Monday, April 14, 2014

Edinburgh Castle and Haggis

We bought tickets in advance for Edinburgh Castle. It saved us a few pounds and some time since we avoided the long line of people waiting to purchase their tickets, and instead went straight to a self-service kiosk (no line) to retrieve ours.

Edinburgh Castle

The oldest part of the castle, St. Margaret's Chapel, dates back to the 12th century. It was used as a private place of worship for the royal family. I was surprised to learn that it's still used today for christenings and weddings!

Scottish National
War Memorial
We visited the Great Hall of King James IV and the Royal Palace. Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to James VI in the palace. The dungeons below the Great Hall housed prisoners of war from the late 18th to early 19th centuries. We also gazed upon Scotland's crown jewels, the oldest in the British Isles. The Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone, is the main attraction in the Crown Room. For centuries it was used as a traditional coronation seat for Scotland's kings and queens. It was stolen in 1296 by English King Edward I and taken to Westminster Abbey. In 1950 some Scottish Nationalists brought the stone back to Scotland but it was soon returned to Westminster. Finally, in 1996, the Stone of Destiny was given back to Scotland and installed in the Crown Room.

The Scottish National War Memorial is very moving. It commemorates those who died during World Wars I and II, and of military campaigns since 1945. Inside the Hall of Honour is a steel casket containing a complete Roll of Honour of the Scottish dead. The shrine is illuminated by beautiful stained glass windows.

Regimental Museums Entrance
We also strolled through the Regimental Museums, comprised of the Royal Scots Museum and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum. These regiments are two of Scotland's oldest and their histories are told in chronological order using everything from medals and old maps to personal accounts and artwork. Both museums are comprehensive and one could easily spend several hours wandering through and absorbing all of the history.

One of the world's most famous guns is also located at Edinburgh Castle. Mons Meg was given to King James II by Duke Philip of Burgundy in 1457. The 6-ton canon is capable of firing gunstones weighing 330lbs to a distance of nearly 2 miles. Mons Meg was last fired in 1681. A plaque beside it reads: "Defend Mons Meg! Please do not climb on Mons Meg. She leveled castle walls and terrified the enemies of Scotland's kings. But that was more than 500 years ago. Please treat this grand old lady with some respect."

Mons Meg

And speaking of canons, we stayed around to watch the One o'clock Gun Firing. It happens every day except Sunday and draws quite a crowd in anticipation. The origin of the tradition comes from the days when timepieces weren't available to sailing ships. They were able to check and reset their chronometers based upon the firing of the gun.

One o'clock Gun Firing

After our morning spent at the castle, it was time for lunch. We decided to browse colorful Victoria Street until we found a place that piqued our interest. We ended up having a very nice lunch at Howie's, The menu was an interesting blend of Mediterranean dishes and Scottish favorites.

Having accomplished almost everything on our Edinburgh To-Do List, we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Edinburgh, investigating Closes and window-shopping to the soundtrack of bagpipes. The weather was perfect and it was a nice way to cap off our final day.

We really wanted to try a traditional Scottish dining experience for dinner so we made reservations at Dubh Prais (pronounced Doo Prash). Reservations are a little difficult to come by so we ended up with a very early dinner time of 5:30. Though early, we weren't alone in the popular restaurant. Other diners quickly filled the small room that seats just 24 people. Our waitresses were very friendly and we even caught glimpses of the chef and owner as he prepared and finessed the dishes. I chose soup for my starter while my brave husband went in for the kill with haggis. Every restaurant prepares haggis a little differently. At Dubh Prais it's rolled in oatmeal, pan-fried, and served with a creamy leek and whiskey sauce. My husband had a bit of a difficult time getting it down but for some reason he had resolved to eat the entire portion and he achieved his goal. It wasn't until when we were at the airport waiting to board our flight back home that he looked up the official ingredients of haggis and turned a lovely shade of pea green.

For the main course I chose salmon and he went with a saddle of venison. Dessert was a light, delectable lemon shortcake. The food was excellent and I think if you are on a mission to eat haggis while you're in Edinburgh, Dubh Prais is probably one of the best options. Make sure to reserve well in advance for a more traditional dinner time, but if those slots are filled just take the earlier time-- you won't be sorry.

Our time in Edinburgh had sadly come to its end. We spent a lovely two days in the capital city and I would be happy to return again any time. People were very friendly, the city wasn't too overcrowded with tourists, and it was nice to be able to read and hear things in English. Sometimes you just miss small talk.

Until next time, Edinburgh. Keep the haggis in stock for my husband!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Escape to Edinburgh

Carnival season is over in Maastricht! The Vrijthof square beside our apartment was festooned with yellow, red, and green as Carnival music competed with the cacophony of revelers singing, screaming, and breaking empty bottles of beer on every surface imaginable. The revelry lasted well into the night from Friday until Tuesday. Mornings were eerily quiet, the remnants of the celebration of the night before left scattered throughout the cobblestones. At around noon, costumed merrymakers began to emerge from their hangover cocoons to begin the party once more. I'm impressed. I don't know how they did it but the Dutch certainly can't be accused of being party poopers.

We decided to trade the red, yellow, and green for blue and white. We exchanged the Carnival costumes for kilts. We swapped the Prince of Carnival for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And we communicated in English rather than Dutch for two glorious days. 

Edinburgh, Scotland is just a short flight from here. We were lucky to arrive early on our Ryanair flight. Oh, I have a quick but wonderful side note about Ryanair. If you haven't heard already, they are attempting to transition to a normal airline! This means you can bring one piece of carry-on luggage AND *gasp* another small bag. Ladies, no more stuffing your purses and handbags into your suitcase at the last minute. Gents, no more stuffing your man purses into your suitcase at the last minute! Also, they are assigning seats. That means you don't have to jump up and rush to stand in line as soon as you see a surly Ryanair employee walk behind the desk only to avoid eye contact with you for 45 minutes while he or she periodically announces, "Your Ryanair flight will begin boarding... soon." These improvements began in February so you will be able to enjoy them on your next "on-time" Ryanair flight. I could really go on and on about how wonderful this is and how amazing it felt to be treated like people instead of cattle but I'll save the poetry for Auld Reekie.

We arrived at around 9 Friday morning and quickly found an Airlink bus for an easy half-hour ride right into the city center. We went with Airbnb this time and our studio apartment was on Blair Street, a very short walk away from just about everything. It was so nice to have the full day ahead of us. We immediately dropped our luggage and began our tourist route.

First stop was The Real Mary King's Close. Closes are all over Edinburgh. A close is generally an alleyway or lane sloping off High Street. 17th-century Edinburgh was not a particularly pleasant place to live. Sanitation was non-existent; waste was thrown directly into the streets. Buildings grew upwards and society was also organized this way, with the most wealthy living close to the top and the poor residing down in the filth and waste. A close was often descriptively named for its business. For example, you could find a lawyer in Advocate's Close and buy bread in Bakehouse Close. Other closes, including Mary King's, were named after prominent residents.

Not much is known about Mary Close. She was a merchant and a widow with four children. After her husband's death she moved her family to the close. She rented a house near the top and also had a shop on High Street. 

Entrance to Another Close
The Real Mary King's Close is one of those tours designed to frighten you with ghost stories. Our tour guide was dedicated but faltering. Much of her storytelling fell flat and I don't think she achieved the "spooky" atmosphere with our group. With that said, it was still incredibly interesting to be able to walk through the old, intact close. It's easy to envision the meager living conditions, especially for those at the bottom of the close. We learned that many of the people in Mary King's Close were victims of the plague. It wasn't difficult to imagine the scuttling of infested rats as we passed through low, dark rooms with shadowed corners. We made our way through several homes. Many of the original features still exist, including walls, doorways, fireplaces, and remnants of foliage decoration in place of wallpaper. 

Despite the soap opera-ish tone of the tour, I would still recommend taking it only for the unique experience of traveling back in time. I'm glad we did this first because it shed an entirely different light upon the Old Town. Every time I passed a close, I imagined the centuries just under our feet.

We emerged from the depths of Edinburgh in front of St. Giles' Cathedral. It's the City Church of Edinburgh and the Mother Church of Presbyterianism. Its 15th-century spire hovers grandly over the Royal Mile. One of the church's biggest moments happened in 1637 when a local woman, Jenny Geddes, threw her stool at the Dean giving the service. She was opposing the imposition by the King of London of a new prayer book. Her actions began a riot that eventually led to the signing of the National Covenant the next year. Sometimes all it takes to get things moving is the fury of a woman. And something to throw.

St. Giles' Cathedral

I recently read 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith for my book club. I thought it would be fun to go to Scotland Street and take a photo in front of number 44 to share at our next meeting. My ever-humoring husband found Scotland Street on the map and warned that it would be a long walk. "It doesn't matter," I replied. "This is in the name of literature." 25 minutes later we found ourselves at the beginning of Scotland Street, a long, beautiful boulevard sloping down toward a park. I began to get more excited as we neared the 20s. I could just see all of McCall's characters walking up and down this street, strolling to the park. Finally we made it to the end and Scotland street curved slightly... into another street.

Scotland Street

"This is impossible," I said. 
"Maybe it's on the other side of the street," suggested my husband.

I practically ran to the other side and saw the number 43 poking out at the end. 
"43!" I exclaimed.
As close as you'll get to
44 Scotland Street
Both of us circled around in front of 43, the last house on the row. "But why!" I whined.
"Well, maybe the author chose that address precisely because it doesn't exist. I mean, can you imagine how many tourists would be tramping through here all the time?" he logically replied.
"It's just us! There aren't any other tourists here! It's just where people live and all I wanted to do was stand in front of the door and take a photo for book club." I complained.
"Sorry, babe," he said sympathetically.

We still took a gander at the park and it's good we stretched our legs a little because that pleasant downhill walk was now an uphill climb.

Since I'd dragged us all the way through Edinburgh for no specific reason, it was time for lunch when we reached the Old Town again. We decided against haggis and black pudding and chose instead some light Mediterranean fare at Laila's Bistro. We feasted on falafel and dolmades. The food was excellent, service was great, and the price was fair. 

Arthur's Seat from Calton Hill
Fortified, we began our next uphill battle: Calton Hill. There are different schools of thought regarding the best view in Edinburgh. Some prefer Arthur's Seat, a 251m hike up an old volcano. We chose the less strenuous option of Calton Hill. It also offers one of the best panoramas of Edinburgh-- you can even look up at Arthur's Seat from here and feel a.) Guilty for climbing the easier hill, or b.) Secure with your choice because you're on vacation and you have nothing to prove. 

Calton Hill is interesting for more than just the views. Like Arthur's Seat, it was also formed by volcanic activity about 340 million years ago. It may have been used 4,000 years ago by Scotland's earliest people from the Bronze Age, and it's one of Britain's first public parks.

Several monuments are also perched at the top. The Nelson Monument commemorates the naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson. He died leading his fleet to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The 30 meters-high monument is topped with a mechanized time ball synchronized with the 1pm gun fired from Edinburgh Castle. 

Calton Hill Monuments

The National Monument was built between 1822-29. It commemorates the Scottish soldiers who died during the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815. The National Monument is based on the Parthenon in Athens. Interestingly, it remains unfinished due to a lack of funding. Finished or not, the buildings on Calton Hill were instrumental in gaining the city the title 'The Athens of the North.'


Old Calton Burial Ground
We descended Calton Hill and came upon the Old Calton Burial Ground. It originally opened in 1718 for the burial of tradesmen and merchants. The main attraction is the tall black obelisk of the Political Martyrs' Monument commemorating those who suffered in the fight for electoral reform in the 1790s. It's also the final resting place of Scotland's most famous philosopher, David Hume. The cemetery was both peaceful and spooky and we enjoyed exploring the old tombstones so much that we decided to visit another cemetery before the sun faded.

Greyfriars Kirk
Back in the Old Town, we walked to Greyfriars Kirk and Kirkyard. Greyfriars is where the National Covenant was signed in 1638. It was closed by the time we reached it so we weren't able to go inside but we did spend a lot of time in the graveyard. The Greyfriars Kirkyard is said to be one of Edinburgh's creepiest spots. We were certainly there at the right time for the imagination to run wild. The sun was going down and night was creeping upon us as a light rain fell, chilling us to the bones. Or was that the poltergeist? 

Covenanter's Prison
The MacKenzie Poltergeist is the best-documented case of poltergeist activity ever studied. Sir George MacKenzie, also known as Bloody Mackenzie, was an attorney who persecuted the Covenanters. They opposed the king to maintain the Presbyterian doctrine as the sole form of religion of Scotland. Because of their beliefs, they were imprisoned inside the graveyard in what is now called the Covenanter's Prison. Many died due to exposure to the elements and harsh treatment. Ironically, their prison is right around the corner from Bloody Mackenzie's mausoleum.

The gates to the Covenanter's Prison are locked but you can gain access by taking a ghost tour. Countless incidents have been reported regarding paranormal activity during those tours. Some people come out with bruises and scratches, complaints of being pushed by unseen hands, and experiencing cold spots in certain places. My husband looked into the grimy window of MacKenzie's tomb and told me he saw a well beside the casket. We thought that was strange and later learned that it's actually an old pit containing the remains of plague victims! 

Greyfriars Kirkyard and Edinburgh Castle

An added bonus of exploring the kirkyard is seeing the Flodden Wall. It's the remains of the town wall that was built around medieval Edinburgh as protection against a feared English invasion. 

Flodden Wall

I don't know if I would be up for the Covenanter's Prison tour. Just walking around the graveyard was disturbing enough for me. I suppose I generally believe that when a gate is locked, there's a good reason. Whether you take the tour or not, don't miss a stroll through the Greyfriars Kirkyard. It's one of the most interesting cemeteries I've ever been in, regardless of the poltergeist stories and plague pit.

After a long day of sightseeing, it was time to kick up our heels for dinner. We had reservations for Saturday night and definitely should have had the foresight to reserve for Friday as well. Most places were booked but we managed to find a nice one just below Edinburgh Castle called Maxie's Bistro. The menu was diverse, and the ambience cozy and warm. 

Day 1 in Edinburgh was complete. From closes to crypts, and from Scotland Street to Calton's Hill, we'd seen a lot.

After a good night's sleep, Edinburgh Castle is the next stop!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

I Left My Heart in Biarritz

I think it's been a pretty mild winter here, considering the past two. The sun has shone more, the temperatures haven't been unbearable, and it hasn't snowed. Even still, I'm longing for summer days when the sun begins shining bright before 5am and doesn't go down until after 10pm. When I get a little gloomy, it helps to remember our vacation to Biarritz, France back in October.

La Grande Plage
We chose Biarritz on a real whim. We wanted to go somewhere warm just before it began getting cold here, and it had to be a destination offered by Ryanair because we didn't want to break the bank. All of the usual options were there: Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands, but for some reason Biarritz kept catching my eye. I did some quick research and discovered that it's the surfing capital of Europe! Back in 1957, American screenwriter Peter Viertel arrived in Biarritz to film "The Sun Also Rises." He quickly became distracted by the large waves crashing onto the beach and sent for his surfboard back in California. These days Biarritz still retains a bohemian vibe, with lean, long-haired surfers walking around town and retro cars and vans parked alongside the beach waiting for the waves. Surfing schools are advertised everywhere and Biarritz also hosts televised surf competitions throughout the season.

Surfers Waiting

All of this information was enough of an endorsement for us to book our tickets and apply sunscreen.

We arrived around lunchtime, checked into our hotel, and found a cozy French restaurant off-the-beaten-path. Tourist season was at its end since summer was over and we were the only Americans in the restaurant. It's one of those places where everyone is seated extremely close so conversations from neighboring tables eventually blend together easily and new friends are made fast.

Our new friend was a character. She was in her 80's, a perfectly-coiffed, heavily made-up French lady fashionably dressed and dripping in jewels. She was dining alone and happened to be sitting beside me. She smiled as soon as we were seated beside her and I could tell she was amused by us from the beginning. After we'd chosen our wine she leaned toward me and said, "That's a good choice. A nice, light red for lunch." I replied, "Oh, good! I'm glad we made the right decision!" She smiled knowingly and then leaned back into her seat.

A few moments passed and she couldn't contain herself any longer. She touched my shoulder and asked, "Where are you from?"
"The United States," we replied.
"Oui, oui, but where in America?" she asked.
"I'm from Chicago and my wife is from Florida," my husband said.
"Ahhhhh, Florida! Are you from Miami? I love Miami! Miami Beach is so fantastic. I go there all of the time and stay at the same hotel. Last time I was there it was my birthday and they gave me a big cake with lots of champagne. They know me there. It's fabulous!" she exclaimed.
"That sounds nice," I said. "I've actually never been to Miami. I'm from north Florida."
She squinted at me in disbelief, as if Florida only exists for the purpose of Miami and said, "But you must go there. It's fabulous."

She then produced a key chain with her name on one side and Miami and palm trees on the other. She pressed a little button and the name plate lit up as she giggled delightedly. We told her that even though she liked Miami, we were very excited to come to Biarritz.

Sunset in Biarritz
"Ugh, Biarritz," she replied disdainfully. "It's not as nice. Do you know how much I pay in healthcare? It's astronomical. And the beaches here.... ehhhhhh, not so good. Oh, sure, you get a sunset. Big deal. And some people broke into my house once! Did you know that?! Terrible, it is. I want to move to Miami."

Right after this, our food came. She looked over our plates with approval and then proclaimed to the waitress, "Gabrielle, the young American couple would now prefer to have the "Vin du Jacqueline." The waitress looked at us questioningly and I quickly said, "Yes, sure, that would be great." She soon produced the same bottle of wine that Jacqueline was nursing. We took a sip of our first glasses and agreed that it was very good. "It's the best wine you can get here, in this place," she remarked. "Perfect for a nice lunch of omelette."

We began eating as she smiled contentedly. Suddenly, as my fork was mid-air, she asked, "What do you think of Obamacare?"

We were a little startled by the question. I stuffed my food into my mouth and waited for my husband to give a diplomatic answer. It's always tricky talking politics with people from other countries. You never know what they're thinking. Sometimes they love America and sometimes they really hate it. We had just ordered the new bottle of wine and began eating so we knew it would be an uncomfortable afternoon if we got into a debate with Jacqueline. Much to our relief, she really only wanted to give her opinion on healthcare so we chewed and sipped as she glugged and lectured about her thoughts on healthcare in France, America, and Switzerland, where her daughter lives.

Eventually she quieted down and that was a good thing because by now Gabrielle, the waitress, looked ready to swoop in at any moment to pardon us from the spirited Jacqueline. There was no harm done, though. Jacqueline finished the last of her wine and said (not for the first time), "Okay, children, I must go now to my hair appointment. You can see my hair is a mess and I must make it look nice."

As she was standing, she patted me on the knee and said, "You are so American!" Then she winked and said, "Goodbye, children" over her shoulder as she strutted out of the restaurant and onto the streets of Biarritz, leaving behind a faint whiff of Chanel and Vin du Jacqueline.

It was an exciting start to our vacation!

Crashing Waves and the
Hotel du Palais
Though Biarritz is mainly known today for its surfing, the luxurious seaside town has a unique history that began long before the arrival of California culture. The Hotel du Palais was built by Napoleon III in 1854 for his wife, Empress Eugenie. Eugenie had fallen in love with Biarritz and their residence soon became host to all manner of European royalty and even Russian nobility. Today, the former palace is a luxury hotel with a prime location right on the beach. Needless to say, we could not afford to stay at the Hotel du Palais during our vacation but we did take photos and ogle people going in and out of the secured grounds. As far as I could tell, there were no royals.

We visited a history museum one afternoon. It mostly featured the story of Napoleon III and Eugenie. There was also an interesting portion dedicated to Biarritz at the end of World War II. In the summer of 1945, the Americans opened a university aimed toward providing a transition between army life and academic life. Many of the students had been in the front line during the war and all were ordered to remove their caps, un-ranking them and making them equals.

Walking Out to a Summit

We also walked along the coast to the lighthouse. It was built in 1834 and unfortunately wasn't open while we were there. Otherwise, we would have climbed the 248 steps for a panorama of the Basque coast. We weren't too disappointed though; the grounds around the lighthouse were well-manicured and lovely and the views were still breathtaking. We walked back to the town through hidden gardens and alcoves built right into the cliffs.

The sea was generally a little too rough for swimming (great for surfing) but luckily there was a nice, calm cove perfect for a dip. The water was a bit too cold for me but my husband braved the chilly waters of the Port-Vieux beach and swam for a while. Sometimes there's a strong undercurrent that swimmers claim pulls you out to sea. My husband said he felt it while he was swimming. Though the water was cold, we saw several dedicated swimmers during our few days there. They most likely belonged to the Polar Bear Club, one of the oldest clubs in Biarritz, established in 1929. Its members swim every single day of the year, even Christmas!


The Perfect Lunch
While I watched my husband swim and made sure he didn't get sucked out into the Atlantic, a group of school children walked to the beach and sat down to eat their lunches. They were all so well-behaved and I was delighted to see that they were eating baguettes! How very perfect and French! I thought about how nice it must be for them to have the Basque coast for their lunchroom. But then again, maybe they are too accustomed to it now and share Jacqueline's underwhelmed opinion. I hope not. Maybe that doesn't happen until you're 80, and those children have a long way to go and many happy lunches ahead of them.

Coastline at Night
Biarritz is very small and conducive to ultimate relaxation. All we really did was eat, drink, relax, and watch the sunset every evening. All of the restaurants were great and well-priced. We went to a unique tapas bar in the heart of Biarritz a few times. Its called Le Comptoir Du Foie Gras. The foie gras was prepared in every way imaginable. I thought my husband was going to turn into a duck because he ate so much. The other tapas were creative and delicious as well. There was a nice mixture of cheese, bruschetta, cured meats, and vegetarian options. We stood at tall round tables on the outside of the bar and ate our fill as we sipped champagne. It was extremely decadent and lots of fun. The crowd was an eclectic mixture of people just getting off work and enjoying happy hour, and salty surfers taking a break from the waves.

Biarritz is a beauty. We had an affordable, restful vacation and I would love to return someday with my children so they can eat baguettes on the beach. With its old-world charm and rich history, it feels almost like a place time has forgotten. The sprawling Hotel du Palais looks much the same as it did when Napoleon III and Eugenie were entertaining royal guests. The beaches are clean and untainted and there are lots of different summits to stand upon as you watch the sun fade into the ocean. But just when you think you're going to turn around and see elegant sunbathers from the 1800s, an athletic girl with drenched, sun-streaked blonde hair jogs past you holding her surfboard high, eyeing the next big wave.

I'll be back, Biarritz. Keep the Vin du Jacqueline in stock.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Sunday in Slovakia

Bratislava is about an hour's train ride away from Vienna. We had a day to spare so we decided to country-hop to Slovakia. Bratislava is the state capital and largest city in Slovakia. We kept to the old town city center during our visit. It's the smallest part of Bratislava but tourists, shops, and restaurants fill the tiny streets.

Our entry into the old town was rather traumatic. We asked a taxi driver how much it would be for a ride to the city center and he confidently replied, "Fifteen Euros." We didn't know any better so we accepted his offer and hopped into the jalopy. Less than 5 minutes later we were dropped off at a curb and of course realized then that we had been cheated since the train station was so close. The cab ride back to the station a few hours later was a much more reasonable 5 Euros. Oh, well. You'll know better when you go to Bratislava.

It was around 10am on a Sunday morning so the streets were quiet and peaceful in the old town. We entered by passing under St. Michael's Gate and Tower. It was built in the 14th century and is the only preserved gate of the city's medieval fortifications.

St. Michael's Gate and Tower

Old Town Hall and square
We spent some time going in and out of shops and taking photos of the interesting buildings in the old town. We also made a quick stop at a restaurant to try some creamy garlic soup, a Slovakian specialty. It was very good. And very garlicky. Sadly, I can't remember the name of the restaurant we found on a tiny side-street but they also served some amazing dark beer with a complexity and richness that rivaled many Belgian beers I've had. Slovakian beer; who knew?

St. Martin's Cathedral
Our next stop was St. Martin's Cathedral. It's on the very edge of the old town and was built in the 13th century. In the late 14th century, Gothic architecture replaced the original Romanesque construction. 19 Hungarian emperors were crowned in St. Martin's Cathedral.

Artwork on the windows of a cafe under the cathedral.

From the cathedral, it's an easy walk up to Bratislava Castle. The castle has been inhabited since the late Stone Age, with its first written record dating back to 907AD. After 1526, it became the seat of Hungarian monarchs and was later transformed into a luxurious Baroque residence. In 1811 the castle was burnt down and reconstruction began many years later, in 1953. The Crown Tower, built in the 13th century, is still standing today.

We spent about an hour wandering around the castle grounds and taking in the  panoramic view of Bratislava. It's certainly a city where old meets new in a very abrupt way, almost crashing. The walk leading up to the castle is crumbling, grassy steps but all you have to do is look to the left during your ascent and you are confronted with a highway directly below, and a bustling metropolis across the Novy Most (New Bridge) over the Danube River.

New Bridge over the Danube

There was still one more food specialty for us to try in Bratislava: Bryndzove halushky, potato dumplings with sheep cheese and roasted bacon. Needless to say, it's a very rich, heavy dish that is difficult to finish in one sitting since it's served so generously. Who doesn't like potatoes, bacon, and cheese, though? It's like a loaded baked potato but much more decadent and delicious. I thought the food in Bratislava was great. Portions were large, prices were reasonable, and the dishes were flavorful. Not surprisingly. the menus reminded me a lot of those in Budapest.

We finished the day by watching the sun set over the Danube. I found the old town in Bratislava to be charming and clean. Though we were joined by other tourists, the crowds weren't overwhelming and it was nice to be able to experience the quiet, clean streets without hordes of people.

If you're ever in Vienna with a day to spare, hop on the train to Bratislava and take a gander at the old city and castle. It's worth it, especially if you can find that dark beer.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Vienna: From Cafes to Crypts

The next morning in Vienna was cold and foggy. We walked to the historic old town center and saw St. Stephen's Cathedral. It was reduced to rubble by fire during WWII and rebuilt from the ashes in only seven years. The detailing on the exterior of the gothic church is amazing. The interior was beautiful, also very gothic and imposing. The church is still used for services today and is considered the most important Catholic church in Vienna.

We decided that the weather was still a little too miserable so we retired to a Viennese institution, Cafe Central. It first opened in 1876 and was a popular meeting place for great minds like Sigmund Freud and Leo Trotzki. The Viennese Coffee House Culture is listed as "Intangible Cultural Heritage" by UNESCO. We had a grand time enjoying Viennese coffee, pastries, and goulash soup in the impressive, columned interior. 

Our next stop was the Sisi Museum. Sisi refers to Empress Elisabeth of Austria. I really didn't know much about the Empress or even the Habsburgs before our trip to Vienna. I found the history fascinating and was completely enthralled by the story of the misunderstood Empress. The museum is inside the Hofburg Palace, in a different section from the one we were in for the ball.

Sisi Museum Entrance

We began with a comprehensive tour of the Imperial Silver Collection. It includes everything from tableware and linen to toothbrush holders and bedpans. There are around 7,000 items of solid gold and silver displayed. I thought the description of the foot-washing ceremony was the most interesting part of the tour. Each year on Holy Thursday the Empress and Emperor washed the feet of twelve (each) elderly men and women in a ceremony meant to emulate Christ washing the feet of his disciples. The elderly paupers then received gifts of wine, food, and coins. On display were the gold lavabo sets used during the ceremony.

Next is the Sisi Museum. More than 300 items from Empress Elisabeth's life are on display. Visitors are taken through her childhood, betrothal to Emperor Franz Joseph, marriage, motherhood, and finally her death by assassination. She seemed to be a complicated and intriguing woman. Her beauty was world-famous and she went to great lengths to make sure it stayed that way. She had her own gymnasium set up in her apartments in the palace and performed a strenuous daily exercise program followed by massages. Her ankle-length hair was washed during an all-day process with egg yolk and cognac. She took warm olive oil baths and wore face masks made from crushed strawberries or raw veal, which she wore all night. Her largest waist measurement was 19.5 inches, and at one point she had reduced it to 16 inches. She was once described as "almost inhumanly slender."

After the suicide of her son in 1889, she spent the rest of her life in mourning. She wore only black jewelry, became withdrawn, and traveled incessantly. She went to Geneva in September 1898 for a health cure. Luigi Lucheni, an anarchist, was in the city on a mission to assassinate a ruling member of a royal family as part of a protest. His intended victim was a prince who canceled his visit at the last minute. Lucheni read about the empress' visit and schedule in a newspaper and decided she would do. He attacked her with a sharpened file while she was strolling at a lake promenade. The wound was small, so small in fact that the empress believed she had just been punched. It was only after she had boarded a steamship that her companion noticed blood on her chemise and realized she'd been stabbed. Empress Elisabeth died of internal bleeding from the fatal wound. Lucheni was arrested and eventually hung himself in his jail cell.

Once you learn about Sisi's life, the tour brings you to the Imperial Apartments. The Hofburg was the residence of the Habsburgs for over 600 years. The apartments of Franz Joseph and Emperor Elisabeth offer a glimpse into their royal lives. Their bedrooms, dressing rooms, and personal desks are on display. It was interesting to see Elisabeth's exercise equipment and the tub where she bathed in olive oil. 

The Sisi Museum is a must-do in Vienna. We spent several happy hours wandering through the palace and learning about Empress Elisabeth. 

The next day was spent in Bratislava, Slovakia and that deserves its own entry so I'll finish up with Vienna before we hop on the train.

Our most notable dinner, aside from the one before the ball, was at the Le LOFT restaurant at the top of the Sofitel. The gourmet French restaurant is on the 18th floor, offering magnificent views of Vienna. We were spellbound by the all-around glass windows and colorful ceiling that seemed to project itself out into the Viennese sky. The menu was what you'd expect at a place like this: overpriced, hoity-toity, with a gin and tonic setting you back a staggering 18 Euros. I don't think that I would recommend the Le LOFT restaurant because it's the kind of place  where you pay a lot and leave hungry, but I would suggest eating a reasonably-priced dinner elsewhere and having one fancy drink at the bar so you can enjoy the view. 

On our final morning in Vienna we went to another coffee house, this time the Demel. It was established in 1786 and known for its confections and pastries. We sat upstairs in the non-smoking section and I absolutely loved the Rococo interior. I ordered the goulash soup to compare it to Cafe Central. Demel's is the hands-down winner. It was rich, thick, and delicious. I washed it down with raspberry water. My husband had traditional Viennese sausage served with mustard and shredded horseradish.

Last on our list was a visit to the Imperial Crypt at Capuchin Church. The exterior of the church is completely unassuming, especially compared to St. Stephen's Cathedral. The Imperial Crypt is the burial vault of the Habsburgs. There is a double sarcophagus with the bodies of Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen, the parents of Marie Antoinette. The crypt also contains the tombs of Franz Joseph, Empress Elisabeth, and their son. Interestingly, the tombs contain only the bodies while their hearts are in urns at a different chapel and their entrails are in a crypt under St. Stephen's Cathedral. Burials still take place in the crypt today, the most recent entombment being that of Otto Habsburg who died in 2011.

Our sightseeing in Vienna was at its end. I really loved the city. It was clean and lovely and people were friendly. The food, in general, was very good and affordable (with the exception of Le LOFT). The highlights for me were the ball and the Sisi museum. 

So long, Vienna! Maybe I'll see you at the opera some time.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

An Evening at a Ball in Vienna

It's ball season in Vienna! I can't think of a better reason to hop on a plane and travel to the capital and largest city in Austria. Every year, Vienna hosts more than 450 balls! I never thought I'd attend one but this year the opportunity was presented to us and we thought, "Why not?" The ball we attended was held in the Hofburg Palace, the residence of the Austrian sovereigns for over 600 years. Today it houses the offices of the democratic Republic of Austria. 

Reichenberger Griechenbeisl
After we were suited up appropriately according to dress code, we headed off to dinner at the Reichenberger Griechenbeisl. The first mention of this building was in 1350. The tower, still standing today, survives from the Middle Ages. The inn has endured attacks from the Turks, earthquakes, floods, and the plague. Since then, the Griechenbeisl has been the meeting place for many prominent scholars, artists, and politicians including Mark Twain, Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, and even Johnny Cash. We dined in the Mark Twain Room where the ceiling and walls are covered with the signatures of the famous. The food and service was excellent and dinner was a fabulous beginning to our magical evening.

We arrived at the palace just as the doors were officially opening. There was a long line of people outside, some being dropped off in horse-drawn carriages. The men were elegantly dressed in tailcoats and dinner jackets while the women dazzled in floor-length gowns, jewels, and fur stoles. The scenery was so surreal. With the carriages, palace, and lavish dress, it was easy to imagine we had been transported to a different century, awaiting the doors to open into the palace where we would all be greeted the Habsburgs. 

Soon the doors opened and the line moved swiftly. The electricity buzzing through the crowd grew more intense as we arrived in the entry room. It was illuminated by a grand chandelier. Straight ahead was a stately staircase covered by red carpet. Different languages floated around us as we ascended into room after room, each one more splendid than the last. 

Main Ballroom
We watched the opening ceremony, with the lovely debutantes and their escorts parading through the main ballroom followed by Austrian dignitaries. At one point we unintentionally found ourselves in the service quarters of the palace, looking for the toilets. We asked a lone trumpet player to direct us. When we came out, he was still sitting on a bench practicing his music. He asked where we were from and when we told him he said, "Wow! You've come such a long way! And I hope you can stay a few more days to enjoy our wonderful city." We replied that we were lucky to have a couple more days after the ball to explore Vienna. He wished us a good night and a wonderful time in his city and when we reached the elevator, we heard the first few notes of the Star-Spangled Banner trumpeted behind us!

We remained bewitched throughout the rest of the evening. We watched couples, both amateur and expert, waltzing around the many dance floors. Eventually we retired to one of the rooms to rest our feet for a while. The band playing in this room was interesting because they were called something like Flowers on the Wind or Petals Flowing -- basically a tribute band to the 1970's. They sounded great and I was surprised to hear "Runaway Trains" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and a few other American rock songs. Couples took to the floor in full ball regalia and managed to waltz beautifully to the music.

Soon some debutantes arrived. The girls were beautiful and elegant, all dressed in snowy white gowns with white gloves to their elbows. Some danced with their handsome escorts while others mingled with the crowd. My favorite moment was when two of the girls broke away from their partners and clasped hands. They swung around in a circle, laughing and smiling at each other. Their demure gowns flaunted their purity and wholesomeness. In one second they went from chic women to little girls and I thought about how, too soon, moments like this would become rarer and rarer as they fully entered society and grew up to become perfectly-coiffed, flawlessly-dressed women on the arms of their husbands, laden with the responsibilities of being an adult. It was a spontaneous, carefree moment of innocence and happiness that I felt somehow lucky to have witnessed. Maybe I'm a little too sentimental but it really touched me. 

The ball didn't end until four in the morning and we made a good show of staying out as long as possible. The party was still in full-swing as we departed. The rest of the attendees still looked flawless despite being on their feet for hours. I wondered how many of them would be attending 10 or 15 other balls (perhaps more!) throughout the rest of the season. What an exciting time to be Viennese!

I certainly never imagined myself attending a ball in Vienna. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one that I feel very fortunate to have had. There are many times I wake up and ask myself, "Is this really my life?" For a girl from a one-horse town in north Florida it was a dream come true, and since I saw the Viennese waltz to Tom Petty (from Florida), I now know that you don't have to be Cinderella to get an invitation to the ball.