2018 Reading Recap: books that made my heart beat faster.

I can be made perfectly happy by long books in which almost nothing happens. In general, the longer and the nothinger, the better. After all, there’s quite enough drama in the chicken yard to satisfy my need for suspense. But every now and then, a book creeps in on the reading list that makes me skip a paragraph to see what happens next, or causes a shiver up my spine.

Since today is author Patricia Highsmith’s birthday, let’s begin with the impeccable psychological thriller, The Talented Mr. Ripley (276 pages, audiobook, narrated by Kevin Kenerly, published 1955) Yes, I’d seen the movie, thus I could only envision Jude Law and Matt Damon as Dickie Greenleaf and Tom Ripley. And they were perfectly cast. Gwyneth Paltrow seems just a tad too glamorous for the Marge Sherwood character but let’s not quibble. The pacing of the book is just as spectacular as the meticulous character development of the sociopath Tom Ripley. Why read the book? Well, to see an artist at work. And (remember my affection for long books in which nothing happens?) for the sly homage to Henry James’ The Ambassadors and Highsmith’s chilling sum-up of Ripley’s fatal flaw: “Possessions reminded him that he existed”. Highly recommended.

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Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (347 pages, Kindle, published 2017) is almost too good a history book to list it in the genre of true crime. A New York Times bestseller and finalist for the 2017 National Book Award, it shines a harsh and glaring light on the consequences of greed and political corruption in 1920’s Oklahoma, where the Osage Indians have been made fabulously wealthy by their ownership of the mineral rights to their tribal lands and thus the oil discovered beneath. One by one, members of the tribe are found murdered, but they are under the thumb of an all-too convenient Federal government conservatorship that does anything but protect the Osage people. Enter J. Edgar Hoover, who sees an opportunity to make a name for himself and his nascent federal force that becomes the FBI. Truly a page turner. Highly recommended.

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One of my book club friends grew up in post-WWII Paris and can always be depended upon to supply a good read. Last year it was the delicious name-dropping The Hotel on the Place Vendome ; and this year the entertaining Wine and War: the French, the Nazis and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Donald Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup (304 pages, Kindle, published 2002). The book opens with a dramatic scene of French soldiers liberating cases and cases of Château Lafite-Rothschild and Château d’Yquem from Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” in the Bavarian Alps. Hitler himself was not a connoisseur, but Göring was, and soon after France fell to the Nazis, it was decreed that French wine could only be sold to Germany. The vintners of Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy found ways great and small to resist their country’s captors, often at great personal risk. André Terrail, owner of famed Paris restaurant La Tour d’Argent got away with walling in 20,000 of his finest bottles of wine. But Maurice de Nonancourt, brother of Laurent-Perrier founder Bernard de Nonancourt, perished in a concentration camp after being arrested for resistance activities. François Taittinger and others displayed their contempt for the Germans by passing off their worst wine to them and went to jail for their transgressions. Every page was alternately a welcome primer on French wine and another ratchet of suspense as to what would happen to those who ferried resistance leaders in and out of the Occupied Zone in wine barrels. Nearly all the top management of Moët and Chandon ended up in prison or concentration camps – let’s drink a toast to them for their courage. Recommended.

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Fast-forward a few years after World War II and General Charles de Gaulle’s triumphant return from exile. Alors, political fortunes must wax and wane, and de Gaulle was in the soupe oignon over his decision to support Algerian independence. A twenty-something journalist named Frederick Forsyth embroidered the details of an actual assassination attempt on de Gaulle and created a character that redefined the genre of the political thriller. I haven’t seen the movie so I have no idea if it holds up, but The Day of the Jackal  (464 pages, audiobook narrated by Simon Prebble, originally published 1971) has all the requisite elements of danger and intrigue as long as one can manage without 21st century special effects. (Imagine – no cell phones!) A fun read and I actually learned a little bit about 20th century geopolitics.

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“Let’s read a book together” texted my stepdaughter, Angie. Sure, why not? “You pick”, I texted back. Fateful decision! When you let Angie pick it will almost never end up being a Henry James novel where nothing happens. She was looking at a list of notable -books-you-never-heard-of and announced we would be reading Cherry by Nico Walker (337 pages, Kindle, published 2018). It reads like a memoir but is billed as a novel – surely some of these horrors had to be fictional, right? Nothing guarantees a page-turner like sex, drugs and IED’s. Walker’s story is definitely his own: going nowhere and doing too many drugs after high school, enlists in the army, decorated repeatedly for valor in Iraq, comes back, does too many drugs, escalates to heroin addiction and then starts robbing banks to support his habit.  He’s a great salesman for heroin: “There was nothing better than to be young and on heroin…you could kill yourself real slow and feel like a million dollars.” The only time I put the book down was to look up terminology – remember, this is all sex and drugs – I’d never heard of (don’t ask – you don’t want to know and I will never be able to unsee any of it). Walker had a lot of help with this book, especially since he wrote it from prison, where he is currently serving an 11-year-term for those bank robberies he committed. He had so much help, as he makes clear in his acknowledgements, that I have to wonder if the lines between the author and the editor might be a bit blurred. No matter, this was one of the most memorable books I read this year.  Recommended. Thanks Ang!

And the winner, if you can call it that, for books that made me feel like I might have a heart attack, is The Snowman by Jo Nesbø. I listened to it in audiobook form (530 pages, narrated by Robin Sachs, originally published 2007) and at times was literally looking over my shoulder while I listened, because this book is terrifying! It is the seventh book in Nesbø’s crime fiction series featuring world-weary detective Harry Hole and it makes Scandinavian fiction bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seem like a fairy tale. When Nesbø invokes the Snowman, he is most definitely not talking about the cuddly “Frosty” I grew up with. I think those long, dark winters over there make people just a little teched. I have to recommend it for being well-written horror but with the caveat that it (and presumably the Michael Fassbender film) is not for the faint of heart. Never say never, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any of the other Harry Hole novels. Henceforth, I’ll be the one hiding in the Henry James section…

 

 

 

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A different kind of travel: the 2018 book list.

Let’s put a bookmark in the river cruise for a bit – time to do the annual reading retrospective. To make it just a bit less jarring, we’ll start with four books from the 2018 reading list that echoed places we visited on the trip.

As soon as I learned we would be traveling to Prague, I revisited The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (320 pages, published 1984). To switch things up, I listened to it as an audiobook this time, narrated by Richmond Hoxie.

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The key reason for my re-read is that the novel is set in then-Czechoslovakia around the time of the Prague Spring uprising and subsequent Soviet oppression. The narrative is more about its plot in time than it is about place, but is largely set in Prague and and Petrín Hill is prominently featured, albeit in a troubling dream sequence.

Petrín Hill, Prague:

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The main characters are Tomáš, a physician and inveterate philanderer, Tereza, who can’t quit him, and Sabina, a hard-edged free spirit who wears a bowler hat and sometimes not much else. She was played by Lena Olin in the 1988 film:

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Kundera’s book quickly became a classic of the period and remains a must-read although I must confess I found it more brittle and cynical this time around. No wonder – Kundera’s underlying theme is a tussle with Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. “What can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?” asks Kundera.

There is a suffusing grey melancholy in the interior and exterior lives of the characters. Better understood having now visited the Czech Republic where its denizens refer to everything as having been grey under the Communists. There are inner frailties: Tomáš looks for love – or something – in all the wrong places, over and over again, and the ever-present secret police of the Communist era, And outer humiliations: Tomás is stripped of his career as a physician for not lining up for the Party and made to work as a window-washer. And then – spoiler alert – quite frankly, things don’t end well.

But Kundera is a brilliant writer and probably well deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature which it is rumored has been withheld from him due to his own questionable political activities as a young man. Those were troubling times indeed.

I gave the book five stars the first time, four stars the second. Recommended reading whether or not you are planning to visit Prague.

Speaking of Prague, I was so pleasantly surprised by the gem that is Prague: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Paul Wilson (paperback, 256 pages, published 1995). Part of a pair of anthologies, this was the better of the two that I read. Beautifully curated, it is an astonishingly good collection of short stories and excerpts that bring Prague to life through literary history. Kundera is conspicuously absent from the collection, but Franz Kafka’s “Description of a Struggle” is included, as are selections by Gustav Meyrink and Bohumil Hrabal. Astoundingly good are “The Case of the Washerwoman” by Egon Erwin Kisch, “Mendelssohn is on the Roof” by Jirí Weil (a harrowing and  heartbreaking depiction of the Nazi monster Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during WWII) and “A Prague Eclogue” by Jifí Kovtun, which memorializes the seventeenth-century Battle of White Mountain. The selections are liberally sprinkled with Prague landmarks including, of course, the Charles Bridge, as well as Old Town Square, the astronomical clock and the narrow streets of the Malá Strana. Recommended.

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Vienna, A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Donald Daviau (256 pages, published 2008) is also worth a read, although I found it just a little less accessible than the Prague collection. Maybe because I was an extremely jet-lagged tourist trying to see Vienna at the same time I was reading the book. If you are a fan of the Hotel Imperial (and seriously, who isn’t?!) there is a hauntingly beautiful selection called “Visit to Vienna” by Erich Wolfgang Skwara. An excerpt from Arthur Schnitzler’s “The Death of a Bachelor” is notable as the work adapted by Stanley Kubrick to “Eyes Wide Shut”. Stephan Zweig is represented by an excerpt from “Beware of Pity” and Franz Kafka by “The Hunger Artist”, a bizarre story that I read twice trying to make sense of Kafa’s message. I fail miserably every time I try to understand Kafka and welcome any lifeline a more literate reader can throw me…

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We were trying to travel light, so when I finished the book, I set it on a bench outside the Staatsoper in hopes that some other English-speaking tourist might find and enjoy it. I like to think that my copy of the book basks in a longer stay in Vienna than I did. Perhaps it will enjoy a life of Nietzsche’s eternal return…

Probably the best-known modern book set in Vienna is The Third Man (paperback, 157 pages, published 1950) by Graham Greene. In a case of art imitating art, I read that Greene actually wrote the book after he wrote the screenplay for the immensely popular film.

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Set in post-WWII Vienna, the story is as decidedly noir as the film. It appears at first to be a murder mystery although the mysteries of the book extend even to the murder. Set against the background of the Prater, the book is rich in sense of place.

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Greene wrote his screenplay while staying at the Hotel Sacher and dining at nearby Café Mozart, as did, I have read, Orson Welles and other members of the cast while the movie was being filmed. We happily retraced their steps while we stayed at the Sacher, although it thankfully looks much less dreary today than it did in the film.

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The Third Man is considered one of the greatest British films ever made, and while I wouldn’t put the book in the same category, it’s still a must-read to put you in the mood if you are planning to visit Vienna.

Four down, fifty-six books to go. Buckle up, we’ll turn a few more pages next week…

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Engelhartszell.

It wasn’t on our bucket list, or on any list at all. Yet looking back on our trip, I often revisit that Sunday morning in Engelhartszell as a favorite moment of our river cruise. Here we were, standing with a small group beneath a medlar tree in a grassy patch of the Trappist monks’ garden, watching other tourists stream in and out of the Abbey. They looked neither right nor left, because unlike us, they didn’t have a private guide showing them all the nooks and crannies of the monastery’s surrounds.

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How do you travel best? For us it had always been “on our own terms”.  Today I was having to re-think that a bit. Yes, we’d had to roll out of our comfy stateroom a bit earlier than we would have liked. In fact, one of us (hrmmph!) was so late that we missed our bus. “Your coach has already departed”, gently chided our tour director Julie, who I will forever think of as one of our two fairy godmothers for this trip. Julie hails from Arizona and Gillian from Austria, and I failed to get their photographs because they were in perpetual, good-humored motion. Uber-efficient, Julie placed us on another coach and off we went into the tiny village of Engelhartszell, for what was billed as a “home visit”.

Being the independent sort, we were a bit squeamish about the idea of barging into someone’s home, and we actually considered skipping the excursion. Good thing we didn’t, because we would have missed the incredible hospitality of Brigitte, our hostess. She welcomed us into her home and garden, where she lives with her husband, two daughters and an orange cat who is the very doppelgänger of our Dodger.

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If we felt awkward, it was only for a moment. Brigitte was one of a half dozen residents of the village who entertained a small group from our tour that morning, giving us a peek into her idyllic life in Upper Austria. We marveled at her garden walk and free-form pool, and her home’s charming setting adjacent to the village church.

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She then invited us into her kitchen to make flesserl, a traditional upper Austrian braided bread. We took turns shaping the dough she had prepared and then sat down and waited for it to bake while Brigitte answered all of our questions about life an der Donau.

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We joyfully feasted on flesserl  and (at 10:30 a.m.!) Brigitte’s homemade fruit liqueurs. I chose the quince flavor, since its origin was the tree right outside her house.

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Too soon, our guide re-appeared at the door and we bade Brigitte farewell, taking with us the memory of her charming home and the kind welcome she extended us.

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Then it was on to the Engelszell Abbey. Our dirndl-skirted guide had lived all her life in Engelhartszell and proudly showed us the aforementioned medlar tree, as well as the monk’s vegetable garden, which, she pointed out wryly, included a tiny plot of “medicinal” marijuana.  She also led us through the curious aquarium that is on the grounds of the Abbey and which houses a beloved Beluga sturgeon named, if I remember correctly, Harry.

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Inside the Abbey, our guide’s good cheer turned poignant, as she recalled her childhood memory of her father returning home from WWII, broken in spirit both from forced participation in the German army’s military defeat and the subsequent difficulties in providing for his family.

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We departed our tour with a free sample of the monk’s famed herbal liqueur (I wonder if there might be a touch of marijuana in it?)

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and then we walked back to our boat for the “All Aboard!” departure. It was a beautiful day on the Danube and we left Engelhartszell with the feeling that we had traveled very well indeed that day. Left to our own devices we probably never would have seen this little village at all, but our Tauck excursion gave us a special glimpse of life and history in Oberösterreich.

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Family Album: Christmas 2018

We’ll get back to the Danube next week, but for now, still basking in what might have been our best Christmas ever. The house and our hearts all bursting at the seams.

So great to have all the siblings together:

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Although that perennial question remains unanswered…

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Looking normal enough here…

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Although the lineage might suggest otherwise.

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And then there’s the next generation to consider:

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The Floridians came to visit!

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These cousins could be brothers!

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My favorite Christmas moment, every year:

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And Angie and Tina kept a long Christmas Eve tradition going:

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Moo was here, of course:

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And we got to meet Salami:

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Missing our girls so much, but dear friend Rosanne sent the most thoughtful gift – photo books of them that made us all laugh and cry on Christmas Day:

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We had a very special visitor on Christmas morning! Thank you, Elf!

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And another visitor later that day – Freddy’s first visit to Santa Barbara:

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Peter was here, too!

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Caleigh and I decided she will be taller than Santa next year:

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Hard to get a shot of the three sisters all sitting still:

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And even harder to get one of these two sitting still!

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Angie and her boys:

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The only family drama of the week was the annual angst over the three-layer jello salad. Daniel and Angie are hired for life – they nailed it!

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So many happy moments:

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So hard to say goodbye.

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But I’m already planning for next year! And maybe, (hopefully?) we’ll have a new faithful friend to celebrate with by then…

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An der Donau

A wee glimpse of the Danube was ours as we headed to our coach to depart from Regensburg. This might have been the only photo I got where the Danube looked even nominally blue. We saw lots of green Danube, and some murky-colored Danube, but you should probably know that “blue Danube”, at least in Germany and Austria, was apparently just a 19th century Johann Strauss marketing ploy.

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We skirted the river by bus for about an hour until we reached Vilshofen and boarded the M.S. Joy, which, according to Tauck, offers “the most space per guest on Europe’s rivers.” Yes, our bags were there awaiting us, along with a glass of champagne. And we were very pleasantly surprised by our roomy suite with a queen-size bed. The bathroom was small but ingeniously efficient and sparkling clean.

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No sooner had I taken a sip of that champagne than we heard the engines powering up and just as the church bells at Vilshofen began to toll 6 p.m. we were a-sail!

This was an exciting moment for us as novice river cruisers, but also for the seasoned Tauck passengers (of which there were many – it was not uncommon to meet fellow travelers who were on their third or fourth Tauck tour) because there had been some concern as to whether we would sail at all. Water levels in the Danube were at a historic low due to drought conditions and we’d heard that many cruises had been re-routed or canceled as a result. Friends who had been on a tour with a similar itinerary a few weeks earlier reported grumpily that instead of a river cruise they went on a bus tour – their boat could not navigate the shallow water.

As it turned out, ours was one of the few boats that made it all the way to Budapest that week, thanks to the shallow draft of the M.S. Joy, which we were told drew much less water than the deeper-keeled boats used by other tour operators. But it can be tricky planning a river cruise at any time of any year: in addition to low water levels in the fall you can encounter flooding in the spring. Good luck finding the perfect time to cruise!

But we were in luck that week of September, and as our boat pulled away from the dock, we scrambled up to the sun deck to experience our first moments an der Donau.

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There was the obligatory corny orientation made more than bearable by ship director Petr’s clever repartée,  and there was our first dinner on board in the lovely Compass Rose dining room. And the finale was a beautiful sunset as we passed another boat on our short trip to dock at Passau for the night.

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After a brief night-time walk through the sleepy streets of Passau, it was time to turn in. We’d traveled from Prague to tour Regensburg and then to Vilshofen and sailed to Passau – places we’d never really dreamed of visiting and a river we’d only heard of in musical lore. As the crow flies, we’d gone less than 300 miles, but we felt a world away. A very fine day it had been!

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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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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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