Trip Journal - Brno, Vienna

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Brno -- 1 September 1998

My God, we'd been on the road for three months already! And it had all been so wonderful. We joked that we couldn't even remember what it was like to have worked.

We were up by 7:00, had showered and packed up by 9:00. the first order of business was to mail the Pilsener Urquell glasses home somehow. Paul had come around to the idea that carrying them with us until we got to Vienna (where it ought to be easy to get bubble wrap) was going to be wearying at best. Since we'd had such terrible luck at the Post Office at Plzen, we figured we'd be smart and go to a ceramic shop first.

It was the first day of school and all the little kids (and big ones, but the little kids were more fun to watch) were out with their new fall clothes, new backpacks and pencil cases. The notebook stores were all open early and making a killing. It was such a sweet sight to see all the kindergarteners holding their parents' hands and clutching their supplies for dear life. I still remember how lonely I felt on my first day. Of course the feeling lasted all of two minutes and then I met all the kids, (including Daisy, who eventually stabbed me with scissors and was held back). I don't think it's a feeling you ever forget, however.

We, on the other hand, started to wish for those former, simpler days. A conversation in German with a young woman in a ceramic shop brought only confusion. She thought we wanted to sell her goods imported from the States. By the time we finally got things straightened out, she had offered to give us packing paper for free if we couldn't get it from the Post Office, which was where she recommended we go. But by then, I didn't have the heart to go back and ask for it.

We went to the Post Office and acquired a box, but they didn't have any packing paper. We also had two t-shirts I hadn't worn yet on the trip to use as filler, and the two cups from Karlovy Vary. We got paper for 10 Korun from the stationary store across the street and started packing. We could only fit three glasses and the two cups, and we didn't have nearly enough paper. So I went out to find a Czech newspaper or two, which we figured would be less expensive than the International Herald Tribune. I had to walk a very long way to find one. I bought 2 from an old woman in a kiosk for 22.50 kc even though I could see it only added up to 21. But then she gave me 3 papers by mistake, so I guess I had the last laugh. Then we had to but another box to pack the rest of the glasses in. We finally had everything packed up and then Paul looked at me and asked "By the way, do you happen to remember my father's address off hand?" We had left the address book back at the hotel, and we couldn't remember the ZIP code. Sigh. We carried the two boxes out of the Post Office, and on the way decided to stop in at the Internet Cafe. We managed to get some hot drinks and apple strudel while we were there, which made us feel much better.

Back at the hotel, we checked out of our room but left our luggage, took the boxes back to the Post Office, mailed them for 250 Kc a piece (the glasses only cost us 180 Kc for the lot), went back to the hotel, picked up our bags and walked up to the main square where we grabbed a taxi and popped off to the train station. Some days are like that. We had some time between trains in Ceske Budejovice, so I ran out and bought bread, cheese, and fruit for lunch. Then we hopped on the train to Brno, and during the ride I had time to do extensive research into our housing options once there. The nearest campground was 12 km outside the city, and you had to walk the last 3 after the last bus stop. Besides, no offence intended to Brno, but we were only going there because it was on the way to Vienna and because the Moravian Karst is easily accessible from there. So the plan was to get cheap accommodation in town, nothing fancy. We got off the train and immediately walked up to Tourist Information over a road that was being torn up and turned into a nice pedestrian zone paved with modern cobblestones. Unfortunately, the office was closed, and had been since 6:00 pm. We had chosen a place that seemed to be just off the map of Brno center (and therefore walkable) that offered triple rooms for $6.00 a bed. By the time we got there, hot and sweaty, we'd walked through some questionable neighborhoods and we were next to a huge industrial plant with huge, disgusting smokestacks belching black, sooty smoke. It didn't look very appealing, and as it turned out, the place didn't even exist anymore. We made the long trek back onto the map, and eventually came to rest at the Hotel Avion, paying $35 per night for a double with shared bathroom. The WC was in the hall 3 doors down from the room, and we had a shower right in the room, along with a TV and breakfast was included. I was beat. I just wanted to drop out for a while. Unfortunately, I dropped out before I let Paul know. TO him it just looked like I was just staring like a zombie at German television, which he couldn't follow. When he complained, I unwillingly changed the channel to EuroSport, where we watched outrageously large men pulling tractor trailers and lifting boats on their shoulders to compete in the World's Strongest Man competition.

Brno -- 2 September 1998

Best Laid Plans: Day 2. We had a very nice standard Czech breakfast (plus yoghurt and corn flakes) in the dining room. Today we were planning to spend the day with Nature in the Moravian Karst. This is a National Park full of caves, caverns, chasms and canyons just 20 km North of Brno.The first step was to get a train to Blansko. The Lonely Planet book talked about a round-trip bus from Blansko, but it also said that if fewer than 15 people showed up for it, it was automatically cancelled. When we arrived, we couldn't find any evidence that this bus still existed, however. When we finally found someone to ask about it, we were directed to take the local bus two stops and then walk the remaining 3 km. I was frustrated about the non-existence of the bus. It felt to me like everything had been unnecessarily hard for the past day or two, and I was tired of it. But we got on the local bus, and did as instructed. We got out near some sort of smelting plant; I wasn't encouraged. But as the road climbed up into the hills, the view got greener and prettier. After a strenuous walk up hill, we finally arrived ... in Communist Disney World. No, it wasn't that bad. It was just a bit hokey. Everything was pre-packaged and oriented for moving tourist through, but instead of just buying one ticket at the gate, you have to go here and there and stand in line. each little thing has a person in charge of it. We got some information about the park, rather sloppily translated, but at least in English, then went to another counter to get our entrance ticket, and then outside to a little booth to get the ticket for the "Eco-Train", and another for the ticket for the cable car ride to top of the Macocha Ravine. There were also some little booths selling postcards, rock and minerals and a little restaurant. The different caves each had their own opening and closing times, and had different offices where you bought entrance tickets. We had some time before the next "Eco-Train" departed, so we had something to eat and considered which cave to visit. We settled on the Punkva Caves because at the end of the tour you get a boat ride on an underground river, the Punkva. The little train, like the ones they use at amusement parks to move people around, took us up to the cave entrance and we got in line for the next tour. The tour guide spoke entirely in Czech, so we didn't learn much, but from my experience, cave tours are rarely very informative. The say "Look at this stalagmite it looks like a camel, and this one here looks like the buddha laughing." However, even without understanding what all the formations were supposed to look like, the cave was beautiful. There are formations that are so fine and delicate, it's hard to believe they've been formed by dripping water. The walk through the dry part of the cave is 1 km long and involves several steep flights of stairs. The older people in the tour had quite a time of it. Then came the coolest part: the boat ride on the underground river. Just saying it conjures up romantic images of secrets, depth, mystery. I had expected a river somewhat like what you see above ground, but the Punkva has caves and crevices below the surface that the park has artfully lit up from below so you can see them looking down over the side of the boat. In some places the we floated over flat rock just a few feet down, then suddenly the bottom would drop away and you could see down into a huge underwater cavern 100 feet deep. It was very exciting. It was a long, satisfying ride and I was sorry when it was over. Paul and I agreed that the Moravian Karst would be a great family vacation spot and we'd like to see how many takers we could get for a visit in 2000. We later found out that they have motels and camping, so it would be quite comfortable. I want to go back and explore some of the un-toured caves.

After the boat ride, we rode the cable car up to the top of the Macocha Ravine. I recite the story of the ravine's name verbatim from the literature we received:

The abyss was named after an old folk legend dating back to the 17th Century. It has a historical core in an event that happened in about 1693. The legend says there lived a vicious woman in a nearby village of Vilémovice. This woman had 2 children. One was a child of her own and beloved dearly as it came out of her first marriage. She became a widow soon, however, and after some time, she got married for a second time. She married a widower who had a child too, so that she got a step-child. She could not get used to the step-child as if the child stood in her way everywhere and she did not love the child at all.

One day the step-mother conceived an awful idea of getting rid of th child forever. She promised the child to go into the wood to pick strawberries or bilberries, and so she succeeded in luring the step-child as far as the edge of the abyss. All of a sudden she gave the child a strong push and the tiny figure fell into the depth. Fortunately it did not fall directly to the bottom but remained hanging on a bush on the slope. A while later the child's cry and moan attracted the attention of passing by woodcutters. The pulled the child up and punished the evil step-mother and threw her herself into the abyss. The abyss was then named after the step-mother, which is macocha in the local dialect.

At the top of the ravine, we had to pay 5 kc to look over the edge. The price is negligible (15¢) but it's irksome to have to pay and pay and pay. I'd like everything to be included in one price. They did give you a nice postcard of the ravine though. We had an ice cream and then went back down, took the bus back to Blansko, and then took the train back to Brno. A very trying morning turned into a wonderful day.

When we got back to the hotel, the world snooker trickshot championship was on the Eurosport channel. Whohoo! Paul thought it was hysterical. He wanted to go out, maybe check out one of the casinos. So we "gussied up" in our khakis and strode confidently through the door of Casino 777. And were immediately stopped by a very big guy wearing a suit who demanded our passports. So we handed in our identification and were recorded in the log and we went in. There was nothing going on. I had never been in a casino before. To me, it seemed a little hoky, with all these dealers and women standing around with nothing to do. There was even a dealer training going on in the back corner of the room. I don't know what they thought of us. We left soon after to look for some real action, but either there was none or it was too early. We finally stopped in for drinks at Molly's, the Irish pub associated with our hotel. They had Guiness on tap and they were playing the Rolling Stones recent concert in Germany. Lots of drunk guys with Tesco (British grocery store chain) shirts on were also on hand to amuse. It would do.

Vienna -- 3 September 1998

We were on our way to Vienna, back into the so-called "West", and I wondered if we would notice any difference, and whether Austria would somehow feel too easy, with too few challenges. We thought we'd stock up on a few things while we were there, otherwise we had no fixed plans.

We had breakfast at the hotel, had checked out by 10:45 and were at the station, a downhill walk, by 11:05. The train wasn't leaving until 12:38 though, so we had some time. I stayed with the gear and wrote in the journal. Paul went to get a paper from Tesco adn some drinks.

We were in Vienna by 2:40 and then it took us an incredibly long time to get information. We came into the Südbahnhof, the South Train Station, and perhaps the Main Station is better equipped. There didn't seem to be any sort of information office, or any map to give you any indication where you were. Paul finally got a map and a list of campgrounds from somewhere and we worked out the transportation route. The S-Bahn (fast local train) was right in the station, so we followed the signs to it, got our tickets and then stood at the crossroads, uncertain which direction we were supposed to travel. A man helped us and pointed toward one of the tracks. But once we got there, we realized it couldn't be the right track. Our poor guy felt so bad that he had steered us wrong and spent a lot of time figuring the whole route out for us. It turned out that we wanted to be on the East side station not the West. So we went back upstairs and outside to look for the other station. The signs kept directing us back from where we'd come. It was very frustrating. Finally, in desperation, we asked one of the conductors out on the regular train platform. To our surprise, we were standing right in front of our train and it was leaving in 8 minutes. Mystery solved: both long-distance and local trains used the same tracks.

The campground was situated on a piece of land flanked on one side by the highway, and the other by the train trackj. Conveniently located but quite noisy. We were horrified to find out that camping would cost $15.00 per night. After the Czech Republic, everything in Vienna felt exorbitantly expensive. But we set up our tent, and had some food, and did one load of laundry in the machine. We would have done more, but it cost $4.00 a load. The rest we did by hand. It rained all night off and on, so the laundry didn't dry very well on the line. We'd hung some of it over trees, which got dirty again in the rain. It was all kind of depressing.

Vienna -- 4 September 1998

We woke up the next morning banked in fog. We couldn't even see the bridge over the Donau River, and it wasn't more than 500 M away. We had donuts and coffee in the campground cafe and talked to a couple from New Zealand who were based in London, working for six months and then travelling the rest of the year. That two-year visa to work in the U.K. for all members of the Commonwealth sure comes in handy. We got on the bus into town with a very large group of Italians were also staying at the campground and who were very loud. When it was finally our turn to pay, we only had large bills and the driver couldn't make change. I started making my way through the Italians to get back off the bus, but the driver relented and allowed us on for free. We got off at the U-Bahn (subway) and bought 24 hour tickets there. We'd be able to ride all day today and use them to get back to the station to catch our train to Zagreb in Croatia the next morning. Our only plans were to check email (i.e., find and internet cafe), pick up some lotions and shampoo, and get back to the Südbahnhof to get a reservation on the train to Zagreb the next day, and a ticket from the Austrian border to Zagreb. Once we left Austria, our Interrail passes were no longer valid and we'd have to have a real ticket to do the rest of the journey. Oh, and maybe see a sight or two while we were there.

We took the U-bahn to the center of town and went to Tourist Information, our home away from home. They had a list of internet cafes. We picked the cheapest one and went there. Cafe Rhiz was right under the spot where the U-bahn becomes an elevated train, in the red brick bow of the bridge, a nice use of available space. There were lots of little shops underneath. They wouldn't let us hook Tamino up to their network, so there was very little we could do but view our email on their machine and then forward it back to ourselves. Paul kept dawdling when I was ready to go. To me it was clear that the people at the cafe weren't willing to help us out. Paul thought that if we stayed, they might relent. All morning, we'd been feeling like we were on slightly different tracks: I felt like Paul was just doing something or going off in a certain direction just to be doing something , whereas I'm sure that he felt like I was dragging my feet, but I wanted to have a reason for doing something before we did it. Paul was obviously just going through something, which is scary for me, and sometimes frustrating, because our usual balance is all out of whack. It's especially hard now when there are only two of us, and it feels like we're the only ones we can count on. I need to learn that everything is okay even when Paul isn't.

We headed for a drug store next, and it still felt to me like Paul was setting off in any direction just to have one. We couldn't find a store that had Freeman's products, which I adore. And I had been sure that I'd be able to get them in Vienna. It was very disappointing. We went into a U-bahn station to head into the center of town, figuring that in the touristy areas, they might have more imported brands. I began not to feel well, dizzy and nauseous. I had to sit down, and I coudln't imagine getting on a train. I'm sure it made Paul feel even more impatient. I felt like my body was dragging my heels even more. We finally got on the train and went at far as Südbahnhof, our switching point. I really needed some air so we went upstairs and out to the tracks where I sat down on a bench. Without quite knowing how I got there, I found myself leaning over the track and throwing up. I looked up to see a very worried-looking engineer trying to bring his train in on the same track I was using. I don't know if he was afraid I'd fall in or if I was making him late. It would have been funny if I hadn't felt so awful. I went and washed my face and dPaul found some mints for me. We took the U-bahn to teh center as planned and went in to a cafe to have some lunch, although I had to stop on the way for more throwing up. I felt much better after that, but still thought I'd stick to black tea. As I sat there, the smoke from the cigarettes started to overwhelm me adn I had to get outside. I told Paul I'd be in the Volksgarten (People's Garden) nearby and lurched out. It was all I could do to get across the street. I felt that people must be looking at me teh way they do drunks on the street. I just made it through the gates of the park and threw up again. It was awful. I sat on the edge of a rain-soaked bench and leaned over with my head in my hands. Paul found me like that a little while later. He moved me to a dryer bench adn let me lay down with my head in his lap. I closed my eyes and stayed like that for quite a while. Some time later, I realized I was hearing barking. While I'd had my eyes closed, the Volksgarten had been transformed into the Dog's Garden. Two twin Spuds McKenzie dogs were play-fighting, rolling over each other and anyone dumb enough to get in their way. They were joined by a German Shepherd and a very smart golden retriever. Neither one knew what to do with the Spuds dogs. Another dog tried to get in on the action, but the Spuds liked playing with each other better. They were better than TV and definitely lightened my mood. I must have let go of all my fear with my breakfast because after that, everything got easier. We found a drugstore with everything I wanted (except the Freeman's), then asked for and found a movie theater that was playing Akte-X (the X-Files film). Unfortunately, it was only playing in German but the woman in the ticket booth directed us to a couple of originnal language movie theaters. the first one we went to wasn't playing the X-Files but they in turn directed us to one that was. It was 4:10 when we arrived and we bought tickets for the 4:45 show. The theater, called Hayden Kino, also had a cafe. We had black tea and nachos, which tasted wonderful to me. We had real popcorn in the theater. I loved the movie. That was all it took to make everything right in the world.

After the film, we went to Südbahnhof to check into the3 reservation for the IC (InterCity) train to Zagreb. To our surprise there was no supplement to pay and we didn't need reservations. We were so excited by this that we completely forgot to buy the ticket from the border. We came home to very soggy laundry and got in the interminable queue with everyone else to pay a fortune to dry it. We worked on photos and the journal on the website for a while, but I was exhausted and asleep by 10:30. Paul had to stay and dry the laundry.