Thailand Trip

Morgan flew to Thailand for his GM project the week before Bremen Freimarkt. The same project is being rolled out in the ZF plant in Rayong, Thailand at the same time as the Brazil project (with start of production a few months later).

It was a quick trip mainly to meet the local team and investigate the differences between the Brazil and Thailand locations for the eventual equipment installation. Thailand is a wonderful place to visit with great weather, an amazing hotel and a completely new culture. The hotel was located in Pattaya which is a tourist destination so the joke in the department is that working on projects in Thailand is more vacation than work. From Google – Pattaya is a town on Thailand’s eastern Gulf coast known for a wild nightlife scene that attracts international visitors, weekenders from Bangkok and expats. Unfortunately with such a quick trip only during the week it was not much of a vacation but hopefully a later trip can include a weekend.

Days were filled with lots of meetings and planning with the local team but nights were more relaxed with swimming in the hotel pool and enjoying the Thai food. The hotel was directly on the beach so it was nice to walk around and see the area. The first night I was able to catch the F1 race in one of the local bars where I learnt that there are quite a lot of lady-boy bartenders in Thailand. I would have never guessed that with their given appearance. My bartender mentioned that she moved in from Bangkok earlier that year and was a roomate to some of the other bartenders. She pointed out her roommate and openly told me that she just had the operation to become a true lady-boy and I really could not tell the difference from across the bar. I stupidly asked if she was also a lady-boy and she stated “nope – all real here”. Sort of makes you wonder what is what in Thailand. Glad I am married and do not have to worry about that sort of thing.

One of the coolest things in Thailand was seeing elephants walking along the road on the way to and from the ZF plant. Unfortunately I was never ready with the camera but maybe one day Katie and I can travel to Thailand and get to ride them.

Schloß Hünnefeld – Sept 14, 2014

One day a year private castles (normally closed to the public) open up their gardens for free so you can look around. We went with our friends Jan, Katrin and their little son Jasper to Schloß Hünnefeld which is in a little village near Bad Essen. The modern castle was built in the early 1600’s, but there was a castle here as early as the 13th century. Since 1592 it has belonged to the Bussche- Hünnefeld family who still live there today. They have a little café, a B&B, a gift shop, and a small registry room where you can have your civil ceremony. We had a really nice time walking around the gardens (they have lots of exotic trees on the grounds) and checking out the pigeon tower.


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Bad Iburg Oktoberfest – Sept 13, 2014

For the second year in a row we went to the Bad Iburg Oktoberfest celebration with a group of friends.  You’ll notice we put Morgan’s Austrian hat to use!  Once again they had a German Oompah band – De Stürzlhamer.  They played a wide range of songs, from traditional German brass band (sometimes cracking whips to play the song!) and Schlager songs to covers of American songs (ie. Hey Baby, Country Roads, Sweet Caroline, YMCA) and current hits (ie.  “Atemlos durch die Nacht” by Helene Fischer). Below are some of our favorite songs you’ll hear no matter what Oktoberfest you go to! I got the descriptions below from (I also used their free walking tour when we were in Hallstatt!).. they have videos of each song if you want to check them out:

Ein Prosit: This is THE song of Oktoberfest as it is played like clockwork every 15 minutes or so.  The song start out repeating Ein Prosit (Eyn Pro-zit) Der Gemütlichkeit (Dare Gay-mute-lich-kite) meaning I Salute To Our Cozy Friendship & Good Times We’re Having Together. The next part of the song is a countdown to G’suffa (zuffa) meaning take a big drink.  It is said that the beer tents started play the song 4 times an hour to get people to take more drinks so they could sell more beer, and boy does it work!   Ein Prosit ends with the band asking you if you are having fun with either “Ziggy Zocky Ziggy Zocky” or “Ticky Tocky Ticky Tocky” and you respond “Oi Oi Oi”.

Fliegerlied:   It’s a children’s song about animals.  The full name of the song is actually Today Is Such A Beautiful Day, but because of the crazy dance involved the nickname Flyer Song has stuck.  You do a lot of singing “La La La La La” & “Schwimm, Schwimm, Schwimm”, it’s the dance that really makes the Fyler Song fun.  The song has you flying like a plane, then acting strong like a tiger, being tall like a giraffe, hopping like a kangaroo, and of course swimming.

Hände zum Himmel:  Hands to Heaven is one of the idealistic songs that should come to your mid when you picture Oktoberfest.  This lively song asks for you to put your beers down raise your hands and clap along.  Basically the song asks to you cast aside your worries for the day and be merry.


Katie’s Birthday

So today was Katie’s birthday. It was actually pretty cold for an August day – especially compared to our normal South Carolina standards for August. We celebrated at a local restaurant that specializes in Crepes (savory and sweet). I surprised Katie with tickets to Paris in December along with a little spending money for shopping in Paris.

Happy birthday Katie!


First Trip to Brazil

Soon after Mathias left to go off to College for his first semester at Vanderbilt (super proud of him), Morgan also hopped on a plane and traveled to Brazil for his new project in Sorocaba with GM building the front corner modules for a light duty truck (GMI700). It is a long flight to Brazil from Germany but well worth it for the extremely friendly people, good food (lots of all-you-can-eat) and delicious Caipirinhas (Cachaça, Limes, and lots of sugar).

After arriving from our almost 12 hour flight, the first thing that we were presented was the insane traffic in Sao Paulo. The local motorcycle riders take their lives into their hands to avoid the traffic by whizzing between the cars. Just on the ride to the plant from the Airport (which takes you directly through Sao Paulo) we saw 3 accidents. Our driver mentioned that on average 2-3 motorcycle riders die every day in Sao Paulo. Most of the rich residents of the area avoid the traffic completely by using helicopters. Sao Paulo has one of the highest densities of heli-pads in the world.

Being right after the loss of Brazil to Germany we tried to not mention the World Cup. Some of my German colleagues could not help it though and the Brazilians took it with grace. Since we were south of the Equator it was rather cold and rainy (which just added more traffic).

One of the best parts of the trip was the churrascaria which is the Brazilian barbecue. It is rodizio style so you eat until you can’t fit any more – except for maybe some papaya creme.

Overall we didn’t get to see much of Sorocaba and Sao Paulo due to long work days and lots of meetings. Hopefully there will be time on future trips to explore the area.

It was the first of many trips to come over the next year.

The Big Driving Trip – Munich & Going Home – July 31st/August 1st

In the morning we took Stephan to return some books to his school and then by a bakery in town for some breakfast. Once we got on the road to Munich we stopped by the Weiskirche in Steingaden on Siegfried’s recommendation. It is a pilgrimage site because it is said that tears were seen coming from a wooden statue of the Scourged Savior in 1738. Since then many who have prayed in front of the statue of Jesus on the altar have claimed that people have been miraculously cured of their diseases.

Because we needed to return the car by Friday at 5pm up in Hannover, we had to cut out most of our time in Munich and Nuremberg completely. We arrived in Munich around lunch time and went straight to BMW World. Unfortunately we couldn’t do a plant tour (you have to book in advance, especially in the summer) but the guys enjoyed seeing the cars on display in the museum.

We picked up our friend Daniel Schiefer when we got out of work, parked our car at his apartment (he was nice enough to let us stay with him!), and hoped on the U-Bahn to see a little of the town. We enjoyed a beer in the Englischer Garten, which is even larger than New York’s Central Park, then walked through the park seeing the Monopteros, the Chinesischer Turn, and the surfers on one of the artificial streams flowing through the Garten. We did a little more walking around town seeing the Old Town Hall, New Town Hall, and Marienplatz before ending the night at the Augustiner Biergarten (which is pretty much a requirement when you are in Munich). We looked at this visit as an overview and we’re planning to make it back again sometime to get to do all the touristy things we wanted to do. 🙂

Friday morning we got on the road early since we needed to return the rental car before 5pm. We did stop over at an antique store – Antikhandel Döllinger – on the way back. I’d been checking out online for months after buying a cute coffee grinder from them. We ended up buying a wooden water bucket (we use as an umbrella stand) and a painting that has seen better days (some water damage to the matting and the frame).. so it is more a project we hope to someday get around to.  We had a long 6.5 hr drive from Munich back to Osnabruck via Hanover (there was a lot of construction on the autobahn) but we got home safe and sound.  Poor Morgan had to drive the (almost) 30000 km route through 4 countries all by himself because the rental we got was a manual. Overall it was an unforgettable trip!

The Big Driving Trip – Neuschwanstein – July 30th

We got up early and headed to Neuschwanstein – which is one of the most visited attractions in Europe, yet none of our friends in Germany have been there. Since we were visiting in the summer the tourist buses were out in full force and the line for tickets was several hours long. We couldn’t book tickets ahead of time because up until the last minute we weren’t sure which day we would get to visit (or if at all).. so we had to settle for seeing the castle from the outside. I’m so glad we did though. The castle with the mountains behind it is such an iconic picture of Germany and it is even more impressive in person. As far as castles in Germany go, it is actually pretty new (completed in the late 1800’s). Built to look like King Ludwig II’s vision of a medieval knight’s castle, it was to be a place to get away from the public life he lived in Munich. Had it been completed, the palace would have had more than 200 rooms, but in the end only 15 rooms were finished. Building this castle (along with Linderhof Palace and Herrenchiemsee) caused him to personally rack up a huge debt of around 14 million marks – Neuschwanstein alone cost 6.2 million marks. He kept requesting more and more money (despite foreign banks threatening to seize his property) and eventually was deposed by the Bavarian government. On June 9, 1886 he was incapacitated and was forcibly taken from Neuschwanstein during the night. On June 13th he and the psychiatrist who certified him as insane died under mysterious circumstances in the shallow water of Lake Starnberg near Berg Castle. Murder or suicide I wonder?  Not even six weeks after the king’s death the castle was opened up to paying visitors.  After seeing the castle from the courtyard we headed up to the Marienbrücke, stopping to look down on Ludwig II’s childhood home, Schloss Hohenschwangau. There is a beautiful view of Neuschwanstein from the bridge – it is definitely worth the hike!

When we finished up at the castle we headed to Linderhof which is a short drive away. We made a pit stop at a restaurant next to Lechfall in Fuessen.  I remember this meal as being especially delicious. I really regret not going inside of Linderhof – unlike Neuschwanstein all rooms are complete and it was much less crowded. It is much smaller than Versailles, but you can tell it was the inspiration (there is even a hall of mirrors). The dining room is famous for its disappearing dumb-waiter called “Tischlein deck dich”. This table was installed so that Ludwig could dine alone here, but it was always set for at least four persons because the king used to talk to imaginary people like Louis XV or Marie Antoinette.  By this point on the trip I knew that Ludwig II had the nickname “mad King Ludwig” – remember the swans that he leaves at any lake he regularly visits and the out of control construction projects? – now we can add another eccentricity to the list. Though I’m sad we missed out on the ornate interior of the castle, I am still glad we went because the formal gardens are beautiful. Even though we had a bit of rain, we really enjoyed the grounds. We ended the day at a restaurant in Steingaden for dinner with Siegfried and the kids where Mathias had a Bavarian specialty – Sour Lung Soup – for dinner (yes, you read that right). It came out in the form of a greyish colored soup that didn’t look or smell appetizing to me at all, but Mathias finished off the entire serving! Looking up the recipe online.. “Finely sliced veal offal—such as lung, heart, and sweetbreads—is placed in a bowl and smothered in a sauce made of vinegar, sour cream, and parsley with bread dumplings.” I’m sorry to say I didn’t get a picture of it – but I’ve googled it and added a picture that is similar (I just remember the sauce looking more grey and thicker…yuck).

The Big Driving Trip – Salzburg – July 29th

We had just one day in Saltzburg, so for the most part we enjoyed most of the sights from the outside. Morgan started out the day buying a traditional Tyrolean hat to add to the outfit he wears to Oktoberfest. In northern Germany you never see people in traditional dress (other than in an Oktoberfest tent), but in Austria it seems to be very common. Most people working in shops and restaurants were wearing lederhosen/dirndls. Our first big stop was the Salzburg Cathedral, a beautiful Baroque Catholic church. I think my favorite part was the beautiful ceiling; the church is mostly white but the ceiling had beautiful pops of color. Inside you can even see the baptismal font where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was baptized.

We stopped in at the Franciscan church (with the spider web looking ceiling) on the way to St. Peter’s, a Benedictine abbey and one of the oldest monasteries in Austria. The steeple has an onion dome (which I love) and the interior is quite ornate – very different from the churches we visited earlier in the day. Next we headed out to the cemetery and catacombs. The numerous caves and caverns inside Mount Moenchsberg has lead historians to conjecture that these are traces of early Christianity, just as there are beneath Rome. There are two chapels and holy masses are still celebrated here regularly.

We made our way through town enjoying the shops (we bought a small watercolor painting from a local artist) and all the beautiful signs hanging in front of the shops. The wrought-iron gild signs are all over town, but especially Getreidegasse, Salzburg’s most famous shopping street. We crossed over the river, getting a great view of Hohensalzburg fortress (the largest fully-preserved fortress in central Europe) and ended up at Mirabell Gerdens – where the von Trapp children sang “Do-Re-Mi” in the Sound of Music.  Luckily for Morgan and Mathias I didn’t make them re-enact the scene.   We ended the day eating a late lunch outside at a little restaurant – complete with schnitzel and a waiter wearing lederhosen.

We had to cut our time here short (and the remaining cities we visited) because of the rental car situation which took two and a half days off our trip. When we left Saltzburg we headed Steingaden to visit with the Oswalds (family on the Schreiner side).  We had a really nice time visiting with Siegfried, Sara, and Stephan over dinner at their home.  They were nice enough to let us stay with them for two nights so we could spend a day visiting some of the castles in the area. They are about to head out on a trip to Tokyo which sound very exciting! Somehow I didn’t end up with the picture of all of us together. I’m about 2 years behind writing this post and I do think we took a picture together.. so once it is found I will add it in.

The Big Driving Trip – Hallstatt – July 28th

We drove part of the way to Hallstatt from Budapest after the race, stopping in the small village of Gmunden to stay in an Airbnb room for the night. Gmunden turned out to be very pretty itself, so we spent part of the morning walking around town and having breakfast at a little place with a view of the lake.  On the way out of town we pulled over alongside the lake to see the swans & stick our feet in the water.  Gmunden and Hallstatt are in the Salzkammergut lake region of Austria, which is one of the most beautiful areas in Austria (though from what we have seen the entire country is gorgeous). It is one of the oldest villages in Austria (thanks to the salt mined from deep within the mountains) and is arguably the most photographed… which is totally understandable when you see this perfect village squeezed in between the lake and the mountains.  Actually, there was a Hallstatt before there was even a Rome. How much before Rome you may ask?  The first recorded settlement in Hallstatt is from 5000BC!

Once we found a parking spot (which can be tricky since this is a VERY popular little village to visit) we started a free walking tour I’d found online. The village has less than 1000 inhabitants and on the day we were there I would guess there were about double that in tourists. First we took the funicular up 855 meters to the world heritage view point where you can see several villages around the lake, a castle across the way, and of course the mountains you are surrounded by. Sadly we only have one day in Hallstatt so we didn’t have an extra 4 hours (or the proper winter weather clothes) needed to tour the salt mine, but it is supposed to be really interesting. After taking in the view we took the funicular back down and started our stroll through town. The tightly stacked timber homes have beautiful carvings and many are perched right over the lake which provided the residents with direct lake access.

We didn’t make it far before we were ready for some lunch – so we squeezed in with another couple who had a table right next to the lake.  Not a bad view to have while eating your schnitzel and kartoffeln! As we walked through town we went through the Marktplatz and checked out several shops specializing in everything made from salt. After a quick walk through of the protestant church we headed to the dock to wait for our ferry. We were just taking it for a ride around the lake and back to our starting point – but it was so worth it to get the view of town from the water. The locals say that an hour on the lake adds a year to your life.. so we have an extra 9 months!

Next we headed up the winding path to the Pfarrkirche (the Catholic Church in town). It is built up on the mountain side providing its small cemetery with a beautiful view of the lake. There is only room 100 graves (they are almost on top of each over), but each one is decorated with its own little flower garden. Due to the lack of land and the Church’s stance on cremation (up until recently) over the years 1200 bodies have been exhumed (10 to 15 years after they died) and moved to the Bone house in Michael’s Chapel. In 1720 the tradition started of decorating the skulls with panted flowers and ivy and later expanded to their names, the dates they lived, etc. Overall it was kind of creepy in there! We finished we walked back down to street level and the last 300 meters out the classic village view point. Most people have probably seen pictures or paintings of this view and just don’t realize it is Hallstatt; even our favorite sushi place back home in Greenville has a painting of this view hanging on its walls. Looking back Hallstatt is one of my favorite places we have visited so far! When we finished up in Hallstatt we drove on to Salzburg which was about an hour away.

A side note about the swans: The swans were imported here during the 1860’s when Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Sisi started to visit on annual retreats.  Sisi, like her cousin Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, had a borderline obsession with swans.

The Big Driving Trip – Hungarian F1 Grand Prix – July 27th

The event that Morgan planned the route of the driving trip around has finally arrived– the Hungarian Grand Prix. It was about a 30 min drive from Budapest to the race track in Mogyoród and the fastest way there took us right through Hereos’ Square, which was a perfect way to say goodbye to Budapest. We ended up parking in a field near the track and thankfully we packed our rain jackets.  Pre-race a storm blew through but thankfully didn’t last long and the rest of the day was sunny. We had general admission tickets, so no assigned seats. We started out the race on a hill top near the starting line and then walked around the course during the race to try to get a better view of the track. The 70-lap race was won by Daniel Ricciardo for the Red Bull team after starting from fourth position. Fernando Alonso finished second in a Ferrari, with Lewis Hamilton third in a Mercedes.  As far as the setting we liked the race in Spa better, but this one was much more affordable. Also the changes they made to the cars was very noticeable – in Spa we had to keep ear plugs in when we were near the track but now you don’t really need them.  I think we liked the old cars better!  After the race we headed to Austria, stopping at the fanciest McDonalds I’d ever seen (kiosks to order from) with probably the prettiest setting ever (a huge field of sunflowers all around).


The Big Driving Trip – Budapest – July 26th

Our third day in Budapest was full of food! We started out the day at the Boscolo Budapest Hotel’s New York Café. The building was built in the late 1800’s by New York Life Insurance Company to be their local headquarters. The original intention was to go for just a six euro coffee, but after seeing the desserts they had (and that lots of other patrons were partaking in the cakes) we decided to indulge.  The coffee and desserts were delicious, but the best part was the beautiful architecture.

We took the subway (the oldest electrified underground railway system on the European continent) to Nagy Vasarcsarnok – the central market hall. It is a huge indoor market (about 10,000 square meters) with produce, meat, restaurants, gift shops, spices, etc. We bought some famous Hungarian paprika and we all tried a lángos for lunch. Lángos is a Hungarian specialty – deep fried flatbread. Mine was topped with sour cream, bacon and onions- yummy! In the basement they also had all sorts of pickled things, so the boys sampled pickles stuffed with cheese.

Like castles and churches, there is no such thing as seeing too many opera houses. July is an off month for the Hungarian State Opera House (no performances), so we opted for the tour. I would have loved to see a ballet or opera.. hopefully next time!  Construction began in 1875, funded by the city of Budapest and by Emperor Franz Joseph I (Sisi’s husband!- who stipulated he would help pay only if it was no bigger than the opera house in Vienna).  It is richly decorated with paintings and sculptures and is considered one of Miklos Ybl’s best works. While its size/capacity does not put it among the greatest in Europe, its beauty (hellooooo marble staircase) and the quality of its acoustics ranks it among the finest opera houses in the world. There were beautiful details everywhere you looked – I would say that they just did a better job of rebuilding than the Austrians after WWII, but from what I’ve read it was originally built to be more opulent than the opera house in Vienna. I guess it they couldn’t have the size they at least wanted to win with ornateness! The royal box is pretty impressive (it is three stores high) and there is even a special royal staircase for direct access to the royal box. This room was especially lovely. There is a large gilt mirror at the top of the stairs – the tour guide said that custom would not have allowed Sisi and the Emperor to look around the room to admire the details, so the mirror was put there so they could see the room around them and while looking forward as they ascended the stairs as protocol demanded.

After admiring some of the beautiful shops and architecture along Andrássy út (the road the opera is on) we headed back to our apartment to change for dinner. This night we had a special dinner on a boat restaurant that is on the Danube, right across from Castle Hill (thanks to the Schreiners!). I still can’t decide what I liked better – the view when the sun was setting or the view then it was dark and everything was lit up by twinkling lights. Goose liver is a Hungarian specialty, so tonight we decided to try it.. or maybe Morgan and Mathias decided to try it and then forced me to? I’m thinking the latter.  For an appetizer we went all out and got the goose liver trio – part 1: slice of cold fried goose liver (this was terrible in my opinion..), part 2: pressed goose liver with apples marinated in Tokaj wine with rosemary bread (this was ok), and part 3: pan-fried goose liver wrapped in bacon, served with puff-pastry and fine fig mustard (this was actually really good – but probably because it was wrapped in bacon and slathered in mustard). If I had to pick, this was the most memorable part of our trip in Budapest and the price was pretty reasonable given the location. You get a bill for 31,944 ft for dinner and you panic a bit, but then you realize that is only 116 euros so for 3 people not all that terrible.

The Big Driving Trip – Budapest – July 25th

Our first full day in Budapest involved a whole lot of walking. We started out the day taking in the view from the Fisherman’s Bastion (named for the guild of fisherman who defended this part of the city walls during the Middle Ages).  The Bastion is a terrace with seven towers on the Buda side of the Danube, up on Castle hill around Mathias Church. The view of the river and the Pest side (including the Hungarian Parliament Building) are beautiful.  Next we went inside St. Matthias, which is a totally gorgeous Roman Catholic church. It was built in the second half of the 14th century and was the venue for the coronation of the last two Hungarian Habsburg kings, Franz Joseph and Charles IV. We were lucky they had just finished a 7 year renovation so the church is looking amazing inside and out. The inside is made even more amazing knowing that during the mid-1500’s when the Turks controlled the city they whitewashed over all the ornate frescoes and discarded all the interior furnishings. Thankfully in the late 19th century the church was restored by Rfigyes Schulek to its original plans, plus he added my favorite part – the colorful diamond patterned roof tiles. It was a little dark inside, so taking pictures was a little tricky and we even played with some filters on our cameras which turned out pretty cool.

Once we could tare ourselves away from the church, we headed down the hill to walk across the Chain Bridge to the Pest side – stopping half way down to see the funicular in action. We enjoyed some lunch sitting outside (thankfully under cover and with fans blowing on us..) before walking over to see the Parliament building up close.  To get to it you have to walk across the road that the Line 2 tram runs along so look out – those things go fast! The Parliament Building is in the Gothic Revival style; it has a symmetrical façade and a central dome.  It is the largest building in Hungary and the tallest in Budapest.  While we were admiring the building, the misters installed in the pavement turned on – which felt AMAZING.  This saved us from having to hop in the actual fountain to cool off! J  From the square in front of Parliament, we could see the Museum of Ethnography (sadly we didn’t have time to go in) and we saw the wall commemorating the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against the Soviet backed government which is covered in bullet holes.

Our last stop of the day was dinner and a show at Old Man’s Pub. Every night they have a different band playing a different style of music – we were lucky we went on Jazz night. Half the songs were ones we knew in English, the other half were in Hungarian. It was an entertaining evening filled with good food and great music!

The Big Driving Trip – Budapest – July 24th

We had a 3 hour drive from Vienna to Budapest and then got checked into our Airbnb apartment.  Since we had a short first day in Budapest, we decided to grab a late lunch sitting outside near the Vajdahunyad Castle/Hero’s square before heading to the Szechenyi Baths. We walked through Hero’s Square on the way to City Park, where the castle and the baths are located. The monuments there really do make you feel tiny!  Despite its appearance, Vajdahunyad Castle was built in 1896, and was in fact built to showcase the architectural evolution through centuries and styles in Hungary. It combines some of the finest buildings in the historical Hungary into a single eclectic palace featuring styles from the Middle Ages to the 18th century: Romanesque, Gothic Renaissance, Baroque buildings, from the Romanesque church of the village Jak to the Baroque palace of Prince Paul Esterhazy I. In addition to tours, it is used for festivals, exhibitions, etc and unfortunately it was closed for a special event when we were in town; so we had to settle for seeing it from the outside.

We headed into the park and had lunch sitting outside by the river, which was very relaxing, until we realized our waiter had deserted us and it took 45 min to get our bill (though we are pretty used to European customer service at this point). We weren’t sure if we would pay to go in and use the  Szechenyi Baths, but I’m so glad we did. When we travel we always try to see as much as possible, but it was nice to take an afternoon to relax at the pool.. with the added bonus that people watching here is pretty high on any tourists list of things to do. I enjoyed the outdoor pools the most – enjoying the warm (or I guess I should say hot) sunshine that I miss living in northern Germany- but Morgan and Mathias enjoyed testing out some of the indoor cold pools. It was a perfect pool day so it was pretty crowded and we even got to see the locals who go there to play chess. Szechenyi  is the largest medicinal bath in Europe (15 indoor pools and 3 large outdoor). Its water is supplied by two thermal springs; their temperatures range between 165 °F and 171 °F (so pretty hot!).

Morgan and I were feeling fugal so we passed on getting massages and walked around the park a little while Mathias indulged.  But we did get to try out some corn on the cob and a huge pretzel from the guy in the park that was pretty delicious. Our final stop of the night was Menza, which was about half way between the Park and our apartment – plus had a great atmosphere/surroundings.

The Big Driving Trip – Vienna – July 23rd

We started off the day at another palace – this time at the Hofburg Imperial Palace. This was the principal/winter home (Schönbrunn Palace was for the summer) of the Habsburg dynasty, rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The Hofburg covers 240,000 square meters and is rightly described as a “city within a city”. Since it is such a huge complex, we focused on a few main points in the old castle: the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, and the Silver collection. Then we went over to the New Castle to see the Ephesos Museum and the Collection of Ancient Musical Instruments. Plus we did a bit of walking around the outside and visited the Augustine Church. Unfortunately the Winder Riding School was closed for a summer break, so we didn’t get to go inside or see the horses. L

First we checked out the Silver Collection – which includes a whole lot more than silver. There is a huge display of beautifully painted porcelain, Empress Maria Theresa’s personal set of eating utensils (made of solid gold) which went wherever she did, the Gold Service (porcelain covered in polished gold), and the Milan Table Centerpiece (commissioned for the coronation of Emperor Ferdinand) which can be extended to 30 meters long!

Next we toured the Sisi Museum which has loads of her personal belongings – dresses & parasols, gloves, her traveling medical chest, game case, and even her death mask (kind of creepy..). But the objects are laid out in a way to take you through her entire life – her childhood in Bavaria, her betrothal to Emperor Franz Joseph in 1853 (at age 15), how her life completely changed once she moved to court (her life ruled by protocol and ceremony), all the effort she put in to her looks (including taking care of her ANKLE length hair), how her son Rudolf’s suicide affected her (she wore mourning for the rest of her life and traveled constantly), and finally her assassination while in Switzerland.  We weren’t allowed to take pictures in this area, so I’ve gotten some off the internet. Sisi’s medicine chest had cocaine in it, apparently this used to be administered for depression and for period cramps! SIDE NOTE on Sisi’s travels – one place she loved to go to was Corfu where she built the Achilleion palace – we visited this a little over a year later while on our 4 year anniversary cruise!

Then we walked through the imperial apartments, seeing the various rooms used by the Emperor and Empress. They had separate bedrooms and salon’s to use during the day. Sisi’s dressing room is where she had her bath, where her hairdresser fixed her hair (it took about 3 hours to comb it out and style it), and where she did some exercise (got to keep your 16 inch waist). Did I mention she washed her hair with washed in egg yolks and cognac? I’m not sure how you get that out of your floor length hair…. Franz Joseph’s study was also interesting- filled with portraits of friends and family this is where he started his work day at 4am (yuck).

After seeing the apartments, we walked around outside to the New Castle to tour the Ephesos Museum and the Collection of Ancient Musical Instruments. The inside of this building is beautiful – white marble everywhere and huge chandeliers.  Now about the exhibits we saw.  Ephesus, located in present-day Turkey, was one of the most important cities of antiquity. It was here that the Artemis Temple, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, stood; the city was also the home of Heraclitus, as well as of one of the largest early-Christian communities. Since 1895, Austrian archaeologists have been excavating the ruins of Ephesus. Up to the year 1906, numerous recovered objects of high quality were removed to Vienna.  The highlights include the Parthian Monument, the Amazon from the Altar of the Artemision, the bronze Athlete statue and the Child with a Goose.  SIDE NOTE again – we visited Ephesus while on our 4 year anniversary cruise as well!

We also walked through the Collection of Arms and Armour which is pretty extensive since the Hapsburgs were connected so many different countries through marriage. For this reason, nearly all western European princes from the 15th to the early 20th centuries are represented with armour and ornamental weapons.  And finally, we saw the Collection of Historical Musical Instruments which is home to the most important collection of renaissance and baroque instruments worldwide. There were so many unusual instruments that I had never seen before for example the Clavicitherium, the Baryton, and the Zither.

When we left the Hofburg we visited the Vienna Opera House, which is pretty amazing. The lighting wasn’t the best when we visited, so the pictures of the polished Kaiserstein marble staircase do not do it justice. Towards the end of WWII the Opera was bombed.  Thankfully The front section, which had been walled off as a precaution, remained intact including the foyer, with frescoes by Moritz von Schwind, the main stairways, the vestibule and the tea room. Sadly the auditorium and stage were, however, destroyed by flames as well as almost the entire décor and props for more than 120 operas with around 150,000 costumes. Thankfully it was rebuilt to match the section that had survived (they toyed with the idea of tearing the entire thing down and rebuilding from scratch), but our tour guide mentioned that the auditorium is not as grand as it was originally. The pictures back stage also don’t do it justice. The stage doesn’t exactly appear small — it’s 88 feet high — but behind the curtain it’s four times the size of the massive auditorium.  The ginormous stage allows for different sets to rotate using hydraulic lifts that require so much power the Vienna Opera has two of its own substations. Did I mention it is the busiest opera house in the world (50-60 operas and 10 ballet productions a year result in approximately 300 performances)? Also they never perform the same show two nights in a row.  And speaking of huge, the chandelier is three tons of Bohemian crystal with 1,100 bulbs spanning 22 feet in diameter and 16 feet high. Finally, I have a couple of pictures which show what the auditorium looks like when they set up for the Opera Ball.  I’m thinking we should sign up for next year?!  An entrance ticket is only €290 (but if you’re going to do it, you have to do it right and get a box for € 20.500).

We ate dinner at the Naschmarkt which was a perfect way to enjoy the nice weather since there was lots of outdoor seating available. We ended up at an Asian inspired place where the boys could eat some exotic food (and I played it pretty safe).  In addition to restaurants, they also have stalls selling fruit & veggies, spices and souvineers (Morgan & Mathias bought jerseys and we this is where we bought Abbie & Isa’s dirdls).  After dinner our last stop was the Prater, which is a huge amusement park best known for its huge Ferris wheel.

The Big Driving Trip – Vienna – July 22nd

We started off our first full day in Vienna at Schönbrunn Palace, the 1,441 room former imperial summer residence for the Habsburgs.  Schönbrunn also has extensive gardens – including the Tiergarten (founded as an imperial menagerie in 1752) which is the oldest zoo in the world and some 18th century fake Roman ruins. We opted for the Imperial Tour which allows you to see 22 rooms, including the Great Gallery (hello huge ceiling fresco), the Chinese Cabinets (check out that parquet floor)  and Emperor Franz Joseph’s private suite (remarkably, unremarkable?).    Also, we were able to see the Mirror Room where a six-year-old Mozart gave his first concert to Marie Theresa in 1772. With its Rococco-style decoration, every surface is covered with a combination of decorative gold leaf, painted frescoes, white enamel and crystal chandeliers. Not bad for a summer hunting lodge!  You can’t take pictures inside, so I rounded a few up from the internet. After finishing the tour we grabbed some coffee and walked around the gardens to the Neptune Fountain and then up to the Gloriette (which is a deceivingly high climb).

Our next stop was the Zentralfriedhof, Europe’s second largest cemetery -2.5 million people- including Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss. It probably seems like a strange place to visit, but it is very well maintained and seems more like a big park with statues and monuments all around.  Back in town we walked around the Belvedere Palace gardens. We didn’t go inside: 1. I had already drug the boys through one palace that day and 2. It is an art gallery/museum and we’d be touring one of those the next day.  Right around this time a storm rolled in so we walked/ran over to Karlskirche. It is pretty unique as far as churches we’ve seen in Europe.  The dome is an elongated ellipsoid and it has two flanking columns of bas-reliefs. Inside the church is having some renovations and there is a scaffolding set up that takes you right up next to the top of the dome so you can get a really close look at the fresco on the ceiling. Looking at it close up, you can see that the “marble” trim up there isn’t actually marble (just painted to look like it) and that the subjects have proportions that are slightly off.. but this way from the ground everything looks correct.

To dry off from the rain (again) we grabbed coffee in a café right on Stephansplatz, the square surrounding Stephansdom (the Cathedral). Morgan and I enjoyed cappuccino and a piece of apple strudel.  I think it was Mathias’ first and last expresso for a long time to come!  Next we went inside Stephansdom (after admiring the outside – including all those colorful roof times- the day before) which is the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna. Inside it was actually quite dark – the stained glass wasn’t as striking as in Prague.  Looking back we didn’t take many pictures inside, so I think the outside was definitely more impressive than the inside.

Once the rain stopped we took our time walking through town to Bettel Student for dinner.  We saw a few stores selling kids versions of lederhosen and dirndl’s, which were pretty cute! Also, in a nicer department store we found some really high-quality traditional clothing, including a vest with actual deer antler buttons.  Sadly we couldn’t bring ourselves to spend 100 euros on a vest for Morgan to wear once a year for Octoberfest.  We ended the day with a yummy, pretty traditional dinner. Big Wiener Schnitzel and potato salad plus Kaiserschmarrn for dessert.  Kaiserschmarrn is a shredded sweet pancake with rum soaked raisins in it, served hot with fruit compote and/or whipped cream. This is one of my favorite desserts over here!

The Big Driving Trip – Melk Abbey & Vienna – July 21st

We got lucky and on the way out of Prague we spotted the dancing house. On the way to Vienna we stopped by Melk Abbey which is a huge Benedictine abbey which is even more impressive in person than it looks in pictures. It sits up on a hill overlooking the town of Melk on one side and the Danube River on the other.  The abbey was founded in 1089, but the current buildings were finished in 1736. It is most known for its frescos and its library filled with medieval manuscripts (you aren’t allowed to take pictures, so these are from the internet).   The library consists of 12 rooms with a total of 100,000 volumes, including 1888 manuscripts and 750 incunabula (printed works before 500). The main library room (that visitors can see) holds 16,000… so just a small fraction of their entire collection. The terrace connects the Marble room to the Library, and offered a really beautiful view of the river below. The last stop on the tour was the Abbey church, which is even more impressive than the Marble Room and the library.

We grabbed some snacks form a bakery and then got back on the road to Vienna. By the time we checked in to our Airbnb apartment and got into the city is was already dinner time, so we just did a little walking around town to get familiar with the layout out things before eating.  Just from our first walk around the town, we were struck by how clean and nice the town was. It is probably good our walk around town happened late in the day.. we saw some may nice art galleries and antique shops- is probably good they were already closed!

The Big Driving Trip – Prague – July 20th

Our second day in Prague we headed to the top of the hill to visit Pražský hrad- Prague Castle – which dates from the 9th century and is jumbo sized. It is the largest coherent castle complex in the world; made up of the Old Royal Palace, the Basilica of St. George, the Golden Lane, the Powder Tower, the Cathedral of St. Vitus, St. Wenceslas vineyard (and a few other buildings)… almost 70.000 square meters!  We took the tram up (it is quite a hike, especially in the heat of July) and then took the Old Castle Steps (Staré zámecké schody) back down to town; which provide a great view of town.

Constructed in the 9th century by Prince Bořivoj, the castle transformed itself from a wooden fortress surrounded by earthen bulwarks to the imposing form it has today. It has always been the seat of Czech rulers as well as the official residence.  Prague castle has had four major reconstructions, but it keeps its classical facelift it took on in the 18 century during the reign of Maria Theresa. You can see all different kinds of architecture (Gothic to Romanesque) and while the Vladislav Hall and the Rosenberg Palace were pretty impressive (more on those below..) – the Cathedral is really amazing.  The stained glass was gorgeous! The cathedral’s foundation stone was laid in 1344 by Emperor Charles IV.  Over the following centuries renaissance and baroque details were added and the job was completed in 1929.  You feel so small walking around Vladislav Hall (it is (62m x 16m x 13m) and the construction of the complex stone vaulting system, spanning 16m, was a refined engineering feat in the medieval times.  The Rosenberg Palace was rebuilt to be used as a Residence for Noblewomen in 1756. Thirty poor noblewomen lived in the palace; all of them had to be 24 years old or older. There were great views of the town from these rooms… I can totally picture myself sitting by one of these windows to read a book.

The castle complex is so large, it took more than half the day for us to tour it (mainly hitting the highlights.. there was more we could have seen). I was so glad we decided to walk down the stairs to get back to town.. the views were totally worth it and it took us right by Pražská čokoláda – Thunovská (a chocolate shop) where we bought some delicious chocolate covered almonds dusted with cinnamon. I sure could go for some right now!  Next we walked to Staronova synagoga (the Old-New Synagogue) which is the oldest surviving example of a medieval twin-nave synagogue, but unfortunately only got to see the outside.  The neighborhood it is in is very nice today; which shops like Hermes and Louis Vuitton – which we stopped in to window shop and cool off in the air conditioning. Then we walked over to the Poweder Tower Gate, which can trace its origins back to the 11th century, when the original gate was one of 13 entrances to Prague’s Old Town. We decided to cool off in a restaurant next to it to have a drink and some cake. It was a little overpriced, but worth it to get out of the heat and sit for a little while! We ended the day walking along the river and had some great views of Prague Castle and the Cathedral up on the hill.

The Big Driving Trip – Prague – July 19th

We arrived in Prague around lunch time, just a little later than we had planned since the highway we were supposed to take once we entered the Czech Republic didn’t exist anymore and we had to follow a few other tourists (well, people we hoped were tourists headed for Prague too) through several small towns and the countryside until we found another highway to take. First we checked into our Airbnb apartment (in Malá Strana down towards the Most Legii bridge) and then dropped our car at a private parking garage (I’d read lots warnings about parking a car with foreign plates in the city in a public / unguarded lot, so we paid a little extra for a safe place to leave the car). We made our way up to the heart of Malá Strana (Little Town) towards the Charles Bridge. After just a little walking it we were so hot that we decided to sit at a café that had some covered outdoor seating- with mist fans going… did I mention it was really hot? We enjoyed the shade to enjoy our first Czech beer- a Staropramen- which was delicious. After checking out Malá Strana a little more we walked across the Charles Bridge (along with all the other tourists in town since this old beauty is one of the most popular sites in Prague) and enjoyed the view of the Vltava River, Prague Castle up on the hill, and the National Theater. There were tons of artists selling paintings/jewelry and musicians playing for donations.

Once on the Stare Mesto (Old Town) side of town we ducked into Saint Francis of Assisi church, which wasn’t on our list of things to see but ended up being really beautiful on the inside – especially the dome. I didn’t know it until writing this post, but turns out it has the second oldest organ in Prague which was even played by Mozart. We wandered around old town, enjoying some slightly overpriced ice cream to cool off and looking in shops. Eventually we ended up in the town square to see the town hall and its Astronomical Clock. The town hall was built in 1338 but the tower was added in 1354. The Astronomical Clock was added in 1490 and records three different kinds of time – Old Bohemian time, time as we know it, and Babylonian time. It also shows the movement of the sun and moon through the 12 signs of the zodiac. I’m not sure how Jan Táborský did it! We went up in the tower and had a great view of town and all those red roofs!
We had an early dinner at Havelská Koruna which specializes in traditional Czech food. It is cafeteria style, so you grab a tray and pick out your food at the counter before you sit down. We all tried the chicken schnitzel with gravy and dumplings (which looked more like thick slices of bread). It was really good food and was cheap! When we finished eating we walked around a little market going on outside the restaurant that had everything from cheap souvenirs to fruit and veggies. After the market it was time for our Prague Beer Tour, which I think was the boys favorite activity of the day. Our English speaking group was made up of a bunch of Australians, one Brit, and one American (other than us). We went to two microbreweries – Sv. Norbert and U Medvídků – and to one beer bar- Zephyr Urban Pub. We learned lots of interesting beer facts, ie. Pils beer was developed in Pilsen in Bohemia (an area of the Czech Republic) and Budweiser was originally a Czech beer / still is a Czech beer. The “Budweiser” brand in the States is owned by Anheuser-Busch, the “Budweiser” sold in Europe is made by Budweiser Budvar Brewery. When the tour finished we grabbed a snack in the old town square at a food truck and then went with the Australians from our group to a bar called The Pub where you pour your own drinks from a tap at the table and the beer consumption per table is tracked and displayed on a screen for everyone to see. Not sure if it is the best idea to turn drinking into a competition between the tables and between our location vs others in Europe (this was also being tracked and displayed on the screen), but it was fun for one night!


The Big Driving Trip – July 18th

Our 17 day, 2,800+ km road trip through the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary and Germany started off with a bit of a rough patch. Which I will describe in detail now for posterity sake (looking back we can laugh at the situation, but at the time I just wanted to cry).  If you don’t want to hear about the less than stellar first day to our amazing road trip, skip to my next post where we’ve made it to Prague and we can forget about the jumbo sized auto repair bill we’ll be getting in a couple of weeks. 🙂

A little over an hour into our first day (driving from Osna to Dresden where we would be spending the night) our car broke down on the autobahn right outside of Hannover.  Thankfully we had signed-up for ADAC (similar to AAA in the States) a couple of weeks before our trip because I figured we shouldn’t tempt fate by going on such a long driving trip without some kind of auto club we could call if we got into trouble, and thank goodness we did! I tried and failed to talk to the lady on the ADAC hotline since she didn’t speak English and I didn’t know the words in Germany to explain what was wrong, but thankfully Morgan was able to explain the problem (car lost power while we were driving, all we could do was coast to the side of the road) and where we were. It was terribly hot and there was a ton of traffic on the road (the beginning of a holiday weekend, which comes into play later..), which made the 45 min wait for the ADAC man rather slow and painful.  –Not to mention Morgan and I were pretty stressed. Germany has specific rules about what you do when your car breaks down; we knew we had to put on our super fashionable safety vests and stand outside of the car on the other side of the guard rail as well as put out the emergency triangle.. but from there the details got fuzzy. We guessed it should be 100 m back, but we weren’t sure. We knew that you weren’t supposed to have your car on the shoulder of the autobahn for long so we were stressing a cop would give us a ticket since our ADAC guy was taking so long, etc.

When the ADAC man arrived he ran a few tests and finally told us it wasn’t something easy he could fix so he’d have to call us a tow truck.  So he leaves and we wait another 40 min or so for the tow truck. When we finally do get on our way (with the tow truck driver thankfully driving in the emergency lane rather than sitting in the stand still traffic because his truck had no AC….) we then found out that he needed to pick up another person and their messed up car before taking us to the closest VW dealership. So after a detour that included taking our car off the tow truck (grrrr)  to put the other persons on the flat bed since he had messed up a rear wheel and his car couldn’t be dragged (blah, blah, blah) and then hooking our car up we were on our way (maybe for real this time?!?).  I have never been so happy to be at a car dealership. Air-conditioning. Bathrooms. Free coffee, tea, and water to drink.  And car parts to fix our car so we could get on the road (at this point we would have only been about 2.5 hrs behind schedule).. nope, not so much. We got there in the “late” afternoon on a Friday (like 10 minutes after 5) and since we are living in Germany there is only one person who can run the instrument to tell us what is wrong with our car and he has already left for the day and won’t be back until Monday (by which time we are supposed to be down in Vienna).  So at this point we had a million thing going through our minds – do we cancel our trip, do we delay going to Prague so hopefully our car is fixed Monday, do we continue on now with a rental car, can we afford a rental car for 2 weeks, would our rental car be allowed to go into the Czech Republic and Hungary (many aren’t), etc. Needless to say our stomachs were in knots.

We decided to call ADAC and request they get us a rental car – our plan covers a rental car if your car dies on a vacation for as long as your car is being worked on up to one week. We called then around 5:45 and they told us they would get back to us within 30 min with the name of the company we would be using and the address of where to get the car. 30 min go by and we don’t hear anything, at 45 min Morgan calls them back. He talks to a different person who says they are working on our request right now and they’ll call back soon with the info we need.  30 min later we haven’t heard anything and as an added bonus we are being kicked out of the car dealership because they are closing. By this point we are all getting a little crabby. We are all hot and sticky, we are starting to get hungry (it is around 7 pm at this point) and we are nowhere near a restaurant or fast food place, and when we do hear from the ADAC people, it is for them to tell us they are having a hard time finding us a car because most of the rental car places have closed because it is a holiday weekend in the state we are in.  GRRRRR.   After almost an hour more of waiting outside of the car dealership and eating all the snacks we had brought for the entire road trip we finally get a call from ADAC saying they found us a car. After a 15 min wait for the taxi driver and a 15 min drive to the car rental place we finally were able to pick up our car (which thank the Lord was allowed to be driven into the Czech Republic and Hungary) and get on the road… about 6 hours after our car broke down.

To add insult to injury, we got stuck behind some kind of leisurely bike ride through town event while trying to get from the rental car place to the highway so we sat for about 10 minutes and watched while they slowly peddled past us (with cops and the weird guy in only a safety vest and tiny bathing suit bottoms stopping traffic for them), we circled a McDonalds several times trying to get food unable to find the drive through entrance, and then to top it off once on the highway we got stuck behind a caravan of huge LKW’s (18 wheelers) moving the parts to one of the huge wind turbines. Of course the road was only 2 lanes wide going each way, so our side was completely stuck behind them moving at a snails pace.. which set us back another 30 min or so. We finally got to our hotel near Dresden around 2 am completely exhausted disappointed that we had to spend the time we should have been seeing Dresden stuck on the side of the road and then outside of a VW dealership in Hannover…. things have to get better at this point. Right?