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After a couple of very enjoyable weeks in Hungary which seem to have flown by, we moved on to Vienna today, again, for a few intensive days of sightseeing before moving on to “Czechia”, our last country. Sopron had been a great little stop to finish Hungary. We checked out of the basic but good value Wieden, and loaded up Eddie again. The boot and back seat have gradually filled up now, with my North Face hiking boots, a bag of books, Nessie’s presents, my two hats and now, behind the driver’s seat, the two noodles.

We drove out of Sopron and it didn’t take very long at all before we reached the Austrian border. On our way out of Hungary (it may have been on our way to Sopron yesterday, I’m not sure), we passed many hospitals and other medical institutions with signs in German, and other languages, offering all sorts of treatments, from dentistry to plastic surgery and heart operations, the whole gamut. There is clearly an industry in low-cost health care here in Hungary.

From the border it was a smooth drive to Vienna. We had booked ahead for a budget hotel and navigated the access roads of Vienna to get to the area on the western side of the town centre. Doubts crept in as we drove through the area, full of tall buildings, not a green slightly suburban area but more an area with a high immigrant population, “exotic foods” shops, etc. Even though it was still very tidy and smart – this was, after all, Vienna. Anyway, long story, short version – we deffed the Alla Lenz (last room, very small) and after having parked Eddie in an underground garage headed instead for the tourist information office near the opera. With the help of the tourist information office we came up with a better, and more pricey, option the Hotel Kärntnerhof, a tourist option and within walking distance of all the stuff in the Innere Stadt.

We first walked to the hotel, to check for ourselves. It met with our approval and we returned to get Eddie, stopping for an ice cream along the way. Then we returned to the car park and got hellishly frustrated in Vienna’s one-way traffic, tempers got the better of us, but a bit later were installed in our Vienna hotel, with Eddie parked at a nearby courtyard and we were back in Vienna, ready to go sightseeing.

On our first visit, several weeks ago (but now it felt like it was just yesterday) we had already done the walking tour and “general appreciation” of the city and this time round we had decided to focus on visiting a few of the main ones of Vienna’s wide range of museums. There is just far too much to see here, rather like London. Ness had drawn up a list of places with their opening hours and location on the map, and we planned an optimal route to try and take in as many as possible, but remaining realistic about the timescales – we didn’t want to physically run through them!

First on our list was the Kunsthistorisches Museum, in the large Museumsquartier, which is focused on the Heldenplatz with its imperial splendour. The KHM was on the other side of the wide gürtel (girdle, ring-road) avenue, in one of a pair of grand imposing purpose-built buildings, which managed to make the Natural History museum in London look modest! Inside the large ornamental building were several sections and we focused on the Egyptian and Ancients on the ground floor, and the paintings on the first.

What a stunning collection of priceless antiquities was here, displayed in fantastic rooms. We wandered round independently, in a bit of a daze, with our audio guides, just gaping and marvelling at the wealth of the collection: Egyptian sarcophagi of the very highest standard, massive and colourful, with a scale model and the original of a high priest’s tomb from the plateau of Ghizeh. Statues of gods, goddesses, etc. etc. The rooms were decorated in Egyptian motifs, replicating the tomb and palace inscriptions. Then followed a series of rooms with Greek and Roman pieces, marble busts, statues, complete floor mosaics, all displayed in such a way that you could easily observe the art of the Roman sculptors, with their keen insight and realistic portrayals of human faces, and it just went on and on.

We had agreed to meet on the first floor café at some time and my phone, alarm set, had vibed to let me know. I found Ness already there. The café was on the first floor in the open rotunda area above the entrance and “arguably” the most splendid museum café we have been in. It was reminiscent of the town hall type building in Victoria, Vancouver Island, but much, much more grand (this is Vienna!)

After having given our feet a little rest we continued into the painting galleries. Our audio guides continued to provide helpful bits of commentary here and there. We each went at our own pace, lost in the rather pleasant routine of strolling through a museum. I only managed to see the Italian wing before it was time to meet up again, an hour or two later. Ness had in addition covered the Flemish wing. Both wings consisted of a large number of large high-ceilinged rooms in the traditional style of, say, a fin-de-siècle art gallery with benches for contemplation and appreciation of the many large works hung on display. These comprised a huge collection of masterpieces, from modest panels to gigantic canvases, covering religious scenes, the European renaissance, portraits, etc. Far too much to remember in individual detail but I do remember being overawed, putting it rather strongly, by the sheer size as well as the exceptional quality of the collection.

We met as agreed, at half past five in the main entrance lobby and from here we made our way gradually back to our neck of the woods. We weren’t done with museums though! Along the way, passing behind the main wing of the Hofburg, we stopped at the magnificent Palmenhaus, now a smart wine bar/café/restaurant. We caught a photographer with his model posing for some risqué shots on the ornamental stairs nearby. At the Palmenhaus we had wine and shared a platter of cheeses, rather frou-frou with frilly and fruity bits, but very chic too.

Finally we continued to the music museum, das Haus der Musik, which was the last on our list as it stayed open until ten o’clock. The HDM was another excellent museum, modern and up-to-date, very “twenty-first century”. It was housed in a tall L-shaped townhouse on four or five floors. First we watched and listened to a shortened version of the traditional Viennese New Year’s concert, as close as you could get to the real thing, with all the classic pieces and filmed with close-ups and views of the splendid hall. Superb.

Other rooms had various interactive exhibits, like the auto-waltz-composer (roll the dice to generate a section of music), and various screens and things exploring aspects of sound, with weird and wonderful effects such as the perpetual scale (four overtones) and the “brain music” room with ultra-modern quirky ways of making sound and music. There was also a series of rooms devoted to a few great composers – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert – and there was a room with “perfect surround sound”, wonderful. Our visit was only slightly marred by a group of school kids but we patiently paced our visit to avoid them. The final bit was the Virtual Conductor, a clever bit of computer technology. We were both crap at it and the orchestra rebelled in protest!

We were finally “kicked out” at ten o’clock as they were closing, feeling quite knackered and now in need of a drink and nosh! Ness remembered the Kleines Café, which had been shut last time, so we went there. It was very klein indeed, a couple of cosy little tables in a semi-cellar. After a drink or two here we headed to our hotel, aiming to pick up something quick and easy for nosh, which we found at an oriental place, a modern small eatery, and we both tucked into tasty plates of “modern Asian” cooking, reminding us again of how much we liked the Asian food and food culture. Then we finally headed for our beds and crashed out. A great day, and I just wish I could remember more of all the stunning things we saw today in the museums. Incredible to think that only this morning we were still in Hungary!

A decent night’s sleep, breakfast, and then we were off to visit more Viennese museums. First stop was the National Library, which combined several separate museums under one umbrella. We went to the Michaelerplatz, I think, to buy our tickets and then we had to find the separate building which housed both the small Esperanto museum as well as the Globenmuseum, a large collection of globes over the ages.

The small Esperanto museum, which occupied only two small rooms, held our attention for a long time. We listened to spoken Esperanto as well as various other “planned languages”, from a simplified version of Latin to Starckdeutsch, a parody language created by German poet Matthias Koeppel, and even a bit of Hamlet in Klingon! There was a version of pac-man where you got points by eating the correct ghost with the answer to the question in Esperanto.

Upstairs we visited the Globenmuseum with its exquisite collection of globes in all sizes, including some enormous and very old globes by the Venetian Corelli (?) before America had formally been invented, as well as armillary spheres, celestial globes, moon globes, and even one of the planet Venus. We took our time in the small museum before we finally managed to leave and went for a drink at a café on the Michaelerplatz, where Ness had already gone ahead to wait for me.

The next stop on our list was another part of the National Library, the grand Prunksaal, a massive baroque library with fantastic frescoes, columns and ornamental cases full of old tomes. On panels along the length of the hall there was an exhibition covering cookbooks and cooking through the ages, with beautiful old as well as more recent cookbooks. Some great quotes had been lifted from some of the old books. A medieval writer complained that there was very little in the larder that could safely be eaten as this-and-that vegetable makes you flatulent and so on, or the classical writer (Roman/Greek?) who wrote, “to stinking meat one usually adds some pepper”, and many more incisive ones. It was no surprise that here too we spent a long time and by the time we left it was already well into the afternoon, but fortunately our final museum, the Leopoldsmuseum, was open late, or so we thought.

We walked the short distance from the Hofburg area across the spaces of the Heldenplatz, back along the KHM and to the far end of the Museumsquartier (MQ). At this side it was very different from the imperial Habsburg grandeur and more “South Bank” with banners bearing the MQ logo and more young, trendy, artsy types around. The MQ complex grouped together lots of design shops and companies and galleries and other creative businesses. Inside there was a large open courtyard space with lots of young artsy folks, mostly students by the looks, who sat around on the red circular seating blocks, perfect spots for just “kicking back” for a while. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the Leopoldsmuseum was about to close in less than an hour as it was an early night on wednesday, so we joined the rest and just plonked on one of the red blocks, lay back and let our minds wander.

We had fallen into a little “void” in our intensive cultural itinerary and were not sure what to do next. Too late for most museums, or not enough time left for them, and we were happy to just unwind. We went for a glass of wine at one of the open-air bars. The crowds built up around us, with the evening theatre crowd meeting for pre-performance drinks, and then it quietened down again as they went in. Meanwhile we continued to order more wine, as we still had no idea of what else to do and we were quite glad to have a change of scenery from the more traditional Viennese cafés. Our waiter had worked in London for a while. We agreed on the gruffness of the Viennese, not rude necessarily, but just gruff, bordering on the verge of rudeness. Typical big townies, wrapped up in their own worlds and status conscious.

Five glasses of wine later we managed to leave the bar and the MQ and returned to our neck of the woods, across the space of the Heldenplatz, now with the grand buildings lit up at night. I tried to take some pictures. As it was late by now we wanted to find somewhere quick for nosh again and ended up settling on a rather crappy Italian restaurant. They cocked up the order and it was pretty naff and we left rather unsatisfied but made up for it with a very tasty ice-cream at an ice-cream-only place a few streets away, a stylish modern small ice-creamery, known to locals in the know, so to speak. We topped it off with a drink at the small convivial café/bar near our hotel and then crashed out in our beds, having had rather too much to drink, hic!

After last night’s excess we still managed to get ourselves up and out at a reasonable time, for another day of museums and galleries. We headed to the Hofburg once again, this time to visit the Schatzkammer (treasury), and the Sisi museum and state apartments. After that we would head back to the Leopoldmuseum for another attempt.

At the Hofburg we first visited the treasury with its large collection of “secular and ecclesiastical” riches. As expected, in Viennese fashion, this comprised lots and lots and the best of the best, with a stunning collection of baubles, swords, sceptres, crowns, coronation mantles, and so on. Our audio-guide was comprehensive and informative, in other words, it took us a long time to make our way round! I did find the secular side more interesting, but the ecclesiastical one still managed to wow too, with a large number of elaborate reliquaries with bits of thorns, wood (cross), bone, nails. The very catholic Habsburgs seemed to have acquired the whole lot.

We emerged from the dimly lit treasury into the bright sunshine of the day and went to the café on the Michaelerplatz. Not receiving any service, we moved on to the nearby Starbucks, as we were getting rather fed up with the Austrian gruffness and hoping for a friendly “Hi!” from the Starbucks baristas, even if it was a little rehearsed. I told Ness they were friendly because that’s what I wanted to believe, but even here they were rather gruff, except for the Asian barista who did conjure up a smile.

Then we were ready to continue our sightseeing. Now it was the Hofburg proper that we went into, with three related but distinct collections. First we toured (with audio-guide) the “silver” collection, a group of rooms with the Habsburg silver, gold and porcelain table services. All in the grandest imperial fashion of course, another jaw-dropper, with room after room with the most elaborate, the most refined, the most elegant, the most over-the-top, but somehow still “tasteful” rather than “tacky”.

My tolerance levels for baubles had soon been reached but Ness took a little longer to complete the tour. On the next floor up was a museum devoted to the life of Empress Elizabeth, aka. Sisi, a figure of tragic and romantic fantasy. A real fairy tale princess who could not, at first, fit in with courtly life and expectations, who travelled extensively to escape, and who wrote poetry with the same goal, and who was murdered by an anarchist. After her death she went on to become a figure for the films. Anyway, her reputation and story became the stuff of movies. Romy Schneider was just one of the actresses who impersonated her story. The museum and narration were well done, with a narration of her life’s story on our audio-guide as we moved through a series of rooms with panels and things from her life.

This then led us into the third part of our visit to the Hofburg: the royal state apartments. These were a series of grand rooms, including Franz Joseph II’s private apartments. Though in exceptionally grand surroundings, he seemed to prefer the simple life, insofar as that was possible in this environment, and took his role as monarch not just as a licence to live splendidly and be a patron to the arts, but more as a hard-working administrator. Further along we also visited Sisi’s apartments. Hers were separate from her husband’s, and these were far more personal, rather than “working” rooms, with her liking for flowers and obsession with maintaining her figure. She had a private “gym”, which was unheard of, and there were other novelties such as a modern bathroom. All in all, yet another superb museum (and I’m not really doing the collections any justice).

The day had moved on quite swiftly and it was already well into the afternoon again by now. Time to head back to the Leopoldsmuseum. We stopped at a café in the Volksgarten, the “English style” park in the Heldenplatz, which felt a bit like Regent’s park, semi-formally laid out. A temple in the Roman style stood in the park. We walked on to the Leopoldsmuseum, where we first fortified our inner souls with focaccia sandwiches which we ate on the square. All the red blocks were unfortunately occupied so we sat on a bench along the side, people-watching. Artsy and young people made for far more interesting observation that the usual tourists, the latter all with their equipment, the camera “pose” adopted with hands held aloft with a little silver box, whereas the young Viennese seemed to be far more “insecure” (?) They were still trying to find a pose, still a little “undefined” and were trying to figure out what they were all about. Not exactly deep philosophical stuff, but it made for far more amusing viewing at any rate, as well as more aesthetic. Not necessarily beautiful or sexy, although there were many beautiful young women too, but simply less “uniform” compared to the groomed and well-dressed middle-aged and well-heeled gruff Austrians.

We headed into “the Leopold”, a very modern, bright, square open space, with square, cream-coloured large rooms, some normal size, others huge, like the atrium-sized room on the lower ground. The works of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt featured most prominently with two permanent exhibitions, and a variety of other artists made up the rest, such as Moser (?) After all the Viennese grandeur it was refreshing to have open space with little to entertain the eye, but even so we did come away thinking not very much of the collections. Schiele’s and Klimt’s art was certainly very interesting but the Leopold’s collections just seemed to scratch the surface and I suspect there are better collections elsewhere. On the lower ground was an exhibition on the female figure, covering the depiction of women in a wide variety of styles and themes.

After the art we went back to the same open-air wine bar on the square but limited our consumption to a glass (or two?) before heading to the Naschmarkt for dinner. We had gone here on our first visit to Vienna and this is, “arguably”, the best venue for good nosh in informal surroundings. The smell of fried fish prompted us to book a table for 15 minutes ahead at a popular place, and we head a drink at a different one while waiting, and then had our fish dinner. This didn’t live up to expectations but the surroundings were convivial and pleasant and the mood was just right. On the way back we had an ice cream and a disgusting Amaretto coffee for me, at Zanoni & Zanoni, and then a final quick drink at the cosy little bar, and then headed for bed, pooped. We still got the feeling there is so much more to see and do in Vienna (e.g. Schönbrunn, the parks, the Danube, etc.) but we already have a “proper” city break in mind, with a visit to a “proper” concert or opera, for a later date. Now it was time to move on to our final world trip country, back to “the east”, to “Czechia”, aka. “29”!

After a slow start we left Vienna around noon. Eddie had been parked in the Heiligenkreuzerhof next door and was loaded up. We managed our way through Vienna’s streets, across the side arm of the Danube, turning left and along the north side of the Donaukanal, passing through some smart areas away from the immediate centre, with examples of more modern urban architecture and offices, and then out into the Austrian countryside.

The land was agricultural, green and pleasant, rather flat but with undulating hills further off. This area is the weinviertel, the “wine farthing”. As we headed north we climbed onto a region of higher land, commanding good views back towards the south over the open land. We stopped for a break and lunch at a gasthof, a large tidy quiet place with a panoramic terrace at the back, but we concurred with the waitress that it was too windy out there. It felt as is the winds blew across the plain and then buffeted into the hills as they rise up them, or that’s what we figured. We had a very tasty small dish of goulasch. An elderly couple sat at the table next to us and wordlessly ate their soup and read the paper.

This was the other side of Austria, far removed from the Viennese cafés and smart suits. Still smart and well to-do but in a quiet country fashion. We passed through some tiny villages with signs here and there for heurigen, the typical Austrian wine bars, usually basic family-run affairs. Across the border and into Czechia.

What a contrast. Due to a bit of misnavigation on my part, we ended up on a tiny little road through Czech border villages and countryside. At the time we were certain that this was the major road and we found it stunning how in the distance of a couple of kilometres we had moved from the fast west to the undeveloped east. We crawled along the little road which took us off the beaten track into the relatively forgotten world of tractors, ramshackle farm buildings, sleeping dogs, fields. Big oak trees lined the curving road, and we also passed through extensive forests, lovely peaceful scenery, as well as lumber villages with knackered Soviet-era lumber stations and paper mills.

Eventually we rejoined a main road, having done a detour along these little roads, and were on the right way to Český Krumlov, our first destination in Czechia. We entered tiny Český Krumlov and it was soon clear what a “chocolate box” picturesque, as well as intensely touristic, place this was. We had called ahead to book a hotel and made our way across a narrow stone bridge into the staré město, the old town centre, to the Náměsti Svornosti, the main square where our hotel was, the wonderfully named Zlatý Anděl (“Golden Angel”). We could not have picked a better spot, right on the main square. We checked in and Eddie was parked at a garage a short distance away. Český Krumlov is a tiny town, with the main part of town on the lower part around which the river snakes, and with the ornate palace stretched across the high rocks on the opposite side of the river.

Rough Guide describes it better: “Rose-brown houses tumble down steep slopes to the blue-green river below, creating a magical effect whose beauty has barely changed in the last three hundred years … The old town is divided into two separate quarters by the twisting snake of the river Vltava: the circular staré město on the right bank and the Latrán quarter on the hillier left bank.” Anyway, from our room we had a superb view over the square, the town centre and the elaborate sgraffito’d castle tower.

We headed over to tourist information on the main square and then, as it was by now late afternoon/early evening, went to a café on a street just off the main square, at our hotel’s corner. The streets meandered around, narrow little cobbled streets in a layout governed by the river and the small amount of land available. Many tourists. In fact, apart from the owners of the many shops geared towards tourists, the population seemed to consist exclusively of tourists, from groups of Germans, Americans and Japanese to younger backpackers. We found a convivial little café/bar, sat on the terrace in front of the highly decorated house, with red flowers, sgraffito or some other decoration. Český Krumlov’s houses, from the small modest ones to the grand merchant houses, are highly decorated in various sgraffito styles, frescoes and all sorts of other renaissance styles and flourishes. This was a result of the patronage of the ruling Rožmberk (“Rozenberg”) family, whose offspring brought Italian craftsmen and architects with them.

For now we were happy to just enjoy the view from where we sat, had a beer or two, and played a game of cards. Across the road was a welcoming and very traditional looking Czech eatery with the main room a wood-panelled bar, and we were lucky to get a table. It was full of wood, wooden wall panels, old plaques and adverts spread across the walls and, apart from some genuine Czech customers, felt like a convivial traditional “noshery.” All that was missing was some decent foul weather outside to make it complete. We had a halting conversation with a foursome of older Aussies at the table next to us, and tucked into our Bohemian food.

After the meal we strolled around some of Český Krumlov’s streets, down towards one of the bridges across the Vltava, where we saw the Aussies again – they were trying to find a place with gypsy music. We stood on the bridge for a few minutes, with the fast-flowing river below us. We saw some late night kayakers and rafters – it looked like fun – as they navigated in the dark, and over one of the weirs in the river. Then we continued back into the streets around the main square and we stopped at another café, with a tiny wooden decking “terrace”, just big enough for a little table for two, where we had a coffee and schnapps (slivovice? becherovka?) and another game of cards. By now the streets were pretty quiet, just the occasional tourist or backpacker. Back to our hotel, we climbed the steep flights of stairs and headed for bed!

There had been noise late last night and early into the morning, and then again from very early this morning. Somehow the sounds from the square just carried into our room, bounced around by the stone buildings. Last night it was the sound of “revellers”, some very drunk, others just in high spirits, and the sounds of glass breaking or falling. This morning, early, before any cars, it was a Chinese or Japanese tour group, yabbering away. At breakfast there were lots of retired Americans.

We crossed Náměsti Svornosti, the main square, with its ornate plague column and a little fountain or drinking well, and went into tourist information. Very helpful and totally geared up for visitors. They even had audio-guides for a self-guided walking tour of the town, so we opted for two of these and spent most of the day strolling around with these, listening to the commentary at each stop – and there were many, forty or fifty! We started at the Náměsti Svornosti and plonked on a bench in the square as we listened to the history of the town, descriptions of the various buildings and some features. Many commentaries were interspersed with little anecdotes, local folklore, ghost stories and “urban myths” which lifted the narrative off the page, even if the narrator was a little dull-monotoned.

Before we left the main square we stopped to watch several weddings in progress. Couples and their entourage came to the town hall, some keeping it simple, others going for more elaborate proceedings with musicians and film crew. The Japanese couldn’t resist this and tried to get pictures of themselves with the bride and groom, and the effect was very comical. From here the tour took us up and down Horní, the narrow cobbled main street along the centre of the “neck” (best refer to a town centre map!), with some beautiful sgraffitoed buildings, such as the former sixteenth century Jesuit college, now a luxury hotel, and others. There was a perfect viewing platform over the river and towards the castle. This was where the wedding parties caught up with us for their perfect pictures of their perfect day.

The route then took us back down and into the church of sv Vít, which rose vertically above the ramshackle rooftops, with more stones and histories of the Rožmberks, among them Vílem of Rožmberk the most illustrious one. “Gabriel de Blonde” was another name that kept coming up. He was a Dutch/Flemish artist who had carried out many of the building decorations. Anyway, we pleasantly carried on following the route between the narrow and picturesque streets, following the curving wide cobbled street which led round towards a wooden bridge at the northern end of the staré město. Here we made a stop for a coffee and I had a disappointing “sausage salad”, and then we crossed the bridge, with kayakers going along the fast-flowing Vltava, and into the other part of town, Latrán, the bit with the castle on the rocks higher up.

Along the way we had a few more audio-guide stories and commentaries on the decorative houses, besides the ubiquitous tourist-tat shops. The castle took us a bit by surprise as we had only paid attention to the tower so far and I had assumed that the town houses continued along the ridge of the rocky hill, but in fact the whole thing was part of the castle, an elongated affair that stretched all the way up the rocky ridge and culminated in formal castle gardens with theatre at the very top.

In between, the castle consisted of five separate courtyards in different styles and sizes. At the first one there was a “moat” around the next part of the castle, with two big brown bears. At the next courtyard we could go up the ornate castle tower. It was crowded at the top and I made my excuses and disappeared back down, not feeling very comfortable at the top. We continued through the next two courtyards, which were much smaller and inside the castle proper, but we didn’t go into the castle itself and preferred to just walk through to the other side where we stood on the arched bridge. This was another spectacular spot, a three-storey high narrow cobbled bridge, with the enclosed top storey, above us, which enabled castle guests to proceed in privacy and comfort to the theatre which lay at the other end.

This brought us to the fifth and final courtyard from where we walked on towards the castle gardens and the Zámecké divadlo, the Rococo theatre, which lay a little higher still. At various points we had splendid views looking over the picturesque town centre. We made our way back and first dropped off our audio-guides at tourist information, not getting charged for the extra time over the limit of three hours, and bought some Czech music CD’s, to add to the folkloristic music collection! By the river, by the wooden bridge from last night, we now went for a beer and some cheese at a café by a watermill channel, another picturesque spot, with the steep rocks topped by the castle opposite us. We returned to the hotel.

In the evening we had quite a full-on night out. Most of the time it’s just been a quiet meal and then back, but tonight we ended up staying out quite late, until 2am! Not planned, we were just in the mood. We started with dinner at a small restaurant with a convivial mood, young backpacker-types as well as “normal” tourists, and tasty Czech Bohemian fare. Our Aussie friends strolled by and one poked his head in to enquire whether there would be gypsy music here later on.

Following dinner we strolled around the little streets. Because of the layout you never strayed far from the main square, and we found another cosy bar with a cellar-like curved ceiling and a Uruguayan-style fire/barbecue on the go. It was already late by now but after a couple of coffees and slivovices/becherovkas we were still in the mood, and also somewhat intrigued to try a bit of the local loopy juice, absinth, which I had always thought was a French drink but which is in fact Czech.

Anyhow, rather than head for our hotel we couldn’t resist a quick visit to swanky(ish) cocktail bar La Bohème. I had an excellent absinth mojito, Ness had a less impressive strawberry thing. And finally we tried out the Travellers Hostel, passing the lively studenty bar from which music and revelry emanated. By far the most lively place and a big contrast to all the tourist places. We somehow felt “entitled” to be here – after all, we’re travellers now, real ones and no longer “green”, and it was also a reminder of the Asian and South American backpackers scene. We plonked at one of the tables, the music was lively and people were dancing. We both felt at ease and in a familiar environment, whilst at the same time aware that this was basically a student/gap-year scene, which we have left behind (many) years ago. Still, we had several beers, and played cards. It was just like being in a student bar from that point of view. Then we finally toddled back and crashed out.

Not surprisingly, we woke up feeling rather worse for wear this morning. I think I was still feeling the effects of the alcohol. Ness fared rather better and was just worried about me looking so green and making noises that she thought I might be sick at the breakfast table! We showered, dressed, packed and checked out. The hotel van brought us to the garage where Eddie had been parked.

Ness drove while I just suffered my hangover as it got worse and simply let the countryside pass me by. Now and then I blinked open one eye and peeked out but mostly I slept as we headed for Prague. Ness told me there was nothing noteworthy or especially scenic along the way. We had not really planned on revisiting Prague but it became a late addition to our itinerary, which has always been pretty flexible to say the least! But now we were quite excited about revisiting the city where we had celebrated our first wedding anniversary, and which we still remember so fondly, even more so than other city breaks I think.

But our first priority was to find a hotel, and for me to recover fully, before heading off to go sightseeing. We managed to navigate the pretty full-on traffic, coming in from the south and heading in the right direction for our Best Western (we had gone for convenience), or more correctly, the “Hotel Best Western Meteor Plaza”. The hotel was centrally located near the Prašná Brána, the 65m-tall Powder Tower, one of eight medieval gate-towers that once guarded the Staré Město. We parked Eddie, checked in and settled in our comfortable and characterful hotel room – of the reliable BW 4* standard.

First things first, something to eat – we walked out and found … McDonald’s, and had some burgers, despite attempts to find something more Czech but not a full sit-down meal (we failed). I went to sleep and snoozed in our room for a while to sleep off the remains of my hangover, Ness read or played solitaire on the laptop, and we relaxed. A couple of hours later I was finally ready to rejoin the land of the living, and we went out in search of a pizza, preferably to take back to our room and with TV with/by. By now I was feeling fully recovered… Anyway, we just ended up going for a quick meal at a nice restaurant across the road, a little more informal than the very smart, and atmospheric, restaurant in the medieval cellar of the hotel.

That was about it for today really. We were happy to wait with the sightseeing until tomorrow. At many places, “tabaks” and similar outlets, we kept seeing a display with a number in red, but had no idea what it meant. We presumed some kind of lottery, but never did get round to asking and finding out. Back at the hotel we nodded off. Ness was beginning to get a fluffy nose and generally feeling coldy.

Well, I felt completely recovered this morning, but Ness had now caught a cold and was feeling pretty ropey, and despite trying to convince herself otherwise, she was not really up to sightseeing today. We had some breakfast and went out to find a pharmacy for some cold cure, and a bank to get some cash. Then we split up and Ness headed back to the hotel while I went off to spend the day mooching around.

Without Ness it felt a little pointless and I felt at a loose end, and just wandered around rather aimlessly, not too bothered about specific sightseeing. I took pictures here and there, and generally made my way towards the main old town square, Staroměstské náměstí. Before I got there I turned into one of the many smaller side streets and found a secluded little courtyard along a street, with a terrace café where I settled down for a spot of diary writing (I’m several days behind again, though not so bad as I am at this moment, sat on the ferry out of Zeebrugge with nine days to catch up!) There was a small outlet that was renting out …erm… “those things you stand on, with two wheels and a stick and they go” (Segway?) I thought about it but decided to stick to the coffees and diary writing.

After having caught up a couple of days, over three or four coffees, I continued to stroll around Prague. First I took a look round Staroměstské náměstí, thick with tourists, and stalls and cafés catering to them. It had definitely become much more touristic since our previous visit in 1999, and it was already very tourist back then. (Apart from Buenos Aires) It was the only place on our travels for which we had a past reference to compare with, and it was actually not very pleasant. Prague itself was still picturesque, full of beautiful and characterful architecture, but the overwhelming touristic presence was all the more noticeable now. Anyway, Staroměstské náměstí was stunning, with the large monument to Jan Hus in one quarter, with ornate buildings around the sides, towers, churches, etc. The little streets all around the square led off in various directions. I tried to imagine how they would look on a bitter winter’s day, or late a night.

I arrived at the Karlův most, the famous Charles Bridge, an old stone bridge which spans the wide river Vltava, and which is full of religious statues, as well as tourists, craft vendors and musicians. I slowly made my way across, stopping to listen to a band and just “people watch”. At the other end of the bridge was the Malá Strana (“Lesser Quarter”) part of town and, just before the blackened stone bridge tower, the hotel we had stayed at before, U Tří Pštrosů (“At the Sign of the Three Ostriches”). It was still very much in business but there was now a new terrace on some decking and it seemed a café first and a hotel only secondarily. Still, it was a pleasant spot to stop for another drink and another bit of diary writing and people-watching. I could hear lots of American English being spoken around me.

I continued to meander around this general area for a while, looking at the amazing photographs in an open-air exhibition by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, with views of the earth seen from the air. I just strolled in and out and around the little streets and tried to get some good shots. I stopped to ask a photography question from a Chinese guy at a shop. I saw him with all the equipment and laboriously taking a close-up of an enamel cup and saucer so figured he knew about photography. I spotted a restaurant at a square where we had had a meal on our first visit, and which I had imagined/remembered as being in Seville or Barcelona or something (just goes to show why keeping a diary is useful). By now it was mid- to late-afternoon and I slowly made my way back across the bridge and then followed a slightly different route back towards the wide shopping street/square.

We had texted each other a couple of times already by now. Mama called me, just as I was getting close to the hotel, about our visit to Brussels and whether we would be stopping off on our way back to the UK, etc. Then I headed to the room and found Ness still feeling yuck, and we stayed in that night, neither of us in the mood or bothered about going out for something – there would be another day tomorrow.

A better day today (though yesterday was still enjoyable in its own way). Ness was feeling better, not 100% but fed up with staying in and determined to go out and see Prague again. We made a slow start, a leisurely breakfast and then started strolling into town, me taking pictures as we went along and on Staroměstské náměstí.

We followed more or less the same route as I had walked yesterday, and on one of the small streets we saw cute Škoda “roadsters”, with sightseeing tours of the town on offer. I had seen several of these yesterday, from these cool little 1960’s cars, one in bright red, the other in a bright yellowy-green, to more stately cars, bright red and chrome old classic cars and a shiny black Tatra, a former apparatchik’s luxury limo. We had planned to continue walking but changed our mind after speaking with Johan, the friendly but car-nerdy young driver, and instead we went for a city tour with him, to end up at the Malá Strana side.

I vaguely recall that it was a rather grey day, but still pleasant enough to drive round with the roof down, although I did get cold in my thing short-sleeved shirt. Anyway, it was also a cool version of the ubiquitous horse and carriage rides (here too). Johan’s Škoda was definitely his pride and joy, and the guiding was just a good excuse for him and his brother to drive round in these quirky cars. They looked cute, but for the rest they were very basic and clearly not made for performance, even less so now, forty years on! We toured around the streets of the stare město with commentary from Johan, this building, that building, interspersed with more general chat, and into the Josefov area, just to the north of the stare město area, the former Jewish district with old synagogues and lots of tourists. I remembered these streets from our visit in 1999.

Next we crossed over the Vltava, by the huge metronome monument, which replaces a huge statue of Stalin (which had been the biggest statue of him anywhere, I think), and then winding up the hilly green side to end up by the enormous but crumbling concrete sports stadium. Only a small part of it is still in use now, as a training ground for the Prague footie team, but it didn’t take much to imagine it as a Soviet-era athletics stadium, which is what it was originally. Unfortunately the weather was pretty grey and rather hazy. Otherwise we would have had stunning views looking across Prague, which was the reason Johan had brought us to this spot – he had taken a different route from his usual touristic routine as he had taken a liking to us and we were getting special treatment.

We drove down to Hradčanské náměstí (“Hradcany Square”), the large square in front of Prague castle, where Johan posed his car in front of the castle and took pictures with us in it. We subsequently saw other cars doing the same and this was clearly part of “the route” again. Our cool little Škoda attracted lots of attention from others, some girls draping themselves over the bonnet to have their picture taken, but somehow I suspected that for Johan his car was his first love.

After this he dropped us by the Kafka Museum, a bit lower down the hill, close to the river. We went for a drink and a bite (goulash soup and a beer) at a café he had recommended. To play along, we went for it, and it wasn’t bad at all. Across the narrow cobbled street was the Kafka Museum, across a courtyard, with a curious statue of two stylised bronze figures holding their penises and peeing water from their swivelling hips into a small pond which represented an outline of the Czech Republic. The meaning was lost on us.

We visited the Kafka museum and spent a good deal of time being guided through the two floors with dark rooms and curious exhibits which accompanied the descriptions. First there was a lifeline of Franz Kafka, his background, his angsts, his personality and how it was formed and developed, and on the lower floor it took us through his works, in suitably atmospheric rooms, like the corridors of filing cabinets for The Castle, and a more disturbing one on another work, with references to torture, and others – I forget now… ah, yes, The Trial, and so on. A fascinating museum and definitely worth a visit.

From the Kafka museum we walked gradually towards the Karlův most and down the stairs on the side to take a look at the Yann Arthus Bertrand photograph exhibition. We slowly went from one amazing picture to the next. It was definitely a case of seeing the world through different eyes, with some fantastic shots. At the end of the square there were some embassies – it’s that sort of area, with the Estonian one on one side, and in a rather grander building, the Cambodian one. The flag was flying and the Cambodian king was just leaving, getting into his limo and his cortege drove off. A Cambodian-American tourist couldn’t believe her luck as she was allowed to greet the king in person and was still over the moon. We strolled back around and stopped for a drink and a game of cards at a café/terrace on a quiet square by a watermill (the old wheel was still running, but the building was deserted).

In our summery clothes we were beginning to feel a bit chilly by now so from Malá Strana we headed back to the hotel, walking across Karlův most and through the little streets of the Staré Město, still in sightseeing mode and trying to recollect and compare to how we remembered Prague from our first visit. It was definitely a lot busier now! A great day of just mooching about a bit so far. At the hotel we put warmer layers on, and then went out for the evening. What we felt most in the mood for was just some easy nosh, not a touristic café, and maybe the cinema.

We had a drink at a rather English pub, but with a Prague locals atmosphere, as if we were living here and were just out for a drink after work. Excellent Czech dark lager! Then we went for a meal at the nearby Brazilian restaurant, the Ambiente Restaurante Brasileiro, located below street level, and we got lucky with a table without reservation. It clearly was very popular and understandably so – there was a superb buffet with all sorts of stuff, and then you just eat as much meat as you wanted, provided by the waiters doing the rounds with various dishes and skewers they carved from, everything from beef, to chicken, pork, chicken hearts, fish, etc. All very tasty. There were oysters on the buffet too. It reminded us of Rodizio’s in Asunción, the other place where we had Brazilian churrasco. We hurried a little and managed to make it on time for the film, Miami Vice, at the cinema next door (we had already bought our tickets). The film was so-so, but it had been a great evening out, exactly what we were after, and after a lovely day of sightseeing. “B, B & B!”

The other day, when I was wandering round on my own, Ness had called a local Volkswagen garage to make an appointment to have Eddie serviced today. For a while now we have had reminders from Eddie whenever we switched on the ignition, from “service in 600 miles” to “service now!” more recently. We checked out of the very good Best Western and drove to the garage, across the river, a bit to the south of the Malá Strana area, in a rather grey area. I compared it to the area around the Leuvensesteenweg in Brussels as a mental comparison.

It was frustrating driving in the one-way system but we managed to find the garage. A standard tidy Volkswagen garage and a very courteous service engineer. We could come back at 3pm, which was excellent as it gave us enough time for some more sightseeing in Prague as well as leaving enough time to drive on to our next destination, Plzeň, aka “Pilsen”, of beer fame. We caught the tram into the Malá Strana, feeling a bit like locals. We bought our travel tickets from the neighbourhood tabak and then trundled along the tracks into the busier and more touristic parts of town.

We got off the tram and bought some pastries and a coffee to go and then walked to the funicular station, and rode to the top of the green Petřín hill. This was another repeat of our previous visit when we did the same, going for the peace and quiet of this green side of Prague. At the top we sat on a bench in the rose garden and munched our pastries, including kolače, the typical Prague/Czech ones filled with a poppy-seed concoction – very tasty! Today, by now, it was sunny and a clear blue sky, perfect weather for strolling.

First we climbed to the top of the 60m high metal viewing tower, Petřínská rozhledna, with superb views. Back down and then we walked through the park/forest along the paths. At the top there was a calvary, a route of the stations of the cross. We strolled down along the quiet paths, empty except for one or two locals walking dogs, and ended at the Palace gardens, a green and seemingly untended area just behind the German embassy, and from here came to the cobbled lanes of the Malá Strana.

From here we had to climb uphill again towards the castle square. It all still looked familiar, tucked away somewhere in our memories. At the top, on the high part just below the castle square, we stopped for a drink at a little terrace café along the walls, and then walked across to the castle main entrance and took up position to watch the noon changing of the guard. The tin soldiers marched along and performed the change ceremony, with dozens of tourists all trying to get a good peek. Fortunately we had a good spot stood on a low wall.

We still had plenty of time and so visited the castle. First we crossed the main courtyard and then went through a wing into the even larger second courtyard, with the large chram Sv. Víta, St. Vitus Cathedral, which stood in one corner. We visited the cathedral and afterwards the old palace, which had a large hall with a wooden floor and some outside terraces with viewpoints. I can’t recall much of the specifics, but it was a very worthwhile visit. We stopped to wait for the next film show, a slideshow about the history of the castle, but it was the Czech version. Ness stayed to watch it (I thought) while I carried on. I came out in the courtyard behind the cathedral and plonked at the café in the corner and had a coffee while waiting for Ness, who came out much later. Apparently I had missed a whole wing, which Ness had visited (and not watching the Czech film as I had assumed).

Next we visited the very old (10C? 12C?) Romanesque Basilica of Sv. Jiří (St. George). Inside it was light and somehow, despite it’s great age, modern-looking. We still remembered all this from our previous visit too. Behind the basilica lay another part of the castle, with a tiny mini village, with its Zlatá ulička, “Golden Lane”, with a row of little houses built into the walls, once serving to house high-ish ranking court staff, but now a wall-to-wall of touristic shops (the communists had already made this change, many years earlier, and this was not a recent development). We left the castle and crossed the cobbled lane into a smart café and had a coffee and ice cream at the panoramic terrace, a spot which was still high up and looked across the Vltava and the city.

A long series of steps, with vendors of paintings and views, led down to the river level, to the main street, where we caught a tram, changing trams, to head back to the Volkswagen garage. Eddie was ready. It was still a stiff bill, just for an oil change. We drove north-west, already on the right side of town to get to the main road to Plzeň. It was only a shortish drive, southwest, and we reached Plzeň around five o’clock. I can’t recall much of the drive, just an ordinary Czech A road?

Plzeň, at first sight, looked grubby and industrial, not helped by the weather which had now turned grey, and the light was also fading a bit, and the net effect was a rather dreary looking town. Rough Guide did say that it was an industrial town. We had booked ahead for a hotel – not our first or second choice, but a hotel a bit away from the immediate centre. We asked at tourist info for directions and quickly found the hotel, near the railway line (with a quaint station building). It might lack the smart touches of a Best Western, but it was a pretty decent old hotel and a friendly welcome helped. We checked in and chilled for a little while. Our first reaction was that maybe we ought to just make this a one-night stop and, after a brief visit to the brewery tomorrow, carry on, but sensibly we didn’t make any snap decisions.

We headed into town, taking the number 4 tram. There were lots of students around. Plzeň was a university town, though rather in the fashion of the VUB in Brussels. That’s not to say there weren’t any beautiful buildings though. There were plenty of these as our tram trundled the few stops up. The grand Velká synagóga, Great Synagogue, was the most spectacular one. Apparently the second-largest one in Europe. The streets were quiet and empty, just a few pedestrians and a few people in Plzeň’s convivial-looking cafés. It reminded me of provincial Belgian market towns (Strombeek-Bever came to mind), with its church plonked in the square. Náměstí Republiky was a large square(-shaped) square, with a tall church plonked right in the middle, and it looked as if it was used mainly for markets, not for tourists and horse-cart rides, i.e. this was still a “working” square. The hotel we had first tried was right on the square.

On a street off the square, across the other side, we found the wood-panelled café recommended by our Rough Guide. It looked like a no-nonsense establishment, with high ceilings, open and bright, and large wooden tables. A small clientele of some locals, the after-work drink (and smoke), and a few similar couples like us. Later it got busier with more people, still a mix of locals as well as some tourists. We had big plates of hearty Czech nosh: pork, cabbage, dumplings, and a couple of very tasty beers. I especially like the dark lager, pivo černé, they do in Czechia. Outside it was now darker, which made it cosier inside. Afterwards we had another drink at a more “themed” café, U Švejk, with the waiter dressed up as Švejk, though lacking his rotund figure and piggy eyes. We had coffee, slivovice and pancakes and then toddled back to our hotel. By now Plzeň had grown on us a bit and we were back to plan A, to stay here for two nights. The late-night trains didn’t really bother us and we slept well in the very comfortable bed.

We had breakfast in the cosy room on the lower ground level and then headed into Plzeň on the tram. We passed the grand synagogue which looked bright and shiny against the clear blue sky, but our focus today was on Plzeň’s prime attraction – beer! – and we omitted sightseeing of the more general kind, except for some pictures of the main square before we continued to the brewery museum, on a side street off the main square.

The Pivovarské Muzeum (www.beers.cz/muzeum) was housed in a building that originally served as a Gothic malthouse, and later as a pub. It featured several rooms and cellars with old brewing exhibits, from maltshovels and the like to a little gem of a curiosity, a fully featured miniature brewery capable of turning out a couple of litres of beer. We toured the pleasant museum and then walked over to the much larger main brewery, the Pilnser Urquell brewery, which was a bit away from the immediate centre, across the river Radbuza. I tried to get a good shot of the monumental ornate arched gate. Inside there was an open square with various brewery buildings, an open-air terrace, a visitors centre and, on the right, the entrance to the very large Na Spilce pub, Czechia’s largest pub.

We had timed it well to be here in time for the two o’clock tour, bought our tickets and had a beer on the terrace while waiting. Then we went inside to join the start of our tour, along with another twenty people. The tour started with a great video, described quite accurately in our Rough Guide as “gloriously tacky”, with soft-focus shots of people glowing as they looked approvingly at a poured pint of beer. Then followed the rest of the tour, which took in a model cooper’s workshop, a viewing gallery by the gleaming copper mash tuns, and a visit to the extensive cold and damp system of underground cellars which extended over many kilometres, but of which now only a small section was still used, mainly just to store the beer brewed “in the old fashion” for the tourists who visit the brewery.

At the end of our tour we were offered a glass of this brew. It tasted exactly like the normal stuff as far as I could tell (maybe enhanced by the big drop of water that plopped into my glass from the ceiling?) We sort of got talking with two young travellers, Brendan, a Kiwi, and Logan, an Aussie. Logan was still recovering from previous days (or weeks?) of drinking and was now trying to detox. After the end of the tour we had our drinks at the open air bar and continued to chat with Brendan and Logan. Both were typical down-under backpackers, here mainly for the beer. Brendan did seem interested in travel and culture, but Logan seemed mostly concerned with drinking. They had just spent several days at the Munich Oktoberfest and, having had their fill, had on a whim headed to Plzeň in an effort to get away from beer and drinking, which I found fantastically amusing that of all the places they could have picked they had come here, more or less the home of beer!

After a couple of dinks, we (the four of us) headed over to the nearby Tesco. By now we had established that we probably wanted to go separate ways and we left them to go ahead on the excuse of me doing more pictures. In Tesco we bumped into the briefly while shopping for some bits and bobs, including a replacement razor – I had left mine behind in Prague – and some snacks, Czech pastries, which we munched as we walked back across the canal and then through the gardens with colourful flowerbeds full of brightly coloured flowers.

It seemed like a busier area than the rather empty main square, as this was where the main focus of town life was, with smarter grand buildings. We stopped at a very grand café, a mix of a Viennese grand café setting with the atmosphere of a local bar, and it felt homey and relaxing. In a room behind us games of chess and billiards were being played. We had coffee and eggs and played cards and then returned to our hotel, where we ended up staying in for the rest of the night, me nodding off pretty quickly but Ness not until much later. We woke up later and were quite happy to just stay in bed, which we did. An excellent day of beer-sightseeing!