blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Vaduz on a Saturday night

... is quiet, apart from the families enjoying the temporary ice rink set up beside the Rathaus. Otherwise, the streets are deserted, the shops are shut, and the mountains (all around us) are mysteriously invisible. We saw them in all their glory earlier today, with orographic cloud coming and going over their summits and ridges. From our room at the Landhaus am Giessen (on Zollstraße) we can see Vaduz' floodlit royal castle perched on its cliff, and the unexpectedly British-looking cathedral spire in the middle distance.

We had a wonderful time travelling here this morning. Breakfast with a Gipfeli at the little coffee shop near our hotel in Zofingen, then we were on the platform at 9:30 waiting for our train to Olten. At Olten we transferred straight to the busy Zürich train, changed platforms, and again with no waiting got straight onto another train, a few platforms away, destination Budapest. This was an Austrian (ÖBB) train, that was to drop us at the town of Sargans in eastern Switzerland, the other side of the Zürchersee and the Walensee and several chains of mountains. The ride took us past vineyards and close to the lakes' edge, with their poplars and weeping willows, across the flat, green valley floors and through long tunnels. The views, with clouds clinging to the cliff-faces and snowy mountain ridges, were spectacular. Elsewhere the sky was blue. The trees on the mountainsides were still golden-brown for autumn, although we have now reached December 1st.

Again, at Sargans, no waiting. Off the train, down the slope, along the tunnel between platforms, up the other slope and round the corner of the railway station to the bus station, where the lime green No. 11 was waiting to leave for Feldkirch, in Austria. Our tickets bought at Zofingen covered this part of the journey too. It was a half-hour ride on the bus to Vaduz, at the central point of the bus route. We weren't sure of the correct stop for our lodging---now realise it should have been Vaduz-Au---so got out at Vaduz-Post where the postage stamp museum is, and the other museums in town. It is a fairly small capital city, with fewer than 9000 inhabitants all told. The state of Liechtenstein itself is only 24 km long and 12 km wide. We entered it over the bridge to Balzers (which also has a prominent castle); the bridge crosses the Rhine. This is the Rhine in its young stage, of course, not much water in it, and what water there is is a glacial blue, meandering among the white pebbles. It originates in the high land of Graubünden / Grissons where the locals call it the Rein da Tuma, in the Romantsch language. I have only just learned this.

This afternoon, after finding sandwiches in a café and lugging our luggage a kilometre back along the main road to our guest house, we checked in, left the bags in our room, and walked down to the River Rhine / Rhein / Rhin / Rein / Reno where there was a covered wooden bridge crossing it, not fit for motor vehicles, although you could probably drive a horse and cart through, or ride bicycles abreast. Half way over the bridge a line was drawn on the wall where Chris stood with one foot in Switzerland and one in Liechtenstein. I imagine a lot of people do that. A footpath called the Alpenrheinweg follows the bank on the Swiss side, with plaques about the local wildlife, etc., along it.

Having enjoyed that short walk, watching a para-glider soar slowly down the mountainside to land in a nearby field (others followed later), we left Switzerland behind again and took other footpaths round the back of town, following a stream, the Au, into the centre again. On the other side of the town is a large field with rows of vines, the Prince's royal vineyard, with what looked like very healthy plants. Every few rows, an illustrated information board described what needed to be done in the vineyard, on a particular month. I took a photo of the April board, but while reading the information my attention was wandering to the irresistible views of the mountains on the horizons of both countries, changing at every moment as the grey, or white or misty clouds formed and dissipated and the sun's dazzle moved from one direction to another. We went up another side of the vineyard to the Mitteldorf above it, an older part of the town, just a small village really, where there were old wine presses in people's gardens. One little cottage had sky-blue shutters, geraniums flowing over the upper window boxes and a vine curling up its whitewashed walls. What an idyll.

On the way "home" to our guest house, Chris got me to poke my head through one of those cardboard people's head holes, so that he could take a photo of me wearing a Liechtenstein dirndl.

We found another pizzeria for supper this evening. Chris ordered his usual cheese-free pizza and I had an Italian omelette. To drink, we sampled a Liechtenstein brew of beer, very smooth, because the restaurant didn't stock any of the local wines. Maybe the Prince keeps all those for his own Hofkellerei.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Cherzli Nacht, Zofingen

On our final evening in Zofingen (this morning I bought our tickets for Vaduz, where we're going next) we were lucky enough to experience a local Advent tradition: the lighting of candles and Christmas trees on the cobbled streets of the old town.
Tausende Cherze Liechtli. Gedimmter Abendverkauf bis 22h. Überall gnueg z'Ässe und z'Trinke. Kerzenziehen in der Rathausgasse. Schulkinder musizieren und singen in den Gassen.
What a charming idea! It is simple, but something that young children are likely to remember all their lives. The Christmas tree at the entrance from the station to the old town, in the Market Square, is absolutely covered with lights. Round its base are small candles in glass jars, and these candles also line practically every street in town. The walls of the fountain basins (several of these) are also decorated with candles, as are doorsteps and some walls. One store, selling house decorations, had two star-shaped clusters of these little lights outside its premises, and other places had lit up their outdoor shelves or outdoor dining areas. An improvised sitting place had decorated benches and patio tables with lights, and some sheepskin rugs had been provided, but it was too wet to sit down there. A few market stalls were selling edible treats (hot dogs, etc.) or drinks.

Best of all, on the steps in the Market Square, a group of children were singing, their teachers accompanying them on guitars. One little chap was doing duty as a music stand. We also met two older girls politely asking for donations towards their school-trip next May, selling fancy buns. They gave us a long explanation in Swiss-German before we admitted that we couldn't follow a word, at which they immediately switched to English and told us they were going to travel to Scotland.

For our supper, Chris and I returned to the Thai restaurant we'd enjoyed on our first night here. They had candles on the tables there, too. Then we made two more laps of the old town, appreciating the happy atmosphere.


Thursday, November 29, 2018

Zofingen: old town, Heitereplatz and museum

On the morning of Wednesday December 28th, still sluggish from jet-lag during Chris' first day at work in Reiden (a short train ride away), I explored the walled town of Zofingen to get my blood circulating and some oxygen in my lungs. After my first lap of the walls, local children were starting to come home from school (the Gemeindeschulhaus) for their lunch, so I followed a few of them along a back lane and then struck off on a narrow lane up the hill, following one of Zofingen's Wanderweg signposts. This led me through sloping orchards and meadows to the so-called Heiternplatz, a flat, rectangular recreation field above the town, out in the countryside, with 60 linden trees planted on its perimeter. A nearby shooting range allowed the locals to practise their deer shooting skills. Not sure I approved of this, but the forested hills in the background, still tinged with autumn colours like a picture in pastel oils, looked romantically mysterious in the mist, and in the other direction I had panoramic views of the industrial valley with its railway line leading in the direction of Chris' workplace and thence to Luzern (or Olten, in the other direction). Had the sky cleared, I think I'd have caught sight of some distant Alpine peaks. Apart from a distant dog-walker, I had the immediate surroundings to myself. I learned, from a carved gothic script plaque screwed to one of the older and larger tree trunks, that it had been school children of my generation who had planted the linden tree saplings to replace the very old, original trees. 
Im Jahre 1955 hat die Ortsbürgergemeinde den Heiternplatz erweitert und am 14. Dez. wurde der äussere Ring von 60 Linden durch die Schuljugend gepflanzt. 

I also approved of a steel children's slide fixed on the steep slope up to the Heiternplatz, but I didn't fall to the eccentric temptation of using it at my age, even though no one was looking, because it was muddy at both ends and too narrow.

I walked downhill back to Zofingen for lunch at the crêperie. There's a scuplture park and other public green spaces outside the town walls, then the school, and next to that a museum with a nymph at the entrance who had sore feet, like me.

I spent a good while inside the museum which was full of interest. To judge from an old video recording and the pictures on the walls, Zofingen's centre hasn't changed much in the last few centuries. Only people's clothes and their means of transport have changed, although even then, there are very few motor vehicles on the streets of old Zofingen today, which are still mostly cobbled. Workmen were re-cobbling one street all the time we were there. 

It was one of those museums that have a bit of everything: stuffed animals, pinned butterflies, prehistoric pottery, oil paintings, historical agricultural implements, costumes. Alongside medieval suits of armour, they had the full costume of a Pontifical Swiss Guard from the Vatican. I particularly enjoyed looking at the early 20th century pictures of the traditional Vereine, groups of local men or women (rarely mixed) with an interest in common, be it music-making or sports or whatever, the photographer of the day using the same background for all. I snapped a copy of the Gymnastics Club photo, dated 1902.

Swiss Guard
Since the first half of the 19th century, Zofingen has been known for its printing works (printing the pages of the Schweizer Illustrierte magazinefor example, and one part of the museum was dedicated to the different equipment they had used over the ages:

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

To Luzern for lunch

Today, Chris had a "recovery day" from the long journey, and after a simple breakfast at an old-fashioned coffee shop at the end of our street (excellent, frothy coffee---"all our milk is lactose-free"---with a whole grain croissant), we decided to take a train, via Reiden, Sursee, and other stops, to Luzern. Chris wanted to find out how long his commute to work will take tomorrow and the answer is: less than four minutes. We had some difficulty buying tickets as our VISA cards once more failed to work in the SBB ticket machines. In the end, the information office sold me a couple of Tageskarten for the regional network costing 45 CHF each, more than I had anticipated. The ride was lovely though. Five minutes in, the countryside was already very pretty, with autumn colours still on the steep, wooded hillsides, and neat Swiss barns and farmhouses. We saw some industrial areas too, along the flat valley floor, but this country still seems more agricultural than industrial, the railway trucks loaded with turnips. We saw herds of cattle, well-established vineyards, and publicity signs in the fields such as "". We were sitting on the left hand side of the train so had a good view of the Sursee as we rode by it, a peaceful stretch of water with a bike track on the banks all the way along.

Unfortunately, no snowy mountains were to be seen, as there was thick grey cloud above us, and it was spitting with rain. We had our umbrellas with us, but didn't need to open them all day; sometimes the precipitation stopped or was no more than a fine drizzle, same as yesterday. Coming out of Luzern station the boat docks are straight ahead of you. It is hard to get lost in this town, the lake Vierwaldstättersee, grey and tranquil today, being the largest landmark. We could have taken a boat to various places on its banks, and later this week I might go back to do just that, especially if the mountains come out of hiding. The municipality is setting up a Weihnachtsmarkt with wooden stalls by the lakside, complete with a rather soggy skating rink, white drinking tents, and life-sized, white, model reindeer that nod their heads. Someone would be able to take a photo of you sitting in the romantic sleigh they pull.

What I remembered of Luzern from the time I last saw it, as an eleven-year-old on my first trip abroad, was the covered bridge with the skeletons (the Totentanz) painted between its roof-beams, conveying the message that Death is with us everywhere, and at every stage of life. The paintings are very old, 17th century, and the bridge itself even older, 13th century. What I hadn't realised or remembered was that there are actually two covered bridges, the aforementioned one, the Spreuerbrücke, and the Kapellbrücke closer to the lake, also adorned with historic paintings, although these are more documentary than allegorical. The Catholic faith seems prominent in Luzern; the Kapellbrücke had a shrine to the Virgin Mary at its mid-point, and the surrounding churches seem to be mostly catholic. Some of the larger buildings in the old town were originally convents or monasteries: Kloster (or Klosterli).

During our wanderings we discovered a large, good quality bookshop, such as there always seems to be in European towns, where we bought paperback books by the Swiss writers Max Frisch and Alex Capus. After a lot of hunting and enquiring we also bought ourselves an adapter plug for our Canadian devices which would fit into the deep, three-pin sockets they have here, like the German ones, but not exactly. The sooner there is an international standard for electric plugs and sockets, the better.

Near the river, market stall owners were selling sweetly smelling hot chestnuts, heissi marroni, in paper bags. For lunch we ate something far less Swiss, at a small Indian buffet restaurant, the Mirch Masala, serving very good food. The waiter brought us a basket of naan to go with everything else we chose. A party of Asian guests sat at another table, keeping their woolly hats on. Then we walked about the old town in random directions again, this being a way Chris likes to relax, till I needed another sit down, which brought us to a tea house on the upper level of the station concourse. At the lakeside, a high-spirited Swiss school party was posing for a photo, ordered to leap in the air as their teacher snapped them. The first attempt had them dangerously close to the water's edge, so she made them step forward for a repeat shot.

Our train back to Zofingen was an Intercity, bound for Basel.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Reaching Zofingen

As we sat on the train from Zurich to Olten, they announced our connecting train to Zofingen, and learned that it's pronounced more like Tsoh-fingen, than Tsoff-ingen. It's a peaceful little old place, the canton capital of Aarau --- we lived on the Aare, once, in Bern, and caught a glimpse of that river this morning. We're staying for the next five nights at the Hotel Engel, which has an eponymous (golden) angel hanging over the entrance so that you can spot it from the end of the cobbled street. Most of the buildings in the old town date back to the 16th century, and the old fountains still stand in the Plätzli, the cobbled squares. One fountain has the stone statue of a Habsburg soldier with striped socks standing over it: Niklaus Thut, who, during a battle against the Old Swiss Confederates in 1386, saved the city's banner by stuffing it in his mouth "shortly before his death", as it says in the English leaflet about the Old Town Sights. He is considered a hero. I'm afraid Chris and I saw the funny side of that story.

After a sleepless night over the Atlantic, we are easy to please. It was about 24 hours ago now that we left our slush-surrounded house in Ottawa by taxi, to catch the VIA-Rail train to Dorval, as we'd done in January. I relaxed thoroughly on this ride, finishing off some grapes I'd brought and sipping the very strong VIA-Rail coffee. Again, the fields were white, this time with thick fog above them. The shuttle bus gets one to CYUL airport in good time; it was too early to drop the bags, so we wandered around for a while, wheeling our luggage, before enduring a three hour wait in the departures hall. Our plane was packed, many orthodox Jewish people coming on board speaking a mixture of Hebrew, French and Yiddish, the men wearing their distinctive hats or caps, bound for Israel I guess, changing at Zürich. Another large contingent of travellers was from India. The airport TV screen in our waiting area was showing a woman with a gratingly condescending voice giving unnecessary advice, in awful, loud Quebec-French, to mums travelling with young children: "On va flyer!"

After extensive de-icing of our wings, on a flyé all night, across the Sea of Cork and the Channel Islands, to Zürich, on a Swiss plane. The seats were better padded than Air Canada's, but smaller. The food was definitely better, with croissants for breakfast. We had paid extra for exit row seats, but this meant that our carry-on luggage had to be kept in the overhead bins all the way, so all I had to rest my feet on was my boots, and the armrests covering our tray table hinges were immovable. Swiss Air's complimentary earphones didn't fit my ears, but I watched two in-flight movies even so: On Chesil Beach (I have read this novel about a frigid young 1950s Englishwoman and the pitiable young man in love with her, and thought the film a good interpretation) and then a Dany Boon comedy La Ch'tite Famille, to cheer me up again.

We landed in the dark, with fog at this end too and had an easy walk through customs and immigration, eventually buying single rail tickets to Zofingen from the airport SBB ticket office. The ticket machine didn't accept either of my foreign VISA cards.

The Swiss have just had a referendum not unlike the Brexit one, having to vote whether to maintain their deference to International Law or have their own, independent legal system. 66% have voted against independence, but posters are still up around town referring to the Kuhhorn clause about special rights for farmers who own horned animals, goats, cattle. Switzerland is a rural land. We have already spotted some elderly gentlemen with extraordinary long white beards. When we arrived in Zurich we had to board a little train zu den Gates und Baggage Claim (sic) in which a recording of cow-bells, birdsong, Alphorn music and yodelling was played to us during the very short ride, with a synchronised video screened on the walls of its tunnel. We sat in an airport café having a second breakfast, where the walls were papered with an enlarged map of the Graubünden area with the names of the mountains and other geographical features all in Romantsch, which is similar to Portuguese.

Because it was still terrible early in the day, hardly light yet, we decided to pause our onward journey at Zürich Hbf, so that we could stretch our legs in the fresh air for a while. I could remember the walk I did the last time I was here. We walked the length of the Bahnhofstrasse to the lake (Lake Zürich), saw the swans and some moored boats, then meandered back again through the old town, all very European-looking.

Friday, November 23, 2018

One more trip this year

On Sunday we depart for Switzerland, returning via Liechtenstein / Austria / Germany, England, and Wales, by various means of transport. I have worked out our itinerary which should remind us where we're going and when. It's been a hectic year.

This month our daughter went to Monte Carlo to make a bid, and won it. Nothing to do with gambling, really; she's not sure if she's pleased about winning or not, because it will mean a lot more work for her and her colleagues. Our son is doing something astronomical in a place called Nanchong, in Sichuan, China, a fairly small city by Chinese standards, with only 6 or 7 million inhabitants. It's a two or or three hours' drive from Chengdu. My 99-year old mother is in hospital in Cardiff, Wales, being revived by kind medical people from a battle against pneumonia. She is doing marginally better today, apparently, no longer in such pain when she tries to swallow or takes a breath, and being fed yoghurt and icecream to supplement her intravenous drip. My sister and brother-in-law keep sending us news of her; they're also expecting a new grandchild to arrive at any moment.

My thoughts are all over the place. I look forward to standing on the shore of some Swiss lake next week and letting my mind rest, shall try to do this somehow, whether the mountaintops be visible or not, I don't care.

Switzerland is an interesting country, where I have stayed from time to time, with 26 cantons, each of them different, with its own legislature. Yesterday I was with my German conversation group (one of whom, Ursula, is Swiss-born), reading and talking about the canton of Graubünden / Grissons / Grischun where Romansh (in German, Rätoromanisch) is spoken. We discussed that language and other dialects for a whole hour.

Earlier in the week I was at a meeting of a French conversation group watching a documentary film that our hostess had directed in 1989, about a family of stuntmen (cascadeurs, and stuntwomen, cascadeuses) from Montreal. Lois works for the National Film Board of Canada. She also has an interesting collection of puppets, which she showed us as well.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Embittered wives

While Chris was away in Stuttgart, in October, I kept myself entertained by going to the cinema and the theatre. Both shows were about what it's like to be someone's wife. The film, entitled The Wife, was the more gripping. The play (an English Theatre production at the NAC) should have worked, too, but somehow didn't. Perhaps the actors were having a bad night. This play, called Silence, was about Alexander Graham Bell's wife, Mabel, who was profoundly deaf. The story of their marriage was shown from her point of view, not only dwelling on her frustrations as a deaf person and the tragedy of her loss of a son at birth, but also on the way A.G. Bell's achievements depended on her often unappreciated help. To convey this, there were long silences within the dialogue on stage, which didn't help to hold the audience's attention.

The film, on the other hand, developed without a moment of boredom. This was fictional, imagining a man who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, whose wife had been his "muse", or so he condescendingly said in his acceptance speech. It turned out she had been the one who had written his novels for him, biting her tongue all the way through his successes and his repeated infidelities. She, in fact, was the one who had really won the prize. At the end of the story when she finally turns on her husband, her anger, combined with the home truths she confronts him with, do him in. I appreciated the moment when she flings his golden Nobel Prize medal out of their taxi window in a temper and their Swedish taxi driver hops out to retrieve it.

If you approve of this uncomfortable theme, look out for other recently made films along the same lines, Big Eyes (2014) and Colette (2018), for example; I also remember Ken Russell's take (1974) on the character of Alma Mahler, another frustrated spouse. One scene from that older film sticks in my mind: Mahler's wife burying her "stillborn child" in a grave in the woods --- her "child" being the piece of music she had composed herself, which he had dismissed as worthless.

Monday, November 5, 2018

What else?

This post is being written so that I can keep track of what I've been up to since our flying trip to the Gaspésie at the beginning of September.

Also in September, I went to the sad but inspiring funeral for Jean-Christophe Terrillon, a scientist-philosopher whose mother is a member of our German conversation group; she had asked some of us to be there. Her son had died of cancer in his 50s. During the service, Louise gave a moving and impressive eulogy for him quoting many of his own words.

On the weekend of the Ottawa tornado, feeling lucky to have escaped the devastation and the extensive power cuts, we had three unusual cultural experiences. Chris and I watched a series of experimental, short films at the Goethe Institut that night, which left us mostly baffled, I spent the following afternoon with Elva, touring local artists' studios, some of their work decidedly esoteric too, then after supper Chris and I attended an evening event where extracts from Banned Books were read aloud, entitled Persisting Beyond Margins, our author-friends Nicola Vulpe and Mark Frutkin being two of the readers. We won one of Nicola's books in the silent auction and the last of the readings (by Henry Beissel) led me to buy a copy of Margaret Laurence's The Diviners which I hadn't read before, a great discovery for me.

At the flying club on Sept. 29th, Chris participated in the precision landing / flour bombing runs again, taking his colleague Tina's teenage children along for the ride.

1st Oct. I went to a CFUW lecture to learn about fraudsters and computer or telephone scams, which came in useful when someone tried to phish from me very early in the morning, the other day, by means of a fraudulent phone call.

Then there were our routine visits to the doctor's, dentist's, optometrist's, to get blood tests and flu shots: none of the above anything to worry about, but they all take time. My swims at the Chateau keep me fit and Chris has managed a few personal bests for his runs on the treadmill at the gym. The car needed cleaning, maintenance checks and a tyre change, more time consumed. We do our best to keep going for walks or bike rides through the parks and woodland for sanity.

Then there's the journey planning. We're setting off on another business trip at the end of this month, first to Switzerland, then through southern Germany, before coming home to Canada via England and Wales: 20 nights away. Before booking the flights and necessary hotels (not quite done yet) I also helped Chris plan for an unexpected extra 3-day / 4-night visit to Germany last month. He was invited to give a guest lecture at the Kulturbetrieb Wagenhallen in Stuttgart for a conference on Challenges in the Development of Autonomous Driving Systems, on Oct 22nd and 23rd.

During Chris' absence I had a chatty lunch with my Scottish friend Liz, therapeutic for us both. I also spent an evening at the cinema watching a disturbingly well acted film about a fictional Nobel Prizewinner and his long-suffering, frustrated spouse ---The Wife---and another evening at the NAC theatre, watching a less successful show, Silence, a play about Alexander Graham Bell's wife. The latter was cleverly written, but fell flat, somehow; I'm not sure why. I wasn't alone in thinking so. The audience's applause at the end of the performance I saw was more dutiful than sympathetic, without the customary standing ovation.

I've been busy with voluntary work tidying up Chris' next conference paper in German, helping Emma with her bid for a major European metrology project *, advising George on how to improve his manual for post-grads on How To Write Papers, and correcting all the articles, notices and photo captions for this season's editions of CFUW-Ottawa's newsletter, the Capital Carillon, for which I'm now the official editor.

So far this season, the German conversation group, whose meetings I still organise too, has been reading about young children starting school in Germany (carrying their paper cones full of treats), about an Islander aircraft that lands regularly on the sand-dune island of Wangerooge, about the history of Meissener porcelain, about Goethe's colour theory, and about the use of blue light as a suicide preventative in Japan! Last week we discussed a German immigrant colony in Venezuela, the Colonia Tovar. The group rehearsed our favourite Oktoberfest songs again, performing them at a Diplomatic Hospitality lunch in town at the 3 Brewers pub, for which some of us dressed up in Dirndls or similar, with me at the microphone for a few minutes. Around 50 people were at this event. This week our conversation group is going to talk about community service by African students in Germany, an initiative of the DAAD. I love doing the research for all these different topics.

Last Friday we held another philosophy evening for seven people discussing what Truth might be. We got nowhere, really, but I'm now reading Bertrand Russell's book An Enquiry into Meaning and Truth, first published in 1940.

* Footnote, added a few weeks afterwards: Emma won the bid!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Catching up?

It has been a while since I wrote a blogpost. For the next day or two I might have the chance to catch up a little; there are not so many distractions here. I have been too preoccupied with being a volunteer editor and travel agent recently. More on that later, perhaps.

We flew from Rockcliffe to Toronto this morning, or, more precisely, to Buttonville airport (CYKZ) in the north eastern part of the metropolis, in exactly 2.0 hours. Chris is assigned to give a three day training course on a nearby company's premises in this area and we're staying at the Sheraton Parkway Toronto North Hotel and Suites (sic) "on the 7" (one of the main roads) less than a kilometre's walk from his place of work. Not the most beautiful of locations, but still.

Conditions for the journey were excellent, a cold but not too cold November morning with clear air and no turbulence, until we suddenly hit what must have been wind-shear on our descent through 4000 ft ASL, close to the destination, bouncing us momentarily out of our seats. However, the first hour of the flight was slightly worrying, since Mode C of the transponder didn't seem to be working, ATC telling us we were at 16,000 ft up "and climbing" when we were nowhere near! PTN can't manage that altitude at the best of times. The problem probably had some connection with the soaking the interior of the plane has had, during recent heavy rain. She leaks! Water had dripped in around the windshield and had drenched all of the carpet on my side, and two of our three headphones. Fortunately Chris' headset was not affected and mine still worked. I imagined my seat cushion was damp too, which I didn't want on a two hour flight, so I took a plastic shopping bag to wrap the cushion in, and sat on that. The water had doubtless penetrated the wiring inside the box where the transponder goes, as well. Two of the indicators on the cockpit display were fogging up from within, to start with, so Chris gave us full cabin heat throughout the journey "to dry things up", and we sweltered. The fog on the inside of the glass gradually cleared and somewhere over the wilds near Peterborough, according to Toronto Centre our Mode C transponder setting suddenly began to give the correct readings. Phew. Without it, we probably would not have been allowed to penetrate Toronto airspace, and would have had to land at some en route airport and rent a car for the rest of the journey. Toronto Terminal finally handed us off to Buttonville Tower and we did a visual approach, joining the base leg for an approach to Runway 15, which had a road running along, full of traffic, just before the threshold.

Bon Echo cliffs
During that approach we (or I, because Chris never lets himself be distracted during landing sequences) had a dramatic view of the distant Toronto skyscrapers silhouetted against a bright sky on the horizon, and the views on the way had been spectacular too, especially near to and over the Bon Echo Provincial Park, with its blue lake and high, vertical cliffs. I was experimenting with the camera on my new smart phone, a Blackberry Key 2 LE. There's still some colour in the forest trees, not as much as there was last month. The cottage country around the Kawartha Lakes looked inviting too. We stayed at a cottage down there once, with Yiwen and Pete, eating lots of corn cobs and lying in their hammock.

On the ground at Buttonville we made for the Million-Air FBO that had been recommended to us, and which indeed gave us a good welcome, with a free ride to our nearby hotel in one of their posh, new crew cars. Arriving at the hotel in a Mercedes labelled Million-Air must ensure one of a good reception, Chris joked, and indeed we are in a Club Suite here, with a jacuzzi bath and numerous pillows. I reckon Chris is entitled to such luxuries. The other week he logged 55 hours' work-time, which averages 11 hours a day.

We spent the afternoon walking round the immediate area which is almost entirely Chinese, to judge by the Hanzi (Chinese characters) written on almost every building. There seems to be an unjustifiably large proportion of restaurants, the other commercial places being banks or beauty salons. Otherwise offices. We did walk along a residential street by a pond, the houses large and expensive looking. Hardly any pedestrians, perhaps because a bitter wind is blowing today, but probably because they all prefer to use their cars anyhow. The busses have a dedicated 2-lane, 2-directional road in the middle of the main road where the other traffic is. To reach a bus stop, it's essential to cross only at a pedestrian crossing. We had lunch at the Tim Horton's next to the hotel and supper at an elegant Indian restaurant, where the food was really tasty, called Adrak. They wouldn't allow us to leave a tip but asked that we recommend them online, so that's what I'm doing here. They gave us a magic hot towel at the end of the meal, that expanded when warm water was poured on it. I was just in time to stop Chris eating it; he thought it was a marshmallow.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

In Gaspé

In the spring of 1534, Jacques Cartier set sail from France (St. Malo), reaching Newfoundland 20 days later. He and his crew, in two ships, explored the coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Baie des Chaleurs. Attempting to sail around the Gaspé peninsula they got caught in a storm and took shelter in the Baie de Gaspé for the next 11 days, meeting a party of Iroquois fishermen. On July 24th, thankful for their deliverance, the French explorers erected a cross on dry land in what is now Gaspé, claiming this land for the King of France. Thus began the establishment of French Canada.

Nowadays, a stone cross stands on the waterfront commemorating Cartier's arrival here, part of a historic reconstruction by the water, where the wharves used to be. On Sunday, local people were dancing to recorded music on the promenade here, all in step with one another; they had obviously done this before! Further to the right is the site of the old naval base, also interesting. Many ships were moored here during the two World Wars, and German submarines penetrated the area during the Battle of the St. Lawrence, 1942-44.

Across the road from this site is a Jacques Cartier shopping mall, a supermarket and a colourful cluster of buildings on the Rue de la Reine, in Gaspé, named thus after a visit from the Queen in 1959. The Rue Jacques Cartier, parallel to this a little further up the hill, is less touristy, festooned with electric cables.

The hotel (motel) where we stayed was up a steep hill from the Rue de la Reine. Its main building, built in 1842, used to be a family home belonging to the Carter family. Alfred Theodore Carter, who added the little towers, lived here all his life, becoming the American Vice-consul, Captain of the local militia, JP, President of the first Chamber of Commerce, mayor of Gaspé, etc. It was his daughter and son-in-law who had turned the place into a lodging for tourists. From the row of Muskoka chairs in position outside the Motel Plante, you can look down on the Café des Artistes with its orange siding, near the bridge. At one time, this building had been a general store, and had even served as Gaspé's town hall for a while.

Across the bridge is the marina where ocean-going yachts, some with two masts and serious looking equipment, were moored. Coaches from the former VIA-Rail train stood on a track that no longer runs to and from Gaspé. When we last visited this place, VIA still had a station in operation there, but apparently the tracks got damaged and are no longer considered repairable. In its place is a newly (2012) constructed Information Centre, with a birch-bark Micmac shelter on display inside, fox and beaver furs hanging in it, a Micmac drum tambourine decorating the doorway. The Micmacs are the local first nation. A cruise ship lay at anchor in the bay on Sunday morning and small boat loads of cruise ship passengers came ashore one by one, disembarking near the Info Centre, so that they could walk around on the mainland and visit the museum up the hill. They were all away again by early afternoon.

Mary Bolduc with her band, in 1928
A boardwalk takes you from the town to the new Musée de la Gaspésie along the water's edge, with informative historic plaques all the way along. We watched the seagulls swooping for fish out in the bay and a heron, too inhibited to fish while we were watching, in the shallows. The museum building perches on a rocky headland. By the entrance to the museum is a former fishing schooner, La Gaspesienne. With your ticket to the exhibitions, you are given a virtual reality headset and earphones, and when you put them on, you get a 360⁰ 3D view and can imagine being out at sea on the boat, in the 1960s, with the men who worked on board. Dried cod on display at the museum still had a distinctive smell! When we visited, the temporary exhibition about a famous Gaspésienne, a singer of local music, Mme Bolduc, filled two galleries. Another person with a claim to fame in Gaspé was this French aviator, Jacques de Lesseps, who surveyed the area from his plane but died in a crash in 1927. There was more about him on display at reconstructed naval base by the water's edge.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Back to Gaspé after 13 years

This afternoon we landed at Gaspé. It is hard to believe, but the last time we spent a night here (at the other motel) was in 2005, on our way to visit Halifax. Not much has changed since then, although Jacques Cartier's memorial cross has been moved down, to the new waterside cultural interpretation area, and the cost of accommodation in the town has gone up. We are paying $149 for tonight's sleep at the Hotel Plante; admittedly, it is a palatially large room, a "suite" no less, with two desks, a bathtub, and a panoramic view of the wide, blue bay; this is because, when I made the booking from Mont Joli airport this morning, all the cheaper rooms had been taken.

We came to Gaspé today because our first choice of destination, Bonaventure, also had fully booked hotels. It is just as well. Had we flown there from Mont Joli, we would have encountered problems at altitude, because clouds were building over the Chic Choc mountains and those clouds would have put ice on the wings. The freezing level was as low as 5000 feet.

I was anticipating a turbulent flight all the way in the strong wind, but to my delight the only turbulence came in the final 20 minutes of our 1.7 hours of airtime, when we headed away from the coast direct to Gaspé airport over the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula. The rest of the way, following the spectacular coastline northeast from Mont-Joli, over Matane, Ste-Anne-des-Monts and beyond, was in fast flowing but smooth air above and below stretches of thin, white or pale grey stratus or white cumulostratus, with the Gulf of the St. Lawrence widening to our left, large ships on it, and the forested hills getting steeper and steeper and more and more covered with wind turbines, facing into the northwest wind, to our right. Some of these appeared to be glaciated valleys with silvery rivers winding through them.

On our descent, the winds became very gusty, reported as gusting to 22 knots at the surface, and at right-angles to our runway too, more or less. Chris seemed to rely on his experience, making the requisite adjustments on the rudder pedal automatically, so he tells me, when a particularly strong gust (or wind shear?) tipped us sideways at only about 100 ft from the ground. He corrected our angle of attack and did an excellent landing on the centre line, although the oleo juddered like mad as we rolled to a halt. Pulling onto the apron and climbing out near the fuel tanks we were asked to move PTN elsewhere quickly, because a Jazz plane, a Dash 8 turboprop, was about to land too and would need fuelling first, with passengers waiting to board. Chris observed its landing and saw that that one too was affected by the turbulence.

The views we had during our approach to Gaspé were worth any amount of fear (on my part): so beautiful were the cloud shadows on the hills, with such clarity and blueness of sky and water in the two bays.

I'd hoped to find a car rental at the airport. There were two rental desks but both were closed, so we had to wait half an hour for a taxi into town instead. To my delight the Café des Artistes near the two motels is still in business and is still well worth the visit, being packed full of quirky sculptures, hanging stained glass artworks, and with original paintings, by different artists, all over the walls. The café displays a menu des artistes as well as a food menu there. The waiters, waitresses and clientele, even, all seem to be romantically inclined people: typically being young, long haired, unconventionally dressed. The table tops are mosaics, featuring ducks. The wifi password is artistes.

I omitted to mention, above, that we had made the acquaintance of an interesting gentleman during breakfast at our Auberge in Ste.-Flavie, called Tim Cole, from British Columbia. He too flies a Cessna 172 (his was parked next to ours up the hill), but had also flown larger aircraft professionally, chairs the western branch of COPA and knows many famous members of the Canadian aviation community including Chris' friend Kathy Fox. Like all these people, he has a wealth of stories to tell.

For the rest of this afternoon we walked through the town, aka the Berceau du Canada, Birthplace of Canada (because of Jacques Cartier, the first French explorer of the New World, landing here and laying claim to the land in 1534), getting our bearings, finding the Musée de Gaspé on the hill, the boardwalk along the shore and by the river and the Information Centre across the bridge where the VIA-Rail station used to be situated, but was closed five years ago, due to an un-maintainable railway line. The new centre is an attractively modern, wood and glass building, with a birch-bark teepee inside---Do Not Touch---displaying a wolf and a beever pelt, reminding visitors of Gaspé's Micmac (Mi'kmaq) heritage. Tomorrow we might see some latter day Micmac people arriving by boat to put on a show at the docks, if I understood the lady at the information desk correctly. The marina is there too, only one yacht on the water this evening. The sky has become very clear during the last few hours. The sun sets 45 minutes earlier in Gaspé than in Ottawa, quite a noticeable difference!

Rockcliffe to Mont-Joli

I'd suffered a sleepless night and didn't feel well, but yesterday (Friday, 7th Sept) was determined we'd set off anyway. Chris did all the work. We were off the ground at 10:34 for our one-and-a-half flight to Trois-Rivieres, Chris exclaiming, "We're going on holiday!" as we rolled along the runway for take-off.

The Ottawa air controller was busy with other traffic, so it was hard to interrupt him with our request to get the IFR clearance for our flight-plan; eventually he allowed us to fly via the TAKOL and AGLUK waypoints, climbing to 7000 ft on our planned route. It was a beautiful morning with smooth air, great! A thin layer of cumulus between four- and five-thousand feet, that was all. Above that was some haze apparently (according to Serge at the Club who knows about these things) formed of particles of smoke from forest fires thousands of miles away to the west.

We know the route so well that on a fine day such as this we hardly needed the map, and landed (an easy visual landing) at Trois-Rivieres into quite a strong wind, parked on the apron and ordered lunch from Le Pilote, a procedure with which we're also familiar. Chris had a choice of routes from there onwards to Mont-Joli, and the controller gave him the second option to follow, direct PESAC, Victor 316, YQB, Victor 98 to Fleur, thence over YRI to EPMAL and finally YYY: a beautiful route following the southern bank of the St. Lawrence with the islands on our left. Towards the end of the journey we could hear the radio transmissions from pilots approaching the airport of Wabush---Waa-boosh the male pilot pronounced it. The female pilot, flying a passenger plane, "Provincial 921", sounded very competent and confident in her communications with Montreal Centre. She didn't seem at all fazed by the report of moderate to severe turbulence on the way down to Wabush and didn't mention it on her own descent. Our own approach (to Mont-Joli) was a "contact approach" with the circuit flown out to sea which gave me good photo opportunities.

We spent the night at the Gaspesiana motel, in the Auberge annex, where, after supper in the main part of the hotel, we spent 12 hours in bed. That cured me!

Monday, August 13, 2018

Another day in Vienna

This describes the Saturday we spent with Judith, my Viennese friend. (Photos to be added later.)

We arranged to meet at our hotel and did so. We had seen the nearby Naschmarkt before, but Judith took us there again, to start with, knowing (as we did not) that a flea market opens there on Saturdays. Judith discovered a coral pink vintage bead necklace of some value, haggling for it. Chris was taken with the antique postcards and old books for sale, but didn't buy any. These stalls were a collector's dream, with antique cameras for sale, toys, machinery parts, porcelain ornaments, glass vases, shaving brushes, musical instruments, hats, collectable dinnerware sets, old books, model cars, LPs, you name it. It was noisy and crowded and doubtless we could have spent hours here. Judith drew our attention to the Jugendstil facades of the buildings around the market square along the Linke- und Rechte Wienzeile, such as Otto Wagner's fin de siècle Majolikahaus with its colourfully patterned tiles between the windows. We learned a good deal about Wagner's architectural legacy:
For the [Viennese] transport system he designed the Stadtbahn pavilions, the stations, several bridges and the railings, all of which are still preserved in their original state.  (
Judith pointed out several examples of these features during our tour of the city that day. Her area of professional expertise is the Gemeindebau: long term affordable community housing in Vienna, which, (like the creation of British council house estates, "homes for heroes") began shortly after the 1st World War and still continues, earning the admiration of the world and appreciation of the Viennese people. The entrances to apartment blocks erected after the 2nd World War are often decorated with concrete or terracotta reliefs from those days. (Made aware, we noticed more of these on the Sunday morning, after Judith had left us.) Residences near the Donaukanal are desirable and the right to live there can be transferred from one generation of a family to the next.

We took an U-Bahn train from Kettenbrückengasse across the Danube, to see the Hundertwasserhaus (finished in 1985) on the Löwengasse, which happened to be near the district where Judith grew up and went to school. Friedensreich Hundertwasser, aka Friedrich Stowasser, was an eccentric and prolific artist of the same ilk as Gaudi, in Barcelona. In a leaflet advertising the Hundertwasser cafe, the English translation reads:
This is the house where for the first time in history human beings and nature live together with equal rights [...] a place where millions of people from around the world become aware of their longing for a life in harmony with oneself and nature. From here they take new hope back to their homes in their countries.
A rather over-the-top claim perhaps, but the colourful buildings entwined with plants and with a waterfall cascading from the roof of one do leave a favourable impression! As a tourist, you are not allowed to enter these buildings because they are people's homes.

I was even more interested when Judith took us to the Real-Gymnasium on Kundmanngasse where she was educated; the Wittgensteins' residence (the original family house, or palace, was near the Karlskirche though) was visible from the classroom windows at the back, she told us; she also showed us the school's pillars and balcony outside her final classroom there. We had a Viennese lunch out of doors at the pub Zum Goldenen Löwen. Judith chose Kartoffelpuffer and I tried the Eiernockerl, tasty and satisfying. Then we hopped on a bus to the Rotundenbrücke over the Donaukanal, stood on that bridge and saw a jetboat (express catamaran) whooshing by on its way to Bratislava.

Later we took a ride on another boat down this canal from the docks, tickets for which had been booked before we left Ottawa, boarding at Schwedenplatz where Chris and I had stood the day before. There's another boat nearby, Vienna's Badeschiff, with an on board public swimming pool and "football cage" on the deck above. On our canal cruise, we noticed more of Otto Wagner's Jugendstil railings, bridges and original city railway. The colourfully painted waste incineration tower, the Fernwärmewerk building, overlooking the canal in Spittelau, was designed by Hundertwasser and so resembled the house we'd seen earlier.

Off the boat, with Judith to guide us, we strolled back into the old town, passing an old Jewish synagogue (the Stadttempel, inscribed in Hebrew characters) on the Seitenstettengasse, on the way to one of Vienna's old catholic churches, a not too lavishly decorated, narrow building above a pretty square, steps up to it, Maria am Gestade. The name means Mary-On-The-Shore because, originally, this mostly 14th and 15th century, Gothic building was closer to the river (which got diverted in the 16th century when the canal was made), a place of worship for sailors. This church was associated with a good man, the patron saint of Vienna, no less, Clement Maria Hofbauer, a baker who at the end of the 18th century became a hermit and then a Redemptorist priest, whom the authorities persecuted but whom his congregations loved, as did the poverty stricken people whom he fed.

The solemn atmosphere in this church made seemed to complement my other friend's (Barbara's) Lutheran protestant church in Luneburg, still fresh in my mind.

Then on the underground again back to the Karlsplatz district near our hotel, where we walked to the Dritte Mann Museum on Preßgasse (Chris' choice of museum but it fascinated all three of us). Judith had not visited this before but had seen the movie when young. We were the last visitors of the day and lucky to get in because it is only open on Saturdays. This was a marvellous museum, divided into three sections, each of which has its own tour guide who needs to let you in with a key. The first set of rooms was dedicated to the people concerned with the making of The Third Man, the actors (Orson Wells and Joseph Cotten had previously starred together in Citizen Kane), the director (Carol Reed) and of course, the famous author of the screenplay, Graham Greene. The film was a tremendous example of purposeful artistic co-operation, as was the museum, for that matter, its well over 2000 exhibits having been collected and put together by a team of only two people, Gerhard Strassgschwandtner and Karin Höfler ...
Alles aus einem Guss, kein Outsourcing, viel Herzblut. Das spurt man.
In the second section, we saw the original zither that  Anton Karas, the composer of the Harry Lime theme, had played. You can see cigarette burns on it, as he was a heavy smoker. This area also displayed an original Zeiss projector, made in 1938, such as was used when the film first appeared. The curator actually used it, lowering a heavy screen from the ceiling, to show us a clip from the end of the film—the chase into the sewers—so gripping that we were oblivious to the primitive technology while watching it. The third part of the exhibition dealt with Viennese history just before, during and after the war, when the city had become an occupied territory, divided into American, British, French and Soviet zones, only connected of course by those sewers that play such an important part in the plot of The Third Man. We were so absorbed by the exhibits here that, at closing time, we had to be asked to leave.

We ate a tasty supper at the Thai Kitchen on Schönbrunner Strasse before Judith said goodbye.

I ought to add that before leaving Vienna altogether, we spent some of the Sunday morning exploring the part of the city near the Hauptbahnhof. Before we caught our train to Bratislava, we took a walk around the 18th century Belvedere Palace, just a short walk from the station, where we left our luggage in a locker.

My friend Sue commented on a photo of the Belvedere Gardens, that I posted on Facebook:
Hitler had a bunker built here, right under this pond. It was completed in 1944, and was to be used in case Berlin fell. It was to be one of he possible structures of command for a government in exile. The central air raid police command post of Vienna moved in. The Belvedere became a military target and was bombed by the allies. By this time the paintings had long since gone. They were hidden in convents, and salt mines. After the war, the bunker was sealed up. I did not find this information while we visited the Belvedere. Instead it appeared in the book The Lady in Gold about the returning of Klimt's famous painting to its rightful Jewish owners. In the book there are photos of the bunker being built in 1943. Quite the story!
On our last walk in Vienna we passed the colourful row of houses on the Wiedner Gürtel, the ringroad near the station, one of which now belongs to Huawei. The creator of these facades, Marcus Geiger, chose colours that mimic Euro banknotes of different denominations.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

In Bratislava

Staying at the Mercure hotel near the station, we had a less than half hour walk to the centre of the city. The first time we did this walk, we paused at the Grassalkovich Palace (Grasalkovičov palác) gardens on Hodžovo Square, the palace, built in 1760, now the Slovak President's residence, being a place where Haydn once performed his music, and on the Michalska, the narrow street below the tower known as St. Michael's Gate, for a ginger and mint lemonade made from the raw ingredients, which was life-savingly refreshing. I shall remember this recipe. I had a slice of poppy-seed strudel with it. We walked along the Promenade on the Danube's northern banks that afternoon, difficult in the full heat of the day, but worthwhile. Many cruise ships, long boats, are moored there, disgorging crowds of tourists into Bratislava's streets and squares. On both sides of the river are artificial sandy "beaches" with deckchairs, a pleasant amenity for children and adults alike. We went as far as the Eurovea, a modern shopping mall exactly like shopping malls the world over, with American shops, just beyond the Stary Most (most means bridge, in this case for pedestrians and trams), buying a necessary bottle of water.

Slovak words I learned in Bratislava:
ulica = street
namestie = square
hlavne = central
hrad = castle
garáž = garage
stanica = station
Dunaj = Danube
pivo = beer
voda = water
Ďakujem (pronounced jackoo-yem) = thank you!

The following day, after walking to the castle on the hill, and then down into the city, we followed much the same route, but crossed the river too, staying a long while on the shady far side, me lying on a park bench under a beautiful lime tree, gazing up at the sky. We had to take things slowly in that heat. In the Hviezdoslavovo Square were rows of water features with chlorine scented fountains where I, like many other people, took off my shoes to let my feet soak in a cool bath. At the theatre end of the square as well as in the older, central square, the municipality has provided a water spraying arch that cools passers-by with a fine spray, a considerate gesture. Everybody made a beeline for this, the little children in particular. I watched two toddlers go through, of different nationalities. One little boy said "Voda!" and the other one said "Kalt!" In the evening a group of young Japanese girls in school uniform went discovered the spray and didn't want to leave it.

I mentioned Bratislava's castle, above. The Slovak Parliament is adjacent to it. The history of the castle (and country itself) is terribly complex. We did some internet research, but are not much the wiser. The overwhelming point seems to be that its regime kept changing hands. The Celts were here from about 450 BC till the 5th century AD, with about 300 years of Roman rule during that time. In the forecourt to the castle today is a statue of Svatopluk the Great of the 9th century, on his rearing horse, brandishing his sword. In 805, a fortress was built by this Moravian king, recycling Roman bricks. Stephen the 1st of Hungary used the place as protection from Czech-German attacks in the 11th century, and in the following century a stone palace was built, where the Crusaders under Barbarossa were housed. In 1241 came an attack from Mongol invaders, but the Hungarians beat them off! Then followed some complications involving King Sigismund and the Holy Roman Empire. In 1536, Turkish invaders threatened the stronghold, whereat the Hungarians fled to Buda. In the century after that, a Baroque palace was constructed on the hill; we took a look at the very recent reconstruction of its formal garden. Queen Maria Theresa, ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire, chose to live here in 1740, but the 19th century saw her palace fall into ruins, after it had been used as barracks for some 1500 soldiers. It was the 1960s before the building was restored. The intellectual elite of Czechoslovakia had been sent into exile by the Nazis, while Bratislava / Pressburg became German. On May 9th, 1945, the Red Army marched into Prague, after which everything changed again; they were ruled by the Soviets. You can still see Soviet-style concrete architecture here and there and as in Wien they have coloured the fronts of some buildings to mitigate the stark, utilitarian look. Slovakia, the Slovak Republic, didn't become an independent state until 1993, the treaty being signed in Bratislava Castle.

The old part of Bratislava is postcard pretty; because of that, it's packed with summer visitors: people on package tours following their guide, backpacking students abroad. It has cobbled streets and squares, handicapping the cyclists, but they ride through even so. On the corner of Panska Street near the central square is a comical bronze sculpture that tourists flock to see, called Man at Work, his head and shoulders emerging from a manhole: Čumil in Slovak, meaning "the watcher"---he's looking up at passers-by who might well trip over him, certainly not working. Bratislava girls seem to be fashion conscious, slim and pretty, so they may well be the ones who are making him grin.

For our full day in the city I took the precaution of going back to the hotel for a nap and change of clothes before setting out again in the evening to meet Marina, a lady I'd befriended in Ottawa about 10 years ago, from the diplomatic corps. She and her husband are currently posted in Moscow, but she happened to be visiting her twin sister Bety, who lives in Bratislava. The sister's husband, Dr. Svaetopluk Zeman, is a native of Bratislava and very knowledgeable about its history, which Chris was interested to hear, as they walked ahead of us women from our rendezvous (the fountain in front of the National Theatre) towards the restaurant on a side-street where we were to have a tasty Slovakian supper. I ate pirohy (perogies) with a vegetarian filling, very tasty, and we drank beer. Before saying goodbye to our friends we also stopped for dessert at another restaurant, in both places sitting out of doors, the summer evening very pleasant as the heat began to diminish. The historic buildings are floodlit.

I feel I haven't done justice to Bratislava in my description of it; it would require a longer visit to take everything in, of course. In the distance across the Danube you can see its industrial side, flames spurting from the tall chimneys of the oil refinery there.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Hannover to Vienna

(Pictures to be added later!)

On July 26th we were up before 6am at our hotel, taking a taxi to Hannover airport (HAJ) for breakfast, and to catch the 08:20 Eurowings / Austrian Airlines flight t ho Vienna. We were just over an hour in the air, pulling into the gate at Vienna airport (VIE) by 9:45. Chris' colleague was sitting in the row behind ours; we'd seen him the evening before, at his Richtfest (completion of new house construction party), sharing barbecued sausages and drinks on his building site at a village called Isernhagen. When we landed in Vienna the three of us shared a taxi into the city. The men left me with our luggage at the Holiday Inn Vienna City on Margaretenstraße, and went away to work.

It was still too early to access a room there, so I asked for a street map, left the luggage at the reception desk, and after exploring the few blocks around the hotel walked in the direction of the city centre (half an hour's walk away), buying a classic Viennese coffee at the Opera House en route. I had to cross the Karlsplatz and the inner ring road (Kärntnerring) before reaching the pedestrian zone. Kärntnerstraße is the main thoroughfare for tourists in the city, far too many of them if you ask me, although I am one and behave like one. My lunch was breaded plaice that looked like Schnitzel, with vinegary, yellow potato salad at the Wienerwald restaurant. In these crowds, I was left unmoved by the interior of the Stephansdom, even though I have heard Schubert's Mass in G performed there in the past (in 1991). The spire is impressive. I ought to have realised, but didn't, that the cathedral was all but destroyed in World War II and rebuilt afterwards, so what I was seeing was effectively a fake cathedral. Horse-drawn coaches were waiting for hire round the back. Baroque residences line the narrow streets, the Gassen, and the squares.

Having got my bearings I returned to the hotel to check in and take a rest in our room. Before Chris was due "home" from work, I had time to visit Schubert's Sterbehaus (the place where he died) on the Kettenbruckengasse, just round the corner from our hotel. It is only open on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and even then only for a few hours, so I was lucky to get in. I paid 4 euros; except for the receptionist (with whom I had a long conversation in German) I had the whole place to myself. Schubert lived in this small apartment, in what might now be called a bed-sit, for the last three months of his life, when he was already seriously ill, and perhaps knew it. His room was the only bedroom in his brother's place. Ferdinand Schubert, his wife and four young children shared the other, larger room. Imagine the noise and the squalor. There was no piano there, although Ferdinand acquired one later, having sold some of his brother's posthumous compositions, publishing a Requiem in his own name, for example, which ressembles Mozart's history. Franz Schubert worked on some of his best known works during his three months of suffering, the sublimely profound B-flat piano sonata, for example, and the astonishingly cheerful songs Hirt auf dem Felsen (for which I saw a scribbled sketch of the clarinet part in the middle section) and Taubenpost. Most touching for me was the thought that he also revised Part II of Winterreise here, which Chris and I have been studying for 16 years now. I imagined Schubert trying to concentrate on this work, or gazing out of the third floor window into the street, or seeing the sky from his narrow bed in this narrow room. For the last week of his life he could not eat without vomiting, typhus finally finishing him off, and I saw a letter he'd written to a friend, asking him to please send a few books to read to take his mind off it; he had been enjoying a translation of The Last of the Mohicans, by Fenimore Cooper. He was 31. After his death, his father, an immigrant from Moravia, hoped that Franz and Beethoven could be buried side by side, as they had been friends.

Unfortunately, Chris returned from work too late to see that museum. I also discovered the nearby Naschmarkt before his return and we were both there later, and on the following two mornings. It's a very long street market, with stalls selling fruit and vegetables, nuts, spices, cheap clothing, souvenirs, hot snacks ... not unlike a Chinese street market, in fact. On Saturdays a large area of the market sells "antiques"---becomes a flea market, with an awesome variety of jumble for sale, very old cameras and 100 year old postcards, for instance. The Naschmarkt is surrounded on both long sides by prestigious Viennese buildings with Jugendstil-decorated facades. On Friday night we stood here, after the market stalls had closed and been locked up, with a small crowd of other hopefuls (making friends with someone's little dog), to see if we could view the moon eclipse, but distant thunderclouds got in the way.

A heavy thunderstorm prevented us from meeting Marcus in town on our first evening in Wien. As it eased off we scurried to the Bamboo restaurant a couple of doors down the street, for an Asian buffet supper.

On Friday, Chris was mostly free, so we could explore the city together. On the edge of the Karlsplatz, a big traffic and public transport hub near the opera house, is the Secession building dating from 1898 with its fancy golden dome, a fin de siecle art nouveau (aka Jugendstil) exhibition hall. The artists' credo of those days was freedom of expression --- Der Kunst ihre Freiheit! --- and Wien's most famous artist, Gustav Klimt, was their first president. Nowadays the building is mostly used to showcase contemporary art---we viewed a series of 40 photocopies of a box of tissues, a knot symbolically made of glass and a computer mining for bitcoins!---but in the basement you can still see the Beethovenfries by Klimt, a tribute to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, apparently, although what it had to do with Beethoven I couldn't tell. Beethoven as interpreted by Wagner, actually. I found it peculiar in the extreme. All the figures represented something: suffering humanity (naked), a knight in golden armour, Ambition, Compassion, a Choir of Angels, and on the other wall the feindliche Gewalten, hostile forces, represented by the giant Typhoeus with his staring eyes and his provocatively naked daughters the Gorgons, flanked by Sickness, Madness, Death, Lasciviousness, Wantonness and Intemperance, all female ... I felt it was a rather sexist view, and couldn't take the monster seriously because he looked so like the Gruffalo. We sent a 3-D postcard of his part of the frieze to our grandson Thomas.

Over an outdoor lunch, I rang Mum to wish her a happy 99th birthday the following day. Then to the Mozarthaus, a cut above poor Schubert's bedsit; the Mozarts lived in such style for less than three years, though (1784 to 87). It had a flamboyant ceiling in what was probably the bedroom and we saw the rooms where Mozart had possibly played billiards and had probably held impromptu chamber music performances, but no one can be quite sure. The Marriage of Figaro was composed here. Again, I imagined a composer who gazed out of the windows down the cobbled Gasse with its tall houses, near the cathedral, doubtless a smellier and less tidy street in those days.

We walked as far as the bank of the Donaukanal, passing the Urania planetarium and a permanently moored boat with a public swimming pool and football court on board. Then a long walk back in the blazing sun, through the old Stadtpark with its Joseph Strauß statue and ponds, and recovered from that walk at a table in a cafe near the Karlsplatz. The Baroque Karlskirche, which Sue in Ottawa had recommended I see, was unapproachable with a stage being constructed on its front steps for some sort of amplified evening entertainment.

On Saturday, we spent the day with a real present day resident of Wien, my friend Judith, born and bred here, and I think this had better be the subject of another blogpost.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Bratislava to Dresden

I'm writing this on Intercity Train Number 172, the "Hungaria", on its way from Budapest to Hamburg. Our destination for today is Dresden. We're in the front coach, in First Class seats, just having crossed the Austrian-Slovak border once again (starting in Bratislava, we re-entered Austria briefly travelling towards Wien at the start of the journey, but are now heading north). It's going to be a ride through flat landscapes for most of the way *, as we could see when we flew south from Hannover to Wien, last Thursday. An Australian couple sitting behind me is going from Budapest to Prague (Praha). The coach is empty enough for us to choose where to sit, even though we had reservations in Seats 53 and 55. Each seat has a small table and electrical sockets, which is nice, and best of all, there's air-conditioning. Outside, another scorching day in the mid-30s C. We have just had to get used to this weather, lately. Ever since Sweden, in fact, two months ago.

* This prediction turned out to be wrong.

First stop, Kúty. Never heard of it. The new passengers are boarding the train from the rail level, as in mid-20th century Europe. The driver has turned off the engine, lights and air-conditioning (they came on again after a few minutes, after the driver announced something incomprehensible). The Slovak Republic, so we now realise, is bordered by Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and Hungary: all those influences upon one little country. Its history is complex in the extreme. Chris learned a lot of it, yesterday, from Marina's brother-in-law, a lifelong inhabitant of Bratislava. My diplomat friend Marina, from Macedonia, posted in Ottawa about 10 years ago and at that time a member of my German conversation group, has been following our Facebook posts and knew she'd be able to meet me in Bratislava, where she happened to be visiting her sister here. As she is currently resident in Moscow (after a stint in New Delhi), this was a wonderful, unforeseen opportunity to get together. Chris and I met her at the fountain in the long central square called Hviezdoslavovo Namestie, at the National Theatre (opera house) end. Actually it was her twin sister I greeted first, thinking it was her, they look so alike. I had been deliberately teased. The three of them treated us to a wonderful evening sitting out of doors in a quiet side street at a traditional Slovak restaurant, with checked red and white tablecloths over long tables inside, and the waitresses in traditionally embroidered aprons. I had vegetarian pierogies (pirohy) with a mushroom sauce, and beer (pivo); Chris ordered a Viennese Schnitzel since most of the Slovak dishes seemed to contain cheese, which he won't touch. He did have a slice of cheesecake for dessert around the corner, at a different restaurant, but that's sweet, therefore different. This evening was a sort of celebration of our 45th wedding anniversary!

We're now approaching Břeclav in the Czech Republic, and as we meander back and forth across the border, across the Dyje River, the Internet connection on the train comes and goes. The ticket man has just distributed bottles of water to all the 1st Class passengers. Water is voda in all the local languages, an important word to know in this climate. I'm glad I paid the extra 10 euros each (not much extra!) to travel 1st Class on this nearly 7 hour journey. We're now riding through sunflower fields with a steep hill on the horizon.

Nearly midday, and we are pulling into Brno. Brno considers itself the capital of Moravia, originally (a very long time ago) settled by Celts, so that some of the local language apparently ressembles Welsh (c.f. bryn)! It has a two-spired cathedral perched on a rock near its rather ornate, neo-Baroque central railway station (hlavni nadrazi), and a castle on a hill besides.

I have just received a Facebook message from our friend Vladimir in Prague, who'd like to have to seen us and taken us flying in his plane; there just wasn't time. He was in Brno yesterday! ... An hour later, my Facebook update posted between Brno and Prague was immediately "liked" by a friend in Australia. How interconnected we all are!

And now we have had a satisfying cooked lunch in the Bordrestaurant coach, with a glass of Hungarian Chardonnay for me. The land becomes more hilly from time to time, with little towns or villages including churches with onion domes. We are only about 20 km from the Polish border.

"Ladies and gentlemen, our train is now about 20 minutes delayed." No worries, from my point of view, I am enjoying this ride so much. Now stopping at Kolín, getting closer to Praha, Prague.

With several miles of outskirts, Praha looks like a big city, with extensive marshalling yards for the trains. Most other passengers are preparing to leave the train here. Chris and I are starting on the box of chocolates Marina gave us, a gift from Moscow! They're very sweet marshmallows coated with chocolate, so I had better not eat too many. A cleaning lady has come on board to tidy up the train. On the next leg, between here and Dresden, we shall be re-entering Germany. We're pulling out of the station in the opposite direction, having lost the engine at our end of the train. The ticket collector (a different man, this time) is preparing to come round again to check our tickets and distribute the water bottles. Prague looks hot, hazy and hilly, out there. I caught a glimpse of the Vltava, with barges on it, as we crossed it just now.

We followed the Vltava downstream for about an hour, the scenery increasingly interesting. We're now beyond Usti nad Labem, on the Elbe, which is still in the Czech Republic, but approaching the German border, with strange rock formations around us. At Děčín, further down, about to enter a steeper sided valley, the hills covered with trees, we had a longer stop ... and here I had to break off writing my blogpost because we were suddenly told, "This train ends here!" The Hungaria had broken down, or its computer had (I noticed repeated vain attempts to reset the seat number displays), therefore we were obliged to grab our luggage and get out onto the platform, where chaos reigned, nobody knowing what to do next or where to go. I thought I'd heard a garbled announcement that a train to Bad Schönau was waiting on Platform 1 which would connect with an S-Bahn to Dresden, but when we hurried there, down and up all the steps, there was no such train, or it had already left. The departure boards in the concourse were in German and Czech, listing places we'd never heard of, no mention of Bad Schönau. All other notices were only in Czech. Back to Platform 3 to try asking an official, except that Platform 3 turned out to be Platform 2 and we had to repeat the luggage lifting exercise on the steps. The helpless passengers, using various foreign languages, were still milling around getting nowhere. We decided to go back to the concourse, I now literally dripping with sweat because of the heat. Chris told me to stop panicking, so I joined a queue at the information centre, wondering if we'd need new tickets. Apparently not, but we would need to wait a couple of hours. I was given a timetable printout giving the time of our next train to Dresden as 18:05. It was the Berlin train, 30 minutes delayed, so we actually boarded it at 18:40 after waiting on the concourse with the crowd of backpacker students, Chinese families seeing the world and other unfortunates. The little snack shop accepted Visa cards, so that helped (we only had euros in cash, which was not the right currency). I went outside the station to take pictures, during our wait, and we found somewhere to sit.

Wikipedia photo
Děčín, had we had the opportunity to get rid of our luggage and stay the night there, would have been worth exploring, an attractive town in splendid scenery on a curve of the Elbe: the posters calling it České Švýcarsko, the Czech Switzerland. Only 6 km downstream, beyond the German border, the countryside is known as die Sächsische Schweiz (of which I'd already heard). My daughter Emma did this journey with two friends in 1994 when she was a backpacker and tells me these were the most beautiful views from a train she has ever had.

Our 1st Class tickets allowed us into a comfortable part of the Berlin train; the remainder of the journey was only a 45 minute ride, with the splendid views Emma promised us. Our hotel in Dresden is visible from the station so we were checked in by 8 pm, and then set out for supper in the Altmarkt and for a sunset walk around the city centre.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Hannover / Hanover

It is spelled with two Ns here, in Niedersachsen, and is the capital of that state. On our first day in Hannover, we saw both the Landtag (state parliament) and "New" City Hall building, both impressive edifices. The old part of town (that dated back to the 12th century) no longer exists. During the 2nd World War, Hanover was hit by 88 bombing raids, by the British RAF, mostly; more than 90% of the city centre was destroyed and more than 6000 civilians killed. The worst of the raids was in October, 1943. Therefore most of what Chris and I are seeing has been reconstructed since those days, the churches laboriously rebuilt with red bricks.

They seem to venerate Martin Luther and the 17th century philosopher-mathematician Leibniz, who was born here. We walked along the Leibniz-Ufer after finding a branch of the River Leine (on the Hohen Ufer near the market square were antiques stalls. The Leibniz-Ufer passes the back of the Landtag (state parliament buildings) and has shady trees and benches. Later on our walk we found a Leibniz memorial with a diagram of the binary numbering system he used. There are Leibniz butter biscuits too, nothing to do with maths. The Bahlsen Leibniz-Keks factory, built in 1910 in the Jugendstil, stands next to our hotel on Podbielskistraße; in fact the hotel is in its grounds.

We are just beyond Listerplatz, at the end of the Listermeile, a pleasant, traffic free, shopping zone. Cyclists and small children in a variety of conveyances or on their own wheels share the street with the pedestrians and in spite of the many human voices, it is a quiet place to be. You can buy flowers, fruit, baked goods and coffee, bespoke furniture, books and clothes here. Chris had his hair cut and beard trimmed at one of several Friseurs on the Listermeile. Posters on the poles advertise concerts and tatoo-removal treatments: you don't have to keep the evidence of your youthful indiscretions or sins, Jugendsünde. Get rid of your Scheißtatu, one said. There's a library at the city end, and, half way down yesterday morning, we were able to buy ourselves a good breakfast with Italian coffee. Today, walking in the other direction up Podbielskistraße we found a more elaborate, and more expensive, breakfast (with caviar, even!) at a cafe near one of the tram stations, the Vier Grenzen. Why there are four borders there we didn't discover. Chris has to go back in that direction for work for the next three days because his QNX office in Hannover is on the street called Am Listholze, which starts at Vier Grenzen. We walked to the office after breakfast; it is near a river bridge from which we saw a barge moored and unsurfaced bike paths on both banks. The QNX place is opposite a wide area of land full of neatly planted allotments belonging to a Kleingartenverein, several of these flying the German flag and incorporating small cottages.

A large recreation area in this part of Hannover is the Eilenriede park, actually an extensive forest of beech and chestnut trees, etc., crisscrossed with bike paths. In a corner of it is the Erlebnis-Zoo; "Zoo Experience", that means, although the only experiences Chris and I had there were to sit on a bench near the entrance and watch the young families coming and going and the guinea pig family scuttling around a toy village, because we had decided that the cost of seeing more exotic animals was too exorbitant (entrance fee 27.50 euros each) and in any case our legs were too tired by that stage of the day.

We ended the day, still too jet-lagged to function normally, at a Pakistani "Indian Tandoori" round the corner from the Novotel, having a filling supper at an outdoor table. We noticed that the cleaner's and clothing repair shop on the other side of the street, in business since 1833, nowadays offers a "gefinished" service. What kind of language is that?

Today we discovered that most commercial outlets are closed on Sunday mornings. We took a tram / train into the city and sat subdued for a while in the remains of the Aegidienkirche, which the Hannoverians left in ruins after it was bombed, for a memorial, open to the sky. Beneath its bell tower hangs a bell given as a significant gift from the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Thence we walked to the Sprengel art museum, passing a few Eiscafes, already crowded with customers, on the way. We ate a light lunch of bruschetta slices at the museum cafe, out of doors on the upper terrace which gave us a view of Hannover's artificial lake, the Maschsee, about 4km long. It had been dug out of a swamp by manual labourers between 1933 and 1936, the Nazis giving these otherwise unemployed people something to do during the Depression era. Today the lake was full of little yachts, pleasure boats, motorboats for tourists and paddle-boats in the shape of Volkswagen "beetles" which somehow reminded me of the lakes in the Beijing parks. We fell asleep exhausted on a bench by the lake, after an hour or so in the art museum, which boasted a phenomenal permanent collection, its exhibits all from the 20th and 21st centuries. I had better devote a separate blogpost to this visit.

Before returning to the Listerplatz by U-Bahn, we also stopped for a long time at a Bavarian cafe selling different drafts of beer in long glasses. For fear of falling asleep again, we ordered alkoholfreies Bier at an outdoor table there. Our third al-fresco meal of today was a tasty supper at an Italian restaurant on the Listermeile.