Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas 2009 (Part 2)

When the alarm went off in the morning, Meg went to wake the boys up and we all packed our bags and tidied ready to head downstairs as soon as breakfast was finished. We had placed a call the evening before for breakfast to arrive at 7am, so when it reached 7:20 and the breakfast had not arrived Wayne was sent downstairs to try and ascertain what had happened. We had needed to be up early and get breakfast out of the way so that we could make the drive from Krakow to Vienna at a reasonable hour. What we hadn’t counted on was that none of us had changed our watches or phones to take into account the two hours difference between Qatar and Poland. You can imagine the surprise on the face of the hotel clerk when Wayne wanted to know why breakfast hadn’t arrived, only 1 ½ hours before it was due. Perhaps the fact that he had awakened her should have given him the clue before he looked at the clock on the hotel wall.

After he went back to the room Wayne decided to try and get another hour or so sleep, while Meg used her laptop to check emails and access Facebook. Once 7am came at least we were all ready to go, so after another breakfast delivered to the room we were able to go straight down and load the bags into the minibus. The early part of the trip was through the streets of Krakow and traffic was a little slow, partly because the streets were icy and partially because of the volume of people on the road. Once out of the city it was due south through the southern part of Malopolska toward the Slovakian border and mostly we moved quite quickly.

One thing that we discovered about travelling through Europe was that you have to pre-pay a road tax in order to travel on the motorways. When we stopped at a small village just north of the border Aron was able to go inside and pay the tax while we took a bit of a stroll and took some photographs. After the cold of the previous few weeks in Europe it was amazing to discover that, even here in the mountains, it was around 5°C. Much of the scenery was spectacularly beautiful with lovely old architecture (we were told that one of the wooden three story styles that we saw was specific to the area and enabled multiple generations of the one family to live together). It was also a market morning in some of the Polish towns and villages, so people had filled the streets which slowed down our journey somewhat.

The southernmost part of Poland is quite mountainous and is the site of some of their best ski resorts. It is also, as Krakow was, intimately connected with the former Pope John Paul II. We drove past the edge of Wadowice where he was born and where his former family home has been turned into a museum. Even from the edge of town it was possible to see the top of the basilica in the market square where he was baptized. Some of the churches along our route were stylized wooden buildings which dated back to as early as the 15th Century and seemed to alternate between Roman Catholic and Orthodox. Even the turnoff to Zakopane was labelled as part of the tour for the Pope because he had come back, we assume in the early days of his papacy, in order to go skiing there. Our favourite sign of all was that for Szczyrzyc which even Aron had some difficulty in pronouncing.

The Tatra Mountains, which form most of the border with Poland and lots of the northern part of Slovakia, had seemed to be largely thawing as we were driving through Poland. When we did glimpse some of the more that 250 skiing routes which are in the area it seemed that there was only snow on the section used for skiers, otherwise things were quite green. As we crossed the border, however, things began to change and the sky became overcast. The temperature gauge which was part of the dashboard on Aron’s vehicle, showed the temperature fall from 4°C, by half a degree at a time, down towards freezing. As we drove, there was more and more snow visible by the side of the road and soon, much to Meg’s excitement, the rain that had been falling turned into sleet and then into snow.

Northern Slovakia is one of the more beautiful parts of the world and the snow, in particular, simply added to that. As well as the high peaks and ski slopes there were some deep valleys with rivers and waterfalls flowing. One of the most amazing sights was the Orava Castle which is next to the river Orava near the village of Oravský Podzámok. It stands on the site of old wooden forts and was constructed after the Tartar invasion in 1241. It consists of several buildings copying the shape of the castle rock which had undergone many reconstructions before it acquired its present form in 1611. Today the Castle has lower, central and upper sections which contain palaces, fortifications and towers. There are also underground tunnels and even a dungeon. While we didn’t get to visit properly, the main road in to Banská Bystrica still provides an amazing view of the castle.

When we lived in England we weren’t far from the headquarters of one of England’s biggest retailers, Tesco. Not really having thought about it, we were stunned as we continued heading south to come across a Tesco’s store. We were due to get some more fuel so we were able to get off the road to reacquaint ourselves with this store (even if most of the writing, advertising etc. was in Slovakian). It turns out that Tesco’s is the second largest retailer in Slovakia with well over 50 stores and plans to open another 15 during 2010. Slipping (literally) past the Christmas tree sale that took up a large section of the car park we were able to spend some good time looking for things which we had been unable to find in Qatar and some more supplies to keep us going through the day.

In contrast to the northern part of Slovakia the southern part is very flat with lots of farming land spread out on either side of the car as we headed down through Nitra toward Bratislava, the capital. It was not surprising that this region had been an area of conflict many times throughout history dating all the way back to the Roman Empire. Invasions of Huns, Franks, Magyars, Mongols, Ottomans, and Hapsburgs devastated sections of the countryside even before the 20th Century. During the last 100 years the identity of the country has changed multiple times and seen control exercised by the Nazis during World War II and the Communists in the Cold War period. It was only in 1993 that Slovakia achieved independence and even more recently that they joined the European Union.

Being winter, by the time we were getting close to Bratislava and the Austrian border the sun was starting to set. As a consequence of this we saw enormous numbers of birds rising from the river valleys near to the Danube and heading toward Bratislava. Aron explained that during winter it was too cold for the birds to nest in the open fields where they spent much of the day and that they would retreat into the cities where there were more opportunities for them to keep warm. It was not long after this that the motorway took us past Bratislava and we got a glimpse of another castle sitting on a hill above the town. The site on which the Bratislava Castle sits has been inhabited since the transition period between the Stone and Bronze ages. At different stages in history is has been the acropolis of a Celtic town, part of the Roman Limes Romanus, a huge Slavic fortified settlement, and a political, military and religious centre for Great Moravia. The first stone building was not constructed until the area became part of the Kingdom of Hungary in the 10th century. Since that time it has undergone a variety of transformations till becoming the royal seat of Queen Maria Theresa. An accidental fire destroyed the castle in 1811 and it then lay in ruins until it was rebuilt. It still looks impressive today although it was currently closed to the public.

Approaching the border with Austria, apart from the misfortune to pass across another border without being able to acquire a stamp in our passports, what really struck us was the enormous number of wind turbines we could see. Perhaps because the Danube Valley has been prone to flood in the past, wind farms have become both a source of income and of energy for landowners in this part of the world. Having two national capitals so close to one another might also be an explanation, for Vienna and Bratislava are two of the closest situated national capitals. This means that, while Bratislava has its own airport, it is also easy to reach by means of the much larger Vienna International Airport, which we passed on the highway into the city.

By the time we reached Vienna it was already dark, which meant that we got to see some of the beautiful Christmas light displays as we made our way up to Schönbrunn Palace. We had always suspected that Vienna would be a beautiful city, having been a centre of the arts for centuries, but seeing it lit up accentuated this impression. The final part of the journey took us up Prinz Eugen Straße past a number of consulates which were interspersed with a variety of restaurants, one of which made much of the fact that Sharon Stone had once eaten there. We were determined to try and take as much of this in as possible because Aron had heard during the day that his children were both sick with chickenpox. In order to give him the opportunity to be the best support to his wife, rather than spend the night in Vienna where we had originally been booked, we had agreed to travel on to Budapest. This had the added benefit for us of completing the majority of travelling on the one day so that we could relax over Christmas.

Schönbrunn Palace sits on a hill overlooking the city and has among its grounds the world’s oldest zoo which was founded in 1752. The Schönbrunner Schlosspark, which surrounds both palace and zoo, was also founded in the 18th century and is like a botanic gardens, however the actual Vienna Botanic Gardens is at Schloß Belvedere. These are just a few of the many beautiful parks and gardens which are scattered throughout the city. There are a number of Christmas markets held in Vienna, but to have the opportunity to visit the one situated in the grounds of Schönbrunn was a special experience and we didn’t even mind having to park down below the gardens and walk the kilometre or so.

As we had experienced in Krakow, much of what was on offer at the markets was Christmas related with tree decorations and other baubles featuring heavily. Each market also strongly featured the traditions of its own country in the food and drinks that were available, as well as in some of the speciality items and souvenirs for sale. Wayne decided to sample some Chocolate Punch (a concoction of hot fruit wine with chocolate which both he and Meg absolutely loved) and was delighted to discover that you got to keep the mug in which it was served. Brock, Quinn and Meg all had giant Viennese Wurst Hot Dogs while Wayne ate a form of schnitzel with some very lovely hot potato, bacon and cheese mixture. We also purchased some beautiful wooden Christmas ornaments and various souvenirs of Vienna and Austria.

After we had finished wandering the markets it was time to catch a tram down the hill into the centre of Vienna itself. It was only a short ride but once again we found public transport in Europe to be fast and efficient. When we alighted we were standing outside the Vienna Staatsoper, where people were standing offering us tickets for standing room in that nights Opera Performance. Wherever we went in Vienna there were people willing to offer us tickets at reduced prices to cultural events which was a nice change from other cities where the street hawkers offer very different sorts of products or services.

We strolled up Kärntner Straße marvelling at the sights, sounds and beautiful lights. While Hollywood has a film walk of fame, the stars in the streets of Vienna had famous classical musicians, including; Richard Strauss, Giuseppe Verdi, Gustav Mahler and Karl Bohm, to name a few. However, the biggest star was clearly Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart whose image decorated everything from t-shirts and store fronts to chocolates and miniature statues. One of the souvenir shops that we wandered into saw us abused by the owner who claimed we were preventing him from closing for the evening. This would have been more believable had Meg and Quinn not seen him watching pornography quietly in a corner when they first entered. His temper was somewhat negated by Wayne making a small purchase before he left but this was the only sour point of our entire time in Vienna.

At the bottom of the Kärntner Straße was St. Stephens Cathedral where a service was being conducted replete with music from the massive organ and a choir with a soprano. Although the words were in German the music itself was familiar from church services in other countries. While the inside was replete with the fretwork, statues and vaulted columns that we have come to expect in Roman Catholic cathedrals throughout Europe, the external frontage looked surprising flat. When we got up close we realised that this was because restoration work is being done there and so a flat wooden screen (painted to look like the facade of the cathedral) was covering much of what we could see. Full credit to the people who created it because, at night, it wasn’t easy to tell until you were up close that this was what we were seeing.

While Aron went to get some dinner, we opted to take a horse drawn carriage tour around the streets of Vienna. This was lots of fun and a fabulous way to see the city and the coldness of the night was countered by the blankets that we were given to cover us. Our driver (in his balaclava and bowler hat) was somewhat gruff and didn’t speak much English, but every time there was a site of particular interest he would turn and shout it out to us. The horses also wore blankets and wonderful woollen hats which covered their ears but from their nostrils came the steam of their snorts as they came to terms with the cold night air.

Our tour included the Christmas markets taking place in the centre of town as well as an outdoor Christmas tree sale where you could walk up and drag home your own pine tree (most of them looked much too big to carry easily). Some of the Christmas lighting was very impressive, with giant bows adorning the front corner of many of the buildings and Swarovski Crystal chandeliers hanging down the middle of the street. The architecture and elaborate statuary which we saw as we travelled the streets was amazing and it was a fascinating contrast to see how many people were out walking in Vienna in contrast to Krakow two nights earlier, although we were travelling through at a similar time of the evening. Passersby waved at us as did the drivers of other carriages that we saw travelling the reverse route of the tour. All too soon the tour was over, but it was a very special experience that we will remember for a long time.

When we had alighted from the carriage we found Aron and made the short walk back up the mall once more to the Statsoper. This time we had to get across to the other side of the road in order to catch the tram and we were able to achieve this by using the underground walkway. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this was going down the stairs and finding a public toilet. This was not just any old public toilet however, the sign outside informed us that it was an Opera Toilet mit Musik. While you visit the bathroom you can listen to the sounds of opera being piped through the cubicles. We might, perhaps, have been more tempted to experience this if there wasn’t a charge to do so. Instead we went back up to the trams and soon found ourselves back in Aron’s van (although not until we had made one quick final stop at the Schönbrunn Market so that Aron could purchase a mug of punch to take back to his wife, which he transferred into a flask before we set off).It took a little while to get out of Vienna itself but once we were it was a relatively short time till we were passing the airport and then only another half an hour or so till we had reached the Hungarian border. This was the fourth country we had been in during that day which, even at the rate that we often travel, was quite impressive. Once inside the border we made another stop at a service station to purchase the next Motorway pass and then we were back following the general line of the Danube down toward Budapest. This was Aron’s home town and it was obvious that it was the place that he knew the best. However, despite the local knowledge, roadwork that was taking place on the main road into town and a bridge closure meant that we got to experience some very bumpy parts of the streets of the Hungarian capital. Doing some loops around a couple of one way streets brought us to the Hotel Unio where we would be staying for the next few nights, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Night.

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