Saturday, July 13, 2013

Photographic Memories

I have now posted "best of" photos from my London / Krakow (w/ Auschwitz) / Vienna / Budapest / Paris trip here:

I also shot some fun video, but that will take awhile longer to sift through.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Anything Exciting Happen While I Was Gone?

This morning at 6:30am London time, which was 12:30am in Chicago, as I was checking out of the London City Hotel, without any remaining WiFi availability, I asked if I could check something on an Employee-Only computer.

Whether my flight was still scheduled to depart on-time?

Sure, but only after I went to to see if the Blackhawks won, and upon learning the shocking way they did, to watch the highlights of the tying and winning goal.

I wish I had seen it live, and perhaps technically I could have had I found an all-night sports bar in London with satellite TV.

But getting some sleep before making my way to Heathrow was a good choice.

I was booked onto a 10:30am flight to JFK and would have had to get to LaGuardia for an evening flight to O'Hare. But once at Heathrow, I was able to get put onto a 12:50pm flight direct from London to O'Hare, schedule to arrive at 3:30pm.

I am writing this from a lounge in Heathrow, but as I already used my allotment of free wifi, won't post this until I am presumably safely back in Chicago.

- -

Anyway, though I'm sorry I missed the Stanley Cup, I'm glad the Hawks wrapped it up before I got back and have no regrets about being in Europe during this championship fortnight.

I had a wonderful time on this trip, which despite persistent pain in my heels--due to some combination of extensive walking, bad shoes, old age and too much weight--was more acutely pleasurable than other European expeditions.

Because I am intent on getting to as many sights as possible, and never content to just sit around, I have enjoyed past overseas trips more in retrospect and memory--both my own and the photos stored on my computer--than in the present tense.

Though at times a bit arduous, this was a really pleasurable trip as I was on it.

I greatly enjoyed all 5 cities I visited and would recommend them all to anyone. But I guess I'd say my biggest surprise was how much I liked Krakow.

I had read good things about it, but somewhat perceived it as a place to visit surrounding a jaunt to Auschwitz, which for some reason I wanted to see.

But though unlike London, Vienna and Paris, I saw no great art or iconically historic buildings, I really just loved being there and walking around probably more than anywhere else on this trip or in ready memory.

Of course, I loved London and seeing Springsteen at Wembley and Les Miserables and Matilda. 

In London I saw the royal family and in Vienna, I saw three grand palaces.

All told I visited 7 art museums.

While fine dining wasn't my focus, I enjoyed some nice meals.

I saw three cities--and many things--I've never seen before, and returned again to my beloved London and Paris.

So despite what I missed at home, I'm glad I went.

But I'm also happy to be home. That's how life should be.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Un jour en Paris, one night in London

Hello friends.

I am writing this from the London City Hotel where I have come from a day in Paris to fly out of Heathrow tomorrow.

It might seem folly, and somewhat counterintuitive, to spend just one day in arguably the world greatest tourist city (though I would argue for New York or London).

But with the return leg going out of London tomorrow, I had the option of spending today in Budapest (assuming I could've gotten a flight to London tonigh, London (assuming I could've gotten a flight from Budapest to London yesterday) or, well, Paris.

Ironically because my Paris airport (Beauvais) was a long bus ride to a Metro  to my hotel, which I got lost walking to, the time from the Paris airport to the Paris hotel was roughly the same as the time from the Paris train station, on the train plus the Tube, to the London hotel.

Because I have been in Paris three times previously--including just 18 months ago--though just for two days then, I felt no need to attempt to do absolutely everything one might do as a tourist in Paris.

I went to the modern art museum at the Pompidou Center, which I hadn't been to in 20 years, then strolled to Notre Dame nearby. I'd been inside it in November 2011, so didn't wait in line to get in, and noted that It is the venerated church's 850th anniversary.

I went to the Carousel du Louvre, which is a shopping mall under the museum--you can see the inverted pyramid there--and went and took pictures of the Eiffel Tower, with no need to go up it as I did the last time (actually the last three times). I also took some nice shots of Invalides.

I would say I had a nice dinner back near my hotel, but in Paris a "nice" dinner consists of what they call ribeye steak and fries. Essentially it's a flat piece of steak like you might get it Sizzler.

The train ride under the chunnel was pretty smooth and now I'm back in London. I tried to get a bite at the Trinity pub next door but they were no longer serving food. And I'm not thrilled that the London City Hotel put me on the fourth floor of a no elevator hotel but such is life.

If all goes as planned I should be home around 9 o'clock tomorrow. Like on the outbound trip I fly into JFK and then have to get to LaGuardia to fly to Chicago.

Depending on the Wi-Fi situation in New York, you may get a recap post but otherwise this may be it for this trip. I hope you enjoyed taking the journey with me.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Midnight in Paris, and I Feel Like William Tell

No, I didn't shoot an apple off anyone's head. But I was just pulling mussels from a Léon de Bruxelles, the closest restaurant to my Parisien hotel that I could find open after 11pm.

Anyway, for anyone who thinks traveling around Europe by one's self can be rather daunting, the last couple hours would not serve as an advertisement to the contrary.

Though in some ways, they should, as nothing bad actually happened and I was honestly more annoyed than frazzled.

But I can see where a first-time transcontinental traveler could be a bit intimidated. Heck. even Chicago can't be all that easy to navigate for the uninitiated.

I have arrived in Paris. Actually, I arrived--via Ryan Air from Budapest; remind me to rant at another time about travelers and their carry-on luggage--at an airport called Paris-Beauvais, which required a 1hr15min nonstop bus to get to the outskirts of the city proper. 

We were dropped off in a parking lot. i knew there was a Metro (subway) nearby, which the bus driver was able to point me to--it was still quite a shlep--but otherwise this would've been a "WTF?" moment as I didn't even see any taxis nearby.

This is my fourth time in Paris and I'm familiar with how the Metro lines crisscross, similar to the London Underground. So despite requiring a switch of trains along the way, getting to the Republique stop was no big deal.

But finding my hotel proved to be a pain in the ass. When I had been in Paris for two nights in November 2011, I stayed at the Hotel du Nord et de l'Est.

It's not the most luxurious of places, but it's fine, and its location near Republique is rather convenient. But Republique Is essentially a large memorial oval and all sides of it look the same.

Having booked the same hotel again, I did not have the hotel's address or a map handy (i.e. no Internet access). It's good that I basically remembered where it was, otherwise I would've really been up the creek, but out of the metro station I asked the first person I saw--he was holding a smart phone--if he had Wi-Fi and could look up hotel's address.

Luckily he was a Frenchman who spoke English and though a bit surprised, he was nice enough to do it. But the Google map of Republique was just as confusing as the real thing.

I wound up walking in one direction and then another, asking at a hotel that I knew wasn't mine, being pointed to a hotel called Hotel du Nord, which was in the area but not the correct one, and from there being directed correctly to Hotel du Nord et de l'Est.

Even with a rolling suitcase it wasn't exactly a fun way to spend 40 minutes. 

Just to kind of regain my bearings, I wandered out after checking in, and after stopping into a couple restaurants that were closing for the evening, wound up having some mussels at Léon, which is a chain out of Belgium.

The mussels were pretty tasty and now back at my hotel, I'm going to bed.

I have just one day in Paris and only till about 7 PM at that, but I think I'll go see some art at the Pompidou Center, wander over to the Eiffel Tower, perhaps get to Sacre Coeur and just kind of take it as it comes.

Bon soir.

Another Budaful Day in Budapest

It is only 11:47am as I write this, but after a nice visit to the Great Synagogue--the most beautiful synagogue I've ever seen--I was walking through the Jewish Quarter of Pest.

I needed a rest room and noticed a cute cafe called Mosaic (on Kiraly St.) and am now waiting to have some eggs.

After this, I intend to walk to Buda across the Chain Bridge, then go up the funicular to Castle Hill. If time allows, I'll go into Matthias Church, but need to be back at my hotel for a 3:00 taxi to the airport.

Despite predictions of rainy, it is another sunny day, 84 degrees, which is nicely cooler than the last 2 days.

Hope it's a Budaful day wherever you are.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

I've Yet to Find the Al Hrabosky Statue...

...but otherwise I've had a rather pleasurable first full day in Budapest. Actually my only full day, as I need to leave for the airport about 3pm on Sunday to catch my flight to Paris.

Budapest, like any major city, had a number of suggested tourist highlights, but nothing that seemingly approached an iconic must see. Rick Steves only awarded ^^^ status to the Szechenyi Baths, a large communal swimming and soaking complex (one of several in Budapest). And I wasn't certain that was something I needed to get to.

My top two "intend to see" sights were tours of the Parliament Building and the Budapest Opera House. I got to both, as well as the baths, but opted to begin with the Great Market Hall, which was relatively close to my hotel and right near the Danube River.

As the name suggests, it is a huge marketplace, with produce, meat and fish stands, as well as some with pastries.

I opted for a cherry strudel, and also a good sized bag of cherries. This was largely because I had yet to have any cherries back home this year. 

They were good if not ideal for walking and photographing--down Budapest's prime tourist strolling street, Vaci--as you've got to do something with the pits.

Though a huge construction project detoured my route to the Metro station I needed to get to Parliament, I was able to get there--where I found another hurge construction project--and get on a 1:00pm tour. The building was pretty impressive and tour worthwhile (ironically, in 8 trips to London, I've yet to opt to tour Parliament there).

Using the Metro to save wear on my trip weary legs, I made my way to the Budapest Opera House. Though not as big as the Vienna Opera House--by decree of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, whose empire included Hungary--nor seemingly as famed, I thought it was more beautiful, particularly in the auditorium. And unlike Vienna's, it had air conditioning (though I did not see a performance there).

Although in "Best of Eastern Europe," Rick Steves mentions a couple opulent  cafés that I couldn't find, I happily settled to eat al fresco at The well named Callas, right next to the opera house with a full view of it. I had a forest fruits milkshake and a piece of strawberry cream cheese cake. Yum.

The street the opera house is on, Andrassy, is all one of Budapest most leafy. I strolled a few blocks up and down before the opera tour, but took the Metro to reach Heroes Square at the top of it. 

After snapping some photos of some fancy buildings--including a castle I chose not to tour (probably didn't have time anyhow--and can't spell at the moment; it starts with a V.

I strolled through City Park to the aforementioned Szechenyi Baths. I'm not much of a swimmer, though I did bring some trunks, and can't deny sitting in the warm soaking pool was both relaxing and good for my legs & feet. The whole operation, including the changing rooms, locker system and a bunch of smaller pools, was a bit confusing to a first-time visitor but I sorted it out. Luckily I had a plastic bag from a shot glass purchase so that I could carry my wet swim trunks in one of my cargo shorts pockets.

In the evening I took a one hour sitesightseeing cruise up and down the Danube River. There are several operators, but I went with one called Legenda, Because not only was it mentioned in Rick Steves' book, but I got a discount for mentioning that I learned about it there.

This was one of the best experiences of my trip so far. Despite some dark clouds, it never rained and and I was able to take numerous great photos from the open air deck as night fell on Budapest and its many picturesque buildings.

With some good hours spent sitting in a warm pool and on a boat, I was spry enough to walk back to my hotel alongside the Danube.

I was intending to eat at another of the cafés that line the street outside my hotel's door, but along the way I saw an interesting looking place called the For Sale Pub (not an Irish or British pub, though there are some of those around too). 

While listening to a female singer and male guitarist performing such songs as Imagine and U2's One, I had Hungarian Goulash soup. It was pretty good.

The punster in me would like to say that it was a Budaful day in Budapest, but I spent all day on the Pest side (Buda and Pest were separate cities across the Danube from each other that at some point were combined into Budapest).

Tomorrow after checking out the Great Old Synagogue in Pest, I intend to head over to the Buda side for whatever time I have remaining.

Let's see if the predicted rain holds off; so far so good on keeping my streak alive of never having a vacation day ruined by rain over at least 15 years.

Oops, I probably just jinxed myself.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Train Kept a-Rolli--

I am writing this from a bus I am surprised to be on. (Note: That's when I started it. It is now 10:50pm and I am in Budapest.)

I left Vienna, as planned, on a 6:03pm train scheduled to arrive in Budapest at 8:49pm.

At around 7:15, the train stopped at a town seemingly named Gyor. That was no big deal, as the timetable had listed a few stops before Budapest, but it sure seemed like a whole lot of people were disembarking in Gyor.

But I remained rather clueless to the circumstances at hand until some train personnel ordered everyone off the train, without much English spoken.

As you can imagine I was a bit confused. 

But as was revealed in pieces over the last hour or so, from--

OK, hold the phone. I'm now off the bus, short of Budapest, and now back on a train.

By the time you read this, I've hopefully arrived at my hotel in Budapest (I have) and everything is fine and this hiccup has made for a good story.

But I think the story is this:

Because of recent flooding, the train tracks en route in Hungary became unusable. 

That's why everyone aboard the train had to get off at Gyor and switch to the bus (I imagine there were other busses for destinations besides Budapest.

We were cruising along an autobahn, save for an ad hoc pit stop requested by a passenger (not me). As I started writing this, the bus was about 70 km out of Budapest. That's like 42 miles and at 75 mph, we should have been there within a half-hour or so.

Now I've been on the tail-leg train for at least that long and it just now started moving. I'm not sure why the buses couldn't just finish the route.


The train arrived in Budapest about an hour later than scheduled. No big problem, but it seems we were making better time on the bus.

I was intending to figure out the Budapest metro to get to my hotel, which is right near a stop, but everything was all torn up at the train station, so I decided to hop the first cab I saw.

My hotel, the Ibis Centrum is part of a chain and not particularly distinctive, but I'm fine with that. It's well-located, less than $100/nt and has air conditioning.

And it is on the same street as a bunch of outdoor cafés. I just ate at one that was literally 20 steps from the front door of my hotel.

Now I'm ready for bed so I'll just quickly tell you that today in Vienna was spent mostly exploring the art of Gustav Klimt.

First I saw his Beethoven Frieze at the Secession building. Then I explored Belvedere, another palace but one devoted almost fully to art. 

It must have had at least 20 Klimt paintings, most notably "The Kiss" and "Judith." While those were what I consider typical Klimt--bright gold coloring and an almost mosaic like look--they had several other works, including ones that came later, that showed his gold/mosaic paintings were relatively few among his full oeuvre. 

There was a roomful of landscapes that he painted, which seemed somewhat like a mix between Van Gogh and Monet.

The other site I saw today was another ornate church, Karlskirche. It was spectacular inside, but as they're doing some restoration work there's a free elevator almost to the top of the dome. Yet I still had to walk 10 flights of stairs to get to the very top but I did. (You can see what I'm talking about on my Flickr page.)

When I was leaving the church, I saw a woman wearing a Clash t-shirt. I have no idea where she was from or what language she spoke but I assume it wasn't natively English.

I pulled out my iPhone and showed it to her, because my lock-screen image is the cover of London Calling (it has been for years; not done for this trip).

She smiled.


For those soccer fans out there: when the bus was rolling through Gyor (which is in Hungary, I noticed a stadium called Eto Park. You might want to look it up and see who plays there.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

This Isn't Really a Vienna Beef, but Too Much Imperial Beauty Can Be a Royal Pain

You may need to turn the volume up on this post because my dogs are really barking.

But while I can say that pain from the soles of my feet and up my legs is enjoyable, it's a pretty standard barometer of a tourism day well spent. 

On pretty much every day on this trip, and basically all others that involve a great deal of walking--even if largely just within museums--I exhaust myself to not wanting to take another step by time I go to bed, and hope to have recuperated sufficiently by morning to do it all over again.

Actually, as I have started writing this post, I am not yet in bed but at the Kursalon, waiting to hear a classical musical concert featuring works of Johann Strauss and Mozart. It seems like a very Viennese thing to do, although I would guess everyone else here is also a tourist.

And walking three flights of stairs to the concert hall wasn't all that much fun.

But though I take being worn out as a good sign, I'm not certain that two days of touring palaces of the Hapsburg Dynasty--Austria's rulers for 600 years until 1918--has offered a high enough ratio of enjoyment had vs. energy sapped.

Which isn't to say that I haven't enjoyed Vienna. The number of truly breathtaking sights I've seen--and photographed, except in the palaces--would attest otherwise.

If fact, or at least cursory opinion, I don't think any city I've ever been to has offered this much overt grandeur.

OK, it's intermission at the concert. It sounds nice, with about a 12-piece ensemble accompanied by a couple opera singers--to sing Mozart arias--and a couple of dancers who perform to Strauss waltzes.

But it's sweltering in here. How can they corral the tourists with hawkers around the city--I paid €42 and that was supposedly a discount--and not have any air conditioning, ceiling fans nor even some open windows. Same thing happened last night at the opera house, where I saw a ballet. Or more correctly, 2/3 of a ballet for which I was half awake and could only see half of the stage.

Part of the point I was getting to is that Vienna, at least for tourists, seems like a city stuck in the long ago. This makes for pretty buildings, but how about some A/C for the tourists? I don't have any in my hotel either; at least I have a fan there.


I'm now back at the hotel and it's not too hot here, but the second part of the concert remained boiling. And I even tried stopping into an open restaurant I saw;in there too it was sweltering so I didn't bother.

You would think a city whose main tourist attractions are based on glorious excess would do a better job with basic creature comforts.

Anyway after going to the Hofburg palace yesterday and learning more than I probably needed to know about Emperor Franz Joseph and his posthumously mythologized wife Elizabeth a.k.a. "Sisi,"--something of an Austrian Princess Diana of the 18th century--today I went to the Habsburgs summer palace, Schonbrunn, located all of 10 minutes away (by subway).

I probably didn't need to go to both palaces (and I'll be going to a third one tomorrow), but they seem to be the prime tourist attractions by common consensus. I can't deny that there was certainly majestic beauty to be seen at both of--the Schonbrunn especially has  luxurious gardens--but I guess my point is that they wore me out without exciting me all that much.

More up my alley was the Kunsthistorisches Museum, a regal and ornate art museum with an outstanding collection, including masterworks by Raphael, Vermeer, Velazquez and others of a Renaissance ilk. I spent two leg weary hours there yesterday after the Hofburg palace, but at least what I saw  excited me enough to keep my energy up. 

Today before going out to Schonbrunn on the metro "the U," I really enjoyed just walking around central Vienna on the way to the magnificent St. Stephen's Cathedral. I wound up meandering around a good bit and saw another great church--St. Peter's--and went to the famous Café Demel to see how their Sacher torte compared to Cafe Sacher's. 

I also stopped at Buffet Trzésniewski, but a charming classic little place that has an assortment of finger sandwiches. I'm sorry I didn't take an iPhone photo to show on Flickr as the sandwiches and the shop are hard to exactly explain. But it was pretty cool and I liked it.

So it isn't like visiting palaces is all I've done in Vienna, and the one tomorrow--Belvedere--includes an art museum with a masterpiece by Klimt ("The Kiss").

Let's hope my legs hold up.

I check out in the morning and at 6pm catch a three hour train to Budapest. I think I have Wi-Fi there too, so until then, to quote Billy Joel "When will you realize Vienna waits for you."

Especially if you like palaces.


I meant to mention that on my way back to my hotel after the concert, I noticed that at the opera house they were showing--as I guess they always do--the opera that was going on within, upon an external screen. So while I couldn't get a ticket to the opera--Capriccio by Richard Strauss--I was able to see Renée Fleming sing an extended aria. 

But it's good to be off my feet and in bed. Good night whatever time it may be where you are.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Morning in Vienna

The above photo is exactly my viewpoint as I write this, or more precisely, speak this. 

It is 7:52am and I am sitting outside of Starbucks looking at the backside of the Vienna Opera House. It is not as nice as the front side, which I'll go photograph a few hundred times when I'm ready to stand up. And tonight I'll see the inside when I attend a ballet of Don Quixote.

After I do my loop around the opera house, I think I might stop at the Sacher Café for a piece of Sacher torte, Vienna's famed chocolate cake. Seems as good a breakfast as any.

As should be obvious, I've arrived in Vienna without any major problems, though finding the right platform at the station in Kraków, schlepping my suitcase up the stairs to it and dealing with getting settled in a six person couchette, which was sweltering at first (before the train started moving) was a bit more arduous that I would have liked. And finding a taxi off the train in Vienna wasn't as easy as it should have been. 

But such is part of the story with European travel and all is good now. My hotel isn't glamorous but is a half block from where I sit so right down the street from the Opera House. And an easy walk to the Hofburg Palace, which is where I intend to spend most of my time today along with the main art museum, the Kunsthistorisches.

My first impression of Vienna is that there is much beauty here, but it is a much larger city than Krakow--along the lines of Paris and London--and therefore considerably more imposing.

But I expect to get my bearings shortly and with the day promising chocolate cake, a palace--the first of three--great art and a ballet, it shouldn't be too bad.

Easy Come, Easy Go

I've got a few minutes of free Wi-Fi while waiting in my hotel lobby for a taxi to take me to the train station for overnight journey to Vienna.

I started today checking my email and learning via my mom that while I'm away someone had broken one of my glass patio doors. Seemingly it was just an accident not vandalism, unless I have some unknown enemies out there.

So I started today walking to Kazimierz, the former Jewish area of Kraków. It still has some old synagogues and cemeteries. At the oldest cemetery the manager(?) of the place took it upon himself to give me a more in-depth tour.

Then when I was at the Isaac synagogue, the only other tourist was wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt from their current American tour. I asked him which show he had gone to and it turned out he went to the May 31 show in Chicago that I did.

Long story short he was an older guy whose name is David and he told me he  lived in Roscoe Village. Fortuitously he was willing to walk over to the Oskar Schindler factory which was my next stop. 

It was nice to have some company, but after the first gallery of what is now a museum about life in Krakow from 1939-45, I never saw him again. So if anyone knows someone named David who lives in Roscoe Village and has a daughter that lives in Honduras with a husband who works for the US government please let me know. Not that I really need to seehim  again but I was going to exchange email addresses. Oh well.

Vienna awaits but first does an overnight train ride, sharing a sleeping compartment with five random strangers.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Krakow, and Likely Europe, Can't Seem to Accommodate My Drinking Habits

Not based on principle, or for the most part price, but merely taste preference, at any non-breakfast meal I eat in a restaurant, I do not order beer, wine, cocktails, hard liquor or coffee.

I order Diet Coke.

In Krakow, the selection is Coke Zero. Elsewhere in Europe, they seem to have Coca-Cola Light. Or sometimes diet Peai products.

Any of these are fine.

Problem is, in the three restaurants and two jazz clubs I've been in during my first two days in Krakow--which I've found to be absolutely marvelous--haven't served Coke Zero (or presumably any soft drinks) from a tap, but rather in 200 ml bottles (rougly 10 oz.).

Particularly when very thirsty and no tap water is served, I can drink one these (on ice, but only when I've requested it) in a single gulp.

On a day when I visited Auschwitz, I am really not complaining about having to pay about $2-$3 for "Diet Coke" in much smaller quantity than I can get more of for less back home.

20 years ago, before my first trip to Europe, I had heard that wine is cheaper than Coke, and while not exactly true, a cheap glass of wine runs about the same as a small bottle of Coke Zero.

The problem is, the waitresses--clearly unaccustomed to my mass, Mayor Bloomberg vexing consumption of Diet Coke--haven't been very attentive or cooperative to keeping me properly satiated.

Take tonight, when I dined at Miod Malina, a restauant a few feet from my hotel that was recommended by Rick Steves (or in another travel source).

I ordered a Coke Zero and basically had downed the 200 ml by the time my appetizer--melted gorgonzola cheese and apples on bread with some type of jelly; delicious--arrived.

My waitress was lax in checking on me, so when she did, I asked her to bring me 2 more bottles of Coke Zero.

But before she did, my entree arrived. Spare ribs with a thick plum sauce, and I also got dumplings that approximate gnocci. I nearly burned my tongue on one of these, but had no beverage handy.

When my soda did arrive, it was one bottle of regular Coke, with no fresh ice. I told the waitress I wanted Coke Zero and 2 of them at that, with ice (she seemed to understand and speak English, and I used my fingers to illustrate 2).

I got one bottle, and still no ice. I downed it and would've liked the third bottle, but it arrived rather latently.

Anyway, you get the point. 

Obviously, there are innumerable things immeasurably worse but I'm having trouble getting my Diet Coke fix.

Nonetheless, Kraków remains one of the most magnificent places I've ever been. It's not ornately resplendent like I expect Vienna to be, but is astonishingly beautiful and, perhaps more importantly, comfortable.

I've had great dinners at Farina and Miod Malina, heard excellent jazz at Harris Piano Jazz Bar and U Muniaka, saw an absolutely job dropping church in St. Mary's and another great one in St. Francis, visited Auschwitz (see my other post from today), walked up Castle Hill to see Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral, and tomorrow expect to see the Oskar Schindler factory and Kazimierz, Kraków's former Jewish district.

But really what has been most awesome has just been walking around; seeing the beautiful buildings, walking by the river today, and really just enjoying a warm, welcoming city.

I check out of the hotel in the morning as tomorrow night I will be taking an overnight train from Kraków to Vienna. 

So it's possible I may not be able to post another recap until Wednesday night, after my first full day in Vienna. Until then enjoy every sandwich.

The Worst Place on Earth

I am en route to Auschwitz, in a comfortable, air conditioned van with 16 other tourists. The rustic scenery is beautiful.

This is after a nice breakfast at my hotel, and the previous 36 hours being among the best of my life (Springsteen at Wembley, arrival in Krakow, exploration of Old Town, excellent dinner, terrific jazz at Harris Piano Jazz Bar).

Of what I know of the Holocaust, it is the relative suddenness of going from a good life to complete hell that is most harrowing.

8:21pm: The above thought was verified by the sight that most "got me" during three hours of touring Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau.

Even more than seeing the entry gate--Arbeit Macht Frei; work will set you free--which is a replica since vandals stole and destroyed the original in 2009, or buildings that once housed barracks and yes, gas chambers, or miles of barbed wire (which made me think of Joseph Glidden, who invented it in DeKalb, IL), what hit me the hardest was seeing a mountain of shoes encased in glass.

Among these was a pair of colorful women's sandals, which I photographed. I truly know next to nothing about female footwear, but unless these were the only shoes a woman had brought into the ghetto, I can't imagine them being chosen for a long train ride, ending not with a fresh water shower--as the victims were led to believe--but with, for most, a trip to the gas chamber.

What happened during the Holocaust is too vast, and too vile, to acutely grasp in thinking about the millions--Jews and others--who died in the most inhumane way possible. I know the statistics, but thankfully I think, can't wrap my head around it in full.

It is the microcosms, representing the totality of Nazi atrocities, that I find most devastating, telling and haunting.

Such as, even more than the mountainous pile of shoes, a single pair.

Or eyeglasses. Or children's clothes. Or other commonalities of everyday life left behind for busloads of tourists to see at Auschwitz.

(On a similar level, Holocaust movies focusing on a single person--The Pianist and Life is Beautiful--for me tell the terrible tale even better than Schindler's List. And I'll never forget seeing, at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a recreated Berlin apartment of a family who would perish. It made the Holocaust feel much more acute, as I could identify with not just the horrors, but how sudden and unsuspectingly they came about.

While seeing Auschwitz was obviously horrible--though quite worthwhile--it should have been a whole lot worse.

Although of many choices, I had selected Escape 2 Poland as my tour operator (simply for the Auschwitz/Birkenau day tour) based on several online plaudits, and paid a bit more for a more intimate van tour than a bus tour, the 17 people on my van were combined with a similar number from another E2P van when we got to Auschwitz--and we were all assigned to the same tour guide.

The guide spoke fine English and seemed quite knowledgeable, but if there was ever a place where you shouldn't be herded about like cattle and actually given some time to contemplate and ask questions, this was it.

Understanding that there were tons of other tour groups touring the same places--primarily old barracks buildings now containing displays on various aspects of the concentration camps--our guide seemed far more businesslike than humanly empathetic.

In a way, maybe this was a good thing, as simply being able to keep up with the group while snapping my typical plethora of photos, kept me from all too acutely considering the evil that enveloped my surroundings.

But along with a bit more time for reflection--there should be a memorial where one can simply sit and think--the guide should have paid more attention to the members of her group, including a slow-moving man with a cane.

I will never forget my visit to the worst place on Earth, but I do think the tour itself could have been a little bit better.

But at least I was allowed to leave.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Delightful First Day in Krakow


Awaiting my dinner at one of the city's only seafood restaurants, Farina, after just 4 hours wandering--largely aimlessly--around Krakow's old town (Stare Miestro), I am compelled to say, "Wow."

As most reading this likely know, I am not a European travel neophyte. I've been to the continent's great big cities--London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Madrid, Prague, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Dublin, Barcelona, Brussels--as well as some quainter ones (Venice, Florence, Toledo, Bilbao, Liverpool).

All have dazzled me in one way or another, but it's hard to recall one in which just being there was such a delight.

I don't expect to see much great art here (though supposedly there is a DaVinci at the castle), and I have no theater tickets--although I am hoping to stay awake to hit the Harris Piano Jazz Bar. 

The only truly singular sight I've yet seen is St. Mary's church, one of the grandest and most beautiful I've ever been in.

But strolling around Stare Miestro, particularly Rynek Glowny--the main square--has been absolutely delightful. The buildings here are astonishingly beautiful, in a charming old European sort of way, and the vibe is quite comfortable. 

The only places I know to compare it to are Prague, for its distinctively colored buildings, and Brussels for its impressive central square.

Maybe I'm too caught up in the moment to fairly rank Krakow ahead of places I visited years ago, but as a somewhat out-of-the-way city that Rick Steves has touted but no one I known has ever been to, it's even cooler than I could have hoped.

I'm now done with my dinner, which is my first proper meal of my trip, as I was always eating on the run. I had Trout--which the waitress described as a Polish fish--Spinach with Raisins, Potatoes with Dill and White Chocolate Mousse with raspberry sauce.


And tomorrow I go to Auschwitz.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Singing to the Queen, Waiting for the Boss

I am sitting on the concourse of Wembley Stadium.

It is raining pretty heavily, but I am under cover.

It is 3:48pm, I am waiting for the gates to open at 5:30 for a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert scheduled for 7:00pm.

You may wonder what I am doing here so early. Although with no wi-fi around, by the time I post this--perhaps not until Sunday in Krakow--and you read it, it should be moot.

And the rain seems to have either stopped or slowed.

Anyway, about my day so far. After leaving my hotel around 9:30am and took the Tube to Trafalgar Square. 

I went to the National Gallery, which like the Tate Modern yesterday, is free for its permanent gallery. I've been there before several times, perhaps on every visit to London, including a rather perplexing one  last time (the DaVinci exhibit fiasco).

I allotted myself an hour, which ordinarily would be rather short for one of the world's greatest art museums. But it was enough time for me to see several highlights, such as Seurat's Bathers at Asnieres, five Van Goghs-- though Sunflowers was on loan--DaVinci's Madonna of the Rocks and a (relocated) gallery with Raphaels and Michelangelos.

-- Note: I've now relocated to Gate M, but an still outside Wembley --

After the National Gallery, I walked--as I had planned--to Buckingham Palace. I was intending just to see the Changing of the Guard at 11:30am, but was surprised to learn that it is Queen Elizabeth's birthday. Or at least the official celebration of it.

So there were huge crowds, tons of marching Beefeaters, horses and bands, airplane flyovers and the Royal Family appearing on the palace balcony. So, albeit with my binoculars I had on me to see Bruce, I saw the Queen, William, Kate, Harry and assorted others. I'm no big fan of the Royals, but can't deny it was fun witnessing the hoopla.

Then came the first minor fiasco of the trip. I was planning to visit the grounds of Wimbledon and even had booked a tour for 2:30pm. 

Because of the festivities at the Palace, I was literally on lockdown until 1:30, but shlepped to the Victoria underground, only to learn upon the platform that the tube to Wimbledon wasn't running there, requiring taking a roundabout way to get there, including a bus.

No thanks. 

Already concerned with wanting to get to Wembley because my ticket for Springsteen was at will-call--shame on Ticketmaster UK for being unable to ever mail a ticket bought on December 7--J wasn't about to mess around with Tube re-routes and buses, especially to see empty tennis courts.

So here I am at Wembley. Though get this: my ticket wasn't here. Ticketmaster UK are complete screw-ups. Luckily, the box office was able to print another one, on the commemorative ticket stock, but I'm glad I didn't come at 6pm and have to deal with a long line and a missing ticket.

If Ticketmaster had managed to get me my ticket in hand, I would've been able to go to a matinee musical and not worry about getting to Wembley so early.

It's now 4:35. And it's pretty darn cold.

43 Is an Astonishing One

I hope to see many amazing things on this multi-city trip, and I already have. Great art, great theater, beautiful buildings, a festive public appearance by the Royal Family and really, just London as a whole.

But the impetus for taking this trip at this time--which if nothing else required an extra 20,000 frequent flyer miles and likely some higher lodging rates--was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band  playing at London's famed (albeit rebuilt) Wembley Stadium.

Although The Boss has been amazing the previous 42 times I've seen him, especially with his erstwhile band, I had never seen him outside the United States. And the truth is, he's even bigger in Europe these days than he is back home (except for on his true home turf of New Jersey & New York).

Without wanting to diminish how great he's been at past shows, or rank this the very best, Springsteen was once again every bit as good as I could have hoped.

It wasn't just the setting, which outranks most but perhaps wasn't quite as cool as Wrigley Field, Giants Stadium, Madison Square Garden or Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, where I seen highly memorable E Street Band shows.

From the get-go, the Wembley setlist was a wild card. After opening with "Land of Hope and Dreams," which used to close shows or come late, he tore into relative rarities like "Jackson Cage" and "Radio Nowhere," before obliging several requests-by-sign.

This is standard, but usually comes mid-show. But early on, he played "Save My Love," "Rosalita," "This Hard Land" and "Lost in the Flood." I don't know that he's ever opted for "Rosie" so early in the show (which largely took place before the sun went down).

After a couple songs off Wrecking Ball, including the title cut and "Death to My Hometown," he gave the crowd the choice of "more requests" or the Darkness on the Edge of Town album in full.

Wisely, we chose the latter, and along with staples like "Badlands" and "The Promised Land," it was great to hear songs like "Racing in the Streets" get glorious renditions.

After rollicking encores including "Born to Run," "Dancing in the Dark" and "Tenth Avenue Freezeout," Bruce closed things with a solo acoustic "Thunder Road."

Especially as Wembley had an echo, this was a particularly beautiful way to end the night.

And we all went home happy. Or at least to our hotel, with the next part of my journey awaiting in the morning.

But once again thrilled with the Boss.

Friday, June 14, 2013

One More Day in London, with One Day More

There is nothing that 10 hours of sleep and plenty of sunshine can't make better.

So although my first day in London yesterday was very good, today was even greater--as I was fully awake to enjoy it.

Though not setting an alarm was a sign of permission to sleep as late as needed, I nonetheless was rather surprised when I awoke and discovered it to be about 10:20am, and I still didn't get out of bed. 

But I did eventually and got out of my hotel around 11. Though I had had thoughts of trying to get to the observation deck of the new Shard tower, it wasn't a great priority and the day was a bit overcast at that point.

So I walked about 10 minutes from my hotel to the Tate Modern art museum, located in an old power station along the Thames River, across from St. Paul's Cathredral. 

I've been there once or twice before and recall it having a great modern art collection, which I'll now downgrade to very good. Not quite MOMA levels, but some strong Picasso (including "Weeping Woman") along with some Magritte, Braque, de Chirico, Mondrian, Kandinsky and Rothko, including the Seagram murals. These were works commissioned to adorn the Four Seasons restaurant in New York's Seagram building, but drawn to dark hues unlikely to please diners, Rothko eventually rejected the commission and the 9 paintings wound up going to the Tate Modern, where 6 of them fill a low-lit room. 

After the Tate, it was onto the Globe Theater, the recreation of the one where most Shakespeare plays were premiered. I'd once toured the outside, but had never been to a play in the open air venue, so caught a matinee of a touring, all-female Taming Of The Shrew. 

I was up high in the gallery and didn't quite understand all that was going on onstage, but enjoyed it nonetheless. The 8 women often played dual roles and while their costumes pegged to the 1920s were fine, this was one time I would've preferred traditional Shakespeare. But I did enjoy that the cast members played music before, during and after the show. 

After returning to a nearby Starbucks for some WiFi usage, and a muffin, I took a nice long stroll along the Thames, from a great view of St. Paul's to a great view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. 

I even walked all the way to the Queens Theatre near Picadilly Circus, where I caught an evening performance of Les Miserables. This was my 9th time seeing the musical live, from Broadway down to high school productions, but I had never before seen it in London, where it has run consecutively since opening in 1985. 

It remains majestic, all the more so because it the original staging with a turntable stage, which has been phased out on recent tours in America. All the voices and performances were perfect and I couldn't have asked for it--my 2nd favorite musical (behind The Producers) but the one I feel is the best ever created. 

Afterward I took a stroll to Picadilly Circus, stopping to buy a postcard stamp in a store that also had Jamaican patties (somewhat like an empanada), so I got one of those which was rather good. 

Now I'm back at my hotel, look forward to an exciting day tomorrow. I don't imagine I'll do an evening wrapup post, as I'm flying out of London to Krakow early Sunday morning and will get home late from a Bruce Springsteen concert at Wembley Stadium on Saturday night. 

Yep, tomorrow will be highlighted by the Boss. Though I'll also try to get to the National Gallery, the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and Wimbledon for a tour prior to the tournament starting next week.

I have shared some photos I've taken on my iPhone here:


Thursday, June 13, 2013

David and Matilda Provide a Warm, if Wearying, Welcome to London

I first came to London 20 years ago, in May 1993.

Having recently returned to Skokie after three years living in California, I was residing at my parents' house and working at Kinko's when I decided it was time for me to see Europe.

Not all of it, as many students do on an extended jaunt during or after college. Without that as an option, I opted for a week in London--with a day in Liverpool--followed by a week in Paris.

I instantly loved London, even if I wasn't the theater buff I am now (though I did see a musical called City of Angels that I remember fondly.

So since 2000, as I've come to explore much more of Europe, I've frequently included a brief stay in London, whether as demanded by flight plans or simply because I like it so much.

This typically lengthy preamble is to inform anyone unaware that as I write this at the end of my first day in London, the first stop of a trip that will also take me to Krakow, Vienna, Budapest and Paris, that this is not my first time here.

It's my 8th, with the last time being about 18 months ago, which I recapped in a 3-part series on Then I spent 4 days along with my friend Paolo before 2 on my own in Paris.

So having seen many of London's foremost tourist sites, perhaps a few times, on this visit I'm not aiming to do all that much besides seeing theater and going to a Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band concert Saturday night at Wembley Stadium.

Still, there is always something to see and do in the British capital, and Day 1 was pretty cool for one when I was admittedly running on fumes.

As I kind of am now, after having just lost the last 20 minutes typing something I mistakenly deleted. 

So I'll make this fast. 

The flight from JFK to Heathrow was smooth. 

My hotel, the London City Hotel, is bare bones and my bathroom is down the hall, but it's well-located right next to the Borough tube station. So for $112 in the heart of London, it's a real bargain even if I had to shlep my suitcase up 2 flights of stairs. 

In the morning, I went to the Victoria & Albert Museum for the first time to see an excellent, wide-ranging exhibit called David Bowie Is

It opened my eyes to just how involved Bowie has been in every facet of his career, including album cover design, stage design, etc. This was well-balanced by the exhibit depicting how wide and disparate Bowie inspirations and influences have been, from Little Richard to Judy Garland to Broadway shows and various authors, designers, etc. 

In the evening, I saw Matilda, a recent musical based on a Roald Dahl book and featuring many children. It's also running on Broadway and was favored to win the Tony, but lost to Kinky Boots. 

Having now seen both, I can't vehemently disagree, but felt Matilda was also quite terrific. 

On my Seth Saith ratings scale, I would give it @@@@1/2 (out of 5). 

I can't go into a longwinded description at this point, but it centers around a brilliant and rebellious girl named Matilda, and felt a bit like a mix between Spring Awakening, Pink Floyd The Wall and Harry Potter. 

I also wanted to go to an afternoon matinee of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, which is getting great reviews. 

But even though it was on the Leicester Square TKTS board at a time I could have attended, I thought it wiser to check into my hotel--having only been able to leave my bag upon arriving around 8:30am--and take a nap. 

I can't quite tell how tired I am at 11:23pm, only 5:23 back home, but I think I've written long enough for now. 

So until next time...

Cheers From London

It's 9:00am in London, or 3:00am where I come from. I've found my hotel, pictured below, but can't yet check in. 

I'm running on about 2 hours sleep since 4:00am Wednesday in Skokie, but London awaits.

Seems I missed a pretty good hockey game that lasted about as long as my flight from New York to London.

The London City Hotel is between The Trinity pub and the Borough tube station.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

These Vagabond Shoes are Longing to Stray, But...

OK, so I've arrived in my favorite tourist city--or at least the one I've most frequented--and all I'm doing is sitting here writing this blog.

Yep, I'm just parked at a gate inside JFK Airport in New York, as I will be for the next 5 hours, or a bit less by the time I finish writing this directly into my iPhone, which is slow and arduous given my texting WPM.

Though there are certainly direct flights from Chicago to London, my initial European destination on this trip, because I a) am traveling on American Airlines frequent flyer miles, b) booked my flights just a month ago and c) wanted to avoid any British Airways flights as their taxes are exorbitant, my routing isn't quite ideal, even if rather fortuitous given the preceding.

With my mom kindly picking me up at 4:50am Chicago time to get me to O'Hare, I took a 7:20am AA flight into New York's LaGuardia airport, which arrived at about 10:20 with the time change.

My flight to London, also on AA, leaves JFK airport at 6:10pm.

With a $13 shuttle ride, I got here at about 11:30am, checked my suitcase and cleared security almost immediately and enjoyed a gourmet lunch. No, not a $50 steak at Bobby Van's Steakhouse outpost in Terminal 8, but rather a large bagel dog from Auntie Annie's.

Then I set out to find a Starbucks. Not because I wanted coffee, as I don't drink it. But at O'Hare I had noticed that Starbucks had outlets at every seat for people to charge/power phones, laptops, etc.

No such luck, though there are outlet poles at some gates; I'm sitting near one right now as my backup battery is charging. 

Maintaining iPhone battery power is one of my main concerns at the moment, as my notes, books, music and blogging & internet capabilities are all contained within, but I likely won't have an overnight charging opportunity until Thursday night in London. That's 5 more hours at JFK, 6 hours on the plane and perhaps 17 hours in London that I need to get through, ideally with the ability to read, write, listen and look things up.

How did Mark Twain ever do it?

Anyway, I absolutely love New York and have visited 15 times, a dozen this century. So I theoretically would have leapt at the chance to meander around Manhattan even if just for a few hours.

But I've opted for prudency. Without incurring $100 or more in round trip taxi fares, getting to Manhattan from JFK--I had to come here first to check my baggage--via public transit takes roughly an hour.

So at best, I could have gotten to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, let's say, for a couple hours. But admission is $25 and I've been there, MOMA and most other major Manhattan attractions before. And though Central Park is free and wonderful, it also didn't seem worth the effort.

And what if I got hit by a taxi, or the subway had a stoppage? My bag is already checked through, so not only might I be incapacitated, but the plane to London couldn't depart with my suitcase and not me.

So here I rot while the Big Apple begs to be bitten on a beautiful day.

But now it's 1:30pm; only 4 hours until boarding.

Catch you on the flip side, from across the pond.

Oh, and while top-notch photos will have to wait until I return home, I have figured out a good way to share some on the fly.

Check here for new pics as I shoot them (several old ones are already there), including a nice one of the airport food court:

It's now about an hour later. I had meant to mention that I had seen the Freedom Tower from the plane, which was pretty cool, as well as the Empire State and Chysler buildings.

And I am now eating a hamentachen, as pictures on the Flickr link.