Sunday, August 19, 2007

If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Krakow - June/July 2007

Rick Steves Best of Eastern Europe Tour
June 27 - July 18, 2007

Thursday, June 28
Prague - Czech Republic
At home, we know Biedrich Smetana’s beautiful composition as The Moldau, but here in the Czech Republic, it is known as Vlatava, the name of the river that flows through the center of Prague…and I will never hear the music again without shedding a happy tear. Rob and I spent our first evening in Prague standing on the Charles Bridge, with its beautiful statues and the spires of the city silhouetted against the twilight, looking out onto the Vlatava River and listening (thanks to my MP3 player) to the flowing, swelling melody that was inspired by that very river. It was a breathtaking finale to our two very long days of travel from California to Prague - and a magical beginning to our tour of Eastern Europe.

This tour was a new kind of adventure for Rob and me. First of all, of course, we were on our way to visit a part of the world we had never seen before but which had been on our Travel List for a long time. (One of the first things Rob ever said to me when we met ten years ago was, “I’d like to see Prague and Budapest.”) It is also a part of Europe that we really knew very little about, and because of that, and because of the unfamiliarity of the six languages we would encounter, (languages that included words like Egészségedre and place names like Nagyvásárcsarok), we decided it might be more stress-free and we might learn a bit more if we joined a tour this time.

Our Rick Steves “Best of Eastern Europe” Tour was the perfect solution - a small tour group of congenial people, knowledgeable local guides with interesting stories about the history and culture of their cities, a great mix of time with the group and time on our own, and - best of all - the chance to get a bit off the beaten track and visit some incredible locations that we probably would never have seen if we had been relying on getting ourselves around.

Friday, June 29

Rob was up and dressed by 6:45 a.m. I was feeling the jet lag but made myself get up and shower to join him for the excellent breakfast in our comfortable and homey Little Quarter residence, Hotel Julian. Right after breakfast, we set out for Petrin Hill, the high hill that overlooks the city – dodging the VERY fast traffic that zips along the city streets, and crossing those streets to the ticka-ticka-ticka sounds of the stop lights. It was a steep but beautiful climb up the winding paths through a leafy forest of huge spreading trees and rock grottoes to the walls of the fortress on top. We got a bit lost trying to find our way into those walls and found ourselves in an unattractive neighborhood of ugly, blocky apartment buildings built during the Communist era, but with some help from some friendly locals, we found our way back to the path that led to the little Eiffel Tower replica at the top of the hill where we stopped for in “Eis Tea” - the Czech version of iced tea.

The walk down was much easier, with gorgeous views of the city laid out below us.

We crossed Charles Bridge again and headed into the crush of tourists in Old Town, where we got our first look at the famous Astronomical Clock on the old Town Hall. After a few wrong turns in the haphazard medieval streets of Old Town, and a stroll through the Havelska Market, which has stood on this street since medieval times (and where we bought the best apricots I've ever had!), we finally found our lunch destination, the Country Life Vegetarian Restaurant. By now, jet lag was really setting in, and we headed back to our nice room at the Hotel Julian for a nap where we both fell asleep almost instantly. We had to MAKE ourselves get up at 4 p.m. so we’d be able to sleep that night, but it was hard!
The touristy part of Prague is easy to navigate as it is divided into four distinct sections: Old Town and New Town, on the east bank of the Vlatava, and the Castle Quarter and the Little Quarter on the west bank. We spent the rest of the evening exploring our “home base,” the Little Quarter, an area of elegant old buildings once inhabited by the nobles who moved here to be closer to the castle. It is past its former glory and is now full of shops, businesses, and hotels. Not touristy, but a real Czech workplace. Although the buildings are now a bit worn, the facades are beautiful - covered with decorative touches and painted in a myriad of colors.

We stopped in at a bakery for tea then continued over a bridge and along the river to see The Dancing House, (nicknamed Fred and Ginger), which was designed by Frank Gehry, who also designed the “crumpled paper” building that houses the Seattle Music Experience. Then it was back to the Little Quarter and the Meduzzy Restaurant - happily filled with locals rather than tourists - for a wonderful dinner of soup and pasta with ham and mushrooms - delicious!

Saturday, June 30 - Our Sixth Anniversary!
Window Wars: The Train to Kutna Hora

Today we set off on a little day trip to the village of Kutna Hora, a little Czech village we had learned about on Rick Steves’ TV program. The day turned out to be quite a little adventure, with a few unexpected twists along the way. We stopped first at the base of Petrin Hill to see the Monument to Victims of Communism Who Survived, a fascinating line of statues showing how Communism gradually stripped away a person’s humanity bit by bit. Across the river, we took the long walk up Wenceslas Square, the long, broad street in New Town where so much recent Czech history has been played out, and on to the Hlava Nadrazi, the main train station, where we caught the train to Kutna Hora.

The trip out of Prague was interesting, although not what I had expected at all. It started well. We shared a cabin with two nice young Czech women and chatted away as we waited for the train to depart. The day was fine and Rob happily opened the window to let in the fresh air. As we rolled out of Prague, I expected to immediately be out in the green countryside, but the first twenty minutes of the trip took us past ugly, peeling, grafitti-covered buildings and industrial mess - very unattractive! At our first stop, our happy little group was joined by an older, sharp-faced, thin woman who, without a word, reached over us and slammed the window shut. I could see by Rob’s face that he was not happy, but we weren’t sure how to approach the situation. After some time of riding through a lovely forest of leafy green trees and past huge fields of cultivated sunflowers, the cabin began heating up from the sunshine, so Rob got up and opened the window again. The woman almost immediately got up and slammed the window emphatically shut! Our nice young ladies explained that it was customary to ask…and ALL passengers had to agree, so even though it was five-to-one in favor of fresh air, she got to be the boss. Rob went into the hallway, where the windows were open, and we soon arrived in Kutna Hora.

Another surprise awaited. The cute little town we expected turned out to be several kilometers away, so we joined the other tourists on a local bus and wound our way through a very unimpressive little modern town. No one seemed to be very clear about when to exit the bus, but some nice local women recognized our confusion and pointed at the signs, saying “Centrum! Centrum!” We exited the bus with a couple from Australia and two lovely women from Ireland and chatted with them as we walked down the hill to the much more charming “Old Town” of Kutna Hora. We walked along the statue lined road to the St. Barbara Cathedral, enjoying the gorgeous view of the valley below. We briefly toured the cathedral, then had lunch at a little outdoor café. Because we had found no one who seemed to know the bus schedule back to the train, we returned to the bus stop quite early. After one false try, we did find the correct bus, but arrived at the bus station much too early for the train, so Rob took advantage of the opportunity for a nap.

We finally arrived back at our hotel, exhausted, but in good spirits. As it was our anniversary, we had considered dinner at one of Rick’s recommended “splurge” restaurants, but we were just too tired for a long walk, so our hotel clerk recommended the Olympia Restaurant just a few blocks away. It was a good choice! Another restaurant filled with locals rather than tourists, but with a menu of typical Czech food. Rob had potato soup served in a bowl of rye bread and goulash. I had a wonderful and unusual Greek salad and cabbage pancakes, made with sauerkraut and sausage.

By the way, the New Jersey Factor (which means we hear a reference to New Jersey every single day) haunts us even here! A family of Czechs walked past us in the restaurant and the mother was wearing a New Jersey Football t-shirt!

Sunday, July 1
Prague - The Rick Steves Tour Begins

We woke to a nice sunny day and packed for our move to the Hotel Central in Old Town where we would join our new tour friends at 5 p.m. It was quite a long walk to our new residence, with Rob carrying all his possessions on his back and me dragging my suitcase over the cobbled streets, and we stopped several times along the way to look at the artists’ offerings on Charles Bridge and to admire the many statues lining the bridge, including the famous one of St. John of Nepomuk, a priest who was thrown from the bridge at the king’s command because he refused to divulge the Queen’s confessional secrets. Legend says that when he was thrown into the river, five stars appeared, and now pilgrims (and tourists) touch his statue to have their wishes granted.

In spite of my best attempts to read the city map, I managed to get us lost in the maze of Old Town streets, but after a few inquiries, we found Hotel Central, and happily, our room was all ready for us. We settled in, then headed for lunch at the Grand Café Orient, which sits above the Museum of Czech Cubism. The service there was decidedly odd. We stood for several minutes at the door of the café, completely ignored by the three waiters who stood at the bar chatting away, so we finally selected a table ourselves. I finally caught the eye of one of the waiters, and we ordered our sandwiches.

After lunch, Rob returned to the Central for a nap while I went to explore the Mucha Museum. Alfons Mucha was the much loved artist who developed the Mucha style of art nouveau and who painted the famous posters of Sarah Bernhardt. It suddenly struck me that the illustrator of the Oz books, John R. Neill, must have borrowed the Mucha style, as the fairies in those books look just like Mucha’s women, with large flowers in their hair and their Gibson girl hairstyles.

At 5:00, we arrived in the dining room of our hotel to meet our fellow travelers. We were warmly greeted by our guide, Etelka Parine Berecz, an enthusiastic Hungarian, and Pat Luczyk, our assistant guide who works in Rick Steves’ office in Edmonds. We all introduced ourselves - lots of teachers on the trip! - then set off to the Klub Architektu in the cellar of the Bethlehem Chapel where Jan Hus, the “Martin Luther of Prague,” used to preach. Dinner was excellent, a Greek salad, mushroom soup, chicken and peaches in a cream sauce, potato pancakes, and a traditional honey cake with ice cream and berries. We had fun getting to know our new friends, although the terrible acoustics in the ancient cellar made it hard to visit.

We walked once more out onto Charles Bridge in the gorgeous twilight, then returned to the hotel for bed. Unfortunately, we headed home just a few minutes too early! As we reached the Town Square, we heard loud bangs and realized that we were missing a fireworks display over the river!

Monday, July 2
Prague – From the Old to the New

We were down at breakfast by 7 a.m. and visited with Steve and Darlene and Nancy and Mike, the other early birds. Our first guided tour, a walking tour of the city, started promptly at 8. Our guide, Renata, was a petite woman – a bit serious but very knowledgeable. We started in the Old Town Square, (or Squarr, as Etelka would say), stopping to see the 12 Apostles do their hourly parade around the Astronomical Clock, then proceeded on down the elegant buildings of “Paris Street”- and past an interesting sculpture that was part of an annual art display of art by up-and-coming young artists - to the Jewish Quarter. We were disappointed to learn that the interiors of the synagogues and the very unusual old cemetery could only be accessed with a separate tour ticket, but we learned a lot of history and at least saw the exteriors of the buildings, including the oldest synagogue in Eastern Europe.

Even from the outside, the cemetery was fascinating. It was originally built at ground level, but as the Jews were restricted to this area, and as they have a religious restriction against moving the dead, they would layer the graves on top of each other until the cemetery became a hill standing over the other buildings.

From the Jewish Quarter, we headed to New Town, passing the Estate Theater where Mozart had premiered The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Very exciting to think that I was standing on very streets where Mozart walked! From there, we continued through the Havelska Market which has stood here since medieval times, and then along the Moat…a big broad street what had once actually been the moat around the Old Town and which now acts as the border between Old Town and New Town.

The contrast between Old Town and New Town is quite remarkable. This street was lined with modern shopping malls, the ever-present McDonald’s, young hip people busily shopping and going about their modern business. We continued on to the foot of Wenceslas Square and learned about the recent political events that had taken place there…the Prague Spring uprising (which we had seen depicted in The Unbearable Lightness of Being,) the Velvet Revolution (when Czechoslovakia split from the Soviet Union), etc. (The conversion of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia is known as the Velvet Divorce because it happened so peacefully.)

Our tour ended near our hotel at the Powder Tower – one of the few remaining remnants of the old city wall – and the gorgeous art nouveau Municipal Building, with its Mucha decorations. Bonnie and Richard, two fellow UUs, invited us to join them for lunch, so we headed back to the Jewish Quarter where we found a restaurant recommended by Renata. After a good hearty lunch, Rob and I separated for awhile to do a little solo exploring. He headed for the health food store while I walked all the way to the top of Wenceslas Square to pay tribute to the statue of the “Good King” (who was really a Duke) and to the memorial to two young men who had set themselves on fire to protest the Communist regime. Around the corner from the Square was the fascinating Museum of Communism, a small but informative museum that gives a good glimpse of Prague life during the years from 1940 to 1989. This poster outside the Museum sums up the current attitude of the Czech people about their life under Communism. The film was especially good, as it had a lot of footage of the 1968 and 1989 events that had occurred right around the corner. It was amazing to see the big street I had just visited – now filled with busy shoppers and gawking tourists – instead filled with tanks, soldiers, and screaming citizens. The museum also included a replica of a Communist classroom and a segment of the Berlin Wall. Prague is so beautiful and vibrant now that it is amazing to think that this dreary and propoganda-filled life and these terrible events were so recent.

Rob and I both returned to the hotel for a rest, then went out for a cup of coffee at a popular coffee house and on to the big department store behind our hotel to check our email. We had a fun encounter with a sales clerk. Rob wanted to buy some socks. We found the men’s department but the sales clerk spoke no English. I remembered the word for men from the WC signs, so I pointed to my socks and said “muzi!” The lights went on and she took us to the sock counter, but then she wanted us to write something…I think she meant the size…but the problem was that we don’t use the same sizes as the Europeans, so “large” didn’t mean anything. But eventually, Rob got his socks and we all got a laugh! Then we headed downstairs to the pharmacy to get some toothpaste, which we discovered is kept in a locked cabinet!

We went to dinner with Nancy and Claude from Savannah and had a very nice visit, in spite of the very loud music and clouds of cigarette smoke coming from the young crowd in the restaurant.

Tuesday, July 3
Prague – Castles, Cathedrals, and Holy Beer

I slept really well for the first time…I had finally turned the corner on the jet lag! We heard it rain during the night, but woke to a nice day. Our group met in front of the hotel at 8:30 and we set out for the Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral which stand guard over the city from their high perch.

Etelka had transfers for us to take the metro and then the tram, as the walk would have been a long uphill hike. We started with a long and steep escalator ride down down down into a metro which had been built by the Communists deep in the earth to double as a bomb shelter. We started on the red line, then transferred to the green line, then boarded Tram 22 which took us to the gates of the castle where we met our darling guide, Sarka. She was great! Enthusiastic, knowledgeable, funny…and by the end of the tour, we all agreed she was one of the best guides we have ever had.

We started in the huge and impressive St. Vitus Cathedral where we saw the gorgeous modern stained glass windows, including the famous Mucha window showing the life of Wenceslas. Then we passed by the memorial (built of 5 tons of silver!) to St. John of Nepomuk, the “5-Star” priest, and the ancient chapel which is the resting place of Wenceslas.

This little chapel has stood on the same spot since the 900’s while the rest of the cathedral grew up and evolved around it.

After a stop in the courtyard to see the gorgeous exterior of the cathedral, we toured the interior of the castle – the main ballroom, the king’s chapel, the library, (where I was scolded for taking a forbidden photo), and the very window which started the 30 Years War (when some nobles were assassinated by defenestration - thrown through this window to the courtyard far below.) Sarka entertained us with stories from her childhood, standing as a Young Pioneer in her little red scarf under the castle balcony listening to the Communist president delivering rousing speeches with stirring proclamations such as “We have lemons for you!” and being required to applaud at every simplistic pronouncement. She is very anti-Communist and hated the way it forced one to hide one’s real feelings, to be forced to cheat and steal in order to have normal goods, to be “normal,” as she put it – no enthusiasm, no ambition, no reaching for your own dreams. Yet her grandparents miss it, lamenting the loss of the expectation that they would “be taken care of.” The book I read prior to our trip, Life After Communism, said the same thing…people needed to be re-educated to live under democracy, as their self-initiative had been taken away.

We ended with a walk through the castle gardens, with more gorgeous views of the city, to the changing of the guard, complete with trumpeters in the windows of the Palace. Then we headed out the impressive castle gates and up the hill, past more beautiful buildings – the Loreto Chapel, a Renaissance-style palace (showing the decorative style which was the original graffiti in which the light plaster is cut away to reveal the darker layer beneath), a monument to victims of the Black Plague – and up to the Monastery where we had lunch with Nancy and Claude and Melody and Julie at St. Norbert’s where the monks still brew “Holy Beer.”

After lunch, Rob headed home on the tram for a rest, while Melody, Julie, and I enjoyed a nice downhill walk back through the old city gates and across Charles Bridge (where I followed Mozart into Old Town.) I spent the afternoon re-taking a lot of photos of sights I’d already seen, as the sun was fully out for the first time since our arrival! While looking through Rick’s guidebook, I discovered that St. Jacob’s, “probably the most beautiful church in Prague,” was directly in front of our hotel, so I ran over, walked through the very unimpressive door of the very plain exterior…and into a wonderland of rococo splendor! Starbursts of gold, brightly painted biblical scenes on the ceilings, paintings, altars, AND someone playing the organ at full volume, filling the space with swelling, booming music. No photos were allowed, so I just tried to soak it all into my memory.

I continued on to the twin towers of Tyn Church, which was also filled with gold and ornamentation, then went outside to walk around the Old Town Square to admire the gorgeous facades on the buildings. These facades are one on the most beautiful facets of this city...each once is unique.

I walked past the grand St. Nicholas Cathedral and the Old Town Hall, then made a final stop across the square at the 27 crosses which mark the site where 27 Protestants were executed.
I finally ran out of sight-seeing steam and returned to the hotel just as Rob was getting up from his nap. He had a headache, so we decided against going out to dinner. I headed out to buy us a little snack. I found the Havelska Market again with no difficulty, but then I made a big mistake. Rather than retracing my steps, I decided to take a “shortcut.” But medieval streets have no logic! They wind around in a myriad of directions, come to unexpected dead-ends, go in circles. I saw lots of little winding passages, passed locals drinking and smoking in little alcove cafes, but no signs of any familiar sights! I finally ended up back at Charles Bridge…a good distance from the hotel…but from here, I could find Karlova Street and the way back.
In the evening, we walked from out hotel - past another of the humorous sculptures that was part of the young artist exhibition - and joined some of the others at the nearby Municipal Hall, with its beautiful Mucha decoration, for a concert in Smetana Hall. The concert was very enjoyable – an all-string group, including a talented young soloist – doing Pachelbel’s Canon, something by Mozart, and all of Verdi’s Four Seasons. We had had the best weather of the trip so far all day…but we walked home in the rain.

Wednesday, Happy July 4
Prague to Trojanivice

After breakfast, we greeted our bus driver, Bojan, and set out slowly through the morning commute promptly at 8:30 – heading east from Bohemia to Moravia. Lots of fun and laughs on the bus getting to know our travel companions. We had to interview and introduce our “buddy” – including, as Etelka put it, the “juicy stuff,” and including one lie for all to figure out. Rob’s and my buddies were Barbara and Phil…we will all be responsible for making sure that none of us are ever missing as the bus leaves from various locations. Along the way, we stopped at a rest stop where we were given a taste of a local liquor “made from 11 different herbs” (really potent and - with apologies to the distillers - really disgusting) and had a toast in honor of Independence Day.

The countryside was lovely – very green, with rolling hills and agricultural plains, becoming more mountainous and forested as we reached our lunch stop at Stramberg, a darling little town perched precariously on the slopes of a steep hill. It is amazing that our bus could make it up the single narrow winding road. The main town square was lined with a few cute little shops and restaurants and a number of booths selling local crafts and the local pastry, uci, a cone of gingerbread filled with whipped cream and fruit. Rob and I got the last table in one of the restaurants and had a very good sauerkraut soup and a bratwurst. We met up with others in our group after lunch and took a peek into the beautifully painted interior of the town church. The paintings in the front of the nave were absolutely gorgeous…floral, stylized designs in crisp, clear lines.

Etelka took us to a bakery where we had really fresh uci (better than the dry packaged ones I had tried earlier), then it was back to the bus to continue a short distance more to Trojanivice. Gorgeous! We arrived at our rustic little hotel up in the mountains surrounded by lush, green forests. Etelka had described the hotel as very simple – the kind that Czech people could afford to stay in – so Rob and I were pleasantly surprised to find that our room had a bedroom and separate sitting room with a frig – and a big bathroom with a tub! We discovered later that Pat had specially selected this room for us in honor of our anniversary…a nice treat!

We didn’t unpack, as it was just a one-night stay, so after a short rest, we all headed up the hill for a chairlift ride up to the restaurant at the top of the mountain. What a great experience! The ride was quite long – about 15 minutes – over the forest, past tall, straight trees (poplars?) and over a lush forest floor of ferns and vines – and a small deer grazing unconcernedly below us – then up, up, up, looking back at a wonderful view of the valley and small towns below and behind us.

We jumped off the chair lift and found a cluster of alpine chalets – a Czech ski resort used as a base for hiking in the summer. A number of us took a good steep hike up to the statue of Radhost, the pagan god of fertility, the sun and moon, and several other things. At the statue, it was paparazzi time, with Pat taking photos of the entire group with cameras from every member of the group. I wish I had taken a picture of her, standing in front of us with a row of about 20 cameras spread out on the ground around her!

On the hike back, I had a very interesting chat with Etelka about her life under Communism, and her “adopted” son in Boston. We ended up back at the restaurant for the best meal of the trip so far! Delicious sauerkraut soup in a creamy sauce with bits of sausage, potato, caraway seed. Everyone raved about it. This was followed by a huge plate of hearty traditional Czech food – a lumpy kind of noodle made from potatoes, chicken breast, and bacon wrapped pork. During the dinner, Etelka came in dressed in a traditional Wallachian shepherd’s outfit and told us a story (in character), then passed out sips of the local plum brandy, slicovice (also potent and disgusting). After dinner, the bus picked us up and we wound down the mountain, hearing a few more “buddy” introductions, which became more and more hilarious after the pivo (beer) and slicovice.

Waiting back at the hotel were the local Wallachian Folk group, who entertained us with songs, music, and dance, including a hilarious one in which the men pass their hats – silly little pointed caps – from one head to the next. The laughter increased when they put the tiny littlest man in between the two tallest…very funny.

I was fascinated by the faces of the women…some young and lovely, one rosy-cheeked granny, and a couple of rather severe, plain looking women who looked just like characters out of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. The troupe followed their dances and songs by going into the audience and selecting partners for a polka. Rob got picked right away and got right into the spirit of it, dancing away with gusto.

After the show, the “host” had us sing along to some familiar song, “My Bonnie” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” and then literally dragged out members of the troupe to be introduced. “This is my daughter…This is my niece” etc. Very proud…and very cute. Another of the other highlights of the evening was watching a little blond girl, a child of one of the dancers, sitting near the band giggling and laughing at the dancers. We met her after the performance. Her name was Nella, and she was adorable! Another of the singers, a handsome man with a good voice, spent the time while the others were dancing whittling little wooden whistles that were later for sale in their souvenir basket. When I got up to leave my table at the end, I noticed a little “palm tree” of whittled wood sitting at my place. Louise told me that while I was watching the dancers, he had leaned over and put it at my place! What a great ending to a great day!

Thursday, July 5
Czech Republic to Poland
Auschwitz and Birkenau - A Somber Day

Not much to report about the morning. We left our hotel at 8 a.m. and drove through the lovely forested hills of Moravia and on to the plains of Poland, the flat land making it a target for so many invasions over the centuries. Just as we arrived at the border, Rob pointed up at a stork circling over our bus.

We turned in our passports at the border into Poland and waited for a half-hour or so before getting permission to pass through. As we waited, Etelka entertained us with more stories of her childhood and various border crossings she had made in the past. Passports returned, we proceeded to the rest stop where she provided us with the zloty we needed to “pay to pee,” as Rick Steves puts it.

When we came out of the building, it was pouring rain, so we dashed to the bus, then continued on to our lunch in a cute little village. First we did a quick tour of the town castle (wearing funny little booties slipped over our shoes), which was filled with hunting trophies (an entire room with walls covered with hundreds of tiny deer antlers along with a few larger antlers, rhino horns, moose racks, etc.) We then joined the entire group for a lunch of kielbasa and potato soup, swimming in butter, and a very nice big salad of watermelon for dessert.

The afternoon was the most moving and sad part of our trip – our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. The grey, rainy weather fit the mood of the group as we passed under the famous sign, Arbeit Macht Frei. The compound was a collection of brick buildings surrounded by double walls of electrified barbed wire.

The history of this place is so familiar to me that none of what we heard was surprising, just terribly sad. As we listened to our guide, I felt the usual sense of horror and confusion that humans in recent history could have been so cruel to others. (But as Rob and I often say to each other, humans still have stone age brains with modern technology….not necessarily a good combination!) The guide herself was a serious young woman who told the terrible stories in an expressionless monotone – probably the only way to cope with the daily retelling of the history. If you had to actually feel it every day, I can imagine it could become overwhelming!

In spite of familiarity with the history, we were tremendously affected by the barracks building labeled “Material Proof of the Holocaust,” with its huge piles of eyeglasses, human hair, shoes, suitcases clearly marked with the names and birthdates of the victims (part of the charade that they were being relocated), and cloth made from the women’s hair. Many of us shed tears in those rooms.

We then entered the compound prison with its wall where prisoners were shot, the starving rooms, the suffocation cells, and the standing cells – small airless brick lined rooms into which four prisoners would be forced to stand for three nights (after hard work during the days). We ended at the gas chambers and saw the ovens of the crematorium.

The prisoners did get a small measure of justice after the war. Outside the gas chamber stands the gallows where the commander of Auschwitz, Rudolph Hoess, was hung.

I have been one other place where I felt the spirits of the people who died there – the battlefield of Culloden. I had the same sense here.

We continued just a couple of kilometers down the road to Birkenau, with its famous railway platform where the able-bodies were sent in one direction to be worked to death and all others, including women with children, the children, the elderly, and the sick or weak were sent directly to the gas chambers. I had not realized before that Auschwitz was the “work camp” while Birkenau was the “death camp” built primarily for the purpose of simply exterminating a race.

Once selected for their temporary reprieve, able-bodied women went to the brick barracks to the south, while the men went to the wooden barracks to the north. We saw a sleeping barrack and the line of pit toilets in the “sanitation barrack.” The Nazis attempted to destroy the evidence of their crimes toward the end of the war and the crematorium and many barracks were destroyed, but they left a huge field of the brick chimneys that had provided the only heat in the flimsy barracks, so it was easy to see how huge the compound had been.

It was still raining as we left Birkenau, but the weather and our spirits rose as we approached Krakow. We arrived at our Hotel Maltanski, which was lovely…built in the old Palace stables. Our room was spacious and bright with big double doors leading out the a little courtyard, cheery yellow walls and bedspread, and a nice big bathroom with a tub. We settled in briefly, then headed out right away for our walk to a group dinner. The skies had completely cleared and we walked through the Planty, the greenbelt that surrounds the Old Town, and into the beauty of the Market Square, with its big tower and the Cloth Market, the old medieval trading center that is still filled with shops. It reminded me a bit of Venice, and sure enough, I learned later that the king had had a love of Italian Renaissance architecture!

Dinner was fabulous. A lovely room with friendly staff. Borscht soup with hardboiled eggs painted red by the beets, salmon with a very nice cream sauce, veggies, and a pretty dessert – a fruit cheesecake type dessert with a waffle of semi-sweet chocolate on top – delicious!

Friday, July 6
Dragons and Amber
Krakow, Poland

Woke early to very grey skies and joined Steve and Darlene in the breakfast room. They were our frequent companions at breakfast…the four of us seemed to be the early birds of the group. Happily, we were all also finding out that we had much in common…age, interests, and even location, as they live just about three hours north of us in California. Darlene and I both pulled out grandchild photos earlier on the trip, and Steve had fun quizzing me on the lyrics to Janis Joplin’s “Mercedez Benz” song.

The breakfast spread in this hotel was gorgeous – the best yet! Cereal, breads, pastries, fresh fruit – cloudberries, cherries, grapefruit, melon, etc. – many cheeses, sliced meats, veggies, olives, pickles…it just went on and on, beautiful and colorful.

At 9 a.m., our group met our Krakow guide, Anna, for our walking tour of the city. Unhappily, it was once again dark and blustery. We were all bundled up in raincoats, fortunately, as shortly into our walk, it began to pour. We walked to two blocks to Wawel Hill to see Wawel Castle and Cathedral where we stood under the arches watching the rain pour down and waiting for a little lull to dash to the next site. It continued this was throughout the entire tour, alternating between drizzle and pour, but although our clothing was damp, our spirits weren’t dampened, and Anna was delightful (“Ladies and gentlemen!”) The only disappointment was the bad light for picture taking, as the real 18 carat gold leaf on the cathedral dome wouldn’t shine as brightly as I would wish!

We toured the castle grounds, stopping to see the large bones (probably of extinct mammals) hanging outside the cathedral’s entrance. Legend says that as long as they hand there, the castle will stand. The castle courtyard, built in Italian Renaissance design, was a special site…believed by “new-agers” to be one of the seven placed on earth where “chakra” – the special energy of the universe – is concentrated. Even before Anna told us about it, Earthsong, one of our group members, was already pressed up in the special corner, eyes closed in concentration, soaking up the vibes. Steve gave it a try, too - apparently with limited results.

In the courtyard, the rain began to pour again, streaming from the dragon waterspouts. Anna told us the story of the Krakow dragon which terrorized the citizens of the town during the reign on King Krak. The town cobbler defeated the dragon by putting a sheep filled with sulfur outside the dragon’s lair. The dragon became so thirsty after eating the sheep that he ran to the Vistula River below the hill and drank until he literally burst! We saw the sculpture of the dragon on the riverbanks below, and then continued on through the city streets, past the hotel where Copernicus had once stayed, past Mary Magdalene Square where the statues in front of the Peter and Paul Cathedral depict eleven apostles, with Mary standing in place of Judas.

We continued along the banner strewn Gradska Street – the Royal Way – to the Jagiellonian University where Copernicus and many other famous people had studied, crossed the huge Market Square, and ended our tour in the courtyard of St. Mary’s Cathedral, just in time for the bugler who trumpets hourly down from the highest tower, pausing in the middle of his tune in memory of the famous bugler who, while sounding out a warning against the oncoming Tartars, was shot in the throat in the middle of his song.

As we returned to the hotel, we passed the offices where Karol Wojtyla had served as the Archbishop of Krakow before becoming John Paul II and visited a very interesting cathedral brightly painted in a unique style. This church also included a tribute to St. Maximilian Kolbe, the priest we had learned about at Auschwitz, who offered his own life to save that of another prisoner.

The afternoon was free time. Rob and I joined some of the gang at one of the “milk bars,” restaurants started by the Communists but still popular as places to get a good, hearty and inexpensive meal. We both had the tasty white borscht, full of bits of potato and sausage, and pierogis. After lunch, Rob returned to the hotel for a little nap while I did a bit more exploring, first returning to St. Mary’s Cathedral to see the interior. Wow! It was a jaw-dropping experience! One of the most ornate churches I’ve ever seen, with a famous wooden altar showing the life of Mary, a gorgeous roof painted with stars, brightly painted walls…quite amazing!

I crossed Market Square to the Cloth Hall with its line of booths selling a huge selection of amber, carved wooden boxes, leather goods, dragons, Polish dolls, and Christmas ornaments. After a little family gift shopping, I returned to the hotel and Rob and I strolled around and enjoyed a cup of coffee in one of the outdoor cafes in the Market Square.

At 4:30, I met Etelka and some of the others for a walk to the Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. Krakow had traditionally had a large Jewish population, as King Casimir, a tolerant ruler, had invited them to live there. Of course, following WWII, the population was decimated and today only about 200 Jews remain in Krakow. The walk to Kazimierz was very interesting, as we passed through a non-touristy part of the city, which showed the legacy of the Communist years. Once beautiful old buildings, now peeled and chipped and covered with grime. There is not yet enough money to renovate them, but hopefully, the future will bring to the entire city the face-lift already experienced by the Old Town.

In Kazimierz, we visited the “New Cemetery,” a lovely jumble of old tombstones, scattered here and there with a few brand new ones. The cemetery was much larger than I had expected, several acres back into an ivy covered little wood. The most poignant sight there was the monument and wall made from a mosaic of pieces of tombstones that were destroyed by the Nazis during the war. We felt once again the amazement and sadness over the cruelty and stupidity of war.

We continued on to the little restaurant lined square where the restaurants are famous for their good Jewish food and klezmer music. At the end of the square, we could see a lower courtyard that marked the original level of the town. Fascinating how the level of cities rises on the rubble of the old.

I returned to meet Rob for dinner and we met up with several of the others at Polski Smaki, another good milk bar. The weather was cloudy and chilly, but no rain, and we enjoyed a nice stroll back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Saturday, July 7
Off to the Salt Mines

Rob and I were first to the Breakfast Room, followed about two minutes later by Steve and Darlene. (It was becoming a funny little competition to see which of us got to breakfast first.) The day was still cool and overcast, although with more hope of clearing than yesterday, so we headed out to the old city walls and the Barbicon Tower that had once guarded the gates of the city. At the tower, we met up with Nancy and Claude, and together we went into the nearby McDonald’s, built in the cellars of an old medieval building. The rooms had been discovered during modern building and McDonalds had excavated them and created the most elegant McDonald’s restaurant in the world!

Then it was back through Market Square and Wawel Castle to get a few photos in better weather. We got tickets to go inside the Cathedral, which was huge and impressive, although very crowded. The tombs and reliquaries of many of Poland’s kings and saints are here – Sigismund, St. Jedwiga, Kasimierz, and others. We climbed the bell tower to touch the clapper of Sigismund’s Bell for good luck (with a special wish to cure Rob’s tooth pain, as he had been coping with a sensitive tooth following a crown replacement right before the trip.)

Outside again, we found the golden dome gleaming brightly in the sun that had finally emerged and went down the Vistula River path to see the Krakow Dragon…a friendly dragon covered with children, then it was back to Old Town for a little more shopping and lunch. Along the way, we passed a number of street performers – a cute little Polish couple (who stopped performing if you tried to take a photo without making a contribution), a Polish Harley-Davidson guy – an odd fellow with formal dress and a sort of Mohawk style ponytail, playing some sort of stringed instrument – a girl with a lovely voice, playing a zither, and a very talented duet in front of the Peter and Paul Church who played clarinet and oboe versions of Ravel’s Bolero and several Mozart pieces.

Lunch was wonderful! Melody and Julie had recommended Miod Malina, a Polish-Italian restaurant whose name means Honey Raspberry, and it was terrific…very attractive, with a Tuscan country theme. We both had wonderful salads, pretty enough for a picture, and delicious too! – Rob, a Greek salad, and me, the house salad with chicory leaves, walnuts, orange, grapefruit, and raspberries, and big pungent pieces of gorgonzola cheese…yummy! The salads were followed by spareribs in a honey beer sauce, kind of tart and vinegary and the meat just falling off the bones. This was our best meal yet!

After lunch, we returned to the Town Square to see the little Romanesque church, the oldest church in Krakow, and the giant head that lies in front of the Tower, then sat at a sidewalk café sipping hot chocolate, people watching, and catching up in my journal.
At 2:30, the entire group met at the hotel again for our excursion to the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Who would expect that a trip to the salt mines would turn out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip?! Our guide, Isabel, led us down the 380 steps to the first level where we saw the first of the many statues that the miners had carved throughout the caverns in their spare time. The caverns were amazing – rooms carved out of pure salt, the floor of an ancient seabed. We walked through literally miles of corridors and down three more levels, yet we saw only about 1% of the total complex. There were several displays showing the ancient mining methods: the horse pulled systems for hoisting the salt to the surface (the horses would spend their entire lives underground) and the pumps for removing water (the constant enemy of the salt mines).

But most interesting of all were the statues: historical Polish figures, modern leaders who have visited the mines, the seven dwarves, and the highlight of the trip – the beautiful chapel with its gorgeous wall carvings…a replica of DaVinci’s The Last Supper, an altar, a Nativity scene, all carved of salt, the "tiles" on the floor carved into the salt floor and polished by the footsteps of the tourists…and hanging from the ceiling were chandeliers of salt crystal. Isabel had told us earlier that weddings were held here, and it had seemed so odd to me, but now we could easily see why! Then another surprise…Pat sang a hymn and the Star Spangled Banner in a gorgeous soprano voice that filled the huge chamber.

We ended the tour in the tallest chamber of the mining complex - so tall that someone set the world record for bungee jumping from its ceiling, and someone else had flown a hot air balloon! The chamber also contained the inevitable souvenir shops and we browsed for a few minutes before our last adventure. The lines for the tourist elevators were very long, so Isabel took us to the very industrial workers’ elevator. (The mines suspended mining in 1996, but the miners still work to maintain the tourist chambers.) We were stuffed into a little metal chamber, and it was a noisy, shaky, and slightly scary ride to the top. Rob and I agreed that in the U.S. tourists would never have been allowed to ride in this contraption…but it was a fun experience!

We returned to Krakow just in time to grab a quick bite then I headed with some of the others to a concert at the Peter and Paul Cathedral. The choir from Salzburg was wonderful – Latin hymns echoing and reverberating off the stone walls. I did not stay until the end as I was falling asleep in my seat, so I walked home through the twilight for early bedtime.

Sunday, July 8
Poland to Hungary

We woke early to pack for our trip to Hungary. Breakfast started at 6:30…and Steve and Darlene were already there! We were on the bus by 7:45 and left promptly at 8:00 (and, wouldn’t you know, we woke to a gorgeous blue day!)

We spent the morning driving through on a beautiful country road high through the Carpathian Mountains, looking down on lush green wooded hills, charming little villages with onion-domed churches nestled down in the valleys, pretty lakes, and two impressive castles that guarded the old borders of the Austro-Hungarian border (now near the border between Poland and Slovakia, where we paused briefly.) Etelka told us more stories of her childhood as a Little Pioneer and of the efforts of the Communists to suppress religion. She and her husband had been married secretly in the home of the village priest. As a boy, he had had his red scarf pulled off this neck by his teacher and was scolded for having attended church.

She also shared this little story. Three prisoners in the gulag explain why they are there. The first says, “I always arrived at work 5 minutes late, so they arrested me for sabotage.” The second says, “I always arrived at work 5 minutes early, so they arrested me for spying.” The third says, “I always arrived at work exactly on time, so they arrested me for having a western watch!”

After our border crossing, we continued through the mountains of Slovakia, past the High Tatras, which rise like our Grand Tetons out of the plains. There was a bit of excitement on the bus when we passed some huge nests filled with storks perched on the rooftops of some of the village houses.

Following our earlier rest stop (complete with rest stop yoga), we stopped for lunch in Levoca, an old town still surrounded by its ancient medieval wall. This was the first weekend of July, which just happened to be the weekend of an annual religious pilgrimage to the town’s famous altar, the tallest in Europe, so the usually sleepy little town was packed.
The streets of the town square were lined with booths selling everything from sweets to spanners!
Our group lunch was very good: a spicy soup, trout (complete with head), potatoes, a fruit dessert. After lunch, we strolled through the town, watching the large groups of singing pilgrims parading through the streets and into the cathedral.
We followed them in to see the very impressive painted altar.
Then it was back to the bus for the long drive to the Hungarian town of Eger. As we crossed into Hungary (a very smooth and easy border crossing), the countryside became much flatter. Just past the border, we had a very nice rest stop in a lovely park surrounded by imposing granite cliffs containing a famous cave system.

After a long day on the bus, we finally arrived in Eger in the early evening and checked into the Hotel Minaret,
named for the old minaret that stood in the little square in front of the hotel…the last reminder of the Muslims’ occupation of the town many centuries before.
We walked through town to our group dinner at a restaurant renowned for its traditional Hungarian food – liver, potatoes, genuine goulash soup. Then Rob and I strolled in the twilight back to the hotel through Dobo Square, which was filled with the tents of wine merchants at an annual wine festival. (We seem to be hitting a lot of “special” days!)

Monday, July 9
Eger, Hungary
Schools, Wineries, and A Hungarian Haircut

Steve and Darlene were already in the breakfast room when we came down. Rob and I spent the morning just wandering the streets of Eger, enjoying the wonderful fruit at the open air market and trying out our limited Hungarian. Rob had heard that there was a hair salon somewhere around the market, but very few people spoke English, and we couldn’t seem to find it. Finally, we went into a shoe store to inquire. I asked the clerk if she spoke English. No. So I held out the tips of my hair and mimed snipping. Her face lit up and she led us outside and up the stairs in the alcove right next door!
We found the salon and a hairdresser who could take Rob immediately. Again, no English, so we gestured and pointed. Rob held his fingers up to show “a very little bit” and managed to communicate, “Scissors, yes. Clippers, no.” She cut away, while we all kept up a very limited bilingual conversation, with her understanding that we came from California and me thumbing through my little dictionary, telling her “good...good...yohl...yohl!"” and “thank you” in Hungarian…and Rob walked away with a very excellent haircut!

Later, I joined some of the others for the daily organ concert in the gorgeous Basilica,
then the entire group (minus Rob who was feeling very tired after some nights of no sleep because of his sore tooth) got on the bus for a local day trip. The first stop was at a local school where we were greeted by Etelka’s schoolteacher friend and were served a typical school lunch in the school’s cafeteria:
a rich potato soup, rice with chicken livers and peas, a cherry-topped cake…and made a toast with some very strong liquor followed by espresso (which I assume are not part of the children’s usual menu!)
After lunch, we went upstairs to the language lab where the teacher told us a bit about the school system and we had a fun visit with five students who had given up some of their summer vacation time to come and meet with us. They were very cute and all had little written lists of questions to ask us. “What is your favorite food? Color? Sport?” etc.

During our school visit, it rained a bit, but the weather cleared again in the afternoon when we next visited one of the old Communist gulags outside the town.
At the memorial to the people who had been imprisoned there, Etelka told us of her surprise at learning after the fact that one of her relatives was one of the names on the memorial. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked her family. They explained that she would have been too outspoken and gotten herself and others in the family in trouble!

Our final stop of the day was the best of all…a visit to the lovely family winery of Etelka’s friends. (This region is known for its good wines.)
We were greeted by Tony, a beaming and talented Roma (gypsy) violinist who serenaded us throughout our visit, joined occasionally by Mary Earthsong’s lovely soprano voice.
We all went to the tasting room where we sampled a variety of wines. Ishtvan (Steven) described the wines, while Etelka, now dressed in traditional Hungarian dress – which she had sewn herself – translated.
Then she taught us a couple of Hungarian folk songs and we went out onto the big patio overlooking the valley to dance some traditional dances. Finally, we visited the wine cellar where Ishtvan told us about his work…and the very high taxes he pays – about 70%!...
and where Bojan, our usually quiet bus driver, showed us a different side of his character! It was a wonderful day!

Tuesday, July 10
Eger to Budapest
The New Jersey Factor Haunts Us in Hungary

We woke to gloomy skies and beat Steve and Darlene to the breakfast room by just a few minutes. After breakfast, we finished packing and got on the bus for the rainy drive past huge fields of sunflowers to Budapest, about two and a half hours away. Etelka told us more about Hungary, which often in recent years - in her words - had chosen to back the “wrong side.”

We entered the huge city of Budapest (1.8 million people) on the flat Pest side, past Heroes Square and the Szecheny Baths in the City Park, then drove down the Andrussy Street, the Champs Elysees of Budapest, which is lined with many of the tourist sites of the city: the Opera House, the House of Terror, the Museum of Fine Arts, etc.

As we approached the Danube River, which divides flat Pest from the hilly city of Buda, I pulled out my MP3 player again to listen to Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz. It was not quite the same magical experience I had had at the Vlatava as this time we were on a bus in heavy traffic, it was raining, and the blue Danube was quite brown…but it was still exciting to see that famous stretch of water for the first time.

Buda was pretty even in the rain with its huge palaces, the Fishermen’s Bastion, and Mathias Church sitting high over the river. We headed directly for the castle where we met our guide, a Hungarian history professor who led us on a walking tour of the city.
The New Jersey factor haunts us even here! Rob (a Rutgers graduate) and I were amazed to see him wearing a Rutgers University jacket…he had taught there for three years in the late 1990’s. We followed him in the pouring rain, getting a laugh at the street sweeper that was diligently spraying water on the wet streets, and peering into the hidden courtyards behind the building facades where most of daily life actually takes place.

Much of what we saw here was actually built in the 1800’s to recall the glory of medieval days, but the stone ramparts are still fun and romantic, even if not authentically old.
The group paused in front of the statue of St. Stephen to have another toast with another potent herb liquor, (which was just as revolting as the previous potent potables on our trip.)
Then we went into the beautiful Mathias Church with its distinctive mosaic tile roof. So many of the churches we have visited have been spectacular – each one unique and special – and this was no exception.

We walked down the steep hill, with great views of the ornate Parliament Building across the Danube River, to the Market Square where there were several options for lunch.

Rob and I selected the excellent vegetarian restaurant where I had my first taste of Hungarian fruit soup – delicious! Like drinking a lemon meringue pie!
After lunch, we rode under the river on the metro and emerged into the modern hustle and bustle of Pest (where I was struck by the juxtaposition of the old and new standing side by side, causing Rob to look askance at me for saying juxtaposition…private joke).
We continued our walk past more sights than I can remember – St. Stephens Cathedral, the back side of the Parliament building, the Opera House, and other beautiful buildings.

Happily, the rain had let up and the sun was trying to peek out. Around 3 p.m., we walked up the Vaca Utica, the famous walking street of Pest lined with upscale shops, tacky souvenir stands,
hawkers handing out flyers to various restaurants and events, sidewalk cafes, and the first McDonald’s behind the Iron Curtain, where young people from all over Eastern Europe would once line up all the way down the block for a Big Mac and a coke.

At the end of the street stood the Big Market Hall, but before we reached it, we turned off the street to our Hotel Erzebet (Elizabeth), a nice business-class hotel.
We gathered our bags and went to our room which was very comfortable. We did a little laundry in the sink and had a little rest, then went out again for a very good dinner at the Central Kavahaz (Coffeehouse): cold cucumber-dill-and-yogurt soup, and a veal goulash on spaetzle.

The weather had cleared completely and the skies were blue as the entire group met in the lobby to walk to our evening Danube cruise on the Legenda, where we were greeted by four attractive young women who welcomed us in at least 12 different languages! It was a very pleasant evening –
beautiful views of the large buildings lit up along the river to the accompaniment of a narration, music, and video. After the cruise, we headed right to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Wednesday, July 11
Bathing in Budapest

We “slept in” (til almost 7 a.m.!) and woke to beautiful blue skies. After a good breakfast in the hotel, several of us – Steve and Darlene, Annette and Mike, me, Jeannie, and Mary Earthsong – met Etelka to head for the Sczecheny Baths, one of several elegant bath houses throughout the city. Budapest sits on a cauldron of hot water and its citizens have used these waters for years – from the Celts to the Romans to the Ottoman Turks (whose Turkish bath houses still stand) and up to the Hungarians of today.

What a fun adventure! We took the underground…the yellow line that runs just beneath Andrussy Street…to the end of the line where we emerged right outside the big yellow building that surrounds the baths. It was great having Etelka with us to show us how to get the tickets, where to change, etc. We each got a changing cabin which was locked by the attendant and were given a wrist band to help us find our locker again.

Etelka first took us through the room of indoor pools of varying temperatures from hot to really really hot. Then we headed out to the three big outdoor pools. The first was merely for soaking – a nice, comfortable warm pool with a heavy spray of water from a fountain where we could enjoy a neck massage. Steve looked positively blissful sitting under the powerful spray. At one end of this pool, six old men sat playing chess. Judging by their deep tans, I’d guess it is a daily activity.

The largest pool in the middle was kept cooler, as this was the one used by serious swimmers. But the pool at the far end was where the serious fun started! It was a large lukewarm pool with a circular “river” in the middle where a strong, swift current swept you around and around. After about 10 minutes, the jets in the central circle started up and we all piled in to get pummeled by the Jacuzzi jets. THEN the big outer pool started pumping up big bubbles, so we scrambled over to stand in the bubbles…all of us, including the Hungarians, laughing and giggling like a bunch of happy kids. (Darlene and I both noted that, oddly enough, there were very few children there.) Of course, part of the fun was being surrounded by the yellow and white columns and arches of the neo-classical building – a very elegant setting for an adult water park!

We finally showered and changed and returned on the metro to the square at the head of the Vaca Utica. Darlene and Steve and I walked the entire length of the street back to the hotel where I joined Rob. We had another good lunch at the Avocado Restaurant, right around the corner from our hotel.
Then we continued on to the very impressive Market Hall. It was a huge hall…even larger than the Market in Papeete. The ground floor was filled with food markets, fruits and vegetables, butcher stands hung with garlands of sausages, cheese shops, and –
of course – the paprika shops filled with tins and bags of paprika and souvenirs. We bought a tin of “sweet” paprika then went upstairs to the overwhelming array of embroidered blouses, Christmas ornaments, dolls, mugs, and t-shirts. We resisted the urge to buy anything.

After the market, we strolled back down the entire length of the Vaca Utica, ending at the famous Gerbeaud Bakery for a cappuccino and a bit of Sacher Torte. The metro stop was right there in the square, so I decided to use my day pass from the morning to head back up to the Opera House. I arrived just in time for the 3:00 tour and enjoyed seeing the very impressive building.
The Royal Box, Queen Sisi’s Box (as she loved and attended the Opera more than her husband, but wasn’t allowed to sit in the Royal Box alone), three or four tiers of box seats circling the room…and all of it decorated with gleaming gold leaf!

In the evening, Rob and I returned to the Central Kavahaz for a very light dinner – soup and salad. (We have been eating SO much!) We were joined by Bonnie and Richard. It was fun to run into members of our group all over town.
After dinner, Etelka met us for our last Budapest excursion…a metro ride and a walk to the Danube Palace to see a performance of Hungarian folk dancers.
It was a gorgeous theater and it was a professional group, so it was very impressive…athletic dancing with the men whacking sticks and slapping their boots and thighs…but I actually preferred the sweet amateur performance of the darling little dance troupe in Trojanivice. The weather was still mild and lovely, so we had a nice walk back to the hotel.

Thursday, July 12
Hungary to Croatia

Today was a loooong day on the bus…from Budapest to Plitvice National Park in Croatia.
The first two hours or so were across the sunflower covered plains of Hungary, then we crossed the border into Croatia where we stopped at a charming little farm for lunch and enjoyed visiting with the animals.
Rob fed a peach to a horse, and we fed the fish, ducks, and frogs in the little pond.

I made friends with a skinny little kitten, and visited the ducks, chickens, geese, doves, turkeys, and 2 big rabbits in the poultry coops. It was a nice break from the bus, and everyone took advantage of the chance for a little exercise.

The ride from there to Plitvice was through gorgeous lush green hills. There were a few sobering moments when we drove through a village where we saw houses still riddled with the bullet holes left from the 1991 war with Serbia. Most of the Croat’s homes had been restored, but the local Serbs – who still own their property – were understandably afraid to return, and their houses still stand in ruins.

We arrived in Plitvice around 5:30 p.m. What a nice surprise! Based on Etelka’s and Pat’s comments, I had expected a rather shabby little inn, but we pulled up to a lovely, modern hotel with a huge lobby, marble steps – very nice! Our room was even better…a big room with a sitting area, large bathroom with tub – excellent!
We sat out on the deck with some of the others for awhile and enjoyed watching the birds diving and swooping to catch the evening insects, then Rob and I took a nice brisk walk through the beautiful woods.

A group dinner was served at 7:30…an odd appetizer of some sort of cream cheese, a meat skewer, rice with veggies, and a cabbage salad. The food on the trip has been very tasty, but so rich and heavy that I honestly don’t have much appetite anymore!

Friday, July 13
Plitvice National Park – WOW!

What a great day! Steve and Darlene beat us to breakfast. (They cheated and went down five minutes before 7.) At 8:15, we all met to load our things onto the bus, then followed Etelka to the park entrance to start our walk through Plitvice National Park.

Words really can’t describe the experience – and even photos are inadequate. It was a totally sensory experience. I could provide a nice little scientific description of how the calcium deposits have over the years built up the little plateaus that create the literally thousands of waterfalls that cascade from one to another of the eleven lakes which descend like steps down the canyon. But that description doesn’t capture the magical feel of the place.
We walked along wooden boardwalks over the many ponds and rivers, surrounded by lush waterplants and thick woods, moss-covered rocks gushing water,
crystal clear pools filled with trout…and everywhere the sound of falling water. Every turn of the path brought us into view of new waterfalls. Those of you who were on the trip understand. For those of you who have not been there, I'm going to let the photos do the talking...but try to imagine the sound of the falling water everywhere.

We walked for an hour through the “lower falls” and reached a boat that took us across one of the larger lakes to a picnic area where we had a little rest and bought a sausage sandwich from the vendors.

Then we continued our walk along the “upper falls”...

ending with a steep climb up to the view of the “Big Waterfall.”

I’ve seen bigger waterfalls many times, but never any that were more numerous or more magical. This day was definitely one of the highlights of this trip!

As our bags had been loaded in the morning, we climbed onto the bus and departed immediately for the coast of Croatia.
Lunch, watermelon and a very good vegetable soup, was at a truck stop restaurant filled with “taxidermied” animals that had been placed in silly, but amusing, poses…foxes playing cards, bears playing music, etc.

We were reminded again of the recent war at our rest stop in a town where the damage from the conflict was still very much in evidence on the facades of some of the buildings. As with the houses, the Catholic Croatian church was restored, but the Orthodox Serbian church just down the street was still in ruins,

and just outside the town, we learned that some of the fields still contain land mines.
Soon after our stop, we reached the coastal hills and walked to the top of one to get our first look at the Adriatic Sea and some of the thousands of islands that line the coast of Croatia.

As we dropped down the hill toward the sea, the terrain changed dramatically from the lush forests and pastures of inland Croatia to the dry hills and scrubby brush of the Mediterranean coast.

We arrived at the ferry to Island Rab (pronounced Rob), a resort destination very popular with the Central Europeans, Italians, and Germans, but still not often visited by Americans. Our bus stood in a very long line of cars and trucks, but amazingly, we just managed to squeeze onto the little ferry.

We all piled out of the bus and went up on the upper deck to watch our approach to the island. As this end of the island was swept by constant winds and salt spray, it did not look too impressive…a moonscape of tumbled yellow bare rocks, but as we drove over the hill to the main town, the scenery became much more colorful.

We arrived at the Hotel Ros Maris in the late afternoon…another very nice big modern hotel and a great room – spacious and open, shower with tub, a sitting area, and a gorgeous view of the little marina outside. Rob and I wandered the town for awhile. The old town fills a small peninsula on the island and is divided into three main streets that run the length of the entire peninsula. Lower Street was just behind the hotel and was a quiet narrow street lined by tall stone buildings, with a few cafes.

Middle Street was much more lively, lined with restaurants, tourist shops of t-shirts, postcards, trinkets, and many shops of beach items…towels, water shoes, gelato stands (many! – every few feet).

High Street links the four big bell towers that stand over the town. The look and feel was very much like Italy, which had traded with this nearby location for centuries.

At 7:30, the entire group met again for dinner at a local restaurant. Dinner had been pre-ordered with either fish or calamari.

Rob had the fish (two, with heads, of course) and I had the calamari – deep-fried and with the tentacles, which looked scary but tasted delicious! After dinner, we walked with Steve and Darlene over the stairs that dropped down to the ocean side of the peninsula where the town “beaches” were located.

As seems to be true with a lot of Mediterranean beaches, they were mostly just platforms of cement where people could sit and access the water. We arrived just in time for a gorgeous sunset, with the big stone church and bell tower lit up behind us. The air was balmy and the temperature was perfect. A lovely end to the day.

Saturday, July 14
Island Rab, Croatia

Today was a completely free day…a “vacation from our vacation,” as Rick Steves puts it. I have to laugh. Our nice relaxing morning turned out to be one of the most stressful of the entire trip…fun, but stressful. Rob and I met Steve and Darlene and set off to rent motorscooters to tour the island. Darlene had driven them before and assured me, as I was feeling very nervous about it, that it was easy. Hmmm…the reality turned out to be somewhat different.

We found a place that had four scooters left and decided on the four-hour rental. My very first attempt to drive was almost the end of the trip, as I turned the throttle under my right hand, but didn’t have my left hand on the brake! I went shooting forward with Rob yelling, “Brake! Brake!”

Once I got the two handlebar controls straightened out, it wasn’t too bad, and we took it very slowly, but there was quite a bit of traffic and I was in a constant state of near-panic for the first 15 minutes. At the top of the first hill, Rob and I turned left, but Steve and Darlene missed seeing us and turned right. We saw Darlene drop her scooter and turned to go after them. She was all right and we all decided together on the road out of town.

Once we were past the town and onto a less trafficked road, I felt more comfortable and began to enjoy the cool breeze and scenery a bit more, although mostly I was just focused on watching Rob ahead of me and saying my mantra, “Take off the throttle, then brake.”

After several miles, we dropped down a steep hill to a little marina. Rob signaled to pull over and he and I turned left into the parking lot. Another little disaster! Steve turned to check traffic before turning left. When he turned back forward, Darlene in front of him had slowed way down. He had to brake quickly and down he went! Thank goodness, the car behind him was going very slowly, so there was no collision, but he scraped up both knees and his foot. Happily, there was very little damage to the scooter…just some scrapes on the decal placed on the tank of the bike…lucky!

A very nice Croatian fellow came over to us with band-aids and first aid cream. We cleaned Steve up the best we could and sat at a little café to recuperate for a few minutes. I had been feeling a bit more comfortable, but now I was totally paranoid again and very eager to return to town and turn in the bikes. We all agreed to return and headed back up the steep hill. It was a nice uneventful return to the town (with just one near miss when a mom with her toddler decided to cross the street right in front of me and my mantra went right out of my head).

Well, it was an adventure. Now I can say, “Been there. Done that.” and I never have to do it again!

The rest of the day was much more relaxing. Rob and I found a cute little restaurant, the Koruna Rab, where we sat up in a loft overlooking the fake rooftops of a little village. Lunch was okay – crab soup and a “Fruits of the Sea” risotto which had a very strong seafood taste. The day was hot. Rab (like Spain) takes a siesta in the heat of the afternoon, so we just walked slowly through the almost deserted streets.

We started at the pretty town square, then continued into the big shady park at the inland end of the peninsula, which had very pleasant paths through the trees.

Then we went over the hill and discovered where all the tourists had gone…they were all splashing in the clear waters of the Adriatic!

We met Etelka down at the beach. I was so sorry I had not brought my swimsuit, but Rob stripped down to his shorts and joined her for a swim.

After he dried off, we walked along the Upper Street. I had hoped to climb one of the bell towers for the views but somehow couldn’t find the entrance into the walls that surrounded it,

so we just strolled along the street looking at the pretty churches and views. It was very hot, so we returned to the hotel for a rest.

At 6 p.m., the group met on the terrace of the hotel for a lively happy hour. Everyone brought food and drinks to share and we had a great time visiting and enjoying the perfect cooling air.

Bojan made a riotous entrance wearing a t-shirt displaying bulging muscles – and Mike stripped down to his new speedos!

We sang Happy 50th Birthday to Pam, and Etelka recruited me and Pat to sing it to her in Hungarian, then Pat sang a song she had written about Plitvice to the tune of The Sound of Music. We all snapped loads of photos and Jayne set up her laptop to get everyone’s email addresses.

After the gathering, Rob and I went for a light Greek salad supper. When we reemerged onto Middle Street, the transformation of the town was quite amazing. The street was packed wall to wall with people. The town square and sidewalk cafes were filled with crowds enjoying the mild evening, music was playing, the town was hopping! We took a walk along the marina, looking at the many boats, to the end of the pier where we stood for quite awhile enjoying another gorgeous sunset. There was not a cloud in sight, but the entire western sky was filled with a deep golden color. Venus was gleaming on the horizon and a couple of jet contrails cut bright slashes of light through the glow. We walked back through the twilight feeling very relaxed and very happy.

Sunday, July 15
Croatia to Slovenia

Steve, limping on his stiffened knee and swollen ankle, was already at breakfast when we went down early. Everyone was on the bus by 8 a.m. and we set off on our last bus day of the trip. The day actually went quickly. We drove quite a ways along the dry coast, looking at the many bare, brown islands. I was struck by how very calm the ocean was here. There was virtually no wave action on the mainland. I guess that the islands acts as a natural breakwater.

We had an easy border crossing into Slovenia, where we actually got off the bus to walk through the border guard house. We soon turned inland once again into the lovely wooded hills. The terrain and the houses became noticeably different, going from a Mediterranean to an Austrian flavor.

At around 1:00, we got another unexpected treat…a stop at Predjamski Castle, a medieval castle built right into a cave on the side of a sheer cliff. While Pat and Etelka prepared our picnic, we had a half hour to run around the castle exploring the bare rooms and various stairways. The rooms themselves were not that impressive.

Other than a few costumed mannequins, a small armory, and a replica of a torture chamber, there was not much to see. But the way the castle was built into the cliff was dramatic – a medieval Mesa Verde.

At the top of the highest staircase was an amazing cavern with one more mysterious stairway leading into the cave above…a place to stir the imagination!

The views from the top were also gorgeous, looking down on the little village, the wooded valley, and the jousting arena below.

At 1:30, our picnic was waiting for us and we all ate to bursting, finishing up with a yummy gelato from the village store. Then it was back on the bus for our last afternoon of travel.

We arrived in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana where Etelka took us on a short walking tour of the town.

It was very hot – mid-90s – and, as it was Sunday, many shops were closed, so following our tour -

and a quick trip to gat a photo of the Dragon Bridge for my dragon-collecter son Brian, we just sat at a sidewalk café gulping down ice teas and waiting for the bus.

As we left Ljubljana, we could see our first glimpse of the jagged peaks of the Julian Alps off to our right.

At 5:30, we arrived at the final desination of the trip, Hotel Lovec on the shores of Lake Bled, where we bid a sad farewell to Bojan, our wonderful driver.

Rob and I went to our assigned room, but the air conditioner was not working and the room was very hot and stuffy. The staff tried to fix it, but after several unsuccessful attempts, they very graciously moved us to a new room. It turned out to be a very lucky change! Our new room had a second small bedroom where we could spread out our things, AND it had a small balcony with a mountain view and a huge Jacuzzi tub. The bath I took that evening was one of the best of my life!

We met Steve and Darlene for dinner at the outdoor hotel restaurant. The air had cooled down considerably and we had a very pleasant evening, visiting and laughing. Steve was in fine form…full of movie quotes done in character!

Monday, July 16
Lake Bled – the Last Day

After breakfast, the entire tour group met for our boat ride to the little church that stands on the island in the middle of the lake. We knew of the church from our Rick Steves video.

It is a popular place for weddings, and the tradition requires that the grooms carry their brides up the 99 steps to the church. It could not have been a better day! Warm and sunny – and the sun in just the right place for taking photos of the castle on the bluffs across the water.

We rode in two boats, and one of them included a darling 14 year old boy who serenaded us with his accordion.

As we arrived at the island and I was just about to photograph the famous 99 steps, my camera stopped working! The memory card read “Error” and was showing no images. As our entire trip was on that memory card, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of panic. Thank goodness, Rob had brought his camera!

We went into the little church and took turns ringing the wishing bell,

and Pat sang a beautiful Ave Maria, then we all sang Amazing Grace. Wonderful acoustics in the church!

We returned to town on our little boats, enjoying the gorgeous views of the mountains surrounding us, the castle high above us, and the ducks and the swans – another wonderful morning! Upon returning, I immediately went to the photo shop where the nice young woman took my memory card and said they would try to recover my photos.

Rob and I had a cappucino at the outdoor cafe sitting over the water, then set out on a walk around the lake. We passed families on bicycles, other hikers, and lots of people on the beaches, taking full advantage of the sunlight.

European women seem to be much more at ease with their bodies that American women. We saw a couple of topless women and many tiny little bikinis on some hefty bodies.

The hike took about one and a half hours, and I immediately returned to the photo shop which had succeeded in printing my photos to a CD! Hallelujah! We spent a quiet afternoon resting and sitting by the lake just enjoying the slow pace and the scenery.

That evening was a special farewell dinner. Our traveling companions had been a fun and congenial group of people, and it was strange to think that the next day we all be heading our separate ways…but with common memories of one of the best trips of a lifetime.