About that new cocktail…

You will recall that at AnonymouS Bar in Prague I asked the bartender to make me a drink that would delight me, based on my recipe for a Smoky Topaz.

For reference, here’s what’s in a Smoky Topaz:

Barrel-aged gin, Averna Amaro, yellow Chartreuse, and green Chartreuse—and AnonymouS had only the green Chartreuse.

What the bartender brought me was an amazing drink that captured the woodiness of the Smoky Topaz yet had its own distinct character.  He told me that it contained genever (an older version of gin), Grand Marnier, green Chartreuse, and amaro.  This delighted me because I had every single one of those:

…except… which amaro?  There are scores of these herbal liqueurs, as cataloged in Brad Thomas Parsons’ Amaro.

Experimentation was called for.

Here are the actual amaros that I currently have.  I eliminated the Nonino without even trying it: it’s too light, and the drink was rather dark.

The original, for reference

I also eliminated the Angostura, because that flavor profile didn’t match the drink.

That left the Montenegro, which I don’t yet have a handle on.  I made the drink, and it was not the cocktail served to me in Prague.  (It also was not one I want to come back to later.)

Next, even though I knew the missing amaro was not Averna, it was all I had left so I tried it.  It was of course not correct.

All this time I was futzing with the proportions, figuring the genever was at 1.5 oz and the other ingredients were probably in a 3:2:1 kind of stack.

I looked in Amaro to see what my other options might be.  There were two likely suspects: Becherovka and R. Jelínek Amaro Liqueur, both from the Czech Republic.  I figured it couldn’t be Becherovka because that’s kind of the Czech national liqueur and the bartender would have named it.  I figured I was doomed to begin my search for the R. Jelínek.

Or…

I could email the bar and see if they’d be willing to give me at least the name of the amaro if not the recipe.  (Bars are generally very jealous of their signature cocktail recipes.)

So I emailed AnonymouS and got a reply rather quickly.  Did I know the bartender’s name?  (I had called him a waiter, but all the waiters at AnonymouS are bartenders.) Or could I describe him?

Naturally I did not know his name, and as for description: “young, slender, dark-haired” was not very helpful.  But perhaps he would remember the quartet of older Americans who rather enjoyed themselves that evening?

Indeed Jaroslav Modlik did remember us, and he remembered the drink.  And since it was not one of their signature cocktails—”I make just especially for you,” he said—he was happy to share the recipe with me.

The amaro was the Angostura.  I felt like an idiot: that was the basic woody flavor (along with the chartreuse).

It is Jaroslav’s privilege to name this drink, but for the moment it’s going into my cocktail book as the Smoky Quartz (with full credit and back story of course).

The Smoky Quartz

(original recipe)

  • 4o ml Bols Genever
  • 20 ml green Chartreuse
  • 15 ml Amaro Angostura
  • 10 ml Grand Marnier

(Americanized)

  • 1.5 oz Bols Genever
  • .75 oz green Chartreuse
  • .5 oz Amaro Angostura
  • .33 oz Grand Marnier

Stir with ice, serve with orange peel.

This was the drink from Prague, and it is every bit as luscious here at home as abroad.  I find that I need another bottle of Bols Genever, which frankly I didn’t think I would ever need to replenish.

It is a point of extreme pride for me that Jaroslav Modlik is head bartender at AnonymouS,  and he invented a cocktail for me.  Is that cool or what?

Up the Danube, The Swag edition

Part of the fun of any major trip is buying All The Things, right?  Even though we are in death nesting mode, I still found a few things I could not resist.

In Vienna, the Haus der Musik is open till 11:00 pm, but when we bought our tickets at 9:00 the young man cheerfully told us the gift shop closed in an hour, so of course we went there first.  And the first thing I saw were these wooden drums:

They have a great little tick-tock sound.  They come with little cards for die Kinder, but I plan to make great use of them to annoy the neighbors, if not here then at a burn.  (You hear that, Black Lodge?  You just keep that karaoke going until 2:00 in the morning.)

At Faber-Castell’s gift shop, you will recall that I had no choice but to buy new ink for my brand new replacement fountain pen.

I really wanted the grey ink, but I’ve had correspondents complain that it’s hard to read.  ::sigh::

In Nuremberg, I found this little charm, which I think is supposed to be a Christmas ornament, but it’s going on a little chain I have added to my Utilikilt for burn events.

Likewise in Nuremberg, this little lizard spoke to me at a street vendor’s stall and asked to be added to my collection of lizards.

I did a lot of shopping in Prague mainly because I had the time to do so.  At our first lunch at the cafe, there was a crafts market set up in Republic Square.  I was attracted to the weaver and his wares.  (His young helper who helped me find the right size of shirt and hat had spent last summer in Florida with his girlfriend who was working there; he liked Savannah, he said.)

Strolling back to the hotel one day, my lovely first wife was attracted by the window of a glass art company, and so we popped in.

She wanted just the white champagne flute—we really have no more room for glassware—but the owner was quite piteous with her “but the box is for two..” gambit, and so I picked out the blue one.  Since we have until recently given ourselves a pair of champagne flutes for our anniversary, we were happy with our choice.  (I stopped doing this last year because a) we have no more room; and b) death nesting.)

As we waited for the concert our last night in Prague, I was attracted to a store selling Czech garnets and amber.  After some deliberation, I ended up with another pendant for my kilt chain.

I can’t explain my attraction yet.

And finally, my booze haul.

In the center, the apricot liqueur from the Göttweig Abbey in Krems.  On the left, absinthe from Prague, which is going to the burn with me tomorrow.  (The deal is that Euphoria, the spring Georgia burn, had to be cancelled at the beginning of May; many of us are attending the Tennessee burn, so I’m offering this to the Euphoria refugees as a “shot of Regret.”)

And then there’s the Ayrer’s Malt Gin.

This is the gin that I made a mad dash back to the store in Nuremberg, arriving just as the shopkeeper locked the door.  Was it worth it?

Oh my.

This is a small batch, single malt gin that will never be mixed with anything.  I am going to sip it in thimblefuls.  You may be allowed to watch me, if you’ve been good.

Usually I am not a fan of heavily floral gins, but this one is Elixir.  Very strong citrus notes, both lemon and orange. Undergirdings of hops.

We will now begin searching for an American distributor.

I have one last Danube story, about the cocktail that AnonymouS Bar created for me, but it will have to wait until I get back from Camping with the Hippies™ on Sunday.

 

Up the Danube, coming home, and pro tips

Monday, May 22, we came home.  Once again, the Viking River Cruise folk were super organized, telling us when to have our bags out in the hall and when to report for the bus.  We were driven to Prague Airport and bade farewell.

One more funny English:

So vending.  Much wow.

The flight home was a lot more bearable than the flight over, mostly because we were not trying to sleep, but soon enough we were home and the jet lag claimed us.

—————

So what advice do I have to give those considering a Viking River Cruise?

First and foremost: do it.  If you can snag a two-for-one deal, that’s awesome, but even though these things are nowhere close to cheap they are exactly what the commercials imply.  The shipboard experience is flawless from the moment they pick you up at the airport till they drop you off again.

Having said that, do not expect anything from the bus tours other than a brief overview of the city you’re touring.  The tour guides are excellent and very knowledgeable, but you won’t actually have a lot of time to stroll or see all the museums and churches they are pointing out to you.

On board, do go for the prepaid tipping.  We did our calculations on the last day and found that the amount pretty much covered what we would have tipped anyway, and it’s a whole lot easier than trying to decide which of the staff you really want/need to tip.  We added some specific tips for specific staff we found especially helpful, like the ever-adorable Sorin.

You probably do not need the alcohol package.  Wine and beer (usually regional) are included with the meals, and even if you have one or two cocktails a night in the lounge, the total comes nowhere close to the $300/cabin package cost.  It may be that the package covers bottles of wine not on the menu; you’d need to check that yourself.  If so, and that’s your thing, then then alcohol package might be economical.

Do not be afraid to use the concierge staff.  That’s what they’re there for.  Ask questions; get them to call you a cab; use their services.

Be bold in your dinner partner choices.  Viking does not assign tables, so it might feel a little like middle school all over again, but we never failed to have a great evening with whomever we sat.  You also get to meet the different servers that way.

The food is first rate.  If you take lunch in the lounge, that may be a buffet, but all meals in the dining room are all white table cloth service with gourmet preparation.  Every meal has a menu with three choices of appetizer, entree, and dessert.  There are also “always available” options for those days when Bavarian chow is just not going to do it for you.

Be sure to attend the “port talks” each night.  That’s when your program director will give you the outline of the next day.  It may save you looking like a clueless oaf the next morning and will certainly save you from having to stand in line at the concierge’s desk with all the clueless oafs.  Also, you may discover that your tour leaves at an ungodly hour in the morning that you were planning to sleep past.

In that same vein, if you’re on a ship with the little lavalier tour guide headsets that you have to charge in your room, please figure out how to do that right.  I’m not going to point fingers, but too many of our shipmates were hapless when it came to getting these things to work.  They were nice enough about it, and the tour guides were unflaggingly positive, but still. Don’t be that guy.

And in that vein, be aware that the average age of the Viking River Cruise patron is north of 65.  There were a handful of couples younger than us, but on the whole these are people who have been retired for a while and who can afford to do this out of boredom.  (There were a couple of tables that never left the ship as far as I could tell, just playing cards in the lounge every time I saw them.)  This fact has nothing to do with your experience; only once did we encounter someone who might be described as crabby, and certainly I never saw anyone being unkind or rude to the staff.

Don’t be afraid to chat with the staff.  They have interesting stories to tell.

If you can afford the time and money, book an extension after the cruise like we did in Prague.  It truly gives you a chance to decompress before being whisked back to real life and wondering if the past week were all a dream.  (We are now also proponents of booking a pre-extension as well.)

If you’re not overly familiar with architectural history, do yourself a favor and learn the major styles: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical.  Google is your friend.  The reason you want to do this is that the tour guides rattle these things off and usually assume you know what they’re talking about.  (In education, that’s called the “curse of knowledge.”)

My lovely first wife is a keen reader of the Top 10… series of travel books, and indeed they are quite handy.  Again, you won’t be getting to many of the items on a Viking River Cruise but the books are a good overview/prep for what you will see.  We make fun of her for her devotion to them, but the truth is we let her do all the research and rely on her for where to eat and what to see whenever we’re traveling on our own.  Also, if you’re determined to see the Klimts in Vienna, for example, knowing ahead of time what you absolutely have to do will let you make plans with the staff’s assistance to make it happen, if possible.

You will need to tip your tour guide and your bus driver every trip, so lay in the small euros when you can.  Public restrooms on your tours are usually not free; your tour guide should be able to warn you how much they are and tell you where free ones are.  (They will always plan for restroom breaks, and they try to make them where the facilities are free.)

There’s at least one tour each day that’s included as part of the tour.  You can add others for an additional charge, and you can do that ahead of time, but it is possible to wait until you’re on board to do so, when you can ask for details from your program director and when you have a better idea of the trip.  Also, be aware of your own stamina.

Speaking of which: buy really good shoes, up to and including orthopedic numbers.  You’ll be walking a lot, often on cobblestones, and this is not the time for those cute little sandals. Or heels.

And DO NOT OMIT THE NAPPING.

Up the Danube, Day 10

One reason we loved Prague so much was that we were there for two and a half days and were able to get out and explore it, which is not really possible on the cruise. And while we had assiduously avoided all the WWII tours, our guide in Passau had encouraged us to take the Jewish Prague walking tour, and so this morning we headed out to the Jewish Museum complex.

Our first stop was the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest in Europe.

Pure Gothic.  It shows my ignorance when I’m always startled at the architecture of European synagogues: I’m not sure why I have it in my head that the Jews would have their own ecclesiastical style divorced from their time and place.

The portal into the sanctuary:

The tree is the symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel bearing fruit.

Seating is still as it was when the synagogue was built: around the periphery.  There are windows in the thick walls for the women’s gallery to be able to see in.

The Ark containing the Torah is behind this tapestry, hand embroidered of course.  The crown indicates that this is a Sephardic congregation; the Ashkenazi Jews used bells as their symbols.

Our next stop was the Pinkas Synagogue.  It was gut-wrenching.

The walls have been covered with the names and villages of the 80,000 Czech Jews who were deported and killed by the Nazis.  And then upstairs is the exhibit of children’s art from Terezin.

Terezin was the Nazis’ “model” concentration camp, a kind of Potemkin village that they used to show the rest of the world how well they were treating the Jews.  There, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an artist from the Bauhaus school, taught art lessons to the children.  Before she was deported to Auschwitz, she hid 4,500 pieces of art in two suitcases, which were found ten years later.  The Jewish Museum stores them now; the exhibit in the Pinkas Synagogue are reproductions.

All you could do is cry.

The sanctuary itself is a kind of pseudo-Romanesque.  I found the Art Nouveau windows to be particularly lovely:

The Spanish Synagogue is spectacular.  It was built in the 1860s by the Reformed community in the Moorish Revival Style, which you may be familiar with from the rather newer Fox Theatre in Atlanta.

The dome:

There were a couple more stops on the tour: the Jewish Cemetery, the Klausen Synagogue with its exhibit of religious paraments and service vessels, and the Ceremonial Hall of the Jewish Burial Society, which has made no concessions to modern crown control in its narrow stairs.  The restroom in particular was difficult to negotiate via its single narrow spiral staircase down.

Then we were free for the rest of the day.  We wandered back to the Old Town Square to see what we could see.

Art Nouveau details:

Amusing English:

We do not know whether this is high-falutin’ cuisine or comestibles for Kafka snobs.

All the streets in Prague look basically like this:

There is a place on the Old Town Square which has exhibits of Dali, Warhol (née Warhola, i.e., of Czech extraction), and Alphonse Mucha.  It was the latter we wanted to see.  (You paid separately for each exhibit.)

Who is Alphonse Mucha?  You know him:

Also Sarah Bernhardt posters, etc. etc.  The man was prolific and unstoppable, the Czech equivalent of Louis Tiffany.  He designed anything and everything: posters, cookie tins, furniture, calendars, notecards, stained glass—everything.  He was the soul of European Art Nouveau.

The irony?  He was rejected as a student by the Prague Institute and advised to “find another career.”  Oops.

I found this amusing:

Vin des Incas, available, the poster says, in all pharmacies, for convalescents.  And why is this wine “Incan”?  Because its not-so-secret ingredient (in the little white circle to the left of the name) is “la coca du Pèrou.”  Cocaine.  Ah, the Fin de Siècle…

We were thinking we would head back to the Kokorovka Cafe for lunch, but take a different route.  That’s when we saw this poster:

Talk about Top 40.  But the selling point was the Widor “Toccata” from his Organ Symphony No. 5.  Here, go listen to this in the background.  Turn up your speakers.

The Widor Toccata was played at my lovely first wife’s college graduation, and she made her poor church organist learn it to play as our wedding recessional.  It is a glorious piece.

The poster was one of dozens outside a little shop that sold tickets to these events all over the city.  Prague is and always has been a very musical city; Mozart premiered Don Giovanni there because Prague was a lot more enthusiastic about his music than stuffy old Vienna.  We went inside and bought tickets.

Then we had to change our lunch plans, because we had made reservations at the Café Imperial for dinner.  We went there to cancel our dinner plans and to have lunch instead.

Can you say Belle Epoque?

Walls and ceilings covered in tile.  Food was delicious.

The English again:

Here, have a dessert photo:

We retreated to the hotel for a nap (DO NOT OMIT THE NAPPING!) and then ventured out to our concert.  We arrived super early and strolled the street: art galleries, beer garden with live jazz, shops and restaurants.

And there it was:

Alas, there wasn’t enough time for me to visit and genuflect.  We will return.

Finally it was time to head back to St. Giles Church for the concert.

Simple Romanesque exterior.  But you know how that ends:

The house opened at 7:30, but there was a service going on; the Dominican monks whose monastery is attached were singing mass.  We were allowed to go in and have a seat, but no photos of course.  (A sign asked for reverence with the irreverent advisory, “The monks are not monkeys.”)  Their singing was perfect, reverberating throughout the nave with no amplification: if that had been the concert it would have been enough.

While we were waiting, I found this:

St. Martin of Tours—my name saint, which I didn’t realize at the time because a) the donor of the statue was Spanish and I didn’t make the leap from Torres to Tours; and b)

… what?  St. Martin’s myth is his cutting his cloak in two to share with a beggar.  I’ve never heard of —and cannot now find —any connection with household animals.  The placard on the wall is completely in Czech other than the title, so I guess I’ll never know.

The monks finished the mass and withdrew.  An elderly Dominican welcomed us to the church and to the concert in a lovely speech about caritas, music, and God.

The concert itself was satisfying: a string quartet alternating with the organist.  Yes, the music was Top 40, but it was flawlessly performed with great musicality so you’ll get no quibbles from me.  If I had wanted 12-tone nonsense I would have stayed in Vienna.

The concert gave ample opportunity for examining the church, and I found myself considering it in terms of entertainment, i.e., for a populace who were largely still illiterate, before our own time of constant stimulation, the exuberance of the altarpiece for example must have been rather exhilarating.

—click for larger image—

The music of the monks, the organ, the incense, the shining of the gold decor, the drama of the angels — just look at these weightless beings in full flight! —the physical presence of saints and bishops in statuary: what a powerful experience to a person who has never seen a Michael Bay movie.

And the Widor was everything we hoped for.

Up the Danube, Day 9, part 2

You will recall that I had arrived in Prague with a list of some twenty bars which, according to my internet research, were highly regarded by the craft cocktail world.  Filip, bartender at the hotel’s Cloud 9, had recommended without hesitation AnonymouS Bar.

I did a little further research at their website, anonymousbar.cz, and found that they had recently opened a second bar, AnonymouS Shrink’s Office, which played off the work of Rorschach. Decisions, decisions.  I finally opted for the original because 1) they opened at 5:00; 2) they took reservations online; 3) they took credit cards (a bar bill in koruna? no thanks); and 4) it was nonsmoking.  Next time we’ll brave the Shrink’s Office.

Our cab driver used his GPS to get us there, except that when we arrived AnonymouS was nowhere to be seen on the narrow cobblestone street.  The driver was a little flustered, but I assured him it was fine.  It was all part of the game.

I led our crew down to a nondescript wooden gate, where there was a courtyard piled with what may have been discarded HVAC equipment, and there across the courtyard was the bar, still without any kind of sign.

Upon entering, I was little nonplussed to find that they did not have our reservations, but it was after all 5:30 and the young pretty people weren’t out yet.  It was not a problem.

AnonymouS Bar looks like a place the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen would congregate, mixed with overtones of the hacker group Anonymous.  Our waiter was bright, friendly, and ever so arch, as if he knew a secret.  Which he did.

The menu is a little booklet, with the first page a list of descriptors followed by cryptic instructions: Follow the Script.  Follow the Vision.   Then there’s a simple list of five cocktails, each based on a standard classic like the Negroni or Manhattan.  Between these five drinks there are large blank rectangles, labeled OP, which we never did figure out.  There are boxes: Follow the Vision—Ask for More.  Then there’s the standard listing of beers, wines, and spirits.

We ordered our first round, and while we were waiting our server donned an Anonymous mask trimmed with EL wire and snapped a Polaroid:

That’s me in the Anonymous mask.  At this point we were hooked, trying to read a message into random events, like the weird b in Remember.  (Who knows?  It might have been a puzzle we never tumbled to.)

Marc and I had ordered a V’s Blood, their version of the Negroni.  It arrived first, and thus it began:

Yes, presented in IV bags and drained into our glasses.

I will say right now that all this gimmickry would have been enough to drive me from the bar if it were nothing but gimmickry.  But this place knows its show biz, and the drinks were nothing short of the best cocktails I have ever had in my life.

My lovely first wife got a Remember Remember the 5th of November, a Manhattan:

This was by far the best Manhattan I’ve ever had: bourbon, sherry, and black walnut bitters.  I will be desperately trying to reconstruct this one.

MF had The Scarlet Rose:

Yes, those are rose petals.  This was a version of the Ramos Gin Fizz, and it was tasty.

At this point I felt the need to send photos of these marvels to a Facebook group I belong to that updates everyone on their drinking habits, mostly beer but some cocktails, because what’s the point of being in the best bar in Europe if you can’t make everyone else jealous, amirite?  I noticed that the bar had wifi, so I asked our waiter if I could get the password.

“Yes of course,” he said and shimmered away.

With that settled, I got online and began posting.

SPOILER ALERT: If you want to go to Prague and experience the fun and games of AnonymouS Bar for yourself, read no further.  I am not kidding.  I almost don’t want to tell the rest of this experience because it would be a shame to short circuit someone else’s delight, but given that most of you will very likely never be in Anonymous I will go on.

But seriously, if you think you want to go do this yourself, stop reading right now.

As we were mulling our choices for our first round, I made so bold as to “ask for more” like the menu instructed.  We were told that that option would be available after our first round.

When the time came, there were two options for More: one for vision, one for smell.  I asked for the olfactory menu.  We were brought a wooden case that slid open to reveal five tiny bejeweled flasks, each a different color.  We were instructed to smell them and choose one.  That would be our next cocktail.  There was a printed menu for reference.

My lovely first wife then asked for the visual menu, and we were brought a ViewMaster.  There the cocktails were linked to video games.

Round two:

THE SCRAP (Resident Evil)

Vodka, pickled beets, lemon, pistachio syrup—entirely too sweet we decided… until the gelatin eyeball dissolved enough to release citric acid crystals into the drink which, sucked up through the straw, were a perfect balance.

EAU DE BLEU

Bourbon, peated honey, vermouth, jasmine aperitif—and under that little bell?

Dried ham, to be munched on while sipping to complement the drink.  Amazing concept.

EAU DE VERT

apricot-infused cognac, syrup of oyster mushrooms/truffles, bittering spices/herbs, accompanied this time by mushrooms.

EZIO AUDITORE (Assassin’s Creed)

wine blend, vanilla syrup, lemon, egg white, honey; probably our least favorite, but still tasty

Round Three—oh yes, at this point we were on a roll.

Now here’s an odd thing: we seemed to be the only patrons in the place who were actually thrilling to the chase, as it were.  It was a light crowd, still very early in the evening for young barflies, and everyone else seemed to be ordering your basic drinks, and mostly bottled beer at that.  Of course, it was Czech beer so that’s something, but who goes to one of the world’s premiere craft cocktail bars and orders nothing but Pilsner?

There were a couple of groups of young men, which we assumed were bachelor parties.  (Prague is a destination for young parties like that, especially Brits.)  One of them at least ordered a showy coffee:

Later in the evening two young women came in, one of whom was doing a dead-on Scarlett Johansson.  As far as we know, it could have been.  ScarJo, where were you the night of May 20, 2017?

Anyway, Round Three:

CODENAME 47 (didn’t get the video reference written down..)

Sorry for the fuzzy photo: Scotch, absinthe bitters, maple syrup

Marc enjoying himself:

EAU DE ROUGE

Vodka, gin, wine leaves, blend of French aperitifs, “forest fruits,” dried candied hibiscus

And for my last drink, I played a game of my own.  I showed the waiter the recipe for my Smoky Topaz and explained that this was my favorite drink in the world.  He began to tell me they didn’t have all the ingredients, and I told him I knew they didn’t because I had scoped out the bar.  I wasn’t asking them to make the Smoky Topaz—I was asking them to use that information to make a drink that would please me.

The results were stunning:

Genever, green chartreuse, Grand Marnier, Amaro (but which one?)  It was, if I’m being honest, better than the Smoky Topaz.  It precipitated a bit of an existential crisis.

I’m going to work on this one, and if I’m successful it will be the Smoky Quartz. (Update: see here for how that turned out.)

Three rounds of phenomenal cocktails being more than enough for anyone, we asked for restaurant recommendations and were sent to MANU, an Italian seafood restaurant floating in the Moldau.  It was top shelf, a lovely way to end our day.  (Our waiter had been an au pair in Dunwoody.  Yep.)

And when you absolutely have to connect your Art Nouveau hotel to the Renaissance guard tower:

Up the Danube, Day 8 and Day 9, part 1

Bright and early Friday morning, we were loaded onto a bus and taken to Prague.

This trip was an extension of the cruise itself.  Some people start their cruise with a three-day extension; we ended it.  It’s still managed by Viking River Cruise, albeit without the meals.  You still have included tours and you can still opt for extra tours, but except for breakfast at the hotel you have to feed yourself.  It’s one way to start easing back into real life if by real life you mean dining out at really good restaurants.

The Czech Republic is a member of the European Union and participates in the Schengen Area agreement (no border checks) but not in the Eurozone.  In other words, you don’t have to show your papers to get in, but your euros don’t work and you have to start doing math in your head again.  For the record, the exchange rate while we were there was 23.9 korunas to the dollar, so that a 100CZK bill was about $4.  An easy estimate, therefore, was to knock two zeros off the price and multiply by 4: a restaurant bill of 729CZK was actually about $28.

I do not have a picture of the border when we passed it, with its languishing Iron Curtain checkpoints.  I wish I did, because planted squarely where you would have been interrogated by unsmiling Commie guards was a KFC, which has made great inroads in the eastern bloc.

Instead, here’s where we stopped a couple of miles down the road:

I’ve said for 40 years that if we were serious about toppling Castro, just make nice with him and send in McDonald’s to take over the country.

We arrived at the Prague Hilton (not to be confused with the Hilton Old Town) before lunch.  Our bags were stowed for us, a VRC guide took us to Republic Square and gave us a few pointers for lunch and how to get back to the hotel, and left us to our own devices.

Prague is a gorgeous city, actually prettier I think than Vienna.

I don’t know why I don’t have any photos of most of this day other than I was exhausted, not having slept well for the last two nights of the cruise.  We ate lunch at the Kolkovna Café, where the meal for the two of us, plus two drinks each, came to the aforementioned $28.  Prague is not only lovely, it is affordable.

I did take a photo of this:

Why?  Because in the opera world, “Toi toi toi” is what one says rather than “Break a leg,” and I have several friends who would find this hysterical.

Anyway, we browsed around the crafts market there in the square before staggering back to the hotel and napping.  Napping is an important part of your tour.  DO NOT SKIP THE NAPPING!

For Christmas, my lovely first wife gave me a book which chronicled the rise of the craft cocktail culture in the 90s and 00s.  It was mostly 400 pages of name-dropping, but one thing I retained from it was that Prague—weirdly enough—had some world-class bars.  I was determined to hit at least one of them; I had a list prepared from my online research. So AFTER MY NAP I went down to the concierge to ask for advice.

The phrase “craft cocktail” stymied them.  They hemmed and hawed, recommended two bars on the list in a way that suggested to me they were going by the names and not by experience or reputation, and finally—in what I thought was a pretty defensive tone—suggested I try their swank bar, Cloud 9 Sky Bar & Lounge, up on the roof.  I smiled politely.

Then it occurred to me that while the concierge was ignorant of Prague’s cocktail scene, the bartenders at Cloud 9 would know exactly whom to recommend.  So at precisely 6:00 I hit the elevator to the 9th floor.

I wish I had taken photos: ultra-cool design, white marble, LED lighting, gentle EDM piped through the sound system, and a long long hall overlooking Prague… I thought I might be lost, actually.  Then I turned the corner and there was the bar, all black and white and gleaming purple.  I parked at the bar, ordered a funky gin & tonic (with star anise and cinnamon sticks as garnish), and plopped down my list in front of Filip.

“That one,” he said without hesitation.  AnonymouS Bar.

Hold that thought.

I was joined by the others, we went out to the terrace overlooking the Moldau River, and had a nice relaxing evening with good drinks, fabulous french fries, and a tasty cheese plate.

The Cloud 9 menu, which was unwieldy to say the least.

—————

The next morning, we boarded a bus and were taken up to Prague Castle, which once again is a whole complex of buildings overlooking the Moldau.

Our tour guide had been rather sheep dog-ish in getting us onto the bus and on the road, and a good thing too: there’s a security checkpoint to enter the area, and while we stood in line for maybe 20 minutes to get in, those who began arriving after us stood in line for probably over an hour.

Here’s a fun thing:

This is one of the first buildings in the complex, Renaissance, decorated using the sfgraffito technique: you paint the wall brown, overpaint it with white, then scratch through to the brown.  In this case it’s a real cheap way to look like you had the money to build your house out of stonework:

The highpoint was St. Vitus Cathedral, the only real Gothic church we went into on the trip.

The church was started in 1344 but was not finished until 1929.  They had gotten the choir and transept built when war interrupted the process for good in the 15th century.  It was not until the 19th century that word resumed on the nave; for 400 years they had a temporary wall where the nave should have been.  (You can see the same sort of thing at St. John the Divine in NYC, only their wall is where the transept will be.)

All the stained glass windows, therefore, are 20th century creations.  Here’s one by Alphonse Mucha:

Back down to the city, where we were shown other architectural things, walked across the Charles Bridge (supercrowded with tourists walking across the Charles Bridge), and then were released for the rest of the day.  We strolled.

Lots o’ Kafka.  I refrained from making cockroach jokes, and so should you.

The Old Square.

Prague’s intact 18th-century look attracts filmmakers, of course.  It usually stands in for Vienna in movies like Amadeus.

The famous astronomical clock on the city hall.  Pre-Copernican, of course.

For when you absolutely have to connect your Beaux-Arts hotel to the Medieval tower.

Well, we had to stop in, didn’t we?  I did buy some absinthe, but not the enhanced kind.  For one thing, customs/felonies/etc.  For another (as I have determined through dogged research), the cannabis-infused liquors available everywhere in Prague are a bit of a scam.  While cannabis has been decriminalized in the Czech Republic, it’s still illegal to buy or sell and the cannabis absinthe has no pyschoactive ingredients.  It just tastes like weed, which not even I can imagine being useful (or desirable) in a cocktail.

Finally, waiting in the lobby that evening before heading out, I noticed this fine establishment in our luxury hotel:

The English she is hard, no?

And where were we heading out to?  AnonymouS Bar.

Up the Danube, Day 7

Last stop: Nuremberg.

But first it was a trip to the Faber-Castell factory you guys!

That’s right, we signed up — and paid extra — to tour an office supply plant.  Apparently this is a niche interest, since it was only the four of us plus two ladies who had shipboard credit they needed to spend on the tour.  (For the record, they did not regret their choice.)

Faber-Castell started in Stein in 1761, and there it still is.  It makes 2 BILLION pencils a year, worldwide.

Stein, right next door to Nuremberg (they really don’t like it if you say “outside of Nuremberg”), is a pretty little town, although we didn’t get to see much of it.

This is a row of former fishermen’s houses, renovated and used for low-income housing.

A view of the original F-B factory:

Looking more closely, you can see the turbine they still use to generate power from the river, and the windows painted bright colors.  These colors actually indicate which department is on that floor; they are not just delicious reminders of the colored pencils you guys!

In the basement is a museum/exhibit explaining both the history of the pencil (squee!!!) and of the company itself.  They’ve used a bunch of the old equipment they had lying around, and you can thank me in the comments for not showing every single picture I took of every single item.

Here’s a shelf with samples of graphite, originally mined in England and then in Siberia:

And a close-up:

As I mentioned, all the equipment is the older non-automated stuff, so it’s redolent with graphite and oil:

This is the machine which would take the sludge made of graphite and clay (a mixture devised by Lothar Faber in the 19th century that revolutionized pencil manufacture, allowing for the different grades of hardness) and squeeze it through steel plates to form the leads.

It would come out still wet and pliable; it had to be fired to achieve rigidity.

This Lothar Faber was amazing: he ramped up production; provided housing/education/health/daycare for his workers (establishing the first kindergarten); and realized that if you wanted people to pay more for your superior, green-coated pencils, you packaged them to look special.  It still works: I cannot walk by a Faber-Castell display without a Pavlovian response to buy it.

The exhibit was an office supply junkie’s wet dream, with piles of leads and slabs of graphite and bundles of product strewn about with abandon.

Then we went back across the bridge to the current production facility.

On the way, the wording on this sign finally sunk in:

Sommer in der City?  Especially when the very next line uses Stadt?  (Full translation: Summer in the City / the Nuremburg City Beach / Now it’s getting hot!)

We noticed ten years ago in Munich that English was used like pepper, to spice up your marketing, and our tour guide Fiona (Scottish herself) confirmed that English was still “cool.”  It was sometimes barely noticeable in Austria or Germany — at least to those of us with a smattering of German — but in the Czech Republic, where the letters don’t cohere into what you and I would call “words,” the effect was sometimes jarring.

Anyway, back across the bridge, we prepared to enter Faber-Castell’s factory.

You are entirely not wrong if you are thinking MY GOD IT’S WILLY WONKA’S FACTORY!

Just sayin’.

I have no photos, because industrial spying etc, but the process of making one of those gorgeous colored pencils you guys is amazing.  Step after step, innovation after innovation—it was incredible.  You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a machine round off the top of a pencil, then dip a whole squad of them into paint just to get that colored tip.

Fun fact: Europeans expect their pencils to be sharpened.  Americans like theirs not sharpened.  (I’m with the Europeans on this one.)

Here’s the second of my three are-you-kidding-me stories: I own a Faber-Castell fountain pen, and in fact it’s my favorite: a not inexpensive rosewood-barrelled finepoint.  However, it had developed a habit of leaking for no discernible reason, and the cap had problems staying on, a dangerous combination.  I had joked about getting someone to take a look at it from the moment we signed up for the tour but lowered any secret hopes I had when I saw that we were actually going to a pencil factory.

Then at the end of the tour we got a little brand enhancement with a look at some of their premium fountain pens and a shipping room, and then, almost casually, our tour guide pointed out the room on the other side of the hall: “This is our repair facility.”

My gang made little simian hooting noises, my eyebrows flew up, and I whipped out the pen.

“Perhaps they can help me with this—it leaks and the cap won’t stay on,” I said.  The tour guide rapped on the large plate glass window, and a young man came to the door.  I showed him the pen, he took it, removed the cap, noted its looseness and tutted at the ink stains on the rosewood barrel.

“This is not good,” he said, and vanished.

In 120 seconds he returned and handed me a completely new pen.

Well.  There is customer service, and then there’s customer service.  That’s one way to conclude a tour.

Of course, this meant we would have to go to the gift shop, because now I needed ink.  (As if we weren’t going there anyway.)  Many purchases were made.  Many purchases were, regretfully, not made.

Back to the ship, where I noticed growing on the banks:

Cardoon!  It’s the original, not the hybrid taking over my side yard, because every dentata on every leaf has a very sharp spine sticking out of it.  Whoever first decided that this thing was edible was a brave human indeed.

After lunch, to Nuremberg.

We had deliberately not signed up for any of the WWII tours, because one visit to Dachau ten years ago is enough to make the point, but in Nuremberg you cannot escape it.

For example, on our way to the Altstadt, we were driven to and into the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, which I actually did not know existed.

Again, stolen from Wikipedia:

—click to see full version—

It’s huge.  However, it is radically unfinished.  We drove into the interior, and such was my shock at the ambition, the scale, that I took no photos.  Again, stolen from Wikipedia:

—click to see full version—

As big as this is, it was going to be bigger: half again as tall, and domed.  Like any dangerous megalomaniac, the man loved large adoring crowds, he said letting that hang there for a while.

We also drove through the zeppelin landing fields and the parade grounds:

And then, mercifully, it was on to the Altstadt, where, actually, it was just as depressing.

The Old Town, still enclosed in walls and gates, was completely obliterated by the Allies.  It was a deliberate psyops gambit: Nuremberg was Hitler’s “most German city,” and the Altstadt was its symbol.  So we wiped it out.

The castle/fortress, never successfully attacked:

The old square:

The little spire in the foreground is a memorial to the Black Plague, recently restored.  Almost every place we went had one of these.  If you’ve never read A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman, give it a whirl: the impact of the plague on western culture cannot be under-emphasized.

A little shopping, a little strolling…

One funny story: as we did the walking tour down from the castle to the square, I noticed a little shop with locally distilled gin.  I made a note, and after we were released for free time, I waited patiently while we shopped for Christmas ornaments and basically nonexistent traditional Bavarian shirts for our boy-children.  Finally, it was getting close to time to get back to the bus, so I announced that it was time to go check out the gin.  I set out, down the hill to the square, and then back up the other hill towards the castle.  I forged on; I was not to be deterred by dawdling.  I dodged tourists, locals, vehicles.  I churned up those cobblestone streets.

I arrived at the shop precisely at the moment the proprietor turned the key in the lock.  It was 5:00.

Fortunately, she saw me and saw the look on my face.  She opened back up, I apologized for detaining her, and told her I wanted to buy the gin, if I could have a quick sample.  (They had sample station set up near the window, hence my bold request.)

The sample was perfection—whether it was enhanced by my vigorous exercise is still to be determined—and I bought a bottle of Ayrer’s small batch malt gin.  You’ll meet it again in my “swag” post.

The others finally trailed up as I was signing my receipt.

Back to the bus, back to the ship, for our final night on the ship.  That’s right: this was the end of the cruise.  We had a farewell toast with the captain/crew, and a farewell dinner, and then we went almost straight to bed: our bags had to be outside our door at 6:15 am.  (They give you a chart of luggage/departure times—very organized.)

Here are our hotel manager (whose name escapes me), our Ukrainian captain, and the adorable Soren:

One final joke: the tiny shop area onboard offered Norwegian sweaters, which we didn’t really notice until it was promoted in our final little daily newspaper, and the brand caught my eye:

The joke is that in Aug/Sep of 1975, just before my senior year at UGA, I was the prop master of a production of Godspell that UGA sent to Bergen, Norway, for a three-week stay.  One weekend we were taken up to meet Norway’s national playwright at his mountain home, and the train stopped at a little village: Dale.  I took a photo, but that was hundreds of years ago and I have no idea where it disappeared.  Anyway, “Dah-lay of Nor-vay” became my nickname for a while, and that is how my lovely first wife first knew me.

Note: we’re not done here.  Next stop is Prague!

Up the Danube, Day 6

The included day trip on Day 6 was a walking tour of Regensburg, where we were docked.  We anted up for the bus trip to Munich, which was an all-day trip. Our Charming Child had studied in Munich ten years ago, so naturally we had to go see him for Thanksgiving.  We kind of wanted to go to there again.

First, oddly, we had to clamber down a bank to get to the bus:

We had been told that the docking situation in Regensburg was precarious—river tourism is up like eleventy-billion percent, and berths are hard to come by—but this was very silly.  Technically you would walk down the pathway along the bank until it intersected the road, then walk back (and it just occurred to me that perhaps the bus could have been parked there?), but where’s the fun in that?

The uncertainty of where we would be docking would explain the one real complaint any of us had about the cruise, and that was that we would like to have known ahead of time when the ship would be leaving each day/night so that we could call a cab and run into town to see an opera or something.  (We had thought about getting tickets to a ballet in Budapest ahead of time, but thank goodness we didn’t: we sailed before curtain.)  By this time I had figured out that a lot of the next day’s schedule had to be figured out at the last minute based on exigencies of each port, and the Regensburg situation confirmed it.  In fact, the ship changed places twice that day while we were away.

Munich was several hours away, and our tour guide was able to give us the standard history of the Autobahn.  It seems the Germans invented the idea of the interstate way back in the 1920s, but had barely gotten started on it when Hitler came to power.  He promised jobs for hundreds of thousands of people to build this system of highways, but a) employed far fewer than that; b) started WWII, which put a dent in their progress.  Eisenhower picked up on the idea, though, and the first bit of our interstate system was laid down outside Tifton, GA, in the early 60s.

Most of what we drove through was farmland, and here were the two major crops:

The poles/wires area is hops, which is essential to the manufacture of beer.  There were huge tracts of land given over to this crop, and most of it was bespoke, already sold to major breweries both in Germany and around the world, Bavarian hops being in demand.

The other crop in the bright yellow field in the distance is canola.  We had seen it in abundance flying into Budapest, and every landscape we drove through had tons of it.  It’s used for biofuel mostly.

Munich is a lovely city, but it and many cities on our tour share the same trait.  (I’ve already blogged about this over at Lichtenbergianism.com, so apologies if you’ve already read it.)

Here is the interior of St. Peter’s Church:

Pretty standard 18th-century Baroque, right?

It’s not.  It used to be, but what you see here is less than 100 years old.

In Munich, in Nüremburg, in Dresden, in Vienna: large parts of the cities were destroyed during the war, some almost completely.  And they were rebuilt as they were before, especially the large public buildings like churches.  All those glorious Baroque interiors are complete reconstructions.

It is very hard for us Americans to understand this, but the devastation of the war is still part of the fabric of European society.  Our tour guide in Passau was emphatic in her memories of CARE packages and of the Marshall Plan and how gobsmacked the Germans were that they were included in those programs.  The tour guides in Austria and Bavaria never failed to mention their relief and gratitude that they were occupied by American or British troops and not Soviet.  And everywhere, especially in Munich, carefully reconstructed boulevards and façades rose again.

After we got off the bus, we were led through the Old Town to the Marienplatz, the city’s main square since 1158.  The main attraction there is the Neues Rathaus, the New Town Hall:

Despite its über-Gothic appearance, it was built in the 19th century.  And before you make haha jokes about Rat Houses, Rat is German for advice or counsel.

We were there for the main event: noon.  I don’t have a good photo of the clockworks, so I’ll steal one from Wikipedia:

After the carillon chimes noon, the upper figures spring to life, reenacting the celebrations attendant upon a 16th century wedding of one of the Dukes.  After that display ends (including a joust), the lower level cranks up with a depiction of the Schäfflertanz, a dance performed every seven years as part of the whole Black Death thing.  It was charming and fun.

The Rathaus is built around a courtyard:

There is al fresco dining:

This area was covered by stalls the last time we were here; the Christkindlmarkt was opening the day we left.

Have you seen it yet?  I did, ten years ago, and was a little bummed that now there were tables and chairs out there.

Here, have a close-up:

That’s right, there’s a Chartres-style labyrinth in the cobblestones of the courtyard.  It’s part of the original design, but is oddly unmentioned in any guide to the place.  (Neither is it in the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator.)

We were taken to lunch in the Ratskeller, which is also original to the building. The vaults are painted with witty banners about drinking.

I forget what I had for lunch, but for dessert of course I had apfelstrudel.

It has all four major food groups: pastry, ice cream, vanilla sauce, and whipped cream.

And now I must tell you an are-you-kidding-me story of the Newnan Vortex™.

With us on the Munich jaunt were a trio: a couple from Wisconsin, and her sister from Scotland.  (The wife was originally from Scotland.)

Oh, we said, one of Newnan’s sister cities is Ayr, and we went there in 2013 with a squad of children to sing with the Scottish National Opera’s Tale o’ Tam.  This was a piece commissioned by Ayrshire the year before, based on Bobby Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter” and involving two adult opera singers, a small pit orchestra, and as many children as you can cram onstage.  Ayr decided to repeat the show and invite students from its sister cities in the U.S., Norway, and Germany.

I was tasked with auditioning, training, and chaperoning these students on an all-expenses-paid trip to Scotland.  What’s not to like?

Ah, said Hilary, the sister.  I remember that.  It was quite an undertaking.  The man I work next to was involved in it.  Do you know John Wilson?

That’s when I smacked my lovely first wife, who was focused on the next table.  John Wilson was a tall, handsome Scot with argyle socks whom some of our party found quite charming, and indeed he was in charge of the whole Tale o’ Tam project.

Do you by any chance know Mai Lawrence? we asked Hilary.  Mai was one of the Scottish teachers with whom we bonded, and with whom we exchange Christmas cards—until Mai retired, moved, and never put her return address on her cards.

I taught with Mai, Hilary said.  I’ll track down her address through a mutual friend on Facebook and email it to you.

Well there you go.

Those of us who live in the Newnan Vortex™ should be used to this kind of thing, but it’s always a bit unnerving when it happens.  And it always happens.

On the ride back to the ship, there was the inevitable giggle about gagging:

(Ironically, Bad Gögging does have a labyrinth in the Labyrinth Locator.)

And the morning and the evening were another day.

Up the Danube, Day 5

From Krems, we sailed up to Passau.

I haven’t talked a lot about the shipboard experience, but I cannot praise the Viking staff enough.  They were without exception cheerful, pleasant, and helpful.  I told the hotel manager (that is his actual title) that it was exactly like staying at a Ritz-Carlton, which pleased him to no end.  I was not exaggerating.  One example, and it may have been the morning of this particular day: every morning I’d come up to the lounge for breakfast, which for me was simply coffee and pastries, and try to blog.  This particular morning, I had sat down with my coffee and begun my struggle with the wifi.  Suddenly Gabor, the young waiter often on breakfast duty in the lounge, appeared at my table with a plate of croissants.  He had seen and noticed my habits.

I felt like a filthy capitalist pig, but what a sweet gesture.

The morning began on the prow:

Soon we pulled into Passau.

The “Overhouse” on the hill; the “Underhouse” to the right, on the river

Passau made its fortune back in the day (1400s/1500s) by being situated where three rivers come together, one of which brought salt from the salt mines around Salzburg (which of course means “salt mountain”).  Salt was worth its weight in gold, almost literally.  If you think about it, you can see how difficult it might be to procure.  Passau was the distribution point.

For the morning, we went on the walking tour.  Passau is a lovely town which survived the war mostly intact.

Here we have the Prince Bishop’s residence, right next to the cathedral.  Passau’s bishop was made an actual secular prince by the Holy Roman Emperor, which gave him extra cajones.  And cash. Before we take a look inside, pay attention to the cathedral: Gothic in origin, at least on the back end, the choir.  It burned and was rebuilt.  Hold that thought.

The interior of the residence is Rococo to the max.  For those who haven’t paid attention for the last 400 years, Baroque is the big, bold, gold-plated style.  Rococo, which came after, settled down into light, delicate, pastel swirlies based more on natural forms like seashells and plants.

Rococo could be irregular in the extreme…

… with the decoration getting loose and crawling outside the lines.

Here’s the Prince Bishop’s library:

With some of his handbound volumes:

We were slated for a concert there in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which boasts the largest organ in Europe.  When I say “boast,” I absolutely mean “bragging.”  The fervor with which every tour guide touted their hometown was charming.  Passau also has a thing about their St. Stephen’s being the “parent church” of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s. (As history progressed, nearly every place we visited had its turn as the capital of Bavaria, and they have not forgotten that.)

Here’s the front façade of St. Stephen’s:

Solid, even austere, Bavarian Baroque.  And then you walk into it.

The main organ:

There are five organs distributed around the nave, one even in the ceiling.  They can be played independently, or as in this case, all linked to the main console.  The concert was therefore a bit of a showcase with the full range on display, and of course a thundering finale.

We were hurried out by the officials after the concert (there was another one immediately following), but I did get a couple of interesting shots.

The altarpiece is modern, a portrayal of the martyrdom of St. Stephen:

And up in a little corner:

A little piece of the original Gothic interior.  I don’t know whether the Baroque architects left that exposed for some reason—I’ve never known earlier periods to be that preservation-conscious—or it was uncovered in some modern restoration and left as an indicator of the original changeover.

After lunch, we joined a group going out to the countryside to what was billed as a “Bavarian Beer Fest.” This is a newish event for Viking, and it needs some work.  The farm was lovely: family owned and operated for eight generations; handsome father and beautiful daughter were our hosts.  They board horses, host equine events, host weddings/events, do some farming, and run a small sawmill.  The tour thing is new to them as well.

The mother of the family, whom we did not meet, has decorated the place with a sure hand.  We were very impressed. Some examples:

By the pond:

And:

We were treated to a verging-on-silly traditional Bavarian beer party.  (We had thought it was going to be a beer tasting, with multiple beers, but it was not.)  There was a keg of locally brewed beer, plus traditional foodstuffs.  There was an accordion player, some singing, some dancing.  Our host—who, I must repeat, was a traditionally handsome Bavarian—performed the Schuhplattler.

Bavarian Schuhplattler from Bene Brandhofer on Vimeo.

And then he asked for volunteers.  So of course my party shoved me up there. We went into another room and were given five minutes to learn it.  I had a small advantage: my Charming Child had studied in Munich ten years ago, so I knew what it was and how it worked though not the specific steps, and of course I was a dancer in my youth.  However, I was still entertainingly inept when we went out to perform it.  As Mr. Bennet says, “For what do we live to make sport for our neighbors, and to laugh at them in our turn.”

On the way back, our tour guide took us up to the Oberhaus:

The Danube is in front; the Inns River in the back.

At the very beginning of the day, I had received an email from one W. Jeff Bishop with a list of corrections he needed to make in his new book, Agatahi, which I had designed and laid out before I departed for Europe.  He understood that I wouldn’t be able to do anything until I got back, but nevertheless he persisted.  I replied with the photo that started this post.

His reply was unprintable in a family blog like this one.  When we got back to the ship after the farm tour and I read his reply, I sent him this photo:

His reply to that one was even more unprintable.

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 18th 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.

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Addendum:

It was pointed out to me that I omitted one of the sights in the Wachau Valley: Willendorf, where archaeologists discovered the Venus of Willendorf.  The site is now marked with a little monument: