August 2019


A list.

    1. Their coffee is horrible and you don’t get much of it. My 6 ounces of Americana (with heated and frothed milk and a small glass of water and rarely a little cookie) was the same price as Dick’s pint of beer. There are no refills on anything in Europe and you have to buy the next one, too.
    2. I hate duvets. All of them. What the hell? It’s not that Americans like that much air conditioning. You just make us sleep with winter blankets even in the dead of summer in a heat wave.
    3. European men buy their dress shirts one size too small consistently. Regardless of body type.
    4. Some people liked Communism.
    5. It is difficult to defend the Church’s wealth, but I’m getting better at it. The cathedrals were built on the backs of laborers, instead of feeding the poor. However, they created jobs for centuries and allowed the peons entrance whereas palaces did the same thing but kept the unwashed masses out. It’s good to be the king.
    6. They make Kleenex out of sandpaper. Toilet paper isn’t very good, either.              6 a. Free bathrooms are wonderful.
    7. Their chocolate is better.
    8. I use my cell phone more than I think I do.
    9. I can do shots – but I’m not a fan.
    10. The Croatians love Americans.
    11. Hungarians were fascist anti-Semites before Hitler came along.
    12. We call people and countries names they themselves don’t use. Hungary is Magyar. Apparently a different group of Huns.
    13. Each place finds a way to be best. Highest instead of longest, for example.
    14. I hate being illiterate and it was even worse with a Cyrillic alphabet.                        14 a. I depend on signs far more than I realized.
    15. I can manage complicated subway systems even if I can’t pronounce the street names. We got off at “Bela Lugosi”.
    16. The way to toast someone in Croatian sounds an awful lot like “eggs Benedict” but don’t toast with beer.
    17. Taking the risk was worth it and the Ship Swap was smooth as silk.                           17 a. The 40+ people who backed out missed a great adventure.
    18. Even in all our different cultures with all our different languages, we are the same.
    19. Man’s inhumanity to man is nauseating but if you look closely, you find good people everywhere.
    20. It is good to be home.

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We got to Bratislava around 4.30 AM, luckily my input was not needed for this. This is the third capital city we are visiting and the smallest of the lot with only around 500,000 inhabitants. That still means that about 10% of Slovakia lives here.

We began our day with food because that is the entire focus of a cruise. We then left the ship for a walking tour of the city. The roads are cobblestones and were a bit difficult to walk on, but weren’t as uneven as in some places.

We made our way through the old city with many beautiful buildings that had been changing hands over the eons as one power unit after another steamrolled over the region. In 1945 the locals were saved from the Nazis by the Russians. Like any big brother, they told us, the Russians forgot to leave.

After the end of the first War to End All Wars, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up into several smaller countries, but they still lumped several of them together for some reason or another. Pressburg became Bratislava but the region was still predominantly German by population and language. The entire region was still a powder keg because the people who ended the war didn’t actually speak with the people who were being affected by their decisions.

There remain many of the old beautiful buildings and some of the statues of the liberating Russians are honored in the old quarter. The streets are winding and the city centers are huge in this part of the world. Apparently no one really cared about straight lines in medieval days and they just built wherever the whim suited as long as there was a large market place in the center.

They love to build monuments thanking God for saving them as they died in droves.

Dragos recommended a local taste treat of a chocolate and honey confection. We looked for it at the grocery store, roaming up and down the candy aisle and the cookie aisle and even the honey aisle. We could not find it. We gave up and met for lunch and clarified the name of the tasty treat.

After lunch, on this hottest day of the tour, we went back out into the city to walk to the Blue Church. It is called that because – wait for it – it is blue. It is actually blue and white as is the companion building next to it. The school across the street is tan and brown. We stopped at one of the “functional” design buildings the Russians built during their occupation because the front door was open and we could peek inside. These are not luxury buildings in any sense of the word. They were functional as they were meant to be.

We tried again to find the chocolate/honey treat. We looked in all the usual places. I finally asked a clerk who didn’t speak English for some help. I tried to pronounce the name of the treat and failed miserably. However, she offered another name and I shrugged and said maybe. She took us past the candy, cookies, honey, and the rest of the store to the produce section and there in the middle of the vegetables, were the treats. We bought some. They are delicious. BTW over here every single ESL person calls them veg eh tables. Every single one.

Today was the day for our home hosted dinner. In the past, local people who contract with Grand Circle would cook up some food for us and we would go to their house and have something to eat and talk about their culture, way of life, or anything we could think of. However, the EU is just as stupid as the US when it comes to infuriating interfering laws. They decided that anyone who cooked food to feed to strangers was a “restaurant” and would need a license and inspection as well as clearly marked men’s and women’s bathrooms. So, the food was catered and brought to the houses by a professional service and then the bathrooms didn’t matter any more, but we didn’t get some home cooked food. Governments are stupid everywhere. The catered food was okay, but not the same as cooks showing off their local favorites.

We met a woman in her apartment. She was single and had already been retired for nine years, but didn’t look all that old to me – perhaps sixty at most. What amazed me most was that she was rather nostalgic for the Communist regime. She was around 20 when they left and had a good job before the economy collapsed.

The Communist philosophy was that everybody worked, perhaps in a job you hated or were not suited for in any way, but you worked and were supplied an equal share of the very few resources available. Part of everyone’s job was to stand in lines to try to get possession of the rare items appearing on shelves for a brief moment. But at least there was something, even if it wasn’t enough.

After they left, there was about a 30% unemployment rate and our host shifted from job to job until she could retire. She has two small pensions from her previous jobs and is able to live in a rather “large” apartment she bought about 20 years ago. It is a two bedroom place, perhaps 750 square feet. There is no air conditioning but there is central heating and each apartment does have its own bathroom. We ate in the warm, dark room as she never turned on any lights even as dusk approached.

They talk a lot about “free” stuff here, but none of it is actually free for everybody. They have free college IF you can get into one of the free slots by having a high enough GPA and passing a test with a high enough score. We call these scholarships. They have their pensions or what we call Social Security and it no more really enough for them than it is for us.

There are hundreds and hundreds of the social housing units made of prefab blocks of concrete that were put together “like LEGOs” and then ignored so that they have had to be renovated and spruced up as they were starting to disintegrate. They were built to last 80 to 100 years and so their shelf life is about half over and much of the city resides in them. They have already started to talk about what they are going to do when they crumble into dust.

We spent the night in port and then went on the Communist Bus tour the next day. It was a real Communist era bus built in the 1970s in the Czech region of the Eastern Bloc. It had been refurbished and was a bright orange in color with all new seats. One assumes the engine had also been overhauled. The suspension was quite bouncy and it was a stick shift, unlike modern buses. There was no computer on board and none of the extra gadgets so prevalent on tour buses of today.

We went past thousands of units of the social housing stuff. They look different than they did when we first saw them six years ago. Today, the outsides are partially painted with various colors and in various designs. They look much better than the rows and rows of bare concrete, but they are still in the functional style and less than beautiful by any stretch of the imagination.

We turned down this narrow road, more like a driveway. We did not meet any oncoming traffic which was just as well as I’m not sure it would have fit. There was a median strip and then another narrow lane to our left. That was Austria. During the Communist regime, this was heavily guarded and the median strip still had the posts every few feet that held up the barbed wire fencing.

We came to a military cemetery where soldiers from WWI were buried. This was lost for over forty years because the entire area for about 250 to 500 meters from the border was a no man’s land. There was also a replica of the border displayed. There was an inner electrified barbed wire fence with a space that was often filled with sand to find footprints, and at one time also held landmines, but these were removed when more guards than escapees were killed, and then a second barbed wire fence. There had been raised searchlights every few hundred feet all along the border as well.

Over 300 people were killed while trying to escape the brutal regime. More than twice that many guards died and many more committed suicide after having to shoot their fellow citizens (often in the back) as they tried to escape. This area was simply a reminder of how cruel we are to one another all for the power hungry who demand ever more power.

We somehow managed to get out of here and I can only say I could never have been a bus driver. I don’t know how they do this.

We then wended our way up the hillside along the road where all the embassy bosses have private housing. The US house looks like a small White House. At the top of the hill is a memorial for the 7,000 Russian soldiers buried here. The statues represent the gratitude of the Slovakian people to those who died to liberate them from the oppressive Nazi occupation. As our guide said, they were not responsible for what happened three years later.

We got back to the ship and set sail for a quiet rest of the day on the water. We went through the largest lock in this part of the world and were in there with at least two other large cruising ships. Some locks are so small, they barely contain our one ship (and this limits the size of sailing along the entire river).

After our return, I was so embarrassed to overhear some idiot American complaining that he didn’t see an Iron Curtain. He apparently thought there was some sort of iron shower curtain or drapery all along the border between free and non-free regions. I am mortified at times by our lack of intercultural understanding.

We had a discussion with our Program Directors. All three men were affected by the Communist occupation. Both Dragos and Dom were children born into Communist controlled countries. Dragos is Romanian and while his stories were heartbreaking, Dom is Croatian and his stories were terrifying. The breakup of Yugoslavia impacted his family personally. Although none of his closest relatives were killed, many family friends were. Both of these young men are in their 30s and so their memories are not as scary as they might have been if they had been responsible adults at the time. They were somewhat protected by their youth.

Harold was born in Western Germany and didn’t really understand the entire situation. He is a year older than me (and still working!). He knew that part of his family was in Eastern Germany and although some of his relatives managed to get to the west before the Berlin Wall was erected, others didn’t make it. His introduction into the difference between West and East came when he was in college and tried to visit the other side of the wall. His stories were not as personal but still quite moving.

We ended the day with a “talent show” by the crew. It was quite entertaining and we all toddled off to bed happy and content and wrapped in the safety of a free world, at least the part we live and travel in.

A recreation of what an iron curtain looked like

We arrived in Vienna early in the morning, like before 1 AM. So essentially, we spent the night there. They did an excellent job docking and I was surprised to look outside and see the city before us.

We started out with a local guide because Austria insists on it. We rode the bus around Ring Road, the old city wall of the original Vienna. There were residents living in the region for nearly a hundred thousand years, but they didn’t call it that.

Way back then, the Danube River ran directly next to the city gates. And it flooded with alarming regularity because rivers tend to do that. So, many years ago (but I have no idea when) they actually rerouted the Danube and left the older part that is now inside the city proper as a waterway, but not the mighty Danube River we sail on. They straightened out the bigger waterway, leaving just a small, non-flooding bit of river inside the city.

We were then kicked off the bus and walked around Vienna until we came to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It is a massive church and is the biggest or tallest or some way the best in all Austria. This happens with all sorts of landmarks. Each proud city finds some way to have their stuff be the best. St. Stephen’s roof was destroyed by fire not during WWII, but shortly thereafter. It was retiled and the place repaired in the years following the War.

Vienna was a target for the Nazis and city officials and the Austrian Army refused to surrender. But some guy climbed the tower of the church and hung out a massive white flag. The Austrian Army was ordered to bomb the cathedral to take down the flag and the Austrian in charge of the bombing brigade people refused and saved the historic church.

Many of the windows had been broken and the church was not nearly as artsy or pretty as many of the others we have visited. We were then left alone to wander the city streets for about 90 minutes and were to meet back at the cathedral.

We did wander around and found St. Peter’s church very close by St. Stephen’s. That particular church is beautiful and full of all the froo froo stuff one is used to seeing in European churches that are hundreds of years old. We learned later that remnants of much older churches have been excavated, showing a church has existed here for many hundreds of years.

We were shown the Plague Tower, a feature of many European cities. During the scourge of the Black Death, when those damn foreigners brought strange diseases to the masses, it was assumed that so many people were dying because they were not devote enough or God was unhappy with them. They built massive towering structures in the city centers around here in order to placate this unhappy god. They also got rid of many of the cats because they were related to witches. The cats would have helped to get rid of the rats that carried the fleas that were spreading the diseases, but the towers are very ornate and pretty.

We were warned that café waiters were surly and rude, but did not find this to be the case when we stopped for a coffee and a shared apple strudel. A single very small cup of coffee was 4.50 euro or about $5. No refills here in Europe. No large coffee cups, just basically the size of a double shot of espresso. That’s what you get and you will like it.

There was a chance to go to the Vienna Opera House and listen to some music and it was highly praised, but not something I really wanted to do. So we stayed on the ship and they showed an old movie that had been filmed in Vienna in 1948, The Third Man.

The next day started quite early with a tour of the palace at Schonbrunn. This was the country summer palace of the Hapsburg family. While it used to be out in the country, Vienna has grown o much that is now in the city itself. The last time we were here, we couldn’t tour it because of some reason and it was top on my list of things to do on this trip. We were given a tour of part of the palace and taken through 40 of the over 1,000 rooms. They were ornate. They were opulent. They were awe inspiring. My favorite was the black lacquer room which was eye popping.

We then went to the carriage museum, also at the palace and saw just a few of the carriages owned by the Hapsburgs. By the end of their hundreds of years in power, they own several hundred carriages all decked out for various occasions. We were shown about 25 of them.

We were then given some time to tour the gardens which are extensive and beautiful and grand and vast. It is indeed good to be the king.

We made our way back to the ship. We had to be packed up and ready for a Ship Swap. We were going to be leaving the Adagio and getting aboard the Rhapsody, the ship we were originally supposed to be on. There were people on the Rhapsody that needed to be on the Adagio, the ship they were supposed to originally be on.

We had to give up our room keys and have all our stuff out in the hall, ready for the swap at 3 PM. In order to keep us busy, they came up with another optional tour for the day. We were taken out in the world and shown this artistic building designed by someone I was supposed to know. The guy hated straight lines and everything is curved and swooping, even the sidewalks outside the building.

Vienna has most of its residents living in this subsidized housing – 65%. They have a waiting list for this very cheap, but very cramped option. The apartments we looked at were about 600 square feet each. If your family grows and you need more space, you have to apply and get on a waiting list which can be up to four years long. I don’t know where you are supposed to live while you wait for the first of these apartments had how stacked up you are supposed to be when looking for a bit more space, but this is apparently working for them.

We then went to the Nashmarkt, a mile long row of stalls selling every damn thing from every damn where. There were options to buy either the ingredients or the already cooked meals from every cuisine imaginable. There were options for clothing items or souvenirs. On Saturdays, at the end of the market there is a massive flea market set up. The last time we were here, it was a Saturday. This time it was not, so that was not operating.

We had dinner on the Adagio and by that time the Rhapsody was parked right next to us so all we had to do was walk across a gangplank set up for the trade and get the keys to our new room. And just like that, we were on the Rhapsody! I don’t know how they could have possibly made it less painless. What a great logistic feat.

We were placated by having an open bar for an hour after boarding and then as we trailed off to our new cabins, we sailed toward Bratislava.

We stayed in Krems overnight. We had our first outing of the day, leaving the ship at 9.15. The red and yellow groups went first to the Winzer Krems Winery. There are some special types of grapes grown only in the Wachau valley and instead of each small vineyard trying to make and market their own wine, they have formed a cooperative. There are many small vineyards who sell all their grapes to the co-op while others sell only a portion of them.

The winery is then able to manage quality control, fermentation, bottling, and marketing with a much larger production budget. This seems to work well for most of those participating. The winemakers cooperative has been in existence for many years now and was the impetus for the family from yesterday to start something similar for the apricot growers.

I’m not sure who thought having a wine tasting tour start at 9.15 AM was a good idea, but it wasn’t me. I’m not a big drinker even later in the day, and this time of the morning was particularly unappetizing. They did off just fruit juice if you were looking for something nonalcoholic, but that had more carbs for no good reason and I just passed. I only went on this particular tour because I wanted to participate in the next phase.

The winery itself was interesting. They had some really well done presentations throughout the factory portion of the tour. The plant for wine making was huge and had 179 massive tanks for the beginning part of the wine making procedure. The higher quality wines were stored in oak barrels while cheaper wines were stored in metal vats.

We were taken into a movie theater and shown a 4-D movie. That’s not a typo. We wore our 3-D glasses and that worked just as normal, but there were vents in the air system that would spray in scents that were part of the presentation as well. It was more than wonderful and so I suppose the trip was worth it. That and they had a free bathroom.

After the winery tour was over, we were back on the bus and taken to Durnstein, a small and quaint riverside village that has endured for thousands of years. In it’s present state, it has existed for nearly one thousand years. We know this because this is where Richard the Lionhearted was held after he was captured as he returned from the Crusades.

The castle/fortress where he was held is in ruins now, but if you were industrious enough and wished to climb to the top of the “hill” AKA mountain, you could visit it. We were not quite that industrious.

We stayed in the town and wandered around. We went to see the great views of the Danube outside the Hotel Schloss which is right there on the bend of the river. Richard Gere owns the thing and it the place Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed stayed just weeks before they were killed. They had remained here for three weeks prior to leaving the area and their tragic deaths.

We were bused back to the ship and fed again because that whole thing about not missing a meal is important. After lunch we went back into Krems and wandered around.

I wanted to see inside the old church that was part of the monastery. We looked again inside the cathedral and it was much different when we were in there without a whole bunch of tourists. We then went to the church “up on the hill”. Again, these people have an odd sense of the world hill. I think it was like climbing the Matterhorn or something. There were stairs and ramps and stairs and more stairs and more ramps and finally, as the air was thinning, we reached the church.

We wandered around, trying to find a door to get in. we did eventually find our way inside. The church was older and smaller than the cathedral. It was still full of art work, froo-froo stuff, and lots of gold leaf. While the cathedral was said to seat 400, this church couldn’t have held more than 150 and yet it was highly decorated, beautiful, massively built, and rather unlike normal small town churches back home.

We managed to get back down to sea level and made our way back to the ship. They had an appreciation meeting for Inner Circle people – those who had repeatedly vacationed with Grand Circle. They gave us some champagne or sparkling wine or something and a few snacks and then they gave us each a shot of pear/apple schnapps. We were toasted again and told you were supposed to throw it back in one gulp and not sip it. So I did.

I’m certain I have never chugged a shot before in my life. I thought Dick was going to faint. But here I was, acting all adult and stuff. I managed to make it to the dining room for dinner without tipping over, so it was a success. Dinner was delicious, as always, and then it was time to toddle off to some quiet time.

Church tower or steeple structure at Durnstein.

There was a noise at 2 AM and it was unlike most of the sailing stuff I have become accustomed to on these cruises. There was lots of grumbling and rumbling from the boat. But after a few minutes the sounds shifted to what seemed normal. Ah, we were pulling away from our docked position at Linz. Once I knew what the noise was, I could fall back to sleep knowing I didn’t need to sleep with the life jacket on.

I woke up at a normal time in the morning and made my way to the lounge just as we were pulling into a lock. We inched our way in and managed the entire process without bumping into the edge even once. Good driving up there!

After breakfast, we met back in the lounge. It was a cold rainy morning and rather miserable and had been since I first woke up. It was nice that we were supposed to just remain warm and dry inside the ship. The three program directors each spoke, telling up about the traditions and customs from their respective countries. Harold, from Germany, went first and spoke about holidays. Dragos, from Romania, spoke about dating. Dom, from Croatia, spoke about vacationing. It was entertaining and informative.

The next part of the cruise was sailing through the Wachau Valley, a UNESCO protected portion of the Danube. Famous for the vineyards and apricot groves of the region as well as the picturesque castles adorning the tops of the hills, it was to be a relaxing and refreshing 20 mile journey.

Twice I have sailed the castle run of the Rhine River stuck inside as it rained out there. Today, the rain stopped and the sun came out just minutes before we passed through the lock into the Wachau Valley. The lock doors opened and the Werms Abbey welcomed us, bathed in sunlight. It was a miracle. We got to sail sitting up on the deck and seeing the sights without rain-spotted windows in the way.

The terraced vineyards were beautiful as were the quaint towns dotting the river banks. There were no bridges allowed in this region (since it is a protected place) and we sailed down river as the program directors told us the history of the place, described various aspects of life along the river, and entertained us with myths and legends originating in this region.

As we neared the end of the valley and approached our docking spot, the dark clouds started piling up again, the wind kicked up considerably, and it looked like we might get more rain. Instead, we went to the dining room and got lunch. Never miss a meal.

After lunch, we were taken for a five minute bus ride (I’m not really sure why we couldn’t walk this) to the city walls of Krems, the edge of the Wachau Valley. We were met by a local guide. Austria demands all guides be licensed by the state. They have to take a two year course and pass a test. Just one more way to make sure locals get to keep their jobs.

Our guide was born in Krems but had moved across the river to a suburb if you can have a suburb of a town of 25,000. The Roman Empire had reached it’s way to the Danube and on that side of the river it was civilized while on this side of the river the barbarians were in charge. When she was building her house, they dug for a basement and found some Roman ruins and construction was halted for months while it was properly excavated. This is something that just never happens in the US.

The historic part of Krems is quaint, beautiful, baroque, and cobblestoned. As we wended through the narrow and curving streets, she explained all the high points of the area. We made our way past the oldest church in town and up on the hill was a location where we know that humans have lived for about 40,000 years. It is an advantageous spot, both then and now. Some rich guy was trying to build there and as they dug for his foundation, instead of Roman ruins, they found the elaborate grave of newborn twins. This was eventually dated to 32,000 years ago.

This area has been a hotspot for religious warring. Martin Luther was admired and the Protestants were in ascendance but the Hapsburgs were Catholic and didn’t like that and so there were wars and then retaliatory wars and then some more wars and then eventually the area was back to being mostly Catholic.

We made our way to the cathedral and the seat of the local diocese. See picture below. This church was been recently renovated and has some high tech stuff included along with all the fancy artwork from hundreds of years ago. They have special LED lighting and they have some climate control thing that measures air quality and opens and closes windows electronically to keep the beautiful paintings as intact as possible.

We wandered about the city, entered some shops giving out some free samples of apricot schnapps and apricot based candies. The free samples leads to considerable sales.

We had a choice about what to do next. We could have gone to visit the Gottweib Abbey or we could go to the apricot farm/factory. We chose the latter. We were bused over the river and through the fields to where our host had one of the fourteen apricot groves her family owns. We had to hike about ten minutes along the path between two people’s vineyards.

People here own small plots of land, some planted with grapes, some with apricots and there is a path of wild grasses and weeds and such outlining each smallish plot. This is especially helpful in keeping bees and other critters happy as they have a more constant food source. We came to the apricot grove and it was two rows of about 15 – 20 trees that were 30 – 50 years old and then several rows of trees that were 10 years old. The older taller trees are more difficult to harvest the fruit because they are so big.

This area is renown for a very special type of apricot, a fruit that is native to China and brought here by the Romans. Because of the years of breeding and the condition of the soil, the apricots are much different than those in America. These are fragile and must be used within 24 hours of picking. This means that each fruit must be hand picked and only when ripe as they do not ripen after picking. They cannot be transported to stores. They are preserved immediately by pasteurization of the juice and then later the juice is made into a variety of things from jams and jellies to wine and schnapps. This is also done at this family’s business.

After leaving the grove, we were taken to that business location and give some wine from their grapes, some sparkling wine that was grapes and apricots mixed, and some schnapps. It was an absolutely lovely afternoon and while it did sprinkle a few drops on us now and then, we didn’t ever have to get the umbrellas out, so it worked out great.

We got back to the ship in time for dinner. Never miss a meal. Last night, it was Dianne’s birthday and so I had birthday cake with dinner since we just happened to sit at her table. Today was Gretchen’s birthday and we have been sharing tables with them on several occasions and so I had birthday cake again today.

Try as I might, this is not ending up a very low carb cruise.

Altar at St. Vitus Cathedral

We stayed in Linz overnight and awoke to a beautiful sunshine day. The temperature was a bit brisk for a Southerner, but 51 isn’t all that bad. I didn’t need my mittens or anything.

We started our day with a walking tour of the third largest city in Austria. Having said that, there are fewer than three-quarters of a million people living here. Size is all relative.

Our local guide led us through the old part of the city, all on one side of the river. Hitler was hoping to raze all the historic buildings and rebuild Linz according to whatever his idea of a perfect city should be. Instead, he invaded Poland and the war got in the way so all the historic buildings are still here. Well, not all, but most.

The new city center is massive and is new only because it is just a few hundred years old. That point was just a few hundred feet from where our ship is docked. The only two buildings here that Hitler was able to erect are now the art and architecture college and the two ugliest buildings on the square.

While over 75% of Linz was destroyed during WWII because the Nazis built the largest steel mill in Austria right here, most of the historic stuff was far removed from the steel mill and only a couple buildings were harmed.

After the war, with the division of Austria among the Allies, the side with the historic buildings and the steel mill was under the control of the Americans. The Soviets got the much larger northern side of the city and the bridge right there out our front windows was known as Checkpoint Charlie, the demarcation between the two.

The steel mill was rebuilt using some of the funding from the Marshall Plan and remain in use today, making several different high grade steel products used in many things from surgical instruments to car parts. The mill remains in the black, continuously making a profit and employing thousands of locals.

Linz was named as the cultural center of the EU for 2009 and because of that, the old and faded historic buildings were all gussied up. They had fallen into disrepair over the years and when all these tourists were expected, the private owners who had bought up the stuff for cheap, opted to make one building after another beautiful. Not wanting to be known as the “ugly” building on the street, everyone was forced into renovating and making the entire area beautiful once again. It paid off because now the rents in the area are about three times higher than they were in 2008.

There was a famous privately owned house that was associated with Mozart. He was neither born nor died here, so what was the big deal? When he was 27 and quite famous around the world, the big wig who owned the house invited the superstar to visit. Mozart accepted and then forgot to go back home. After staying for a few weeks, the rich guy thought he might be able to convince the artist to leave by asking for a free concert. Rich guy invited many of his friends and then requested said concert. Mozart did not have any music with him, so in three days he wrote a symphony, today known at the Linz Symphony which was first performed here for the guests of his host.

Johannes Kepler also taught here in Linz for more than a decade and then had the unmitigated gall to leave just two years before he died.

We were also shown the old bit of the city that was walled in. After a fire in the 1700s, it was decided that a moat was no longer a useful item and as the defensive wall was destroyed and rebuilding of the interior building took place, they filled in the moat. And then everyone forgot about it. A mere couple centuries later, they were digging in the area to build an underground parking garage and found parts of the bridging that was in place to cross the moat. It was preserved and is now a bit of history, seen outside the local governmental buildings.

We ended our guided tour and were given some free time to explore the mostly empty city. Today was the feast of the assumption into heaven of Mary. Austria is about 60% Roman Catholic and it is a national holiday. Most of the shops were closed as were most of the office type businesses. However, the tram was still running.

So we took the tram to the top of the hill where the basilica of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows was located. All the churches were holding Masses today so all the faithful could attend the holy day of obligation. We arrived at the church where Mass was being said but were told we could enter if we would be respectful. We could and so we did. They were just finishing the communion hymn and we waited for the final blessing and then hightailed it out of there before the processional, just like a good Catholic trying to beat the priest to the parking lot.

We did and got to the café before the nice people who really prayed could make it down the forty or so steps and got the most perfect table overlooking the Danube, the city of Linz, and our ship. We ordered a Linzer Tart and some coffee. This would be my first half dessert of the day.

We finished our shared dessert just in time to catch the tram back into town and make our way to the ship in time for lunch. We wouldn’t want to miss a meal.

After lunch we got back on a bus and were taken to Mauthausen where the Nazis built a concentration camp for political dissidents. It was actually just one of the camps in the area (another 41 were also here) where political prisoners were sent to be literally worked to death.

Nearly 200,000 men (and a few women) were sent here to work in the quarry to gather the granite needed for Hitler’s many building projects. Most of those who were sent here, died. It was the last concentration camp to be liberated (by Americans) in Austria. As the end was nearing, other prisoners, not always just political ones, were sent here to die as well.

Most of the men here were worked to death either in the quarry or as slave labor in many of the businesses around here. Today, there are Memorial Grottos set up outside the remaining walls of the camp erected by the nations who saw many of their citizens sent here to die as well as from the Allied forces who sent men here to rescue them. The whole thing was just horrible and it was ridiculously difficult to keep moving through and not burst into tears.

It was a very somber ride back to the ship. It is so difficult to imagine how horrible we can be to each other and how much of this same stuff is going on throughout the world today. Syria and North Korea are just two of the many places where humans are somehow seen as “less”.

We eventually were brought together in the lounge, met with the captain again and toasted each other and met the entire staff of the ship. Dinner was a special treat and yet really not any better than all the other good food we have had on this trip. Dianne and Wayne shared a table with us and it was her birthday today. So we sang to her and then shared her birthday cake. The second half of dessert I had. Then there was the real dessert of the meal, crème brulee. That was my third half of a dessert. I hope my toes stay on.

It was a rather mixed bag of a day. I really enjoyed the morning. The afternoon was heartbreaking.

Gned found a bunch of his cousins.

After finally mostly learning how to use the very odd elevators, it was time to leave the hotel. Our luggage arrived at the boat via some truck while we were taken by a luxury touring bus. We were to board the bus at 8.45 and get out of Dodge or Prague.

Dragos told us all sorts of neat little factoids about the Czech Republic. They like to say that higher education is free and it is if you are at the top of the list. There are only so many free seats at any university and they go to the highest GPA/entry test scored people for freshman year. After those seats are filled, others can still pay for the classes. At the end of each year, those with the highest GPAs are given the next year free. So, it is basically like getting a scholarship, not free for one and all.

The Czechs have told us, over and over, how low their unemployment rate is, anywhere from 1.9 to 3%. If you want to find a job, there are more jobs available then there are people not working. However, the pay is low, especially if you are not in one of the larger cities. They have not had an influx of immigrants because they don’t have a free money policy in place. If you come, you work. If you don’t work, you don’t have money. So most of the immigrants go to Germany and Britain because there, they just give the taxpayers’ money away. The Czechs are very proud of this.

We made one pit stop along the way and then headed on a very narrow, twisty road towards are real stop along the route to the ship. We were going through lots of farm country and it was a much prettier ride than taking the highways.

We were supposed to arrive at Cesky Krumlov at 12.45 and we pulled into the lot at 12.44. This driver was good. Dragos called the other buses to find out where they were. They were at least 45 minutes away. Apparently, the twisty road was a detour. Our driver knew about construction delays on the main roads and offered us this option and Dragos took it.

We had a local woman guiding us through Ceksy Krumlov. This is a small town just inside the Czech border, part of the Sudetenland that that Neville Chamberlain gave away to ensure peace in our time. The locals call it the Treaty about us, without us as they had no say in the matter.

Our guide’s grandfather was German, so when the Nazi’s were given the area, he was permitted to stay. However, when the area was liberated by the Americans at the end of the war, her grandmother (although also German had sided with the Czechs) made it possible for them to remain.

The town had a Hapsburg castle on site and for a variety of reasons, Hitler spared the place during bombings and whatnot. The center of the town is all medieval or Renaissance buildings. The Hapsburgs lost the castle centuries before and many other rich families controlled it afterwards.

It is said to be the second largest castle in the Czech Republic, being 1 square meter smaller than the Prague Castle, although locals disagree with the measuring methods. It is sprawling and had many different additions built across the centuries, which is common for castles/palaces. New rich guys like to add more stuff to the old rich guys buildings.

We had lunch at Papa’s and then took a walk up to the castle itself. There is little in the way of plumbing or electricity and the building is mostly just a tourist stop now. It is owned by the government as it was confiscated from the real owners in November 1947. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, properties were restored to pre-Communist owners if it was taken after the beginning of 1948. But we shouldn’t feel too bad as two other castles were returned to these people even as this one wasn’t. The cost of maintaining these behemoths is extravagant, so maybe this all worked out for the best.

We also visited the church in the town. Because of the many religious wars in the area along with decades of Communist atheism, very few people in Krumlov are religious at all. Admittedly, there are only a few thousand residents in total, but even so the percentage is low. There was a synagogue, but there were only about 100 Jews living there before Hitler and none live there at all today.

We eventually had to leave Cesky Krumlov and just a few minutes later, we also left the Czech Republic. Because we are part of one big happy European Union, this was not at all difficult. We just whizzed past what once was not just a border, but a very restrictive one. It is a miracle that today we can travel so freely into and out of what was once a totalitarian regime. Just thirty years ago, we wouldn’t have been allowed in and if we got in, not allowed back out. Today, it is much different and the locals are more than happy to have their freedoms returned.

They are mastering their new freedoms with grace, but there is still much left over from Communist occupation. There were decades of abuse, limited education, no benefit to work, and simply icky stuff abounding. They are working their way out of situation they never asked for and it is going remarkably well.

Now in Austria, we were brought to the MS Adagio and given our berth. This is not the boat we were supposed to be on. We were to be on the MS Rhapsody, but because of water levels, the ships cannot sail the entire distance. This boat is a bit larger than Rhapsody and about fifty people opted out of the tour altogether because of this water stuff. So there aren’t nearly as many people aboard as is usual.

We were given our welcome speeches and learned how the tours work and are now completely oriented to the entire thing. From there we were ushered off to the dining room for our first meal aboard ship. Instead of the layout from our last two cruises with this line, there are different tables, different serving stations, and lots of marble looking counters everywhere. The food was still delicious.

While in Krumlov, there was a wild driving taxi going what I would call too fast down the narrow, tourist filled cobbled street. I caught a glimpse of the bright green and white car and yanked Dick to safety, saving his life. Then at dinner, he didn’t worry about the seafood risotto but it looked like scallops in there and I stopped him from poisoning himself, saving his life for the second time in one day. He needs me.

Side altar from the church in Cesky Krumlov

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