Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The glorious Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna

Another of our most memorable visits while in Vienna was our excursion to the Schoenbrunn Palace. This massive residence was once home to the ruling Habsburg dynasty and has to be seen to be believed! It is now a UNESCO world heritage site with much of the grounds and parkland open to the public for free, and part of the house viewable for a price. The two house tours are both accompanied by audioguides. The Imperial Tour takes visitors through 22 rooms and the Grand Tour takes in 40 rooms. We chose the Grand Tour and were glad to have done so because the most interesting room decor was in the later rooms after the two tours diverged! Photography within the house is forbidden so I can't show the sumptuous interiors here - although a quick Google will no doubt give you the idea!

Schoenbrunn Palace was originally built as a hunting lodge in the mid-1500s. Maria Theresa had it rebuilt and extended in the 1740s after she received the estate as a wedding gift and her family continued to occupy the Palace until the last Habsburg emperor was deposed in 1918. It has been a museum since the 1950s although only a few of the 1441 rooms can be seen. The audioguide is quite good albeit brief so we found there were artworks - tapestries especially - in some of the rooms about which no information was given and staff were few and far between. The overriding impression of the Palace for me was of a family spending more and more money to stave off depression. For all their power and wealth, I didn't hear of one actually having a happy life and many died young or were murdered.

The parkland was lovely to walk around and we enjoyed strolling the shaded avenues as we visited on a pretty hot day. Areas such as the Palm House (pictured) and its companion Desert House require additional payment to enter, but their architecture - the most impressive aspect for us - can be admired for free from outside! I also liked the brightly coloured floral displays immediately in front of the Palace. Their swirls and serpentine borders reflected the gilded ornamented ceilings we had seen in almost every room of our house tour.

Numerous sculptures are dotted throughout the park. Several are anonymous, but we learned that the Roman-style folly entitled The Ruin Of Carthage was designed by Johann Ferdinand Hetzendorf von Hohenberg and built in 1778. It features the river gods of the Danube and the Enns as sculpted by Wilhelm Beyer. There is absolutely nothing authentically Roman about the work. Even its ruined appearance is the result of Hetzendorf's design although recent renovation means it doesn't look quite as ruined now as it did a decade ago! Apparently the Habsburgs saw themselves as the natural successors to the earlier Roman conquerors so having The Ruin Of Carthage built in their garden was essentially propaganda.

Also a magnificent sight within the gardens is the Neptune Fountain - another Johann Ferdinand Hetzendorf von Hohenberg and Wilhelm Beyer collaboration. Commissioned by Empress Maria Theresa, it was intended to be the crowning glory of the gardens and I would say it fulfils that purpose! Started in 1776, the Fountain was completed just before Maria Theresa died.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Exploring Vienna - trams and horses

Our three-city epic citybreak is so busy that my blogging about it is way behind schedule! I apologise for that! You can read my Prague posts here which was the first of the trio and from where we got a train to Vienna. Our Viennese Airbnb studio apartment was excellent so I am happy to recommend it. If you need accommodation for one or two people in Vienna, book into Christof's place! It had everything we needed, was conveniently located and was pretty peaceful too. If it had been available in 1899, I am sure Mark Twain would have loved it! (I spotted this plaque on the building where he did stay in Vienna, but forgot to note down the address and now can't remember! The sojourn might have formed part of his A Tramp Abroad research (my book review here)

We started with a circuit on the Ring Tram which was a great way to learn about the historic buildings lining the Ringstrasse. The half-hour tram ride is €9 and this includes an audioguide in various languages for which headphones are provided. We got a good view of everything from the distinctive yellow tram and taking the journey helped with getting our bearings when later exploring on foot. The only downside was the Mozart-interspersed narration meant I kept humming the Marriage Of Figaro overture for the rest of the day!

We were sadly underwhelmed with the Museums Quarter although the cafe there has an amazing tiled ceiling, but did find other artwork around the city including this Rachel Whiteread sculpture outside the Jewish Museum. Having first encountered her work only three months ago at Houghton Hall I easily recognised it again in and this Viennese Library is a particularly powerful piece as every book on its shelves represents a Jewish lifestory that was cut short by the Holocaust. 65,000 Viennese Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

More sculpture was on show at the Theseus Temple in the Volkspark. This replica of an Athenian temple was originally constructed in the 1820s to house a statue of Theseus slaying the Minotaur. That work was moved to the city art museum and now the space is used to display a single large sculpture each year. For 2017 the work is Bacchante by American artist Kathleen Ryan. The polished concrete grapes did fit with the ancient Greek theme of the setting but it did look a bit lost under the high ceiling!

My high spot of visiting Vienna was seeing the magnificent Lipizzaner stallions of the Spanish Riding School. I had a book about this School in my younger pony-mad days so it was the culmination of a childhood dream to actually get there! We didn't see the full show, but it is possible to buy tickets for the Morning Training which is two hours of groups of horses being put through their paces and practising some of the high dressage for which they are famous. Photography is absolutely 'verboten' and my camera probably wouldn't have been up to the task anyway so I have found a YouTube showing the horses and their beautiful riding school. All the riders in the video are male, but women have joined their ranks since 2008 and several of the riders we saw training were female. All the horses are still male though!

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Top Five Etsy Finds - Fabulous Capes

Angelica Cape by beksiesboutique 
I started September by reading C H Clepitt's new novel, Everything Is Better With A Cape (my book review here). It's a fun post-apocalyptic fantasy tale and the title got me thinking. Is everything really better with a cape? If so, should I get myself one? With autumn underway and Halloween on the horizon, now would certainly be the time to do so!

There are far more handmade and vintage capes on Etsy than I actually expected to see and, for sensible purchases, there are sturdy outdoor capes in tweed and wools, or delicate shrug capes for wedding wear. I wanted something more eyecatching for this post though so here are five of the most Fabulous capes I found!

The Angelica Cape made by beksiesboutique in Brighton might only be short, but it packs a lot of sparkle! Turquoise suedette is teamed with beautiful iridescent sequins sent from unicorn heaven to shower down upon the shoulders of mere mortals. The cape is lined with purple and ice blue shot 100% silk Dupion, resulting in a shimmering luxury piece.

The Angelica Cape is for sale at £150 plus shipping.

Woodland Fairy Cape by folkowl 
Angela Shannon at folkowl in Whitstable is the creator of this green felted Woodland Fairy Cape. Made from hand dyed wools and silks in shades of dark green and mossy green, these capes are made to order, the process involved and the individual details ensuring that each one is unique. The cape fastens with a corset-style closure across the front so is adaptable for most sizes. I think it would be a gorgeous addition to a fantasy cosplay outfit as well as being ideal winter outerwear in its own right.

The Woodland Fairy Cape is for sale at £125 plus shipping.

Reversible Rainbow Cape
by MadWagCostume
This vivid Reversible Rainbow Cape is 'made with madness' at the MadWagCostume studio in Bristol. One side is the rainbow print as pictured or the cape can be worn inside-out with the rainbows inside and a vibrant scarlet (as can just be seen in the hood) on show to the world. This is a real extroverts' cape! To complete the full dizzying look, matching crop tops and leggings (or meggings for men) are also available. For maximum comfort these capes have been designed with 2 ties to support the weight of the cape across the chest and not the neck. All capes are made with the highest quality of spandex and have 2 finger loops to enable hands free flying.

The Reversible Rainbow Cape is for sale at £94.99 plus shipping.

Sari Cape by
Hannah in Leicester creates her eyecatching capes from vintage saris and other sourced materials. Her Etsy shop is called IamtheGarageFlowerGB and she is inspired by 1960s and 70s bohemian and psychedelic style. Of the capes Hannah had available at the time of writing I think this orange and purple toned Sari Cape is my favourite. I love the detailed print on the fabric. Each cape is free sized so it should fit anyone from a size 8 to a size 16.

The Sari Cape is for sale at £42 plus shipping.

This fifth cape was actually the first one that caught my eye, but I wanted to save what I think is the most fabulous for last! It's a Holographic Sequin Cape made by koolieskreations in London and I can see it being absolutely perfect for wannabe mermaids. The material shown is a holographic sequin mesh in blue-green tones and the cape can also be made in ice white, silver, gold or black. As each is made to order, customers can also request a hood and that their cape be lined if they want.

The Holographic Sequin Cape is for sale from £60 plus shipping.
Holographic Sequin Cape
by koolieskreations

Saturday, 9 September 2017

A little Prague boat trip

There are quite a lot of different boat trip possibilities on Prague's waterways from large tour boats to slimline gondolas. We chose an hour-long small-boat-and-larger-boat combined voyage run by Prague-Venice Boat Trips. Their ticket sellers are the ones dressed in white sailor outfits hanging around the Charles Bridge. For some reason they are mostly Nigerians! The trip is priced at 340 Czech crowns per person but, as we were a party of five, some spirited haggling (not by me obviously!) got that down to 300 each.

We started out in a private little boat which took us a fairly short distance through back-lane canals to the main tour boat moored atmospherically under a dark arch of the Charles Bridge. There we were offered coffee, tea or beer from the cute bar pictured above to keep us occupied while we waited for the boat to fill up a bit more. The ticket price also includes a choice of ice cream or gingerbread - get the gingerbread, it's delicious! The view below was our starting point.

This boat tour does not go far up or down the river, instead weaving between the bridges' arches in order to give us great views of historic buildings, bridges and architecture on each side of the river. Prague city centre is a bustling, busy place and I enjoyed the slower peaceful sailing away from the tourist madness! Our audio narration was good and interesting and this part lasted about half an hour I think before we returned back under the bridge and were briefly told the historical significance of each of the arch beams above our heads - there's one each remaining from four different stages of the bridge's construction.

The boat trip ticket also included free entry to the Charles Bridge museum. This museum is only small, but gives detailed information about the building of the bridge as well as its predecessor, the Judith Bridge. The extensive model pictured below is fascinating - I do like a good model! - and it was also possible to descend an iron staircase and see the original stonework of both the Charles and Judith bridges.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Prague street art and sculpture

There are bizarre humorous public sculptures in Prague including giant crawling babies and a rotund demon, both made in bronze, and also sobering, serious works such as the pictured ascending steps with disintegrating men which commemorates all the people lost and injured during the oppressive years of enforced communism. Created by Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek in 2002, this is intentionally a disturbing work to view and think about. The monument is located at the bottom of Petrin Hill, not far from the funicular railway up to the castle. We were lucky to see it in daylight and after dark when its illumination makes the scene even more haunting.

Snakes and owls are frequent sculpture themes on Prague buildings. We guessed they might be the symbols of historic noble families, but I don't know whether this is true! The detailed sculpture pictured below is just along from the communism monument.

The romantic couple in this street art painting are - I think I remember correctly - under the Charles Bridge. The lifesize image is on just around the corner from its artist's studio-shop where smaller prints are available for purchase.

We visited the castle and cathedral the slightly more energetic way by walking up the hill towards them and then getting the funicular railway back down again afterwards. Having previously commented amongst ourselves how quiet other parts of Prague were, the castle site provided an explanation why. It was absolutely heaving with tourists (and litter) here! We only saw the free bits, but this did include the cathedral entrance which its half dozen or so huge stained glass windows. Their colour was even more vibrant than is shown here.

The road leading to the castle is a good place to get a panoramic view across the rooftops of Prague. Someone decided to plonk a Starbucks right where the best view should be from, so this picture was taken leaning over the wall just before that.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

#WorldReads - Five Books From Greece

If this is your first visit to my WorldReads blog series, the idea of the posts is to encourage and promote the reading of global literature. On the 5th of each month I highlight five books I have read from a particular country and you can see links to previous countries' posts at the end of this post.

This month's country is Greece! A nation with a strong and ancient literary tradition, I have chosen an eclectic mix books from ancient poetry and theatre to history and modern day experimental fiction.

Oedipus the King by Sophocles

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Oedipus The King was my second AudioSYNC audio download of the 2014 season. It took me about fifteen minutes to really get into this play of Oedipus The King. Not being familiar with the characters, I found it tricky to work out who was who purely from their voices - even failing initially to recognise Michael Sheen. The device of male and female voice speaking together with underlying echo was mystical, but also unclear via my headphones so I missed out on some meaning there. However, once the play took off it had great pace and a dramatic story.

Greek Fire and Its Contribution to Byzantine Might by Konstantinos Karatolios

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Read my original book review on Literary Flits

I bought this short scholarly work after having seen the wildfire episode of Game Of Thrones and discovering that there was actually a historical reality for the dramatic weapon. Although the Byzantine 'Greek Fire' or 'Liquid Fire' doesn't seem to have ever been described as bright green! Karatolios has investigated a wide variety of ancient sources and chronicles for mentions of Greek Fire and this book is the pleasantly accessible result of his studies.

Theogony and Works And Days by Hesiod

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I love reading ancient work when I can find a good modern translation and Kimberly Johnson's work in translating Hesiod's two great poems here certainly fits the bill for me. It is amazing to think Hesiod's words were originally spoken getting on for three millennia ago, yet in his ideas about how people should live in order to be in harmony with themselves and nature, Hesiod is surprisingly relevant.

The Parthenon Bomber by Christos Chrissopoulos

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Read my original book review on Literary Flits

Originally published in Greece seven years ago, The Parthenon Bomber has only now been translated into English and is an intense and unusual novella. The story is told from a number of viewpoints beginning with the testimony of a man known as Ch K who, inspired by a Second World War philosophy, charged himself with the destruction of The Parthenon. As readers we do not know if his words are true or even if they are genuinely his, but the confession is certainly compelling in its portrayal of insane single-mindedness.

Behind The Counter by Constantina Rebi

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Read my original book review on Literary Flits

Behind The Counter is a novella of about a hundred pages which illustrates the rapidly declining living standards of ordinary people in austerity-struck Greece. We see Athens through the eyes of a bank clerk, her friends and colleagues, and are gradually more aware of their fragile circumstances as the book progresses.

That's it for August's WorldReads from Greece. I hope I have tempted you to try reading a book from this country and if you want more suggestions, click through to see all my Literary Flits reviews of Greek-authored books! Please do Comment your own favourite Greek books below and if you fancy buying any of the five I have suggested, clicking through the links from this blog to do so would mean I earn a small commission payment.

If you missed any earlier WorldReads posts, I have already 'visited' America, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, ItalyNew Zealand, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.
In October I will be highlighting five books by Japanese authors. See you on the 5th to find out which ones!

Monday, 4 September 2017

A weekend in Prague

We've been so busy this weekend that it is only just now, on our last evening here, that I have managed to set aside an hour to blog about the first city of our tri-city trip! Prague is beautiful! It has glorious architecture everywhere and I love the pastel colours of practically every building in the centre of the city. I will be honest and say that, although I knew there are some grand buildings here, I wasn't expecting anywhere near so many. I also thought they would be mostly a uniform Soviet grey. This is absolutely not the case!

We have walked about eight miles on each of our three days here, exploring both sides of the river, climbing up to the castle - an insanely busy tourist hotspot - and taking the funicular railway back down, spotting street art and sculpture.

We have enjoyed Czech food and drink too. Mint tea here is routinely made with lots of fresh mint which is delicious and I love the local homemade lemonade which isn't particularly fizzy, but is available with various flavours including ginger, cucumber or a raspberry and mint combination which is my favourite so far. Foodwise, traditional Czech food seems to mostly be about beef goulash or hearty pork dishes, but it has been easy to find vegetarian meals. I highly recommend the mixed leaf salad at Prostor which includes sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese and lots of walnuts. The Gnocchi with sun-dried tomatoes, courgette and mushrooms at Carmelita was also delicious.

We were impressed with how clean Prague is compared to UK towns and cities. It hasn't felt at all intimidating, even walking around late at night, and we've managed to avoid the ubiquitous stag do parties so our stay has been pretty peaceful. Our Airbnb apartment is adequate although, we discovered when we got here, it is one of dozens run as a business so it doesn't have much in the way of local atmosphere. It's quiet and conveniently located though so that's the main thing.