Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Power of the Vote

“So. What do you want to do today?”

We were back from Europe, but not back to work. Visiting family in western New York, C and I found ourselves alone one day with a rental car and time to explore.

“I don't know.  Here is a place," pointing to the website for Letchworth State Park, "that was voted best state park in the... country?”

Whoa. That must be some park. We packed the car and hit the road.

Letchworth is not shy about advertising its accolades. “Voted best in the nation” is the first thing you see on the park's website. The electorate? The readers of U.S. Today, surely a discerning bunch of park connoisseurs. They had, apparently, when faced with the entirety of parks to be found across our fifty states, decided that Letchworth was the hands down best. The “Grand Canyon of the East!” We wondered: had we left ourselves enough time? Should we have looked into changing our plane tickets, maybe re-jiggered our schedule to allow a full-day? Two-days? A week to explore?

We pulled into the park, paid our day-use fee, and admired the trees. We came to a pull-off and admired the view (a peak into a pretty typical eastern V-shaped valley, a river running through it as rivers do). We drove the park road, and admired the drive. Eventually, we parked, and walked on a WPA era trail along the canyon rim to admire views of two waterfalls.

It was pretty, don't get me wrong, and a pleasant way to spend a few hours. But best in the country? Consider, for example, just those other state parks C and I visited just between when we left New York and when we, regrettably, went back to work. I submit to the readers of U.S. Today, for example, Chugach State Park, right here in our back yard.

(C, running on the South Fork Eagle River trail, in one of the country's lesser state parks.)

Or Snow Creek Canyon State Park where we spent a few nights watching bats hunt bugs by dusk, listening to owls and gazing at stars by night, and hiking across the Navajo Sandstone by day.

(View from the campground in one of the country's inferior state parks.)

(Out for hike, thinking, "This place sucks.  Where are the waterfalls?")
Or Cathedral Gorge State Park in Nevada, a surprise to us and, I imagine, most of the dozen or so other visitors it gets a year.

(A morning run in one of the state park's that the readers of U.S. Today did not think worthy of attention.)

(C in the slot canyons of Cathedral Gorge State Park, thinking, "Well, it's nice, but it's no Letchworth.")

And those are just the state parks we saw in September this year. Really, readers of U.S. Today, what were you thinking?  The whole thing leaves me a little concerned, given we have a presidential election coming up next year. 

[In the readers' defense, a closer look suggests that the readers were voting from a list of only 20 parks that had been pre-selected by a panel of “experts.” To be fair, I suppose I should be asking the experts what they were thinking.]

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Reading in the Lounge

Taking a three month leave of absence is an extravagance. So we decided to pile extravagance atop extravagance, cash in airline miles, and return to the States in first class. I'm not going to write up the flight itself; if you are really interested, you can find hundreds of hours of YouTube videos documenting international first class on any airline you can imagine (and some you had no idea existed). I will, however, note that the experience taught me some things about the reading habits of the international moneyed class.

We were flying British Airways, which granted us access to BA's first class lounge in Heathrow while waiting for our connection. The lounge, as lounges do, stocked newspapers and magazines to keep its guests entertained. I figured I could find some kind of bike, ski, or outdoor magazine to flip through, learn what the British are up to in the mountains. Or maybe I'd pick up the Economist or Foreign Affairs, which would let me both catch up on current events and put on airs for the benefit of the other first class passengers.

I ambled over to the magazines and took a look around. Let's see... Baku Sport? The Polo Magazine? Who is reading this stuff? Just who makes up the subscriber base for The Caribbean Property Investor? I left the magazines where they lay, deciding that wine flights at the bar sounded more fun.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Prague: Come for the Mont Blanc Pens, Stay for the Crowds

The world is full of “you should have been here yesterday” destinations. Who wouldn't want to have visited Arches National Park when the only infrastructure was Edward Abbey's trailer and a dirt road? Run through Yosemite Valley yelling at storms with John Muir? Had the opportunity to be stabbed or beaten with a length of chain outside of CBGB in the late seventies or early eighties? Near the top of this list is Prague. The “yesterday” implied is soon after the velvet revolution, after the fall of communism but before you could find Prada or a Mont Blanc pen for sale on every corner, next to the postcards and t-shirts. No question but that Prague is chock-a-block with all that travelers find romantic about Europe: winding cobblestone streets no more than an arm-length in width that don't lead where you think they ought—don't even head in the right direction—but that still manage to drop you in a convivial cellar pub under arched ceilings dating from the Crusades; the opportunity to see Mozart's Don Giovani performed in the same theater where the opera premiered with Mozart conducting (at the premier—I understand he couldn't make it to the performance we saw); castles and churches; good beer. But these days Prague also offers crowds: world-class crowds.

We arrived at the train station and took a series of trams to our Air B&B in the Mala Strana neighborhood. The Air B&B is its own story... suffice to say we survived and C never filed for divorce. We dropped our bags and headed out for an introductory walk, turning uphill, no destination in mind but pointed towards the castle complex which promised views across the city. We were quickly stopped by a mother and daughter pair.

“Excuse me. Do you speak English?”

“Yes, we do.”

“Do you know where to find the Golden Lane?”

At this point, we hadn't really done any research on Prague and did not have any sense of its tourist draws. We had never heard of the Golden Lane, much less know anything about its whereabouts.

“No. We just got here and don't really know our way around yet. Sorry.”

“Ugh,” the mother muttered, before turning to continue uphill. “Prague. Filled with everyone but Czechs.”

Her observation was not technically true. In our search for a grocery store we later found neighborhoods with what appeared to be actual locals. At least our cashier did not automatically default to English when asking if we wanted our receipt (which we did not), and in fact may have only spoken Czech. But at that moment, on our way to the castle, it would have been hard to rebut her.

We didn't go to the grocery store to verify that real people with real daily needs actually lived in Prague. We went to buy food. Despite our best efforts, we never found a restaurant in Prague worth the trouble of showing up and ordering, although we did find one that smelled strongly of the sewer. Eating picnic style was ok, though, because the Czech grocery stores were filled with delicious breads that became the foundation for most of our meals. The Czech Republic is under ratted as a bread baking country.

The stores were also filled with beer, giving us the real suspicion that the Czechs might collectively have a drinking problem. I was at first impressed that the Czechs deemed it appropriate to sell beer in two-liter bottles. But does anyone really need two-liter bottles by the six-pack? Apparently, yes. Later research confirmed that, indeed, the Czech Republic drinks the most beer per capita of any other country by a significant margin. I suppose it makes sense given the quality of the beer. And its price. That six pack of two-liter bottles? It cost $10. But you really should have been here back in 1990 when you could have taken the whole package home for $2.

(Truly, only a small snapshot of the beer aisle.)

(These two proved there are two strategies for seeing the Charles Bridge without the crowds.  First, set an alarm and get there for sunrise.  Second, stay up  all night drinking.)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

On the Lam.

Travel writing quickly becomes fiction. Time passes, memory fades, but the pressure to publish and bring the saga of my and C's three-month sabbatical to an end remains. Which brings us to today, back in the United States, back in Anchorage even, a little over a month out of the Czech Republic, and only now filling in the blanks after Ceske Budejovice. To do so, I'll dig into memory to tell the tale. I did not keep contemporaneous notes, so I might have lost some of the details, but what follows is how I remember it happening

My arch-nemesis, Baron von Kleidentragger, somehow discovered our presence in Ceske Budejovice and dispatched an elite squadron of what he terms Stormtroopers—likely named in reference to the Third Reich and not the Star Wars trilogy—to find and capture C and I. Meanwhile, C and I were ensconced deep within Budvarka Pivnice, having spent the better part of four days drinking unfiltered Budweiser nonstop, when we spotted the first pair of the Baron's soldiers marching past the open door to the bar. The soldiers were on their way to our hotel room, which we had not actually been back to after checking in, having slept each night in pools of spilled beer and one random gutter. The soldiers would not find us there.

Relying on my years of training as an elite espionage agent for Albemarle County, I willed all of the accumulated alcohol out of my system, then willed all of the alcohol out of C's system too. We needed all of our reflexes to react. Clear headed, we assessed the situation, decided there were too many of the Baron's troops to battle, and decided to flee. Chased by Stormtroopers, it is only fitting we headed to Chateau Zbiroh.

If you have heard of Chateau Zbiroh at all you are probably either: a) Czech; or b) travelers like us who were looking for somewhere to spend a day or two between Ceske Budejoive and Prague and found a listing for the Chateau on The rooms cost a little more than we wanted to pay, but how often do you get to stay in a Chateau? Besides, the website advertised an underground swimming pool, and we had packed swim suits all over Europe. It was time to put them to use.

Chateau Zbiroh sits on the hill over the town of Zbiroh, close to the train but only if you have a car. Luckily the hotel sent a driver to pick us up at an additional charge. We checked in and made our way to our room, which in an earlier age probably housed a scullery maid. At our rate, we did not get the grand rooms advertised on the website; we were stuck into the servant quarters.

We took a tour of the Chateau (at an extra charge), and tried to follow the tour narrative in an English packet we were handed. The translation was not great, and it was hard to follow. The place has a long history stretching back to 1193, and housed at least three emperors. There was also some strong connection with the Knights Templar, but I never really understood the details, if there were any. The Chateau keeps a bunch of Templar artifacts in its museum, though, which made the whole thing feel like a Dan Brown novel. Mucha lived in the museum for a number of years, painting his Slav Epic in what is now the Mucha ballroom. He also made the Chateau a seat for the Masons: more Dan Brown. Curiously, we learned that the Masons (and Mucha) were instrumental in the creation of Czechoslovakia as a nation.

The Nazis occupied the Chateau during the Second World War. Tour materials claimed that a large quartz deposit (jasper) under the Chateau made it possible for Nazi intelligence to intercept radio signals from all around the globe. I'm vaguely familiar with the concept of quartz radios, but I have my doubts about the technical accuracy of the story. As the Nazis were departing the Chateau, probably in a hurry as Soviet armies moved in, they dumped documents, weapons, and the bric-a-brac of military life into the deepest well in Europe, conveniently located at the Chateau. Some of those artifacts are on display as part of the Chateau tour—rusty pistols mostly—and I suspect anything really interesting was carted off.

The well is also home to legend, as it apparently has some kind of false floor or side wall that is wired with explosives. People (which people, specifically, I'm not sure) now speculate that the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Lost Amber Room, is hidden behind these explosives. Our English tour documents claimed that “even the American Discovery Channel” could not figure out how to access whatever lies behind the false floor. Is the Discovery Channel really the world expert here? Am I really to believe that modern remote sensing or drilling technology can't determine whether there is or isn't something of significance to be unearthed? I suspect that the legend is more valuable to the hotel as a continuing mystery than as a busted myth. We never got to see the well itself. It is part of the outdoor tour, which was canceled due to rain, and would have cost extra in any case.

The hotel itself was fine, but nickled-and-dimed its guests. That pool for instance? It cost $20 an hour. Tripadvisor reviews kept bringing up chained birds, and indeed the hotel kept large birds of prey tethered on short leashes to roosts out front for our entertainment. We could hear them crying in the night. At least it sounded like crying to me. To the extent the Chateau wants to seek international guests, many of whom, like me, haven't seen animals kept like this since that sad zoo in Alamogordo, New Mexico circa 1980, the Chateau may want to rethink this attraction.

Because we did not know what else to do with out time, we took the hike into town for lunch and toured the local museum. On the way back, we walked deeper into the woods. We stopped at a barbed wire fence, blocking the entrance to a cement bunker. It looked... institutional. Or maybe militarized. A crash sounded in the woods behind us. C screamed. It turned our to be a tree branch that let loose, falling to the ground.  But clearly the place had us on edge. It was not much of a stretch to think Nazi zombies were crashing through the woods.  Time to move on. One step ahead of the Baron as always.

(In the hall of the scullery maids.)

(The Zbiroh woods.)

(A picture of a picture of the Chateau.)

(View from the Chateau.)

(Entrance to the hotel.  Ok, it is grander than the Motel 6.)

(So, if you saw this sign on a staircase, what would you do?)

(We followed this stairwell into darkness.  Really.  Then turned around and came back up.  Wonder what was down there?)

(On the train, leaving Zbiroh.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The King of Locks

C and I packed and prepared to leave our hotel-that-was-not-entirely-sure-it-was-ready-to-be-a-hotel in Ceske Budejovice a little after 8:00, early perhaps but well within the usual ambit of business hours in the hospitality business. We shouldered our bags, locked our room, went down two flights of stairs and through a glass door that locked automatically on closing, providing, I suppose, an extra measure of security for us, the only guests. One last long and wide flight of wooden stairs, worn concave in the center, took us to the ground floor, a covered hall separated from the street by a wooden door, an interior courtyard by a full-length and locked wrought iron gate, and the cafe/bar that doubled as reception by a locked door with a piece of paper suggesting—if we deciphered the Czech correctly—that the cafe was closed. Not really a problem, though; we had prepaid for the room and felt free to leave.

“What should we do with the key?”

“I don't know. Just leave it in the room. I'm sure they'll find it.”

“Ok.” I left my bags in the hall and made the climb back upstairs for the last time. I put the keys in the lock and left them there. No one was going to pass by to take them, and the staff would find them soon enough. I headed back downstairs. C and I again hefted the bags and headed to the street.

The door heading outside was the sort of thing that we, as tourists, find charming about the Old World: weathered wood planks held together by iron bands, all secured to a stone arch by six-inch hinges that would be at home in a Tolkein novel. It is the sort of touch I might expect to find at a Disney castle but that carries an aura of authenticity here where, well, that is just what doors look like. C gave the handle a turn and a tug, then looked down at the modern and solid looking deadbolt, an apparent retrofit.

“It's locked.”

I turned to look back up at the automatically locking glass door and thought about the set of keys I had just left on the other side.


We had pulled into Ceske Budejovice a few days earlier after several hours on two trains, first traveling with crowds through Austria, then traveling in a nearly empty train through the woods, hills, and farms of the Czech Republic. After our prior touch-and-go attempt to find lodging in Munich on the fly, we had booked a room in advance. We had an address in hand and a map thanks to our phones and an international data plan. The door on the street under the right number appeared to lead to a cafe, and at the time of our arrival six men and women were crowding the door trying to muscle a four-foot tall safe of prodigious weight either into or out of the building. We stood in front holding our bags and whispering back and forth.

“Is this it?”

“I don't know. I guess so.”

You might think if you were trying to run a hotel and two befuddled foreigners speaking a foreign language showed up with luggage, you might—assume? hope?—they were here to part with some money and do their small part to make your business viable. Perhaps you would smile and make sweeping motions with your arms to show, regardless of the language barrier, that the strangers should please enter the door and become customers. Not the case here. After what felt like minutes but may have only been seconds of standing around and feeling we were somehow in the way, we interrupted to ask, “Hotel? Pension? Ano?”

We got an affirmative sign, and decided it was ok to walk up the plywood ramp that had appeared in order to help in some undefined manner with moving the safe. We made our way into the cafe where a young woman stood behind the counter.

“Dobry den. Do you speak English?”

“Yes, a very little.”

“We have a reservation?” This we phrased as much as a question as a statement of fact. It still was not clear we were in the right place. But yes, we did have a reservation, and yes, she was expecting us. The young woman read from a small hand-written script in English that someone had left for her (or that she had prepared in advance), explaining that payment was due, describing how to get to the room, and noting that the key she handed to us would open all three doors. Three doors. Got it.

After unlocking two doors we settled into our room and then took a walk to get our bearings. We climbed the black tower for an overview of the town square. A bit unsure after Bratislava of how to tell if a restaurant served food or bar snacks, and tired from a day of travel, we took the safe but still tasty option of sitting down for a pizza on the same square. And we ordered our first pints of Budweiser.

To the extent Ceske Budejovice has an international reputation, it is known for its beer, which has been brewed in the area since the 13th century. Two different breweries have brewed and exported beer under the name Budweiser from Ceske Budejovice, and both have been involved in a three-way trade mark dispute with Anheuser-Busch, makers of Budweiser here in the United States. I have no idea what has become of the older Czech brewery using the Budweiser name, but the more recent (since 1895, almost 20 years later than Anheuser-Busch started using the Budweiser name) has a strong presence throughout the Czech Republic. As a result of the trade mark disputes, the American Budweiser can only be sold in the European Union as “Bud,” and Czech Budweiser is marketed as Czechvar in the U.S. The claims have, I think, all been resolved or dismissed, and as I understand it agreements were at one time reached whereby Anheuser-Busch (or, rather, its parent InBev) agreed to market the Czech beer in the U.S. Presumably the parties have kissed and made up, though the Czech brewery still asks “King of beers?” with a smirk, confident with good reason that its beer would win any blind tasting.

As all tourists in Ceske Budejovice must, we toured the brewery. A cute, young girl led our tour in English. She had a heavy Slavic accent that (strictly as a matter of insensitive cultural stereotype) was completely out of character with her being a cute, young girl (but that was surely in character with her being Czech). She made multiple references to the number of “hectacres” of beer brewed (do they really measure beer by area in the Czech Republic?), sounding like Crazy Vaclav and making C and I snicker every time. Perhaps this is why Americans have a bad reputation overseas.

Equating Ceske Budejovice solely with its brewery tour, though, is selling the place short. We would have liked to stay longer to further enjoy quiet nights on the square, sample some wines in addition to the beers, and, perhaps most of all, take day trips on foot and by bike on the trails in the region. But, once again thanks to Munich, we had booked ahead in a town further north and it was time to move on. Which is why we are up and packed at 8:00, sitting on the worn steps in the entry hall to our hotel, wondering when the cafe will open. Staring at the third door.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

They Have a Different Word for Everything

And just like that, I have no idea what is going on. Austrians may be impossible to understand, but at least I can read their signs. But the Slovaks? They use our same alphabet, but have decided on a whole different way of organizing the letters. As a result, C and I found ourselves in Bratislava, hungry, sitting down for a lunch of . . . braided cheese? A little research after the fact suggests we decided on a bar for lunch with a menu of “snacks to eat with beer.” I assume it is the equivalent of traveling to New Jersey, deciding you feel peckish, and walking into an old-man-bar to order a nice bowl of beer nuts for what is often in Europe the largest meal of the day. But it was not a complete loss. The bar had a large screen TV playing a video survey of the most important women in pop music today, so I was totally brought up to speed on . . . twerking? Or was that last year? Maybe I'm not as up to speed as I'd hoped. I suppose the subtle flavors of braided cheese distracted me from the many global cultural lessons being televised to a room empty but for C and I.

Bratislava was certainly a step further east than Vienna. Like pretty much anywhere listed in a guide book, the town came replete with old buildings, cobbled streets, and postcard vendors. But here we for the first time intersected the web of global backpacking routes, finding ourselves at the Tourist Information office with someone shouldering a didgeridoo and someone else traveling the world with juggling pins strapped to his Deuter, perhaps how I would have packed for a trip some 30 years ago. We were all scratching our heads, trying to get a lay on what there was to do in the border regions of Slovakia.

In our case we opted to visit the Eastern European Center for Photography. Who would have thought we would have to travel to Slovakia to be introduced to the work of the Korean Dancing Photographer? Sometimes I think I have an understanding of and appreciation for what it means to be art. Then I run across something like the Dancing Photographer and have to throw all preconceptions out of the window: the defenestration of understanding.

“I work in contradictions. For example, I named this piece 'The Skinny Pig.' Pigs are not skinny. They are fat. So it should have been called 'The Fat Pig.' But I did not call it 'The Fat Pig.' I called it 'The Skinny Pig.'”

And therein lies the art.

We are heading next to the Czech Republic, where I am told they have found yet a third way to organize and derive meaning from the letters in the Roman alphabet. I am also told the Czechs know a thing or two about beer. So here is to hoping that we learn how to read “cheese” and “beer snack” on any menu we are handed.

(C looking dubious about lunch.  She has the braided cheese.  I've got blue cheese in a jar of pickled onions.)

(Bratislava street.)

(We needed to mail post cards.  So was this place a post office or a bank?  We weren't sure up until the moment that the clerk put stamps on and hand cancelled our mail.)

(Bratislava church.)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Waltzing for Cake

So. Vienna. What have you taught us? The importance of air conditioning (temperatures hovered just shy of 100 while we were there)? That an eisspänner and Sacher torte from some random cafe on Goldegg Road can cure all ills, even those caused by route deviations, enormous crowds, and the aforementioned heat? That Luciano Pavarotti holds the record for number of curtain calls—165—a record set at the Vienna Opera House? A little of all of the above?

We spent four nights in Vienna, leaving the small town comforts of the Bavarian Alps behind. On the way from Lenngries we had to connect trains in Salzburg, so we decided to take a little walk through town, dodging Sound of Music tours all the while. As tourists we did what all tourists ultimately do in Salzburg: buy iced coffees at Starbucks. There is no tradition of iced drinks in this part of the world, much less iced coffees, unless you want your espresso poured over ice cream. Let's face it, as delicious as that may be, sometimes you just want coffee. And when it has been above 90 degrees for as long as you can remember, sometimes you just want your coffee cold. So, Starbucks. And churches. We also looked at churches.

C and I got to Vienna and were delighted—deeee lighted—to find powerful and functional air conditioning in our hotel room. Our days thereafter were spent alternately reviving under its soft caress and pushing the limits of crowd and heat exhaustion in the outside world. It turns out we were not the only people visiting Vienna in August. This point was driven home with some force by the line to enter Belvedere Palace, the lesser of Vienna's two major palace attractions. Rather than gape at Hapsburg opulence, we turned tail and ate cake and drank coffee instead. As cake and coffee are also considered Viennese institutions, I figure it still counts. Some of the Hapsburg opulence was also on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, a museum where the structure itself could have been a museum and still draw crowds even absent the Dürer, Rembrandt, and Rubens. So we didn't miss out entirely.
We also got to do laundry, because sometimes you still have to do chores even in Austria.  We packed our bags and headed to a laundromat near our hotel.  Contrary to our expectations, there were no vending machines selling small packets of detergent.  Many years ago, I was required to memorize a piece of dialogue for my high school German class, an exchange that was purportedly an advertisement for Blanco brand detergent.  It was a stirring piece of a theatre:  "Hi!  How are you?  You're looking good!  But your laundry... that is a different story.  It is gray and staying gray.  You should try washing next time with Blanco.  No washing detergent washes any whiter than Blanco!"  Stirring enough that it has stuck with me for over 30 years.  So I knew exactly how to say "detergent" in German.  Because Austrians all understand German (even though speak with some crazy dialect that I can't decipher), I approached a woman to ask, "Is there a store nearby where we can buy detergent?"
"Detergent?  You don't need detergent.  It is in the machine."
"The soap is in the machine?" I tried to clarify with some degree of disbelief.
"Yes, it is all automatic."
I'm sure we looked like some kind of yokel straight out of the closest hollow, mesmerized by big city technology, staring at the washer and elbowing each other in the ribs: "Hey!  There's soap in them there machines!"  But at least we didn't need to buy detergent.  The washing machines actually weighed your clothes and used the correct amount of both water and soap depending on the weight.  Pretty cool, actually. 
I liked Vienna.  But saying that feels a little like saying "I like chocolate."  It is kind of a given, right?  I just wish the Austrians spoke German in a manner I could understand.
(Salzburg church.)

(Salzburg window.)

(Salzburg iced coffee.)

(Vienna church.)

(View from our hotel window.  These two were out there for hours every morning.)

(Vienna cake and coffee.)

(Vienna museum.)