Next Stop, Praha And Wien

We’re very excited about our next trip which is coming up in the fall. We’re flying to Vienna, Austria then traveling by train to Prague in the Czech Republic. We’ve booked an apartment in Prague, complete with kitchenette, fridge and a washer and dryer. That should make like a little easier on us as we can pack light and wash our clothes for reuse and also stock up on groceries and save the cost of eating out for every meal.

I confess, I am just a teeny-weeny bit apprehensive on this one. Cynthia’s Spanish language skills served us well on the two trips to Spain, but neither of us speak any Czech or German. I’m sure there’s enough English being spoken that we’ll manage, but it will be a challenge. This is the furthest east we’ve ventured.

It will also be a challenge since The Czech Republic has not adopted the Euro. They’re still using their own currency, the Czech Crown (CZK). We’ve gone ahead and got our Czech money from the bank in advance.

The exchange rate is about 20 CZK to 1 USD. To do the conversion, divide by 20. That’s approximately $10 on the top, $5 in the middle and $25 on the bottom.

Prague is known as the “Belly Of The World” due to their being the world record holder for drinking beer. Check out this video

Safe Arrival In Vienna

We flew from Houston to Washington DC where we caught our connecting flight to Vienna. The flight from Houston was delayed by half an hour due to the weather (thank you very much Tropical Storm Hermine). Still, we made it to Dulles with plenty of time.

The flight from Washington to Vienna was 9 hours. We cleared customs and found our way to the Hotel without much problem.

We arrived too early to check in so we stowed our bags with the hotel and took a walk. Unfortunately, it is raining today so that put a slight damper on our already exhausted mood.

Rain

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Rain

We walked for a bit to get our bearings and then headed back to the hotel to see if we could check in yet and we got lucky. The previous tenant was gone and the chambermaid was prepping the room. Before long we were settled in, had some showers and laid down for a 2 hour nap.

William in the room

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William Settles In

After the nap we headed back out and looked around some more. I found the 3 Mobile store and bought a pre-paid 3G sim card for my new Samsung Vibrant and now have relatively inexpensive phone service and data connectivity while I am here. I’ll be playing with Twitter and streaming video while we move about.

3 Mobile

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3 Mobile

The data speeds are VERY good. 1.6 megabits download and 1.2 upload.

We’re off to do some more exploring in an effort to stay up past 8pm so we can defeat the jet lag. If we stay up till then we’ll wake up early tomorrow and should be right as rain.

Photographic Fun In Vienna

Vienna is a VERY photogenic city. We were walking around rather casually by the Vienna Opera House and I spotted these two fountains. I shot these using the HDR technique of capturing three different exposures and then tonemapping them into one image using Photomatix. To have this work really well you should use a tripod, but I was not carrying mine at the time so I had to shoot the three images handheld. Thanks to the shake reduction technology of the Sony and the quickness of the Minolta 35/2 lens I was able to pull this off with more than satisfactory results.

Vienna Opera House

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Vienna Opera House

Fountain

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Fountain

I will be going out with the tripod this evening to see what I can get. There’s a lot to shoot here and I’ve already got some more great stuff in the pipeline.

Vienna – Day 2 – Part 1

We woke up a little late, around 9:30. I guess we needed the sleep. After we showered and got dressed we found our way to Cafe Mozart for some breakfast. I love these cafes! The waiter all dress in coat and tie and everything just seems a little “upscale” but casual at the same time.

We had what the menu called the “Large Viennese Breakfast” which was coffee, a soft-boiled egg, some rolls, a glass of OJ and some deli sliced ham and cheese. It was pretty good.

Our plan for this morning was to visit the Imperial Crypt, located below Capuchin Church which, since Since 1633, has been the principal place of entombment for members of the Habsburg dynasty.

It is a VERY creepy place. Dimly lit and full of dead nobility.

The Crypt

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The Crypt

The Crypt

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The Crypt

The Crypt

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The Crypt

It was a very interesting trip through time.

From there we headed over to the Imperial Treasury to see the crown jewels and other artifacts of the Habsburg Dynasty.

Crown Jewels

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Crown Jewels

There are some fantastic treasures in this space. Photography was a challenge here as well as in the crypt due to dim lighting.

Crown Jewels

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Crown Jewels

I won’t bore you with too many details. Just a few photos of some VERY noteworthy artifacts. These, to me, were three of the most impressive items on display.

Crown Jewels

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Crown Jewels

In this one case we have the Imperial Cross (center) that housed a piece of the true cross (on the right) and on the left the The Holy Lance which is the head of the spear that pierced the side of Jesus as he hung from the cross.

Crown Jewels

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Crown Jewels

And this was no ordinary, every day, run of the mill piece of the true cross. Oh no…
This one had one of the nail holes in it making it TRULY unique and probably extra holy.

Crown Jewels

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Crown Jewels

After leaving the Imperial Treasury we had planned on going to one of the art museums, but we came out and the sun was shining and it was so beautiful that we altered our plans and took a walk. Details on that in the next update.

Vienna – Day 2 – Part 2

We took the subway out to Wien Meidling railway station to go ahead and purchase our train tickets to Prague for Monday. The subway is clean and fairly easy to navigate so we didn’t have any trouble except that somehow we managed to get off one stop too soon coming back and had to hoof it a bit further than we would have liked.

Having the train ticket secured we were able to confirm our driver in Prague who will pick us up at the train station and drive us to our apartment. Apparently, taking a cab from the train station in Prague is a dicey proposition and should be avoided. Having a driver pick us up takes a load off our mind.

After taking in the crown jewels and the crypt we had planned to go to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, but the sun had come out and it was so beautiful outside we opted to skip it and go for a walk instead to get some outside photos.

We were walking down the street when I saw this

The Third Man

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The Third Man

Movie buffs may recognize this as the front of Harry Lime’s apartment from the film “The Third Man” featuring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli and Orson Wells. I recognized it immediately, despite the scaffolding.

We walked over to the The Vienna City Hall, only to find that they were in the process of setting up for the Vienna Film Festival. This included putting a giant movie screen smack dab in the middle of the city hall building.

Vienna Film Fest

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Vienna Film Festival

From there we walked across the street to the Burgtheater

Burgtheater

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Burgtheater

And then across the street for a much needed sitdown and snack break at the legendary Cafe Landtmann, the preferred coffee house of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Peter Altenberg, Felix Salten and Emmerich Kálmán,

Cafe Landtmann

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Cafe Landtmann

From there we walked back along the Ringstrasse back to the hotel to recombobulate.

Vienna – Day 1 – Part 3

After relaxing for awhile in the room we headed out to find an Italian restaurant that Rick Steves mentioned in his book called La Norma

Cheers!

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Cheers!

It is a great restaurant and we’ll likely go back.

After dinner we headed over to the Vienna Opera House with the tripod to get some extended exposure shots. As we were passing by the back of the opera house we noticed that they were showing the performance from inside on a giant screen. La Bohème as it was being performed, free to anyone who cared to pull up a chair and watch it. The opera house even provided chairs.

Free Opera!

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Free Opera!

Vienna is a city that loves and promotes classical music and opera, that’s for sure. Cynthia was blown away. We both agreed that this was one of the coolest things we’ve ever seen.

We moved on from there to setup the tripod and the wide-angle lens and this is what I came up with

Free Opera!

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Free Opera!

Free Opera!

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Free Opera!

I’m not completely happy with these and will bring out another lens and try again. These just seem a bit soft to me.

We walked back to the hotel as we were fairly exhausted at this point, but I did snap a few shots on the way.

Wurst!

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Wurst!

Tomorrow The Schönbrunn

Vienna – Day 2 – Part 1

Today was all about going to see Schönbrunn Palace. That and sleeping in too late. Apparently we’re more tired and jet lagged than we thought. We got up around 10:30 and got dressed and got a bite to eat and then headed to the metro to catch the subway train to the palace. All in all, pretty simple.

Schönbrunn Palace

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Schönbrunn Palace

Schönbrunn Palace is a former imperial summer residence and now belongs to the public. Most of the site can be accessed for free but if you want to go inside the actual palace that will cost you. We paid for the access but decided to skip the actual palace tour as they would not allow photography or carry a backpack. I was fine with no pictures but my backpack has all my camera gear and I’m not leaving it with the coat check girl. Not going to happen. Nope. But the tickets got us access to the Gloriette and some other sections so it was a good deal.

Schönbrunn Palace

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Schönbrunn Palace

I was glad for my wide angle lenses, but in truth there is so much wide open space that you could easily get far enough back to get everything in the frame. We walked into the first garden which is located off to the side of the palace and there’s a panorama terrace. This was shot with the Sony 24-70mm lens and i got just about the whole thing in a single frame.

Schönbrunn Palace

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Schönbrunn Palace

Back to the main palace grounds with your back to the palace and looking across The Great Parterre you can see the Neptune Fountain and beyond that, The Gloriette.

Schönbrunn Palace

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Schönbrunn Palace

The Neptune Fountain is simply magnificent. And GIANT. The pool below the fountain is a great tourist barrier and allows for some great photos.

Schönbrunn Palace

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Schönbrunn Palace

What’s even cooler is that you can climb up into the back of the fountain and look through the cascading water back to the palace.

Schönbrunn Palace

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Schönbrunn Palace

It’s really wet back there and when a breeze kicks up it send water everywhere. I braved the wet to get this shot and it was worth it.

From there it is uphill via winding paths to reach The Gloriette which is built on a man made hill that is some 60 meters high.

We climbed up to The Gloriette and availed ourselves of the cafe that is there and had something to drink and to eat. After that we used our ticket to gain admission to the panorama view from the top of The Gloriette.

Schönbrunn Palace

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Schönbrunn Palace

A spectacular view

Schönbrunn Palace

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Schönbrunn Palace

I did take this opportunity to break out the Nodal Ninja and shoot some panorama frames. I will be stitching them together later to see if I had any success.

Vienna – Day 2 – Part 2

After our wonderful day at the Schönbrunn Palace we were feeling pretty good and just a little tired. We made our way back to the hotel to take a load off and consider our options and it wasn’t long before we were back out pounding the streets toward our next destination. We made our way over to the Haus Haus, a very cool and very modern building plunked down in the middle of town amongst building with a much older pedigree. In fact, Haus Haus is directly across the plaza from St. Stephen’s Cathedral and this juxtaposition alone makes the building somewhat controversial amongst the Viennese.

Here, as you can see, Haus Haus has all the earmarks of your modern buildings. Mirrored windows, curvy surfaces and all that.

Haus Haus

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Haus Haus

It really does seem out of place.

But something really cool happens when you walk past it. The surrounding building are reflected and distorted in the mirrored surfaces of Haus Haus causing the building to seem to morph and change. The further along you walk, the more it undulates and changes.

Haus Haus

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Haus Haus

Haus Haus

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Haus Haus

Haus Haus

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Haus Haus

This was a fun building to photograph. Move a little to the left or to the right and the scene changed quite a bit. The above detail shots are my favorite and I used the 3 shot HDR treatment to pull out the detail and for dramatic effect.

After this we walked around outside the cathedral and then to the Danube River which, for the record, is not even remotely blue. We didn’t stay there long but I was struck by some of the graffiti which was quite elaborate. Especially this one where the monsters seem to be menacing the couple in the lounge chairs.

Grafiti

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Graffiti

We’d been walking most of the day and we were wiped out. We went back to the hotel again to take a load off before going out to grab some dinner. We had decided to go back to the same Italian restaurant we had eaten at the night before. BIG MISTAKE! The place was crowded but the waiter remembered us. This seemed a good thing and he said he would have a table for us in about 5 minutes. 10 minutes later we had a table. Then we sat. And sat. About 20 minutes later he brought us some menus. 20-30 minutes later he took our order and we didn’t end up with our food in front us for quite some time. All in all we were there two hours before we ate. The food was good, but that was just ridiculous.

To make matters worse I got a phone call from the company that cleans our pool. They said the maintenance guy could not get the pump to turn on. The pump was actually repaired before we left so I was hoping it was just a malfunction. But I was worried there was some other problem like a power outage or something worse. Fortunately I was able to reach our friend who is watching over the place while we’re out and he verified everything was ok.

So, to sum up. Great day except for the poor service at the restaurant for dinner and the stress waiting to hear our house was ok.

Two more days in Vienna. I’m voting they be more like the morning than the evening. Fingers crossed!

Vienna – Day 3 – Part 1

Today we just wanted to take advantage of the sunshine and walk around some of the big sites. We had breakfast at Cafe Mozart and then made our way toward the The Vienna Secession.

Also known as the Union of Austrian Artists, it was formed in 1897 by a group of Austrian artists who had resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists, housed in the Vienna Künstlerhaus. This movement included painters, sculptors, and architects. The first president of the Secession was Gustav Klimt, and Rudolf von Alt was made honorary president. We didn’t go inside as we were mostly content to have a day of walking and we had plans to see the larger Klimpt collection housed at the Belvedere.

As we were waling down the street I noticed a sculpture and remarked to Cynthia “Hey look, a statue of The Mona Lisa. As we got closer I noticed the statue had a beard and mustache.

Still looked like the Mona Lisa but obviously it wasn’t. Then we found the plaque describing the piece. Turns out this was a sculpture by Subodh Gupta who is known as the “idol thief.” This piece was called “Et Tu, Duchamp?” and was, indeed, The Mona Lisa with a beard. Apparently the reference is to Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” piece from 1919 in which Duchamp took a postcard featuring the Mona Lisa and drew a beard and mustache onto it.

Moving on we came across this magnificent building

We just loved the giant owl and all the smaller owls along the roof top. As we were marveling and shoting pictures I noticed a sign that indicated that this was The Main Library of the Vienna University of Technology. Coolest library EVER!

From there we found our way to the baroque St. Charles Church.

In 1713, the Black Plague swept Vienna, and Emperor Charles VI made a vow: if the plague left the city, he would build a church dedicated to his namesake, St. Charles Borromeo. St. Charles was a 16th-century Italian bishop famous for ministering to Milanese plague victims. The emperor’s prayer was answered, and construction on the church began in 1715. The Baroque master Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach did the original work from 1716 to 1722. After his death in 1723, his son took over and saw the project through to completion in 1737.

After St. Charles we walked over to The Belvedere Palace. Another fantastic example of baroque architecture, it is a very large complex with a beautiful garden and a wonderful fountain in the middle.

After we strolled through the garden we took a break at the cafe for some lunch and then went to see the Klimpt collection in the Upper Belvedere. Sadly, no photography allowed. Got to see The Kiss and Judith in person which was pretty impressive.

After that we hiked back to the hotel, stopping (again) at Cafe Mozart for coffee and desert.

Vienna – Day 3 – Part 2

The second half of day 3 really drove home the fact that Vienna is an amazing city. When I first suggested we come to Vienna as part of our plans to visit Prague we didn’t really know much about it. I just wanted to take a full two weeks to travel and didn’t think we could fill that time with just a trip to Prague so I thought we’d append the Vienna component just to flush it out.

Cynthia as really not that sure, and honestly was unenthusiastic overall. But after being here a few days we’re both sold and both admit we’ve not scheduled enough time. We’ll be headed to Prague on Monday the 13th which means one more full day before we have to says goodbye.

We went out for a walk and again, the opera was being played on the screen behind the opera house. We made our way to the city hall where we found that more opera and symphony was being played on giant screen set up in front of the historic building.

Not only that, but there were food vendors selling everything from Chinese food to Mexican food as well as beer, wine and plenty of Austrian food. And this wasn’t a cheezy festival setup. These food vendor were super clean and the food was really good. They sold wine and beer in glass glasses! We bought two glasses of Austrian wine and the guy poured them into real wine glasses and said “just leave the glass anywhere when your done.” Unbelievable! Back home there would be broken glass everywhere. Here, it was just the way they did this sort of thing.

Mmmmmmm, Ferrari! Not sure what this was about, but it looked cool and was only protected by velvet ropes.

After we had taken in this event we walked down to the Hofburg Palace where there was some kind of Austrian harvest festival going on. We walked into a tent where there was a band playing and dancing and singing revelers were jumping about and generally acting crazy.

The music for the event was provided by these fellows

The highlight was when they played Achy Breaky Heart in German.

Cynthia and I were just dancing around and enjoying the revelry, not really sure what was happening but not really feeling like we weren’t welcome. In fact, Cynthia commented that if she had herself 4 line dancers she’d own the party. I suspect this is not far from the truth.

A magical evening and one that has sold us on the city of Vienna.

One more full day and then off to Prague.

Vienna – Day 4 – Danube River Art Show

We decided to walk down the Danube River on our last day. We’d noticed some interesting art work slash graffiti and thought it might be worth checking to see if there was more. Turns out, there was. There were murals and sculptures up and down this one portion of the river and some if it was VERY interesting. It was like an outdoor gallery of street art. What follows are some of the more interesting pieces.

Arrival Prague

We managed to have everything work out for getting checked out of the hotel in Vienna, catch the subway with one transfer and get to the train station with time to spare and catch our 5 hour train to Prague. The driver met us at the Prague station and drove us to the apartment office to get checked in and then to the apartment itself.

We’re tired but managed to get our bearings with a short walk and dinner.

This is home sweet home for the next 10 days

And this is the view from the back patio

We’ve found the local grocery store and laid in some supplies.

Prague – Day 2

We spent the day getting our bearings. Prague is an amazing city! Right across from our apartment is a place called Bohemian Bagel. They server breakfast in VERY hearty portions and it is the first place in Europe I have found that gives you free refills on coffee. Believe me, this is rare. The guy behind the counter said it is something new they are trying and they hope it works. Me too!

Prague has, as Cynthia so aptly put it, a communist patina to it. You can definitely tell you’re in Eastern Europe and in an area that was once under communist rule. My observation today was that Prague has an old world charm combined with something modern, if you consider “modern” to be circa 1969-1975. Classic rock and disco music pours out of many of the shops. Even the coffee shop I mentioned earlier seems like something out of the 60’s.

We found our way to the Vodaphone store and I was able to buy a 3G SIM card for my phone. For $25 I get 3 gigabytes of data for a month. Sure beats the roaming charges T-Mobile would have me pay to get Internet and Tweet from over here!

The weather has been a mixed bag. Sunny in the morning, overcast around lunchtime and this afternoon it was raining.

We Went to the Charles Bridge and to the Astronomical Clock early in the day. We even went to the top of the clock which offered a nice view of the city.

Cynthia made her wish at the statue of John of Nepomuk. Actually, the statue is under renovation, but the plaque you’re supposed to rub to make your wish was moved so it could still be accessed.

Later in the day we walked over to the Mucha Museum. An amazing collection of his works and a joy to see. Sadly, no photography allowed.

We wandered around some more and I must confess, there’s a lot to take in. There is something fantastic around every corner.

We stopped in to the Church of St James (kostel Sv. Jakuba Vetsiho) to see the mummified forearm (more than 400 years old) hanging to the right of the entrance. It belonged to a thief who tried to steel some jewels from the Madonna on the high altar one night. But the Madonna grabbed his hand and didn’t want to let it go. The thief had to wait there until the next morning. The next day, when the Minorites came to the Church, they tried to separate the thief from the Madonna, but in vain. They had to cut his arm. Then the Madonna let the hand go. The monks hung the arm to remember this event and as a warning for other thieves. Gruesome! Sadly, no photos allowed.

In the afternoon it began to rain in earnest. We hit up the grocery store for some more supplies and came back to the apartment and made dinner. Then watched some TV via Hulu on the laptop since the satellite is out in the apartment. Hopefully it will get fixed soon.

I know this post is light on pictures. That is because I have shot a lot, but so much of it I want to shoot again when there’s better light. I am sure I will have some things to show you soon.

If you have not already done so, check out flickr.com/baldheretic as that is where I am posting some of my better shots.

Prague – Day 3

Ugh! More rain this morning. It’s bad enough when the light is poor due to cloud cover. Photos are dull and lifeless. But rain! ARRRRGH! Photographing in the rain is not my thing. Protecting the camera gear is priority numero uno. So with the wet weather the camera has not come out as much as it normailly would.

But rain or no rain, we’re in Prague and well darn it, we’ve got to make the best of it. Who knows when or if we’ll be back? Poor Cynthia, she’s more disheartened than I am PLUS she has been working a nice big blister on her toe. Bless her heart, she’s a trooper.

We bought our second umbrella and decided to walk out to Wenceslas Square, the site of the 1989 “Velvet Revolution” that saw the overthrow of the authoritarian government.

It is simply amazing to walk such historical grounds, even if it is raining. We walked up to the top of the square where you could look down the length of it. Just trying to imagine that square filled with over 200,000 peaceful protesters gave us both pause.

Cynthia noticed a building to the left of where we were standing and said “Oh! I know what that is!”

That communist era old building was once the home of Radio Free Europe. It served as their headquarters from 1995-2009. Radio Free Europe played a significant role in the Velvet Revolution and the Czech Republic, out of gratitude, rented them the building for one CZK (Czech Crown) a year. Radio Free Europe had to move to a more secure location after recieving credible threats from Al Quada.

We moved on from Wenceslas Square to find the Dancing House.

By the time we found it the rain had almost completely stopped. It was still threatening and there were some drops to be felt but I figured I would break out the monopod and get some photos of this magnificent structure. With any luck I’ll take a mulligan when the sun comes out, but for now I’ve seen it and photographed it.

Moving on we made our way down the Vltava river back to the Charles Bridge. All the way we were lamenting the weather but making the best of it.

Right after I shot the above photo, an amazing thing happened. For just a few minutes the sun came out. It was only for a short while, but a break in the clouds and golden sunlight shone down on us. Glory be! Then it was gone. Drats!

We walked back to the old town square to make our way back to the apartment and as we entered the square the sun came out again! And this time it stayed out! We shot some pics and rejoiced and then went back to the apartment to recombobulate and decided to go out again and watch the sun go down over Pet?ín Hill from the bank of the Vltava river. I took my tripod and shot some hopefully excellent shots of Prague Caslte and the Charles Bridge. I need to go through them and process a little before I present them here.

The forecast for tomorrow calls for sunshine. If that holds true we’re off to Prague Castle first thing in the morning. We’ve walked our poor dogs to the bone, but some sunshine will breathe new life into both of us!