Monday, 6 November 2017


After luxuriating in the warmth of shorts weather in the Black Forest and Liechtenstein, the cold rain hit us hard in Bavaria.  In fact, Day 32 of our European adventure proved to be the wettest yet.  Castles were on the agenda for our stay in Füssen.  Google “Bavaria” and, invariably, an image of Neuschwanstein Castle will appear.  I can’t pronounce the name, but at least I can spell it; same with its sister castle, Hohenschwangau.

Neuschwanstein (New Swan Stone) was commissioned by Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, as a retreat and as a homage to his musical idol, the composer Richard Wagner.  Several of the theme rooms were inspired by Wagner operas.  Ludwig paid for the palace out of his personal fortune and by means of extensive borrowing, rather than Bavarian public funds.  Unfortunately, he died in 1886, aged 40, before the castle was finished, having spent only 177 days there.  As I gawked at Ludwig’s clifftop aerie (photo below), I wondered where the King of Acadia might have built his castle, maybe on Euclide à Zénon’s farm, the highest point in Urbainville!
Ludwig’s father, King Maximillian II, built Hohenschwangau (first photo) as a summer residence and the boy spent much of his childhood there.  Ludwig dreamed of building his own castle on a hill overlooking Hohenschwangau, atop the ruins of two older castles.  The final result is highly stylistic, quite unlike the fortified castles we’d visited before.  While the old family castle, still owned by the Duke of Bavaria, feels rather homey, Neuschwanstein is over the top.  The throne room (second photo) is but one example of the King’s expensive tastes.  

Only two people have been able to capture my attention on the subjects of art and architecture, particularly the religious kind: Reg Porter and the late Fr. Adrien Arsenault.  I think of them every time we visit a church.  On our way to Salzburg, Austria, we drove in to Oberammergau, a small town in the south of Germany renowned for its tradition of staging of the Passion Play, the result of a vow made by the inhabitants of the village in 1634 that if God spared them from the effects of the bubonic plague then sweeping the region, they would perform a passion play every ten years.  The play has become world- famous.

Oberammergau is also known for the colourful frescoes that decorate its buildings and for its talented woodcarvers.  I’d read that the parish church of Saints Peter and Paul was worth a visit.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when we walked across the threshold.  It’s not a large church by European standards, but the walls and ceiling are covered by frescoes and paintings as beautiful as I’ve seen anywhere.  The first of the two photos below shows the choir and the second a view of the church taken from the back.  Of course, the ends of the pews are carved.

Our visit to Salzburg was characterized by bad weather; not unexpected given the time of year.  We visited the old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and wandered the narrow streets with hundreds of curious visitors taking in the the sights.  On Sunday, we’d hoped to visit Hohensalzburg Castle, a massive medieval fortress that sits high above the city.  Unfortunately, 50 kph winds forced its closure.  Worse yet, stores in Austria close on Sunday — torture for the shopper in our party.

So, we attended Mass at the massive cathedral of Saints Rupert and Vergilius that dominates the old town landscape.  Mozart was baptized in the church, served as organist there for a time, and composed several symphonies for the cathedral.  The interior is stunning, and I couldn’t help but imagine that Reg and Fr. Adrien would be as impressed as we were.  Four pipe organs occupied balconies hanging from the massive octagonal central dome.  The choir stood on one of the balconies, the choir director on the opposite balcony, and the organist on a third.  It was quite a performance, proving once again that unplanned, spontaneous activities often turn out to be the most enjoyable.

Since discovering how to use our iPhone as a GPS — offline — we’ve alternated between two apps, Google Maps and Apple Maps, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of both.  We baptized the Google Maps app “Agnès” and the iPhone version “Hortense”.  Between Salzburg and Munich, it was Hortense’s turn.  She started out OK, getting us out of Salzburg and onto the autobahn in jig time.  Next thing we knew, we were rattling along backroads tailor-made for a car rally.  The day before, Agnès had gotten us thoroughly lost in Salzburg.  I’ve concluded that Agnès has ADHD and Hortense has an undiagnosed cognitive deficiency.  Neither is ideal but they’re a hell of a lot better than trying to read a map in a moving car.

Munich is the capital of the State of Bavaria, a city of 6 million, about the same size as Toronto.  We checked in to our hotel, about 10 km from city center, and took the subway to the old town.  Our routine when arriving at a new destination is to head to the tourist information office to get a map and inquire into must-sees, special events, guided tours, etc.  Turns out our second day in Munich was to be a national holiday, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation orchestrated by Martin Luther; all stores closed, and reduced public transit schedule.  So, we made the best of our first day, joining hundreds at Marienplatz to listen to the noontime carillon and watch animated figures dance around the city hall tower.
On Day 2 in Munich, we took a guided walking tour and learned a great deal about this interesting city.  Like many in Germany, it was heavily damaged by Allied bombs, and much of it has been restored and repaired.  We much preferred Munich to Frankfurt.  The highlight of our day was supper at Hofbrauhaus München, a beer hall like no other; a place where real men wear lederhosen, you’re entertained by a talented Bavarian band, and the toilet has more urinals than a NASCAR track.  Standard fare, roast pork hock ("pig's trotters") with lots of gravy, was delicious and filling.
Estelle Melinda Arsenault, daughter of Julia and Clément, was born as we drove from Munich to Regensburg.  Tears were shed.  Her mother is a strong, courageous woman and Estelle is truly a miracle baby.  We’re very fortunate to have her in our family.
The well-preserved medieval centre of Regensburg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes many structures dating back to the period between 1150 and 1550.  The city has done an excellent job of preserving the central core, making it a major tourist attraction.  Unlike many German cities, Regensburg was spared by Allied bombers during World War II.  Ironically, the city’s slow economic recovery after the War meant that old buildings were kept and repaired, rather than being torn down and replaced.  I even did time in the city jail!
The next two days of our journey were turnaround days.  On the first, we drove from Regensburg to Frankfurt, a drive that should have taken no more than three hours.  My, how the Germans love their autobahns.  No matter how fast you’re driving — the speed limit is 120 kph — cars whiz past you.  Some must be doing 200!  But, half the 300-km route from Regensburg to Frankfurt was under construction.  Three lanes squeezed into two, with an unbroken line of transport trucks on the inside lane, the outside lane barely wide enough to pass.  I was damn glad to surrender the Hertz rental and get back on foot.

After getting some badly-needed laundry done, we left Frankfurt, bound for Prague.  In our quest to learn to travel, we’d decided to take the bus, one-third the price of a train ticket and only marginally slower.  We boarded the FlixBus at 9:15 am sharp and enjoyed the scenery from our very comfortable seats.  After several stops, we crossed the former Iron Curtain about mid-afternoon, the border between Germany and Czechia (Czech Republic).  The extensive and rather intimidating border control buildings are empty now, no longer needed since the fall of the USSR and Czechia’s adoption of the Schengen Agreement in 2007.

So many changes since US President Ronald Reagan uttered his famous line in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”.  In 1989, the Communist regime collapsed in Czechoslovakia and a market economy was established.  Czechia and Slovakia split peacefully in 1993.  The contrast between the wealthier Germany and the less-developed Czechia is evident as soon as one crosses the border.  On the Czech side, roads are rougher; farm fields look poorer; there’s more graffiti; more houses are abandoned; and rural areas are in definite decline.  Still, the numbers are encouraging: per capita GDP stands at $33,000 (compared to $46,000 for Canada, $48,000 for Germany and $57,000 for the US), and the country is well governed.

We arrived in downtown Prague, capital of Czechia (population 2 million) early in the evening.  Our bus driver, an asshole of the first order, dumped us on a dark and busy street in front of the train station, and would have sped off with our luggage if we hadn’t yelled at him to smarten up!  We walked to the taxi stand and asked for the fare to our hotel which I knew to be close by: “20 Euros”, the guy says ($30 Canadian).  “It’s very close to here”, I said.  The taxi driver just shrugged his shoulders, figuring two heavily-laden seniors to be an easy mark.  I mumbled a four-letter rejoinder as I walked away, iPhone in my palm, trusting Agnès to direct us to the Hotel Majestic Plaza, which she did.

I don’t mind spending money; I just don’t like to waste it.  And, most of all, I hate getting ripped off.  On this trip, we’d already paid far too much for laundry service in Ypres, so I wasn’t about to let a greedy, smart-assed taxi driver do it to me in Prague.

Prague greeted us the next morning in all her splendour.  What a magnificent city!  Armed with a map and guidance from the tourist information bureau, we walked to the main square, crossed the Vitava River, and climbed up to Prague Castle, the massive fortification overlooking the city.  We soon learned why Prague is the fifth most visited European city (after London, Paris, Istanbul, and Rome) and its centre a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Saturday crowds reminded us of an Asian metropolis; we could barely move while crossing the fourteenth-century Charles Bridge.
Elva was determined to try one of the local delicacies, trdelnik, rolled dough wrapped around a spindle, then grilled and topped with a sugar, cinnamon, and walnut mix.  And, of course, she had to have soft ice cream to top off her warm trdelnik.  The results were entirely predictable.  Her face and hands smeared with melting ice cream, she looked like a three-year old by the time she'd gotten half-way through.  I didn’t have the heart to take her picture but did the honourable thing and cleaned her up as best I could with Wet Wipes.
On Sunday morning, we attended Mass at St. Vitus Cathedral, located within the walls of the massive Prague Castle complex.  It had been an eventful week for our family and we had much to be thankful for.  A prominent example of Gothic architecture, the church is the largest in the country.  Construction began in 1344 and continued on and off until the church was finally finished in 1929, almost 600 years later!  It’s a long story…  For travellers like us who aren’t particularly fond of art galeries and museums, medieval churches have much to offer: architecture, sculpture, paintings, a history lesson, and music.
There’s always something going on in and around Prague’s Old Town Square.  On one of our evenings there, we attended a concert in St. Nicholas Church by a seven-piece chamber orchestra with organ.  It featured works by Bach, Händel, Vivaldi, and Mozart and was a delight to the ear.

If Prague isn’t on your bucket list, it should be!

Tomorrow, the next phase of our journey begins: a Danube River cruise to Budapest aboard the River Beatrice.

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