A Travellerspoint blog

Auf Wiedersehen Wieners!

semi-overcast 10 °C

9 December 2011
Vienna, Austria

Auf Wiedersehen Wien!

Today was the last official day of the mutual vacation—we must disembark our lovely ship tomorrow, and Julie will be returning home. I, however, will be hanging with the Sapps in Bratislava, Slovakia for a few more days. I may or may not blog about that part of the vacation—I haven’t yet decided and since this is my blog and therefore my prerogative, you’ll know when I know!

Today was a day spent entirely in Vienna. We began our morning with a driving tour of the Ringstrasse, the Ring Road, which is the circular road around the inner city of Vienna. It is similar in concept to the Washington D.C. Beltway, but it is surface roads, not interstate, and is in the midst of the city. It goes past key attractions, like the major churches, the exhibition Ferris Wheel, and the State Opera. The buses then dropped us at the Schonbrunn Palace, the Imperial Summer Palace. I could tell you a lot about the Palace, but as I have remarked before, it is exceedingly difficult to take notes while following a tour guide, and the book I bought to help me remember is packed in my luggage. I can, however, tell you that it originated as a hunting lodge, and that the name Schonbrunn means “beautiful fountain”. The hunting lodge burned down, and Maria Theresia (who was technically never crowned Empress, but ruled as both the woman behind the man and as regent), in a fit of keeping up with the Jones (well, technically the Louis’s), decided to rebuild it to rival Versailles. I have to say, she was successful! This palace, again in the Baroque style (trending toward Rococo), is absolutely stunning. It is either more fully restored than Versailles, or was never allowed to fall into the state of disrepair that persists at Versailles. It has beautiful gardens (they were pretty even in December—imagine what they would look like in the summer!) and several fountains. We had to use our imaginations about the fountains, because nearly every fountain we’ve seen since we arrived has been shrouded in a complicated wooden device obviously designed to protect them from freezing. Some of them are pretty significant feats of engineering!

We had a private tour with a lovely Viennese tour guide named Elfi, and she was just as cute as you imagine her to be from her name. According to Christine and Andy, she’s actually a retired tour guide, but will help out in emergencies. She was maybe five feet two inches tall, with bobbed grey hair and huge tortoiseshell glasses, and she was dressed entirely in shades of brown: dark brown skirt, tights, and shoes, with a tan sweater and beret. Even her nail polish was brown! I wanted to put her in my pocket and bring her home with me, she was so cute! She really knew her stuff, that’s for sure! (In fact, I have been completely impressed with all the local guides Tauck has used throughout this trip—all of them have been incredibly knowledgeable and charming.) Elfi was VERY concerned because there was one group admission ticket for two of the Tauck groups, and it was not in her control. (The Palace has timed admission, and our group of 35 was not allowed through the admission turnstile until we scanned our ticket at the appointed time!) This got resolved in short order (frankly, I think Elfi would straighten out the Syrian situation after having tea and a biscuit—she just seems the type) and in we went. Some portions of the palace are under active restoration, and there is scaffolding up in the rooms. But here’s the neat thing: they (the curators? The restorers? Somebody.) have created these enormous posters that hang on the scaffolding to give the impression of what SHOULD be there. We’ve actually seen that a lot in both Germany and Austria—much prettier to look at than nasty old scaffolding.

One thing that Versailles and Schonbrunn have in common is the CROWDS. Dear God—a flying elbow here and there was required just to keep up with Elfi as she moved through the tour. Yikes. However, instead of the Asian tourists we fought off at Versailles, the vast majority at Schonbrunn were Italian. Apparently, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (which was yesterday, not the Feast of the Annunciation as I may have told you) is a public holiday, so many of them took today off, too, and came to Vienna to Christmas shop. You couldn’t stir ‘em with a stick!

We had plenty of time to visit the Christkindlmarkt at Schonbrunn Palace. It was lovely and open, with lots of high quality handcrafts. Sadly, (and I NEVER thought this could happen) I am starting to get shopped out! (I wonder if I need a shopping sabbatical?? Perish the thought—economies of several countries are now depending on me!) All I bought was a little book about the Palace and this neat painted tin wreath of flowers. (I have seen decorated tin ornaments several places, as well as elaborate soldiers and chess sets...they are apparently very popular here.) We had my personal favorite, crepes, for lunch at the Palace (Nutella for me, ham and cheese for Julie…I just cannot embrace the wurst and schnitzel the way I should. As far as countries go, I have tremendous affinity for the architecture and urban planning of the Germans and Austrians, but my gastronomic love and adoration is reserved only for the French.).

After lunch, we got back on the buses to be dropped off in town at the market at the Maria-Theresienplatz. I am sad to report that the crushing crowds extended to the roads—it took us almost 45 minutes to cover the distance it had taken us about 15 to traverse early that morning. I think we could have walked faster! But we persevered and eventually made it. Julie and I had mapped out a route that departed from the Maria-Theresienplatz through the three key shopping streets in Vienna: Karnterstrasse, Graben, and Kohlmarkt. This route was mapped out for maximum shopping impact: we hit the handicrafts market at Karlsplatz, the Hotel Sacher, J & L Lobmyer glass, Swarovski (which is Austrian, by the way), the Lippizaner chocolate store, Frey Willie (a jewelry store Julie was interested), Demel (one of the premier pastry shops in Vienna), and the Spanish Riding School (where the Royal Lippizaner stallions are trained and perform). We managed to at least see all of these (with the exception of the riding school—we followed a sign that pointed toward the school, but never saw the actual entrance to the dratted place), but we did not manage to get into all of them. The crowds were smothering—you couldn’t even get IN the door at Demel. I quickly lose interest in pretty much anything in a crowd like that. They could have been giving the stuff away and it wouldn’t have been worth that! Regardless, we did a drive-by on all of it!

When we returned to the ship on the 4:30 shuttle, it was time to pack. (Well, mostly Julie—I did a preemptory packing last night and just had to put a few things in tonight. Like I said, I can get off the ship without resorting to a plastic shopping bag.) We were able to get all of Julie’s things in her suitcase before it was time to go to the Captain’s Farewell cocktail party and dinner. (I’m sure the captain is glad to see the backs of some of these people, frankly.) The cocktail party was quite lovely, with champagne and hors d’oeuvres, and the White Elephant gift exchange. I think I told you my White Elephant gift was pretty good—a rubber ducky-themed bath stuff kit I’d assembled in Regensburg. Well, I got a Christmas tie in return. Not only do I not wear ties, I don’t even KNOW anybody who wears ties anymore. I did, however, notice that tour-guide-Andy was wearing a Christmas tie, so I offered him another one for his collection. (It was actually a pretty tie, red with white snowflakes, just not something I needed.) Well, the amazing Christine decided that I needed my very own gift and procured (probably from the magical purse) a new gift for me, and it was way cool: a perfume atomizer that looks like a pen! Now that’s something I can use!

After the gift exchange, it was time for dinner. Once again, we ate with our Tennessee friends, and we’re certainly glad we did, because it took two hours to eat dinner. (I understand this was experiential dining, and that there were 107 people that had to be served six courses (amuse bouche, soup, starter, sorbet, entrée, and dessert), but you’re dealing with a girl who eats a sandwich most nights—15 minutes, max!). The amuse bouche was duck something or other, which got a pass, as did the cappuccino of horseradish with beet foam soup. The fish starter was pretty good, but the sorbet was WAY too boozy for me. I could smell it before I could taste it! For dinner, the choices were lamb (nope…not taking a bite out of Lambchop), veal (unh-unh), or porcini (mushroom) something or other, which is a lose-lose-lose proposition. Fortunately, Mischa had figured out that you could ask for a chicken breast, and we both did and it was good. The dessert course deserves high praise: the waiters all came in with trays of Baked Alaska that were filled with sparklers! They plated the dessert onto plates that had “Tauck” written on them in chocolate, along with a chocolate cream puff, a chocolate dessert cup of chocolate mousse, and a teeny-tiny little fruit tart! It was adorable, even if I did give the fruit tart a pass. (I was a little disappointed, though, because I think my portion of Baked Alaska came from the Aleutian archipelago or something, because my chocolate layer was missing. Or maybe I didn’t ever have a chocolate layer—mine seemed boozier than the others!) After dinner, we said good-bye to the girls, then came back to the room to finish packing. And we both made it!

One final thing to share: the Tennessee girls taught us the funniest saying. When looking for a man, you want him to be suave and debonair, or as they say in East Tennessee, “swave and de-boner”!

And with that, I’ll bid you all Auf Wiedersehen for a while!


Posted by hidburch 14:33 Archived in Austria Tagged vienna austria christkindlmarkt Comments (0)

I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener!

semi-overcast 6 °C

8 December 2011
Vienna, Austria

Oh I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener!

First of all, before I start the travel blog, can I just say, “WTF?” about the shooting at Virginia Tech? The ship gets international CNN, CNBC, and BBC, and we caught a snippet about the campus shootings on CNN, just enough to scare us both. Fortunately, Julie has been able to use Facebook, of all things, to find out what happened. Not our school. Not again…

We now return to our regularly scheduled travel blog…

We began our day this morning in Melk, Austria and finished it up in Vienna (one of four world capitals located on the Danube, we learned today. The others are Bratislava, Slovakia; Budapest, Hungary; and Prague (we think!), Czech Republic. If this is incorrect, someone please feel free to post a correction—I hate to send misinformation out into the world.). In Melk, we visited Melk Abbey, a Benedictine monastery that has been in continuous existence since 1089 A.D. It is a huge tourist attraction, drawing approximately 450,000 visitors annually to a town of 6,500 people! The monks of this Abbey are not cloistered: they operate a private Catholic school that costs students €86 per month to attend, as well as serve as priests to many surrounding parishes. The monastery itself was rebuilt in the Baroque style in the 1700s-ish (and thanks to seeing only one in one day, I can now identify Baroque pretty straightforwardly). There are some neat architectural features in the Baroque style. First of all, unless it is load bearing, most things that appear to be marble are actually a faux marble made with plaster, milk fat, and pigment that is polished until it looks like marble, and trust me, you cannot tell the difference! Another aspect is an abundance of what appear to be solid gold statues and decorations, which in actuality are wooden pieces that have been leafed in gold. And get this: they didn’t leaf the parts of the statues that don’t show (like the backs of figures!). These are the kind of people that believe in the fluff and dust! There were also these REALLY cool ceiling frescos that are designed to make the ceiling look taller than it really is—when you stand in the center of the room, the painted columns on the fresco appear straight, but as you move toward the ends of the room (away from the center of the illusion), the true, curved shape of the columns is revealed and you can see how low the ceilings really are! That’s just too neat! I tried to capture this in pictures, but am not sure I was completely successful.

The monastery has embraced technology quite well, and has a tremendous interactive exhibit with that showcases a number of their treasures, including a reliquary of the True Cross, as well as one containing a sliver of bone from John the Baptist (including a certificate of authenticity…did it come from the Franklin Mint?). The Melk Cross is kept locked up in the treasure room and is only taken out one day a year, which was definitely not today. However, today was in fact the Feast of the Annunciation and the extra-special Bishop’s Crozier was being used to celebrate Mass in the Church.

Another…interesting…thing we saw was a drop-bottom casket. One of the emperors (Franz-Joseph, Wilhelm…it all starts to run together after a while) was a Rationalist and believed in not wasting anything. To that end, he deemed that caskets were wasteful, and that each parish have but one of these caskets. A body was placed in the casket for “temporary storage”, and at the conclusion of the funeral, after the casket had been placed over the open grave and after the mourners had left, the lever was pulled, and BLOOP, the body fell into the grave wrapped only in the shroud, allowing the casket to be reused. Now that’s GREEN!

Melk Abbey truly is beautiful, and is definitely worth visiting, and I suggest you do—in the SUMMER! While we managed to avoid the rain today, we got hit with bitterly cold wind. You know the kind: the middle-of-the-Drillfield-on-the-way-to-an-8:00-class-in-January wind that freezes the snot on your face before you can dig a tissue out of your pocket. And I couldn’t even put my gloved hands in my pockets to keep them a little warmer because I had to hold my hat on my head! This was one of those winds you have to lean into to equilibrate all the force vectors acting on a body you wish to remain static: YOURS! Christine, however, conjured more magic from that purse of hers: chemical hand warmers! Needless to say, we toured the Abbey and piled our freezing little butts back on the bus, opting not to avail ourselves of the option to walk back down to the ship from the Abbey! Even I’m not that gung-ho!

We spent the afternoon cruising down through the Wachau Valley of the Danube River—Wachau means narrow, in case you are interested. It was amazingly picturesque, as well it should be, since it has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site (I gotta get a list of those so I can check off the ones I’ve been to—it will do nicely in lieu of a personalized bucket list!). Along the way, we passed the little town of Durstein (dry, hard rock in German). For you medieval history buffs, Richard the Lionhearted was held captive for a couple of years in Durstein on his way home from the Crusades. Some historians are now espousing the theory that Robin Hood was stealing from the rich to help pay Richard’s ransom. Who knows if it’s true, but it’s a good story! What is true is that the fortifications of the city of Vienna were built with the ransom money.

There was a stollen and gluhwein-making demonstration on board this afternoon. The pastry chef actually gave out his stollen recipe, and I think I was the only one who did not have apoplexy about a recipe that began “To 1 kg of flour, add 1000 mL of warm milk and 15 g dry yeast”! I had to explain to a couple of people what vanilla sugar was, too, and where to get it (or how to make your own)! There may be stollen in our future, but I have to start now; it needs to rest at least a week for the flavors to meld, not unlike fruitcake. As for the gluhwein, Julie proclaimed it pretty much hot sangria, so with that image in your heads, I’m sure you can concoct your own recipes, though I do have one if you are interested in recreating the Christkindlmarkt experience for your own Christmas parties.

Our pre-dinner entertainment this evening was provided by a group of classical musicians called the Donau Klang Trio. However, for some reason, tonight they were the Donau Klang Duo—a violinist and a pianist who played a lovely selection of classical Austrian music (Strauss, Mozart, etc). There was one unfortunate incident during their performance, however: they were deep in the middle of Strauss’s “Viennese Waltz” as we were docking for the evening. In doing so, we passed very close by another riverboat, several patrons aboard which were apparently unaware that we were coming, as we found them in states of dishabille (look it up) with their drapes wide open. The entire audience saw it all and burst into laughter, but the musicians had their backs to the window and saw none of it. Let this be a lesson to you: if at any time you anticipate being naked, shut your drapes—you never know when a voyeur (or a shipful of them) will go floating by!

After dinner (steak, baked potatoes, broccoli, and ice cream—YAHTZEE!), we boarded the buses, excuse me, motor coaches, for a trip to the Rathausplatz Christkindlmarkt.

Here I must interject: I did not think we could ever come up with anything to surpass Muncher, but it only took four days. Vienna is spelled Wien in German, so residents of Wien are called…you guessed it…WIENERS!!!! When Charlie the guide told us this on the bus, the Oscar Mayer song came immediately into my head and has not departed since!

Anyway, this Christmas lights at this market were AMAZING! These people score definite Griswald points for quantity, but lose points because their decorations are very tasteful! We spent an hour tooling around the market, most of it photographing the scene. We’ll have time to shop more at markets at Schonbrunn Palace and the Marie Theresianplatz tomorrow, and those are supposed to have a more extensive assortment of handicrafts. I did a pre-emptive packing tonight, and there actually IS some room in my suitcase for most of my clothes (I no longer fear having to hand Brian a huge plastic shopping bag containing my entire wardrobe Saturday morning when he picks me up), so that means I can shop more tomorrow!

Here are a couple of observations, for what they are worth: the stoplights in Vienna turn yellow before they turn both red and green. This makes complete sense to me. Also, the ship has an internal movie channel, and this appears to be the movie lineup: “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Secretariat”, “It’s Complicated”, “Mama Mia”, “The Shawshank Redemption”, and “Love, Actually”. The overarching theme escapes us, but we’d really like some more rom/com please!

Until tomorrow, keep singing the Wiener song and think of us!


Posted by hidburch 14:43 Archived in Austria Tagged vienna melk christkindlmarkt Comments (0)

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Sleet!

rain 3 °C

7 December 2011
Somewhere on the Danube River between Linz and Melk, Austria

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Sleet and Freezing Rain

We spent the day today in Salzburg, Austria, famous for being the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (yep, that one), as well as for being the setting for much of “The Sound of Music”. For the geography wienies among you (and you know who you are), it is immediately apparent that Salzburg is not on the Danube River, but rather on the River Salzach. Ordinarily, this might seem an insurmountable obstacle for those traveling by river, but this is nothing for the SuperGuides from Tauck: they corral wayward tourists with consummate ease, leap museum queues in a single bound, and are faster than a speeding bullet at getting dinner reservations! So, we simply boarded buses for the 1 ½ hour drive from where the ship docked in Linz, Austria (capital of the federal province of upper Austria, in case you were wondering) to the Mirabellplatz in Salzburg. A couple of cool facts about Linz before we move on to Salzburg: Pez were invented in Traun, just outside Linz; Hitler was rejected from the Art Institute in Linz and he was so dejected that he went on to found the pesky Nazi movement; and Johannes Kepler formulated his laws of planetary motion while at the University of Linz. (There, now don’t you feel smarter?)

On our way to Salzburg, we stopped for a bio-break at a rest area in a town called Mondsee. It was definitely the most picturesque potty break I’ve ever taken, because it was here that we got our first view of the Austrian Alps! You, too, have probably seen Mondsee (which means “Moon Lake”), if you’ve seen “The Sound of Music”, because the exterior of the wedding scene was filled at St. Michael’s Church in Mondsee. Not being a SOM fan, I was more fascinated by the fact that the gift shop in the restaurant/café where we all ran pee had lots of personalized items with MY name on them! That’s right, lots of mugs, bags, and candles that said “Heidi”! I never find those at home—I think I have found my people!

Due to the supreme powers of the SuperGuides, we were quickly back underway and arrived at the Mirabellplatz (near Mirabell Gardens, setting for the “Do-Re-Mi” scene in SOM) at shortly after ten. Now, there was supposed to be a guided tour that was to last 1 ¼ hours, but when Christine provided the option to “split off if you seem something you want to check out”, we decided we wanted to split off immediately and do our own thing! We are such rebels! (Aren’t you proud of me? Once again, vacation langor is coercing me into breaking out of my comfort zone, which would totally be to go on the guided tour! I tell you, I bust loose on vacation!)

We checked out the Christkindlmarkt in Mirabellplatz, as well as the produce market in front of the Cathedral St. Andras (St. Andrew, maybe?). However, as it was now pissing down a VERY cold, slightly solidified form of precipitation, we elected to haul buns to some of the destinations on our list rather than linger. We headed across the River Salzach to Getreidegasse (gasse means street), which is apparently the Salzburg equivalent of Newbury Street. In fact, we saw many of the same brands! Ain’t globalization great?!

We went into a couple of really neat shops, including one called Christmas in Salzburg. What made that store noteworthy was the vast assortment of decorated eggs. These were real egg shells (yes, I checked…somebody has to do the dirty work for you guys!) that are painted with a myriad of Christmas patterns. Easter was also prominently represented, and there were even some Halloween eggs. (Somebody probably needs to have a conversation with these people about mixing their holiday metaphors, but it was still beautiful!) It was just too dicey to try to get them home, more’s the pity. (And if they hadn’t been so expensive, €15, or about $20 each, I WOULD have tried!)

From Getreidegasse, we headed to the Christkindlmarkt in the Domplatz (cathedral square). And don’t ask me which cathedral—I could look it up, but it’s late. I know it’s not St. Peter’s, because that’s the abbey, but more on it later. Anyway, this market had a lot of really beautiful things—Julie and I both bought purses (made in Italy, but too beautiful to worry about…Italian leather—soft as buttah.). It was still pissing down rain that was turning to sleet, and I had pretty much lost the feeling in both my fingers and my toes, when we came upon a hot chocolate stand. And when I say hot chocolate, I mean hot chocolate: blocks of chocolate dissolved in hot milk. YUM-O! I had traditional bittersweet, while Julie had one with honey and cinnamon in the blend. It was just what the Dr. (that’s me!) ordered! And the proprietress of the stand was so incredibly friendly and nice that we talked to her for a several minutes. As we were consuming said libations, we ran into our airport friends from Tennessee (for the record, their names are Misha, Ann, and Judy, and we had dinner with them tonight. They are an absolute BLAST and Julie and I both hope we turn into them when we get older!) and pointed them toward the stand. They told us later that they loved it, too!

Julie wanted to visit a konditorei called Café Furst. They prepare a truffle called a Mozart ball, which is a perfectly round marzipan chocolate truffle. We almost got misplaced en route, but turned a corner and there it was! We pushed our way inside (it was CROWDED—don’t know if that’s typical, or weather-induced, but I can report that the pastries looked heavenly and the bathroom was clean!) and Julie was able to acquire the yummies. We headed back outside into the muck, only to pass what I took to be an until-this-moment unheard-of application of PTFE: there were carriage horses wearing Gore-tex coats! (And I know this because they were logoed!) Too funny!

Our next stop was the Austrian leather shop, which sells “traditional Austrian leather goods”—liederhosen! Okay, nobody’s getting any of those as a souvenier! The shorts were €499—hell, the little suspenders that hold ‘em up were €199! Sorry folks, but as I told you about the Australian opals, as much as I like some of your legs, I don’t like ‘em almost $1,000 worth!

From the liederhosen shop, we had to shag it to the restaurant for lunch. We kinda, sorta knew where it was on the map, but were temporarily misdirected in route and ended up in St. Peter’s Cemetery. Oops! And it was getting to be 1:25 (meeting time was at 1:30), so I was climbing the proverbial wall! However, we spotted Andy (Christine’s husband) in his Big Bird yellow coat, and he pointed us in the right direction. The restaurant was called St. Peter’s Stiftskellar, and it was opened in 803 A.D. According to legend, Charlemagne once ate there! I am sure he didn’t have what we had, though: turkey with red wine sauce, potato roulade, and red cabbage (yuck yuck yuck…I did tell my lunch companions (again, our Tennessee friends) how we could turn this into a lovely Fun with Science experiment, though!). Dessert was some sort of mousse with sour cherry compote—quite tasty, if you skipped the cherries. (I am eternally conflicted about cherries—do they fall in the verboten (look it up) berry category? Regardless, they were cooked, so that got them an immediate exclusion.)

From there, it was time to head ‘em up and move ‘em out—we walked back to Mirabellplatz and piled onto the buses for the drive back to Linz. This took significantly longer than the ride in, despite my nap, due to hellacious traffic exacerbated by the pissing-down rain! When we arrived back, we had time to briefly unload our haul (today was particularly good—for sure gonna have to buy a new suitcase if I want to get my clothes back home, and as I have grown attached to my Michael Starrs T-shirts and my Magellan microfiber pants, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. My only concern now is how to get the crap off the boat to Brian’s car when he picks me up Saturday morning. But I was smart (as you know I am), and saved one of the big-ass shopping bags I collected today!! No flies on me.) before dinner.

Tonight was the Christmas dinner: prime rib, fish, or pumpkin/spinach lasagna. I opted for the lasagna (cooked spinach gets an exception in lasagna form—see how complicated the rules are, and why I never expect anybody to remember them all?) and it was excellent. Once again, the starters were creepy (oxtail soup and goose liver pate) so Julie procured all five of us fruit and cheese plates instead. Dessert was advertised to be chocolate soufflés, but this was false advertising. It was actually a warm chocolate lava cake (I suspected as much: chocolate soufflé would be incredibly hard to do a la minute for 100 people!), but it was quite tasty. I could have done without the mango plate sauce, but at least it wasn’t raspberry!

We skipped out on the Christmas carol karaoke (you all have heard me sing—I don’t need the humiliation), and we’re now watching a Ken Burns documentary on the ship’s closed circuit TV. (It was either that or “The Shawshank Redemption”!) Gotta get to bed soon—we’re headed out to the Benedictine Abbey at Melk at 8:45 tomorrow.

Until then, we will try to stay warm and dry, and suggest you do the same!


Posted by hidburch 14:07 Archived in Austria Tagged salzburg austria christkindlmarkt Comments (0)

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow!

You really gotta be dedicated to shop in weather like this! And I am!

snow 3 °C

6 December 2011
Passau, Germany

You gotta want it BAD to shop in weather like this!

We spent the day in Passau, Germany today, a delightful town on the Danube River. It’s so delightful, it was delightful even in the rain/snow and cold that surrounded us today. Yep, it has been threatening rain for us all week, and today it finally came through. With the exception of my feet, I was reasonably warm in my layers. And my feet were warm after I came back to the ship at lunch and changed from loafers to boots, so even that was easily dealt with. There’s a quote that goes something like, “There’s no such thing as inclement weather, just inappropriate clothing”, and that was the case today!

Anyway, we started out the morning with a walking tour of the city led by our guide, Josepha Brandenburg. Rather than count us off into groups, now we draw poker chips from a bowl and go with the tour group with our color. Worked pretty nicely. Anyway, Josepha took us around some of the cute little lanes and alleyways here on the peninsula of Passau. These lanes are very charming, and seem like they should be for pedestrians only, but every so often a car will turn up one, reinforcing that they are in fact roads. (Frankly, I wouldn’t want to drive anything but Sheldon up the street, not even Chip—the lanes are that narrow!)

The first stop on the tour was St. Paul’s Cathedral (no, not that one), which is done in the Gothic style (I think…I’m an engineer, not a historical interior decorator, and again, too hard to take notes while walking!) A little too dark and ornate for my Lutheran tastes. From St. Paul’s, we went to the gingerbread demonstration. It was held in a tent behind the shop of Konditori Simon. This shop is currently run by the fourth generation konditor, Walter, and both he and his father, also Walter, provided our introduction to gingerbread, or lebkuchen, which translates to “the bread of life”. There are three historical types: one made with spices and only honey as the sweetener—it is very cakey; another made with spices and molasses (probably my personal favorite, since it tastes most like the gingerbread we are used to); and a third made with marzipan in the dough—the marzipan is very detectable in this one. After a brief introduction, they let us taste all three. They also showed us some historical springerle cookie molds, including one as big as a dinner plate that embosses the seal of the city of Passau (a red lion, in case you are interested). They did say that springerle cookies are supposed to be very firm cookies in order to retain the image transfer, and are best eaten dunked in a beverage (a tea cookie I would call them). Unfortunately, the tent was VERY crowded, so there was no chance of asking many questions. No recipes for me <sniff> <sniff>. On our way out, they gave each of us a decorated gingerbread cookie for the road. I haven’t eaten mine, YET.

After the gingerbread demo, it was off to the Dom St. Stephen (St. Stephen’s cathedral). It is the other style (maybe it’s the Gothic one…who remembers these things?) and is quite lovely. It has five different pipe organs with a total of over 17,000 pipes. All five sets of pipes can now be played from one keyboard, but no more than 6,000 pipes are ever used in one concert because the vibrations cause damage to the structure and actually make people feel ill. Also, no concerts are given between November and April because for every three degree drop in temperature, all the pipes have to be retuned! Obviously, they aren’t going to do that willy-nilly! There are also over 500 cherubim, all of which were individual carved and have distinct features. They were really cute—some were waving, some were pointing, some were even crying. Apparently Germans believe very strongly in the concept of a guardian angel, and believe these cherubs represent them.

We broke off from the tour at that point (they were headed back to the ship) and hit the Christkindlmarkt in the Domplatz (cathedral square…see how fast I’m picking up the lingo?). Now, at this point, I really have to comment that you’ve gotta want it really bad to shop in weather like we did today. It was about 3 degrees C and pissing rain. (That’s rain that’s hard enough to be annoying, but not enough to warrant an umbrella, in case you wondering.) However, we’ve come all this way, and we’re not skipping anything, so we continued to use our grid system to make sure we don’t miss anything in any market. It paid off for us this time, because we found a stand selling Christmas table linens run by an absolutely lovely lady. She spoke very little English, but managed to understand all of our requests (which were numerous—she had many patterns in both long and square, and we wanted to see them all) and kept up with what I bought versus what Julie was buying. When our transactions were completed, she gave each one of us a free piece of linen! Wasn’t that incredibly sweet? (As Julie said, we were probably her only customers so far that morning, given the weather, but I still prefer to think it was simply due to her being so nice!)

After combing the market, we headed toward some of the shops we’d passed in town. We found a cute bath products store where we got our gifts for the White Elephant Exchange we’re doing on the ship later this week (I assembled a Rubbery Ducky themed bath gift, with bath bombs, a rubber ducky, a soap that had a duck silhouette in it, and a bath scrubby—I don’t like gifts absolutely nobody wants!). We also went into Butler’s, which appears to be the German equivalent of Crate and Barrel. Another neat store we found was called “Bears and Friends”, which sells all manner of gummy bears in flavors ranging from coffee to gluhwein to cranberry, as well as the more traditional ones we are familiar with. It was VERY hard not to walk out with one of everything in there (and they were giving free samples!). (I seem to recall that gummy bears originated in Germany, so don’t think this is too odd…) Our last stop before lunch was at an apotheke shop, or drug store. The ship is collecting donations for a women’s shelter in Vienna as part of their philanthropy on this cruise, so we bought diapers and wipes to donate—and you’ll be glad to know Pampers are available in Germany. God save Proctor and Gamble!

We came back to the ship to drop off our loot, have lunch, and change shoes (me), before heading once more into the breach. On our second pass (by this time, it had changed over to snow, which did not really make it seem any more palatable!), we wandered through the handicraft market and saw lots of beautiful things, none of which was small enough to get home in any way, shape, or form. We also found the StadtGalleria, which we think roughly translates to the City Mall. It was definitely a mall, with all that entails. However, it was warm and dry and had a cool shop called Mr. Paper (you know I had to go in, and you know I bought foreign office supplies!), so we give it a thumbs up! We also went into a chocolate shop that had lots of molded chocolates, several of which were quite naughty, as well as a chocolate Smart Car! That one was painful to pass up!
By that point, we gave in to the weather and came back to the ship to dry out. Soon we’re heading to the Lido Bar for our fondue dinner—tonight’s menu options were duck, entrecote of veal, some sort of odd-sounding fish, and eggplant parmesan, so I think we made a wise choice. (Yuck yuck yuck, and yuck.) Then, tonight is the crew talent show…this should be good, since they are all very nice but speak English with varying degrees of success!

Tomorrow we are off to Salzburg (birthplace of Mozart and the setting for several key scenes in “The Sound of Music”, in case you were wondering!), and it’s an early departure, so I’ll sign off now!


P.S. Best Julie comment of the day: tonight at the fondue dinner, the table of (slightly) drunk ladies sitting next to us were concerned that their fondue pot wasn’t cooking fast enough, so the waiter took the protective cover off their Sterno burner. As we all know from our “Fun with Science” fire triangle experiments, the increased oxygen greatly enhanced the size of the flame, whereupon Julie proclaimed, “Well, if they can’t fondue, they can always barbecue.”

Posted by hidburch 11:34 Archived in Germany Tagged germany passau christkindlmarkt Comments (0)

Somebody's got to take the vacations...

...and it might as well be us, so stop whining, people!

semi-overcast 3 °C

5 December 2011
Near Regensburg, Germany

(Locations can be kind of iffy, because we dock somewhere and take a bus for a bit to the city of interest…)

Today we spent the day in Regensburg, Germany, a city of approximately 120,000 people that is notable because it is the oldest city in Germany that was not utterly destroyed by bombings in World War II. As a result, there is a tremendous number of old Gothic buildings and structures to be seen in the town. We started our day with a guided walking tour, led by a charming Regensburger (I don’t know…I’m just guessing, but it works!) named Rita. We walked around the old city for about an hour, taking in the oldest bridge in Germany, creatively named “The Old Stone Bridge”, as well as the oldest continuously operating sausage haus in the country. Both date from the 1400s, I think. (It was too hard to walk and take notes!) One cool thing we have on this cruise is something called an AudioVox. It’s a little blue box, not unlike an MP3 player, with an earpiece. The guides have a microphone that projects only to those with the AudioVoxes on the correct channel, so even in crowds, it is very easy to hear what your guide is saying. Anyway, back to Regensburg. In addition to the bridge and the sausage haus, we also saw St. Peter’s Cathedral (no, not that one!), located in the center of the city. The German word for cathedral is Dom, so technically it is the Dom St. Peter. Additionally, we viewed their original units of measurement, the shoe, the double shoe, and the fathom, which are lengths of steel on the side of the Rathaus. (They have obviously since converted to the metric system.)

Rita dropped us off at the Christkindlmarkt in Neupfarrplatz to look around before lunch. It was smaller than either Nuremburg or Munich, but no less charming. We saw lots of school children, who were obviously on a school field trip. I found a really cool purse at the market, and very reasonably priced, too! Before we met up with the rest of the group, we popped into the something-something Galleria, a department store chain here in Germany that looks a good bit like Macy’s, to use the restroom. On the way, we spotted one of my most favorite sections in a foreign store: office supplies. Alas, there was no time to shop, but we made a pact to go into the next one we spotted to shop. More on this later. Then it was time to meet the group so we could go to lunch.

Lunch was at a restaurant called Furstliches Brauhaus, located near the Schloss St. Emmeram (also called the Thurn and Taxes Palace) our afternoon destination. The menu was quite limited, since they were serving 105 people: the vegetarians got what amounted to a cone of stuffing (not unlike the now-famous Burch family stuffing balls) with a mushroom sauce, while the carnivores dined on something that was reminiscent of chicken noodle soup, wurst (the generic term for sausage) of some sort, sauerkraut, rye bread, and beer, and pannecotta with cherry sauce for dessert. Yeah, you can imagine how well this menu went over with me: I was a two way loser. I ate the soup and a couple of the sausages (there were six!) with mustard and a few bites of the pannecotta and called it a day. Lunch took a while, since 105 people had to be served drinks and three separate courses of food. Of course, the man sitting next to me had to complain to the tour guide about it. Not her fault—things just take time. I wanted to tell him to calm the hell down and leave the tour guides alone, who were already dealing with a dental emergency and somebody whose credit card had been eaten by an ATM. (Of course, some other people were complaining because there weren’t any guide books for the palace in English, too. For cripes sake, you’re in Germany. Get over it!)

After lunch, we headed across the street to the Schloss St. Emmeram, otherwise known as the Thurn and Taxes Palace, belonging, as it does, to the princely family of Thurn and Taxes. (There are apparently several levels of royalty in Germany, including imperial, princely, and ducal.) Apparently this family started out by owning courier routes back in the 1400s or something, which made them very wealthy. However, when the King wanted to seize control of the mail service in order to consolidate the kingdoms, he gave them estates, titles, and properties, including this castle, as compensation. The castle itself used to be the monastery of St. Emmeram, hence the name. The family line still continues to this day with Prince Albert II of Thurn and Taxes, who is the world’s youngest billionaire and a race car driver. The palace is also still considered the principle family residence. We got to see several of the state rooms, including the Silver Room and the House Chapel, the Ball Room, and the royal Dressing Room. We had an absolutely fabulous tour guide named Christina who had an encyclopedic recall of the history of both the palace and the family. She was utterly charming and leapt into action when a lady in our group fainted! (What is next with this crew: locusts?)

After the tour, we got to visit the private Christkindlmarkt at the palace. I say private because you have to pay an entrance fee. This really cut down on the crowds, and also seemed to boost the quality of the merchandise available. There was some absolutely adorable polka-dotted pottery and I bought a little dish that I think has a reasonable chance of making it home safely. Julie got a hat that must be seen to be appreciated—it has a raccoon fur pom-pom on the top! There was also a chocolatier making all kinds of tools out of chocolate, like wrenches and bolts and screwdrivers…never seen that before!

After the palace market, they herded us back to the downtown market so we could do a little more shopping before dinner. Julie and I had systematically ransacked that market earlier in the day, so we made good on our pact to hit the something-something Galleria for office supplies. LOTS of cool stuff there, but I managed to contain myself somewhat. (Really, the only thing that slowed me down was knowing that I can’t get refills for most of the neat pens at home, more’s the pity! You know how I love me some foreign office supplies.) I also scored some German Merry Christmas stickers for my post-trip scrapbook.

By then, it was time to eat again, at a restaurant called Haus Heuport. We had a few choices for this meal: pork wrapped in ham (that seems vastly redundant to me), vegetable curry with cous-cous (my choice), and catfish stuffed with crab. We were entertained during dinner by a group of “graduates” from the Regensburg Cathedral Boys Choir. Turns out the Regensburg Boys Choir is actually older than the Vienna Boys Choir, though certainly less famous. The four singers were quick to assure us that they simply graduated from the choir and that they have actual jobs (an engineer, a banker, a musician, and a financial analyst). Anyway, they sang a selection of Christmas music, both in German and in English, and were absolutely spectacular! I wish we could have listened to them longer, but we actually had to skip dessert (apple streudel, no less!), and beat feet back to the buses in order to get back to the boat. Turns out the boat WAS able to get down the river to where it needed to be, though it scraped the bottom a couple of times, but it was docked beside a Viking River Cruise boat that we actually had to cross through to get to our ship! Julie and I actually got separated onto different buses, and her bus was quite delayed returning…turns out their driver took them back to where we got OFF the boat this morning, not to where the boat had sailed to during the day! OOPS!

Anyway, we all got back safely and enjoyed a bananas Foster-fueled happy hour on the ship (I personally just had the ice cream. Warm bananas—ick!). I did enjoy watching the pastry chef assemble a HUGE gingerbread church, and I picked up a good tip: rather than using royal icing to glue the pieces together, he’s using additional gingerbread dough! I will definitely have to give that a try. He said he would start decorating it tomorrow…wonder if I can get a gig as his helper?

Tomorrow is St. Nicholas Day, and we will be spending it in Passau, where we will be attending a lebkuchen-making demonstration, as well as touring the markets. Apparently there is a tradition in Germany of leaving one’s shoes out for St. Nicholas to fill with treats during the night, and our tour guides encouraged us to participate. I put my boots out just in case!

Until tomorrow!


Posted by hidburch 14:42 Archived in Germany Tagged and taxes regensburg christkindlmarkt thurn Comments (1)

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