Regensburg Does Not Hide the Truth

Throughout our lives together, whenever Paul and I talked of traveling to Europe, he was reluctant to consider Germany and Austria as destinations because of their long history of antisemitism. Until today, our city tours never mentioned the darker part of their histories or the role they played in World War II and the Holocaust.

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Our Guide, Ute, and the 12th Century Stone Bridge Across the Danube

Today we toured Regensburg’s well-preserved medieval city center. We joined the tour that promised us some Jewish history and our tour guide, Ute, delivered. Regensburg, like many Bavarian cities, was founded by the Romans and became an important trade center in the Middle Ages. This is apparent in the architecture of the city  where families built high towers to reflect their prosperity. There had been a Jewish community in the city since the 10th century, and the Jewish quarter is thought to be the oldest Jewish ghetto in Germany. The persecution of the Jews began in 1452 with recurrences throughout the years, but antisemetic sentiments were expressed earlier than that, including the Judensau image on the wall of St. Peter’s Cathedral, facing the Jewish quarter. Over the years, Jews were driven from their homes, accused of various crimes, imprisoned, and at one point their cemetery was excavated and the tombstones used as building stones in houses and churches. Our guide showed us an example of a building block in a doorway where you could still see the Hebrew inscription.

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Memorial at the site of the old synagogue

Ute made a point of saying that the people of Regensburg, rather than hiding the darker side of their city’s history, talk to and educate their children about it. Throughout the city center, you can see brass paving stones with engraved names in front of houses where Jewish people once lived but were driven out. These have been installed in recent years so these people will not be forgotten. In 2005 a memorial by Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan was erected in Neupfarrplatz, the site of destroyed Jewish synagogue.

Oskar Schindler (Schindler’s List) lived in Regensburg for a time and there’s a plaque on the side of his house. Throughout our three-week vacation in Europe, I’ve tried not to think about politics at home, but the sign in the window of the Schindler house brought it all back.

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Sign in the Window of the Oskar Schindler House

After the tour, we returned to the boat and spent the afternoon and evening on board, sailing toward Nuremberg. The sun finally came out and I really wanted to take a walk on the sun deck, but it was closed all day. The ship has to pass under many low bridges on the Danube, so I guess the sun deck is not the place to be when that happens. We had dinner with another couple from Georgia, Paul and Beverly. He’s a retired philosophy professor with a love for music, and she’s a psychologist. Needless to say, the conversation was intellectually stimulating and very satisfying.

Tomorrow we will arrive in Nuremberg for the last day of our trip. We’ll take a walking tour of the city, and then we will go to the ballet, Don Quijote, at the Staatstheater Nürnberg. This is not a cruise event; Paul and I are going on our own so we’ll have to miss the ship’s Thanksgiving dinner. We figure we can have turkey any time, but we can’t miss an opportunity to see this ballet!

At the Confluence of Three Rivers

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One of five pipe organs at St. Stephen’s Cathedral

Passau, Germany is a charming city on the border with Austria where the Danube, Inn, and Ilz rivers flow together. We’ve been told that the water of each river is a different color, but today it all looked the same – gray.

We had a dark, cold, wet morning for our walking tour of Passau, but it was still lovely. Our tour guide was Sofia, a native of Passau who attended high school and university there and clearly loves the history and baroque architecture of her home town. Passau’s location at the confluence of three rivers is, in Sofia’s words, a blessing and a curse. The rivers are a boon for commerce, but they often flood, leaving much damage behind. Many buildings have high water marks on their facades, and it was apparent that, had we been walking the streets during the flood of 2013, we would have been several meters under water.

The highlight of the tour was St. Stephen’s Cathedral (there are many St. Stephen’s churches in this part of Germany and Austria). We have seen many churches in our travels, but what sets this one apart is its spectacular pipe organ with 17, 974 pipes, the largest in Europe. It’s actually five organs (one in the framework of the ceiling!) that can be played separately or as one. Had we come to Passau even a month earlier, we would have been able to attend an organ concert here, but we missed it.

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Gingerbread Demonstration

Our tour of Passau ended at Cafe Simon where we were treated to a cup of hot spiced wine and a Lebkuchen (gingerbread) demonstration and tasting.

In the afternoon, we took a bus to Gut Aichet, a beautiful Bavarian farm that has been run by generations of the same family since 1472. The farm has become a riding center, with more than 50 horses in its stables and facilities for dressage and show jumping training. The hunting lodge on the property was the site for our Bavarian Beerfest where we were served beer and pretzels and entertained by a very talented fourteen-year-old accordion player.

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At the Bavarian Beerfest

The owner of the farm demonstrated some traditional dancing and even taught the dance to a few volunteers who may have been more successful if they had learned the dance first and then consumed the beer. (I have some video clips that I’ll add when I have more robust WiFi.)  It was the perfect way to spend a cold rainy afternoon.

Back on the boat, we had dinner with two couples, one from Georgia and the other from New York. We leaned all about farming in Georgia, shared opinions about our health care system, and only occasionally talked about sports. Paul and I skipped the evening’s festivities in the lounge and turned in early.

Tomorrow we’ll stop in Regensburg for another city tour on the beautiful blue Danube.

Göttweig Abbey and the Wachau Valley

Today was a traveling day. After our morning shore excursion, we spent all afternoon and evening on the boat, sailing through the region on the Danube between Krems and Melk known as the Wachau, and then heading toward Passau, Germany.

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Göttweig Abbey

Our morning excursion was a visit to the beautiful Göttweig Abbey. It’s a 900-year-old Benedictine monastery, high up on a mountain, overlooking the Wachau valley. The original abbey burned but was rebuilt in the early 18th century. We were greeted by our tour guide and served a sparkling apricot wine which I gladly accepted figuring it was five o’clock somewhere. The wine is one of the many products of the abbey’s orchards and vineyards that the monks make and sell. After an introductory video, we were taken on a walking tour. The imperial wing of the abbey is impressive, featuring a spectacular grand staircase in the baroque style, surrounded by statues and a ceiling fresco by Paul Troger.

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The library at Göttweig Abbey

The abbey also houses a huge library that was, unfortunately, not open to the public, but I took a picture of a picture of it. I love libraries and I wish I could actually walk into this one. We also visited the abbey church where we admired another huge pipe organ. It’s too bad we weren’t here for Mass on Sunday when we would have heard it played.

After the tour, we were treated to a wine tasting, with the option to purchase some, of course. We tasted a red (Stift Göttweig), a Riesling, and another white the name of which I cannot remember. We decided to buy a bottle of the red, and we’ll save it to enjoy with our son when he comes home for Christmas.

Back on the boat, we spent the afternoon sailing and half listening to commentary over the ship’s PA system by our Program Director, Boris. I took that opportunity to get in some steps on the walking track on the sun deck, hoping that bucking the wind would burn off some of the extra calories I’ve been consuming. As I walked, I watched castles and terraced vineyards pass by. We had Austrian Tea Time later and apple strudel was served. I managed to resist and had only a small bite of Paul’s. It was delicious.

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Passing through a lock

On our journey to Passau, we passed under bridges and through at least one lock (there may have been others in the night that I missed). Passing through the lock was cool, although a bit claustrophobic. We watched it from the lounge in the bow of the boat so we had a good view of the whole procedure.

After dinner, we returned to the lounge for the evening’s entertainment, a music trivia contest. Paul and I did pretty well, but we didn’t get bonus points for dancing, so other teams beat us. Today reminded me why I’ve never really had any desire to do an ocean cruise. There’s definitely a cruise culture that I just can’t get into. As hard as the staff works to keep people entertained while we’re traveling from port to port, I get bored easily. I much prefer the shore excursions and cultural activities.

Tomorrow we dock at Passau for a tour in the morning and then Bavarian Beerfest!

Do I Hear a Waltz?

We’re back in Vienna! This is a fascinating city and a Mecca for music lovers.

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Mass at St. Stephan’s

We started our day with another bus tour. It was cold and rainy, so I was happy that most of the sights were seen from the inside the bus. We did get off for a walking tour of the Hofburg, the Imperial Palace of Vienna, and some free time to wander around Stephansplatz and St. Stephan’s Cathedral. The Cathedral is gorgeous and, because it’s Sunday, there was a mass in progress when we entered. We heard the organ and an orchestra accompany the choir during the service and it was lovely. Just as in Milan, no one seems to care that tourists are wandering and snapping photos in the back of the church during mass.

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Christmas Market

We then went to a cafe to get warm and have some coffee. We had been told many times about the cafe culture in Vienna and how you just have to order one coffee and you’re welcome to stay for hours, if you want. I had a Melange (cappuccino) and Paul had a Verlängerter. Paul also ordered a Sachertorte because he had heard so much about it (I had just one forkful of his). I could happily have stayed there all day with a book. I think someone should open a Viennese coffee house in Brunswick, where folks could sit all day with a cup of coffee and the newspaper, or talk with friends while Viennese waltzes play in the background. Just an idea for some of my entrepreneurial friends.

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Skaters at the Christmas Market

We returned to the ship where we were again greeted by staff handing out chocolates. We opted for lunch on the terrace rather than in the restaurant because I was feeling the need for lighter fare. (I’m especially enjoying the soups.) We had a little free time after lunch and then we boarded another bus to go to one of the huge Christmas markets in Vienna. Every city we’ve visited on this trip seemed to be constructing Christmas markets, but this is the first time we saw one that was actually open for business. This one had stall after stall of food and drink, crafts and gifts. The most amazing thing was the skating rink. It wasn’t the ordinary, large rectangular or oval sheet of ice; it was a series of ice pathways, almost like a labyrinth, that skaters could glide through. It wasn’t a place for figure skaters to show off their skills, but it looked like a lot of fun.

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The view from our seats at the Vienna State Opera

In the evening, we went to the Vienna State Opera to see Salome. I will admit that Salome is not my favorite opera, but this was a memorable performance. Of the three operas we saw on this trip, this was without a doubt the best. The orchestra was excellent (Paul loved the tuba) and the singing was exquisite, especially (as bizarre as this may sound) when Salome was singing to the severed head of John the Baptist. And we had an unobstructed view from the balcony, which made using my new opera glasses (gift from the teachers at BRHS) a pleasure.

Tomorrow we dock at the town of Krems in Lower Austria.

A little side note: I’m quite a bit behind in uploading pictures to the photos pages of this blog. Internet is sketchy on the ship and I barely manage to upload a few pictures for the posts. The others may have to wait until we get home.

Buda+Pest = Budapest

I think my biggest challenge on this (and probably on any other cruise) is to not over indulge in food and drink. I’m trying to find the balance between sticking to a healthy diet and enjoying the local cuisine. That’s not easy when the staff is constantly handing you snacks and refilling your wine glass.

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Heroes’ Square

Today started with a tour of the city. It was a gray and rainy day, but the bus was warm and and the ride was pleasant. Budapest is divided by the Danube, with the hilly Buda side on the west bank and the flat Pest side on the east bank. Our ship was docked on the Pest side, so we began with a bus tour of the Pest sights. Our tour guide was a local woman (Vicky) who was born in the United States to Hungarian parents, but has lived most of her adult life in Budapest, so she was fluent in both Hungarian and English. We drove by the amazing Parliament building and the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe. We stopped at Hero’s square and got off to take photos of the statues of the Seven Chieftans of the Magyars and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

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Matthias Church

On the Buda side, the bus took us to the Castle District where we entered the beautiful neo-Gothic style Matthias Church. We stayed there with our guide for a while and then had free time to roam the streets and admire the tourist traps. Back on the bus, we drove on to Visegrád where our ship was now docked and ready to serve us lunch. (more wine!) Soon after we boarded, the ship began the long sail to Vienna.

After lunch we had a safety drill that was hilarious. Everyone had to put on a life vest and report to the lounge where they did a head count and informed us that it was unlikely the boat would sink, if it did we were never far from shore, and the real danger is from fire so we shouldn’t use curling irons in the staterooms. Good to know.

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A sea of orange life vests

At this point the rain had stopped and my Fit Bit was telling me I hadn’t moved enough, so I put on my coat and went up to the sun deck to do a couple hundred laps on the walking track while listening to an audio book. Then it was tea time. (more food!)

After tea, we sat through a long lecture and slide show about the cafe culture in Vienna and about Mozart’s life. This was to prepare us for tomorrow’s excursions in Vienna. It was a little boring and we were seated right by the bar, but I avoided the temptation to get another drink. We had about 15 minutes after the lecture to change for dinner. When we returned to the lounge, we were handed glasses of champagne and had the official welcome to the ship and introduction to the staff. We met a lovely couple from Oklahoma who went with us to dinner where we were joined by the couple from Virginia whom we met last night. We feasted on Chateaubriand and our wine glasses were magically refilled throughout the evening. The conversation was lively, mostly about American football, a topic I’ve had decades of experience feigning interest in.

Tomorrow we dock in Vienna at around 9:00 am. Paul and I had only one day in Vienna, so we’ll be happy to return.

 

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!