Hapsburg Empire – part 2

We departed Prague in the morning on December 18, bound for the ancient town of Český Krumlov.

I was very much looking forward to Český Krumlov, as countless travelogues had described it as a quiet medieval town filled with architecture in Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles. You know how much I hate being in the big cities, so Český Krumlov sounded like the perfect place for me to be.

ImageČeský Krumlov is tiny – only 22.16 square kilometres. The photograph below captures its town square.

ImageDespite its size, I think Český Krumlov is big on charm and oh so fun to explore. Cobblestone walkways run through the city like veins, bringing visitors to doorsteps of quaint hotels, cosy cafes, quiet local restaurants and curious little shops selling unique handicraft and touristy souvenirs.

ImageThe city is renowned for its castle – the Český Krumlov Castle – which is home to a large rococo garden with a fountain and a baroque-style theatre, among other things. There are tours of its interior at specific times each day, but they were not included in my tour. Shucks. So we merely marveled at the architecture from the foot of the rock on which it was built.

ImageThen we went on to explore more of the city. We eventually settled down for lunch and beers at a little restaurant tucked inside a pretty building.

ImageWe ordered a grilled trout, which was served in its entirety. Hmm, aren’t Europeans squeamish about having their meat whole and looking like an animal, with bones and heads intact? Or maybe it was the Americans.

Anyway, the husband is clueless about eating fish this way (that pampered child!), which is perfect because I love sucking on bones! :)

And oh boy, it was delicious! The crunchy grilled veg were a delightful contrast to the tender white meat.

ImageOne must have the local staple at least once, so I ordered a beef goulash which came with heavy bread dumplings. It was no nonsense, comfort food. I could live here!

ImageWith our tummies satiated, we checked in with the rest of the tour mates, and continued our road trip to Wien, Republik Österreich!

It was a lovely ride to the Austrian border, through winding roads and wide-open fields. But I couldn’t help but feel a tad frustrated when we passed lands covered in a dreamy carpet of snow. Why wouldn’t the sky just snow on us? I wanna see fresh falling snow on my hair and shoulders! :(

Anyway.

The sun had set by the time we arrived at Hilton Vienna, and we have just enough time for dinner in the hotel before leaving for a concert at the Kursalon Wien.

Yup. You don’t visit the city of music without getting a taste of its musical legacy. So we allowed ourselves to be serenaded by Strauss and Mozart, with a spot of ballet to perk up the classical event.

ImageThe small orchestra, if I may call it that, played some really lively pieces from the two musical geniuses, such as Strauss’ Champagne Galop and Voices of Spring and Mozart’s Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro. It got the husband and me tapping our thighs and grinning away. Strangely, several tour mates dozed off. Wow. They must be pretty wealthy to be spending 49 euros (S$79) per person to sleep in a concert.

There was this funny chap who would doze off the second the music started, but would be the first to leap from his seat and clap most heartily when the piece ended, as if he was the number one fan. :)

After the two-hour concert, the husband and I knocked back some beers in the lobby lounge before calling it a night.

Our introduction to Vienna’s history started early the next morning. First stop, Schönbrunn Palace, a 1,441-room massive structure that was once the imperial summer palace of the Hapsburgs. A few of the rooms are open to the public, so are the gardens.

ImagePhotography is prohibited inside the palace (I was most offended by the guards inside who kept barking at us – hello, we can read English!), so I have only shots of the sprawling garden, which was quite bare in winter. Never mind. It was still lovely to walk through.

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It was 0°C that morning – too cold for a tropical person like me! Strangely though, the cold made the vision above even more enthralling.

After touring the imperial summer palace, we swung over to the imperial winter palace, the Hofburg Palace. Prince Eugene of Savoy stands guard in front.

ImageToday, the Hofburg Palace is home to an exhibition of the imperial treasures.

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Magnificent! Just like those illustrations in my favourite fairy tales. But I cannot imagine how heavy these things must be!

After seeing how the Hapsburgs lived, we proceeded to see how they are faring in death.

The Kaisergruft, also known as the Imperial Crypt and the Kapuzinergruft, is where the bodies of the Hapsburg royalties lie.

The crypt is small and packed with elaborately made coffins, and lighting is a tad low. But it is in no way frightful. I find it hard to imagine that bodies lie within such beautiful albeit morbid caskets.

ImageThis massive coffin (below) houses both Empress Maria Theresa and her husband, Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. It is the only double coffin in the Kaisergruft. The cover alone weighs 1,700kg.

ImageOur local guide explained that the empress was very much in love with her husband, and so they were the only ones interred together. Back home, I consulted online sources. Wiki said that her love for the emperor was “strong and possessive”, while most other sources said she was very fond of him and was very affectionate. Alas, it seems that he didn’t care as much for her and had maintained a mistress till he took his last breath.

Kaisergruft was our final stop in the day tour, and we had the rest of the day to ourselves. It was past 1pm by then, and our cold tummies were rumbling. Within sight was a sausage stand, and there we each enjoyed a schlong of a wurst and a cup of melange. :)

Brushing off the last crumbs from our faces and clothes, we ambled off in search of more to see. Soon, we spotted the lovely green dome of St. Peter’s Church in the distance, a stark contrast to the maze of malls and shops around it. Ignoring all the glittery window displays, we made a beeline for the historical house of worship.

ImageThe interior of St. Peter’s Church took our breath away. I could post a thousand photos here, but they will never be enough to convey the wonders within.

ImageImageIt was our immense luck that a choir was practicing when we stepped in. Their voices were so heavenly, and we sat in the church entranced for a long time.

Later in the night, we went in search of Hotel Sacher which won fame the world over for its Sacher-torte chocolate cake. It wasn’t the rich, creamy sort of chocolate cake, but I like it this way and thought it was orgasmic, especially when eaten with loads of fresh cream. *bliss*

ImageSacher Cafe also boasts a beautiful interior, complete with red fabric chairs and booth seats, elegant chandeliers and gilded wall panels.

So do I like Vienna? The city is lovely, and the many historical architecture are breath-taking. But after a day of walking around, every grand building looks almost the same, and the magic is gone too soon, with the exception of St. Peter’s Church of course.

In general, Vienna is busy like any other modern, commercial cities in the world, and the people walk with as much as haste as I have to back home. I felt hardly relaxed.

I also found it distasteful that poor service was offered in places you would expect polished treatment for the money you are spending. I doubt I’d return to this city any time soon. Hmm, unless I come to miss the Sacher-torte.

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Hapsburg Empire – part 1

 

I can finally strike five cities in Europe off my wanderlust checklist. :) In a whirlwind trip lasting six nights, the husband and I swung into Prague, Vienna and Budapest, with day stops in Český Krumlov and Brastislava. There wasn’t enough time to really absorb the historical wealth these destinations offered as we had gone on an escorted tour, but the trade off is that I didn’t have to tear my hair out in the planning process. It is always good to visit an unfamiliar destination first with a reliable tour company, and if you like what you see, you can plan a future trip dedicated to just one city and take all your time in the world to romance it. So we begun our journey in Prague. It was almost 3pm when we arrived at President Hotel, which sits just across from the Vltava River. We dropped our bags and wasted no time in heading out for a stroll down the river. At 5°C, the weather was perfect! The cobblestone banks of the Vltava River was coated with a layer of ice, making it quite a challenge for me to walk at my usual quick pace. Oh well. I was in no hurry to get anywhere anyway. :) So I slowed down and enjoyed the surroundings.

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The Vltava River eventually led us to the famed Charles Bridge. Constructed in 1357 as a critical causeway linking Prague Castle and the old town, Charles Bridge is just as revered today. Numerous tourists cross this bridge to worship its beauty and make countless photos to show off to friends and family back home. I was one of them. :)

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On the side of Mala Strana, the old town, a majestic watch tower stands, offering strong-limbed visitors a bird’s eye view of the bridge and Prague’s cityscape.

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Pushing past eager crowds, we found our way onto the bridge and was faced with a line of huge stone statues on each side. According to literature, there are 30 statues of saints and patron saints venerated at that time. Today, these statues are mere replicas, and the originals are kept protected in the National Museum.

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We hung around for a while more, then returned to our hotel. A welcome reception was awaiting, and the fancy dinner event was held in Restaurant U Cisaru, established in 1673. The name literally means “At the emperors”, and the restaurant has hosted several political VIPS throughout its history.

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It was drizzling the next morning and so cold, but that didn’t stop us from visiting Prague Castle and St Vitus’ Cathedral.

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I realised that many parts of the castle are actually open to visitors, but I guess due to time constraints, we were only brought to see the interior of St Vitus’ Cathedral. So Prague Castle is going into my to-do list. :) Emerging from the compound of Prague Castle, we found ourselves on the top of a hill, overlooking the sprawling ancient city which was the imperial capital of the Hapsburg empire from 1583 to 1611.

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Clicking heels against the ancient cobblestone slopes around the castle, we found ourselves on a street lined with the prettiest of old shophouses.

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Without the cars that lined this road, I would have thought I had stepped back in time!

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Our local guide, Jere, brought our attention to little icons found above the doors of some shophouses. To help illiterate people of the past to identify locations, icons such as this golden key were used in place of addresses.

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The same was practiced in old Singapore too, with figurines of animals placed on ledges above doors to guide people. Some of these figurines still stand – watch out for them on Boat Quay. From here, we trekked onwards to Charles Bridge, giving us the opportunity to admire the structure in daylight. Remember how I wrote earlier in this post that the original statues on Charles Bridge are now kept in the National Museum? Thank goodness for that. Look what the birds are doing! :)

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Now, say hello to the statue of John of Nepomuk. The poor chap was thrown into the Vltava by Wenceslaus, King of the Romans and King of Bohemia, when he refused to disclose what the queen of Bohemia had confessed. On the bright side, John of Nepomuk was considered a martyr and was made a saint of the country.

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The locals believe that touching it brings good luck, hence the two bright spots at the foot, polished bright by hopeful hands. Moving along, we found ourselves in Prague’s Old Town Square – my favourite place! But before the group was disbanded for some shopping at the Christmas market, we enjoyed a little show in front of the Prague Astronomical Clock, or Prague Orloj.

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This is a medieval astronomical clock that was installed in 1410. At every hour, four figures flanking the clock would do a little mechanical dance, and a golden cock would pop out and crow. These figures represent four things that were despised at the time of the clock’s making: Vanity, represented by a figure admiring himself in a mirror; a miser holding a bag of gold represents greed or usury; Death, a skeleton; and a Turk who dispenses pleasure and entertainment. Then, a trumpeter would work his magic at the highest point of the clock tower. With the city tour now completed, the husband and I were free to explore the Old Town Square on our own. So we made our way to the top of the clock tower. You could take the elevator, or climb all the way up.

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And from way up there, Prague’s Old Town Square looked most enchanting!

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Watching all the action in the Christmas market below made us very hungry, so we made our way down in search of a feast. We stuffed our faces with grilled sausages, a huge bowl of potatoes, bacon and sauerkraut and svajak (hot mulled wine).

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Then we ended the meal with two rings of sweet, roasted bread rolls. Yummy!

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Completely stuffed, and with aching feet, we returned to our hotel for a rest. We must be recharged for some night adventures! By 6pm, our tummies were growling again. So we headed out in search of Hotel U Medvidku Brewery. The name says it all – it is a hotel with a microbrewery and restaurant. It was a long walk from our hotel, and I was about to give up, when the husband hollered the sweet words, “There it is!” Dinner was spectacular. We shared a tasty potato soup with mushrooms, a roasted chicken leg with cream sauce, and a large apple pie, and downed four mugs of beer brewed on site.

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Happiness came with a bill of no more than S$23, which included a fat tip that made the waiter really delighted. Woohoo! Just as we were about to finish our meal, two young Asian girls came over to ask if they could share our table, as the restaurant was packed to the rafters. Of course we said yes, and the four of us struck up a really fun conversation. One of the girls is from Malaysia and is in Prague studying political science, the other is from Shanghai. We got along so darned well that we adjourned elsewhere for drinks. We ended up in Hemingway Bar, a pretty little cocktail bar in a very quiet alley. Really, if you aren’t in the know, you would never have thought that a stylish bar sits behind that inconspicuous wooden door.

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Hemingway Bar specialises in cocktails and there is a mind-boggling variety to choose from. I picked a Pimm’s creation, which was filled with so many fruits and a leafy bunch of mint leaves that I thought it was a health drink!

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Time flies when one’s having fun, and soon we had to go our separate ways.