Sunday, December 29, 2013

Our Christmas in Vienna

Krampas and St. Nicholas (Renata Lindroos)
We had reservations for Christmas Eve dinner at a local restaurant - we were hoping for a traditional Viennese dinner.  When we arrived at the restaurant we found the INN closed - a familiar Christmas story? We walked for what seemed miles, like the 5 unwise men following the northern star  (Ok, let's make that 4 unwise men - and 1 wise one not pictured) looking for another Inn that would take us in ....

....We ended up going east and found an Indian restaurant that welcomed us with open arms.  Instead of incense - the smell of curry and spices permeated the room where we shared a meal that left us wanting more.  Next stop India.

Zum Moghulhof Indisches Restaurant in Spittleberg

A large part of the enjoyment we get from our adventure is in learning the culture and traditions of the countries we visit. Some traditions are  passed down for hundreds of years and some are more recent but seem to have taken hold.  As in various parts of the USA, traditions and family are strong here, why else would someone spend 6 months in a parka, thermal underwear, gloves, scarves and nasty weather?  It is the warmth and comfort they get from a routine and from family that makes them stay.  I love the Krampus and St Nick observance on Dec 5th.  Parents in the USA could learn something on parenting and about putting the fear of coal as a gift from St Nick from these Austrians. ( of course the "experts" would talk of scarring the children with a scary creature, bah humbug! These kids get fewer gifts and seem happy enough). We can also learn about how to celebrate Christmas and avoid our ugly, greedy Black Fridays, and the After-Christmas Sales. The people here refuse to work after 2 PM on Christmas Eve, and nothing is opened
(aside from a few Cafés )  until the 27th. I mean  NOTHING is opened, and you had better have done your grocery shopping for 3 days. It must be a wonderful break from the daily work life and escape from the commercialization the holidays can become. The Austrians are doing all they can to keep USA Christmas morning Santa out of their lives, however our movies and TV shows keep creeping in and taking over their childrens' minds. Their Christmas traditions are being threatened, kind of sad really.

The advantage of staying in Vienna for 2 months was getting to know the locals and getting  invitations to their parties!!
Ingela (red top tan pants) is from Sweden but has made Vienna her home for over 20 years.  She and her fellow choir members sing Christmas carols in English, German, and Swedish.  If you ever decide to visit Vienna, please let us know and we will put you in touch with Ingela - we rented a wonderful apartment from her for our stay here.
Entertainment included a former Swedish Idol Winner Johannes Kotschy and our own Trevor Lindroos aka Josh Grobin aka Karaoke King

Marilyn Wallace invited us to spend Christmas at her home.  We were able to embrace all the local customs including the fiery gluhwine Marilyn is preparing.  Back story on Marilyn:  She moved to Vienna from the USA many years ago to study opera, and where she met her husband Bill Wallace.  Together they formed "International Theater" an English speaking theater in Vienna.   This is our connection with her  30+ years ago where Richard came over to act in various plays for 6 months, I came over and worked back-stage making sure he looked good (I did the lights) - we got married and Marilyn and Bill held our wedding reception in their home!  Wonderful reunion.

Being seated for Christmas dinner.  Notice the "Christmas Crackers" on the plate - really an English tradition where we crossed arms to pull the ends to get our surprise out! 

In the poppers or crackers we found riddles and crowns that must be worn throughout dinner.  Conversation starters are trying to guess each others riddles.  (I did not partake because I forgot my glasses)

Dinner ends - but some traditions don't.  Austrians do not do the Christmas Stocking, Marilyn held on to that tradition and before dessert was served we all got a Christmas Stocking.

An end to a wonderful evening!   

Our wish to all of you for a wonderful New Year!!

Friday, December 20, 2013

You'll Never Go Hungry in Hungary

Not that we were bored in Vienna,  but we decided to hop on a train to Budapest  (only a few hours away). We wanted to see how similar these two capital cities were, since for 50 years (1867-1918) they were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a Dual Monarchy.   The Empire included what is now Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and parts of Romania, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Italy. The architecture and majestic buildings of the cities are similar - the landscape was so different.  Actually, Prague and Budapest seemed similar to us in terms of geography, layout, and beautiful imposing panoramic views.... (Jeez, I'm sounding like Richard - stop it)

View of the Parliament (inspired by London's Parliament) from Fisherman's Bastion

View of the Parliament across the Duna (Danube) River at sunset
View of  Pest from Buda Castle

Matthias Church at Fisherman's Bastion

Modeled after the Vienna Staatsoper, the Hungarian State Opera House is home to operatic traditions  from the late 1870's.

....Not to mention the huge effects of being under Communist rule for so many years. Both Prague and Budapest are rebuilding and beautifying their cities, keeping the old and improving on the neglected aspects of the infrastructure. Driving in either city is laborious and not recommended.


To get started on our food exploration, we try to learn a few local phrases: 
Hello - Szia (see ah)
Thank You - Koszonom (kur-sur-nurm)
Excuse Me - Elneze 
Can I have another? - lehet nekem van egy másik
and of course the Hungarian Toast - Egeszsegere (e-gee-she-grey! 

Getting back to what is near and dear to us (our stomachs!) let's continue.....

Great Market Hall - The largest and oldest (1897) indoor market in Budapest. 
Inside of the Great Market Hall.  It is 3 stories high - where the stalls for fruits and vegetables are on the bottom and souvenirs and food booths are on the top floors.

Paprika Stalls dominate Market Hall, so of course we had to buy.  Hot Paprika, Sweet Paprika, and my favorite to use the Smoked Paprika.

This translates to "Cheese Cake" (light and airy) and people were buying by the bagfuls and eating like popcorn.  So we joined in - we went back to this stall 3 times.

Turkey looking for a Christmas Goose
Christmas Markets abound!  Where do we start....
Outdoor cooking booths - Anthony Bourdain worthy!

Cooking up Hungarian Goulash

Hungarian Langos or Fried Potato Bread- yes we had some of that! (I'm looking for the Tums now)

Hungarian Goulash in Bread??  Sinful

Look at the size of this Glogg Pot - always great on a cold day
The visit was quick, we didn't get to everything in 2 days - but as usual, we left with a very full stomach!

Boldog Karacsonyt!!!

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Best Deals in the World


Vienna has such a rich and enormous music history and I am not about to display my ignorance with a critique of the musical experience you can find here. I will say that being able to walk into the impressive Staatsoper ( Vienna State Opera) and listen to one of the finest orchestras and enjoy beautiful operas being performed by some of the best in the world, for €3, ($3.90 US) is mind -blowing. 

Of course you do have to stand, and sometimes wait about an hour to take your position at the standing rails and tie your scarf to hold your spot, but SERIOUSLY, La Boheme,  A Magic Flute, Madam Butterfly, Tristan and Isolde, Fidelio, Marriage of Figaro, Peter Grimes, Un Ballo in Maschera, Barber of Seville etc..:-) Bravo!

A second amazing deal is Sunday Mass at St Augustine's Church, behind the Habsburg Palace, where they have a good sized orchestra and a beautiful choir with special soloists as guests. For music geeks, check out the Sunday program below. Having just a wonderful time in a beautiful city listening to great music. Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Puccini, Verdi etc.. on a budget.

Interior of St. Augustine

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Vienna Waits For You

We are standing in front of St. Stephens Cathedral where we started our journey together nearly 32 years ago.  Wow, we have grown older and Vienna seems younger.  My memories of this historic city are vivid and Vienna is still beautiful - from the Cathedral to the Staatsoper, the incredible Kunts-Historiche Museum, Imperial Palace, Rathaus and our old Gasthous Restaurant (where we would Swine & Dine and laugh for hours), Vienna holds a special place in our lives.

After 17 days of travel and shorter stays, (see earlier posts) it is nice to begin to do what our goal is, to spend 2 months in a location and really get to appreciate the city/area and all it has to offer, from a tourist as well as the local's point of view.

Vienna has a youthfulness to it now. There is a reason it is listed as a top city for the younger set,  Pensioners of the 1980's in their green coats and hats and lederhosen have passed on. In 1982 the average age was in the early 60's and taxes to pay for the seniors were hurting the working class. Now so many people are in their 20's & 30's, there is a thriving economy with a considerable increase in the English speaking population. Although all the new and modern stores and clothes make Vienna seem like any other metropolitan city, the residents still cherish the traditions of the city's earlier history (even the new buildings retain the classical architecture).  In talking with transplants, they say the cost of living is less than other cities (you don't need a car as the tram-bus-underground system is excellent) and the cultural and social life is happening. For single young people or those starting families, the mixture of new technology/culture and older traditions gives the city a more rounded lifestyle.

We are looking forward to experiencing all the holiday, food, music and Austrian traditions the next 2 months. We will do our best to eat, drink and be as Merry as we can possibly be.

Rathaus -  The City Hall

Yes Richard - keep reminding everyone we are old.  We haven't been married that long have we??  It seems like just a few years ago and being back in Vienna seems like yesterday..."Our love is here to stay...."

We may have missed Thanksgiving in the States, but we did arrive in Vienna on St. Martin's Day - where it is a custom to eat roast goose and bread dumplings all month long.  (Legend has it that St Martin was a successful travelling preacher that was chosen to be a bishop,  it was a job he didn't want so when the emissaries came to get him he hid in a goose pen, where he was betrayed by the cackling of the geese - of course he became the bishop).  So geese are eaten each year in his memory.

The Christmas Holiday season in Vienna officially started on November 16th. (there is no political correctness here)  It seemed the entire city was gathered at the City Hall - "Rathaus", which is where the kickoff to the season began.  Some say the first Market Fairs date back to the Middle Ages, and were probably the precursor to what is known today as the "Christkindlmarkt" - where small booths of traditional artisan treasures, (yes tacky stuff too) are set up around the city and the aromas of Maroni (roasted chestnuts), fried potato cakes called Kartoffelpuffer, and Waffles fill the air - and of course our favorite the warm Punche full of rum and the Gluhwein!

While most of the US was concerned about Black Friday and retail madness - Viennese were all crowded outside in the cold and bundled close together with their mugs of mulled wine spreading good cheer to each other!

A Market in the Freyung area of Vienna.  Always lines to keep your mulled wine mug full.

Frohe Weihnachten!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Prague: A Walk in Heaven But A Driver's Hell

Rolling hills and magnificent cathedrals, wide and powerful rivers with 7 picturesque bridges, narrow cobble-stoned streets opening up to market squares filled with vendors selling the most incredible offerings of food and drink you should completely avoid but don't -  Prague is a most beautiful city.  It has such a romantic feel, many Eastern European couples honeymoon/vacation here and take in the sights. There were not many children present, perhaps the reason for all the smiles.

Steeped in the deep history of the Charles IV Luxembourg and the Austro-Hungarian Empires, centuries before the Nazi occupation and Russian Communists plunged them into a dark and grossly unproductive gloomy existence, Prague is now a vibrant city - proud of its early heritage, music, writers and architecture - Dvorak, Mucha, Kafka are still ever-present in the city.  (and one must mention when in the Pubs, they are very proud of all Ice Hockey players that they produce!) 

We did get a chance to see a production of Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Estates Theater in Prague. Mozart conducted and presented Don Giovanni here for it's first production.  The classic film Amadeus on Mozart's life  was filmed here and directed by the famous Czech director Milos Forman.  The Old Town of Praja gave the film it's late 18th century Vienna feel.

After walking for what seemed miles, I got hungry, "Wanda let's eat!".... so we crossed one of the many bridges and I chose Kavarna Slavia Cafe with a view of the Cathedral across the river.  I noticed a guy playing on his iPad who looked strikingly like Albert Einstein and thought it made a great photo in this 1950's era lunch crowd with cigarettes and beer, coffee and cake. Later, as we are talking to a local about places to eat, she mentioned this classic Prague cafe that in the past was known for all the intellectuals and writers hanging out and talking for hours - The same place with the Einstein look-alike!  About the only thing out of place were a couple of "intellectuals" from the USA. 

Kavarna Slavia Cafe - The finest Goulash I can ever imagine eating in my life...and of course Wanda would not share her Almond Schnitzel......
The optimist would say the Czech people are advanced in their public transportation and the abundance of trams and buses, the auto driver realizes nothing had been designed since the horse and buggy days and to drive here is to experience total road frustration. :-)  the confusion of roads and dead ends, ( I actually had to drive in reverse on city streets up to 50 yards to get out of a dead end, more than once) It even confused our Tom-Tom GPS.

Go to Prague, but do not drive there.

The Castle and Cathedral with our tour guide Tomash (a seminary and history major).  You can Google and read about the long history of Prague, but it is so interesting hearing it from a local who is so passionate about his country.

Something modern! The Dancing Building inspired by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire

Once the car was parked, Prague became less stressful - and I wasn't even driving!  One way we "De-Stress" after a long drive is to eat and drink. So we find out where the locals like to eat and funny enough a favorite spot is Lokál.  The menu has a variety of traditional Czech food and they teach you how to order your beer.  Beer drinking is taken very seriously here since it is the national beverage.  (Coke is more expensive than beer)

Foam in your beer mug is very important - it's your personal taste how much.  I will say upon observation that the middle beer "Snyt" is the most popular being served.

A local restaurant LoKal

Food pictures are from the Lokal restaurant - the view is from the Brenovsky Monastery - the first brewery in Prague run by the monks. 

Czech / Bohemian cuisine is influenced by a shared European cultural heritage - traditions combined from the German-Czech, Czech-Slavonic, even the Soviet Empire left their mark.  If you want to go back further to King Charles IV  brought wine grapes from Burgundy and Josef Groll introduced Pilsen beer from Bavaria.  Enough history.  The Czech cuisine that we sampled was hearty and rustic.  On a cold fall day - we enjoyed the Beef Goulash, bread dumplings (knedilky), pork schnitzel,  sausages, potato soup (bramborovy), and lots of cabbage!  We were not there long enough to sample everything - so we will definitely be returning!
Picture taken while having a beer at an outside cafe.  Beer is cheap here, unless you are in a tourist area such as this. The view and people watching made it worth it.

You must make Czech Gingerbread cookies for Christmas if you can find a recipe.  I'm sure there are many on the internet.  The secret ingredient has to be the honey instead of molasses.  I'm not sure - but I did put one under the recipes section.  They were so yummy!!
Vendor selling a traditional Trdelnik -like a toasted cinnamon roll or a Churro.  They are paired with warm Gluhwine and can be deadly strolling the cobble-stoned streets.

Not such a great shot of Prague's most beloved St. Charles Bridge.

(Someone on the internet took a much better shot of the St. Charles Bridge. - so I stole it)  30 +baroque statues line the bridge, most of them Saints and Martyrs.  Prague being an ancient city going back as far as 5500 BC when various Germanic and Celtic tribes settled in the region., one hears a lot of "Tall Tales" about the ghosts that wander around Prague....

Saint John of Nepomuk was one of those Saints and a Martyr.  He was tortured to death and his body was thrown off the bridge into the Vltava River below.  I think most of the saints lined up on the bridge were thrown off the bridge for some reason.  

I tried talking to a few of the locals (that spoke English, since my Czech was horrible) because locals and tourists alike were lined up to touch the reliefs - as pictured above by the daughter. A young local told me it is a Prague ritual that is supposed to bring you luck  "By rubbing the relief - your wish will come true, but  you must concentrate very hard - and it really works " she told me.   ( I'm not sure why rubbing the relief is lucky after the way this Saint was treated.)  But hey - I'm game,  my wish:  I wish our return to Prague will be sooner rather than later because our time here was much too short!