What does the last of the housewives do?

Month: December, 2013

Berlin – Still Under Construction

I haven’t got the hang of Berlin. All of the other cities we’ve been to you just hightail it to the Altstadt, visit the main church, the new town hall and the old town hall, various museums and the Christmas markets and you’re done.

Berlin doesn’t appear to have a centre. Sure, there’s the Brandenburg Gate, but that’s blocked off for New Year’s Eve, or Silvester as it’s charmingly known in these parts. There’s a giant park adjacent to that (the Tiergarten) with many bits walled off ditto, including the gravesite of 2000 Russian soldiers. I did spot a monument to three great composers in there, Hayden, Mozart and Beethoven.


Of course Haydn and Mozart were Austrian, but borders were more fluid back when the monument was originally built, and maybe they had an Australia New Zealand thing going on. It started a theme for Berlin. This monument had the krapfen blown out of it during the war and is a reconstruction.

The Reichstag was burnt to a hollow shell during the 1930s, then had the krapfen blown out of it during the war, but has been completely reconstructed and we toured the dome at the top. Very much worth a look, even just for the pictures of the history of the building.


It’s a bit difficult to walk around Berlin, not just because of not having a centre and Silvester, but they’re also building some new train stations in the middle of town (are you listening, Barry O’Farrell?), plus despite it being such a long time after the war they’re still painstakingly rebuilding some of the buildings destroyed then. Some cities would say, oh bugger it, let’s just start again. To a certain extent this has been done, and Berlin is rightly proud of its modern architecture. But they’re very aware of being a city that’s over seven hundred years old and they’d quite like to look like that.


It’s got a slightly more dangerous feeling to it than other cities we’ve visited. The first morning my dear husband stopped to read his map right next a group of skinheads. I had to restrain myself from asking “which one of you bitches wants to dance?”. There’s a lot more English on signs. There are more baristas in coffee shops, as opposed to push button coffee machines (erk). The public transport is excellent, not just for the connections, cleanliness (Gladys Berejiklian) and ease of use, but the decorations in the stations. Here you go Kev. Working and everything.


It has the second biggest department store in the world, the KaDeWe, where we (except for the bored husband) indulged in some excellent German pens. We also had a snack at the food hall, which was David Jones on all kinds of drugs.


We also stopped at a Christmas market that wasn’t selling the usual decorations and glüwein, it was all handmade stuff. Look at these leather pouches that we got, allegedly made by the stallkeepers mum.

It also has about a gajillion museums containing all kinds of stuff “acquired” during colonial times, one of which we peeked into today for a dose of gobsmackingness. We also surprised the kids with the museum of computer games.

They had my entire computing history. The TRS 80, the text only adventure game Zork, the Apple II (signed by Steve Wozniak!), the first Mac. Remember Bard’s Tale Kev? I beat the Moose at Asteroids on an Atari. Ahh, the memories. We’ll go to another proper museum tomorrow.

We attempted to do a bit of the Wall, but that thing is over sixty kilometres long. It is commemorated by a cobblestone track which disappears a lot under construction zones, but we followed it along the river a bit and saw some very sad memorials to the people shot trying to cross it. We’ll go to Checkpoint Charlie tomorrow for the full experience.


Ice Hockey

We’re staying with a very generous family in Germany whose daughter we borrowed for a couple of weeks earlier this year. Wanting to be the perfect hosts, they asked us if there was anything in particular we’d like to do here in the north of Germany? I ignored my dear father’s suggestion of visiting the worlds biggest model railway setup in Hamburg. He wants to see that, he should come here himself. My dear husband suggested popping into a Bundesliga soccer game, fun for the whole family. Alas, they were having a Christmas break. But we could go and see an ice hockey game, also a new experience for our hosts.

Let me tell you, you have to get out and see ice hockey. I’m guessing that we don’t really have an equivalent in Australia, I know there’s a bit of ice hockey played, but it couldn’t be like this. For a start, the ice looked a lot colder than that at Canterbury Ice Rink, it stayed dry. And there were a lot more people there. And you got a free pat down on the way in because of crowd violence, that added an edge. I could have wished to be slightly further from the drumming chant leaders.


But they really added to the atmosphere, the crowd was impressively musical and knew a lot more songs than One Nil.


At first there didn’t seem to be any rules at all, except that you score when your puck goes into the net at the other end. Which made me wonder why there had to be four referees. Eventually it appeared that there were some things that were beyond the pale, such as slamming an opponent into the wall, sitting on a goalie, hitting the puck into the crowd, having more than six players on the ice at any time – and that was confusing, there was constant interchange that basically involved them leaping the fence at exactly the same moment that someone leapt in the other direction. At one point the opposition decided they’d like to score a goal, so took off the goalie and had six players all trying for a goal. That lasted about ten seconds before the home team scored from behind the half way line. Back to having a goalie. It was very fast moving and very exciting, for some fans perhaps a little too exciting.


They had some excellent innovations that we could adopt, such as vending machines for your ice hockey essentials. I would have got some shoelaces, but I didn’t have any coins on me.


Also the plastic beer mugs have hollow spike handles that means you can stack a whole lot on top of each other. Not only that, but if you take them back to the bar you get a deposit back, which means no litter. Alternatively, you can pinch one to take home as a souvenir, remind me to show you some time. As a side note, I appear to be able to tolerate German beer. Australian beer is delicious, but gives me all kind of digestive problems, as does American beer which also has the disadvantage of being non delicious. I’ve even had two in a row with no noticeable side effects. Interesting.

However. The game is in twenty minutes thirds and there seem to be a huge number of players in each team that only spend a couple of minutes on the ice at a time. It may just be a local thing, but the opposition (Schwenningen) was pretty much ignored by the announcer and booed by the crowd. And the referees got death threats when they scored their only goal. The home team (Wolfsburg) had a huge introduction with pictures of the players on the big screen and a whole lot of carry on when they scored. The players themselves seemed fairly good natured, there was only one bit of fairly half hearted biffo. Not even too much angst when a stick was broken. And the puck doesn’t stay horizontal to the ground as I’d imagined, it was spinning on its side, being chocked into the air and players could slam it to the ground with their hand to avoid sticks being at head height.


As a sport avoider in general, I would put this up the with AFL as an excellent spectator sport that looks really hard to do yourself, only a lot shorter and with more singing. Thanks Sabine and Thomas, we couldn’t have asked for kinder hosts!

Munich. Beer.

There are some beautiful sights to be seen in Munich. Many of them are in the Marienplatz, the square in front of a huge complex of buildings that appear to be the seat of government. Makes anything in Australia look very lame indeed.

If you look closely you can see about half way up the tower is a two storey set of puppets. On the hour these perform a fairly basic show with bells accompanying that brings the square, already crowded with Christmas markets and their attendant shoppers, to a complete standstill. As my dear husband remarked, it isn’t going to replace television, but apparently it’s a must see and we saw it.

What was far more interesting is that you can catch a lift right up to just below the spire. I do think they should make tourists take the stairs, but anyway. The view on a clear day is spectacular, we could just make out the Alps in the distance. The detail in this place!

And everywhere really, I can’t get used to it.

Wouldn’t something like that be roped off in Australia? Yet it was just sticking out of a random wall.

But what Munich is about is the beer, and at some point you must inevitably go to a beer hall. We went to the Hofbraühaus which seats a touch over three thousand patrons at any one time. It’s a bit hard to judge exactly how old the place is, people have been drinking beer on this spot for a thousand years, but bits have been torn down, rebuilt, enlarged, moved a bit, bombed, burnt down and rebuilt some more. It’s old and it’s big, OK?

What you do here is find yourself a giant table with benches and an old chair at one end

And order yourself a giant plate of meat and potatoes, some cabbage if you’re feeling like some kind of vegetarian hippie, and some beer. It comes in litre glasses. If you’re terribly wussy they do have one half litre option and something called Radler which is a shandy, but that only comes in litres too. The husband and I decided to share the original beer brewed on the premises.

The chap behind us ordered two as soon as he came in, one light and one dark. You never know when you’re going to be able to catch a waiter.

The Moose and I shared a green salad and what turned out to be two boiled veal sausages, which were a little salty but otherwise very nice. The Horror topped himself up with his current addiction of wiener sausages. It took us a few days to persuade him to try them, now that’s just about all he’ll eat. Muffet and the husband shared a large slab of roast suckling pig. Other tables tended towards giant bits of meat attached to what looked like a brontosaurus shin bone. It was all a bit Flintstones.

Dessert choices were limited, but the Horror was very pleased with his icecream, Muffet and Moose should really have shared the dumpling with vanilla sauce, it was bigger than their heads, and the husband and I shared this.

It was a Christmas special of gingerbread mousse, and what an interesting presentation, boys and girls.

We picked up some bread rolls and clementines for dinner, but couldn’t resist getting a couple of half litre bottles of a very pleasant beer for less than a euro each at the supermarket. I think it’s classed as a food group here.

A Tourist in Salzburg

I’m falling behind, I’m actually in Munich, but you’re going to hear about the schmaltzy day we had in Salzburg. We finished the day classy with the Moose’s last concert in the Mozarthaus in St Gilgen, but before that…

It’s hard to resist the stalls every few metres selling glüwein, so that afternoon we didn’t. We then hailed a two pony chariot for a half hour circuit around the altstadt of Salzburg.

The driver was from Texas, but he had either not spoken English for a really long time or he was raised by coyotes, because he was very hard to understand. “That be the man monastery”, he said, waving up the hill. “And that be the woman monastery”, indicating the Nonnberg, famous for its starring role in The Sound of Music.

The Sound of Music was the biggest thing to hit Salzburg since Mozart, it’s responsible for a large slab of its economy. It would have been remiss of us not to go on a Sound of Music tour then, remiss. I did actually manage to watch the movie for the very first time a couple of weeks before we left, so I was an expert.

Our tour guide sounded a lot like Michael Douglas as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra (which I watched bits of on the plane in between dozing) only prerecorded. I guess he’d probably run the tour a gajillion times, and it sounded like it. I can do you an imitation when I get back if you like.

It would have been worth it just for the scenery. Look, here’s a swan frozen in the ice. I’m sure it could have left any time it wanted to.

Did you know that if you skim a stone across a frozen lake in the direction of the back gate of the Von Trapp house it makes a kind of almost birdsong like pinging sound?

The gazebo had to be moved from the grounds because of all the tourists wanting to dance around it in the middle of the night, but it’s still on display in the grounds of Hellbrunn Palace. It was permanently locked after an eighty year old tourist broke her hip trying to dance on the seats inside. There’s always someone who’ll ruin it for everyone.

The bus then headed for the countryside, with bonus group singalongs! through some breathtaking scenery to Mondsee where the von Trapp wedding was filmed. This place has it all, snow capped mountains, lakes, cute houses, polite drivers, and extraordinarily ornate churches.

If this had been the first I’d seen I’d have been a little overwhelmed, but I now realise that’s just how they make churches around here. I think they chose this one just because it didn’t have a road going right past the entrance.

The tour guide also gave us a bit of background to the real Von Trapps, for which he apologised, revealing that he’d had hate mail for doing it in the past. How dare there be a real story! The Nonnberg really was where Maria had been a novitiate when she was hired to look after the Von Trapp kids and you can’t go in the today because it’s still a working abbey. But they really didn’t live where the movie was filmed and they didn’t escape the Nazis by climbing over the Untersberg because if you did that you’d actually be going to Germany. And Maria eventually died in her eighties of eating too much cheese, getting gangrene in her stomach and refusing to go to the doctor. There’s a lesson there for all of us.

The tour was totally worth it for many reasons. They encouraged you to buy a beer at ten in the morning for the scenic bus ride. You got to drive past the world headquarters of Red Bull. You got stories of how weird American tourists can really be (who has time to watch the Sound of Music TWICE a day every day?). There was a bit of Mozarty stuff thrown in for free. The scenery. And I’ll have a tour guide impression to do at parties, something for you to look forward to.

Fog and Castles

We’re getting the hang of this now. What we want is castles, atmosphere and castles. Ruined if possible. We’ve had two in the last couple of days.

The first was care of our dear friends the Laciks. We first met Igor over twenty years ago when he joined the then boyfriend’s research group at Sydney University. They share a horrifyingly similar sense of humour, so we saw a lot of him and his then new wife Beata while they were in Sydney, then again when we went to Europe just before we were married. Contact since then has been very sporadic, but the memories were sweet so we were delighted to spend the day with them yesterday. They were very generous entertainers. And you’ll never guess, they have our dogs!

That isn’t Meriadoc. They also had the Slovak national instrument whose name escapes me, but it was like a cross between a didgeridoo and a bassoon, but had a surprisingly high sweet tone.

We tore ourselves away from the dogs and photos of the dogs when they were puppies (they actually have two children too and we got a couple of photos of them and very good looking they’ve turned out too, but the dogs, you know) to go to Castle Devín.

It was really really ruined, there were even Roman bits in it, and made me realise how very little I know about the history of this part of Europe. For the kids the highlight was the well into which you could drop a stone and count to about ten before it plunked into the water in the bottom. The castle is at the confluence between the Donau and the Moldau, so we walked along the banks for a bit until we saw this monument.

Lucky we were with locals, because there is no plaque or explanation. It is made from the barbed wire fence that separated Austria from Slovakia. People were shot trying to cross the border before the Velvet Revolution, there’s another monument nearby with all of their names. I know, really heart stopping.
We then went to have lunch at the highest point in Bratislava, the restaurant in the television tower. Here’s the Muffet and Beata, and you can see the view behind them. That detail behind them is actually a reflection from inside the restaurant, don’t get your hopes up.

Yes, thick thick fog. We may as well have been underwater, but the food was sensational. Igor did threaten to keep us there eating until the fog cleared, but we would have still been there now and who would be running the Bratislava Polymer Institute? It would have ground to a halt. What was happening outside was that the fog was combining with the subzero temperatures to do this to all of the foliage.

Driving back down through the iced forest, Igor remarked that you wouldn’t have been surprised to have a werewolf leap out of the undergrowth and drip blood all over the car, and he was right, it was dead atmospheric. It made everything look black and white and for the first time I realised what an impact Little Red Riding Hood would have made in such a landscape.

Today we headed for Salzburg, but we really had to stop at Castle Dürnstein where Richard the Lionheart was held captive until he was rescued by the minstrel Blondel. Supposedly. It was way up the cliff behind the village and again very ruined, but we got the general idea.

The village below seemed to have an apricot theme. The tiny cobblestone streets were lined with shops selling apricot jam, apricot liqueurs, apricot nectar, apricot hand cream, apricot chocolate (I was tempted), dried apricots (excellent), apricot chutney and I lost focus a bit after that. But don’t think they only sell apricot products.

Though you’ll note the apricot coloured cardboard.
And then on through the fog and many more kilometres of magical iced forest to Salzburg. Of which more presently, I’m sure.

An Awesome Museum

We weren’t planning to go into museums yesterday, just thought we’d wander around Vienna and go gorblimey, will you look at that. And there was a fair amount of that. But then we found ourselves up near the Rathaus and saw that there was a museum of armour And a museum of musical instruments. It was like a museum specifically for us.

When you live in a country that has been ruled by a succession of dynasties over hundreds of years but now you’re going through a period of Western democracy, you tend to have a lot of leftover palaces. This museum was in the Imperial palace, and just the building would have been worth the entrance price.

When we got into the bit with the armour, the Horror was in paradise. We’d hired the English language audio guides and they were very helpful in pointing out the interesting bits because, dear reader, there was a lot of armour. Horse armour, jousting armour, some other horse battle armour whose name started with R, foot fighting armour, ceremonial armour, mix and match sets of armour, squire armour, armour you wore to weddings, armour you had made after you’d spent years eating too much schnitzel.

Hall after hall after hall of it. Sometimes with a five hundred year old painting above it of a prince wearing that exact same armour that was right in front of you. Eventually the Muffet got over it a bit, but that was OK, because then there was musical instruments! I think the best way to describe it is what the Horror said, it looks like in each room they’re evolving. Very early brass, woodwind and stringed instruments, then through all the various permutations people put them through until they became today’s versions. I wish some of them were still around.

For the benefit of my choir, I saw some crumhorns displayed and they do look like they’d be rather harsh. I did love all the keyboard variations, especially this one,

On the right it’s a spinet, on the left it’s a tiny organ, with the bellows at the back and the wind coming out of the bottom end of the keys, towards the player. On top is painted a backgammon board and if you turned it over (it was mounted over a mirror) it had a chessboard painted on the bottom. Awesome.

AND there was a harmony piano, man, I didn’t take a photo. It was enormously complicated with five rows of keys with various circle patterns on them. The idea was to have a perfectly tuned keyboard upon which F sharp was slightly different to G flat. It went out of vogue very quickly because it was too damned hard to play. But that actual one on display had been played by Haydn and Beethoven. That actual one.

You know what? It’s put me off any museum I’ll ever see in Australia.

Well, We’re Here

When then hell are they inventing teleportation. Bugger education, I want government money thrown at dissembling humans and having them reassemble instantly on the other side of the planet. Let’s just say that getting to Europe from Australia is gruelling. The kids were very good, though.

We picked up a car from the airport and drove straight out to Eisenstadt to see our firstborn, the Moose who has been here for a week already on a music tour with his school, perform stuff at the Haydn Hall in the Esterhazy palace. Start with a bang, we thought. But first some lunch. We found a little cafe serving food, there’s lots that just do desserts, settled in, placed our orders, then came to the horrified realisation that You’re Allowed To Smoke In Restaurants in Europe. How uncivilised. The young girls at the table next to us only paused in their smoking to eat. However the first schnitzel of the tour was really excellent, thin, crisp, porky. We’ll have to try turkey schnitzel, that was the other option. Offsetting the smoking is that fact that they sell alcohol on the streets, presumably to stop you dying of exposure as you shop at the Christmas markets. I didn’t get any because I did feel like someone who hadn’t slept for forty eight hours and been subsequently run over by a tractor. Now wonder what the blood alcohol limit is for driving in Austria? Oh that’s right, we have wifi at this hotel, it’s the same as Australia.

Our first palace is the Esterhazy palace. We paid our four euros entry and fought through the Christmas shoppers up the stairs to be just in time for the wind orchestra’s performance. Located the Moose up the back on the triangle and waved frantically at him, causing him to grin broadly and possibly lose his place. I was so busy gazing at my first born that it took me a while to take in my surroundings. Muffet said “mum, look up!” Wow. Classical themed murals painted on the ceiling, been up there since the Baroque when the palace was built. They like their women pretty chunky back then.

In between musical numbers we hired an English language tour of the castle and wandered around the rooms. It made us realise that this enormous place was actually someone’s home. In one room there was a painting on the wall of how the room was furnished when it was someone’s bedroom, and it was actually fairly stark. A single bed up against the wall, a desk and a couple of chairs, an ornate wooden stove and there were three doors leading out of it, as there were in most of the rooms. Not very cosy. And where did he keep his clothes? We realised the richness of the cultural heritage here by the fairly blasé way some of these treasures were displayed, no guards, no security cameras, no velvet ropes, some of the furniture you could touch.

I should also just mention for the benefit of my choir that the Hayden Hall has an incredible acoustic. Our choir director lived in Vienna for a number of years and would have come here often, no wonder he complains about the University Great Hall. The Hayden hall was full of stalls and Christmas shoppers, but when the school was performing you could hear every note from anywhere in the hall. The school music director actually walked around the room while they performed to test it, he couldn’t believe his ears. It was like the music was coming from above. Maybe the Grads should do a European tour.

It was all a bit much for the Horror.

So we bundled them into the car and drove back to our Vienna hotel, the Classic, and it really is. Wood panelled, marble stairs, very cute indeed. Deposited them in bed, then went downstairs to investigate the tiny bar outside reception. Why do we not have more of these in Sydney? Just comfy chairs and people having one drink before going out for dinner, or in our case dragging ourselves upstairs to pass out for twelve hours.