We Are on the Boat in Budapest!

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The Chain Bridge over the Danube

No more packing and unpacking or schlepping bags onto trains! We are done lugging luggage! This last leg of our journey will be spent on a Viking river boat just like the one in the ad we saw before every episode of Downton Abbey.

We arrived by train in Budapest around noon today. It was cold and rainy and the Budapest train station is a depressing place. It’s unlike the other train stations we’ve visited in Europe. It reminded me of stations in old movies from the 1930s and 40s, but not as romantic. It was cold and dark and dirty and all the signs were totally incomprehensible (to me). In high school and college, I had a lot of French and some Spanish, so Italian (another Romance language) was not that hard to figure out. German was much harder, but I know enough words to get the gist of street signs. But Hungarian! I was clueless. We decided not to try to use public transportation to get to the Viking pier,  so we took a taxi costing us many thousands of Forints. The driver spoke some English, enough to ask us what we thought of Donald Trump. It seems all Europeans find the current administration amusing.

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The Parliament

Once on the boat, everything changed. We were shown to our room, our bags were delivered for us, and we were invited to have lunch in the lounge where we were immediately offered beer and wine. The rest of the afternoon, we just relaxed and looked out at the Danube. At 4:00 there was a wine and cheese tasting party, then an orientation presentation and then dinner with more wine and beer. At dinner we met another retired couple from Virginia and we exchanged travel stories. As we ate, the ship began a  short cruise up the river, around an island, and back. The major buildings on both the Buda and the Pest side of the river, as well as the bridges, were brightly lit and it was gorgeous. We finished eating and went to the top deck where it was very cold, and very wet, but gorgeous. While we were roaming the deck, listening to the commentary from the program director and taking pictures, we were served Schnapps!

Tomorrow we take a bus and walking tour of Budapest while the boat sails on to Visegrad. We meet up with it there, and then it’s on to Vienna.

The Charm of Vienna

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Pedestrian boulevard in Vienna. Note the Christmas decorations – ready but not yet lit.

We arrived in Vienna today and had just the afternoon and evening to explore, but we’ll be back in a few days when our river boat cruise stops here. Vienna is a charming city, especially now as it gears up for the Christmas season.

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Paul conduction the Vienna Philharmonic

Vienna is to classical music as Florence is to Renaissance art. We had limited time in the city today, so we decided to go to one museum, Das Haus der Musik. You don’t need to know German to figure out what this place is all about. It’s a lovely little gem of a museum with interactive exhibits that allow you to experiment with sound of all kinds. We had a great time there, especially on the third floor that’s devoted to the great classical composers. There was even a room where Paul got to conduct (virtually) the Vienna Philharmonic, and the orchestra followed him just as well as his high school band used to.

We had dinner in an outdoor restaurant (tents with heaters) on one of Vienna’s pedestrian boulevards, and then took the U-Bahn (Vienna’s metro system) to the Schönbrunn Palace for a concert. I truly appreciated the U-Bahn; it’s clean, well-lit, logical, and easy to navigate.

The Schönbrunn Palace was an imperial summer home and is now a venue for many musical and cultural events. The concert we attended was one they put on for tourists, and most of the audience came from the various river cruises that stop in Vienna. In fact, our Viking River Cruise offers this as an evening excursion, but we are attending the opera that night, so we decided to catch this concert on our own. It was exactly what we expected, a fun time but not a memorable musical experience.

Tomorrow we take our final train ride in Europe as we head for Budapest and the Viking River Cruise up the beautiful blue Danube (your earworm for today). I’m hoping to find some time, either on the train or on the boat, to upload more pictures of Zurich, Salzburg, and Vienna.

The Hills are Alive…

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Oh, I really do love Salzburg! It’s a lovely city, very walkable, and we had a beautiful, bright, sunshiny day for our visit.

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The Pegasus Fountain in Mirabell Gardens

We started our day with the “Mozart and More” tour. Mozart was born in Salzburg, and much of the tourism trade in the city focuses on his life. Our tour guide, Gunther, was very knowledgeable and since we were the only people in the group, he was able to tailor the tour to our interests. Gunther studied languages and literature in college (Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish) and he speaks English quite well. He also studied two years to get his tour guide license.

As we drove around Salzburg we got a lesson about the role of the Catholic Church and the Reformation in Salzburg’s history and Mozart’s life. Salzburg has 40 churches and I was surprised to learn that only one of them is Lutheran. When Gunther learned we were interested in music, he showed us Grosses Festspielhaus (the opera house), checked their schedule, and found that the Brussels Philharmonic was touring Austria and giving a concert at the opera house tonight. He even helped us buy tickets. The tour ended at the Mozart Residence (now a museum) where we were left on our own to explore. The museum contained some instruments, letters, manuscripts, and portraits, but the best thing about it was the music that played during each segment of the audio tour.

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Church where the wedding scene was filmed.

In the afternoon, we boarded a bus for the Sound of Music Sing Along Tour. We knew this was just tourist schlock when we booked it, but it was a lot of fun. The bus took us to all the sites where filming took place for the 1965 movie with Julie Andrews. Along the way, they played the songs and we all sang. I don’t know if it would have been as much fun in bad weather, but it was a glorious day and a very relaxing way to spend our afternoon.

In the eventing, we went to hear the Brussels Philharmonic. This was a bonus because we hadn’t expected to get tickets for it. The program included Guillaume Connesson’s Flammenschrift (a modern work I had never heard of), a Lalo cello concerto with an excellent soloist (our third cello program this month, but there’s always room for cello!), excerpts from Prokofiev‘s Cinderella, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Paul, not so much – something about the trombones he didn’t like, and he didn’t feel the orchestra supported the soloist in the Lalo well, but his taste is much more discerning than mine.

I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to Salzburg tomorrow. This is one city I would love to return to if I ever get an opportunity.

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Salzburg

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Passing through the Alps on the way to Salzburg

Today was mostly a travel day for us. After only one day in Zurich, it was time to move on, so we boarded a Railjet train for Salzburg. The trip took more than five hours, but it was beautiful. One minute we’d be passing farms with green fields and the next we’d be in the mountains with several inches of snow. The whole trip made me think of Heidi. I actually enjoy train travel (usually) and I spent most of the trip listening to an audio book while I looked out the window at the spectacular scenery.

When we arrived in Salzburg, we checked in at our hotel, did some laundry, and went to dinner. We walked around a bit and then went back to the hotel, so there’s not much to report. We’re just resting and conserving our energy for the two tours in Salzburg we’ve booked for tomorrow.

While you’re waiting for our adventures to continue, you may want to check out this page where I’ve collected some things we’ve seen that interested and/or amused us, but that I didn’t mention in a post. Maybe they will interest and/or amuse you too.

Too Much Zurich, Too Little Time!

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View from the train

Zurich is a bonus city for us. We originally intended to visit Venice, but getting there by train from Milan is difficult and, since Salzburg was already on our list, it made sense geographically to slip in a day in Zurich in between. But one day is not enough.

Our day started with the train ride from Milan. The ride was much more comfortable than our other train trips, probably because the seats next to us were empty and we could stretch out. The views out the window as we passed from Italy into Switzerland were gorgeous. It was misty and a little drizzly, but that just added to the beauty. My photos look almost like black and white images, but you can see some hints of color.

We were often lost in Zurich. I know practically no German, so signs were totally useless; we had to depend on maps and landmarks, and we got turned around often. We made it to our hotel and the kind young man behind the desk, who spoke English very well, mapped out a quick walking tour of Zurich’s Old Town for us.

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The Limmat River

We visited Grossmünster, the largest church in Zurich, and walked by Fraumünster hoping to go in to view the Chagall stained glass windows, but it was closed for a service. We then visited some shops and bought some chocolate to bring home. Zurich was a nice change from the cities in Italy. The streets were quiet and uncrowded, making the walking much easier.

In the evening we attended a concert with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (Zürcher Kammerorchester). The concert hall is not at all like the concert halls and opera houses in Italy. It’s very austere looking, but the acoustics are excellent. We ordered our tickets late so our seating choices were few, and we ended up at the last two seats of the very first row. I generally don’t like being that close to the stage or that far from the center, but in this case it was a great place to sit because it gave us an interesting view of the orchestra. The stage is simply a platform with no wings so we were able to see the anteroom where the conductor and soloist entered.

The first piece was Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major  with Gil Shaham as soloist, and it was exquisite. This was one of those times when I realized I was in a room where something very special was happening. I’m not sure if it was the excellent acoustics in the hall, the relationship between soloist and conductor, or if Gil Shaham is just brilliant, but this was a performance I will never forget. It was probably a combination of those factors. When Gil Shaham left the stage, we could see him in the back, jumping up and down with joy! He returned to the stage for several bows and then an encore.

The second half of the concert was Beethoven’s 4th Symphony. It was wonderful to hear it played by a chamber orchestra rather than the large symphonic orchestras we generally hear. Paul pointed out that Beethoven wrote for a smaller orchestra so that’s probably how he intended it to be played. Again, our seats in the front corner of the hall were interesting. We were seeing the winds from behind, and they stood when they played which makes sense on a flat platform stage. Their conductor was Sir Roger Norrington, former principal conductor who returned for this performance. The whole orchestra played with such passion, and it’s obvious that they loved the conductor, and the conductor loved them and the audience. He encouraged applause between movements, applauded the players, and they applauded him. In all, this was one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended.

I wish we had more time to explore Zurich, but tomorrow we are off to Salzburg!

Duomo di Milano and More of La Scala

When you’re on vacation and not following a normal routine, you tend to lose track of the days of the week. Our first priority today was to visit the La Scala museum and their special exhibit Maria Callas Onstage. We totally forgot that today is Sunday and the museum is closed. This was a major disappointment, but we decided instead to check out Milan’s largest cathedral, the Duomo.

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Milan’s Duomo at night

As we walked in there was a service in progress, and it was a bit bizarre to see and hear people attending Mass while tourists with earbuds and selfie sticks wandered all around them. It was an unexpected treat, however, to hear the organ play as a soprano voice sang Holy, Holy, Holy. The cathedral is beautiful with its stained glass windows, sculpture, and sarcophagi. We bought tickets to visit the Terraces, allowing us to take an elevator up to the top of the cathedral and wander around among the spires and flying buttresses. It was spectacular. We then visited the Duomo museum. This museum contains everything related to the cathedral including statues, tapestries, and models in wood or terracotta.

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View from the Duomo Terraces

In the evening we went back to La Scala where we had tickets for a concert. The program was the Requiem for Rossini. It’s a seldom heard work that was written in a collaboration of several composers for the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. Our seats were high up in the Gallerie (balcony) this time, and although it’s difficult to see everything from there, you can certainly hear it all. The chorus was excellent as was the orchestra, and the soloists were serviceable. In all, it was an enjoyable concert, and one last chance for us to enjoy being in this spectacular hall.

Tomorrow we say one final “arrivederci” to Italy and move on to the “and beyond” part of our journey. First stop – Zurich!

 

So This is Milan

It’s said that the Fascist Mussolini made the post-war trains run on time in Italy (not true) but they don’t run on time now. Our train to Milan was quite late, but the trip itself was pleasant. We were seated with two women (mother and daughter) who spoke English fluently so we felt quite at home. The mother, Dawn, is about our age and originally from Long Island, New York but moved to Florence to get her Masters Degree and stayed. Her daughter was born in Italy and lives in Rome. We talked about American politics, music, art, education and our children. Dawn is recently widowed and has turned her home outside Florence into an Airbnb and if she sends us a link to her site, I’ll share it.

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The Last Supper

Milan is not like Florence where you can walk to almost everything, so we were often lost. We did manage to find the Metro and get to the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie where we got a tour including Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. This is an image we all grew up with, and seeing the original was especially satisfying.

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Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie

You can’t just walk in and look at it, you have to have reservations or be with a group. The room is entered and exited through rooms that serve as air locks, and each group is allowed only 15 minutes of viewing time. Our tour guide explained that Leonardo did not like to use the fresco technique of painting on wet plaster because it dries quickly and once dried cannot be changed. He liked to work slowly so he used tempera paint over the plaster, and over the years the humidity and other factors have done a lot of damage. It’s still impressive and much bigger than I expected.

Our tour continued on to the Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore where the walls and ceilings are covered with Renaissance frescos. It’s often referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Milan. The church is divided by a wall forming a separate nuns’ hall where there’s a huge organ built in 1554. From the church we went to the Sforza Castle, a large citadel that was impressive and extremely crowded. There are several museums there that we could have visited, but it was getting late and we had to get some dinner and  make our way to the Piazza del Duomo.

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La Scala

The Piazza del Duomo in the heart of the city is a happening place. There were tour groups, street performers, and a group of people marching for animal rights (we first saw them at the Sforza Castle). Our destination was the renown opera house La Scala because we had tickets for the last performance of their 2016-17 season, Verdi’s Nabucco. We got our tickets online in August, and the only ones left had a limited view of the stage and weren’t together, but we jumped at the chance to see an opera in the most famous hall in the world. Our seats were in separate boxes, and it was hard to see, but it was still La Scala!

We recently saw the Met Live in HD production so it was hard not to compare. I have to admit that I prefer the Met production. The opera is set in Babylon in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, but sometimes directors choose to change up things a bit and set the opera in more modern times, so this one looked like a black and white movie from the 30s. I know I should be more open minded about such things, but I really prefer the original settings (same with Shakespeare plays). Sometimes it almost works, but not this time. I was also disappointed in the chorus, probably because I was comparing it to the Met. There’s a chorus in the third act, Va, pensiero, or the The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves that was so beautiful and moving in the Met production that the audience demanded an immediate encore. That was not the case with this production. The chorus was not together and did not project that same sense of melancholy I was expecting. Still, it was La Scala! I’m happy we had the experience.