Europe 2012 – Week 4

October 15th, 2013

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5-July-2012 <br /><br /> Happy Birthday Christopher! 16 years old. Where has the time gone?!? <br /><br /> Today we pack up and drive for Praha, a.k.a. Prague. On the way we stop to see a one of a kind church in <a href = >Kutná Hora </a>. Inside the church there are thousands of human skulls and bones. Many have been organized into ornate formations. The number of skulls and bones is astounding. The site has become sacred in the 13th century after earth from the Holy Land was sprinkled at this site. Soon many people wanted to be buried upon these grounds and after mass burials in the 14th and 15th centuries as a result of plague and wars, the grounds were overflowing. A blind monk was placed in charge of exhuming remains and later these were formed into chandeliers and ornate structures within the church. <br /><br /> We get to the campsite just in time to get set up before the evening thunderstorms roll in. The sign out front reads free place, cold drinks, beer, and we laugh at the translation of “vacant” for “free”. We know this as we once drove around looking for “free” parking.


6-July-2012 <br /><br /> We get up early to go into Prague for a city tour. While getting ready to go, a small bird is interested in the car and flies up onto the bumper. The next thing I know, the bird is on my shoulder pecking at a freckle on my neck. I suspect the bird was somebody’s pet or escaped from the nearby zoo. <br /><br /> It is a good thing we did get up early as the public transport was more difficult to navigate than some of the other cities. The first tram took us into the city just as planned, but after getting off we find the metro entrance gated up. Then after finding the main underground line closed for renovations, we take a bus in the wrong direction after relying on a posted route map. Finally we get on a bus in the correct direction and get off close enough so that we can continue on foot to meet our guide “under the tail of the horse” in Wenceslas Square. <br /><br /> We met our personal guide, Lea, about 15 minutes late. First question she asked was if we wanted to take time for breakfast. To which I replied with a resounding “Yes!” We took a short (?) walk through the square and into a small mall where we see another statue of St. Wenceslas, but this time he rides a dead upside-down horse. Legend has it that St Wenceslas and his knights are sleeping underneath Blanik Mountain in Central Bohemia, and when the going gets really tough, they\'ll come charging out to vanquish all our foes. The people of Prague have had many tough times including World War II and this statue reminds them that you cannot depend on others to save you, you must safe yourself. Soon we make it to <a href = >The Café Louvre</a> where we enjoyed a Czech Breakfast and cappuccinos, while getting some background on the city. <br /><br /> It was really nice having a personal guide as the tour was very flexible in what we saw and did. We could avoid the crowds and other tour groups. One exception to this was the gathering in front of the clock at 11:00 to watch the animatronics associated with the top of the hour. <br /><br /> We walked across the Charles Bridge and saw sites in both the “new town” and the “old town”. Prague, like many other cities we visited, has a storied history. I am sure that we only scratched the surface of that history with the tour. It turns out that the Charles Bridge was the site of an important battle where the people of Prague were able to defeat the encroaching Swedish army and prevent entry into the city where a very rich a profitable market was housed. On the bridge are several baroque statues portraying various saints, and the view from the bridge of the city and the castle are beautiful. <br /><br /> After the tour, we took a tram up to the <a href = >Prague Castle</a>. At one point during the tour we were reading a plaque by a third floor window. It appears that several catholic regents were <a href= >thrown out of the window</a> and thus beginning the 30 years religious war. It was a long way to the ground with several rough stones protruding from the walls, but they did survive. The tour there also included several other buildings that we also walked around. One of these was <a href => St. Vitus cathedral</a> which also held the burial places of several kings and high ranking officials of the church. One of these was the tomb of St. John Nepomucene. He had the misfortunate job of taking the Queen’s confession and as the King was a controlling and jealous man he pressed John to relay her deeds to him. When he did not the King had him thrown from Charles Bridge and he drowned, but was later made a saint for keep the confessional sacred. <br /><br /> After touring the castle grounds we walk back into town and find a restaurant advertizing a pizza and beer special. We are all getting hungry and we have another tour coming up soon. We decide on the special – the beer was good but the pizza could have used some oregano. <br /><br /> At 7:00pm we find the ghost tour that we had registered for. They talk us into an optional underground tour following the regular tour for 100Kc each, or about $5 each. The tour takes us to many of the same spots in the Old Town that we visited earlier in the day. This time however we get to hear some of the legends behind the ghost stories. One of these is about <a href = >the Black Madonna</a>. It is said that if you follow the gaze of a Black Madonna you will find a secret hall of the Knights Templar. Sure enough across the way is a small lane where a stone altar of the order was later found. It is said that one of the Knights standing guard was killed here after the Order was officially abolished and his ghost still walks the alley. Oohhahhh! <br /><br /> Supposedly these ghosts would try to show up in the pictures. When they do, they would appear as an orb or as a vortex. I did not have any appear in my photos, but others in the group did. Spooky! <br /><br /> Having spent the entire day walking around Prague, my legs are so tired! <br /><br /> It is raining again as we get ready for bed. However, the lightning is not nearly as bad as it has been. At least I don’t notice it as I fall to sleep.


7-July-2012 <br /><br /> Today we drive north of Prague to <a href= >Theresienstadt </a> concentration camp from World War II. Ironically the fortification was initially built by the Hapsburg as a defense against the Prussians (early Germans). This is not one of the more infamous camps but rather a transit station where prisoners would be sent from here to the other more notorious sites. Conditions were harsh here and many died from illness, hard labor, and the general lack of livable conditions. One bunk room would house over a hundred men and yet there was only a single toilette which would flood in the rainy season. Overcrowding and cold weather just made things worse for the prisoners. Over an archway reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Work makes you free. For the Jewish prisoners here harsh forced labor more often resulted in death. <br /><br /> Nearby was a museum with a section dedicated to the children. If a child was less than 16 years old, they were sent away to be eliminated as they were deemed to be “non-productive eaters.” It was so sad to see the wall with the names of the children that came through this camp. There was also some artwork portrayed that they created during their stay here. <br /><br /> We stopped at the Park Hotel Restaurant for lunch as it was beginning to look like rain. Chris and I had chicken or pork topped with a honey and chili sauce. It came with authentic Czech dumplings. The dumplings were like a small roll of doughy bread sliced into ½” pieces. This was very good! I’ll have to find a recipe! <br /><br /> As we ate lunch, it began to rain… So we just kicked back and took our time and ordered some dessert, too. After the rain let up we make our way back to the campsite and just chill out for a bit. The temperatures were quite nice until the sun came out and then it got very warm in the tent real fast. <br /><br /> We decided to go back into the city for dinner. After taking the train into Prague, we found a nice restaurant with a view of the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle in the background.


8-July-2012 <br /><br /> Today we pack up and drive back to Heidelberg, Germany. We get up early as the bathrooms/showers are closed for cleaning from 6:30 to 8:00. There is always a line at 8:00 as everybody is waiting to use them. We get clean and get the tents packed up by 7:00. But now we cannot check out until 8:00 as the campground host is busy cleaning the bathrooms. Check out time is 8:00 to 10:00. The price for 2 tents and camping 3 nights was 2700Kc = $132. <br /><br /> Time to get some gas… here are the vitals: 61.86L @ 37.9Kc/L = 2344.50Kc (translation 16.34gal @ $6.94/gal = $113.47) <br /><br /> New announcement from Hilde: “Caution – A3 – due to animals on the road.” and “Continue to follow the parallel carriageway”. Wow! O.k.…. <br /><br /> By now we have become used to having to pay to go to the W.C. (water closet). Price has ranged anywhere from a nickel to a dollar U.S. equivalent. Today was the the Santi Potti experience. You pay 0.70€ to buy a ticket to get into the bathroom, when you complete your business you wave your hand in front of the sensor which not only flushes but pops out a little sanitizer which starts to squirt on the seat. The whole seat is rotated under the sanitizer and is dried for the next customer’s convenience. I watched in astonishment. <br /><br /> So while Vicky was distracted by the Santi Potti, Chris and I were distracted by this Roadster M5 in the parking lot. I didn’t have my camera with me at the time so I couldn’t capture an image myself. But there are plenty of pictures on the <a href=\"\"> Roadster M5</a> website. We dubbed the car “the lizard car” as we could not understand what the driver said when we asked what type of car he was driving. <br /><br /> We have had to try and figure out many road signs. For example Ausfahrt and Einfahrt are exit and entry roads while Ausgang and Eingang are for people. I remember that as one would “walk the gang plank.” Today we found out what the sign with the car coming at you means… I had told Hildegard “No toll roads!” But Noooo…. She didn’t listen. She did not announce that we were one a toll road. But just as we were a few kilometers away from the Czech/Germany border I get pulled over for driving on a toll road without the appropriate toll sticker. The police office was very nice about that whole thing – perhaps he could tell I was nervous. I didn’t want to wind up in a Czech prison to be forgotten about… Funny thing is that he was indicating that we could pay on the spot. I wanted to make sure I understood at the same time not try to indicate a bribe. Lo and behold, they can take a credit card right there! The fine was 1000Kc, or about $50. As we cross the border into Germany we are determined to figure out how to get a toll sticker for Germany as we will be here for the next week. <br /><br /> We pulled off at the first exit after the border where we saw a sign that stated “Zoll”. We are thinking that might be a translation for “toll” but all we found was a truck stop. <br /><br /> With no luck there, we continued looking for a gas station which supposedly sells these mysterious toll tickets. We get off the autobahn at the next exit showing a small town. We roam about for a bit and finally decide to ask Hildegard for help. “Hildegard, find me the nearest Petrol Station.” Just about the time we pull out on the road, a BMW SUV pulls up and the driver explains he is looking for a petrol station. We laugh and explain we are looking for one, also. Hildegard says the closest one is 14km away and the driver says he’ll follow us. It is obvious that he is concerned about running out of gas. <br /><br /> We drive to our destination only to find a closed commercial shop that only sold natural gas. Thanks Hildegard!! The other driver is sweating bullets as we are now in the middle of nowhere and he trusts me and Hildegard to find him gas. Next stop 8km away… Don’t lead me astray Hildegard! <br /><br /> Halfway there the driver flashes his lights and we stop. He is really concerned about running out of gas. Just 4 more kilometers… His console says he can go 5. <br /><br /> We find the gas station just in time and he and his wife are so happy. We get to talking for a bit and they are originally from San Diego, CA and are currently living in Switzerland for a couple of years. We asked both him and the station attendant about toll stickers and they both looked at us like we are crazy. No toll stickers in Germany. <br /><br /> After getting to our campsite, there was no one at the reception desk. After walking around we found someone that worked at the campground but did not know where the people were that worked the front desk. One of the other campers says we can set up anywhere. He asks, “Do you need electric?” To which I reply, “No.” In response, I get a resounding, “Anywhere!” <br /><br /> We pick a nice spot with soft grass and trees for shade, get set up, and head into town for dinner. We tried a couple of spots to find them closed. The local pizzeria restaurant is open so we have dinner there. I was less than impressed. The waiter seemed to be distracted by a group of his buddies. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but our order was badly messed up. The beers were not what we wanted. Chris ordered a bitter lemon and got a Sprite. Vicky’s entrée was not what she ordered… We will not return here. <br /><br /> After dinner we try the reception office again and find the host there. He greets me with a “Hallo!” I am thinking he speaks English and I immediately start rambling about our reservations and having already set up our tents. He has a confused look on his face as he doesn’t understand a word I am saying. Vicky comes to the rescue again and is able to explain that we had reservations and that we are already set up.


9-July-2012 <br /><br /> We have a very nice breakfast at a nearby bäckerei. We find the atmosphere friendly with good food and good coffee. A man comes in as we are eating and grabs a newspaper. Sitting next to us he asks in English if we are camping. We chat for a little while as it seems he wants to practice his English. It is a very small town and of course he doesn’t recognize us so we must be camping up the way. Like many small towns he sees the young people move away to the cities and he wonders about the future. We finish up our second coffee, but tomorrow we will be back! <br /><br /> The drive towards Heidelberg has forested hills and small towns along a river that snakes through the landscape. Old fortifications here and there perch along the hillsides overlooking the river below. It is beautiful here. We drive into Heidelberg in search of Jason’s apartment. I text Jason, “We are in Heidelberg.” To which Jason replies, “Are you coming by the apartment?” I respond with, “I think we are right outside.” Soon we see him walking down the sidewalk. Thank you Hildegard. <br /><br /> We have a very nice visit chatting and catching up on things and sharing some of the experiences of the trip. Jason is kind enough to help with our laundry. The apartment building has an old washer in the basement that still operates on Deutsche Marks, the previous currency in Germany. The owner takes the coins out of the washer ever so often and sells them back to the tenants so that they can use the machine. We know the machine was built before 1990 as that is when they changed to the Euro, but it does a fine job in washing our clothes. <br /><br /> There is an older lady who lives in the apartment complex, we think she is in her upper eighties and what is her name… Hildegard. Jason says that she contracted with the apartment many years ago and that they cannot adjust the rent rate so she stays and tends the flowers and scrubs in the yard. She is happy to meet us and we talk though she doesn’t speak much English. She tells us that Jason doesn’t eat enough, that he is skinny. It sounds like he has someone to fuss over him while he lives here. Jason introduces us to a <a href=\"\">döner kebap</a> for lunch. The sandwiches are huge, quite good, and the price is right. I think Jason is probably eating just fine. <br /><br /> After lunch we take a bus into the town center and walk around a bit seeing the local church, the bridge over the river, and taking in the sights. As we are on the bridge over the river, Jason points out between some peaks in the distance and says that is where the sun comes up as he is walking into work every day. We take in the scenery and he says “And I get to live here.” Next we climb the hillside to visit <a href=>Heidelberg Castle</a>. It holds a commanding view over the city below and we spot the bridge and various buildings below us. Also on the castle grounds is an Apothecary Museum which was quite interesting with the information on using the different herbs and distilling the medicines. There is also a huge wine barrel in a basement area, Jason says it is the biggest in the world and given that we climb a staircase in order to go walk across the top I believe him. Returning down to the town we walk around a bit before having a light dinner at a sidewalk restaurant. The temperatures are pleasant; the view is wonderful, food, drink, and good company. All in life is right, until the pigeon decided to let loose on Chris.


10-July-2012 <br /><br /> We have breakfast at our new favorite bäckerei and plan to stop at the gas station and bank on the way to Jason’s apartment. Finding a convenient town along the way, Vicky spots a bank just as we enter the city and we go in. Unfortunately, they do not exchange money at this branch but the teller gives us directions to the main branch in town. We were in the bank to exchange money for all of 10 minutes to come out and find a 5€ parking ticket on the windshield. I’m still not sure why… sigh. <br /><br /> Time to get some gas… here are the vitals: 52.04L @ 1.659€/L = 86.33€ (translation 13.75gal @ $7.69/gal = $105.76) <br /><br /> At lunch we meet Jason’s professor, <a href= > Dr. Eva Grebel</a>, who is the director of the department. Dr Grebel is very nice lady who has travelled quite a bit and is very easy to talk with. We are very grateful for the guidance, mentoring, and opportunities she has made available for Jason. <br /><br /> After lunch we take a tour of his office and meet his office mate who is from the UK. Then we head off to the university student union where we spend some more time catching up and enjoying a <a href=\"\">club-mate</a> . We were lucky to get the last 3 as there were 8 when we got in line. I’m not sure how to describe the flavor other than “interesting”. It is kind of like a cold bubbly green tea. <br /><br /> We walked along the park on the bank of the river. Large stretches of soft grass with many people enjoying the afternoon sunshine. The playground here is very cool. There is a see-saw type contraption that also spins around 360°. There is also a small water park for toddlers to cool off in the summer. It has small stone gates which the kids can lift or turn to control the water flow down over the rock. Parents sit on the benches watching the kids. <br /><br /> At some point during the day we saw the local skate park that has been built up under an overpass. On one of the walls was some very well done graffiti. <br /><br /> We met up with one of Jason’s colleagues, Avon, for a couple of beers at the end of the day. I ordered a flame cake which Jason had previously tried but was not impressed. He said it would be much better, “if it was on fire!” It is similar to a pizza except it has a very thin crust, no tomato sauce, and no oregano. “Hrm… a thin crust, some tomato slices, and bit of cheese. Jason, you are right. This would be much better if it was on fire!” <br /><br /> A young boy is playing nearby on a small riding toy that looks like a construction excavator, and with the sound of distant thunder, dad has him heading towards home. We look to the sky to see impending dark clouds.  


11-July-2012 <br /><br /> Last night was the last night of camping in the tents. Sure enough, about 1:00am we get one last good rain and thunderstorm. It would be nice to get the tents dry before packing up. There is not too much to write about today as the day consisted of breakfast at the bäckerei, packing up, drive into Heidelberg, pick up Jason, drive to Munich, check in, drop off the car, have dinner and then hit the sack. The pillows on the bed were described by the boys as “giant under stuffed bags of cotton balls.” I miss my bean-bag pillow back home. <br /><br /> We did fill up the car one last time before returning. Here are the vitals: 42.64L @ 1.599€/L = 48.18€ (translation 11.26gal @ $5.23/gal = $58.88) <br /><br /> Throughout the trip we have driven almost 6000km (or 3700 miles). This is about the distance to drive from Melbourne, FL to Albuquerque, NM – and back! We averaged 29.9miles to the gallon. All told, we spent about $850 on gas.


12-July-2012 <br /><br /> We have breakfast at the hotel which had an all-you-can eat buffet. The most remarkable thing was probably that this was the first time we have brewed coffee in the last four weeks. Every other coffee had been some form of espresso. They also American bacon strips in addition to their own form of bacon, 3-minute boiled eggs, fruit, juice, and breads with jam. <br /><br /> First we use the hotel shuttle to get to the airport and then we take the metro into Munich were we have a city tour with Liam. Yes, he is an Irish fellow who met up with a German lady. He fell in love with her and the area and moved here never looking back. He says that the beer is good in Bavaria and people are laid back so it is just right for an Irishman. <br /><br /> As we are in Marienplatz, the first thing to see is the town hall where a painting of the Münchener Kindl, the monk-child symbol of the city is in a hallway. Then it is the top of the hour and we go out front to view the <a href=\"\"></a> where the animatronics portray a wedding. <br /><br /> Next we are off to <a href=\"\"> Frauenkirche</a> with its iconic domed towers. Inside we see a photo of the church after the bombings during World War II, it looks like 70% of the church was destroyed. Liam says that the pilots would see the domes and know that they were above Munich and would release their bombs. The church was rebuilt in just a matter of 20 years. An interesting mark in the floor of the church is claimed to be the footprint of the devil. The story goes that he funded the church under the condition that there be no windows built. The masons decided to trick the devil and build columns that would block the windows so that he could not see them when he stood in a certain spot. When he discovered their trickery, he stomped his foot so hard it left an impression in the stone. <br /><br /> From there we make our way through the streets stopping at royal residences and large plazas with statues. One of these was Odeonsplatz where there is a distinctive Italian architecture in a nearby church and courtyard. The wife of one of the officials in Bavaria was from Italy and in celebration of her pregnancy with an heir the church was built. <br /><br /> Next we enter the <a href=\" \"> English Garden</a> an area where soldiers could train and a large observation dome sits on a distant hill. Part of the park is set aside for nudist to enjoy, but as it was a rather cool day we didn’t see much of them. In order to get the river flowing through the park powerful pumps were placed in a nearby channel. These pumps create a standing wave on which adventurous people surf upon in their wetsuits. We pause and watch as several men and women ride the wave and practice their technique. <br /><br /> The last stop on the tour is the <a href=\"\">Hofbräuhaus</a> which is one of the oldest beer halls here in Munich. In the late 1800s there was a movement by Otto von Bismarck of Prussia to unite the German speaking kingdoms of the time to form a republic. The people of Bavaria were mostly opposed to this, seeing their differences rather than their likenesses. The story goes that he came to the Hofbräuhaus and proceeded to sit quietly and drink liter after liter of beer without once going to the bathroom. Apparently this convinced the people that Bismarck was a man of their own character. <br /><br /> With the formal tour now being over we head back over to the English Garden where we make our way to the Chinese tower. Here there is a restaurant and beer garden where we proceed to devour yet another tasty Bavarian meal. Then after being again mesmerized by the surfers, we wander around the city stopping in a few shops to look at t-shirts, postcards, and the like. <br /><br /> Later that evening we took a brewery tour where Chris, who is now 16, could legally order beer. The guide takes us to the Augustiner beer hall which was founded by monks in 1328. This he says is the best brew in Munich, and it is definitely full with local people. Next was the Paulaner brewery and then finally back to the Hofbräuhaus. Here we walked through the first and second floors to see quite a bit more activity than we had seen in the afternoon. Bands were playing, people were eating and drinking. A festive location indeed, but as it was getting late and we have an early morning ahead of us we decide to head back to the Metro and begin our journey back to the hotel. It is after midnight and my head finally hits the giant under-stuffed pillow, but it didn’t matter at all tonight. <br /><br />


13-July-2012 <br /><br /> The wake-up call is at 4am, and it is time to begin our trip home. Efficiently Vicky, Chris and I take our morning showers trying not to disturb Jason too much, but of course this is rather impossible. That is ok as we do get our departing hugs and farewells. We get down to the lobby in plenty of this to catch the shuttle to the airport and we are promptly at the KLM counter, so promptly in fact that there is no one behind the counter. <br /><br /> We wait in line behind this one other fellow, and we wait. Seeing the security line growing larger and larger, we wait. Finally someone comes, it is about 5:30 and our flight leaves at 7:05 with boarding 30 minutes before that. Now the trial begins. They do not seem to issue boarding passes in Europe until you check in so we had to get our seats for the KLM flight from Munich to Amsterdam, not too bad. Then we want to check our bags all the way to Orlando, but as we are connecting to a Delta flight in New York, her KLM computer cannot see our flight. We show her our printouts and speak a combination of broken English and German, and she keeps shaking her head “no”. The security line is even longer and the people behind us are as nervous as we are. Finally, she asks another counter assistant for help and they manage to get our bags checked to Orlando, at least we hope so. Quickly we make our way to the security line and get to our gate just in time. <br /><br /> It is a short flight, only about an hour and a half but I manage a catnap. They served a snack and the coffee smelled good, but I passed on the temptation in the hopes for more sleep. <br /><br /> Landing in Amsterdam, we now know the drill. Two hours between flights is a short time here. We get our carry-on luggage and down the hall through a control area. Next comes the many shops selling alcohols, chocolates, and souvenirs; the European chocolates look very tempting, but we scurry on. Then another control area looking at passports and boarding passes, the line is long but we are in good time so we relax a bit. Harried travelers can approach a shorter line where if there flight is with the hour window they can precede; several people attempt to cut into this line only to be denied by the attendant. We make it closer in and distinguish several lines. The red European Union passports to the right and us foreigners go to the left. Ok, check-point accomplished. There are more shops, but we decide to get closer to our gate before stopping. It is a good thing too as we find yet another security check-point, this time it appears to be US border enforcement as we are flying to JFK in New York. Questions about what we bought, where we have been, did anyone give us anything to carry for them, and finally why didn’t we come to visit in Holland? Next time we say, next time. <br /><br /> The Boeing 767 is a good size and has the individual computer touch screens in the back of every seat, so we settle in for a series of naps, snacks, and movies on the long flight home. At one point I had elected to nap through the Sherlock Holmes movie with my headphones on. With my head down on the table in front of me I was catching some zee’s until the bells in the movie starting ringing loudly, thinking it was my alarm I jerked my head up only to bang it on the seat in front of me… sigh. <br /><br /> Arriving in JFK we have about 3 hours before the final leg of our journey. Seeing a Chili’s restaurant we have a seat and relax. Vicky orders a hamburger. While there is plenty of pork on the menus in Germany there is not much beef and I have not had a hamburger in about a month, but this is Chili’s so I go for southwest chicken. <br /><br /> Then the last flight that brings us to Florida; thankfully our bags also made it. A short drive to Melbourne, and we arrive at home sweet home. <br /><br />

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