Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Vienna (and Genua?)

Final leg of our Eastern European trip. And a little teaser.

Vienna was the home of the Hapsburgs, who ruled a large part of Europe for several centuries, beginning in the 14th. We visited their downtown palace, including the treasury. The wealth was pretty amazing, but of course it is not as impressive in photos, even when they were allowed, which was not often. I'll just include a photo of the outside of the palace, and one photo of a typical table centerpiece, along with a container cut from the largest emerald in the world.

I'll have to admit to being largely ignorant of the Hapsburgs before this trip. You may have heard of Sisi, one of the queens who was (apparently) quite famous. But, I was most impressed with Franz Joseph, who was always open to visits from his subjects. It is said he would meet with perhaps 100 people on the typical morning. And these were people of all walks of life, from all over his empire. Perhaps that was the key to his success?

Of course, you have to see a beautiful church in each city. This is St Stephen's, and a podium inside which was carved from solid sandstone.

After a previous country place was destroyed, the Hapburgs decided to build a small place in the countryside outside Vienna, known as Schonbrunner. Here is a picture of the Glorieta from the main building and a picture of the main building across the gardens from the Glorieta.
I visited the Danube canal. The Danube river runs outside the city, but this canal was rerouted near the old city.

Oh, and I received this picture from Stanislav, a friend in Ukraine. I believe this is from his travels to Crimea, and he indicates it is from Genua, described in Wikipedia as a "fictional city". I'm anxious to hear more. Anyone care to enlighten me?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Catskill, Adirondack, Lake Placid, Niagara Falls

Continuing my trip up the east coast, I noticed two large parks in New York. Catskill Park is just about 100 miles north of New York City. Adirondack, a bit further north, is the largest park in the lower 48. So, I decided to check them out and use them for accommodation as I moved north.

The parks were both intriguing and frustrating. Intriguing because it is amazing that such wilderness could exist in the state known mostly for the city. Driving through and camping gave you the feeling that you were a million miles from civilization. Rustic cabins, wild rivers, scenic mountains and largely unmarked, or even unpaved roads.

Here are some examples.

But, because these parks do not have real information centers like most parks, I could find little information on what appeared to be excellent hiking trails. And the parks are a combination of thousands of parcels of state property, interspersed in private parcels. A hike may end with "Posted, Private Property" signs. Fortunately, I did find a guide to the hundreds of nice NY State campgrounds in the parks, so I found cool, comfortable camps at around 3000 foot elevations.

I did discover that Lake Placid is located in Adirondack park. This was the location of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, including the "Miracle on Ice" many may remember. I also remember the description of the beauty there on those Olympic broadcasts, so I decided to camp one night in one of the campgrounds near there. It was a beautiful place, and of course more developed as a result of the Olympics. The first picture is Lake Placid, the third is the ski jump facility, with a picture of nearby mountains in between.
My camp was also near Whiteface Mountain ski resort, located, interestly, in Wilmington, NY.

From there, I headed up to Montreal, Canada. After one night there, I decided to head SW, to Niagara Falls. I had been there before, but this time I approached and spent my time on the Canadian side. I had heard that the falls were better from the Canadian side, and I indeed, did find this to be true. The largest part of the falls, the curved portion shown below is barely visible from the US side.

The photo below is the falls visible from the US side.

I reentered the US near Detroit. Although I admit I saw mostly the waterfront areas, I was shocked by conditions there. Most building were abandoned and collapsing from neglect. Windows were broken or boarded up. Bridges and infrastructure were rusting. Cars were rusted out. Pretty sad.
I'm filing this report from near Cincinnati, Ohio, and heading for Texas.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Prague, Czech Republic

We are starting to really get our feet under us now. The trains are fast, easy and convenient. For the second city in a row, we were able to walk from the train station to our hotel, carrying our luggage. And, it was nothing much more than a casual stroll. It is amazing how these Eastern European cities, which are large cities, have most of their sightseeing in a small, easily navigated, old inner city.

While we did take the subway occasionally in Prague, and found it easy and convenient, we discovered is was just as easy to walk to most of what we wanted to see. And, of course, there is a lot to see.

We started with the Charles Bridge, named after Charles IV. This bridge, which crosses the river and was built in the 14th century, is a major center of activity in Prague. All along it, there were musicians, vendors, statues and lots of people. At times, there were so many people we could hardly get through the crowds.
Here is the gate to the old city at one end of the Charles Bridge.
Here is a statue of a priest who heard the confession of the King's wife. The king demanded to know what she had said. When the priest refused, he was thrown off the bridge. When he hit the water, tradition says stars appeared in the water. Thus the stars around his head. Supposedly, if you make a wish by touching the statue, it will come true (I tried to talk Dee into kissing it, 'cause it works better than way.).

Then, there was the Prague Castle. We happened to arrive just in time for the changing of the guard.

Just across the river from the old town, is Pertin hill and tower, an amazingly quiet and beautiful oasis from the city. We tool the Charles Bridge across, then the funicular up to see these sights. Here is a garden at the top of the hill, then a view of the river and Charles Bridge. Finally, a view of the castle.

Jewish Quarter/Cemetery. I was not aware that Prague was one of the main Jewish areas in Europe. A significant number of the Jews who went to Auschwitz and other concentration camps were from Prague. I also was not aware the Jews had been persecuted for centuries prior to the Nazis. In the cemetery, the area is raised several feet because they were forced to remain in the small Jewish Quarter and bury their dead in this small area for centuries, and consequently had to bury them one on top of the other. Then, the Nazis come along and destroy the cemetery, taking the tombstones to grind up for road construction. Some pieces survived and are built into the wall, and many of the tombstones have been replaced by relatives since the war. Then, Hitler built a museum celebrating the upcoming extinction of the Jewish race. I new it was bad, of course, but I was still surprised and appalled just seeing some of the things the Nazis did.

Of course, you see amazing churches in every city. Here are some samples from Prague.

Then there is Wencesla Square. Here is a view of the square. Then there is the Europa Hotel on the square. Havel stood in the balcony and spoke to a crowd of 300,000 as Czechoslavakia gained its independence from the Soviet Union.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

I spent the last 2 nights in Shenandoah NP. Wow, it is easy to see why Herbert Hoover built his summer White House here. As we ascended into the mountains just a short distance from Washington, the temperatures cooled off about 10 degrees. That meant it was quite nice in the afternoon, and sent me seaching for my flannel shirt at sundown. For July hiking and camping, this is hard to beat along the east coast.
I followed a short section of the Appalachian Trail from Loft Mountain to the Frazier Discovery Trail and returned along the Skyline road. A hiker I met indicated there had been a bear along the trail, but I never saw him. I did see a couple of bears along the road. The black bears here look more like a big black dog than the grizzlies out west. They are feasting these days on blackberries, which were ripening nicely everywhere along the trail. Here is a look at the AT along this section.
I did spot this deer grazing on berries next to my campsite one morning, while grazing on them myself.
Of course, there are so many views of vistas and sunsets that you stop noticing after a while.
I also hiked along the Doyle River Trail to a couple of waterfalls. This is actually upper falls, the smaller of the two, but I couldn't get a decent picture of the lower falls because of the vegetation and location of the trail.
And, along the way, I took a detour to see the Doyle River Cabin. I understand this cabin is for rent for $25-40 per night. That might be an interesting vacation some day. It is only accessed by foot.
Well, that is about it for Shenandoah. I'm filing this report from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Tomorrow I'm planning to head to the Catskill or Adirondack Parks in central NY state. If you are just catching up with me, you might check out my previous stories about my recent trip to Eastern Europe. It is taking me a while to get up to date.
Slow Train to Krakow

Ok, in accordance with my plan, there was a train from Kiev to Krakow on Monday evening. With the help of Lyuda, we were ready to purchase our tickets…unfortunately, they won’t take a credit card for the $200+ ticket price. No problem, after a visit to the ATM, we got the cash and the tickets.

The train leaves Kiev at 8:40pm, but when does it arrive in Krakow? Since we have so far encountered no one in Kiev who speaks English, and after experiencing the difficulty of recognizing our stop on the subway, I’m a little worried about whether I’ll know when to get off the train. Before we left Houston, someone had indicated that they thought the train left Kiev in the evening and arrived in Krakow the next afternoon. No indication on the ticket. So, let’s arrive at the train station a couple of hours early and try to find out what the itinerary is, right? Our guide book indicated that one particular ticket counter was designated for foreigners and dealt in English. After standing in line at that counter for half an hour, we realized that not only did they not speak English, but they were not interested in trying to help. Information counter? Same result. Train schedule booklets? None available. The board showed several versions of our train, with arrivals in various places, none of which were recognizable as Krakow.

Fortunately, our strategy of standing with a bewildered look on our face worked again. Two different people asked if they could help. After 20 minutes of sign language and drawing schematics, they understood our question. Once that was clear, no problem. They went to the information desk and came back with the answer…3:45 pm the next afternoon. Turns out I shouldn’t have worried. After a few hours on the train, I discovered there was a schedule posted on the train. With some study I figured out how to read it, and it agreed with our good Samaritan’s information. Besides, the conductor did speak some English and he politely advised us ahead of our stop, as well as immigration, etc.

Ok, 19 hours on the train. Doesn’t seem like it is that far. Our compartment is comfortable, and we have plenty of time for a good night’s sleep, secure in the knowledge we’ll know when to get off.

I still wasn’t sure how it could take 19 hours for the 500 mile trip. The train was slow, had several stops and lots of extended slowdowns. But, still, 19 hours seemed like a long time. The answer came at the border. First, we spend an hour clearing immigration and customs. After that was completed, they moved the train to a siding and proceeded to change the wheels on the train! Seems the rail gage changes at the border. Here are some pictures of the wheels on the siding and of the process. Essentially, they jack up the entire train at once with the jacks shown and roll out the old wheels and roll in the new ones.

Looks like 2.5 hours on the schedule. The process was efficient and it seemed we were ready to go in about 1.5 hours. Unfortunately, when our departure time came, there was no movement. Ah, that star on the schedule must mean we are crossing into a new time zone. Make that 20 hours for the trip, including 4.5 hours on the border with Poland.

Despite all that, we had a pleasant trip. We got to see lots of Ukraine and Polish countryside. Our private compartment was comfortable. And, we slept soundly in our berths, catching up on our sleep. Even the wheel changing was interesting.

As a result of the long train ride, our stay in Krakow was pretty short, but nice. We reveled in the ease of communicating and navigating. Most of the people we dealt with spoke very good english. Street signs actually looked like those on the map. The old town was small enough that it was a short walk to just about everywhere. Here is a picture of the gate to the old city and a view of the castle.

I had forgotten that Krakow was the home of John Paul II. So, the information about him was a bonus. Here are pictures of his home church, and the place where he lived before becoming Pope.

While he was in town as Pope, he stayed in this building next to the church. After a full day of official business, it is said he would stand in this window for hours discussing every kind of topic with the folks who gathered below. He is quite beloved here.

And we got in our trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Not pleasant, but very interesting and worthwhile. You’ll recognize the pictures from Schindler’s List or documentaries.

Here's one I didn't know, though. Inside Auschwitz, they actually had a jail, where prisoner's were taken for even worse than normal treatment. They had a suffocating cell, where there were more prisoners than air, so some would suffocate overnight. They also had standing cells, where 4 people were put into a cell approximately 3 ft by 3 ft. They had to stand all night, then go back to work the next day. The jail also had a courtroom, where prisoners were tried and sentenced to death in 15 minutes or less. This is for those who survived the initial selection process, in which 80% were sent directly from the train to the gas chamber, just based on a glance by the doctor. Anyway, here is a picture of the jail and the firing wall just outside where the executions took place.

Everyone should visit here, just to remind themselves of what people are capable of doing.