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During the summer of 2001, we took a trip to Europe. This was organized by the West High School Entertainment Unit. Specifically, the band, part of the drill team and the tall flags units went on a boondoggle in Southern Europe. Richard and Katie (my son and daughter) are members of the band. Sandy and I went along for the ride. Sandy's father, Charlie, went along too. Of course, we had to pay for all this stuff. The trip cost about $3,000 a head with the kids costing about 10% less. Our two younger kids stayed at Sandy's sister's house.
While my wife took hundreds of digital photos and my daughter and I took 23 rolls of film, I've have included only a few rather odd ones in this page. I think that regular tourist photos of momunents with loved ones standing in front to be rather uninteresting to most people. I have usually included photos that demonstrate something just a little odd or interesting to a nerd such as myself.
12 July Starting at West High, we got on a regular school bus at about 1600 for a ride to LAX. We took a long flight on AF 069 to Paris, arriving at about 1430 on 7/13. The Air France Airbus had video screens at every seat. There was the regular in-flight movies, plus a set of status screens that showed position of the aircraft on ground maps at various magnifications and then some flight data. These displays were repeated over in over in French, Spanish and English. The food on Air France was considerably better than on most other airlines. Of course, Sandy and Katie didn't eat any of the weirder stuff so I got double or triple portions of some really good salads. Breakfast on the plane was a cheese-less omelet. I did manage to sleep a little on the flight.
13 July After a 3 hour layover at Paris. we took a 4 hour plane ride to Athens, again on Air France and again, fairly good food. The airport is 45 km from Athens so we had a one hour bus ride to the Athens Central hotel. The hotel is downtown, within walking distance north of the Acropolis. The rooms were small but adequate. The twin beds were low, short, narrow and pushed together to make an ineffective double bed. The elevators held just 4 people each and overloaded easily. The hotel was air conditioned, but it hardly worked in the room. The only room that was really cool was the lobby, which is where we hung out a lot. There was a TV in the room, but all the channels were in Greek. We watched a Japanese samurai movie, subtitled in english and then sub titled over that in Greek.
There were about 125 people in the group, maybe 30 of them were adults. Some of the adults were chaperons, some just along for the ride. The kids were housed usually 3 to a room with the boys and girls on separate floors to make it easier to police them and keep them separate and out of each other's rooms. However, I have it on good authority that even with the best efforts of the chaperons, the kids were very resourceful and successful in inter mingling when they were not supposed to.
Our dedicated tour guides are Bo, Jergen and Anna, three Swedes hired by the tour director, Cathy, and her daughter, Laura. Cathy and Laura of Universal Odyssey organized the whole trip. Laura has pubished her photos from the trip. Bo handles our bus, #3, which has most of the adults and the "twirlers" from Rosemead High. The baton team from Rosemead is traveling with us. Katie is on bus 2 and Richard is on bus 1. In Greece, we got a different bus every day, but we stayed together as a traveling group.
Breakfast was served in the hotel and was the same for three mornings in a row. There was toast, some kind of white cheese, lunch meat, hard boiled eggs, canned peaches, orange and pineapple/grapefruit juice, cereal and plain yoghurt. Nobody drinks the tap water, it tasted pretty bad. SOP was to carry a bottle of water, usually 1.5 ltr. The price ranged from 150 drachmas at the central market to 200 at a regular store to 500 in the hotel. There were no large markets anywhere, all the stores were small shops. Down the main street to the Acropolis, there were dozens of places to buy tools, but hardly any food shops or cafe's. All the cafe's were down near the Acropolis. There were at least 3 stores per block where you could buy a chain saw or a fire extinguisher, but not a sandwich.
The exchange rate in Greece at the time was 400 drachma's to the dollar. Most things were inexpensive, like food, a really good Greek sub sandwich (olive paste, tomatoes, cucumbers and feta) was 600, about $1.50. Leather goods were weird. You could buy a leather belt for 1000 at any news stand, but a good wallet was 12,000. Soda's were expensive at 250 everywhere. Charlie's emergency ferry ride was 1300, or just over $3.
Both the feta and the olives in Greece are much better than any I tasted in the states. I never much cared for feta cheese before, but this stuff is really good. I came to miss Greek salads after we eventually left Greece.
14 Jul We had breakfast in the hotel then took a bus ride to the Acropolis. After one hour at the Acropolis we took a bus tour of central Athens. Then Charlie and I went walking to find lunch and struck out. Back at the hotel, we found another group headed for lunch and we followed them. They went a half block further than we did and found restaurant row, good lunch for $15, pretty high by Greek standards but it was good. By then it was 1500. Dinner was at 5:30 at the hotel and it was the dryest chicken I ever had. The late lunch was a good plan after all. The band had a concert at 1900, but sandy and I crapped out and went to bed.
15 July left the hotel at 0715 on a bus to a 3 island cruise on the Hermes, a medium sized ship. First was Poros, a tourist trap. I got two tee shirts for Sandy's birthday. Charlie missed the boat and took a ferry to meet us at Aegina, the third stop.
Hydra was the second stop, another tourist trap. These island towns are built around the port with all the shops conviently located right next to the dock. I bought a pack of cards with ancient Greek images of an adult nature. By the time the boat reached Aegina, I was pooped out and stayed on the boat to sleep. After the boat ride, the whole group went to a restaurant for dinner and got back to the hotel at about 2230. We showered and Sandy went up to the 9 th floor bar to drink the rest of some airplane wine in a new goblet but got kicked out. Seems that you can't BYO to the bar.
16July We walked around Athens looking in gift shops. Most of Athens looks pretty nomral for a city. However, the Athens central farmer's market is essentially next to the hotel. There is a whole city block of butcher shops, virtually none of them have any refrigeration equipment. One walk through that area was sufficient to turn any normal carnivore into an instant vegetarian.
Greece at this time of year is hot and dry, temperatures were in the high 90's every day and very humid. The food is fair, not great. The olives were and feta were fabulous. Athens is mostly built of stone and concrete. The infrastructure is crumbling with many busted sidewalks and curbs. Many buildings are abandoned, many more under construction. The drivers are very aggressive. Motor scooters are everywhere, parking is anywhere. The few police around carry Uzi's. Many of the streets are very narrow and cars park on the sidewalks on both sides. Somehow, the tour bus drivers managed to squeeze those huge busses through that mess. Many of the city busses are articulated and are probably 60' long. They work those same streets. There is a subway system, but we didn't explore it.
The bus to the ferry to Bari Italy left at noon. The bus ride took us west from Athens along countryside that looks just like the Sierra foothills, except that olive trees substituted for scrub oak. For much of the trip, the road paralleled a (probably) meter gauge railroad track. I didn't see any trains on it until we got to the ferry port. There, a 3 car RDC type consist was going through. The road was basically three lanes wide, the busses passed other traffic without much consideration for oncoming traffic. Traffic on both sides just moved to the shoulders to let the trucks and busses pass down the middle of the road at 60 mph.
After the long bus ride to the Adriatic side of the Peloponesis, we boarded an ocean going ferry to go to Bari, Italy. The ship was named the "Superfast 1." This is a large ship with some of the features of a cruise ship. The staterooms were small but acceptable. The car decks were the full length of the ship on two levels. The ferry ride took 15 hours. Dinner on the ferry was an "American" pizza and later a Greek salad. Sandy had a plate of spaghetti. The kids fended for themselves.
17 July We spent the night on the boat. There was little ship's rolling so the trip was comfortable. The "stateroom" was small but adequately laid out. The beds were bunks, I got the top. Breakfast was on the boat, another "Continental" breakfast, this one leaner than most. We had to gathered as a group to disembark due to tight Italian passport controls due to the G8 economic summit being held in Genoa. Italy was trying to prevent protesters or terrorists from entering but it didn't appear to work too well. After packing and changing money, we waited in the lounge for further instruction.
After disembarking from the ferry, we loaded up a new set of busses for a trip across Italy to the west coast. We kept the same 3 busses for the remainder of the trip. We rode on bus 3, with the adults and the "twirlers", a group of majorettes from Rosemead High. Our bus hauls a 15' trailer with all of the band equipment. The driver is named Didea (he's French). He has his 6 year old son, Davide, with him. Davide runs the water, beer and soda concession on the bus.
The coastal flatlands are covered with grapes and olive orchards. The Italian highways are good and well engineered. Climbing into the mountains first leads to a drier climate and then to a more lush region as we near the west coast.
We finally reached Pompeii and tour the excavated Roman city. Mount Visuvius stands promenantly over Pompeii.
We then reboard the busses for our hotel in Sorrento, just south of Pompeii. Sorrento stands at the top of a set of cliffs above the Bay of Naples.
Our hotel, the Hotel Oriente, is literally clinging to the mountain side immediately below the road. The hotel is built in a rambling fashion with no two rooms being the same. All have some kind of view of the ocean, either from a window or balcony. The hotel is full of antique furniture and artifacts from all over the world. There was no TV in the room, but there was a computer with a working Internet connection in the hotel disco and I was able to check my email. Actually, there were 3 computers, but one had a dead mouse and the other had no working Internet connection. Working Windows in Italian was interesting, but we figured it out. Sandy was able to get to AKO successfully.
A rail station (meter gauge) is across the road from the hotel. The road is narrow and twisty. The train line just tunnels through ridges and bridges over the canyons in a nearly straight line to "downtown" Sorrento, which is the end of the line. The rail line is electrified and apparently carries only passenger traffic.
18 July We got up early to board the busses for a trip to downtown Sorrento and the ferry port to catch a fast ferry to the island of Capri, a few miles off shore. Capri is an island of vacation homes for the rich and/or famous. It is full of tourist traps and trendy shops on twisty very narrow pedestrian only streets. One street Charlie and I walked down reminded me of Rodeo Drive based on the type of shops. Charlie and I also went to Marina Piccalo to swim. We rode a funicular to Capri town on the top of the island and then a bus down the other side. The beach was pebbles and murder on the feet but the swimming was good.
The ferry ride back was smoother than the one out. Back at Sorrento, we had some time to burn before the band performance. The band set up in Piazza Lauro and then dinner was in a restaurant in the Piazza. We got back to the hotel at midnight.
19 July The bus left the hotel at about 1030 headed to Rome. We got forced to the wrong ramp in Napoli and did a bus tour through an industrial sector of Napoli trying to get back on the right highway back to Rome.
Italian drivers are mostly nuts, I am told that the Napoli drivers are the worst and I believe it. The scooter drivers seem to mostly have a death wish, weaving in and around traffic in very dangerous ways. Scooters are everywhere, out numbering cars maybe 3 to 1.
When we got to Rome, we immediately stopped to tour the Colosseum. I got targeted by a pickpocket as we were walking away from the bus, but there was nothing for him to pick and he broke off.
After the tour, we went to our hotel, the Hotel Massini, and got lost getting there. Dinner was at the hotel, a traditional (slow) dinner but it was good. The hotel room was very nice, but again with vary narrow twin beds. The A/C in this room worked, I had to tone it down to keep the room from freezing. All of the hotels in Italy that we stayed at had bidets in the bathroom. This hotel actually had CNN and the BBC in english and we got our fix of international news. There was a computer in the lobby but it was busted and couldn't access the internet.
20 July Our tour of more of Rome started early, at 0730. We took a bus tour around town and then a walking tour of the Vatican which was very impressive. Charlie and I had lunch at an Austrian style restaurant where I had a good brat and the best sauerkraut that I've ever had. We then started a walking tour at the Spanish Steps, then to the Trevi fountain, the Parthenon, and another plaza and then back to the hotel. The tour guide spotted 3 more pickpockets, "angels" she called them. These were girls, probably only 10 years old. They backed off when they were ID'd but they tried to pick one of the kids in the group behind until they were chased off.
There were motor scooters everywhere in Italy. This is a shot of a public charging station and an electric scooter. However, most of them were obnoxious two strokes.
The scooter drivers in Rome seem to have a stronger death wish than in Sorrento. They've taken splitting traffic to a whole new level. Driving in Rome is just a big game of chicken. Signals and stop signs seem to have little significance. Drivers will turn left right in front of the bus and only back off when it is clear that the bus driver is not going to back down. Our driver is an expert at handling his bus. He's managed to get it through impossibly small places and, through the whole trip he never did touch anything.
Dinner that night was in a restaurant built underground in some old jail or something. The waiters all wear striped suits and there were iron bars and leg irons for effect. The dinner was very good, pasta, salad and mixed grill. Everybody was beat on the ride back to the hotel. Departure time the next day was 0900 for a bus ride to Florence.
21 July The Italian highway system is very good, certainly better than most US Interstate highways. There are turnouts every few kilometers with call boxes and on highway (these are toll roads) service stations with food and gas every 30 kilometers or so. The road surface is good too.
Florence is in a region called Tuscany. The land is lush and looks much like the nicer scenery in California. The weather was excellent. The temperatures in Italy have been in the mid 80's with a cool breeze. It rained a few drops on us when we were in the Vatican.
The Italian railroad system that I have seen is in good shape. Most of the track is welded rail with concrete ties, double tracked and electrified. The only moving equipment I have seen has been passenger equipment. There are either push-pull high speed sets or locomotive pulled trains. I did see a small yard with some very beat up freight equipment and some graffiti covered coaches.
On the way to Florence, we stopped at Siena, a medieval town and had lunch in the old town plaza. The place was crowded with tourists. North of Siena, the forests became deeper and the trees generally larger. This is a very green countryside.
The food in Italy is generally quite good, but more expensive than in Greece. The exchange rate in Italy is about 2000 lira to the dollar. A bottle of soda that was uniformly $0.62 in Greece, was typically twice that in Italy. A good sandwich was $1.50 in Greece, typically $3 in Italy. Water was $0.50 to $1.25 for 1.5 ltr in Greece, it runs $0.65 to $3 a bottle in Italy. I found a store that had it for 1300 lira and bought a 6 pack. That lasted about 3 days.
We stopped at an overlook of Florence on the way in. A bronze copy of Michelangelo's David stands there. From the overlook, we could see all of Florence. Our hotel was about 5 miles east of Florence, the Hotel Moderno. It easily had the worst beds of the whole trip, badly sagged in the middle. These were twins as well. The rooms were nice however. The were air conditioned and had the same TV channels as in Rome.
22 July The busses left for Florence at 0800. We first stopped and the Academy of Arts to see the original of David. While we were waiting to get in, all activity came to a halt. There was a motorcade in front of the academy. Laura Bush (the current first lady) was in the museum and we had to wait until she came out. I saw her for about a second as she waved and was hustled into her limo.
A copy of the David sculpture is in the place at the Piazza Signori where the original stood for a couple of hundred years. We then walked by the Duomo, the central cathedral. Since it was Sunday morning, mass is in session so we couldn't go into any of the churches until the afternoon. After another walking tour, we broke up as a group for an afternoon "free" in Florence. The band was scheduled to perform at Piazza Signori at about 1900 so we were stuck in downtown Florence until after the performance.
As of 1700, the kids had gone off to get on the busses to change into their uniforms and we waited around for the performance at 1900. After the performance, everybody ate on their own and then got back on the busses at 2230 to go to the hotel. There was some excitement in the Piazza of the Duomo. There was some kind of police involved shooting, no details were available.
At 2300, the square at the Duomo picked up new life. The party goers were out in full force. Many vendors had packed up and left, but many more, mostly the smaller ones, were still in business.
Due to technical problems with bus movement, we didn't get back to the hotel until almost midnight. On the way back we passed several "professional" workers hanging out on the sidewalks. These ladies were obvious in the way they dressed, hanging out all over.
23 July The busses have to stop for a full 10 hours due to EU regulations, so we got off to a late start. The original plan was to stop in Verona for lunch, but due to the late start and highway construction, the plan was changed to run straight through to Venice.
Our hotel near Venice was the Ramada, the nicest hotel we'd been in to date. The room was larger than most and it had two double beds. The TV remote was kind of weird, but at least the TV got CNN. After an hour in the hotel, we piled on the busses again for a trip to the island city of Venice. The hotel is on the mainland near Venice. We then took a ferry from the bus parking lot to Venice proper. A few blocks of walking lead us to St. Mark's square, the Piazza San Marcos. The plaza has all of the Venetian civil buildings, the Doge's palace and the cathedral. We had a little free time so we walked around looking at the shops, usually higher priced that we have seen before. There is lots of glass as Venice is known for its glass work. There were also lots of shops selling masquerade masks at pretty high prices. Dinner was split between two restaurants, the kids at one and the adults at the other. The meal was only fair and too small. After dinner, we went back to the hotel the same way that we came. We got there at about 2300.
Sometime on the boat ride back, I got my first and only mosquito bite of the whole trip (maybe the first one in several years as we went through the entire Alaska trip in 1998 without a bite and I hadn't been bit for several years before that).
24 July The alarm went off at 0600 so that we could get breakfast (continental of course and the smallest one yet) in the hotel and board the busses again at 0730, again bound for Venice. The method was the same as yesterday. We met at the Doge's Palace for a tour. After the tour, we had a couple of hours of free time so Sandy and I strolled around and got lost in the "maze." In the process, we found a grocery shop to replenish our water supply and an Internet cafe where we spent 20 minutes on the net. I had no email newer than 5 days old, so I suspect that WebMail was busted. We then found our way back to San Marcos square and met with the tour guides for a half hour gondola ride.
Over the whole trip, we'd been on quite a few boat rides.
We took a short gondola ride at high tide. The gondolas had a hard time making it under the bridges. The gondolas needed to be tipped until the gunwals were nearly underwater to allow the ends to clear under the footbridges. After the gondola ride, we had about 5 hours "free" in Venice. We made a pass through the Basilica San Marcos. Unlike most cathedrals, this one charged admittance to parts of the cathedral. We passed. Then we walked around sort of aimlessly until we found the Rialto bridge. It really isn't special, except that it crosses the Grand Canal and it is larger than the other footbridges. We finally found a shop that was across the street from the restaurant where we ate the night before and Sandy bought a gift for her sister.
There is no motorized vehicle traffic in Venice, all travel is by foot or boat. Goods are transported by handcart. Venice has 64,000 inhabitants, but there must have been 200,000 tourists there. All the streets were crowded, the more popular streets were nearly impassible. Even some of the canals were packed with gondolas. By 1700, we were done with Venice, my feet and Sandy's back hurt, so we "rented" a table in a cafe and parked here until it was time to meet the group at 2030 in Piazza San Marcos. There are few places to sit down in Venice (and the other Italian cities that we have visited) except in cafe's. Occasionally one can find a stone bench in the shade or maybe some steps to sit on, but the stone gets pretty hard after a while. If one wants to rest, it is best to sit at a cafe, but then you have to buy something.
Venice is a tourist trap developed to a whole new level. The vast majority of the shops sell trendy gift stuff. There is all manner of jewelry, glass, ceramics, leather, expensive clothes, restaurants, toys, books, gadgets, masks. We found a very few grocery shops, pharmacies, hardware stores and such that the locals might need, and then, they were on the back streets away from the tourist traffic.
There are lots of vendor carts selling all manner of tacky stuff. Near the Rialto bridge, there were several carts selling ties that, if opened to display the inside, had hard core images on the inside. These vendors are probably licensed and taxed. There are many Nigerian vendors that simply spread their stuff on a small sheet (this was common in Florence too). As soon as a police officer was detected in the area (there were lookouts posted) the vendors would quickly gather up their sheets with the goods inside and split. We saw one whole group vanish in 5 seconds.
The weather in Venice was warm, but not nearly as hot as it was in Greece, it was clear, and there was still no rain.
Even the ancient art in Italy might be considered risque by American standards. About half of the women represented in paintings or statues have at least one bare breast and many of the painted and sculpted images of men are anatomically correct. In the Vatican, most of the art had the genitals covered by a fig leaf (added by order of some prude Pope). However art added later is not covered. I saw two images of women in the Vatican that were completely nude with the genitals depicted. They were in the same section as the statue of "mother nature" with the 20 or so boobs.
Our water ferry back to the busses was uneventful except for the lightning going on over the mainland. We didn't get any rain however.
The humidity had been uniformly high throughout the entire trip so we've had to change clothes every day and we've already washed them twice. We had to wash once more in Vienna. I didn't really dry out until we got back home.
25 Jul The agenda for the day was to travel to Salzburg Austria with a lunch stop somewhere in the north of Italy, but the plan got changed. First we went east to Trieste, and then north up into the Alps. The area north and east of Venice is all flat farmland and it is very misty so that the visibility is not real good. The mist has a brown cast so I assume that it really is smog.
We made one last stop in Italy to spend the last of our Lire on food to take with us for lunch.
The Italians have decided to make their highways as straight as possible with constant grades. Both in the Apinines and the Alps, they drill tunnels like crazy. Most are between 500 meters and 1500 meters long with the longest I saw at 2247 meters. There is a sign at the entrance to each one listing its length. Often, a tunnel will end on a bridge that well end on another tunnel.
The rail line that goes up the same river valley as the highway is even more direct. Its tunnels are probably longer and where it exits the tunnels, it is mostly on bridges. This double tracked electrified line must have been very expensive to build.
After crossing into Austria, we stopped to exchange currency and then stopped again a little later to eat lunch at a small park at Faaker See.
The first tunnel we hit in Austria was over 4500 meters long. Another was 6400 meters. These are expensive structures. The Alps are rugged and impressive mountains, but the road never climbs very much, Sandy's altimeter indicated that the maximum altitude of the road was less than 4000'. Austrian highways are built to the same high standards as the Italian ones.
After descending the other side of the range, we enter Salzburg in a river valley. Salzburg was a major salt mining center for most of southern Europe. The hotel is situated right on the Salzbach river. There is a major rail line and bridge immediately next to the hotel and a train goes by every few minutes. The line is elevated on steel structure, double tracked and electrified. The steelwork transmits the rail noise very well and each train that goes by takes about a half a minute for the noise to subside. The city has an extensive trolly bus network which seems to go everywhere in the downtown area.
After straightening out room assignments at the Rosen-Hotel we walked to dinner and a concert. The hotel room was a little odd and sparsely furnished. There are two twin beds, one set against each wall, and writing desks and bookshelves on each side of the room. There was no TV. Later, we discovered that the hotel is really a dorm for a local academy in the winter and used as a hotel only in the summer.
We had a good dinner of a pork chops with a vegetable sauce and then we walk to a major castle situated on a hill in the center of town. This was the local bishop's digs at one time. The city was an independent state for a long time, ruled by the religious leader, a Roman Catholic Bishop. A funicular goes up the side of the hill and after several flights of stairs to the top floor of the palace, we reach the prince's room for a chamber music concert of Dvorak and Mozart. After the concert we walk back along the river to our hotel.
26 Jul Our tour of Salzburg started out as a bus tour (aka panoramic tour) to various sites around town were scenes from "The Sound of Music" were shot. It would seem that this 1964 movie was a really big deal in this town. We then did a short walking tour through old Salzburg, mostly to places we had seen on the walk to the castle the night before.
We had a coupe of hours of free time so Charlie and I toured the cathedral and got lunch. The cathedral is pretty large and well decorated. There are 5 pipe organs in the cathedral, the biggest of them was actually in use, but the organist wasn't very good. Lunch was at NordSee, a seafood chain recommended by Bo. It was one of the best meals of the trip to that point. We found these places all over Salzburg and Vienna. I wish we had something like that in the US. We then gathered at the Mozart Square for a walk to the busses and a trip to Vienna.
Austrian drivers are considerably more polite and sane than Italian drivers. They actually seem to respect traffic laws. There are few motor scooters around and many, many more bicycles. The cars tend to be larger on the average than the ones in Italy. The traffic lights are different. At the end of the red cycle, the yellow light comes on also for a few seconds to indicate that the green will come on. At the end of the green cycle, the green light flashes for a couple of seconds to warn of the yellow cycle.
Our busses left late due to some tardy arrivals. On the trip to Vienna, we were delayed twice by traffic construction, once a detour was required. When we got to Vienna, we found that the street that the hotel was on was one way and we were on the wrong block and couldn't get to the hotel directly. This took some more detours to get the busses oriented correctly to offload at the hotel and by then we were really pressed for time. Dinner was accelerated and we got to the concert at the Palace Scheonbann just as the Mozart/Strauss concert was starting. Again, we didn't get back to the hotel until nearly midnight.
The hotel in Vienna is the Hotel Anatol near the old downtown. It is a normal room with two twin beds pushed together. The room has a TV that gets CNN. Our Austrian hotels do not have bidets.
27 Jul We took a bus and walking tour of Vienna in the morning. We had free time until the band performance at 1600 so we got lunch at a cafeteria near the Hofburg castle, the emperor's winter palace. After lunch, Sandy split off to do some shopping and Charlie and I went to tour the Treasury, the depository of the Hapsburg's treasures. It was at least as impressive as the crown jewels in the Tower of London. Much of the display was much older. We had a hard time getting in as the palace was crawling with police and several of the passageways were blocked. Some dignitary(s) must have been around.
About 2/3 of the way through the Treasury, something I ate at lunch caught up with me and I had to make a couple of dashes to the WC (water closet, a common European designation for a restroom). After sitting near the WC for awhile to make sure that I was stable, Charlie and I split up and I went back to the hotel via subway (3 stops on the U3 line for 19 shillings or about $0.48). Sandy returned about 2130 or so and I felt well enough to go out in search of dinner. I got an excellent fish burger at a grab joint a block away. When the busses returned at about 2115, Sandy recovered her backpack which she had left on the bus and we basically hit the sack.
Vienna has an extensive streetcar and subway system. There are also long distance trains that come right downtown. The streetcars are basically of two types, very old two truck cars, usually with a trailer, and some very new articulated cars. Both types have skirts that completely obscure the trucks. Much of the streetcar lines run in their own lanes, but they still have to stop at traffic lights.
The city of Vienna was pretty heavily bombed in WWII so that much of the construction is new, but done in the old style. Virtually none of the buildings are more than four stories high due restrictions to keep the old style nature of the town intact. Like all of the cities that we've been in, all of the smaller streets and sidewalks are cobble stones of various types.
28 Jul After breakfast, we visited a market up the street and stocked up on chocolates and diet Pepsi. The Pepsi carried Sandy through the rest of the trip.
We walked through downtown Vienna again, Sandy bought a bunch of bound books of graph paper and a plush penguin at NordSee where Charlie and I had lunch. Sandy got a pizza from next door. Later, she bought a larger version of the same NordSee penguin at another NordSee. We got on the bus at 1330 and headed for Prague.
The border crossing into the Czech Republic took an hour and a half so we skipped the planned rest stop and headed directly for Prague. The Czech roads are built to the same standards as the ones in Italy and Austria. Except for the names on the signs, the road signs look just like US Interstate highway signs. In Greece, the signage was indecipherable, it was Greek to me. Italian was fairly easy to figure out, I could read most signs and labels adequately well. The Austrian signs were harder and even though I took two years of German in high school, I had difficulty with many of them. The signs in the Czech Republic are in a Slavic language and are just as hard to make out as the Greek ones.
The terrain is rolling low hills alternating between fields and mixed forest. The trees are not higher than 100' and the trunks are uniformly small indicating that these forests are fairly young.
I did see some Czech railroads, this time only about half of the trackage was electrified. The ones that weren't were also not heavily used, indicated by the rust on the railheads. In Brno, a major town, there was an extensive streetcar network.
Our hotel in Prague, the Hotel Barrcelo, was a very nice and modern, maybe the best room that we'd had. It had a TV with CNN, CNBC and the BBC, for 3 english language channels. There are also pay porn channels. The kids probably find those interesting. Our dinner was a buffet, clearly the best trip supplied meal to date. This hotel is clearly intended for the foreign visitor unlike the other hotels which appeared to be geared more to domestic traffic.
Prague is served by an electrified rail network with rolling stock very similar to the equipment we saw in Italy and Austria. Prague also has an extensive streetcar system with lines that seem to go everywhere. There is also an extensive subway system. We didn't ride either the subway or the streetcars.
29 Jul After a good buffet breakfast (with real poached eggs and bacon) we got on the busses for a tour of Prague. The busses took us to the old town and then up to the castle on the hill. This medieval castle was built in stages through 1929 and converted from a fortress to a palace during the 17th and 18th centuries. The President of the Czech Republic has his office in the newer part of the palace. There is a part of the palace called the Golden Lane (so called because at one time there were alchemists there) that was full of small shops.
Up on the battlements above the Golden Lane was an armory display and shop. There one could buy a real sword or medieval weapon such as a pike.
At one end of the battlement there was a shooting range for crossbow.
At the other end there was also a small room with instruments of torture such as a rack, a spiked chair and other implements of extreme discomfort.
The foot tour left the palace and wound down the hill through a street of yet more shops and then across a stone bridge built in 1352. The bridge is about 500 meters long and crosses the river. On the other side were yet more shops in the "new" (dating from 1500 or so) part of town. I saw an "antique" shop. I wonder how old something has to be here to qualify as an antique. We had free time for about 4 hours so we got some lunch and then Sandy and Katie split off to go back up to the castle. Charlie and I just wandered around looking for gifts. We spent most of the time holding down a shady bench in Vaclavske Square.
Sandy and Katie got a little lost getting back. She had purchased a Russian rabbit fir hat with a Soviet emblem for me, but unfortunately, it was too small. However, it fit Charlie and he wanted it. Just as we were getting ready to walk to the busses, there was some lightning a few miles away. By the time we got back to the hotel, it had started to rain a little.
The group then got back on the busses again to travel to our farewell dinner at a "rustic" restaurant. The food was good and plentiful, the musical accompaniment was really bad. The four musicians (two violins, a bass and some 300 year old string instrument similar to a harpsichord) seemed to be playing from different music it was so discordant. I've never heard a band so bad. During dinner, it rained really hard, but it cleared up by the time we left.
Prague is an old city, and 12 years ago, it was pretty dreary. After the Communists were thrown out, the city began to be cleaned up. Now, the whole place is clean and many of the buildings in the tourist sector have been repaired. Overall, it is a pretty nice town. Prague itself never got bombed in WWII so much of the original construction remains.
30 Jul At 0400 hours, the alarm went off and it was off to the airport for the trip home. The flight left at about 0800, a half hour late. This was ok because we had a 5 hour scheduled layover in Paris and then a 12 hour or so flight home to LAX on an Air France 777. Charlie caught a Southwest flight back to SFO from LAX. We got on another schoolbus for a ride back to West High and then a walk home. At least, I walked home. I got the van and drove back to pick up the rest of my family.
Our route back took us over the southern tip of Greenland. This was the middle of summer and it wasn't very green. The weather was clear and we were able to see literally hundreds of glaciers. This was very impressive. Most of the glaciers have clearly receded from their maximum extent. Some sort of peter out into a channel, others present a calving face that is maybe a hundred feet high. We could see far enough to see into the unbroken ice fields to the north. Some of the mountain ridges that separated the glaciers had lakes of liquid water on them. There were even some spot lakes in the ice fields.
Through the whole trip, the weather was as good as could be expected for summertime. We didn't get wet the whole time, although it did rain at some noncritical times. It was hot in Greece (near 100) and got progressively cooler through the trip until Prague where the daytime peak was maybe 80. Only a few days had some clouds, but we had significant sunny periods every day. I didn't use any sunblock the whole trip and didn't get any sunburn at all. There were nearly zero bugs, I got exactly one mosquito bite the whole trip and there were not any other kind of bugs that caused any grief.
All through our travels, we have noticed the almost complete lack of American cars. We saw one black Suburban in Athens (probably an embassy car) and 3 PT Cruisers. That was it for Athens and Italy. In Vienna, we saw a Buick Park Avenue, a Camero and 2 Chevy full sized vans. We stumbled across a Ford Expedition in Prague. It really looked out of place among all the smaller cars. There will be more PT Cruisers in Austria as they will start assembling them for the Euro market in Austria sometime in August 2001.
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© 2001-2002 George Schreyer
Created July 31, 2001
Last Updated September 18, 2002