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. 


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.


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!






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:


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:


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.





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



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.


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.


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


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.




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.


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.


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!)


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?



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.



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!




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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Reasons to get in and out of bed in Vienna.

So here’s the thing. I don’t really sleep even when I’m at home, so just imagine a nine-hour time leap and a culture/language barrier for someone who grew up in a farm town and never fully recovered. For me, pretty much everything more than 50 miles from home is a Dorothy/Oz experience. I am amazed by everything, so you will just have to play along here.

As I mentioned before, the iconic Hotel Sacher is currently having its own brain freeze moment. Major renovation (jackhammers sound exactly the same in German as in English, by the way) and we struggled just a bit to find our perch there. It was worth waiting for – if you stay, you can’t go wrong with the Turandot Suite (remember, we are just across the street from the Wiener Staatsoper) and since I am just a little bit fanatic about Nessun Dorma, it seemed meant to be:



I truly loved this room (a splurge, yes, because will we ever be back in Vienna?) and that was a good thing, since I was mostly awake in it all night long every night while I struggled to catch up to our time zone.

The reward for sleepless nights was, come daylight, the incomparable Viennese coffee. What I would give for a sip of it right now…


Oh, and then there was frühstück. Reason in and of itself to stay at the Sacher. I’m not a breakfast person, but I’m also not completely stupid, and found a way to rally for this:


I never availed myself of the morning champagne table so only now do I notice the Sachertorte alert in the upper left hand corner. Need a do-over!




Oh, and for the wee ones:


Thus fortified, we ventured out. Stores mostly closed, given that it was a Sunday, but lots of window-shopping in the neighborhood


and along the Kärntner Straße. After happening upon the jewel that is the Maltese Church


we proceeded to the main attraction: St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Dizzyingly immense, it defies the casual photographer:



We wandered over to Hoher Markt Square to see the Ankeruhr (Anchor Clock)


and then considered our lunch options. Would you like schnitzel, schnitzel or perhaps some schnitzel?


We passed on the schnitzel.

And we passed on the carriage ride


which may have been a mistake since we walked and walked and walked to find our lunch destination. One of my most fervent Vienna fantasies was to dine at the historic Café Central, famously frequented by Sigmund Freud as well as less favorably remembered luminaries including Trotsky, Stalin and yes, Adolf Hitler.


The interior was just as I pictured it:


We plotted no revolutions, but I did enjoy some beautiful, beautiful soup.


And, of course, there was more Viennese coffee.

cafe central

Which did not prevent us from heading back to take a much-needed nap in our lovely hotel room, Vienna and all its remaining charms would have to wait, because for the walking dead-tired, that was a wrap for a Sunday outing. To suite, perchance to dream…


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Or as I call it: the “noshmarkt”

Of the myriad of things I love about travel, one is discovery of people, places and things well known to everyone in the world except me. I am one of the most poorly traveled creatures on the planet (my TripAdvisor travel map is but the tiniest sliver of the pie chart) so every new destination is a welcome little triumph over hopeless provincialism.

And so it was on a Saturday morning in Vienna when, dazed from travel and lack of sleep, I looked at my hastily-scribbled “to do in Vienna” notes and suggested we set off for “something called the Naschmarkt.”

Which turned out, judging from all the other tourists three-deep at the counters and all the locals with their market baskets, to be the place to be in Vienna on a Saturday. Everyone knows about the Naschmarkt, and now, at long last, I do, too.

 Depending on your source, the Naschmarkt dates back to either the 17th or 18th century, its name supposedly based on its origin as a milk market and the “asch” (ash) wood pails that were used to carry milk.  Or maybe not. It could also be a play on the word naschen – to eat sweets – thus, as I will always think of it, the “nosh” market.

Over the centuries, the market expanded and modernized and today is comprised of a plethora of stalls selling all manner of food and drink, as well as café upon café tucked amongst the booths. The market is open every day but on Saturdays also features a flea market.

But it’s really, truly all about the food.





Such a feast for the senses, in every sense! The cheerful bustle helped us ever so briefly forget our jet lag, and we wandered from booth to booth in wonderment. Every other farmers market will have to get in line behind the Naschmarkt – I’ve never seen so much food displayed in one place!

With all those choices, however, somehow we managed to buy fruit from the one stall where the wares were a disappointment. “Where are the plums from?” asked the CE, puzzling over all this fresh fruit to be found in September. “Poland,” answered the vendor. We hauled two bulging bags of peaches and plums back to the hotel, where the CE later pronounced the contents inedible. Deserved or not, “Poland” will forevermore be our code word for sub-par fruit. Caveat emptor.IMG_5813

But all was not lost. While the fruit might be iffy, I can vouch for the local brew. In hopes of angling toward an afternoon nap, I sampled an Ottakringer, and it was wunderbar!


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When words fail (and pictures, too).

We had decided to spend a few days in Vienna on our own before joining up with the tour group in Prague. Everything had to go exactly right. LAX –> CDG on time! CDG –>VIE on time! Red Cab, a European facsimile of Uber, waiting for us as promised. Check in at the iconic Hotel Sacher was friendly, courteous and, oh dear, just a little shaky – be advised that they are currently under a major room renovation and the pickings are slim. We ended up changing our room twice, which put us up against the clock. We were late, late for a very important date!

Hotel Sacher lobby, later in a more leisurely moment:


A helpful staff member ushered us through a back hallway into a booth at Cafe Sacher where a line of at least a dozen people awaited out front waiting for their chance to sample a slice of the prized Sachertorte, the chocolate layer cake upon which the Hotel Sacher’s laurels rest.

Wikipedia photo:


But we had no time for dessert; just a quick wurst and off we went, taking fifteen confused and slightly panicked minutes to find a destination supposedly four minutes away. (Traveler’s note: we spent much of our time in Vienna being hopelessly lost.) In retrospect, how we could fail to find a venue as imposing as the Spanische Hofreitschule (that’s Spanish Riding School to us non-German speakers) is beyond me.


Several re-routes later, we finally found the box office and claimed our tickets for A Tribute to Vienna, a combined performance of two of the city’s most cherished traditions: the Lipizzaner Stallions and the Vienna Boys Choir. We just happened to be arriving on one of the dates for this performance, which only occurs a handful of times throughout the year. The scene in the box office was chaotic; we later learned that a computer glitch had canceled out some or all of the purchased ticket orders for the evening and it was only through the protracted efforts of our travel agent that ours was restored. Blissfully unaware of the reason for the delay, I gazed out the window while we waited in line and caught one of my favorite travel moments of the trip – choir boys relaxing before their performance:


We sank into our seats just as the lights were being dimmed and took in the magnificence of the show arena, all dirt floor and glittering chandeliers. Not a great photo but the best I could do:


And then the magic began, but the photos ended because of course you cannot be allowed to snap pictures while these magnificent creatures leap and prance in a most precariously precise achievement of choreography. Such an incredible sight that I simply have no words, but alas, I also have no pictures for you except for those courtesy of Google.


The Vienna Boys Choir sang sweetly, but it was the Lipizzaners we will remember. As heavily muscled as a workhorse yet with the agility of a circus dog, each horse perfectly attuned to its rider, who calmly doffs his hat to the audience at each entrance and exit. At least a few members of the audience (me!) were brought to tears and it made our twenty-four hour travel saga well worth the effort. If you ever get the chance to see them, GO! It is a memory I will cherish always.

We walked back through darkened streets to the hotel after the performance (only slightly less lost) and wondered what awaited us next in this historic city…

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We were out of pocket for most of September. Home now, and jet lag is finally in the rear view mirror. I can’t wait to tell you all about, but first I have to fill you in on the trip parameters.

This one was planes, trains, buses and a boat!


Five countries in a leisurely three weeks.

Group travel, which was a first for us independent-minded cusses.

13,000 miles and a zillion calories later, here’s how it began:

The CE is plagued with Mal de Débarquement syndrome, which rules out ocean cruising. But we love the water! He was just sure he could handle a river cruise (more on that later…)  which wouldn’t involve the pitch and roll of an ocean liner. So I did some research back in 2017 and put us on a waiting list for a Danube cruise with Tauck, a tour company with a storied past and high marks for its quality excursions.


The youtube video won’t embed but you can copy and paste the link:

In late May of this year, I was notified that a spot had opened up on a Tauck M.S. Joy September cruise from Prague to Budapest. We had 48 hours to decide. Using the increasingly relevant “you’re not getting any younger” yardstick, we decided to go for it.

But not without trepidation. We grew up back in antediluvian times, i.e. before Google maps erased all the country borders and one closed one’s eyes and spun a globe to imagine a fantasy destination. For a generation, an Iron Curtain hung over parts of Europe and they were effectively erased from view. I can’t say I ever thought about going to countries that had the audacity to change their names, e.g. what used to be Czechoslovakia, or visiting a place as unknown to me as Hungary. But after reading Selden Edwards’ The Little Book a few years ago I did begin to dream a bit about Vienna.

And who wouldn’t want to see the Danube?


But but but getting out the actual passports! And going on a tour with other people! It all seemed rather daring. Well, until we arrived at CDG for our our connecting flight and the first thing we saw was a Starbucks. It’s a small world after all…

Next post: on to Vienna

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