Thursday, June 28, 2018

Karlstejn, Czech Republic: Castles Across Bohemia

After Vienna the Danube River takes a more east-west path, cleanly separating the top third of Austria from the more mountainous southern part. The river goes through what is known as the Wachau valley, winding through steep hills dotted with vineyards.  We stayed at a couple of odd campgrounds, both with just small grass areas for tent campers.  The bathrooms were on the other side of the road, so one had to be sure to look both ways if in a hurry.   It was enjoyable, but the flat bike path was getting a bit dull, so we soon left the course of the river to head north to a new country.

The village of Dürnstein in the evening light, across the river from our campground in Rossatzbach.

Floods are a way of life along the Wachau section of the Danube.   This house commemorated recent "Hochwasserstand" (high-water lines). 

Along the way is the Melk Abbey, which looks directly down on the village of Melk and the Danube.  We gave the monks a few Euros to be able to see the inside of the abbey and to have this view. 

But the view looking up from the river to the abbey on the rocky high point is free.

After a spell of almost three weeks of hot and humid weather, overcast skies hung over us on our last day on the Danube.  We climbed out of the river valley at the village of Mauthausen.  We weren't sure where to camp, but a Google search found a castle that had camping and rooms for rent.

We arrived at Schloss Riedegg, which has a variety of functions.  It is a museum, medical offices, home to a missionary group, and a youth hostel.  It took a bit of searching to find someone who could direct us to the camping, and when we found her she graciously walked us over the the lawn area.  It was set up for big camping groups, spacious and quiet, but she offered to let us stay in the hostel bunkroom if we wished.  The group occupying it the night before left early, and we could have it to ourselves.  So for the price of a campground on the Danube, we had 50 bunk beads, a kitchen, and tables fit for an abbey full of monks, all to ourselves.  So check off another one off the bucket list -- sleeping in a castle.

The history of the castle dates back to 1150, but was nearly destroyed by fire in the 16th century.  A new structure was built next to the ruins and that is the part of the castle we stayed in.

We were given a ring of keys to access our dormitory.  I went on an exploratory mission, following signs to the "Ruine".  I tried one of the skeleton keys on the entrance door, and lo and behold, it opened into a little room with a museum.  There was a second door with a lock, and I had a key for that one, too, and it opened to the old part of the castle, the ruined remains from the original castle. 

The next day we left Austria and entered the Czech Republic.  No longer could I converse in my elementary German.  Once again, the signs and the language were totally unintelligible to us. 

After going up and down a few hills that were almost mountains, we ended up in the valley of the Vltava River.  This river flows eventually to Prague.  But in a particularly picturesque bend in the river is the old town of Cesky Krumlov.  It has it all -- castles, churches, tour buses.  We were happy to be there on a brilliantly sunny day.

The 13th century castle tower is a prominent feature visible from many directions.

It seemed like half the youth of the Czech Republic were floating down the Vltava the day were were there.  No need to worry if the boat gets capsized -- the river is quite shallow, and we saw guys just stand up and walk to the bank.

If our bikes could float, we could have followed the Vltava River all the way to Prague, too.  But we instead went west and north into the heart of Bohemia in search of forests, castles and beer.

We approached Pilsen from the south along a river trail.  Our initial impression was that it was quite industrial and a bit gritty.

We stayed an extra day to explore the old part of Pilsen, which was a compact area.  The central square, however, was quite open and large so we could get a nice view of the old church.

Lining the square were these sherbert-colored Baroque buildings.

We spent a couple of hours in the local brewery museum, learning all about the beer making process and the history of beer in Pilsen.  The Pilsner Urquell brewery has been operating here since 1842, and produces 50 percent of all the beer consumed by Czechs.  And the Czechs drink a lot of beer -- the most per capita in the world

And then we went on a tour of the brewery.  What a blast!  It was first-rate, with lots of history, a good amount of audio-visuals, and sampling of malted barley, hops, and, of course, beer.

So here is what we learned on the tour:  the Pilsner Urquell beer is the world's first pilsner, a blond lager.  It is bottom fermented and triple hopped with Czech-grown hops known for low bitterness and high aroma.  Fermentation is done in copper vats shown here, which they claim adds an extra dimension to the flavor.

Up until 1993, however, the final lagering was done in a series of cooled tunnels, a network almost 6 miles in length.  Most of the tunnels are empty now, but one section is reserved for making beer in the traditional way.

The brewery still employs craftsmen to fabricate oak barrels which are used to brew the beer the old way. Here our tour guide is standing next to one where water, grains, hops and yeast are bubbling and forming a thick foam on top of the developing beer, forming a cap to protect the developing liquid below.  It is then transferred to barrels for the final lagering.  The finale of the tour was to be served a full glass of unfiltered and unpasteurized beer directly from the barrel, with a thick foam head.  Lip smacking good.

We cycled for three more days through a deeply rural area of Bohemia.  There were deep forests on the hills, and wide fields of grains in the flats.

We took one country road that terminated at a river.  The ferry marked on the map was for some reason not operating, although the cable and barge were in place (could not make out the words on the signs!).  A group of canoers camping at the dock graciously shuttled our bikes and gear over to the other side, saving us many kilometers of backtracking.

Rivers criss-cross this area, and canoeing is the sport of choice in the summer.  Grassy campgrounds supporting those on multi-day trips appear periodically on the banks, although we chose to wild camp in the forest.

Approaching the castle at Křivoklát.  Ho, hum, another Bohemian castle.

We paid the fee to take a tour.  We could not access every part of the castle because they were filming a Czech TV show in the courtyard.  Kind of funny to see the extras walking around in their Medieval costumes looking at their smartphones.

We did see some of the rooms inside, including the library from the previous owners containing 52,000 volumes.

One of campsites in the forest, on our last night before cycling into Prague.

Just one more little castle.  Karlštejn is heavily visited because it is close to Prague.  We opted to just look up on it, since we had many more kilometers to get to Prague and it was beginning to rain.  Many people rent a bike and ride from Prague to the castle and take the train back.  Maybe we should have done that...we were a couple of drenched rats by the time we got to the city.

The bike path led us under this freeway overpass, as impressive as any column we have seen in many European cathedrals.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Vienna, Austria: Linking Cities on the Danube

The EuroVelo is a network of 15 bike routes that criss-cross the European continent.  By far the most popular is Route 6, which starts in France and ends 4,400 kilometers later at the Black Sea.  The section we followed out of Budapest was marked by signs that directed cyclists to off-road bike trails or low-traffic roads.  It becomes kind of a game to look for the signs, usually posted at key intersections, and we get a little worried when we have not seen a sign in a while.  But we were traveling upstream, against the tide of the majority of cyclists that go from the north to the south, so we just needed to look ahead for a cyclist with packs heading our direction.  The cyclists are of every shape, size, age, some on electric bikes (cheating in our book, but talk to us about that in a few years).  Most have only small panniers, enough for a change of clothes, and stay in boarding houses along the way.  Very few have full panniers like ours, and when we see a someone burdened like us, we give them a more enthusiastic hello.

The route is flat and only periodically gets out of view of the river.  It is easy traveling, not much room for adventure.  What challenged us the most was again the weather.  It was hot -- mid 80's with plenty of humidity.  Then the clouds would build and there would be thunderstorms. But this section of our trip is more about connecting to the big cities, and following this route was the best way to get there.

One day of cycling north of Budapest there is a big bend in the river where the Danube goes for a north-south alignment to generally east-west.  The village of Esztergom is a bit west of this bend, and on top of a hill is a big and noble church that offers expansive views.  Here is the view looking to the west, where we are heading.

We were hoping to get into the Esztergom Basilica, but even though it was a Saturday morning, the parking lot was packed.  We were pedaling up the front steps, and an Audi with tinted windows drove by us and pulled up to the front.  Out of the car came men in dark robes followed by one in the red costume of a high-ranking Catholic.  We parked the bikes and clearly we were underdressed for what we were told was a private ceremony.  So could only hover in the entrance with the other uninvited souls.  We could hear the full choir singing and the organ playing and scripture read in Hungarian, and we had just this glimpse of the painting at the altar, which we read is the largest canvas painting in the world.

We veered off the EuroVelo 6 to visit the Pannonhalma Archabbey.  It is still an active Benedictine order.  They grow herbs and lavendar and make wine, all sold in the abbey gift shop.

Our timing was not good, again.  It was a Sunday and the main church was closed to visitors.  We could hear them singing on the other side of the door.  But we could see the library, full of old books dating back to the 15th century in a beautiful twin-domed space.

The Danube is the border between Slovakia and Hungary, and we crossed over to the left bank into Slovakia for a day of biking.

The Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros Dam is one of several along the Danube, for both flood control and hydroelectric electricity production.  This facility produces 8 percent of Slovenia's electricity.  As we were parked on top of the dam a river cruise ship traveling approached the locks.

Upstream of the dam was a wide reservoir that we followed for a couple of very hot and humid hours.  Not a tree in sight on the berm the bike path was built on between the reservoir and the side channel.

Our next city on the Danube -- Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.  We stayed for two nights in an AirBnB, right in the old town in a renovated building from the 18th century.  The square building with four towers on the hill is the Parliament building.

Bratislava is clean and modern, but with a wonderful old town mixed in.

A fixer-upper.

There are really old buildings, but also massive Baroque buildings that look like they could stay standing forever.

The Church of St Elizabeth of Hungary is also known as the Blue Church.  It was built in the early 20th century in the sumptuous art nouveau style.

And across the street is an equally delicious art nouveau high school.

Bratislava is very bike friendly, and all the bridges crossing the Danube have dedicated access lanes for pedestrians and bicycles.  This is Most SNP, or the "UFO Bridge", because of the Communist-era tower with revolving restaurant on the west terminus. We crossed over here on our way out of town.

Two nights in Slovakia, then into Austria.  At least now I can read the signs and talk to people in German.

A foggy morning on the Danube.

It took us one day of cycling to get to our Air BnB just outside of Vienna.  This one came with a piano, to John's delight.  We were here for four nights.  We took both the subway and tram into the city each day, always an interesting people-watching experience.

Our first day was spent in the Kunst Historisches Muesem. It was glorious and exhausting and visually overwhelming.  The building was as beautiful as any of the objects inside. 

Half the museum was art collected by the Hapsburgs, who ruled the region for over 600 years.

Another significant portion of the museum is the decorative objects collection of the Hapsburgs.  This fine piece of porcelain is really a decanter -- the guy's head is a cork that pops off to pour out the contents.

We were astounded by the museum's Egyptian collection.  Entire columns were transported and erected in the display hall. 

Papyrus scrolls...really old, really delicate.
On the morning of the second day of our visit in Vienna was spent at the Urgeschichte und Historische Archäologie at Universität Wien.  It was an intense morning of talking German and looking at their collection of artifacts.  It was a personal tour for just us, conducted by a professor and his assistant.  My great-great-great-grandfather, Matthäus Much, discovered a Bronze Age settlement under the water on the shore of an Austrian lake called Mondsee.  He spent a few years excavating and cataloging the find, and gained some notoriety as he published his results.  There are quite a few discoveries of these settlements in lakes in the region.  The residents lived on stilts over the water on the shore.  What made this collection important was some of the first use of copper in the bronze production and helped define the Copper Age (3200-2800 BC) in Austria.  After he died he left the collection to his son, who then sold it to the Austrian state.  The 20,000 objects in the collection was the basis for forming the Institute and attracting other important finds into their holdings.  I have a cousin in Germany that has done quite a bit of research on this notable relative of mine, and he helped arrange this fortunate meeting.
In the collection are multiple vials of organic material.  They are the original vials from Much, sealed with wax,  This one contains twisted fiber.  It blows my mind -- 5,000 year-old rope.

The Institute has many display cases with Mondsee objects.  Here are are a few stone molds used for metalworking.  The dark piles on the bottom left are charred remnants of grains and little tiny apples. 

Vienna is music, and we were able to take in a free organ concert in St Peter's church.

Gothic meets modern in central Vienna.

On our last day we visited the Hofsburg palace, the home of the Hapsburgs until their rule ended in the early 20th century.  Part of the tour included the Silver Collection Museum, with glass case after glass case of porcelain, silver, and gold tableware -- plates, bowls, flatware, table decorations.  So beautifully crafted, but hard to comprehend how they would have needed all those objects. 

We walked the streets around the palace on a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon. We took a tour of the Opera House later, and came out just as the Gay Pride parade passed by, all techno-pumping at maximum volume.  What a contrast.

In the park near the Opera House is the statue of Mozart, with this detail of babies having fun.

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