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22 brezen (mar)
My son, Adam, arrived on a Saturday afternoon. It's always a joy to see his grinning face walking towards me in the airport. He spent most of the week exploring Prague and environs on his own while I worked. Thursday at noon, we boarded the metro to pick up our rental car for the weekend, a fire engine red compact Skoda made in the Czech Republic. Driving through the streets of Prague, with its tram rails, dividers separating lanes in some wide streets, and many one ways, was a very different experience than riding the mass transit. We made our way back to my flat and parked with the front half of the car on the sidewalk, mimicking the other parked cars on Polska street, while we ran up three flights of stairs to the second floor (the first floor is called the ground floor in Europe) for our bags. Soon we were following the highway signs headed south through the Czech Republic on our way to Austria.

About halfway to the Austrian border, the road became narrower and snaked through towns and villages. Sometimes the town had several zebra crossings - those white stripes on the road that mark pedestrian crossings - and in the Czech Republic cars must stop if people are walking in them. So it was a much longer drive than expected, but picturesque. Once in Austria we pulled onto A1, the Autobahn, where we were one of the slowest on the road, at least when I was driving. Adam loved driving the Autobahn; I was afraid to calculate what 160 kilometers per hour is in miles per hour.

The scenery was similar but there was a different look once we crossed into Austria. The roads were better maintained and the towns seemed somehow more orderly, a little farther off the highway, and less color in the buildings, white and dark wood brown being the norm. The hills were getting taller, blue hills echoed each other into the distance. The unwelcome stench of burning manure rose from many farms. The sun deepened into a red disk, leisurely lowering itself onto the shadowy hills like a cat snuggling into a pillow, church tower silhouettes in the foreground. A jagged line drew itself high across the darkening sky, we were in sight of the Alps.

Most of the town and directional signs in German were so long they were hyphenated, sometimes twice. A post full of signs would zip by without time for us to read more than one or two. We entertained ourselves while driving by trying to pronounce the words, and made up some of our own by stringing words together. Adam remarked that he never thought German could be so much fun.

It was dark when we reached our first destination. Salzburg had the feel of a smaller Prague, a walkway along the lovely winding River Salzach with its bridges, a well lit castle hovered on a rise not far away. Trendy restaurants and galleries in old buildings nearby. We chose a restaurant that we mistook at first for an art gallery. I inquired about the paintings and the waitress showed me a paperback book of the artists work. When I tried to return the book later, she told me to keep it. Perhaps this helped us to be forgiving when we got the wrong order. When Adam was served bratwurst instead of schnitzel, the waitress seemed to think it was amusing. He poked dejectedly at his brat, ate a third of my schnitzel, and was back in good humor with a warm apple strudel.

In the early morning, a thick white fog blanketed the meadows like a fluffy European comforter. Skeletons of deciduous trees not yet in leaf lifted their arms through the mist. Above, an unmistakeable Alp loomed, with a rough, snow-etched face. We were driving to the Kaprun ski resort, recommended by one of my students. The road cut through a finger of Germany then back into Austria. We overshot the turnoff - the borders are now so completely open, no one even looks at a passport. We kept seeing signs for what we thought marked an approaching town called Ausfahrt, before we figured out it meant exit.

As we climbed, the houses took on more of a chalet look. Kaprun nestled at the foot of a sharp, angular, white peak. My traveling partner happily skied for several hours down its steep side. Although my students had told me there wasn't enough snow in the mountains bordering the Czech Republic for good skiing this year, this mountain at 10,500 ft. was high enough to have an ample snow cap. I wandered around the town, taking photos as usual, enjoying the exercise and scenery.

Only a short walk to the Zentrum, or city center, our pension in Vienna was on a little plaza called Rilkeplatz. A small monument complete with statue, dragons at its base, stood outside our window. We walked around the Ring, a grand boulevard circling the major buildings - government and historical buildings, churches, museums, monuments, concert halls. We dodged trams and buses, admired the statuary, tried to identify the stately structures, and watched Viennese folk (and tourists) bustle about their busy day in business and shopping districts. Kunsthistorisches, the imposing natural history museum sits on Maria Theresien Platz, a wide plaza, surrounded and adorned with sculpture and with geometrically trimmed trees and bushes. A park with curved benches around emerging floral displays fronted the beautiful city hall building with its clock tower. One mysterious stairway led to a slender alley around a curved building to a hidden restaurant near a theatre. Charmed, we took note of the location and returned for dinner. The former palace of the Hapsburg empire, Hofsburg, was filled with little museums. We chose to visit the State Hall, the old library with tall dark wood shelves, high rolling stairs, painted frescoes on the domed ceiling, and hidden passageways behind the shelves. Barriers kept visitors from touching the ancient volumes and illuminated manuscripts; they would surely have disintegrated if handled.

Vienna could not be visited without sampling the music. At the recommendation of our handsome hotel host, we took the metro in the evening to the Schoenbrunn Palace and the delightful ambience of the Orangerie hall for a Mozart and Strauss concert. Opera singers sang, dancers waltzed. The gardens around the palace were closed at night, so we came back to stroll their greening paths in the morning. On Sunday we also walked around the cathedral, stepping around dozens of horse carriages circling the square. True to our custom of choosing one museum, we cruised through the Leopold Museum, with extensive works of well known Austrian artists Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt.

Crossing into the Czech Republic into the village of Znojmo, we were again struck by the differences - narrower streets, pale color in the smaller buildings placed right up against the road, red clay tile roofs everywhere. It felt more welcoming and intimate somehow. I later discovered that Znojmo is the home town of my new Czech friend.


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