Central Europe

For August 2012, we aimed for the major towns & cities in the central and eastern Europe. We started with Czech Republic and Poland. Then we worked our way along the Danube River from Hungary to Slovakia, then Austria. Finally, we finished the trip with Switzerland and France.

Two months is the longest we’ve ever been traveling. Initially, the idea was daunting but we generally planned out the main cities we wanted to cover and booked transportation by train or plane about 1-2 weeks in advance. We purchased and extensively used the Eurail Globalpass during the 2 month period. For accommodations, we alternated between hotels for luxury pampering and spacious apartments with convenient laundry facilities. For smaller cities, we stayed about 2 nights and larger cities 3-5 nights. Of course, we spent a whole week in Paris to relax and recuperate. With lots of walking, the kids were generally bribed with popsicles, ice cream and other sweet treats along the way. It was an incredible experience but it’s hard to tell how much the kids really appreciated … at first glance, probably not too much.

Switzerland & France

Zurich, Switzerland
08/24-25/12: Zurich, Switzerland is the country’s largest city that grew up along the Limmot River. Starting at the train station, strolled along west bank up to Lendenhof park area on a hill for a panoramic city view. Continued down narrow cobble stone alleys to St Peter’s Church (St. Peterskirche) with Europe’s largest church clock then to Fraumunster cathedral with large stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. Crossed Rathaus Bridge (Rathausbrucke) to Grossmunster cathedral with Charlemagne statue in crypt. After a fondue dinner at Adler’s Swiss Chuchi, walked back through Zurich Open Air Dorfli Festival blasting live rock music and street vendors selling tasty treats.

Bern, Switzerland
08/26/12: Bern, Switzerland is the country’s political center but provides charming haven for its namesake, bears! There’s an abundance of bear statures, bear legends, and even 4 live brown bears in the Bear Park beside Nydegg Bridge (Nydeggbrucke). We started at the clock tower (Zytglogge) to square with statue of the Duke of Zahringen, founder of Bern, and a bear eating the duke’s helmet. Passed Einstein’s apartment where he worked on relativity theory, City Hall (Rathaus) and Berne Cathedral (Bern Munster) with remnants of a children’s fair at Speilplatz. Kids were fascinated with a giant marble mechanic maze. Sunday night, the town was entirely deserted by Barenplatz was lively with restaurant activity. Easy access by tram so Alexis learned to read map to guide us home.

Geneva, Switzerland
08/28-29/12: Geneva, Switzerland is the headquarters of various international organizations including the United Nations and the International Red Cross/Crescent. Hotels within the town center was double the price compared to those near the airport, just 10 minutes aways. All the city hotels provide free visitor transport cards so we became intimately familiar with the various trams & trolley that brought us in to see the Jet Fountain and Old Town along the river. A day drip at CERN provided fascinating glimpse into to work of particle accelerators & detectors used to study the origin of the universe. For dinner the final day, we came across quite a charming eatery L’Opera Boeffe with international cuisine. That week they were featuring Burkina Faso of Africa.

Paris, France
08/30/12-09/06/12: Paris, France is undoubtedly a beautiful and romantic city. We first went there for our 5th anniversary and we are now back for our 18th. With 2 kiddos in tow, it was a very different experience. We got to try out some fun playgrounds at the Tuileries and behind the Notre Dame. Our original plan was to visit a couple other regions in France, i.e. Avignon or Loire before heading into the capital. However, TGV reservations were complicated and we decided we really just wanted to unwind for the final week of our extended trip. Since we have been to Paris before, we didn’t feel the same pressure to hit all the tourist sites. We still managed to visit the major museums: Louvre, d’Orsay and Pompidou. Otherwise, we really took it easy and enjoyed the gastronomy. A couple highlights were Angelina by the Tuileries for hot chocolate & exquisite pastries and Michel Rostang’s fine dining for an exotic rare-raw duck preparation. Of course, nutella crepes always brightened everyone’s mood.

See more photos in the album.

Hungary, Slovakia & Austria

Budapest, Hungary
08/11-13/12: Budapest, Hungary is centered on the Danube River with old Buda on the east and new Pest on the west. Our hotel was just around the corner from the Main Synagogue, reputedly the 2nd largest synagogue in the world after New York. The garden documented the hardships of Hungarian Jews with a memorial tree whose leaves named those massacred. Crossed the the famous Chain Bridge and took the funicular up the hill to Buda Castle and walked around Old Town to see St Mathias Church and enjoy the panoramic view from the Fisherman’s Bastion. Started at Heroes Square then down Agrassy Boulevard toward Parliament on the Danube. Ended the day along touristy walkways. Enjoyed some rich local cuisine of goulash soups, grilled goose liver

Bratislava, Slovakia
08/14-15/12: Bratislava, Slovakia has a lovely promenade along the Danube River, loaded with shopping centers, restaurants, cafes, grassy areas and kids play structures. Took a ride up to the castle on the hill then walked down through the Old Town, passed Michaels Gate and many churches & squares. Although Bratislava is a relatively small town, it was a relaxingly, enjoyable visit.

Vienna, Austria
08/16/12: Vienna, Austria is our last stop on the Danube. It’s a vibrant metropolis with extensive pedestrian-friendly shopping districts throughout Old Town between St Stephan’s Cathedral, Opera House, and Hopburg Palace. We started our visit by having lunch at the ornate interior of Central Cafe with exquisite pastry desserts. We’re learning to appreciate the Viennese clear broth and boiled beef but not finding much appeal for wiener schnitzel, fried veal.

08/17/12: Schoenbrunn Palace is a little outside the Old Town center but still easily accessible by metro. We arrived in the late afternoon for the grand tour of the private apartments of Empress Maria Theresa, Franz Joseph, and other famous Hapsburgs. The Gloriette sits atop a hill surrounded by expansive manicured gardens. The kids were particularly excited out the maze & labyrinth. We enjoyed the famous imperial apple strudel before returning back to our apartment. The day was completed with an authentically Austrian experience by having Alexis’ infected tooth extracted by a local dentist.

08/18/12: The Spanish Riding School at Hofburg Palace has housed the Lippizaner white stallions for 4 centuries. They are usually on holiday during the summer months of July & August. We were fortunate to watch them perform on their 1st weekend back from break and had fairly decent seats. The place was packed with people standing and leaning over us. Alexis was mesmerized by the performance and graceful splendor of the animals. In the afternoon, we walked around the gardens and museums surround Hofburg Palace, including a quick peak at Parliament.

Salzburg, Austria
08/19/12: Salzburg, Austria is a cultural mecca, home of Mozart and the Von Trapp family from Sound of Music. The movie was filmed at many sites throughout the city. We arrived during the Salzburg Festival and attended a childrens opera showing in an open theater. As the blazing sun waned a bit, we took the funicular up to Hohenburg Fortress to visit the the well organized museums documenting weapons and torture instruments. The kids particularly enjoyed the Marionette Museum. Ended the evening by walking around Dompltaz, Residenz, and other shopping streets. Dinner at Magazin, serving French cuisine, built into a former storage cave.

08/20/12: Day of Mozart music. Attended matinee showing of Magic Flute at the world famous Salzburg Marionette Theatre. Toured of Mozart’s childhood residence on Makartplatz. Visited Schloss Mirabel gardens where do-re-mi song sequence was filmed. Dinner at St Peter Stiltkeller Mozart Dinner Concert. Performers dressed in 18th century costumes and meal was prepared according to recipes from that time period.

08/21/12: Saltwelten Hallein, located just south of Salzburg, is the world’s oldest salt mine. The 70 minute tour gave a good overview of the “white gold”, took us down 2 long slides, floated by raft on a salt lake, and provided nice displays & explanations on walk with video breaks explaining history & process. Celtics first discovered and mined salt. During the middle ages, it was rediscovered and made Salzburg (literally Salt Castle) rich. Archbishop Wolf Dietrich built prosperous mine 1/3 in Austria and 2/3 in Bavaria part of Germany. We walked briefly into German region. Returned to Salzburg, crossed the bridge with love locks into town to see Mozart birth house, St Peters catacomb site of SoM film. Enjoyed undiscovered gem Pan e Vin Italian cuisine in Old Town.

Innsbruck, Austria
08/22-23/12: Innsbruck, Austria is a sleepy little town nestled at the base of the Alps. At the center of Old Town is the Golden Roof and other ornate baroque buildings, Schloss Hofburg Imperial Palace, and St Jakobs Cathedral.

See more photos in the album.

Czech Republic & Poland

Prague, Czech Republic
08/01/12: Prague, Czech Republic is a city of beautiful buildings. We crossed Charles Bridge to Prague Castle on the hill. After crossing back, we walked around Old Town to the Astronomical Tower. Followed the tourist crowd to find charming alleys lined with shops & snacks.

08/03/12: Back in Prague, we explored the main areas and nooks & crannies around Prague. Started with Wenceslaus Square named after the patron saint & martyr of Bohemia, through the Powder Gate to Old Town Square with horse drawn carriages. Continued down Paris Ave to the Jewish Quarter to the synagogue where legend claims the remains of Golem supposedly lay.

08/06/12: Spent final day at Prague Castle, St Vitus Cathedral with St Wenceslaus relics, and charming old houses on Golden Lane. Kids loved seeing the birds of prey in the palace gardens and also visiting the Toy Museum with extensive collection of Barbie and Star Wars/Trek toys.

Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
08/02/12: Fearing the poor weather forecast, we headed for Kutna Hora by train. Started with Bone Church Ossuary, decorated with 40,000 skeletons. Shuttled to Cathedral at the far end of town then slowly made our way back through the quaint village.

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
08/04/12: Hired a private car service and spent a relaxing day at Cesky Krumlov. Explored the charming medieval castle with a moat housing 3 bears, quaint alleys, and yet another cathedral.

Krakow, Poland
08/07/12: Upon arriving in Krakow, Poland, headed straight to get appointment at Wawel Castle on the hill. Started off with visit to the Roman foundation, Treasury, state apartments. Had to return in the afternoon for a guided tour of private apartments. Learned about impressive tapestries woven from gold, silver, silk and wool and also refined white pottery. Afterwards, took a city tour through synagogues of Jewish Quarter, Ghetto where 300,000 were crammed into 300 apartments, and also Shindler’s factory. Ended in Old Town Square in time for the trumpeter performance in the tower.

08/08/12: The former concentration camps have been converted into Aushwitz-Birkenau Museums. It was a sobering but important lesson in history. The remains of the buildings at Aushwitz I is primarily a series of exhibits documenting different aspects and periods. Rooms filled with victims shoes, suitcases, and eyeglasses was particularly telling. Birkenau was left mostly as ruined with a couple rebuilt structures. The size and scale was dramatic as you can imagine every little brick chimney that littered across the expansive field were remains of a bunker that housed 300.

Warsaw, Poland
08/9-10/12: Warsaw, Poland was essentially decimated in 1944 by the Nazis when they realized the end was near. Soviet Communists who took control following was almost as cruel. The Old Town and castle was reconstructed based on paintings. Learned little about Frederick Chopin through public displays and visited his memorial. Warsaw University is a quiet getaway and has a library with a beautiful garden retreat on its rooftop.

See more photos in the album.