Friday, November 20, 2015



On our recent European trip, we visited both the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  They used to be the same country, Czechoslovakia.  A few years ago, in 1993, the Slovaks, ethnically different from the Czechs, voted to secede and form their own country.  Unlike the U.S., there was no civil war, and today they have good relations with each other.  The Slovakians started off behind the 8-ball, but now, Slovakia is one of the most prosperous countries in Europe.  There are several reasons for this.  The Slovakians switched from a centrally planned economy to a free market economy, and they lowered business taxes.  As a result, they attracted large amounts of foreign investment, especially in heavy industry.  We saw steel mills and large automobile plants making Volkswagens, Peugeots and Kia.

We visited Slovakia twice--first from Poland through Slovakia to Budapest; then from Austria, through Bratislava, to Prague.  The countries in Europe aren't very big, so we could comfortably visit three countries in a day.  We enjoyed the drive through the countryside where we could see medieval castles overlooking the valleys.  We did get stalled for a half hour watching 6 laborers pour concrete at a bridge construction site.  One or two could have done the job quicker.  Some things are the same in every country.

The ubiquitous symbol of Slovakia is the Slovakian Double Cross which is also called the Cross of Lorraine.  It was the symbol of the Knights Templar during the Crusades.  On the Slovakian coat of arms and national flag, it appears as a white cross with two horizontal bars on a blue and red background. 

The Slovakian capital, Bratislava was named by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (I'm serious) just after World War I when Czechoslovakia was carved out of the Austria-Hungarian Empire.  Wilson supported Czech self-determination as part of his broad League of Nations plan.  American Slovaks had proposed alternate names for the city like "Wilsonov" and "Wilsonstadt", but the pizazz wasn't there.  The city has been around for a long time.  It used to be known by its German name, Pressburg, because it was populated largely by ethnic Germans.  This was a major problem on the eve of World War II when it gave the German Nazis a pretext to take over, with the acquiescence of British Prime Minister Chamberlain.  It gave the term Double Cross a whole new meaning.  Bratislava means something like "brotherhood of the Slavs."  The name had actually been proposed in the 19th Century by Slovak historian and poet Pavel Satarik. 

We ate lunch in the old, medieval, section of Bratislava, which is built in the shadow of a large castle.  In Central Europe, the people eat lots of meat with heavy sauces.  We ate at the Carne Valle restaurant where we were served a delicious leg of lamb and goulash which was very good.  On the same street are several trendy sidewalk cafes. 

Walking around Old Town, we encountered an unusual tourist attraction, a bronze statue of a sewer worker peeking out of a manhole, presumably up ladies' dresses--the Slavic Ed Norton.  There were many tourists present on the day we visited, particularly a group of snickering Asian tourists who snapped about 5000 photos of this sculpture.  The craft show down the block showcasing the work of local artisans brought in many tourists.  Across the street is the Slovak National Theater, and catty corner, for after the opera, McDonalds. 


The Czech Republic is composed essentially of Bohemia and Moravia which were also separate countries at one time or another.   Prague is in Bohemia.  It is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.  My son Darryl spent some time in Prague a few years ago attending the world puzzle convention.   The Czechs are big fans of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright who was born in Prague.

We stayed at the Mark Hotel on the edge of the old city.  The Mark is considered a modern boutique hotel with a pretty courtyard.  The hotel appeared to be furnished by Ikea--every piece of furniture had sharp edges.

About 50 meters down Hybernska Street from our hotel was a restaurant, the Potrefena Husa, famous for the Big Jud.  It was going to be our Man vs. Food moment.   The Big Jud is like the Big Mac or the Big Mick, only bigger.  It is a one pound burger patty piled high with cheddar cheese, onions, tomatoes, pickles, lettuce, bacon and cocktail sauce--on a sesame seed bun.  They didn't ask if we wanted fries with it--it comes with fries.  The fries are au gratin with tartare and blue cheese and brie.  I take the tartare well done.   The Big Jud will set you back about 11 bucks.  They might want to keep a cardiologist on staff.

As I said, we did some serious eating on the trip.  In the evening, we took a taxi with friends to the U Modre Kachnicky (Blue Duckling) Restaurant where we feasted on the local specialty, roast duck.  Former Czech President Vaclav Havel used to eat there regularly.  He had good taste, and so did we.

Euros are not accepted in the Czech Republic.  Their currency is the Koruna (crown) , 24 to the dollar.  One crown equals 100 hellers.  The problem is, since 2008, although hellers are incorporated into the prices, nobody gives change anymore, instead they round up or down to the nearest crown.

A short walk from our hotel through the medieval Powder Tower, we entered the cobblestone streets of Old Town Prague.  Next to the Powder Tower is the Art-Nouveau Municipal House.  More on that later.   The weekend we were there, the locals held a craft show nearby, and we browsed through the booths. Popular items included garnet jewelry, wooden toys and handmade clothes and scarves.  Our hotel provided bicycles for rent, but the ride on the cobblestones is extremely bumpy.  We elected to walk.


Prominently displayed in the spacious Old Town Square of Prague is a statue of John Huss (1369-1415), a Czech priest who questioned Roman Catholic doctrine.  In the eyes of the Church, he was a real troublemaker.  He accused clergy, bishops and even Pope Innocent VII of various moral failings.  In those days, clergy and popes were often married, kept mistresses and took bribes.  Pope Innocent himself wasn't so innocent, and this stuff was hitting close to home.  Adding fuel to the fire, all of this occurred around the time of the schism, and there were two popes, one in Rome and the other, the antipope, in Avignon, France.  Innocent died in 1406, but his successor Gregory XII wasn't spared either, and finally he cracked down on Huss.

Huss had King Wenceslaus watching his back, but this time it didn't help.  For political reasons, the King embraced the antipopes in Avignon, Alexander V and later John XXIII (not his 20th Century namesake), but they were also trafficking in indulgences.   Huss' fiery sermons about this were stirring up the people, and the Bohemians were acting like, well, bohemians, staging sit-ins and rioting.  Huss was tried and burned at the stake for heresy, but he had started a movement which inspired later reformers like Martin Luther in the following century.  His followers, the Hussites were quite powerful.  They repelled 5 crusades against them in the following 20 years.  Eventually they worked out a compromise, and a century later, most Czechs continued to follow Huss' teachings.


The Clock Tower in Old Town Square draws throngs of people to watch the show.  Every hour on the hour, the doors on the clock spring open and a crowing rooster appears.  Thousands of people watch this every day.  What's crazy about the clock is you can't look at it and tell what time it is.  They didn't have digital clocks in 1410 when it was built.  People didn't really care what time it was; they just wanted to know the position of the rising and setting sun.

The clock has two dials, but not for minutes and seconds.  Rather the upper dial is astronomical (sun, moon, zodiac) and the lower dial is the calendar.  The mechanism for all this are three large cogwheels which turn independently on a single shaft.  The first wheel  with 365 teeth turns the zodiac hand; the second with 366 teeth turns the sun hand; and the third, with 379 teeth, turns the moon hand. 

The clock has been rebuilt several times over its long history.  In the 1866 restoration, they added next to the clock the figures of the 12 apostles, blessing the city at every hour.

The signs of the zodiac shift slowly around according to the Earth's precession.  The precession is the spinning of the Earth's axis relative to the stars.  When I say slowly, the precession takes about 26,000 years for the Earth to complete the cycle.   So we're in each sign for about 2150 years.  The clock will make the adjustment to the Age of Aquarius which is officially when the March equinox point moves from Pisces to Aquarius.  The problem is nobody knows exactly when that will occur, so they just say it will be "soon". 


The Eighteenth Century Estates Theater in Old Town Prague is notable because of its close association with Wolfgang A. Mozart.  The Oscar willing movie Amadeus, directed by the Czech Milos Forman was filmed in the theater for authenticity.  Mozart had conducted the world premiere of his opera Don Giovanni in this theater in 1787.   Like everything else in Old Town, this theater is rich in history and furnishings.  It is a museum but is still used for concerts, operas and ballets.  Don Giovanni is still performed there on a regular basis. 


Linking Old Town to the Prague Castle district is the historic Charles Bridge, lined with 30 statues, actually replicas of saints and patron saints popular around 1700 when they were sculpted.  The originals are now in the National Museum.  The bridge was built in 1357 by King Charles IV, and it replaced the Judith Bridge which was damaged in a flood.  Today its name is well established, but it wasn't called the Charles Bridge until 1870.  The bridge is over 2000 feet long and 33 feet wide.

One of the statues is that of John of Nepomuk who in 1393 was thrown off the bridge at the behest of good ol' King Wenceslaus and drowned in the Vltava River.  The story is that he was the Queen's confessor, but the King wanted him to divulge the secrets of the confessional.  John did what a good priest should do and kept his mouth shut.

His reward (?) for that was sainthood.  He is considered the first martyr of the Seal of the Confessional and a patron saint against floods and drowning.


Despite its mundane name, this art nouveau treasure was built in 1911 on the site of the Royal Court where monarchs would enter the city beginning in the 14th Century.  It is conveniently located a half block from our hotel.  The Czechs consider the Municipal House as the face of the city, and it is used as a convention center and concert venue.  The builders brought in famous artists like Alfons Mucha and others of his generation to decorate the halls and lounges.  We're talking Eclecticist and Secessionist works--modern art and architecture, if you will.  This was revolutionary in Europe at the turn of the 20th Century.

We walked through the elegant concert hall with its huge glass dome, the central Mayor's Hall, the restaurant and the exhibition halls, each one exquisitely decorated.  In 1918, the independent republic of Czechoslovakia was declared in this building.  In 1989, the Municipal House hosted the first meetings between the Communist government and the Civic Forum representatives, led by Vaclav Havel, later elected President of the country. 


We made our way through the rain over the slippery cobblestones to Lobkowicz Palace, an often overlooked tourist attraction in the Prague Castle complex.  It is notable for its extensive art collection (Bruegel, Caravaggio) as well as a significant gun collection and world class music collection.  We're talking original compositions by Beethoven and Mozart.  We ate dinner in the Palace.

As we were beginning dessert, a tall, thin nattily dressed 50-ish man strolled into the dining room.  Our tour guide Blake introduced us to Prince Lobkowicz who is not really a prince anymore; there are no titles in the Czech Republic.  His wife is a member of Romanian royalty.  According to his biography, he uses the title when he finds it professionally useful.

We were forewarned that his accent might be difficult to understand.  Fortunately his Boston accent was familiar to most of us on the tour, even us Midwesterners.  Prince, or Bill as we called him, is a personable guy and an entertaining speaker.  He was born and raised in New England and went to Harvard where he majored in European history.  He worked as a real estate broker in Boston.  His mother is from Kentucky.  Bill moved to Czechoslovakia in 1990 to reclaim the family fortune, but only after long and expensive litigation.  The Lobkowiczes originally owned 10 palaces scattered around the country; today there are four.  The family has lost and regained the property twice in the Twentieth Century.  Mr. Lobkowicz recovered the land, buildings and artifacts but no money to maintain them.  He owns them, but can't really sell them--they are national treasures.  Lobkowicz's passion is the restoration, maintenance and upkeep of these ancestral holdings.  To do that, the properties need income, and he has to run it as a business.  He was allowed to sell off some of the property to generate funds; on the remaining he operates a brewery (which was founded in 1466), a hotel, restaurants, tours and other businesses to generate income.

Bill Lobkowicz told the story about his father.  His father went to the doctor, and in the get acquainted stage, spoke of the family's castles and wealth.  He explained to the doctor that Queen Elizabeth II called him (Liz is on the phone!) to borrow some artwork.  The doctor heard enough, thought he was delusional and was ready to commit him.  Bill stepped in to save the day.

The Beethoven manuscript is the most valuable item in the palace.  It is Beethoven's Opus 55, Eroica Symphony, composed in 1804.  Beethoven planned to dedicate the symphony to Napoleon.   The problem with that, however, is that would require Beethoven to forego the fee he was promised by Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowicz.   Money talks, and the manuscript is now in the Lobkowicz Palace.     While he was at it, Beethoven also dedicated his 5th and 6th Symphonies to the Prince.  The Lobkowicz ancestor also hung out with composer Joseph Haydn who wrote the "Lobkowicz" quartets (Opus 77). 


The Strahov Monastery, founded by St. Norbert in 1120 rests on a hillside outside Prague.  The religious order of the Premonstratensians is an independent part of the Catholic Church and has a long history in this abbey.  It was largely neglected under the Communists, but after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, it was returned to the Premonstratensians. 

The building is remarkable for its enormous library which contains approximately 200,000 books.  It includes 1500 inculabula, which are printed (not handwritten by scribes) books before 1501 which are rare indeed.   The oldest manuscript is the Strahov Gospel dating back to the year 860.  If you're a bookworm, you would have a field day at this library, assuming you can read Latin.  Most of the books date back to the Middle Ages and most need restoration.  You can't just browse in the stacks--the books are arranged double layered on shelves 20 feet high on two stories.  If you want a book, you have to ask the librarian for it.  He looks it up in the card catalog to figure out where it is.  They never heard of the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress index.  You won't find current best sellers or racy novels here. 

The Theological Hall, completed in 1679 is stacked high with religious books.  It contains editions of the Bible translated in hundreds of languages.  Whether you want the Amheric or the English language version, it's probably here.

The Philosophical Hall was built in 1782 and contains thousands of volumes covering history, mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, etc.  It would take Evelyn Wood years to read through all this stuff assuming she could understand it.  The striking pastel frescoes painted on the ceiling by Austrian painter Franz Anton Maulbertsch are worthy of note.  They depict the history of mankind, from Adam & Eve to Noah, to Socrates, to Jesus, etc.

The other interesting part of the library was the large world globes created in the 17th and 18th Centuries.  At that time, California was thought to be an island, and Australia was discovered but not defined on the map other than part of the coastline. 

The Cabinet of Curiosities displays an eclectic arrangement of items including the remains of an extinct Dodo bird.  Other than that, it was purchased from the estate of a collector (hoarder?) in 1798.  These include collections of insects, minerals, sea animals, ceramics, wax replicas of fruit and even handcuffs.

To help pay for the maintenance, the monks operate a microbrewery restaurant where you can drink St. Norbert beer, either dark or amber, or eat Chicken St. Norbert which is roast chicken in beer sauce with red cabbage and dumplings. 


When you hear St. Vitus, you think of the dance.  I'm not trying to be irreverent or politically incorrect, but St. Vitus is  the patron saint of dancers and also actors, comedians and epileptics. 

The deal is that St. Vitus, who was Sicilian, was martyred at age 12, in the year 303.  He was dipped into a vat of hot oil.  His body went into convulsions.  Today, the neurological disorder known as St. Vitus Dance is called Sydenham's chorea.   In the Middle Ages, people celebrated his Feast Day (June 15th) by dancing before his statue.   His bones (of one hand, at least) were given to Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia in 925 and they rest in the cathedral today.  The Gothic style cathedral was begun in the 1200's and completed in 1929.  Something about getting permits from the bureaucrats at city hall.  Carved on the fa├žade is the architect wearing 20th Century clothes.

Situated next to Prague Castle, this stately cathedral has been the coronation site for Czech kings and queens for hundreds of years.


Prague Castle, dating back to the 8th Century, is one of the largest castle complexes in the world, and that's saying a lot in Europe.  During the Middle Ages, the castle was the king's court and essentially the capital of the country.  We saw the inner workings of the castle--huge books where the medieval lawyers, presumably wearing green eyeshades hunched over the desks in the dim candlelight, making entries in the Land Rolls.   The Land Rolls were the official law books of the Court of Justice, deciding on disputes regarding the property of the royal towns, aristocracy, the Church and the yeomen.  Peasants, of course, didn't own land.  Jews didn't either.  The Court of Justice also decided on cases of libel and homicide, and the rulings were recorded.  The Land Rolls also entered decrees of the Diet concerning the rights and freedoms of the land.  They had different books for different types of entries. 

Prague Castle was also the site of the Defenestration of Prague.  For the vocabulary challenged, defenestration means throwing something or somebody out of a window.  In this case it was somebody--the staunch Catholic royal governor Jaroslav Borita of Martinic who represented the Habsburgs along with his scribe Fabricius were literally thrown out of the window by a group of rebellious Protestant aristocrats.  Miraculously, by landing in a dung heap,  they survived the 70 foot fall with minor injuries. 

The country didn't fare as well.  This incident touched off the Thirty Years War, and Protestants squared off against Catholics in one of the greatest European conflicts of modern history.    The hapless Habsburgs found refuge nearby at--the Lobkowicz Palace.   We got to see the historic window--hey, its just a window.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Austria, at least Vienna, is known for classical music, art museums and strudel.  There are no kangaroos in Austria.  Believe it or not, many stores sell signs with a kangaroo and a red line through it.  I seriously thought about buying one.  Austria used to be much bigger and more powerful than it is today, and I'm sure Europeans have no confusion about where they are.   As to the average American on the street, well that's another story.    We did enjoy our stay in Austria, or was it Australia.

Austria also has a dark side to its history.   Perhaps in an attempt to reclaim the past glory of the Habsburg days, between 1938 and 1945, Austria enthusiastically embraced Nazi Germany.  After all, Hitler was Austrian.  Unlike Germany, Austria never confronted its role in the Holocaust and refused to pay compensation to Nazi victims. 

In 1986, the Austrians elected as president the former UN Secretary-General and ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim.     During the campaign, it leaked out that Waldheim may have committed war crimes during World War II in occupied Greece.  It didn't hurt him in the election and maybe even helped him.  However, it caused an international furor when the United States declared him persona non grata and barred him from entering the country, not necessarily because he was a Nazi, but because he went to great lengths to cover up his past.   As it turned out, the UN investigation found no evidence that Waldheim personally committed war crimes, but it didn't believe his statements that he know nothing about them.  As Schultz used to say in Hogan's Heroes, "I know nothing."

Be that as it may, we had a good time in Vienna.  The day we arrived, we ate three meals in three different national capitals.  Breakfast in Budapest, lunch in Bratislava, Slovakia, and dinner in Vienna.  That's probably some kind of record. 

Natives of Vienna are called Wieners.  That's amusing to Americans, and I won't comment on that, but they do have hot dog stands in Vienna, and they are not like those in the U.S.   The Viennese serve you a foot long sausage and cut it in chunks.  Pork sausage, not beef.  No bun.  These are not Chicago or New York hot dogs.  No mustard, chopped onions, celery salt, hot peppers, relish.  They probably even put ketchup on them.   Folks here also eat lots of wiener schnitzel which is a breaded veal cutlet, not a hot dog.

The Viennese have Epicurian tastes when it comes to fancy pastries.  A block away from our hotel is the 5-Star Sacher Hotel which is world famous for its Sacher torte, a chocolate cake with apricot filling.  The dish was created by confectioner Franz Sacher for an 1832 reception honoring the Austrian chancellor Metternich.  We didn't taste it; we already had too much to eat.

Strudel is what puts Austria on the map.  There is an art to making good strudel, and there are schools in Vienna to teach strudel making.  We took our lesson at the Strudelshow at Schoenbrunn Palace where we learned to make apple strudel and eat the results.  The key is to stretch the dough very thin so that it comes out light.  It looks easy.  The strudel maker pounds out the dough like a large square pizza.  Then she scoops in the diced apples and rolls them up in the dough.  It was delicious. Right after our lesson, we went to lunch where they served us generous portions of wiener schnitzel with tomato sauce.   


We stayed at the grand old Bristol Hotel on the famous Ringstrasse in the center of town across from the Opera House.  The Bristol was built in the 1890's and it's classy.  We felt like we won the lottery when we entered our spacious room and bath decorated with elaborate furnishings.  The hotel is proud of the notable people have stayed there over the years:  Theodore Roosevelt, Sir Paul McCartney (before he was knighted), author Arthur Hailey (Airport, Hotel), the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, and the guy who wrote Bambi and later sold it to Walt Disney. 

When I got lost, I called the hotel concierge and told him I was on Einbahn Street and he laughed.  I said, "Hey, I'm looking right at the sign."   I found out einbahn means "one-way" street.

To say the Bristol served high end liquor is an understatement.  For example, if you're thirsty and have a big expense account, they'll serve you a 1.5 liter Magnum of Louis XIII Remy Martin cognac in Baccarat Crystal which will set you back 8990 Euros which is somewhere north of 10,000 bucks.  If you just want a shot, we're talking 95 euros which is actually reasonable.  We had some in Las Vegas. They sell this stuff like you'd sell a car.  The menu explains, "After 50 years of ripening, a full 1200 Eaux-de-vie have joined in an act of pure genius.  Nectar of ever-lasting flowers, dried fruit, lather, nutmeg, sandalwood, honey and wood bark - and a length of flavor that surpasses all expectations.  The complexity of the blend is displayed in exceptional length as in the presence of rare flavors."    As I said, this place is classy.

A short walk away is the symbol of Vienna, from where the streets all radiate.  The majestic, Gothic style 850 year old St. Stephen's Cathedral with its 500 foot spire can be seen from all over town.  It is the most visited tourist attraction in Vienna.  Mozart was baptized and married there.  St. Stephen is not to be confused with the Hungarian St. Stephen.  The Vienna Stephen was one of the first Christian martyrs, stoned to death in Jerusalem in the year 60 A.D. after a lengthy speech.   The Cathedral had began construction in the 1100's on December 26th, which is St. Stephen's Day.


Tauck Tours often comes up with pleasant surprises.  In Vienna, our tour group was treated to a private concert at the Vienna Residence Orchestra, a 7 piece chamber orchestra plus four singers and dancers.  It is considered one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world, and indeed, they have performed worldwide.  Their first guest conductor was Rudolf Nurayev, so we're talking big names. 

They entertained us with some of the familiar works of Mozart, Johann Strauss the Elder, and Johann Strauss the Younger.  Most non musicians probably didn't know there were two Johann Strausses.  The Mozart pieces included Marriage of Figaro, A Little Night Music and Turkish March.  If you ever watched Tom & Jerry cartoons, you would know these tunes. 

After the intermission, they played Strauss.  Roses from the South and Blue Danube Waltz are famous pieces by the younger Strauss.  They performed the Radetzky March by the elder Strauss.  You'll know it when you hear it.  The program listed "Johann Strauss" but didn't distinguish between the father and the son.  If you wanted to know why they wrote a song about the guy, Joseph Radetzky was the 81 year old general, actually the Field Marshal, who led the Austrians to victory at the obscure Battle of Custoza in 1848 defeating the King of Sardinia in the First Italian War of Independence.  Although it is pretty much lost to history, it was an important battle at the time. 

The Strausses were prolific, to say the least.  Johann the Elder fathered 7 kids with his wife and 6 more with his mistress.  He wanted his son to be a banker, not a composer. When he found Junior secretly practicing the violin, he took the boy out to the woodshed and gave him a severe whipping, saying he was going to beat the music out of him.   Strauss' long suffering wife went out of her way to encourage Junior to pursue a music career.  The result was Johann the Younger became an even more famous composer than his father.  Blue Danube Waltz is one of the most recognizable classical pieces ever. 

Mozart was born in Salzburg.  His father was a musician who earned extra money giving lessons.  When he gave Mozart's older sister piano lessons, the 4 year old Wolfgang watched intently, soaking up the lessons himself.  Before long, at age 5, he began composing his own stuff.  He was too young to write, so he dictated the tunes to his father.  His first piece was a 20 second number you can find on You Tube

Contrary to urban myth, the 5 year old Mozart did not compose the tune to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Baa Baa Black Sheep or the Alphabet Song (same tune).  He did write Twelve Variations of Ah! Vous dirai-je maman (Oh! Shall I tell you Mommy),  a French folk song, when he was 25.  Other composers like Bach, Liszt and Saint Saens also wrote compositions based on that tune.  The lyrics to Twinkle, Twinkle were written by the English sisters Jane and Ann Taylor in 1806. 

Mozart died at age 35.  He was diagnosed with a strep infection which caused kidney failure.  The disease was prevalent in Vienna at that time.  Unfortunately for Mozart, the diagnosis was not done until 2009, over 200 years too late.


The largest complex of buildings in Vienna is the Hofburg which was once the palaces of the ruling Habsburg Dynasty.  The Habsburgs originated in Switzerland.  Their name originated from their 11th Century Castle of Habichtsburg (hawk's castle), built by Count Radbot who changed his name to Count Habsburg--he named himself after the castle.  He was a local warlord, essentially the 11th Century Tony Soprano, who built up the family's influence through strategic marriages and alliances.  The family came to the area now known as Austria in 1278. 

Through different branches of the family, they ruled for 640 years until 1918.  Over the years, the different branches controlled not only Austria and Hungary, but most of Italy, Spain, Holy Roman Empire (Germany), Croatia, Slovenia, the Netherlands and even Transylvania.   They might have ruled longer, but they picked the wrong horse in World War I by siding with Germany.  The family lost their palaces but kept the money.   The most notable was Emperor Franz Josef who ruled for 72 years until his death in 1916 at age 86,  He was considered a benevolent ruler but his wife, Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) remains a cult like figure today.  More on her in a moment. 

The last Habsburg--the last surviving son of the last emperor--Otto von Habsburg died in 2011 at the age of 98.  He had renounced any claim to the Austrian throne in 1961, so his 7 kids are not considered royalty.  Otto received a royal funeral, actually two--one in Budapest and the other in Vienna.  It was attended by kings, queens and heads of state.  


Emperor Franz Josef was a boring, bureaucratic type of guy.  Not a bad guy, just geeky.  His wife, however, was described as the German speaking Scarlett O'Hara.  She was tall and beautiful and neurotic about her appearance.  Everyone in Austria knows what she looked like because her image is everywhere.  Sisi spent hours each day working on her hairdo.  She had an aversion to fat, so she exercised incessantly.  Then she would wear heavy leather corsets pinching her waist to keep it around 18 inches.  She once met her cousin, the corpulent Queen Victoria of England and said, "Get me out of here!"

Sisi and the Emperor had overbearing mothers.  Their mothers were sisters, so she and Franz Josef were first cousins.   Her machutunim were her aunt and uncle.  In the U.S., people might make fun of rural Southerners who intermarry, but intermarriage was common among European royalty.  Whatever the case, Sisi was from Munich and spoke German with a Southern accent.

Sisi's mother Ludovik had worked out big plans for Sisi's older sister Helene to marry the 23 year old Emperor.  They journeyed to Vienna to meet him.  The 15 year old Sisi tagged along.  Well the Emperor couldn't take his eyes off Sisi, and their whirlwind romance--or maybe their problems--began.   They were married in 1854. 

Franz Josef's mother, the formidable Archduchess Sophie felt bamboozled by the whole thing.  Helene had been raised to marry well, while Sisi was more of a free spirit, growing up as a tomboy, playing sports and horseback riding.  Sophie took on the project of civilizing Sisi, to remake her into a disciplined Empress.  Sisi was not a willing student.  What galled Sophie even more was that the beautiful and freewheeling Sisi was very popular with the common people--the Nineteenth Century Princess Diana. 

She and Franz Josef had four children, but mother-in-law Sophie took charge of raising them.  Sisi began to travel extensively, especially to Hungary, to get away from the court.  Sisi got the last laugh in 1867 in defiance of her mother-in-law who didn't much like Hungarians.  Sisi took up the cause of the restive Hungarians and, partly through her influence, worked out the Hungarian Compromise in which she and the Emperor were crowned as King and Queen of Hungary.  The Hungarians loved her.  Sophie stewed about it.  Her perception was that her beloved Franz Josef was under the undue influence of his wife. 

In 1889, Sisi's son, the crown prince Rufolf, who was unhappily married to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, killed his mistress and the himself in a bizarre murder-suicide.   Sisi never recovered from that tragedy. 

Sisi was assassinated in 1898 by an Italian anarchist who stabbed her with a letter opener that punctured her corset.  His intended target had been the Duke of Orleans who didn't show up.  Sisi was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  She had spent most of her life seeking happiness which constantly eluded her.    Being a queen would seem like a nice gig but it really isn't. 

After her death, Sisi became a larger than life figure.  Hollywood made three movies about her.  Her imperial crypt in Vienna is always covered with flowers.  The Sisi Museum at the Hofburg has throngs of people lined up to see her exercise equipment and personal effects. And, of course her image appears on postcards and posters all over town..

The Habsburg palaces in Austria are now museums.  The Hofburg is a maze of museums ranging from art museums, the Imperial Treasury and the Natural History museum to the Spanish Riding School, home of the famous dancing Lipizzan horses.  It is also the home of the Austrian president. 


At the Hofburg, we made it a point to visit the Imperial Treasury which contains, among other things the crown jewels.  This museum traces the long history of the Habsburgs through the trappings of their 640 year reign.  The most popular exhibits are the two magnificent crowns--that of Rudolf II and also the Imperial Crown of the Habsburgs.  These crowns are not something the king would wear out on the street.  They weigh enough that he would get a headache wearing it on his head.  Rudolf's crown looks like a crown should look, with red velvet interspersed with all the gold. 

Some of the other interesting relics at the Treasury include the cradle for Napoleon's son, the largest cut emerald in the world, vestments and collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece.  Also we saw agate bowls, golden goblets--everything was worth a fortune.  Dianne and the other women were dazzled by the gold jewelry, the ostentatious display of wealth. 


The Baroque style Schoenbrunn Palace, built in 1548 for the Habsburgs is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Austria.  It has 1441 rooms (we only saw a few hundred), and has been featured in several movies as well as the Great Race on TV.   It was the summer residence of the Habsburg family.  The history of the palace is essentially the history of the Habsburg Dynasty in Austria. 

Empress Marie Theresa (1717-1780) lived in Schoenbrunn Palace in the 18th Century.  She completely remodeled it in 1743.  She wanted it to look like Versailles which had been completed about 20 years earlier in France.  During her reign, she hired Wolfgang A. Mozart to perform a concert to entertain her friends in the palace.  Mozart was 6 years old. 

They didn't have reality shows in those days, but the Empress bore 16 kids, including 11 girls.  In George Foreman fashion, she named them all Marie.  Each one had a different middle name, like her 15th kid, Marie Antonia who married King Louis XVI in France and became better known as Marie Antoinette.  Marie Theresa was a larger than life character, in more ways than one.  She married her husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I for love and was devoted to him,  However when he took a 17 year old mistress, Countess Maria Wilhelmina von Neipperg, that put some strains on their marriage.  In state matters, and certainly household matters, Marie Theresa ran the show. 

We tend to think it's great to be a princess; life is good.  That was not always the case.  Like most of European royalty, Marie Theresa married off her daughters in arranged marriages to various kings and dukes who would knock up their mistresses and often abuse their wives. 

Marie Theresa's doctor told her to eat 12 meals a day to nourish the kids.  She dutifully obeyed her doctor and enjoyed every morsel.  However, they didn't have personal trainers in those days, and she became rather portly, so much so, that she couldn't climb the stairs in the palace.  They hadn't invented escalators yet.  She had to have a first floor bedroom. 

Marie Theresa was extremely anti-Semitic, but in all fairness, she was intolerant of other faiths (e.g. Protestant) also.  In 1744 she expelled the Jews from Prague, perhaps because of rumors the Jews had sided with the Prussians during the War of the Austrian Succession.  Then she expelled the Protestants to Transylvania.   She regarded the Church of England as heretical Protestant, so she distrusted the British also.

She mellowed somewhat in later years, maybe due to the influence of a Jewish member of her court, Abraham Mende Theben.  In 1762, she forbade the forcible conversion of Jewish children to Catholicism, and then in 1763, she stopped the Catholic clergy from imposing special taxes on the Jews.  She supported Jewish commercial and industrial activity but still intensely disliked them to the extent that she would only talk to Jews behind a screen.    Her attitudes toward Jews and non Catholics appeared to change almost daily, but it appears from her actions that her priority was the protection and welfare of her empire and her subjects (except those of the Jewish and Protestant persuasions). 


After World War II, Austria and also Vienna were divided into occupation zones similar to those in Germany and Berlin.  At the 1945 Yalta Conference, the U.S. essentially ceded Central Europe to Russian influence.  There were political reasons for doing so.  As in Berlin, there was Cold War intrigue--spy vs. spy.  It was exemplified in the 1958 spy classic The Third Man, starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, filmed in Vienna.  Critics call this movie a work of art, one of the greatest movies of all time, right up there with Citizen Kane.   The best line in the movie had Orson Welles' character remarking, :...In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.   In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace--and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." 

In 1955, the Austrians asked the Russians to leave and, to the surprise of the West, they agreed to do so.  The catch was that they would leave if the U.S., Britain and France left also, and Austria would become a neutral country.  They worked out a treaty, and Austria became an independent republic  A year later, Poland and Hungary  tried that also, but it didn't work for them.  The Russians weren't moderating after all.


This magnificent museum displays the largest collection of Bruegels and Flemish art in the world.  Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569)--whose son was also a painter but not a good one--was the first to paint scenes of peasant life.  He created 45 paintings of which one-third are in this museum.  Some of the others have been lost, probably in World War II. 

Most Renaissance painters portrayed religious subjects, and Bruegel did also in his early years, but Bruegel was significant because he accurately depicted daily life in the Belgian countryside   His subjects displayed the meals, festivals, dances and games of the peasant culture.  In The Peasant Wedding one can point out individual people of the village whom he knew. The details are quite remarkable when one looks closely.  In The Hunters in the Snow, he documents European life during the Little Ice Age.  In recent years, they haven't gotten much snow in the Low Countries, but for several hundred years, winters were very cold in Europe.   

The most valuable piece in the Museum of Cultural History is the Vermeer, The Art of Painting
Vermeer was known to work slowly and created only 34 paintings that we know of.  His works were widely forged, so we're not sure about all of them.  There were lawsuits about this piece.  Its (non-Jewish) owner, Count Jaromir Czernin sold the painting to Hitler in 1940 for 1.8 million Reichmarks.  Earlier in 1935, he had tried to sell it to Andrew Mellon but the Austrian government prohibited the export of cultural heritage.  After the war, the U.S. Monuments Men led by George Clooney recovered it from a salt mine and repatriated it.   Czernin and his heirs tried to get the painting back, or at least restitution, at least three times over the years claiming the sale was coerced.  The judges in each case didn't agree.  They said he sold it voluntarily for fair market value.  At least Hitler paid for it--he probably could have just taken it. 

The museum also exhibits celebrated works by Rubens, Caraveggio, VanDyck and Rembrandt.  The guide brought out a interesting fact about the people depicted in the paintings.  In those days long hair was the style for men, and it was the mark of a free man.  If a man had short hair, he was probably a convict because if did time in prison, his head would be shaved.   When he was released from jail, he of course had short hair. 

NEXT:  The Suskins Go Bohemian, Czech This Out.