (Prague, after 1350):

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Madonna of Roudnice (Prague, around 1385)

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We emerged, blinking, from the barely-lit convent into the mid-day sun, clutching our Vox Boxes and looking to our guide for our next move. Just like that, we had become part of the herd.

And then – just like that – she released us with a wave of her hand. “You’re all free for lunch,” she said. “Just don’t lose your Vox Box!”

Free? On our own? However would we manage? We ambled tentatively down the street and ducked in to restaurant V Kolkovne, Vox Boxes secured in an effort to retrieve some sort of cool factor (that’s a joke, I know full well we have no cool factor whatsoever).

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Tafelspitz and that famous Czech Pilsner Urqell were on the lunch menu, and thus fortified, I could almost face the looming prospect of an afternoon and evening touring by ourselves

One last solo dinner in Prague, one last walk across the Charles Bridge and through the beautifully-lit city of Prague, past the grand doors of the Klementium and then back to the hotel to pack our bags for an early morning departure.

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Truly sorry to leave beautiful Prague, but we would be ready to go at 9 a.m. sharp. With our Vox Boxes! Because now we were fully-tamed, full-fledged members of the herd…and happily so!

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Never say never: two loners join a group tour.

We aren’t exactly well traveled, but we travel well together. The CE and I have a travel rhythm that works for us. I am the scout, researching and planning. He is the explorer, bravely heading out into new territory to fetch me a cup of coffee when we wake up in a new city. We walk at the same pace, have mostly the same travel interests (cathedrals! historic monuments! weird, esoteric side trips that would interest no one else!) and we enjoy one another’s company.

Well, except for when we’re navigating. Too bad Google Maps doesn’t come with an ad hoc marriage counselor, because with us, simple discussions about turning left or right can escalate rapidly. This may have something to do with the fact that I have strong opinions but an ever-so-slightly whimsical sense of direction. Lest you side too quickly with Mister “I-am-a-human-compass”, however, let me remind you that he got us into a few very tight spots on those corniches on the French Riviera. But I digress…

Haha. This looks like one of those discussions. Thanks, Laura, for getting a shot of this tight-lipped “I told you we should have turned right” conversations:

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But while it’s true that we often have no idea where we’re going, we do prefer going there alone, together. We have often broken our stony directionally-challenged silences with knowing smiles when we encounter that ubiquitous travel tableau: the just too perky guide holding a sign aloft while a herd of docile tourists follow obediently in her wake like a flock of ducklings.

We would never do that.

Well, except that at least they do seem to know where they’re going.

But tour buses?

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Well, yes, but there’s also a boat, and that kind of sounds like fun…

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So. Back in 2016 we signed up on a waiting list for a river cruise of the Danube. No deposit, no commitment, just a mythical date on the calendar in case it came through.

But then, last May, it came through. And we had 48 hours to make a decision: fish or cut bait.

We decided to go fishing.

And that is how, a few months later, we found ourselves in a Prague hotel room, petrified of going downstairs to join our very first tour. How bad would it be if we just didn’t show up? was an actual point of conversation. I was literally having flashbacks to my first middle-school dance. (Which was a disaster, fyi.) How had we gotten ourselves into this?

“Well, they deal with the luggage; they take care of all the transfers. These are places we probably wouldn’t go to on our own” Yada yada yada.

I can temporarily masquerade as an extrovert, but soon revert to join the CE in Introvert-ville. “We’re all introverts,” chirped our youngest son cheerfully awhile back, after reading the excellent Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. So this was daunting. We were off to ride buses (buses??!!!!) to a reception and dinner with 100+ people we’d never met.

What had we gotten ourselves into?

And then, oh. Well, maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all:

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One of the reasons we chose the Tauck line was that we’d heard they were noted for their all- inclusive “special excursions” and attentiveness to gracious travel. Rattled as we were at having to talk to strangers and then spend an entire week with them, we had to admit that this looked somewhat promising. A lovely reception and dinner and a private tour of the treasures of Lobkowicz Palace.

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What an evening!

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If we had to talk to strangers, at least this was a lovely place to do it!

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And you know what? All those strangers seemed remarkably – like us! Tauck had provided a passenger list and from a quick scan we saw that the group hailed from all over the country – many from California, some from Florida, and a healthy sampling of the Midwest and Northeast, with some Southeast and Southwest thrown in. Mostly couples, a few family groups and a handful of solo travelers. Our age group was well represented; some were younger, some older. And everyone seemed nice! And those perky tour directors we had dreaded? They were lovely! And smart! And wow, so organized! I liked them!

The food was excellent, the wine plentiful, and the private tour was truly special. There was a scholarly lecture on the history of the palace and Lobkowicz family fortunes through the centuries. Then a tour of the extensive trove of paintings and armaments and musical instruments. We stood for a long time gazing at an original Beethoven manuscript without being jostled or disturbed.

It was such a wonderful evening. And one we never would have had on our own. Maybe, just maybe, this tour thing was going to work out after all…

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Real-Time Travel.

A break in the action. Yes, I know the blog is in Prague, but in real time, we are just back from NYC and it was glorious. Fall in New York is sublime; arriving late fall was a bit like walking in for the third act – and the play’s denouement brought with it a wintry surprise. Wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

First morning, we drew the curtains and this was our lovely post-card perfect greeting:

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Park Avenue was trying hard to rival the Park:

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Even the puddles were a work of art:
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The views from CPS never disappoint:

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We had a (reluctant) front row seat to the New York Marathon:

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We saw Conan at The Beacon Theatre, and if he ever comes back, you must go! He and his guests were a-maz-ing!

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Two wonderful visits to The Met, first for the very fine Delacroix exhibit:

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And again for Jewelry: The Body Transformed:

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We saw Tosca, absolutely mesmerizing for the John Macfarlane sets (SUCH an improvement over the stark modern staging from a few years back!) I will always remember the way the light shone through that transom window.

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Equally unforgettable was Claudio Sgura’s Scarpia:

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There wasn’t much time to shop but I did get to wander through the Grand Central Holiday Fair and fell in love with these velvet scarves by Lisa Kiss:

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And then, suddenly WINTER! Six inches fell in a single afternoon and I believe most of it clung to my coat and scarf. “A walk in the park” took on a whole new meaning for me – I was lost briefly in the white-out in The Ramble which was by turns magical and slightly terrifying – not a soul in sight and I was quite grateful to finally catch a glimpse of the lights of the Central Park Boat House and then make my way past Bethesda Terrace to the Mall and finally, home to thaw out.

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And then that winter wind blew us rubes from California back home, hopefully to return again soon!

Next week – back to Prague and (finally) the river cruise…

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King of the Castles: Česky Krumlov

Where in the world were we?

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We’d barely scratched the surface of Prague, but our time there was short (too short!) so off we went on a day trip. In this land of umlauts, carons and alarming strings of consonants  (here I attempt to imagine a Czech game of Scrabble…) we would have been perpetually confused if it were not for the generally impressive English language skills of its inhabitants.

Luckily for us, Vilma, our private guide from the PragueWalker tour company (they come highly recommended by Rick Steves), had mad English skills, a winsome manner and a sweeping knowledge of Czech history and geopolitics. 

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She collected us from our hotel lobby, bundled us into a sedan and off we went into the Bohemian countryside. Uncharted territory! So far from home! I peered out the window as the miles passed, and it slowly dawned on me: it looked exactly like Ohio! Well, maybe a little less green than Ohio; Vilma explained that the Czech Republic was in the throes of a drought, thus the fields and fields of dried husks from the failed corn crop. 

Our destination was Česky Krumlov, a famed thirteenth century village and UNESCO World Heritage Site in South Bohemia. In my research for our trip I’d read somewhere that it was a must-see; that the town and the castle were the inspiration for the early happily-ever-after animated Disney films. And, as it is with fairy-tale villages, this one was a bit out of the way. The downside of a day trip to Česky Krumlov was the nearly five hours total in the car; the upside was Vilma’s thoroughly prepared tutorial on all things Czech.

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Upon our arrival, we toured the castle garden (nice, but not world-class), got a peek at the dizzyingly (as in vertigo-inducing!) strange Soviet-era revolving theatre:

 

and then, our first glimpse of the village and the castle. It is truly enchanting!

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And, while I had some difficulty understanding the castle tour guide and his explanation of the succession of owners (Rosenbergs, Eggenbergs, Schwarzenbergs…) the rooms we beheld were magnificent, indeed. No photography permitted inside the castle, but I found a few on the official web site:

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Salon knezny Statniho hradu a zamku C. Krumlov pri svickach cca 1997, nove upraven 2010

The Masquerade Hall, with its eighteenth-century trompe l’oeil paintings by Josef Lederer, was the finale of the tour and my favorite room:

 

Due to time constraints, we missed out on the highly-regarded tour of the castle’s Baroque Theatre:

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Which leaves us with a reason to return – Vilma showed us the lovely Hotel Rûže, which is just steps from the castle, overlooking the Vltava River. Ah, well, maybe next time…

 

Instead, we re-traced our route through the Ohioan landscape back to Prague, arriving in time to make our dinner reservation at the lovely Kampa Park restaurant with its fabulous view of the Charles Bridge. It was a perfect fairy-tale ending to our day!

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Prague-ability: 100%

Would we like Prague?

For reasons unknown, in my mind’s eye I had conjured a place of dark, narrow medieval streets, a city suited to woodcut illustrations. So my expectations were low as we alit from the train at Praha Hlavní Nádraži.

And this is why a dunce like me must travel. Because Prague looked nothing like I had imagined! We fell instantly in love. The Vltava River! The Charles Bridge! Swans a-swimming everywhere. Stately buildings painted with confectionary colors.

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And the Charles Bridge! I must return and walk a dozen more times across my now-beloved Charles Bridge.

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IMG_6169Far from my imaginings, Prague is a vibrant city celebrating the best of the old and the new.  They accept the past with equanimity – tourists flock to the Jewish Quarter for tours;

 

And Communist-era buildings, with their “Brutalist” architecture still stand. One of them is the Intercontinental Hotel where we stayed. Although we did learn that highly-placed party members actually lodged at the much nicer Ambassador Hotel next door built expressly for them.  (We can talk about Marxism later…)

 

From our hotel, we looked out on the famed Metronome, a symbol of the Czech people’s struggle against Communism, which stands on the former site of an enormous statue of Stalin. One of our guides commented wryly that the metronome never works – just like Communism.

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But all that is in the past, and the people of the Czech Republic have clearly embraced the present. They are deservedly proud of the progress they have made in a mere thirty years since 1989’s Velvet Revolution when students massed in demonstrations and jingled their keys to let the Communists know it was time for them to leave.

It is a delightfully historic city where the old and the new clasp hands in warm recognition. We were smitten by the Old Town Square, which dates back to the 12th century.

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I will fondly remember it for my discovery of the famed Czech beer.

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But Old Town Square’s culture is not just about beer. We also discovered the outstanding Gallery of Art where we saw beautifully curated exhibits of Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.

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And speaking of culture, on our way back to the hotel that day I spied the statue honoring Prague’s favored son, Franz Kafka. The statue depicts the subjects of Kafka’s story “Depiction of a Struggle”, which also describes me as I read the story. Please let me know if you are able to understand it, because I could not.

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I found that story, and several other exceptional pieces in a book called Prague: A Traveler’s Companion wherein some of the most celebrated authors of the Czech Republic pay tribute to the magical spell Prague casts over its people. It would take months or years to explore this city and properly understand its past and present. A few days is not nearly enough, but how grateful I am to have been there at all. I remain, happily, under its spell.

“If Prague is still standing, and has not yet lost its allure or its beauty, it is because its very stones, like its people, have expressed their patient perseverance.”

  • Ivan Klima
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A Night at the Staatsoper.

It was the icing on the cake. Or, rather, perhaps, the schlag on the sachertorte. On our last night in Vienna, we had tickets to the opera!

Originally completed in 1869 as the Vienna Court Opera, and renamed the Vienna State Opera after the abdication of the Hapsburgs in 1920, the building remains intact on the outside, but was badly damaged in March of 1945 by an American bombardment.

Since our hotel was just steps away from the Staatsoper, we walked through the surrounding arcade every day.

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No ticket? No problem. You can still go to the opera – each night a small crowd gathered to watch the performance televised live on a screen mounted outside the building. (Oh if only The Met would pick up on this idea!)

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Before the performance, we had a light dinner on the terrace at Cafe Mozart (Graham Greene reportedly wrote the script for The Third Man here). Salad and squash for me – and like seemingly everything else in Vienna, I discovered that the squash was breaded. Wienersquash instead of Wienerschnitzel…maybe just a bit healthier?

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After dinner, we walked around the corner to the main entrance of the opera house. The foyer and main stairways escaped damage from the fire that ignited from the bombing in 1945.

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But the interior was destroyed. Much of Vienna bears the scars of the WWII bombings, with buildings hastily replaced and built on the cheap in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Even though vigorous fund-raising to rebuild the opera house began straightaway after the war, the auditorium is decidedly less grand than one might expect. However, the acoustics are excellent!

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Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxos was a bit silly and ultimately forgettable, but we will always remember our night at the opera in Vienna. Along with many others in the crowd after the final curtain call, we made our way across the street to the lobby of the Hotel Sacher for a digestif and, on the eve of our departure, a taste of sachertorte. Mit schlag, of course. It was the icing on the cake of our visit to Vienna.

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