Sunday, December 13, 2015


I've realized that I haven't finished telling you about the destinations we visited on the Danube river cruise. I've been distracted by some very big and very wonderful projects of the writing, teaching, and learning variety. There will be more to come on these endeavors, but for now, I thought you'd like to take a trip with me to Salzburg. This is the city of W.A. Mozart's birth, and it is where "The Sound of Music" takes place. Both of these are evident all over town, but Salzburg has some other distinctions, too.

If you're thinking that Salzburg is not actually on the Danube River, so Margaret must be confused about where she went on her trip, you would be partially correct. Our ship docked in Linz (home of the flannel nightgowns, truffles, and more cathedrals), and we took a bus to Salzburg. On the way we passed Mondsee, a lovely, picturesque town where Maria von Trapp's actual wedding church is. (I caught a glimpse of the church's exterior from the bus, but not a photo.) The centerpiece of town is actually the serene lake, seen below, shot from a rest stop...


Our tour through crowded Salzburg (possibly the most crowded city on our itinerary) combined some Sound-of-Music sites, some Mozart sites, the cathedral because there's always a cathedral and this one starred in a movie, and some notable shopping spots.



Flower Market

Fruit Stand

Our tour guide made the obligatory Central European cathedral more interesting by telling us that if we found the right spot just outside the gate, it looks like those two angels up there are placing a gold crown on the Blessed Mother's head. I took that as a photo challenge and found the spot:

Salzburg Cathedral

Just around the corner from the cathedral is an enormous golden ball with a man standing on top. Is the man taking in Salzburg scenery? Not sure what he's doing up there.
We'll see this golden sphere again.

Speaking of spheres, Salzburg is the home of those little candies with Mozart's picture on them, ubiquitous in Central Europe. Mozartkugel is the official name, but they are known as Mozart balls in the vernacular. These were first made in Salzburg in 1890 by the candymaker Paul Fürst. He covered marzipan and nougat in chocolate and added a silver wrapper with Mozart's picture. These are the originals and they are still available in Salzburg, but there is also a copy in a red wrapper available all over Europe and even the USA.

Mozart Ball Shop

We had free time after the tour: quick! Decide what would be the most interesting thing! Use your free time wisely! Most people who know me and read me would probably predict that I would choose Mozart's birthplace. It is now a museum and located conveniently in the center of town.

Mozart's birthplace


Of course I would have liked to visit this house, but I was more intrigued by the huge medieval structure on the top of the hill known as Hohensalzburg.

Here, Hohensalzburg looms over the Mirabell Gardens where Maria and the von Trapp kids sang "Do Re Mi." Hohensalzburg is a 900+ year-old fortress and castle which sits on a plateau and supplies some astonishing views of the city. I wonder how different the view from up there looked in 1077, when construction began on the first building. Those medieval folks would have had to climb up to the fortress on foot, but today visitors can ride up on the Funicular which has been in place since 1892. I'll admit that was part of the attraction of this attraction for me. The fortress has been open to curious tourists since 1861 when Emperor Franz Josef realized it was no longer needed as a military fortress.
Steep Funicular tracks

Once up there on the fortress's plateau, I enjoyed a lovely cafe lunch of Turkey Schnitzel (Austrians put all kinds of stuff inside schnitzel!) and a refreshing Diet Coke. It was rather warm that day.

Here's the cafe atop Hohensalzburg.

The views from Hohensalzburg were almost enough to distract me from the edifice I was visiting. There's the center of town and there's the salty Salz River from which the city gets its name. (I brought some Salzburg salt home for some people who can never seem to get enough salt.)

Salzburg's Old Town: Cathedral, golden ball, Chapter Square

Salzburg: St. Peter's Abbey and the Salz River

It was Archbishop Gebhardt von Helffenstein who began construction on Hohensalzburg in 1077, but Prince-Archbishop Leonhard von Keutschach (1495-1519) who made the place comfy in a luxurious kind of way. The state apartments here were his oasis from the people of Salzburg who mocked his love of books over farming. (Yes, the state apartments included a library.) Salzburg citizens disliked Keutschach so much they threw turnips at him. He had the last laugh, because he included a turnip in his coat of arms.

I'll end with some shots from Hohensalzburg because I have to go catch the big bus back to the ship!

It's a steep climb to see inside.

This is how I take a selfie.

I'm pretty sure that's the Trumpeter's Tower.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Germany's Three-Rivers City: PASSAU

From the ship, across the green Danube in Passau, Germany
 Passau was the final stop on our whirlwind "Danube Waltz" river cruise, and frankly, since I'd never heard of it I figured it was just a convenient spot to disembark and head the the airport or jump on a bus to Prague. I was WRONG. Passau was a lovely town with a long history and beautiful Baroque buildings. I took many photos on our walking tour, starting with this one to show how close the ship pulls up to the town:
This was taken from the ship--we're almost downtown!
Passau's location at the confluence of three rivers makes it unique among Danube River cities and towns, and also put it on the map before there were maps. I took this shot of a postcard I bought showing Passau and it's three rivers, the Danube, the Ilz, and the Inn.
The centerpiece of town is yet another St. Stephen's Cathedral. Of course it is gorgeous, but it has a musical significance: the largest cathedral organ in the world! Actually, it is made up of five separate organs which can be combined from either of two consoles, one with five manuals (keyboards) or one with four. Each of these organs has a distinctive sound: the "Gospel" organ has a French organ sound, the "Epistle" organ has a South Italian Baroque sound, the choir organ sounds North German, and the Fernwerk organ sounds like an echo because the sound comes to the congregants through grates in the ceiling commonly known as "Holy Spirit Holes." Ha. The fifth organ is the main one which can sound any way it wants to because it is connected to the others through cables. We were able to attend a 30-minute concert, and I'm here to tell you that was a memorable experience! The organist, Bastian Fuchs, displayed the colors and timbres of that instrument by playing works of John Stanley, JS Bach, Percy Whitlock, Alexandre Guilmant, and Charles Marie Widor, roughly in chronological order. They could probably hear the concert over in Prague without any amplification.
Here are some of the 17,000 pipes.
And in case you are curious, and can't get there at noon in the summertime for a 30-minute concert, here are some Reger tunes for you:

The church is one of the most beautiful we'd seen in the cities and towns on the Danube. I know you are wondering why the cathedral looks Italian Baroque, and I've already mentioned that Passau has a long history stretching back beyond the Middle Ages. This is because there was a huge fire in 1662 which burned the whole town. When the people rebuilt the town, they followed the prevailing style which was Italian Baroque, and if I'm not mistaken, I think I read somewhere that they hired some Italian architects and builders to help out.

More views of St. Stephen's:

The front of St. Stephen's Cathedral

The gilt pulpit dates from 1720
An unusual sundial in the courtyard--can you figure out how it works? (Hint: look at the window above the painted braid.)

Facing the sundial in the courtyard is a display of grave markers. After your descendants aren't around to pay for the upkeep of your grave or tomb, your bones are moved elsewhere and your marker, if distinctive, is kept on display. This makes room for new arrivals in the crypt.
An ancestor of Captain Georg von Trapp had a marker made to look like a locket.
I have to admit that when I was there, I missed what the tour guide said this next building was. We wore earpieces for every tour where we'd hear our own guide talking about the sites, but if we strayed to far, we'd lose contact. Chances are I paused to snap a few photos and didn't hear her say that this lovely building is the Neue Residenz, or the New Residence for the prince bishops since 1730. (This why I purchase a little booklet of each city's sites while I'm there: "OH! That's what I saw!!")
The Neue Residenz, 1730

The Baroque staircase in this building was to-die-for elegant, but not easy to photograph.
The famous Baroque staircase in the Neue Residenz
I didn't get any photos of the Rathaus, or Old Town Hall, because I was too close to it and never caught sight of it from a distance. (Does that make sense?) But we did see a bride and groom coming out of it (in Germany the real marriage takes place in the Rathaus in regular clothes, sometimes during the week, and the big celebration with white dresses, etc. happens later.)
A newly-married couple attracting attention at the Rathaus
Just above where the bride was standing is the town's flood record (i.e. water levels)
Passau's second most-photographed building is probably the "Veste Oberhaus," a fortress or citadel which sits at the confluence of the Ilz and Danube rivers. It was begun in 1499, or at least that is the visible date on the outside (the fish standing on its tail is a 4), but it was a work-in-progress for centuries. Today, it houses a youth hostel, museum, and popular tourist vantage point.
Veste Oberhaus from across the Danube
The artists of Passau and I don't want you to think that everything is old. There is an active art scene here, centered at Artists' Alley. This is one of those narrow, cobble-stoned, medieval alleys you find sometimes in really old European cities. But look up! Are those umbrellas hanging there? A tough of 21st-century whimsy.
Art Alley
More of Art Alley with red and white cobblestones marking your path
Some of Art Alley's cool umbrellas
Passau is an old town and contains many narrow alleys and streets. These add to the town's charm...

...and the downhill alleys (which I don't want to even imagine in winter) lead us back to the Danube and our ship...
(That's not us. Those are models.)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

I went to Bratislava twice this summer

"Man at Work" sculpture in Bratislava

 Bratislava in May

Bratislava was the second stop on the Danube River cruise my sister and I enjoyed. On May 29, we cruised from Budapest in the morning and arrived at Bratislava ready to jump on a small bus. The bus took ten of us to something called a Home Hosted Visit in the Slovakian region called Modra, famous for its Slovakian pottery. Anna and her sister Maria showed us around Anna's home where she had her egg decorating tools set up. These decorated eggs are a Slovakian folk art. The designs are painted on dyed eggs with melted wax using a skinny paintbrush.
Anna decorating eggs
Here's a shot of some finished eggs. Notice there are different sized eggs from different sized birds. Each is emptied of its contents, cleaned, dyed, and finally decorated.

We were invited into Anna's living room where we were served cold lemon water and cake, and encouraged to ask questions about Slovakian life and culture. Our guide Zuzana translated for us, and the conversation went from Anna's family and their occupations (mostly automobile manufacturing) and education, industry in Modra, the transition from communism to the present. Anna showed us her extensive garden which came in handy during the transition from communism because there just wasn't anything to buy even if one had money. We ended up in her pottery studio which was part exhibit and part work area:

I have to admit that when we first arrived, I wondered how this visit would play out. My sister and I are introverts and not the best conversationalists--would we be expected to come up with questions?! Oh no! My fears were for naught. This turned out to be an illuminating and enriching experience, and we loved telling our fellow cruisers about it back on the ship.

Bratislava in July

In order to participate in that Home Hosted Visit during the river cruise, we forfeited the standard, included, City Tour. I was intrigued by that cool castle at the top of the hill, but a visit would have to wait until my next visit to the Danube in July when Bratislava was scheduled as an excursion. This turned out to be a 100-degree July Fourth Saturday, when approximately twenty writing students and their leaders rode a big red bus from Vienna to Bratislava's hilltop castle. Our guide, Miro, showed us around the castle which looks like an upside-down table with a courtyard in the middle.

Bratislava's Gothic Castle

The castle's well (in the courtyard)

Bird's-eye View (conveniently posted on a barrier)
 Bratislava is a very old city. There's evidence of civilization there back to the Stone Age and continuously through the centuries to now. The name might not be familiar to you, but if I told you it's the capital of Slovakia, situated on the Danube River, the Germans call Bratislava Pressburg, and the Hungarians traditionally called it Pozsony, you might recognize a name or the location. Slovakia has been part of the Austrian Empire, and more recently part of Czechoslovakia. The Czech Republic and Slovakia split apart in 1993, with Prague and Bratislava emerging as the capitals of the two.

Next we toured Bratislava's Staré Mesto or Old Town where we found Saint Martin's Cathedral. Eleven kings and 8 queens were crowned here.

Part of St. Martin's Cathedral, cleverly shot through neighboring buildings

We saw another church connected to the Convent of the Clare Nuns where composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) took classes as a boy. He lived here from 1893-1899. His mother was Slovakian and his father Hungarian.
The Church and Convent of the Clare Nuns with the castle in the background
Later, Béla Bartók would move to Hungary and would be forever identified as a Hungarian composer. This video of a performance of his Six Slovakian Folk Songs by a multi-national choir was recorded in Hungary.

We walked through St. Michael's Gate, the last of the old town gates...
St. Michael's Gate--see the archway at the bottom of the tower?
 And the Red Prawn, a pharmacy on Michalská Street which houses a pharmacy museum.

The Red Prawn Pharmacy--see the prawn in the middle of the sign?

Poppy seed strudel
After lots of walking in super-hot heat, we found our group's restaurant destination, the Bratíslavskå reštaurácía or Bratislava
Flagship, a huge pub with dark wood paneling, tables, and chairs. Most in our party did not care for their meals, but my theory is that on a cooler day this heavy food would have been more welcome. After an amuse-bouche of HOT chicken noodle SOUP, we had our choice between pork, beef soaked in a dill sauce, or a vegetarian entree which turned out to be dumplings in a cream sauce (not beloved by our vegan writer). The pork people were the happiest because theirs turned out to be schnitzel-style with vegetables. Dessert was poppy-seed strudel with vanilla sauce, and most did not eat theirs. I had gotten used to this particular pastry on the cruise in May, but was secretly wishing that poppy filling was chocolate.

After lunch a group of us searched for the gelato place that Miro had recommended. One scoop of chocolate gelato cleansed my palate and prepared me for a couple of hours of free time in Bratislava's shops.
Authentic Slovakian embroidered linens and crafts in the Staré Mesto

To help us find the big red bus at the end of our Bratislava free time, Miro told us to look for the UFO Bridge and the bus would be parked nearby.

The "UFO" Bridge--there's a restaurant in the round part of that tower.

I don't remember much of that bus ride--I slept soundly all the way back to Vienna!

The writers I talked to enjoyed Bratislava in spite of the oppressive heat, and one even said she'd like to make Bratislava her secret writer's getaway. Although we were there on a sunny summer Saturday, it was not crowded and there were many restaurants, cafes, and gelato establishments to encourage a writer's creativity.