Meanwhile, back in the garden…

You may remember the Cardoon That Couldn’t Be Stopped:

Now in its second year, it’s achieving its full growth.  The photo above is from one month ago.

Here’s one less than a month later:

That was taken before we left for Europe.  Last night when I went out to look around to see what would need weeding/staking/saving whenever it stops raining, I was shocked to see:

It’s even more astonishing from the other side:

I don’t like turning my back on it.

Up the Danube, Day 4

When last we left our Viking River Cruise up the Danube, we had left Vienna and sailed to Krems.

I forgot to mention that the day before, on Mother’s Day, the captain gave roses to all the ladies on the ship:

Here’s a photo of our ship, the Viking Tor, docked in Krems.

The red arrow?  That’s our stateroom.  We laughed when we woke up to find ourselves behind the dock.

And of course, as soon as we stepped off the ship we were on Hofvonsteinian soil.  (I will admit to an embarrassing geographical ignorance: I assumed that the Danube was the boundary between Austria and Slovakia/Czech Republic, but of course it’s not.  It’s over in the mountains somewhere.)

The morning’s trip was to Göttweig Abbey.  I have no longshots of it because I was on the wrong side of the bus.  Here’s one I stole from Wikipedia:

It’s pretty spectacular.  It’s a Benedictine Abbey founded 900 years ago.  Today, they produce wine and a host of apricot products including wine, sparkling wine, and liqueur, which we probably bought.  Also jams and bath salts and other stuff.

First though I had deal with this:

Some in my party became extremely amused by this sign, even though it clearly just says “Bus Lane.”  Some people.

This was in the small garden/orchard at the front.  It is in fact a bee hotel, and I knew what it was because my friend Richard was making a whole bunch of them out of bamboo as an art project for the Euphoria burn.  This one is more elaborate, but the concept is the same.

We began following our tour guide toward the abbey gate, and as we walked I looked over and saw circles of cobble stones, and lo!

It’s rather new, only a couple of years old. It’s a little smaller than mine, but it’s the same seven-circuit pattern.  The center is a rose bush.

The view from the abbey is all-encompassing, and they own almost everything you see.

They have a winery, but mostly they grow apricots.  Lots and lots of apricots.

Inside the gate, you are met with several large and beautiful buildings, most from the 17th century.

On the left is the Imperial Apartments, built because the Emperor (or in this case Empress Maria Theresia) had the right to stay there, which she did only once.  If you look closely at the windows on the far left façade…

…you’ll notice they’re painted on.  That’s one way to save money, both in construction and in taxes.  For reasons unknown, many taxes were based on the number of windows you had.  (In Paris, a similar tax on the number of floors in your home led to the Mansard roof, which claimed to be an attic, not a floor.  Everyone politely looked the other way, kind of like the whole idea of the Hapsburg Austria-Hungarian Empire.)

Inside, it’s about as lavish as you might expect an Imperial Apartment to be.  The staircase, for example:

The stairs are extremely shallow and difficult for us 21st century types to navigate.  They are presumably easier if you’re wearing high heels and restrictive clothing, such as corsets and paniers.

The ceiling of the staircase:

A masterpiece of trompe-l’oeil, it is actually only about fourteen inches deep.  The decorations overall are seriously Classical pagan, which is a measure of the power the liberal Maria Theresia and her son Joseph II (“Too many notes, Herr Mozart, too many notes!”) had over the church within their domains.  Another measure is the church itself, which I noted to the tour guide had an impressive dome in a contemporary etching.  Ah, she said, they were not funded for the dome and it was never built.

A lovely chambre in the apartments:

The floor is marquetry, all wood.

The church is a simple, noble baroque structure…

…until you get inside.

…where it is no longer simple.  Actually, as these things go, it is fairly restrained.

The altarpiece is typical:

All in all, the abbey (of which I have tons of photos) was one of our favorite places on the trip.  It had a serene atmosphere, secluded as it was on its mountaintop.  It is a Benedictine abbey, which means that the brothers must all earn their keep, which they do by supervising the apricot orchards and their products; working/leasing the vineyards; and managing the forests.

We exited through the gift shop, buying plenty of apricot products: jams, chutney, apricot sugar (for cocktails!), and a bottle of their apricot liqueur, which I will also use in cocktails.  (More than a few from Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails call for it.)

Back on board, we set sail up through the Wachau Valley, which Soren narrated for us as we went.  It was chock full of fun things like abbeys and ruined castles:

This one held Richard the Lion-Hearted captive until he was ransomed by his jongleur.  (The way it was said made it sound like his vassal lords didn’t give a rat’s ass that their liege was being held by the Austrians.)

The scenery both fore and aft was lovely, and you can see the weather was glorious.  I ended up napping on the sun deck, awaking as we approached a lock to find this school looming over me:

On we sailed, through the sunset and night, towards Passau.

Resuming your tour…

I apologize for not continuing to blog our trip up the Danube—the wifi onboard the Viking Tor was spotty at best, and my decision not to bring my laptop proved fatal.  Wrangling the photos between my phone and iPad would take every single minute of my morning time, and the restaurant manager Tibor even made fun of me for working on such a fabulous vacation.  So I stopped.

But now I will resume.  Thank you for your patience.

Up the Danube, Day 3, Part 2

Okay, people, here’s the deal.  I am now two days behind in this blog adventure, and so I think what is going to happen is that I’m going to move forward without so many photos.  It’s a pain on the iPad/phone to get the photos prepped and uploaded, and yesterday I simply ran out of time to get the entire Vienna post done.

With that said, here’s the rest of Vienna.

Our natural travel instincts have kicked in, and rather than return to the bus and head back to the ship, we snagged a cab and headed out to the Belvedere Palace, Prince Eugene’s little place.  It is now a museum, and we had a hankering to glimpse some Klimts.

That is not the palace.  That is the side of the palace.

This is the palace:

And here are the gardens in “back,” facing the city and the other part of the palace, the Lower Belvedere.

The grand staircase here is grand.

This was fun.  In the first room, which we think might have been the ballroom, there were over the fireplaces these definitely non-period pieces:

The original oil paintings are out for restoration, so Swarovski commissioned these gold-plated sculptures to hold the space in the meantime.  They are quite striking and the perfect 21st-century complement to the rococo splendor of the setting.

Photos of the art are not permitted, so I can’t show you the Klimts.  You can google them, of course.  Here’s the thing: no matter how many times you’ve seen these famous paintings online or in your art history books, nothing prepares you for standing in front of them.  It’s only then you see the incredible eye of the artist, his design, his florid Art Nouveau sense of detail.

It’s also not until you’re standing in front of them that you begin to understand what a revolution he was.  In another room is one of his earlier portraits, and its photorealism is astonishing.  The lady’s fleshtones, her jewels, the fabric of her gown: all rendered in gobsmacking detail.  I stood and looked and looked at the diamonds on her bracelet but could never see the brushstrokes.

So when he transitioned to his flat, fevered, Art Nouveau style, it must have been a delicious sensation in salons all over town.

As it turned out, we were able to do our little jaunt to the Belvedere and still make it back to the ship for lunch, after which we set out for the afternoon trip to Schönbrunn Palace.

Now this is a palace.

Very reminiscent of Versailles, and that’s not an accident.  The architect wanted to outdo Versailles, placing this palace on the top of the hill and making it larger, but was told that a) it was too expensive; b) on top of the hill would be inconvenient; and c) this was a family home, dude, rein it in.

And so he had to settle for a mere 1400 rooms.

We saw about a dozen of those rooms, and again, photography was not permitted, but the palace’s website gives you a good idea.  It is mostly cozy in ways that Versailles is not, but it’s still an eyeful.

I am proud to say that when I asked about the Gobelin tapestry in the “Napoleon Bedroom,” whether it was customary to depict peasant men urinating on the pub wall, that the tour guide admitted she had never noticed it.

Every palace has to have its gardens, and this one’s a doozy.

We thought we might walk down at least to the fountain halfway down, but even that was too much.

The thing on the hill is the Gloriette; it’s where the architect wanted to place the palace, but he had to settle for a folly instead.

The gardens are huge.  I took a video panning around to show the boulevards extending out from this central promenade; I’ll upload it when we get home.

A look back at the palace:

Back to the ship, and then we made our own plans for the evening: the Haus der Musik, a fabulous interactive music museum (thanks for recommendation, Turff!)  where I bought a waste book:

I also bought a couple of CDs of Mozart and Beethoven remixed by a local musician into trance music, and a set of wooden drums that I’m too lazy to take out of the box to take a picture of.

And we saw Mahler’s hat, you guys!

And then we went to the Ferris Wheel. Oy.

I am mildly acrophobic, but for some reason riding this thing was on my lovely first wife’s list, and so up we went. I do not, for some reason, have a photo of the wheel as we approached it. But here’s our ride:

The building with hearts all over it is covered with LEDs and was broadcasting a Mother’s Day message to us all.  That’s St. Stephen in the center.  No clue what the blue dome was; something in the amusement park.

Here, have one more church:

This is St. Francis of Assissi, and despite its Romanesque appearance, it was built in the 19th century to celebrate Emperor Franz Joseph II’s 50th year on the throne.  There were several enormous churches like this: I think we should give thanks for this king’s birthday… I know, we’ll build a brand new church in a city with over 600.

Up the Danube, Day 3, part 1

Vienna!

It is quite possibly the most consistently beautiful city I have ever seen, and I’ve seen Las Vegas.

Here’s the famous Prater with its famous Ferris wheel.  (Cue zither music.). Hold that thought, because we shall return to it.

The usual bus tour, with the not-enough-time to snap photos of all the beautiful architecture.

The Vienna Staatsoper

The Austrian Parliament.

The above photo is of Maria Theresia, who was of course the incredible woman who succeeded to the imperial throne, had 22 pregnancies, 15 births, and 11 surviving children, all of whom she married to ruling families across Europe.  (Marie Antoinette was her youngest.)

Also, she modernized the Austrian state, codifying its laws, liberalizing its social structure, and in general a liberal Enlightenment badass.  Her son was Joseph II, of Salieri/Mozart fame.

She celebrated her 3ooth birthday the day before we got there.

Here’s part of her palace:

This is one of the surviving city gates.  It had been blown up by Napoleon, but naturally the Viennese rebuilt it.

The only part of the palace — which spans all the architectural periods — which is actually Renaissance is this gate:

As any Viennese tour guide worth his/her salt will tell you, Vienna was too busy holding off the Turks and saving Western Civilization to have much to do with those fancy-schmanzy Italians.

Look at this lovely interior:

This is the Michaels Dome.

It is the portico through which the horses and carriages pass.  Maria Theresia had style.

Here it is from the other side.

 

Out into the central shopping district, where reminders of the Belle Epoque just litter the sightlines.

The main cathedral is of course St. Stephen’s, the patron saint of Austria.

It being Sunday, mass was being celebrated when we entered.

Full orchestra/choir, some Haydn/Mozart mass.  As one does.

And now, dear ladies and gentlemen (as Sorin says), I’m leaving you for a while.  We’re sailing up past Hofvonstein, and I want to enjoy this.  You will have to wait for part two of Vienna.

Up the Danube, Day 2

As always on the road, there are technical issues.  I did not bring my laptop because heavy, but it probably would have been easier to deal with a lot of the blogging, especially the photos.  My phone is supposed to send all its photos to the Photo Stream, where my iPad is supposed to see them, and from where I can insert them easily into this blog.

This has not happened this morning, and I have a lot of photos.  At the moment I’m trying to upload them to the blog straight from the phone.  The much-vaunted superior internet speeds of Europe apparently do not apply to wifi on cruise ships.  (It doesn’t help that we’re at the bottom of a lock at the moment.)

So, day 2: Budapest.  We had moored under the Chain Bridge, across from the palace in the Castle District.

We loaded onto the buses and off we went for a quick tour of both Pest and Buda.  Pest is the western, flat, business/downtown.  Buda is the mountainous residential/palace/fortress eastern side of the river, as seen above.

Our tour guide was voluble and passionate about his country’s history, a large portion of which he shared with us.  Constantly.  At an excited pitch.  (We had these nifty little lavaliers that allowed us to hear what he was saying without having to crowd around him and listen to him yell.  He could do it straight into our ears.)

Indeed, Hungary’s history is ancient and proud, both conquered and conquerors.

This is Hero’s Square, built in 1896 to celebrate the millennium of the kingdom of Hungary.  1,000 years, folks.  You can’t see them, but there are statues of all our favorite kings in the arcade, between the columns.  We learned about every single one of them.

After being driven all over Pest, it was time to head over to the Buda side, up to the Castle District.  Our goal was Mathias Church:

Like much of Europe, Budapest was hit hard during WWII.  Mathias Church was 80% destroyed by advancing Soviet troops, Hungary having made the unfortunate choice to join the Axis.  Everything is a reconstruction of the neogothic cathedral.

Here’s the inside:

Here are two fun details: I liked this window, and I wish that Joszeph had stopped to take a breath so I could ask him about it:

Also, one of the kings— I don’t think it was Mathias — had the nickname of Corvinus, i.e., crow, and so one wall has his emblem all over it.

Yes, he has a ring in his mouth.

Here’s the outside of the church, on the ramparts build in 1896 as part of that whole 1,000-year-old thing:

After this we had about an hour to wander around.  Quaint, etc.  Walking up the street to the church, I had seen a sign with an arrow:

LABIRINTUS

So of course we went to find it.

It was not what I thought.

The entire hill is catacombed, and apparently this is their biggest tourist attraction. Oy.

Let me say at this point that as marvelous as the Viking River Cruise is –and it’s pretty dang marvelous — it is not traveling.  It’s touring.  We did not get see any museums, nor the palace, nor did we really have time to shop.  Because we had to be back at the ship to sail to Vienna, there was no option to get tickets to the opera or ballet, or to shop with any kind of deliberation.

So either spend your whole week impulse shopping, or resigning yourself not to shop at all, because you will not be looping back to pick up that artwork you admired in the first gallery you stopped at.

Since we were spending the rest of the day sailing up the Danube (our longest stretch on the water), Viking kept us busy with all kinds of little activities: an explanation of how the boat works, a lecture on Viennese coffeehouse culture (for the love of God don’t order a coffee), a captain’s toast, a lecture on Mozart, etc.

In your cabin, the TV gives you the itinerary and the weather, plus all kinds of other helpful stuff, plus there’s a daily newsletter of the next day’s schedule, placed on your bed during dinner.  There’s also a “port briefing” before dinner, given by the always-entertaining Sorin.

Our cabin is at the water line; no balcony for us.  The first time you look out your window, it’s a bit disturbing.

Otherwise, the journey is picturesque.

Someone’s old estate, now clearly divided into apartments, given the number of satellite dishes sprouting from the walls like so many mushrooms.

Esztergom, Hungary: the basilica is the largest church in Hungary.

Meanwhile, I’m exploring my inner Eurotrash.

I’ve always thought that Hans Gruber was tragically misunderstood.

The biggest excitement of the evening was our first lock.  No, I had no idea the Danube was dammed, but it is, somewhere between Esztergom and Bratislava.  We all went up to watch.

It is very impressive.

While we stood there and watched, we rose up to the top of that wall.

Mostly we were fascinated by how close we were to the wall.

I had happened through the lounge during the nautical lecture, so I knew that the ship has four engines, all rotatable 360°, but it was still alarming to see the captain standing at the rail keeping an eye on things.

Finally the gate opened, and we sailed on.

Back in the lounge, the musician got progressively more unbearable — just play your piano, Christo, and leave all the prerecorded trax out of it — so I went up top, where I realized that there ought to be a moon, a little past full.

I finally found it, rising over the river aft.

Up the Danube, Day 1

You might be forgiven for thinking that international travel on your birthday was a glamorous thing. Let me correct that impression.

First of all, if you’re headed east, to Europe, you lose hours. You leave Atlanta at 10:30 pm the night before your birthday, and by the time you land in Amsterdam it’s already past noon, what with travel and time zones. How is this even fair?

Of course, it just puts you closer to cocktail hour, I suppose. As I write this, it is 3:40 pm Budapest time; we are somewhere over Germany. I think. It’s hard to tell:

Although here’s a thing I’d never seen:

That is not a lens flare or reflection: it is a circular rainbow on the cloud.  Later, the shadow of the plane was in the center.  It was cool, and there were some phenomenal cloud formations we flew through which would have caused any CGI director to have an orgasm.

So thus far on my birthday I have seen the inside of two KLM planes, and the corridors of the Schiphol. This is not even close to glamorous.

Do not get me wrong: soon enough this will be delightful, what with mud baths in Budapest and concerts in Vienna, but I hate hate hate hate hate flying. It’s tedious, uncomfortable, and my ears feel like someone has jammed pencils into them. And if I had not snagged analgesic patches for my right buttock from my pain management doctor, this would be the crankiest first world birthday rant ever.

— — — — —

As was foretold in the prophecies, the trip itself is rather phenomenal.   All those Downton Abbey commercials?  Glossy advertising merely.  (I am writing this on Saturday morning.)  The reality is far better.

The ship is spotless and elegant, the staff is warm (imagine a boat full of Chekhovs from Star Trek), and the food is amazing.  The program director, Sorin, is sincerely funny (“After dinner tomorrow night, you may visit the wheelhouse, where the captain will show you the buttons you are not allowed to push,” in that Slavic accent).

The room, of course, is tiny:

That’s basically it.

At dinner, I was surprised by my lovely first wife:

You can’t see it, because I ate it before thinking to get a photo, but just behind the blackberries is a little medallion made of sugar with the Viking logo on it.

After dinner, we strolled up to the sun deck (where you have to be wary as we approach bridges: the Danube is up, which means you may find yourself like an overconfident movie villain in a train-top fight scene if you’re not careful) and got a night time river tour of Budapest, narrated by the ever-entertaining Sorin:

St. Mathias
Hungarian Parliament Building

There was a lot more, of course, but how many stunning night-time photos of imperial architecture do you really want to see?  By the time our ship — the Viking Tor — had turned around and come back up river to dock for the night, we were exhausted and went to our room to unpack and collapse.

 

Here we go again.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember the Great Cross Country trip from four years ago (!) and the Great Southwestern Woo Exploration from two years ago.  Tonight we shall set off on yet another adventure, this time to my beloved homeland of Hofvonstein.

Actually, it’s a Viking River Cruise—yes, just like on Downton Abbey—from Budapest to Nuremburg, up the Danube River, but most of the journey we will be sailing along the western border of Hofvonstein.  I even made sure that our cabins faced the homeland, although we’re mostly sailing at night and our windows are tiny little slits.  (Not everyone ponies up for the luxurious balconies.)

Sidebar for those who have no clue what I’m talking about: several many years ago, back at Newnan Community Theatre Company, we would do these interactive dinner theatre murder mysteries as fundraisers.  They were a lot of fun and cost us nothing: we would develop a scenario and characters, meet for a couple of rehearsals to improv scenes and evidence, and then away we went. The audience would buy tables for the catered dinner, meeting us during the cocktails round as they arrived, and then after we read them the rules they would choose which of the characters they wanted to follow into all the nooks and crannies of the theatre we were using as the environment. We’d kill someone off in full view of the audience, then have dinner, kick off the last round with another murder, and then wind up with a death so obvious that if you were in the room you knew exactly who did it, how, and why.

Anyway, in 1999 we invented the country of Hofvonstein, whose court had gone to Vienna in 1899 to ring in the new century on New Year’s Eve.  We had so much fun that we began to follow the characters through the next 30+ years, and then went back to 1601 when all the internecine strife began.  Good times.  Count Karl Magnus von Ludwighof (1854-1923) is still one of the best characters I have ever played.

I’ve been there before, actually, back in November of 2007.  Our son was studying in Munich for fall semester, so naturally we had to go see him for Thanksgiving.  While we were there, I decided it would be incredibly stupid to be this close to the homeland and not go, so we hopped a train and a bus and traveled over to Waldkirchen, the capital city of Hofvonstein.

The point here is that I will once again be travel blogging as we eat our way north past Hofvonstein, with the caveat that I’m doing this on my iPad so heaven knows how regular I will be.  The ship has wifi, so I’m not anticipating any problems, and actually this time I’m using the iPad versions of the very software I use here to manipulate images and upload them to the server (Pixelmator and  Transmit, for those who were wondering).  However, I may be so overcome with Heimatnostalgie that I can’t even.

Or hungover.  Whatever.

The usual caveats apply: yes, we have a house sitter, so don’t even think of robbing us blind.

Bizarre plants, part deux

Last month some time I transplanted this weedy-looking plant back to the “hedge” garden along with the mullein, because both looked like they were going to be inappropriate for the front.  I may have thought it was a mullein plant, although it looks nothing like it now.

Then day before yesterday I noticed that it had some odd looking blooms on it, and this morning:

Kind of wow, you know?

Through the genius of the hive mind—remember, boys and girls, that someone on Facebook can give you a straight answer—I learned that this is a Canterbury bells. (These are…?)  They self-seed, which means it’s in exactly the right place given that I want all those plants to take over the area.

However, my research has revealed it doesn’t really like heat.  I may have to see if I can find its descendants a better home in the back flower bed.

I have no idea where it came from.  I didn’t plant it.

Garden project: accomplished!

Task Avoidance can be wearying, as all Lichtenbergians know.  It’s the driving force behind Lichtenbergianism‘s success, after all: putting off all the stuff you need to work on eventually drives you crazy enough to do the work.

Thus it was with my garden markers project.  I just kept putting it off until it had to be done, and now… well, we’ll come back to that.

The concept was simple.  I needed herb garden markers that would a) identify the weirdo herbs I’ve planted without making me put on my glasses; b) remind me what they’re used for (coughs, flavoring, etc.), along with any notes about harvesting, etc.  Simple enough, but it took weeks.

I bought a cedar board and cut it into little blocks.

I drilled holes into the bottoms:

I sanded them mostly smooth:

I designed a little template for my information, printed those out, and affixed them to the blocks with Mod Podge, of all things.  (It was the outdoor variety, supposedly weather proof.)

I cut 8″ lengths of 1/8″ steel dowel, inserted those into the holes, and stuck them into the ground:

(Those are butterfly garden flowers, not weeds. Leave me alone.)

And we’re done!

Only not really.  I made a dozen blocks. I needed about eighteen.  Maybe next month…