Thursday 7 July 2016: Vancouver, BC - Montreal, PQ - Lyon, France
A girlfriend from the United States had invited me to spend a few days in the South-Eastern part of France this summer with her, as she had been offered (almost) free accommodation at a gite - a small house - in the countryside near the Alps in the Rhone Valley for a couple of weeks in July by a long-term French friend she had known since her high-school days. So as I made arrangements to extend my trip in Europe, I gladly confirmed that I would be delighted to join her. After a few e-mails back and forth, we set the dates and I found a direct flight to Lyon from Montreal via Air Canada. Both flights left on time and progressed as normally as expected. In Montreal I had about five hours to find a late lunch in the airport and send a few e-mails.
Friday 8 July 2016: Lyon - Miribel-les-Échelles, France
I arrived without incident and with luggage intact in Lyon, which was experiencing a somewhat hotter temperature than Vancouver, and after I met up with my girlfriend, whom I hadn't seen physically for 28 years, though we had kept in touch all that time, we hung around the airport for a few hours getting a SIM card for her, tourist information for me, and of course using the free airport wifi, and finally picked up our rental car - a Renault Clio, a perfect size and manual drive, which we both preferred - and took off via GPS to the gite. After taking us a few kilometres along the highway, the GPS then decided to have some fun with us and took us along back roads, into farmyards, through corn fields and frequently told us to turn into streets and lanes that did not exist or were blocked off. Eventually, however, we did arrive at the gite, and it was still light. After getting my suitcase out of the car we walked a few metres to the house and were confronted with a splendid vista of the valley, with tall mountains in the background, overlooking the town of Entre Deux Guiers (the names of the two local rivers). This was to be our home away from home for the next 12 days and it was really a tranquil spot, with only bird song, and the lowing of cows to interrupt our thoughts. Without any wifi, TV or radio, this was truly getting away from it all. We decided to have our dinner al fresco and, as we had thought to do some grocery shopping on the way here from Lyon, we dined on spaghetti, lighted-grilled eggplant (aubergine) slices, fresh bread, rosé wine and peaches. I was offered the middle floor main bedroom, which provided the same magnificent view, and my girlfriend took the top floor bedroom, which was similarly endowed.
Below, the photos show the gite upon our arrival, the splendid view, ourselves at dinner, and one of the local cows, which would wake us up every morning with their mooing, effectively replacing the crow of the roosters that I was expecting to hear.
Saturday 9 July 2016: Miribel-les-Échelles - St. Laurent du Pont - Miribel-les-Échelles
Our first deed of the day after getting up rather late and showering and breakfasting, was to visit our absent hosts, or rather the family of our absent hostess, one of seven children, who still mostly lived in the same area, with various relatives close by. Her mother, whom I shall call Madame, an elderly widow, using two crutches to walk, warmly welcomed us in her home where she lived with two of her unmarried daughters. We were offered peach wine, and then unexpectedly a lunch of salad, a type of polenta - albeit made of wheat flour not corn flour - in a tomato sauce and mushrooms and then fresh watermelon which we ate with knives!
Then, as we needed to buy a few more items at the grocery store and Madame's youngest daughter had by then arrived to share a cup of coffee with us while we took advantage of their wifi to check our e-mails, said daughter drove us into the nearest town, St. Laurent du Pont, which offered free wifi for those days we did not want to disturb the family. As it happened, the wifi system of the Tourist Office of St. Laurent du Pont did not work for our devices, so, instead, the daughter drove us up to the chapel at the top of the hill (the photo shows a view of the inside which can be lit up for one Euro), so that we could enjoy the view of the local Chartreuse-monks-founded hospital and the town itself, which incidentally was also the location of the nearest gasoline/petrol station.
After talking some more with the family about places to visit, we finally made our way home to the gite and planned our programme for the week. We were advised not to travel on Bastille Day so apart from that day, we decided to schedule our week with days of travel each interspersed by days of rest. It was my turn to cook, so I warmed up a couple of quiches and made a salad.
Sunday 10 July 2016: Miribel-les-Échelles - Grenoble, Isère - Miribel-les-Échelles
Today was our first day of travel...to Grenoble, a small city, but one of the main tourist centres of the region. I elected to drive to see how the female GPS voice would guide me. There were indeed some interesting turns, and as luck would have it, a chicken crossed the road at one point and, at another point, ninety-seven cows did the same, right in front of us. Unluckily for me, I did not have my camera at that point - well you can't photograph when you are driving, can you? - but as I had turned off the engine to await the bovine passage, my girlfriend was able to step out and take a few shots with her tablet (seen below). In any case, we arrived safely and parked in a parking lot in the sun, which, being Sunday, was free, and found our way to the Tourist Office. No wifi at the Tourist Office, and no Starbucks either in town, apparently, but we were directed to a Starbucks-like coffee establishment called “French Coffee House” and there I pulled out my laptop and my android and connected with my friends and answered e-mails. Meanwhile, my girlfriend, who, for her Master's thesis, had translated an autobiography about times during the French resistance in this particular area of France, went off to visit the Museum of the Resistance and Deportation. Before splitting up, however, we visited the main outdoor market together and I was surprised to find that they sold beetroot already cooked, while all other vegetables and fruits were raw. We bought some cherries and some baby potatoes and I took photos of a few colourful legumes.
When my girlfriend finally joined me at the wifi-wired coffee house, which was around the corner from another open fruit and vegetable market, we decided to have lunch there. Then, hoping that the day would have cooled down somewhat from the 38-degree-Celsius temperature, we ventured off on foot to see a few of the sights, notably some of the places that were considered to be specific to Stendhal (a native of Grenoble), including the Jardin de Ville. We ventured as far as Place Victor Hugo, at which point we wandered over to the banks of the Isère River - after which this province takes its name - from where we could see the Téléphérique, (centre photo) known locally as Les Bulles. This Grenoble tourist highlight runs up the hill on which the fortified old town is located. Due to the heat, however, we decided to give it a miss and leave Grenoble. Once home, very tired, we each made our own dinner and I ended up cooking myself a very nice cheese omelette which I had with some salad.
Monday 11 July 2016: Miribel-les-Échelles - St. Laurent du Pont - Miribel-les-Échelles
Today not much happened. We went over to one of the sisters of our absent hostess to borrow her wifi system and work outdoors on our e-mails for most of the morning. Those are her rabbits (for eating) and scarecrow in the photos below. We then returned to the gite for lunch and for most of the afternoon I worked on setting up this blog, and getting the first photos developed in Photoshop. Dinner was enjoyed once again al fresco on the outside patio and we warmed up a couple of mini quiches which we ate with salad. It was definitely a rest day, but we enjoyed the sunset with its pinkish sky and neon mountain hues. The weather was still nice and warm, but we were expecting showers and a possible storm for tomorrow, our day to visit Geneva in Switzerland.
Tuesday 12 July 2016: Miribel-les-Échelles - Geneva, Switzerland - Miribel-les-Échelles
Our reason for travelling to Geneva today specifically, despite the rain and threat of stormy weather, was because we each had a translation client living in Geneva, so we took advantage of this fact to visit them both on the same day and, as it happened, we arranged for all of us to have lunch together at la Brasserie Genevois. Below is a photo of the four of us. As it happened, my girlfriend's client and I found out that we had both studied at the University of Geneva at the same time - though he was in the German department while I was in the French and Spanish departments.
After lunch, my girlfriend and I then explored the old town in the rain, while our respective clients each returned to their own work places. Our first stop was the Cathedral, to which we were guided by a friendly Colombian woman. Then we walked to Lake Léman and took a photo of the jet d'eau and the flower clock. Next I entered one of the three Starbucks we saw in our peregrinations for a very expensive coffee and to check up on my e-mails, while my girlfriend went window shopping. As it was my turn to drive us home, we decided to head back to the underground parking where we had left our rental car - though, I admit, we did need some further help from friendly locals to find the parking lot, and I got to use my German with a couple of them. Our, by now, friendly, female GPS voice managed to help us find our way back home around 8ish, when we had a quick meal of bread and cheese and went straight to bed as we were both quite tired out.
Wednesday 13 July 2016: Miribel-les-Échelles - Voiron - Miribel-les-Échelles
A somewhat cloudy and cooler day, but dry, we decided to get some exercise, so after taking our garbage and recycling to the local bins in the town proper of Miribel-les Échelles, we walked up the hill to the local religious site, a huge statue of St. Mary that was visible for miles around, and which also offered some nice views of the town and the surrounding hills. In the afternoon, after lunch back at the gite, we drove south to Voiron, the largest town in the Chartreuse region, where we checked in at the tourist information office to catch up on our e-mails until the office closed, checked out some local delicacies - we were offered two free macarons each and some chocolate by one store called Le Comptoir Voironnais - and bought some bread in anticipation of the French holiday the next day. We actually tried three bakeries: the first two had run out of bread by the time we arrived, but the third still had quite a few loaves. However, when we arrived home with the bread and cut it up for dinner, we found out it was not as fresh as we had thought. In Voiron, there was also a large church to visit and my girlfriend sent some postcards off at the post office. Generally, it was a nice, very typical, French mountain town to walk around and in which to meet some friendly locals.
Thursday 14 July 2016: Miribel-les-Échelles - Voiron - Miribel-les-Échelles
Another restful day, the French national day aka Bastille Day, we took it easy in the morning, checking our e-mails using the wifi of our absent hostess's sister who fed us snacks of black currant tartlets and mini quiches. After lunch at the gite, we headed off to Voiron again, this time to visit the Chartreuse factory there. Chartreuse is a bright green or yellow liqueur made since 1737 from a secret recipe, originally an elixir for long life, using 130 herbs, flowers and plants and other secret ingredients that are soaked in distilled alcohol and left to mature and macerate in oak vats for a unrevealed length of time, as per an ancient recipe left in a manuscript to Carthusian monks in 1605. We were both sufficiently impressed to buy a few bottles to share with our hostesses and our friends and families back home. The woods in the region are known as the Chartreuse Regional Forest so we felt it only right, while in the area, to seek out the reason for its unique fame. My girlfriend also bought some black current liqueur (cassis) so we sipped it over ice as an apéritif prior to dinner! We then tried to get the TV cum DVD player in the gite to work and while we were endeavouring to obtain sound and a picture simultaneously, I happened to glance out the window and noticed a very beautiful rainbow. We rushed outside with our cameras and found that in fact it was a complete arc, or actually a double arc. The photos we took in no way did it justice, so what you see below (if you do) will have to suffice, though in actual fact it was much brighter and fuller.
Friday 15 July 2016: Miribel-les-Échelles - Lyon - Miribel-les-Échelles
We were out the door of the gite at about 9:00 a.m. but stopped by Madame's to check our e-mails and messages. Then it took us over an hour to drive along the highway to Lyon. We parked in an underground parking, between the Rhône and the Saône rivers, walked to Place Bellecour and found the tourist information office, checked our e-mails with their free wifi, obtained maps, used the free(!) toilets and then went to have lunch at the Brioche d'Or. When my girlfriend left to visit the History of the Resistance and Deportation Museum, I walked along the bank of the Saône to photograph the 400m2 painted library wall (dated 1998 and located at the corner of rue de la Platière and quai de la Pêcherie) and the famous people of Lyon mural (dated 1994 and located at the corner of 49 quai St-Vincent and 2, rue de la Martinière). Next, I walked over the pedestrian bridge to the old town, finding various museums and theatres dedicated to Guignol (the French equivalent of Punch and Judy), and along a number of streets in the old town, looking at interesting shops, being amazed at the line-ups for ice cream, and eventually arriving at the Cathédral St. Jean, where we had arranged to meet at 4 p.m.
However, as my girlfriend was still at the museum, she called to postpone our meet to 5:00 p.m. and I walked up a steep hill via many steps and past two Roman amphitheatres in order to visit the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière, which was quite spectacular. Just at that point though my little camera battery ran out, so I used my camera phone (consequently, the resolution of the below photos is not great) to capture the gorgeously gilded mosaics inside. I then descended the hill in about 10 minutes flat so as to meet my girlfriend on time and we explored the old town's secret passageways that were used by the resistance during the Second World War. We eventually arrived back at our car in the underground parking lot and I drove us home. However, our GPS took us to the opposite end of the road that our gite was located on, so it was a bit confusing. Once home, I cooked us a dinner of ravioli.
Saturday 16 July 2016: Miribel-les-Échelles - St. Laurent du Pont - Miribel-les-Échelles
My final full day in France, it was planned as a rest day, for washing laundry, filling up the car with gas and getting a few last-minute groceries for my trip, plus a few gifts to thank our hostesses. Our first task after breakfast, however, was to take our recycling to the town bins once again. Then we headed out to Madame's house to use the wifi. After we'd completed our e-mails, we drove into St. Laurent du Pont to buy some bread and then continued on to the supermarket cum gas station. It was my turn to buy gas but there was no attendant to take my cash and none of my Canadian credit cards worked in the pay machines, so I paid for the groceries instead and my girlfriend used her American credit card for the gasoline fill. Back to the gite to start the washing machine cum dryer: the washing cycle took just over an hour which seemed about right, but the drying cycle took over 2 hours and a half! The clothes came out dry but just slightly wrinkled despite my taking them out immediately. Meanwhile, my girlfriend took a walk while I uploaded my newest photos and wrote up some of my blog.
After I'd done as much as I could, I read for a while outside on the patio overlooking that gorgeous view and then we made dinner of left-over pasta. Finally, bearing gifts, we made a final trip over to Madame's for a farewell glass of wine and a visit and then to the daughter who, too, had leant us wifi to leave another gift there.
Sunday 17 July 2016: Miribel-les-Échelles - Lyon, France - Brussels, Belgium
After an early start and a quick breakfast, I drove the rental car to Lyon airport, said goodbye to my girlfriend, checked in to my flight to Brussels, and as both security and passport control were quick, I had time to finish my current novel, send a few e-mails, and treat myself to a last French coffee and pain au chocolat at the Brioche Doré at my gate. After an hour and a quarter flight, I arrived in Brussels, Belgium where there was massive security. I was told that Brussels airport was still on level three (of four) alert. Not only were armed soldiers in front of the airport hotel where I had booked a room for the night, but they were also on the roof of the hotel opposite my hotel room, including two bivouac stations and no doubt sniper riflemen with strong binoculars. I had a very late lunch - an expensive salad - at the Sheraton before catching up on work, and watching a little TV - my first TV in 11 days!
Monday 18 July 2016: Brussels, Belgium - Bucharest, Romania
There was still mass confusion at the airport this morning, as well as general disorganisation, but the armed soldiers were still present and it is lucky I arrived several hours before my flight was to leave, because both the security and the border control were terribly slow. However, we finally got onto our flight, which took just over three hours to get to Bucharest. Upon arrival, however, I found no one from the tour company to greet me, though I looked at all the signs various people were holding up several times. I finally met an American couple from Virginia who were joining a small tour of 8 people with Uniglobe, I think, and luckily their guide had heard of the company running the tour I was joining as its bus was parked right next to his. The bus area was located in a different part of the airport parking lot, so I missed it the first time I went out in the heat and humidity to look. As I wheeled my heavy bags out the terminal door the first time, a fellow tapped me on the shoulder to tell me my novel was just about to fall out of my bag. We recognised each other - or so it seemed to me - he was the guide who had led our tour around Bucharest last August when I was on a cruise with the Emerald Princess. I explained who I was when he couldn't quite place me, but I'm not entirely sure that he understood what I was saying.
Nevertheless, I followed the Uniglobe tour to the bus parking area and there was our 40-seater bus. Nevertheless, I was the only tour passenger when the tour guide finally joined the drivers and me, and we travelled to the Hilton Athené Palace Hotel, which has quite a history, it would seem from the list of famous persons it has accommodated over the years. To my disappointment, however, I was not the only single woman travelling alone and was therefore paired up with a room mate - a 66-year-old lady from Boston. She is friendly, and certainly sleeps quietly. We got onto the hotel wifi and checked our messages then went down to the welcome reception, tour briefing and a very nice dinner of pan-fried chicken with mashed potatoes and arugula salad, with a Romanian-style Tiramisu for dessert, accompanied by a choice of red or white wine. We met a few of the 37 other passengers and sat at dinner with two older ladies from Australia - one from Melbourne, the other from Sydney, who had known each other for years and had wisely chosen to have their own separate rooms on the tour. All three of my table companions had travelled several times before with this tour company and had both good and bad things to report - though overall they must have been good experiences since they were repeat customers.
Having finished dinner at 8ish, I returned to our room to write e-mails and update my blog. No photos taken today, so none to show you here.
Tuesday 19 July: Bucharest - Brașov
After a lovely breakfast, we met at the tour coach and chose our seats. A local guide joined us and took us in the bus on a tour around the city of Bucharest. Due to our early start, we were the first tour group to arrive at the Parliament Palace for an inside tour. It was similar to what I had experienced last August when I visited this megalomaniacal Nicolae Ceaușescu project, the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, though it was with a different guide, of course. As I mentioned in my blog during my visit to Bucharest last August, “this behemoth of the Communist Era is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, at 3.9 million square feet, the world's largest civilian administrative building, the world's heaviest building, the most expensive administrative building, Europe's biggest building and the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon in the U.S.A. Estimates of the materials used to create this imposing mega-structure include one million cubic meters of marble from Transylvania, 3,500 tons of crystal for 480 chandeliers, 1,409 ceiling lights and mirrors, 700,000 tons of steel and bronze for monumental doors and windows, almost 10 million square feet of domestic wood for parquet and wainscoting and over 2 million square feet of woollen carpets woven on site. We were also told many interesting stories about Nicolas Ceaușescu, the Romanian politician and dictator who was the Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party from 1965 to 1989 and President of Romania from 1974 to 1989.” After a few more minutes round the rest of the city we let off the local guide than carried on to a large, new shopping mall where we were encouraged to find our own lunch.
Afterwards, we had a two-hour journey through the Carpathian Mountains to the charming medieval city of Brașov, founded in 1211 by the Teutonic Knights. We checked into the Aro Palace Hotel, supposedly the best hotel in the city, though old, and after freshening up, we met up with a new local expert, Ana, who took us on a walking tour of her town, including the Town Hall Square lined with beautiful red-roofed houses and dominated by the Black Church. It was full of delightful old buildings and a minimum, in fact, of five churches, all of different faiths. Back to the hotel for dinner with musicians - an electric keyboard and a guitar - at the hotel and then time to e-mail, and update my blog before calling it a night.
Today we left the hotel at 8:00 a.m. and drove into the town of Bran to visit the medieval fortress at the Transylvanian border. This is reputed to be the castle of Bram Stoker's Dracula - also known as Vlad, the Impaler - but is actually a smallish, medieval wood-beamed structure with low ceilings and narrow, winding staircases inhabited by Romanian royalty who are related to the British monarchy. Though we were warned to carry garlic on us, which I did not have, I managed to survive the visit with all my blood intact, and no neck bites. We then travelled through gypsy villages past herds of cattle and sheep - and cowherders - along the Prahova Valley to the town of Predeal and finally the alpine resort town of Sinaia, where we stopped for lunch.
After lunch we continued on to Peleș Castle, the former summer residence of Romania's first royal family from Germany, Carl and his wife Elizabeth. The latter, we were told, was an accomplished pianist (her piano was on display - a Bechstein), spoke nine languages fluently, was a poet and a painter but what she couldn't do, however, was produce a male heir. They did have a daughter, but unfortunately she died of scarlet fever at the age of four, so they adopted Carl's nephew, Frederick, as his successor.
This castle, whose interiors we were not permitted to photograph - at least not without paying 32 lei - and for which visit we had to wear cloth booties over our shoes, has got to be one of the most lavishly decorated I have ever seen - and I have seen a few - woodwork extraordinaire, masses of carved human figures, ornate mirrors and chandeliers, silk carpets, a vast library, secret passageways...and all paid for out of King Carl's own pocket - he sold some of his land property in Germany - and not by taxing the Romanian people. Furthermore, he was a bit of a major collector as the rooms were filled with art, armour and tapestries. Peleș Castle was clearly so much more awesome to visit and look at than the monstrosity that was the Bucharest Parliament, built by the labour and sweat of low-paid but hardworking Romanians, hundreds of whom died in the process. As I did not have 32 lei on me at the time, I only managed to photograph the castle's exterior as well as some of the many delightful stone statues displayed in the gardens around the castle.
It was a shorter drive back to our hotel in Brașov and as there was an optional dinner this evening, I chose to forego the extra expense and instead dined on saved breakfast items in my room and caught up on my e-mails and blog.
Thursday 21 July: Brașov, Romania - Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Today was an extremely long day in the bus. After a good hour or so of travelling, we finally crossed the Danube, which is a natural border between Romania and Bulgaria and necessitated payment of a toll, and were subjected to passport control. The checking and stamping of passports only became somewhat quicker once our coach driver had offered the authorities some bottles of water! After arriving in Bulgaria, we drove to a shopping centre for an early lunch and then continued driving past crop-laden fields - for the most part corn and sunflower production - to Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital of Bulgaria situated by the River Yantra.
Our hotel, also called the Yantra and supposedly the best in town, was old, run down and smelled of smoke. My roommate and I took a walk into the old cobblestone town in order to check out the souvenir shops and take photos of the valley with the River Yantra below. In the evening, we were entertained at the hotel by six folkloric dancers in costume and three musicians - a drummer, an accordionist and the third playing something resembling a bagpipe, while we enjoyed dinner of an entire mackerel each.
Friday 22 July: Veliko Tarnovo - Sofia, Bulgaria
Our 8:00 a.m. start found us climbing uphill to the ruined Tsarevets Fortress, a reminder of the town's former imperial status. The church at the top, the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, was built in 1981 atop a more ancient complex. The interior frescoes, which were painted in 1985, were quite striking. An amphitheatre on the grounds of the fortress was currently hosting a presentation of Verdi's opera Nabucco after which a sound and light show relating the history of the town, and probably also the history of Bulgaria as a whole, was shown. We did not see either of these shows, however.
After walking back down the hill to our coach, we then drove to the UNESCO-listed village of Arbanassi, to visit the Church of the Holy Nativity, famous for its amazing frescoes, as well as a traditional 17th century merchant's house. Next, while the others grabbed lunch, my room mate and I hung around this small village, checking out souvenir shops and hotel complexes, one of which seemed to house a bird park, photographing flowers and generally killing time.
Finally, after being obliged to spend what I felt was an inordinate amount of time in this town, our coach took us across the Balkan Mountains, past multiple corn and sunflower fields, to Bulgaria's modern day capital of Sofia. Upon our arrival, we checked into the very “grand” and centrally located Grand Hotel, and then went on a guided walking tour of the main city sights around our hotel, including St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St. Sofia Church, an archaeological complex dating from Roman times, some underground ruins and some ground level ones, as well as the old royal palace, the president's palace with guards, a few statues, a park, a theatre and a number of government buildings. The high temperature exhausted us, so we were quite glad to get back to our hotel and comfortable, air-conditioned rooms.
Saturday 23 July: Sofia - Rila Monastery and Kocherinovo - Sofia, Bulgaria
This morning after breakfast we departed around 9:30 a.m. for a two-hour drive to Rila Monastery, which is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. Founded in the 10th century, currently this huge complex houses only eight priests, although in the past there must have been hundreds. We walked around the various buildings while our guide explained the bible stories portrayed in the colourful frescoes, and pointed out graves and monuments of former monks. We then had a short visit inside the monastery church, where no photos were allowed, and time to wander around on our own, to view the small river, shop for souvenirs or wander into the museum.
After about an hour at the monastery, we then lunched at a restaurant half-way down the mountain for about another hour and after lunch we drove back to Sofia, stopping briefly once to take photos of storks in Kocherinovo. These storks fly to Egypt on or around the 15th of August every year with their new offspring, and return in the Spring to their old nests. The males arrive first to renovate the nests, to freshen them up for the new season; the females arrive later and lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch they raise the chicks equally and teach them to fly, before they all make the journey together back to Egypt for the fall and winter seasons. Three large nests were visible from the town's central square though we were told there were over twenty nests in all and consequently about fifty (sic) storks in town.
Sunday 24 July: Sofia, Bulgaria - Skopje and Ohrid, Macedonia
We left Sofia at 8:00 a.m., drove two and a half hours to the border and put our watches back one hour, but then it took us two hours to get through the border, so we did not arrive at the Macedonian capital of Skopje (along winding roads and through very green hills) until about 2 p.m. Skopje is an ultra-modern city with plenty of statues that has been involved in rebuilding since an earthquake destroyed the city in 1963. With the temperature high at 39 degrees Celsius, we had a half-hour walking tour of the city, the birthplace of Alexander the Great and Mother Teresa, home of an archaeological museum and two bridges full of historic figures. Finally we were released so we could find our own lunch at a choice of restaurants along the riverside but my room mate and I opted instead to find a free toilet at the Holiday Inn and then sat in the welcome shade on their terrace. I ate a banana and texted friends, then, after returning to the coach by 3:30, it took another three hours to drive along more green hills on windy roads to mountain-ringed Lake Ohrid. Our hotel was the Hotel Belvedere and our room was on the forest side. It was a very stuffy room, and small, and there was no lock on the bathroom door. So after a long day of driving and a latish dinner we were, once again, exhausted.
On the coach again after breakfast, we were driven down to the lakeside town and were given a short walking tour of the lake shore and the narrow streets of Ohrid's Old Town up to a large, old, red brick church. We were then given about three hours on our own, so I wandered up to the fruit and vegetable market and the shopping district to take photos, and was fascinated to see about three youths riding around on bicycles driving with one hand and carrying trays of full coffee cups in their other hand. There were a number of statues there too, including one of two brothers who invented the Cyrillic alphabet. Next, I took a stroll along the lakeshore pavement for quite a distance, watching life, swimmers, people fishing, etc. and, as there were no public toilets in town, I was told by the tourist office to use the rather fancy restaurant's toilet, which was a tight fit.
We met up again with our group around noon at the statue of St. Clement to walk back together to where the bus was parked and then drove toward the border with Albania, which wasn't far - though I was very disappointed that the border control never stamped our passports - and then onward to the capital of Tirana, through a very heavy rain storm. At one point as we travelled along winding roads up and down the hills, we came to a car that had been turned over, no doubt by the sudden, overflowing streams of muddy water cascading down the hills and across the roads. It was another long day of driving, but we finally arrived at our hotel, the Sheraton Tirana, and the sun appeared from behind the clouds for the evening. With barely a half hour to freshen up, we got back on the coach and were provided with a bus tour of the city. We got out at the main Skanderbeg square, which contained a statue of a man on horseback, the city hall, a palace of culture and large green space, and walked to the mosque where we were allowed inside to photograph the decor for a few minutes. Back once again at the very nice hotel, we were fed trout once again (a favourite staple in this region, it would appear) as well as a caramel dessert.
Today was our earliest start so far because we had two borders to cross. We had breakfast in Albania, lunch in Montenegro and dinner in Croatia. We had a bet on how many minutes it would take us to get through the borders, but through a miracle and probably some creative inventiveness from our tour staff, the first border took only 16 minutes. The border authority merely stamped the list of passengers and did not even ask to see our passports. So once again, no new stamps in our official travel documents (sigh). We then drove through the spectacular scenery of Montenegro, along the Adriatic Coast past Bar and Budva, where Daniel Craig filmed the Bond film “Casino Royal” at Hotel Splendid, and the exclusive island of St. Stephen, finally stopping at the old town of Kotor - to which I had been before a few years ago via cruise ship - and which is located on the banks of the only European fjord outside of Norway. Our tour director paid our fee to enter the old town and our first priority was to find toilets, for which we had to pay 50 cents Euros. In fact, this was the only country in our current tour itinerary where Euros are the currency, so I was for once able to buy myself a sandwich. Earlier, at a gas station stop, I had purchased some snack items in Euros as sustenance for other meals that were not included in our itinerary. The weather was cloudy but cool and we had our umbrellas in case, but we ended up not using them. Unfortunately, we had only about an hour in Kotor, due to getting caught in a traffic jam, so there was no time to climb the steps up to the fortress at the top of the hill for the great views.
Instead, we were content to watch the scenery unfold once we were back on the bus as we drove round the banks of the fjord past the islands of St. George and the Lady of the Rock and over the border to Croatia and the fortified port of Dubrovnik. Our hotel Rixos, with not only an indoor pool, but also an outdoor pool and access to the sea, was located outside the old town, so we were dropped off there first to freshen up before joining an optional cruise on an exclusive boat with wine and dinner, ending up at dusk in the old town where we took an enjoyable walk along the main street with its polished stone, full of street artists, cafes and restaurants, to the Pile gate where our bus was waiting to take us back to our hotel.
Wednesday 27 July: Dubrovnik, Croatia
With a slightly later start than usual, we were driven back to the old town where we had a tour inside its walls with a local guide, starting at Onofrio's Fountain, and passing along several side streets that were full of restaurants and interesting shops. Then we were left to our own devices. As it was yet another stifling, hot day, I decided not to walk along the town walls since, in doing so, I would be exposed to the hot, piercing sun. Instead, after a little bit of photography in situ I walked the 1.9 kilometres up hill to our hotel and caught up with laundry, e-mails, photos, and this blog.
After a nice refreshing shower, I then met up in the evening with the rest of the tour group so as to return to the old town for dinner, where our large group was divided among two restaurants.
Thursday 28 July: Dubrovnik, Croatia
Today was a totally free day to relax, so after an unhurried breakfast, I did some more laundry, finished my photos to date and managed, finally, to update this blog to today. I then went downstairs to check out the hotel's pools and the ocean access but was not impressed.
Friday 29 July: Dubrovnik, Croatia - Mostar and Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Today we crossed three borders, but they involved the same two countries - from Croatia to Bosnia, back to Croatia and then to Bosnia again. This was due to a 20-km Croatian corridor located inside the Bosnian territory. The coach driver then turned the vehicle inland, away from the beautiful seaside views, and we arrived at a valley of fruit and vegetable crops along a river. We carried along to Mostar where we got out and walked in the high temperatures once again with a local tour guide across the famous Stari Most (Old Bridge), which had been reconstructed after being almost completely destroyed during the war. The cobblestone streets of the old town, which were difficult to walk on, especially over the steepish bridge, stretched over both sides of the bridge and were filled with shops selling Turkish style souvenirs. Left again to have our lunch by ourselves, I found a shaded seat, snacked on fruit, a cereal bar and water and read a book.
Next, we drove on a scenic route through the beautiful Neretva Gorge. The colour of the lakes in the region was a gorgeous green. We stopped briefly for a photo stop at a fallen bridge commemorating the place where Tito had launched his surprise Partisan attacks on the Germans during World War II, and then carried on toward Sarajevo, arriving about 4:45 pm. We were met by our local guide in the hotel lobby in the early evening, after freshening up in our rooms, so that she could tell us about, and we could sample, Bosnian coffee, which was very strong, full of grounds, and served from a special silver pot in tiny cups. The coffee was also accompanied by optional sugar lumps and a block of Turkish delight. We then drove by coach to the city hall where we alighted to have a walking tour of Bašcaršija, the cobbled old town market where Sarajevo was founded by the Ottomans in the 15th century. After passing the site (and the car) where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife had been assassinated by Bosnian-Serb student Gavrilo Princip, the event that began World War I, we found most of the streets to be full of upscale stores and it was the time of day when families were walking together, many of them in Muslim dress, ranging from contemporary clothing to full-coverage chadors with just the women's eyes showing. We walked as far as the cathedral, which still had bullet holes and a “rose of spattered blood” to remind us of the Bosnian conflict of 1992 to 1995, but it was not open for visiting. A plaque I photographed in Sarajevo explains as follows (though I have edited the English slightly to make it read better): “Thousands of shells rained on Sarajevo during the aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina and UN Forces registered an average of 330 impacts per day. On 22 July 1993, as an example, Sarajevo received 3,777 shells fired from the surrounding hills. In the siege that lasted for 1,425 days, every single shell left scars on the asphalt roads, pavements or town buildings. Many of them wounded or killed one or more citizens in the besieged town while explosions left marks in the concrete similar to flowers. At some locations in town, these scars were painted with red resin and called Sarajevo roses. As a result, the Sarajevo rose became the symbol and memorial of those who were killed in the besieged Sarajevo and of their heroic struggle, while the red colour is a reminder of the blood shed by Sarajevo inhabitants while queuing for bread and water, by children playing carefree and by all those who were only trying to survive in the town without an exit...In Sarajevo, 11,541 persons were killed and 1,601 of them were children.” At the end of the tour, we walked up the hill to our restaurant for dinner, which was located across the street from the former British Council building, which was abandoned and desolate.
Saturday 30 July: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
We left our hotel at 8:30 a.m. for a visit via coach to the Sarajevo War Tunnel museum, which houses part of the secret tunnel that was the city's lifeline during the Bosnian war. In 1991, according to that year's population census, 527,049 people lived in Sarajevo, of which 49.23% were Muslims, 29.81% were Serbs, 6.61% were Croats, 10.71% were Yugoslavs and 3.62% were other ethnicity. The Sarajevo Tunnel was an underground passage constructed mostly by hand between March and June of 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo in the midst of the Bosnian War. It was built by the Bosnian Army in order to link the city of Sarajevo, which was entirely cut off by Serbian forces, with Bosnian-held territory on the other side of the Sarajevo Airport, an area controlled by the United Nations. The tunnel was a means for food, war supplies, and humanitarian aid to come into the city, and for people to get out. Our guide was a survivor of this war, and she told us what her life as a non-Muslim woman married to a Muslim man was like, and what her children, who never knew a day of war, felt about their city and country and life in general.
We ended our morning tour by driving into the parkland that had once been the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics. All the buildings that were left were falling down, covered with graffiti and frankly looked pretty miserable. From the former Olympic site, which was on a raised part of the landscape, we could see masses of gravestones in cemeteries. To be quite honest, the entire city and experience depressed both my room mate and me and neither of us had the energy, the interest, or the will to explore the city further during our free afternoon. Instead, we stayed in our hotel room and I worked on e-mails, a translation affidavit, photos and my blog.
Sunday 31 July: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina - Belgrade, Serbia
Today was another long day of driving as we had to get from Sarajevo, capital of a depressed Bosnia Herzegovina, via remote villages and spa resorts in the forested Bosnian mountains, to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia but also capital of the former Yugoslavia. We stopped in a small town by a river for lunch and I took photos of the riverside where I sat for a while with my book, cereal bar, apple and water on a bench under a hot sun and then walked along the road both ways from our stopping place. I felt it necessary, I suppose, to ponder the reasons for war and to restore my faith in humanity once again. The little town in Bosnia where we stopped for lunch did not appear on the surface to have been as affected by the war. People were swimming in the river, and seemed relatively happy, though they weren't appearing to do much of anything in the great heat either.
The border crossing between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia was across a bridge and we were held up for a while by traffic, but once we crossed into Serbia things seemed somewhat less depressing. Certainly our entry into Belgrade a few hours later was a welcome surprise: a large, very well kept city, reminiscent of Paris in some ways due to the wide avenues and fairly clean parks and numerous statues.
Monday 1 August: Belgrade, Serbia
We had a very interesting tour guide today, a man for a change, and one who spoke English very well. I would say he was my favourite of the entire tour. He took us around Belgrade first on the coach and pointed out a few scars from the war, partially bombed buildings, which I did not and could not photograph as I was on the wrong side of the bus in an aisle seat for once. We got out to visit St. Sava Church, which was still under construction so was quite bare, but one could just about imagine what it could look like in a few years once all the mosaics and icons had been installed. Next, we were dropped off at the entrance to the Kalemegdan Fortress, which is ideally located at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers and the views over the rivers and the new city were spectacular. We then had time on our own to explore the adjoining park, (where I was almost tempted to buy an expired 500,000,000,000 dinar bank note for 3 Euros as a unique souvenir, but thought the better of it), walk along the shopping street, shop, take photographs and then either meet the bus at the pick up time or walk back to the hotel on our own.
In the afternoon, as we would have the same tour guide as this morning, I chose to join the optional tour, which meant driving south through the picturesque Sumadija region to Topola, birthplace of the Serbian Revolution against the Ottomans in 1804. Here we first visited the white-marbled-exteriored but stunning religious mosaic-fresco-filled Church of St. George, burial place of six generations of the Karadjordjevic Royal Dynasty. Both the main floor and the lower floor crypt were beautifully decorated and photos were allowed, making the trip out there definitely worth my time. After a short visit behind the church to the royal family's vineyards, we headed toward a simple house, where memorabilia of the royal family were on display, and were surprised to learn that this was the summer home of King Alexander and Queen Maria. We then headed for the spa town of Arandjelovac to hear about Black George, or Karageorge, who led the Serbs to Liberty from the Ottomans and who was grandfather of the first king of Serbia. We then enjoyed a lavish dinner of local specialties and drinks in a top local restaurant, preceded by an aperitif of slivovitz.
Tuesday 2 August: Belgrade, Serbia - Budapest, Hungary
Another day of coach travel and another border crossing. We headed north past Novi Sad, the second largest city of Serbia with a fortress on a hill overlooking the Danube, which was only a photo stop for us, and crossed the Province of Vojvodina to reach the Hungarian border. We stopped for lunch desperate for toilets, in Palić, a spa town on a lake, the buildings on the banks of which were entirely deserted and their bathroom block was locked up, so we ended up using the toilets in a couple of pizza places nearby the spot where the coach had dropped us. This was another disappointing lunch stop and once again I ended up sitting on a cracked solar-bleached bench in the full sun eating a snack lunch and reading my book.
Our destination, which we reached in the late afternoon, was our final city, in fact, for this tour, Budapest. We were staying in Pest, the flat side of this combined metropolis, in the rather nice, though just so very slightly dated, Sofitel, and were told that Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, while filming “Blade Runner 2” in Budapest, were staying at the Four Seasons Hotel on the adjacent side of the square that our hotel was facing. In the evening, I joined the optional tour, which was a private cruise on the Danube, with a large table groaning with copious selections of various Hungarian dishes and three types of desserts. Our local tour guide repeated everything three times and mispronounced many English words, though in general she had a British accent. The night soon fell during dinner and, wine glasses in hand, we tried our best to photograph Margaret Island, the Houses of Parliament, Castle Hill with Fisherman's Bastion, the Royal Palace, the Citadel and the University in the dark, despite their being lit up. A couple of the better results are displayed below.
Wednesday 3 August: Budapest, Hungary
This morning, the same annoying tour guide took us in the coach over to Buda and up the hill past the royal palace, though we did not stop there for a visit, and on to the edge of the pedestrian zone so that we could walk as a group up to Matthias Church, visit and photograph its interior, and then walk up and along the Fisherman's Bastion for great views of the Danube and Pest. It was also an opportunity for our official group photo. Back over on the Pest side, we drove around Heroes' Square twice, but were only allowed photos through the windows of the coach, which were full of reflections, and then down elegant Andrássy Boulevard to stop at the Central Market Hall and visit its three storeys of food items and souvenirs. Our afternoon was free, so I returned to my room to do some work, prepare my photography for this blog and pack, and in the evening, our last, we all went out as a group to the famous Gundel restaurant, next to the zoo, for a celebratory last meal together.
Thursday 4 August: Budapest, Hungary - Vienna, Austria
Today I was on my own, which was a nice change. After checking out of the hotel at around 10 a.m., I took a taxi to the main train station and bought a second-class ticket to Vienna for a reasonable price. I then waited on the quay for over an hour as I watched the train being cleaned and when we were finally let on, I had to have help from some kind Argentineans who were sitting around me to lift my heavy luggage into the carriage. The train trip, which took about 3 hours, was uneventful, though I finished my novel and had nothing else on hand to read so I ordered a bad tuna sandwich from the perambulating vendor, survived it, and arrived in Vienna around 2 in the afternoon. It was nice to speak German again after not understanding any language around me but English for the last few days. I took a taxi to my hotel, the Holiday Inn, and unwound as it was the first night on my own for 18 days. I caught up a bit on e-mails and did some translation work, then went out shopping at the nearby grocery store, Billa, for some snacks, had a chicken burger in the hotel restaurant and watched some TV.
Friday 5 August: Vienna, Austria
As we would be visiting Vienna (population 1.8 million and chosen as the world's most liveable city 8 years in a row) on my second coach tour, I felt no need to explore this city today and spent my morning at the Holiday Inn working. Then after a late 2 p.m. check out, I took a taxi to the Hilton Hotel, where I found out that, once again, I would be sharing a room for the next 13 nights, this time with a Chicagoan in her 40s, who was travelling with her parents. I worked on my photos in the hotel lobby all afternoon since there was no free wifi in the room, then our group of 27 (minus 4 Australians from my last group tour who had stayed in Budapest and would be joining us in a couple of days' time) met up at 5:30 p.m. and got on the coach to be taken to a wine bar which served a buffet dinner that was heavy on Austrian pork and dumpling dishes. During dinner, I chatted to my new travel companions.
Saturday 6 August: Vienna, Austria - Budapest, Hungary
Getting on our coach and into our assigned seats early in the morning with our local tour guide meant that we were the first group to go through Empress Maria Theresa's 1400-room Schönbrunn Palace, Austria's largest castle, in Baroque architectural style, and her greatest oeuvre. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was also the home of Emperor Franz Joseph I - who was born and died here and reigned Austria for 68 years - and his popular wife Elizabeth, aka Sissy. After the inside visit of about 46 rooms only (which once again we were not permitted to photograph) we were given about one hour on our own to visit and photograph the formal gardens (through which many joggers were running), or its zoo - founded in 1752, the oldest in Europe - and maze, and to walk up to the Gloriette and take some panoramic photos of Vienna from there. Once back on the coach, we were driven on a circuit of the famous ring road, situated along the lines of the old city walls, on which were constructed many of the city's architectural masterpieces, which were pointed out to us, including the Opera House and the Hofburg Imperial Residence.
We alighted from the coach at the Albertina museum and had time then to explore on our own. I walked through the Hofburg palace grounds (this palace houses the Sissy museum and the Lipizzaner horses), photographed a number of statues, including ones of Maria Theresa, Goethe and Mozart, the opera house and the stars of various composers and musicians on the sidewalk around the opera house, and then I walked up the shopping street to the Roman Catholic Cathedral, St. Stephen's. Then I had just about time to grab a very light lunch at Macdonald's before returning to the Albertina museum, and our coach, in order to set off for Budapest, former second city of the mighty Habsburg Empire. We arrived at the Sofitel Hotel, where I had stayed three nights ago, and bumped into some of the people from my first tour group who were still there as they had decided to stay longer in Budapest. I was even given the same hotel room that I had stayed in three nights ago and went immediately to work. However, I found the room smoky and opening the window didn't help so I requested, and got, a room change while the majority of the group went out to experience the Danube River cruise that I had been on four nights previously.
Sunday 7 August: Budapest, Hungary
Our optional tour this morning was a visit to the Hungarian Parliament building, one of the largest and most ornate parliamentary buildings in the world. It was the country's most expensive construction and it was commented that they could have built a town for 40,000 inhabitants for the same cost! Due to its gilded decorations and masses of marble, it is often referred to as the nation's “jewellery box.” We were allowed to photograph inside, but not the crown jewels that were located in the most interesting hall of all. After visiting the parliament, our guide took us on a walking tour and our first photo stop was the Jewish shoes monument. This is a sculpture in iron of sixty pairs of period-appropriate shoes, that are attached to the stone embankment. Behind them lies a 40 meter long, 70 cm high stone bench. This monument commemorates the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. They were ordered to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. The monument thus represents the shoes left behind on the bank. We continued on walking in fairly empty streets, as it was Sunday, to a square with a statue of Ronald Reagan as well as one of a former prime minister on a bridge. We were also taken to a WWII monument with playful fountains and had a glimpse at St. Stephen's Basilica.
Once we had returned to the hotel on foot, we joined up with the rest of our fellow travellers to take a scheduled coach drive to Heroes' Square, where this time we were able to get out, see it and photograph it properly. The coach then drove us past the Gundel restaurant and adjoining zoo, the skating pond and the old castle replica and past some thermal baths. Then as there was construction and coaches were unable to ascend the hill to the St. Matthias Square and Fisherman's Bastion that we had seen four days ago, we drove up a different hill to the citadel for its marvellous views and to visit the liberty monument aka the bottle opener, instead. In the late afternoon in my free time, I explored St. Stephen's Basilica, bought some snacks for the upcoming days, and then dinner at Subway before returning to the hotel to work and watch the Olympics on TV.
Today was another long driving day, one in which we had breakfast in Hungary, lunch in Slovakia and dinner in Poland. Slovakia was quite pretty. We drove through the Tatra Mountains where villagers still live in traditional wooden houses. Lunch for me - since Slovakia accepts Euros - was a nice dish of pasta at a restaurant in Donovaly, a ski town, famous for string cheese. Later in the afternoon we had a photo stop at Oravský Hrad Castle, which, according to the blurb I photographed, “goes back to the most 13th century. It ranks among the most significant monuments of castle architecture and belongs to one of the most frequently visited monuments in Slovakia. The Orava Castle towers 112 metres over the sea level and it is a magnificent dominant of the village Oravský Podzálmok.” Literally, though, our coach stopped in the castle parking lot, we got out, used the parking lot toilets, photographed the exterior of the castle up on the hill, looked at souvenir stalls and that was about it, before getting back on the coach crossing into Poland and ending our drive in Kraków. We had dinner at our hotel, but the very spicy salad dressing they poured on the salad basically ruined it - and the meal - for me. Their pasta dish was only so-so (the one at lunch in Slovakia was much better) and the dessert tasteless - but really I think my taste buds had been affected by the salad dressing it was that bad. Moreover, I was unable to get rid of the bad taste until after breakfast the next day!
Tuesday 9 August: Kraków - Wieliczka - Kraków, Poland
Those of us on the optional tour had an early departure today so as to be able to drive to the 600-year-old Wieliczka Salt Mine in the outskirts of Kraków, and be one of the first tour groups to get in. I had visited a salt mine in about 2009 or 2010 in Bogotá, Colombia, but this was certainly bigger and more impressive. It was one of the sites listed on the original 1978 UNESCO World Heritage list. With a depth of 327 metres and over 287 kilometres long, the mine contains grey rock salt, the deposit of which was originally discovered in about the 13th century. Many shafts have been dug throughout the centuries but our tour covered about 3.5 kilometres, representing only about 2% of the total passages contained in the mine. Salt used to be a prized material and even the word salary comes from salt. In the chambers we were shown were a number of salt sculptures created by the miners themselves. There were even chandeliers whose clear, glass-like crystals are made from dissolved and reconstituted rock salt. And of course, no Polish salt mine would be worth its salt without a salt sculpture of Poland's favourite son, Pope John Paul II, or indeed without a sound and light show over the natural underground lake, featuring Poland's other favourite son, Frederick Chopin. During the tour, we were taken down to a certain level by elevator then walked what seemed like hundreds of further steps down two or three more levels. At the end of the tour we were whisked up above ground again by another elevator in about 40 seconds.
After lunch back at the hotel, our entire tour group met up for our scheduled walking tour of Kraków, for centuries the seat of royalty and the former capital of Poland. We walked up Wawel Hill in order to visit the cathedral, inside of which no photos were allowed, then past the courtyard of Jagiellonian University through the Old Town, to what is reported to be Europe's largest town square, with its centrepiece being the medieval Cloth Hall. I also went briefly into the 14th century St. Mary's Church, which every hour has a trumpeter playing in the tower, but no photos were allowed inside it either. I walked around the square for photos but it was getting hot and I was getting tired so I walked back to the hotel on my own to work on my photos.
As an optional dinner, we went to a restaurant located in the countryside outside Kraków for a generous selection of traditional Polish cuisine - including pierogis and beet soup. A local folk group and live band entertained us with Polish songs and dances. Some of us even got to dance a polka or two ourselves! And, as I had a prime seat this time, I videoed some of the performance and it is posted below. It is unfortunate that I did not note the name of the restaurant, as I would have liked to have given credit where credit is due.
Today was a sobering experience, once which frankly I had not been looking forward to, except for the fact that it was something I felt everyone should experience so as to understand the horror and learn never, ever to allow it to happen again. The weather reflected our mood, as it rained almost the entire day. Luckily the coach had a good supply of umbrellas. We were driven fairly early to the city of Oświęcim, better known throughout the world by its German name, Auschwitz, one of the most notorious locations of the Jewish Holocaust, whose site has since been used for films about World War II's atrocities to the Jews and other victims in Poland - one of over a dozen such sites throughout Central Europe, I might add. After taking a while to get our group organized for our tour, we cowered in the rain and I could only reflect on how our current misery was absolutely nothing compared to the suffering of the over one million victims who were sent to these camps in the 1940s. I am sure I was not the only one not daring to comment on our incomparable discomfort as we waited in line to be let in, through a narrow door, into a strict scanning and bag control.
The main camp contained several buildings and the tour we were taken on visited only a few of them, for the most part those that had been converted into museums, containing plaques with text, photos and sometimes artifacts from the camps. After a lengthy tour at Auschwitz I, we drove further to Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, which was more familiar to us from the movies “Schindler's List̶ and “Life is Beautiful” There, entry was free and I entered three of the buildings on my own to find that one contained a long line of multiple open toilets (no doors for privacy on these) while the other two contained crematoriums and even after some seventy years what struck me the most was that I could still smell the thick acrid odour of burnt flesh.
I can understand if some of you readers will want to skip reading the next few paragraphs, which come from the photographs I took of some of the information plaques in the camps, but here goes: “Throughout the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. The German forces occupying Poland during the Second World War established a concentration camp, on the outskirts of the town of Oświęcim. In 1940, the Germans called the town Auschwitz and that is the name by which the camp was known. Over the next years, it was expanded into three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Auschwitz III-Monowitz and more than forty subcamps. The first people to be brought to Auschwitz as prisoners and murdered here were Poles. They were followed by Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies and deportees of many other nationalities. Beginning in 1942, however, Auschwitz became the setting for the most massive murder campaign in history, when the Nazis put into operation their plan to destroy the entire Jewish population of Europe. The great majority of Jews who were deported to Auschwitz - men, women and children - were sent immediately upon arrival to death in the gas chambers of Birkenau. When the SS realised that the end of the war was near, they attempted to remove the evidence of their atrocities committed here. They dismantled gas chambers, crematoria and other buildings, burned documents and evacuated all those prisoners who could walk to the interior of Germany. Those who were not evacuated were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.”
“...On July 2, 1947, the Polish Parliament established the State Museum of Oświęcim - Brzezinka on the sites of the former camps of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. In 1979 these camps were formally recognized by UNESCO by their inclusion on its World Heritage List.”
“...Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. In the years 1940-1945, the Nazis deported at least 1,300,000 people to Auschwitz: 1,100,000 Jews, 140,000 - 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma (Gypsies), 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 25,000 prisoners of other ethnic groups. 1,100,000 of these people died in Auschwitz, approximately 90% of the victims were Jews. The SS murdered the majority of them in the gas chambers.”
There is more information on the photographs I took of the plaques, but I find I just can't bear to transcribe any more. The detail is just too horrendous. However, if you would like copies of these photographs, all you have to do is ask.
After leaving Auschwitz and Birkenau, we travelled north to Częstochowa to visit the 14th century Monastery of Jasna Góra, famous for the Black Madonna, said to have been painted by St. Luke. According to the information we were given, “...first this holy icon was kept in Jerusalem, then in Constantinople [but it was finally] brought to Poland in the 14th century by the Polish Prince Ladislaus of Opole. In...1430, the image was damaged by robbers who slashed the face of the Black Madonna with swords [and these] slashes [are still] visible [today]...For centuries the painting...has been known for numerous miracles which [has] made Jasna Góra a pilgrimage site for people from all over Europe.”
We were also given time for lunch here, but for some of us it was more important to find toilets. The place was filled with pilgrims so it was difficult to get near the icon in question, but the insides of the two main religious buildings, the Chapel of our Lady and the Basilica, that I went into, were certainly elaborately decorated. Most of us had not found lunch in fact, so it was lucky for us that, once we were back on the coach again, our tour director generously supplied us with local bread sticks and cheese - and sausages for the meat eaters - so we did not starve! Finally, at the end of a long, wet day, we arrived in the country's capital of Warsaw. As we had arrived late in the day, however, there was no time to check into the hotel, so we were driven straight to dinner at a restaurant a bit of a ways outside the city centre, where, in addition to a lavish dinner, we were treated to a pierogi cooking demonstration by the restaurant's chef. These are a Polish staple food. During the dinner our driver (I guess) arranged the hotel check-in for all of us. We were handed our room keys in the coach; all our bags had already been delivered to our rooms. Now that is service!
Thursday 11 August: Warsaw, Poland
Our first stop on our tour this morning was the Chopin Memorial in Lazienki Park, which is where we had our obligatory group photo taken (see below). We then travelled on to the Museum of Polish Jews outside of which was the Monument of the Ghetto Heroes. The museum was a fascinating piece of modern architecture located on the site of the former Jewish ghetto (think “The Pianist”) and was opened on April 19, 2013. The museum features a multimedia narrative exhibition about the vibrant Jewish community that flourished in Poland for a thousand years up to the Holocaust. The building, a post-modern structure in glass, copper, and concrete, was designed by Finnish architects. The project was supposed to be finished in 33 months at a cost of 150 million Polish zloty, but like most projects, it went over budget and ended up costing 320 million zloty. In 2016 the museum won the European Museum of the Year Award. Our guide took us through it explaining exhibits en route. There was certainly a lot to see and a lot to read if one had the time and liked those sort of things.
We then drove to the reconstructed Old Town to see copies of Renaissance mansions in the Market Square and the Royal Castle. During our free time afterward, I took a few photos and had lunch at Costa Coffee sharing a table with some of my tour mates. Then, as there was still some time to kill before the coach picked us up, I wandered through the free Pope John Paul II outdoor exhibition.
When we joined the coach again, we were a smaller group for an optional tour to see THE landmark of Warsaw - the imposing “wedding cake” Palace of Culture. We took an elevator (with a middle-aged female attendant inside whose job was to push the button to take us up to the 30th floor viewing platform of Stalin's skyscraper for its impressive vistas and then to push the button to take us all the way down to the bottom again - what an exciting job! - one, one might say, that has its ups and downs!) Next, we were taken to the Praga district, a somewhat more run-down neighbourhood, where the spirit of Warsaw prior to WWII survives. We visited the tiny Museum of Life under Communism displaying artifacts related to everyday life during the communist era within a recreated typical urban flat from those times. Nevertheless, I recognised a few items, such as similar models of TV, sewing machine, vacuum cleaner, etc. which had been around during my own childhood, which took place in a very non-communist country, so I wondered at its genuineness.
There was an interesting display about rationing: “Rationing of food and consumer goods lasted in different forms throughout the whole period of the People's Republic of Poland. Ration cards for basic foodstuffs were implemented shortly after World War II. Although officially they were withdrawn in 1953, food and commodities did not become easily available at the time. People applied and waited years for special coupons or vouchers entitling them to obtain a flat, a car, a washing machine, or a TV. Due to the economic crisis at the end of [Edward Gierek's government], the authorities were forced to re-introduce ration cards. It all started with the “trade ticket,” i.e. ration card, for sugar in 1976. Gradually other ration cards were implemented, among others for flour, meat, soap, alcohol and cigarettes. The number and “value” of cards depended on the person's age and profession. The biggest rations were granted to miners, while the smallest to the intelligentsia. In the 1980s, nearly all daily products and consumer goods were rationed. In order to prevent any misappropriation of funds or corruption, at some point the government implemented even ration cards for ration cards. This lasted practically until the end of the communist era in Poland.”
Another long driving day but I was happy that we would be back in a country of Euros. I had visited Germany before, but only the Western side, so I was interested to see how the Eastern side compared. (Frankly, I did not notice any difference.) Along our route we stopped three times at gas stations to use the toilets and to spend our remaining Polish zlotys. In the afternoon we watched a DVD about the Berlin wall on the coach then, travelling over the Oder River, we finally entered Germany where there was no border control. In an hour or so more, we arrived in the outskirts of Germany's capital, Berlin. The hotel we stayed in (the Marriot) had the nicest shower of all the hotels we had experienced on both tours. After freshening up and loading up my photos to my computer, I left with a handful of our group for an optional dinner at a small restaurant for tourists, where we were practically the only guests. The uniqueness perhaps of this dinner was a friendly musician with an electronic piano set to entertain us, even managing to get some of us up singing and dancing, while we ate local German fare. As the token Canadian there that evening, I was asked to sing their standard “Canadian” song, which ended up being “Allouette” of all things. The musician did not have the words on his karaoke machine, so I had to fudge it a bit so as not to let it go on too long!
Saturday 13 August: Berlin, Germany
This morning, our local, American, history-student guide, Jonathan, took us on a drive along the Ku'Damm, past the Memorial church, and Bahnhof Zoo (where I was reminded of a film I'd seen as a 20-something called “Christiane F. - Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo”), along the edge of the huge Tiergarten park to Museum Island, where we got out briefly, the refurbished Reichstag building, where we also got out briefly, and finally the Brandenburg Gate, where we had a bit of a longer time for photos.
On our return to the hotel via the “Lady on a Stick” (Siegessaüle) and the KaDeWe (Kaufhaus Des Westens) shopping centre, we had a half-hour rest, then went on a more interesting, to me, optional tour to see highlights of former Eastern Berlin. This included views of the tall television tower (Fernsehturm) and the East Side Gallery along the Spree River, a long stretch of gaily painted Berlin wall, at which we were given only 10 minutes of free time - I could have spent hours here photographing and I reckoned it was too far out to come back again later in the day, so I was rather disappointed we had so little time here. I would have liked to have walked along the route of the wall, to see where it went, not to mention photograph at a leisurely pace even more of the fantastic artwork that now decorated the famous icon. Instead, our time was spent at the Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park, which was depressing and stark as it was a cemetery for more than 7,000 Soviet soldiers. It commemorates “April and May of 1945...toward the end of World War II [when] countless people, including more than 22,000 Soviet soldiers, were killed in the fight to take Berlin.”
We then drove through the Turkish-Spanish-Italian section, whose name I did not catch, but which I also found interesting and would have liked to have spent longer to explore, partly for the fascinating artwork cum graffiti. Our final coach stop was the Mauermuseum at Checkpoint Charlie, which documents nearly 30 years of dramatic escape attempts across the Iron Curtain. The museum's brochure says “Between 1961 and 1989 more than 5,000 people were able to escape across the Berlin Wall. In the course of time, the aids they used to overcome the increasingly perfected GDR border security system became more and more inventive, and many of them have found their way into the museum's collection: several modified cars, a mini submarine used to tow an escapee across the Baltic Sea, hot-air balloons and homemade, motorised hang gliders....Full documentation is available on numerous escape tunnels. The most successful of them enabled 57 people to reach West Berlin on two evenings in October 1964.”
Even more fascinating to me were some of the statistics, which again come from the museum's brochure:
“Total length of the GDR border security system “Ring Around Berlin (West)” as of 31 July 1989: 155.0 km...Metal fencing: watchtowers: 66.5km; bunkers: 302; dog runs: 20; motor vehicle trenches: 259; Electrically alarmed fence: 105.5km...Successful escape attempts: 5,075m, of which members of armed brigades: 574, Fatalities: 456...”
We were then left on our own in this area and I visited the Topography of Terror outdoor museum, which is a section of the wall that still exists in more or less its original state (no artwork but lots of photos and information to read). I also went to an extra museum called “The Wall” which was an 18-metre high panoramic depiction of the Berlin Wall during an autumn day in the 1980s by Yadegar Asis, accompanied by sound bites of famous speeches about the Wall. In my opinion however, it wasn't worth the 10 Euros it cost me. I walked back to the hotel, which was located near the Potsdamer Platz, utterly exhausted. Once I had recovered my energy and done some work on my photos and e-mail, I ate dinner on my own at a nearby Starbucks.
Today we had to leave Berlin, which I liked and want to see more of some day, and headed south to Prague with a lunch stop in Dresden, located on the Elbe River in Saxony. It was Sunday and the traffic was light so we arrived in good time and had a couple of hours here. After our tour director led us into the main square and pointed out some buildings worth visiting, we were let loose. First of all, I wanted to go into the reconstructed cathedral (Frauenkirche) as our tour guide had showed us a photo of it totally destroyed by an air raid in 1945. This controversial bombing of Dresden by British and American troops toward the end of the World War II killed approximately 25,000 people, many of whom were civilians, and destroyed the entire city centre. They had used some of the original black stones from the destroyed building to construct the new building, which made it interesting to look at. Unfortunately, when I arrived, the church was still conducting its morning mass, so visitors were not allowed inside. Consequently, I wandered off to look at the “Procession of the Dukes” (Fürstenzug) on the wall of the Royal Palace, originally painted between 1871 and 1876 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Wettin Dynasty, Saxony's ruling family. As the work was not weatherproof, it was replaced with approximately 23,000 Meissen porcelain tiles between 1904 and 1907. One hundred and two metres (335 ft) long, it is known as the largest porcelain artwork in the world. The mural displays the ancestral portraits of the 35 margraves, electors, dukes and kings of the House of Wettin between 1127 and 1904. I then wandered over to the Semper Opera House and the Baroque Zwinger Palace and photographed the latter's gardens and noticeably new statues of angels all around its walls. As Dresden was the last place we could use Euros for a few days, I treated myself to a sandwich and beer at a local establishment. After this refreshment, I tried visiting the cathedral again, but this time my entry was also blocked because they were about to start a concert, and only concert-ticket holders were permitted to enter. In actual fact, there had been only a one-hour window for visitors to see the interiors and I had been having lunch at the time. Feeling frustrated, I met up with the others to await our coach pick up.
We then drove on to the Czech border, over the Ore Mountains and finally arrived in the capital city of Prague. We were staying in a hotel located near a monastery which afforded some good views over the city. After a nice dinner at the hotel, we went on an optional walking tour with George, a 60-plus-old former gigolo, I suspect, who interspersed his tour of Prague with personal stories of his family and past conquests, trying, I think, to be funny and self-deprecating, but I just found it tiresome. After observing the view over Prague, we descended the hill to Mala Strana and saw our first sculpture by David Cerny - three faceless babies crawling on the ground. I decided to make it my quest the next day to find and photograph as many as I could of his other sculptures dotted around Prague. George also led us across Charles Bridge half way and back again and down to a pier to catch a tourist boat, which we had to ourselves, and then pointed out buildings on the banks of the river as we cruised for about an hour on the Vltava with a glass of wine or beer in hand and took photographs, which became blurrier as it grew darker.
Monday 15 August: Prague, Czech Republic
Prague has bloomed since the “Velvet Revolution,” a non-violent transition of power in the former Czechoslovakia, which began on November 17, 1989 with peaceful demonstrations by students and dissidents alike against the one-party government of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and ended on December 29, 1989 with the election of Václav Havel as President of Czechoslovakia. It brought about the end of 41 years of Stalinist rule in this country.
This morning, George, wearing the same suit as last night, my room mate and I noticed - had he been home at all last night or had he really been out carousing as he hinted/joked? - took us on another walking tour, down the slopes of the hill where our hotel was located and through vineyards to the 1,000-year-old Prague Castle complex and inside St Vitus' Cathedral. We were able to take a few photos of the magnificent stain glass windows inside and many more outside of the gothic and neo-gothic exteriors full of menacing gargoyles. Next we continued downhill and crossed the Vltava River via a less busy bridge through the Jewish section and ended up at the large cobblestoned Old Town square where we waited for the infamous Astronomical Clock to strike 11 a.m. and show us its 12 figures. The crowds were dense and we were fearful for our belongings - we had been warned about pick-pockets - but finally the other clocks in the square struck the hour and then the Astronomical Clock - certainly showy, externally - disappointed us with its very short display. We were left wondering what all the hype was about.
We were then free to explore Prague on our own and after walking round the streets surrounding the main square and exploring some souvenir shops for photos, I sat down briefly on a bench in the main square, took out my map that George had marked up for me last night, and strategized my route. As I mentioned in yesterday's write-up, I made it my challenge to try and find all the David Cerny sculptures currently in Prague as highlighted in our hotel magazine. (I have since looked up his work on Google and found that there have been many more exhibits, but few still remain in public locations in the city.) First, I headed out to Luzerna shopping gallery (apparently owned by the family of Václav Havel) to photograph “Horse” a suspended image of an upside down, dead horse astride which was King Wencelaus or Saint Vitus depending on which write-up one reads. It was quite easy to photograph and one shot was enough. Then I walked toward the river to find Cerny's revolving head of Franz Kafka located near the Národni Třína metro station. I watched it for a while, fascinated by the reflections in all the different angles of metal, and took a number of photos as well as some video clips, which I have now edited and add below.
Next, after arriving at the river, I turned south to the Dancing House, aka Fred and Ginger, a 1996-completed deconstructivist-style building by Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunič and Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, located at the corner of Rasinovo Nabrezi and Resslova street, and now featured on a gold 2,000 Czech koruna coin. After photographing it at various angles, though the overhead wires made my job difficult, I walked North up Masarikovo Nabrezi, the street that hugs the river bank, as far as Charles Bridge to look for a drain-pipe structure also by Cerny. After struggling a bit to find it, I went inside the area where George had indicated it to be and was told by the friendly bartender there that it had been taken away or moved some time ago. Disappointed, I headed across the busy Charles Bridge to the last Cerny work I had scheduled to photograph: two bronze naked male statues peeing into a pool that is in the shape of the map of the Czech Republic. The hip area moves on each figure, and the gimmick is that if you send a text to a certain number, it activates the hips of the statues and enables them to write your text into the pool in “urine” (really just water, thank goodness, or at least I believe so, I did not test it to see) with their, ah, dangling appendages. I had to wait a while until the background was free of people emerging from a restaurant. Indeed, there were so many tourists standing in front of this curious piece of artwork with their smart phones extended photographing it, that other photographers were taking photos of the photographers photographing. Patience brought its reward though finally, and then, after taking a couple of snaps of the city's narrowest street nearby, I had just enough time to walk back again across the very crowded Charles Bridge, past the Rudolfinum Music Auditorium and Art Gallery to photograph the statue of Antonín Dvořák, and meet up with the others in the park on the Old Town Square to catch the coach transport back to our hotel.
I downloaded and prepared my photos for this blog, then went out on an optional dinner to another tourist restaurant, but one which I did not enjoy after about the first hour. The restaurant was too crowded, there were four or five tour groups of various nationalities who all seemed to be talking at the tops of their voices. Add to that the entertainment of various instruments, various performers, lots of yelping and screaming, and then very heavy food once again, it became unbearable. Furthermore, the meal was accompanied by unending glasses of wine. I say unending, because there was a fellow wearing mini vats of red and white wine on his back. A tube ran from each vat to each of his hands. Using his finger as a stopper, he would lean over our chairs and fill up our already full wine glasses with one or the other tube, never allowing any glass to remain empty. After a while we just stopped drinking, so as to stop him coming. The wine wasn't that good anyway. What a lot they must have thrown away at the end of the meal! There were a couple of classical pieces at the end of the entertainment after many folkloric pieces from Moravia, Bohemia and Slovakia, performed by singers, dancers and musicians, and it sounded like some patrons were enjoying it, perhaps encouraged by the alcohol, but as for our group, it really just went on for far too long and most of us just wanted to get out of there. I was also feeling overheated again and left my seat to sit by the open door to get some fresh air.
This morning, we traveled through the green Bohemian countryside to Ceské Budejovice to visit the Budweiser brewery - not the American company, but the original Czech producer, whose product is known locally as Budvar. Here, we had a behind-the-scenes tour of the manufacturing process - the vats, the humungous bottling room - and even got to sample the beer mid-morning(!) We were told to bring a sweater because the temperature in the underground storage area would be about 10 degrees Celsius cooler than above ground. Again, I photographed some of the plaques describing the process. “...The brew house...is where the beer is produced. Or rather, this is where the foundations of the beer are laid, using high quality water, select Moravian malt and the finest Žatec hops - a special strain harvested relatively early in the season from the unique red soils of Žatec. The mixing of these ingredients results in something called hopped wort. Wort is the name given to an infusion of malt before it is fermented into beer. The brewing process takes approximately 10 hours and includes three phases - mashing, straining and the boiling of the wort. Mashing, which lasts about 5 hours, results in the transformation of non-fermentable malt starch into fermentable sugar. The principle is in mixing ground malt with water and heating always one third of the volume (the mash) to a precisely determined temperature. Mashing is repeated twice. Straining, which takes 3.5 hours, follows in order to separate the wort from the malt residues that were not boiled. The resulting mash wort then enters the final phase known as wort boiling. During the 90-minute wort boiling, the resulting mash wort is boiled with the cones of the finest Žatec hops. This creates the expected, pleasantly bitter taste that makes taking sip after sip so tempting. The end product of wort boiling is called hopped wort. For a better idea - the concentration of the extract in the hopped wort intended for the production of the lager is 12%. The beer then leaves the brew house to undergo the main fermentation process...” OK, so that's only a part of the process, but hopefully it will whet your appetite. The resulting beer that we tasted was quite pleasant, not as bitter as I expected it to be, though they did tell us what we drank was unpasteurised. We watched the employee pour it for us straight from a huge underground vat.
Next, we drove further on, to Ceský Krumlov, a picturesque medieval town nestled on the banks of the Vltava, and arrived there just before lunchtime. After checking in to our re-furbished 16th-century Jesuit monastery cum hotel - the beds were quite narrow, made of hard wood and rather short as my tall room mate's feet hung over the end! - I explored the narrow cobbled streets and buildings - which were either hotels, shops or restaurants - of the town centre, which was full of Asian tourists for the most part. In the early afternoon, our group met together so as to walk with our tour director uphill to the castle, considered to be one of the best in the country. As a bit of trivia for you, there are over 2,000 castles, keeps and castle ruins in the Czech Republic, one of the highest densities in the world, after Belgium and France. Unfortunately, the young woman who acted as our local guide through the castle did not have very intelligible English, so most (perhaps all?) of us really could not understand what she was saying, but we hoped we laughed in all the right places at her jokes. When we compared notes afterwards, we all felt the same: she was a nice girl, but she really needed to work on her English pronunciation in order to serve her customers better.
After the tour, I took some photos of the vistas from atop the castle keep, then, tired and overheated once again, I walked back to the hotel to do some work on my photos. For dinner, after enjoying a cocktail reception together on the hotel terrace, our group was divided among three different restaurants in the old town, but the food at the restaurant my group of seven ate at was once again too heavy and none of us was able to finish the huge portions. My own opinion about this town was that it was nice to visit as a day trip, but I would not advise staying overnight, especially if the hotel at which we were staying was the best in town. However, I understand there are a number of cultural venues in this town to visit if one has the time and the inclination to do so, including two Egon Schiele art galleries, museums of photography, puppets and wax figures, a graphite mine, a brewery and even a museum of torture...
Wednesday 17 August: Ceský Krumlov, Czech Republic - Vienna, Austria
My room mate was disappointed that there were no chocolate croissants on offer for breakfast at the hotel this morning. She had looked forward to them every morning. There was, however, plenty of choice for breakfast, after which we packed up, left the monastic hotel and carried our bags down the cobblestoned streets of Ceský Krumlov to our waiting coach outside the walled city. Today would be our last, but relatively short, coach trip as we were expecting to arrive in Vienna in the early afternoon. We took photos at the border crossing, which was also our morning toilet stop, since there were no control guards, and no signs saying photos were forbidden. After we checked into our hotel room, my room mate went for some last minute shopping while I worked on my photos and e-mails. In the evening, the entire tour group went out for a celebratory dinner at the baroque Palais Auersperg, which offered Sacher Torte as a dessert choice, followed by a chamber concert of Mozart and Strauss by the Wiener Residenzorchester, made up of a standing lead violinist, two other sitting violinists, a violist, cellist, double bassist, flutist, oboeist and clarinetist, accompanied by a pianist and, in the second half, a timpanist as well. There were also a pair of classical ballet dancers and a couple of opera singers. As we had tickets for the very front row, it was quite an experience to be so close. So close in fact I was able to watch the ballet dancers' feet and examine all the performers' costumes up very close. In the intermission we were served a glass of champagne. Then we were back on the coach for the very last time, and upon arrival at our hotel said our goodbyes to everyone.
Thursday August 18: Vienna, Austria - London, UK - Vancouver, Canada
As nine of us were catching mid morning flights, we had an early start and were whisked to the airport in a couple of limousines. Our tour director had arranged packed breakfasts for us from the hotel, but as they contained juice and water, we were obliged to partake before going through security, so I found a bench and had the two liquids as well as a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread (not what I would have chosen under any circumstances for breakfast, but there it was...). Security and border control were both fairly quick so I waited at my gate and started reading a new novel after checking that there was nothing I wanted to buy in the duty free. After a less-than-three-hour flight to London Heathrow, I had just over a four-hour wait in terminal 2 for my next flight for Vancouver. I decided there was nothing in LHR's shops that I wanted to buy either, though I did eat the muffin and the cereal bar that the Vienna hotel had provided, checked texts and read a bit more to while away the time. On the Air Canada flight to Vancouver, I had purchased a Premium Economy seat, which was a bit more spacious, and we had the same food as the first class/business class passengers, which was nice, but the entertainment was not great, so after one movie, I tried sleeping and ended up with a stiff neck in the process. We arrived in Vancouver on time.