Berlin, September, 2022
As with most folks, this fall's travels were originally planned for an earlier year. We sold our European RV because both it and we were getting older. Also we wanted to spend more time in European cities, which is somewhat more difficult to do by RV because of the commuting involved getting from campgrounds into town. We miss our RV terribly but then we miss our younger bodies too, but life still goes on! So this fall we are doing three capital cities on the central and eastern side of Europe, with about 3 weeks in each. We made our reservations many months ago, but all were for Airbnbs or VRBOs that had late cancellation dates. As a rule we don't buy travel insurance, so we don't want to have non-cancelable reservations. Travel insurance at our age is very expensive. If we are going to be out of the country over 2 months, then we buy emergency medical insurance just for the days after 60. Our medicare supplement plan will reimburse up to $50,000 each but only for first 60 days out of the country. There are very few insurance plans that will let you buy for just part of a trip. One that we have used is Atlas International. 30 days with $50,000 and $2,500 deductible is about $300. Note that some credit cards also have trip cancellation insurance, such as Chase Sapphire—but they limit trip length to 60 days also. During covid and when we were going to Asia we also joined Medjet, but at age 75 it nearly triples in price, so we will use one of the less expensive emergency transportation plans.
Back to Berlin. We rented a large studio through Airbnb called “Modern Central Studio Work/Study/Play”. It was very nice and worked out with all fees to $87 a day. It was large enough, with a screen for bed area, that it felt almost like a 1 bedroom. I would not recommend it for a summer rental as there was only 1 window and an air cooler, not an air conditioner. I have actually worked up a list for things to check in an apartment listing as it is easy to miss something. One of the most important things is whether or not it is legal. Usually I message the “owner” and just ask. Almost all big cities and touristy areas both in Europe and the US have passed laws regulating short term rentals. We often search for apart hotels which are becoming quite popular. In some cities though you need to stay for a minimum of 30 days for it to be legal.
It was very easy to get from the new Berlin airport to downtown and only $4 a person on the U bahn (subway.) The hard part was finding the subway entrance. Tip: do not go outside, just keep going down as it is directly under the terminal. You can also go by S bahn (the surface subway), bus, etc. and trying to choose between then makes it more confusing—just take the U bahn. Buy your ticket from the machine on the platform and don't forget to time stamp it.
In Berlin itself we found it cheapest to buy transportation tickets in groups of 4. You have a choice of short ticket or regular. The short ticket is good for only 4 stops on U or 6 on bus or tram. Tickets are sold on platforms for the U and on board for the tram. There are lots of trams in what was the east Berlin section and fewer in west. Both the U and trams run every few minutes so they are wonderful for getting around. We actually didn't use the S bahn (above ground trains) very much. There is a combined museum ticket and transportation ticket but since we were within walking distance of most of the museums, it didn't make sense for us. Also you only have a limited time for its use, and we wanted to alternate our museum visits with rest days.
We did though buy the Museum Island 1 day ticket for 19E each. This includes entrance to the Pergamon, the Neues (the 2 biggies) and 3 other museums/panoramas. It is a lot to do in 1 day. I ended up with 17,000 steps. But a nice lunch in the new cafe at the Pergamon helped a lot. Be warned that the Pergamon is undergoing renovation and you can't see the Pergamon altar until 2025 I believe. But the rest of what is there is still an absolute must see. The other museum, located elsewhere, that is a must see is the Gemaldgalerie. Again 1 wing was closed for lighting renovation, but it still is one of Europe's foremost painting galleries. Again an all day excursion but unfortunately their cafe was pitiful with only a few sandwiches and desserts on offer, as the Brits would say. I also found it astonishing that the Europeans have managed to start serving even smaller Coke bottles. Where it used to be .33 liters, they now also have .2 liters (6.5 ounces), less than a cup, and this is what the touristy cafes have. Some restaurants also now charge for tap water, and a 10% tip has become standard in Berlin and Prague.
Since we have been to Berlin twice before, we didn't go back to the Nazi and Cold War sites, but we did walk some of the wall where there is now a long memorial park with lots of excellent signage in English. We did go to the big KaDeWe department store, which has a most excellent food floor. Not as much food per se but lots of eating stands. We really enjoyed the Spanish one with excellent tapas and then bought some of the expensive Bellota ham to take home. Another great foodie place is the Berlin outpost of the Galleries Lafayette. A real taste of France in the basement but skip the pre-packaged Koigh Aman—it was terrible.
On the Saturday before we left we went to the big shopping mall at Alexanderplatz, super crowded on a Saturday, but still just a big mall. On the way back home we went through Alexanderplatz itself, which was a huge food market, beer hall, band, etc. Very touristy, but still mostly German tourists, and I wish I hadn't already bought stuff for dinner so we could have eaten there. It looked like a fun place to spend an early Saturday evening. There is also a daytime market on Saturdays nearby at the Hackischer Markt, which had some attractive artisan crafts, etc., that I wish we had found earlier. I am afraid jet lag really did in our first 10 days in Berlin, and I wish now that we had gotten out more earlier—especially to the markets.
We did go to the Turkish market—not as Turkish as I expected, but there was baklava and lots of really nice produce.
Overall, we enjoyed Berlin a lot. Three weeks was probably over long—except for the jet lag. But it was nice to have time to just relax a bit. The weather was excellent—in the mid seventies most days; rain was often predicted but rarely showed up. There was a ton of outdoor dining and masks were still required on public transportation with about 90% compliance. We are still very covid cautious as having it outside the country is very difficult beyond just the risks of long covid, and other health implications for folks in their mid seventies. Nothing was crowded in September and we rarely heard English outside of the museum areas. Next newsletter: Prague and Vienna
Prague, September/October, 2022
We arrived in Prague by train from Berlin on September 19. We bought our tickets online at Omio. We paid for reserved seats, which turned out to be very important as the train was full. It turned out that it would have been better had we just walked to the station and bought them in person in Berlin. The train had substituted our original car with a bicycle-carrying car so that the compartment that would have had our seats was no longer there. Luckily, a conductor took pity on us and found us 2 middle seats in another 6 seat compartment. We did see lots of people standing in the aisles so I don't know if they sell more tickets than there are seats. Train travel in Europe is new to us, so we basically don't know what we're doing. The conductor told us we could get a refund for the reservation fees at the station in Prague—wrong, it turns out, only if you had bought the tickets direct. Omio said we had to go through train's online customer service forms which didn't really apply and required lots of printed copies. So just too complicated for $12, I think. Leaving Prague for Vienna we had also used Omio—we reserved seats, but they pick them. We ended up with me on the window and Mark across the aisle. The person next to me wouldn't change with Mark, so that was weird.
Arriving in Prague at the main station we managed to head out through the old side which is actually on the top of a hill. Google was of little help and we had to walk a long way around a giant parking lot, down the hill, and then a city park before actually starting the fairly short walk to the apartment. Had we gone out the new side of the station it would have been a straight shot through the park, then a short walk or even a tram. You can buy tram tickets on the tram. They are very cheap for over 65s—50 cents, and near the end of our stay an older woman said over 65s could ride for free, but we never verified that.
Our apartment was rented from VRBO this time. We were super happy with it預 very large studio with the bed behind a bookcase divider and everything pretty new. There was an elevator but about 8 steps before you got to it. The apartment was called Modern Old Town apartment in art deco building. His direct email is firstname.lastname@example.org. He was very easy to deal with and a good communicator. We paid about $88 a night and there is a pull out sofa, so 4 could sleep there. The location was quiet and ideal. It was an easy walk to Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. The tram was also only 2 short blocks away, the largest mall in the city about 4 blocks, the Jewish Quarter 3 blocks. Mark and I will probably be back in a few years and stay a month next time. Oh, we didn't need it but there was a portable air conditioner.
We had visited Prague in 2010 and 2012—fairly early in our travels. We knew we wanted to come back, but really now that we are so interested in architecture, it made an even greater impression. It is the only major city in central Europe that escaped bombing in WWII. Every single block in the older section (which is really 4 sections plus) has drop dead gorgeous buildings from the second half of the 19th century through the 20th. Empire (Austrian Hapsburg), Art Nouveau, neo Classical, Art Deco, and even their own unique cubism. Next time instead of wandering aimlessly we will map the streets and walk both sides to be sure not to miss anything. We looked in vain in Prague for a guide to the city's architecture, but there are a couple on Amazon we intend to get when we get back to the States.
We had checked in advance for possible classical music performances and bought very reasonably priced tickets to the Prague Symphony performing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Municipal House. It was wonderful and added to the program was a debut performance of a work by a Czech composer. The last time in Prague we went to one of smaller performances which included part of the opera Carmen. Mark is not a fan of the “tourist” classical music concerts, so we didn't attend any this time. There are at least a dozen venues around the city.
Czech food is a lot of pork and bread dumplings—we had one Czech meal. However, we had a nice meal eating outdoors at the Les Moules restaurant. We also ate a lot of the local sausages at home and from street stands. All over the city the favorite snack/dessert is the smoked chimney cake. This is sweet bread dough rolled on thick spindles and cooked over charcoal. It is removed, sometimes dipped in toppings, and then filled with either ice cream or pudding or fruit. I had one and declared “never again”—the overwhelming flavor was of smoke and charcoal. Ten years ago these were not that popular—they are a recent import from Hungary. Our best food came from the famous and very popular Nase Maso butcher/deli on the ground floor of our building. Their pastrami was better than even New York. We had take-out sandwiches twice and then bought the bread and meat separately to put together on our own. The later turns out to be about half the price of having them make them.
We took the Municipal House English tour for the second time to especially see the Mucha Room, which is the absolute highlight. Be sure not to miss the free entrance to the gift store which has some very fine art nouveau pieces by modern crafts people. We had already been to the Mucha Museum twice so this time went only to the gift store—which is quite nice. I was really surprised at how little Mucha stuff was sold in the souvenir stores in general.
We did not pay to go into the Jewish sites as we had done them the last trip. We had really looked forward to going to a stained glass workshop in that quarter where we had bought two pieces our last trip that had been part of old church windows removed from demolished churches. Once it was closed, the next week we heard someone working inside, so knocked. We were greeted by “not open,” tomorrow? we asked, “no”, next week? “no” and the door closed. Very sad.
Rick Steves always advises that if there is something you really want to see, go to it first. Good advice, which we usually take. But we wanted good weather for going to the Castle quarter and since there is a bunch to see up there, we needed to do some planning. Three weeks in a city though contributed to a lackadaisical approach, so we left it to our last three days, certainly thinking that would be enough. Since Prague was way more crowded on weekends, we set out on a Thursday to see the Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. Arriving at the backside by tram we worked our way downhill after visiting the library at the Strahov monastery. (Good, but unless you are a retired librarian like me, maybe not worth the $7 admission, since you can't go in but just peer in through the doorway.) As we neared the Castle there were lots of police cars and barriers lined up. They motioned that we had to go around a different way. We did, and coming back up the stairs to the cathedral, more barriers, more police. Guess what? The European Economic Summit was being held there and the whole area, even the cathedral, was closed for 3 days! Luckily, we had visited before in 2010 and 2012, but, really, we need to adhere more closely to Rick Steves' advice.
We found groceries in Berlin and Prague to be fairly reasonable because of the super exchange rate of 1 to1 for the Euro. We averaged about $13 a day for groceries and $12 eating out (alcohol not included.) We did not eat out a lot because we are still being covid-careful and only eat outside; and Germanic cuisine is not all that exciting. Also in a BnB you tend to fix pretty simple dishes and don't overbuy at the supermarket.
We love Prague and plan to come back for a month or so in a few years.
Vienna, October, 2022
We booked our apartments for this two month trip—Berlin, Prague, Vienna—back in March, 2022, which meant that we got some very good prices. This was partly due to lingering fears of Covid and also because the full impact of inflation and costs of the war in Ukraine were not priced into the rental market yet. In Vienna, we could not find a good price with late cancellation dates inside the Ringstrasse (the inner ring road), which was what we wanted. We ended up renting again on Airbnb just a block outside the Ring, not far from the Prater, the huge amusement and city park. The apartment, actually two bedroom, was called “Urban stay city-Prater, zentral.” This was a more old fashioned European apartment with every room separate including a toilet room. It was a super reasonable $61 per night for 20 nights. It was on the ground floor, quiet, and clean. It also had an oven which is pretty rare, but no dishwasher. It was very well stocked and Rainier, the host, was also the owner. His family had lived here first before moving to a larger place. It was a block from two groceries, 2 blocks from the tram, and only a mile from St. Stephens square, the center of Vienna. The only downside was an Ikea couch which was like sitting on a block of cloth-covered concrete. There was no AC but the building gets little sunshine and was quite cool when the heat wasn't on, so I think it would be fine in all but the hottest weather.
This was our fourth visit to Vienna, the others having occurred in 1989, 2010, and 2012. We'd seen the major tourist destinations, the Hofburg. The Schonbrunn, the Spanish Riding School, etc., and wanted to concentrate on the art and architecture. Early on we spent 7 hours at the Kuntshistoricmuseum. This was a purpose-built art museum by the Hapsburgs in the 1800s, and the building itself it gorgeous. A visit is fairly expensive at $15 for seniors, but we should have just bought the annual pass and split the visit over 3 days. The art is glorious and includes a room with more Bruegels than any other in the world. It also has 4 Arcimbolds, which are fascinating to view up close. Just about every other European artist of note is represented there. We were there on a Sunday and it really wasn't crowded—even the Vermeer seldom had folks in front of it. After doing one side of the painting hall we stopped at the gorgeous cafe for a light lunch and then did the other hall. The floor below the painting gallery houses not only an excellent Roman, near East and Egyptian collection but also the Kuntzenhammer, the collection of all the beautiful objects d'art that the Hapsburgs collected over their 700 years' reign. It is much like the Green Vault in Dresden. Unfortunately, by the time we made it to this area, we were exhausted.
Another art museum we like is the Academy of Fine Art, near the Naschmarkt. It is a small collection but has one of Hieronymus Bosch's tritypch of heaven and hell. Since this museum is often overlooked, you have the chance to really see his work. We lingered in the room absolutely alone for 15 minutes. His other famous ones are in Lisbon and Madrid where you have to fight your way to the front of the crowd—not quite like Mona Lisa but still very challenging. In addition there is a Botticelli, Cranachs, a Raphael—all without barriers so you can come really close to appreciate.
We also visited the Belvedere Museum, which features mostly late 19th and early 20th century German and Austrian works. It is the principal hang-out for works by Klimt and Egon Schiele.
Still another that is often overlooked is the Museum of Applied Arts, the MAK, which mostly features fine, especially Secessionist design (art nouveau), jewelry, furntiure, household, as well as paintings by some of the artists of that era.
Located as close in to the central city as we were, we walked a great deal, looking at architecture from the Romansque and Gothic up through the Baroque, neo-classical, Empire, and then Secessionist structures. Most notable were St. Stephen's cathedral and anything by the late 19th century architect Otto Wagner. Some of Europe's most stunning Art Nouveau (aka Jugendstil or Secessionist) is in Vienna.
Falling somewhat outside the realm of fine art, we also spent a day and an evening at Vienna's huge Prater amusement park. Much of it dates from the late 19th century, but the contemporary rides are as extreme and scary as anything we've see. Twice we visited the Naschmarkt, once for the food, and again for the humongous Saturday flea market—though much, much smaller in late autumn then in the summer. And twice we visited one of Vienna's better known heurigers, wine taverns located on a vineyard, Fuhr-Gassl-Huber, out in the western hills. As in Berlin and Prague, we ate a lot of sausage, Wiener Schnitzel, and fres, and Mark drank some great beer as well as the young Austrian wine.
Somehow, in all our European travels, we had never made it to Slovakia (formerly part of Czechoslovakia). Its capital, Bratislava, is just 35 miles from Vienna, so we made a day trip there, taking the bus and having a good look at the place. And adding another country to our list of those visited. Frankly, a day trip was plenty as only a small part of the city was not redone by the Communists.
As a major, historic European capital, Vienna is a great place for shopping, and we also spent many an hour looking in windows and being amazed or amused at all the new styles, gadgets, and such. Pretty much everyone speaks English, or enough English, and it is a very tourist-friendly place.
Bratislava, Slovakia, October 13, 2022
Though Mark and I have spent a total of many years in Europe over our 14 years of retirement, we hadn't gone to Slovakia. Rick Steve's said it was an easy day trip from Vienna, so we decided to do just that. He recommended the train, but since the Flix bus let you off right at the historic center we decided to do that. We paid $35 RT for two including reserving seats in both directions. It is only an hour's ride and we left Vienna at 9:20 and caught the bus back at 7:40 pm. We were afraid it wouldn't be enough time, but it was fine. Things were just opening at 10:30 am so getting there earlier would not have been helpful. We followed Steve's tour (in the Vienna guidebook) but didn't go into any of the museums. The communists didn't care for the historic part of town so it was very run down until the early 2000s. They even sold off the cobblestones from the streets to German towns eager to recreate their historic areas after the war. Today it is a nice compact area but it is pretty strictly for tourists with an abundance of restaurants, coffee bars, bnbs, and souvenir shops—not tacky, but...
We stopped at a recommended coffee shop, whose name had changed, but still had Napolean's cannon ball lodged above the entrance, and had some of the best hot chocolate ever. We toured the main church, St. Martin's, and I particularilly enjoyed the wood carvings. We had picked this day to go because the weather was good and because once a month more than a dozen food trucks gather outside the old market hall. There was a large variety of food on offer, but more than half had to pictures or translations, and we didn't find anything overall appealing. We ended up eating at a Napolian pizza cafe on the main historic street and it was inexpensive and good. Even ordering just one pizza we had leftovers. Along with a beer and coke the bill was $21.
After our late lunch we climbed the hill to the castle. The hill looked worse that it was and it was quite pretty up there with the leaves into their change and view across the Danube and out over the old and new city. Back down we went further afield to find the Blue Church (which didn't reopen until 5:30) and the few surrounding Art Nouveau buildings we could find. It was well worth the walk but we should have researched in advance exactly what other buildings were around. I'm sure we missed some. By 6:15 it was also already hitting twilight, so we started back across town to the bus pick up. We finally managed to pass the main post office which was open late and mailed a post card to our granddaughter. There were only five of us on the bus back to Vienna so we could have skipped that seat reservation. I did walk over 21,000 steps for the day, so keep that in mind, if going for 1 day. Overall we were glad we went, but it is not a bucket list stop.