Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday 7th October, Camping West Wien, Vienna, Austria

Well, another few days since I last posted an update to the blog – another city, another country, another currency. If I wasn’t writing this I think we’d have a hard time keeping up with what we’ve been doing, quite apart from the challenges posed to the reader.

Prague – what a beautiful, crazy, mixed up, cosmopolitan city – if it wasn’t in Bohemia, you’d call it Bohemian! We arrived in Prague from Potsdam on Monday after a somewhat interesting drive – a diversion off the autobahn took us winding up one side and down the other of a steep mountain pass, now bisected by a tunnel through the mountain. This had the unexpected benefit of exposing the Czech Republic’s magnificent countryside to us, which on the autobahn we’d be sailing past in oblivion. We arrived mid-afternoon at our campsite, a small but again leafy, green and well-kept site on the outskirts of Prague and made camp – as we were only staying a couple of nights we decided to forego the extra space of the awning, but instead set up the tent for the kids to sleep in. Frances and I then took ourselves off for a walk into the local suburb to find a supermarket and cash. We followed the directions given by the site manager and ended up after two or more kilometres at a huge hardware store (just like Homebase or Bunnings) – not entirely what I’d expected, but convenient as I managed to buy some nuts and bolts to make more running repairs to the hard working scooters and a packet of rubber O-rings to fix up out water inlet pipe. When we finally arrived back at the site, we found Charlie and George having a great time scootering around the site with a German boy who also had a scooter. They’d managed to exchange names, and that seemed enough to form a strong bond of friendship for the duration of the evening.

With the kids tucked up in their tent, Frances and I managed a sly beer or two at the quiet campsite bar – four big beers for 140 Czech Crowns – that’s about £3.00 – could be seriously damaging to one’s health – or at least, judging by some of the locals, one’s girth!

On Tuesday morning we began our now well-rehearsed routine of packing ourselves off on the local public transport into the city centre. We’d enjoyed our walking tour with Grite in Dresden so decided to find something similar in Prague. We lucked upon Sandemanns New Prague tour – a free (tips only) guided walking tour. Our guide, Jakob was really the most interesting and entertaining chap – so much so that we completed the morning old-town tour (10.00am to 1.30pm), and then continued straight on with him for the afternoon castle tour from 2.00 until 6.00pm. I’m not going to attempt to record the many interesting buildings, artefacts views that we saw – it would be impossible to do so, and impossible to do it justice if I could. But much more importantly, it would miss the point of our day – which was to spend time in the company of a young man who’d been born in communist Czechoslovakia, sat on his grandfather’s shoulders in the main square of Prague jangling his keys in unison with hundreds of thousands of other Czechs in the peaceful protest which became the Velvet Revolution, saw the emergence of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, the subsequent cessation of Slovakia and finally the emergence of the Czech Republic  and its rehabilitation into the European Union. What an incredible recent history – and one which reflects Czech’s very complex historical past. With a Scotish step-father, Jacob had spent several years at school and university in the UK. His perspective about the communist and post-communist years couldn’t have been more different to that of Grite in Dresden – perhaps this was influenced by his well-travelled youth, perhaps by Prague’s evident prosperity and his own success, perhaps by being just a few years younger – but unlike Grite, his perspective of the years under Soviet control was that they were ‘hard communism’, that one tyrannical regime, Soviet Stalinism had simply replaced the other, Nazism, and that the Purple Revolution had finally brought ‘freedom’ to the Czech people. For a young man (mid-late twenties) he gave a very moving speech while outside the Jewish cemetery about tyranny and evil, and the importance of being actively good rather than simply being passively good. For us, while the buildings, churches, castles and bridges of Prague are indisputably beautiful, it’s these personal insights which bring the city and its people to life and cast such an indelibly memorable image for us.

By 6.00pm, after a full day’s walking and an eight hour history lesson, we were, understandably, knackered! After a dutiful stroll on the Charles Bridge we flopped wearily back onto a tram and then bus to the very welcoming comfort of the caravan. 

We unhurriedly packed up and left Prague on Wednesday morning for the relatively manageable 340kms to Vienna, via Brno. Once again we found ourselves having to navigate without the aid of the Tom Tom sat nav app on the iPhone, which was no great problem once we hit the autobahn, but for the first 15kms or so we had to make our way through Prague using Google Maps – that’s fine while you’re on the right route – but if you make a mistake – well, you could end up in hospital…as indeed we did! One slight wrong turn and we found ourselves heading into the casualty/ambulance reception area of a major Prague hospital. Which would, of course, be fine in a car – but towing a caravan?! We took a look around at the unfortunates hobbling in and out on crutches and in wheelchairs, made a hasty and (even if I do say so myself)  damned well executed three point turn and headed off down a winding suburban street in search of the route out. This took us straight through the centre of Prague, but that was the route Google insisted we travel – and as we all know they know best – so we wound our way past trams, beautiful Baroque museums and galleries, on past communist era rows of apartment blocks and finally, as we hit the autobahn, we saw our first sign to Vienna. Plain sailing. At which point, the communists took over the road-building, and for the next couple of hundred kms we rattled our fillings loose on the corrugations of their seen-better-days concrete autobahn. A quick pit stop to buy food and booze at a pre-border Lidl (very quaffable Czech red wine for about £1 per bottle – marvellous!) and then we headed past the eerily deserted labyrinthine border crossing – this would once have been a big and secure border between east and west – and now just one building is occupied, by a cheap café!  It’s a bit of an anti-climax now – somehow we miss the queues, the tension, the stamps in passports that would have gone before – now, there’s just a lonely sign saying welcome to Austria.

The roads improved immeasurably once we got into Austria, and so once more we barrelled into the setting sun towards our destination city, this time Vienna. We arrived at our planned campsite to find it closed. Ah. So we rang the next one, and got an answer-machine. And the next – the number was disconnected. By this time, the sun had set and dusk was falling. We re-set the sat nav, managed a swift u-turn and headed off more in hope than in confidence. We got to the next site without too many problems, and found it closed. Permanently. Being re-developed into housing. And so on to the next. We finally arrived at this site in the dark, picked our way around and squeezed ourselves into a very tight spot. With all Vienna’s other sites closed for the winter, this is packed like a motorway service station car park – caravans, campervans, massive mobile homes all cheek-by-jowl on hard-standing – it’s practical and convenient, but not exactly schone ausblick! Nevertheless, once we’d made camp and we settled in to eat the dinner which Frances had prepared, we were very comfortable – as the French say,plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – the more things change the more they stay the same.

On Thursday we again headed off into a new city on public transport. It’s such a great way of exploring a city, we really enjoy the fun and adventure that each trip brings. Having had such an intensive immersion in Dresden and Prague we decided to wander a little less formally in Vienna, and were quickly rewarded with the most magnificent, impressive baroque buildings, adorned with statues, bas-reliefs, frescos, gilded statues to crown the buildings, boulevards, parks, horse-drawn carriages – the opulence and splendour are incredible. Much of it seemed to have been built in the nineteenth century – when Australia was already 100 years old, which puts Sydney’s historic buildings into a rather meagre perspective! Still, this was a city and nation, the Austro Hungarian Empire (the hugely wealthy Habsburg family) at the absolute height of its powers at the centre of Europe, so a rather unfair comparison to one just starting out in the then remotest corner of the globe!

In the afternoon we made our way to the Hundertwasser museum. I’m sure you’ll all know about Hundertwasser – as indeed should I before we went. But in truth, all I knew was that we had a framed poster of a rather odd painting of his hung in our kitchen in both Sydney and Winchester – and that we’d stopped off at a roadside public convenience which he’d famously re-designed and decorated, on a drive from Auckland north to Whangerai in New Zealand  a few years ago. So quickly, my summary of this remarkable man is that he was (he died in 2000) an artist, architect, environmentalist, peacenik and activist who truly believed that his ideals and beliefs of design could be brought to life in building and town planning to make the world a better and more sustainable place for all. The museum was in a building which he had designed – his artistic philosophy was centred around organic forms (spirals in particular) and was opposed to straight lines – and so this multi-story building in the middle of an urban district of Vienna featured his love of uneven floors, unexpected twists, turns and voids, unusual colours and reflective components, and organic plant and water elements. He was very well travelled (aboard his own sailing boat) spending much of his life in New Zealand (hence the public toilet!), and amongst the exhibits were his proposed alternative flags for New Zealand and Australia (I thought he’d cracked it for NZ, but not quite for Aus) along with several models of amazing urban developments seamlessly integrating green and organic space with homes and garages. Really clever. And then up the street was another building of his design in which artists have apartments. And here, sadly (at least in my view) the practical realities of an urban building collide with his artistic ideal as, in truth, the colours had faded, the rain water and city pollution had turned the whites grey, and really the building looked rather sad.  Nevertheless, we loved his ideas and idealism, and really enjoyed the art and the rest of the exhibition.

After Hundertwasser we headed back into the centre of town to a small evening concert of Mozart and Strauss. After a slightly awkward start (the old ‘you must check your bags and pay $1.50 each’ routine!) we found ourselves moved into front row seats in the small and intimate room in which Mozart had evidently given his first ever concert with his sister! The string quartet and pianist took to the stage and despite their diminutive number immediately filled the room with beautiful music. They were joined by a beautiful soprano (she had a wonderful voice too!) who was followed by an equally beautiful and very, very Austrian looking ballerina, who was then joined by the tallest male ballet dancer in the known universe!  And all of this action was taking place just a couple of feet from us – I had to duck a couple of times to avoid the flailing legs of the male dancer as he pirouetted around the small stage. The Mozart music was wonderful – although I couldn’t help but smile at the comment made by Jakob in Prague about why Mozart had been musically exiled there by the  Viennese Royal court – because his music had ‘too many notes’!  The second half was Straus – much more orderly and, well, Austrian in style – until that is, the soprano took to the stage once more and directed her beautiful aria from Die Fledermaus at me in an almost personal serenade that made me blush! She brought blushes to George and Charlie too with her very engaging smile and very, very direct looks! The couple of elderly Irish ladies behind us were delighted with George and Charlie’s attentiveness and interest in the music. We had a really beautiful and memorable evening watching these very talented performers at such close quarters.

Today was another wonderful day. The beautiful weather we’ve enjoyed up until now finally made way for a cold and rainy day, so we donned our wet weather gear and headed to the Spanish Riding School to watch their morning training session. To watch the incredible horsemanship and beautiful Lipizzaner stallions at work was a great privilege – it is incredible to see the new young horses being schooled in the complex moves that they perform so gracefully, and in such a beautiful environment. We’d loved to have gone to the evening performance but would have had to take out a second mortgage to do so.  We’ll make do with a DVD and the memories of having seen the horses and riders at work. In the afternoon we visited the Belvedere Palace art gallery – a beautiful palace housing an impressive collection, including a Gustav Klimt (The Kiss) exhibition, as well as a couple of our other favs: another Hunderterwasser, a Nolde (we’d seen his exhibition in Ellos in Sweden) and another Edvard Munch. George and Charlie completed the challenging kids quiz which guided them around the gallery setting difficult questions which required a really close inspection of many of the works – a great way to expand their knowledge and understanding of the art they’re looking at. By mid-afternoon we were hungry and tired, and so had the much anticipated Vienna Schnitzel and Goulash we’d promised ourselves at a very local restaurant – superb.

And that, dear readers, if you’ve made your way this far, is that! Tomorrow we head off early for a long drive (600kms) into Italy and on to Venice. We were hoping to stay at the campsite we Campbells had stayed at in the early 70’s and of which I have such happy memories, but sadly, despite Dad having sent the name today, we’ve discovered that it’s closed for the off-season. Shame as having seen it on the internet it looks even more wonderful than it was then. Never mind – we’ll stay at an alternative close by, and head off into Venice by boat on Sunday or Monday.  The weather looks promising in Venice which would be a real treat.

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