August 2008 - August 2009 Megamail

You were probably hoping they were extinct, but the dreaded MegaMail has returned. What took so long you are asking? Well, yes, it has been over a year since the last one in Ireland. I'm not sure what has taken so long. Certainly the density of travel has been at issue. Some destinations that have not yet had the luxury of a Megamail going back almost two years:

  • Stockholm
  • Oktoberfest (twice)
  • Graz (twice)
  • Ski Trips (quince, that is apparently 'times five'. I love Google.)
  • Heidelberg
  • Czech Road Trip
  • Tokyo
  • St. Petersburg
  • Tirol Road Trip
  • Austria Road Trip (with my parents)
  • Dubrovnik
  • Istanbul
  • IAEA Ball
  • Valencia
  • Slovenia Road Trip
  • Hungary Road Trip
  • China
  • Northern Italy Road Trip

That is a lot of territory and one hell of a MegaMail to cover it all. If you are wondering about the break between Dubrovnik and Istanbul, that is where this particular MegaMail will terminate coverage.

I'm not sure how I'm going to do it so I'll just do what comes naturally during these things, I'll ramble and see where we go. You might want to order a pizza or something before you get started.

One thing I thought about doing was a White Nights Deathmatch between Stockholm and St. Petersburg. 'White Nights' are what they term the time of the year when it is almost continuously sunlight in those cities as they are that far north. Before you go and move there, they of course have the Black Nights in winter when it is almost always completely dark. I think I would go insane. And both cities claim to be the 'Venice of the North'. Seriously.

And both had, mmm, additional fees associated prior to arrival. In the case of Stockholm, the moral of the story is to be sure to double check your confirmation e-mails, etc. from the airlines. For this trip we got a really good deal with Austrian Airlines. However, this was the first trip with this airline and their website proved vexing and required repeated attempts to make the reservation. The upshot of all that was my name on the ticket ended up being "ERIC GR"

That is one heck of a last name. I'm jealous. If that were my real last name I could menace everybody by saying "My name is Eric Grrrrrrrrr". They think I'm growling at them like some wildebeest and they won't bother me anymore. But as far as getting one on a plane, in this day and age of higher inconvenience disguised as higher security, not so helpful.

We noticed this mistake a month later when the day before our flight I broke out the receipts and saw that maybe I wouldn't be going to Stockholm. Have fun Sam, tell me how it was! What ensued as numerous telephone calls and actual journey to the airport, all to no avail. Finally, a ticketing agent there took pity and hand wrote a telephone number for me. I've checked. This number does not exist anywhere on anything printed or online. This is the magic number.

Despite initial denials that they could change the name on the reservation and their insistence that I could buy a new ticket at the going rate (going rate being three times the original amount we paid), they finally relented (after I put my best agent on the job, Sam) and confessed there is indeed a 'name change' fee of something like 100 Euros. That was certainly the best option so far and so we jumped at it.

But then the funny part... Sam was wondering when they would ask what the full name was and when they never did, Sam asked them. The response was, "oh, it's right here attached to the frequent flyer number you provided... Eric Gracyalny" Awesome. Why did we need to go through all this hassle again?

In the case of the St. Petersburg, the moral of the story is that paying for a visa to go to Russia is the most convoluted process imaginable. Basically, the agents at the Russian embassy are so trustworthy that you cannot pay for the visa at the actual embassy. Instead, they give you a little slip of paper and say, pay this.

I'm familiar with these little slips of paper and whenever I've gotten them in the past, I've paid them online, because the first time I tried to do this myself, I ended up taking money out of the account of the entity I owed and putting it into mine. I would think there are safeguards to prevent something like that, but oh well.

Well, thinking ahead that they would not believe that I paid it online, I had to do it the manual way. Which is basically, fill it out, stamp it and throw it into the inbox at the bank. I was suspicious of that way too, but went ahead and returned a week later to pick up my passport. The lady looked at my little piece of paper with its blue rectangular stamp and threw it back in my face.

Apparently I did not follow proper procedures.

The conversation that ensued made clear that I had two choices: 1) convince my bank to give me something that would prove I paid, 2) pay again, the correct way. Thinking about how much time it would take me to explain to my bank what I needed and then to actually get it, then return to the Russian embassy on the few days they are open, etc., etc. I opted for option two, which the ladies at both the embassy and the bank thought was ludicrous, but thought I was crazy and stupid anyway for not doing it correctly the first time.

Oh, so what did I need? The black circular stamp, not the blue rectangular stamp. Holy crap! All in all, funny little anecdotes for both Stockholm and St. Petersburg, but we got to go to both. If you have a choice between one or the other, it isn't really much of a comparison, St. Petersburg should be your choice.


Not that Stockholm isn't worth seeing too. The absolutely best thing about Stockholm is the Vasa Museum. This was a sailing ship that sank on its maiden voyage in the 1600's. Apparently the king had some ideas about shipbuilding they should have been ignored because the ship capsized almost immediately after launching. Of course, the king couldn't be blamed so they decided to blame a strong gust of wind. Bad wind!!!

Three hundred years later, the ship was discovered and was actually in tremendous condition. I guess the very cold brackish water was instrumental to its preservation. So they dug it up and reassembled it and now you can go and see it. Absolutely amazing! What I found truly remarkable, besides the excellent condition it was in, was the size of the ship. I guess I had this thought that all these early sailors were crossing oceans in incredibly small vessels. But the Vasa is enormous.

To put it in perspective, Columbus's ships had tonnage under 100. The Mayflower, a contemporary of the Vasa, was under 200. The Vasa is 69 meters long and has a tonnage of 1200. The USS Constitution, made over 150 years later is shorter and has a bit more tonnage. To me, making ships that large back then is just amazing.

The next coolest thing to see in Stockholm is actually outside of Stockholm, Drottningholm Palace. Well, technically the palace and surrounding gardens are just nice, as far as palaces go. The truly cool thing there is the Court Theatre. Again, something old that was recently rediscovered. This is a fully functional theatre from the time of the American Revolution that was abandoned after the king/prince who commissioned it died and nobody really liked it, or him, in the first place so it became a warehouse. It reveals a very elaborate stage complete with 18th century special effects. Seriously, we were demonstrated a very believable thunderstorm.

Stockholm was as a whole very expensive. As such, investment in the Stockholm Card, which gets you free mass transit use and admittance to numerous museums and other attractions, is an absolute must. This saved us a ton of money. Besides the Vasa and Drottningholm, other locations we saw using this card:

  • City Hall - Home of the annual Nobel Prize Awards Dinner. Very cool both inside and out.
  • Nobel Museum - Lame-ooooooooo-rama!
  • The Royal Palace and Museum Tre Kronor - I don't really remember this except for the basement which was pretty cool.
  • Riddarholmen Church - Best from outside.
  • Skansen - A kind of Colonial Williamsburg or Heritage Hill, Swedish style. Home of the oddest sight in Stockholm. The grounds were still open late, even though it was after dark. Besides the historical buildings, there is also a zoo. It was strange to have the place to ourselves, literally. But the strangest thing occurred during our walk out. We stumbled upon an outdoor dance floor. People were doing the waltz and other ball room dancing. And it was absolutely packed! We were mesmerized by the spectacle.
  • Cathedral - Meh, another church.
  • Moderna Museet - Modern museum which is way better than Vienna's I can say for sure.
  • Museum of Architecture - Rather interesting for my one time dream of becoming in an Architect. Long before George Costanza had his.

I'm sure we did other things, but there were a lot more things we would liked to have done too. But we found something out about the tourist season in Stockholm. You are only supposed to go June-August. Because come September 1, many things close up shop for winter or operate with reduced hours. And it doesn't matter if September 1st is a Saturday. Down it goes. We happened to be there during this August and September transition and can say without lying that this is true.

And besides, by that time of the year, it is getting pretty chilly up there. There are no such things as Indian Summers. Brrrrr. Sorry, Grrrrr!

No Megamail would be complete without discussion of food and drink. I simply remember that food in Stockholm was expensive, but not particularly impressive. I do have a 'rude waiter' story though. At this one place we went for dinner Sam asked for a white wine and myself a red wine. The waiter brought two reds. Recognizing the mistake I indicated that Sam (currently powdering her nose) wanted the white. The waiter rolled his eyes, grumbled something and was off. I didn't know if that was an acknowledgement of the request and action would be taken or a "screw you, take what I give you" type response.

Eventually he did bring a glass of white and said something like "are you sure this time?" Dick - wad. No tip for you!

The beer, or whatever the hell it was, in Stockholm was much more satisfying. In the old town, on Gamla Stan... oh hold on. Remember that whole Venice of the North thing? Well, Stockholm claims that distinction because it is in reality a series of islands. So there is a lot of water no matter where you look. Anyway, the old town, or oldest populated island, is called Gamla Stan. It is mostly pedestrianized and had a lot of old world flavour. Very charming, and thus full of tourists, like outselves.

Anyway, one of the main streets on Gamla Stan is Stora Nygaten and along the southern end of the street are a lot of bars and other like-minded establishments. This one we found is in the cellar and is located next to the one with the pirates. Stop asking questions!

Anyway, it looked like an interesting establishment so we checked it out. Not really deciphering what they had on tap I just basically said "I'll have what he's having". I think it was beer, but not 100% sure on that. Anyway, it was good and served in beaten up mugs. The ambience in the place was incredible. Except for very few electric lights, all illumination in the place was from candles. The ceiling was pitch black with smoky residue. How long has that been building up? There were few small tables in favour of the large tables where you would be forced to sit next to a stranger and strike up a conversation. Finally, apparently the pirates infiltrated the place because there were several and they were routinely singing lusty lyrics.

I didn't want to leave. Swedish has the absolute best way to say hello: Hey Hey! I love it. Especially when spoken by the attractive women working at the at the information booth in the airport. Not that I noticed or anything.

In Stockholm they also have the most courteous bus drivers. The bus driver would not go until all passengers assumed their position. If somebody was still walking the aisle, the bus would not move. Of course, I think this was on a Sunday that I noticed this so there was like no rush to go anywhere, but still, nice touch.

The other bus incident that I recollect was at some point the bus got very full, like exceeding capacity full. The last passenger on was this little terrier (yes, like in Austria, dogs in mass transit not a big deal). And his poor little tail kept wagging and setting off the IR sensor for the door so the door kept opening and closing. It was funny to watch. Eventually the dog squeezed further in, but apparently the door liked the game and kept on opening and closing. We were there for like five minutes until the bus driver could reset it and we could move along. Poor dog.

And Viola, Stockholm is done. But what about St. Petersburg, the place that I declared the victor in the Venice of the North deathmatch? Why do I think it was so much better? Simply put, the WOW factor.

St. Petersburg

Stockholm didn't really wow me. St. Petersburg did. We arrived extremely late, like 1AM and after a cab ride at relativistic speeds to the hotel we went out to see what we could see. Which wasn't much because it was pouring rain, but what we did see was a number of establishments still open. In fact, the Russian expression for open 24 hours is "Non Stop Open" I love it. We found a pub at few doors down from our hotel, which as far as location, we couldn't have asked for better, and had the first of many Baltika beers that we consumed on this trip.

Baltika beer has an interesting and not particularly inventive naming convention for their beers. There is Baltika 2 (lager), 3 (classic), 4 (dark), 5 (golden), 6 (porter), 7 (export), 8 (wheat), 9 (extra). What happened to number 1? Anyway, 3 is the one in widest release though 8 was particularly tasty.

The next day we made our first, failed assault upon the Hermitage. The line was enormous and was not really moving. We opted to try again the next day, early. But the rest of that day we tramped around the city taking in a number of attractions and working our poor camera to death. We scored some tickets to the ballet... Spanish Ballet as a matter of fact, in the historic Mariinsky Theater. We had an excellent lunch at Tapeo... or was that dinner. With daylight being a near continuous presence it is hard to be certain.

To conclude the evening we found the mythical brew pub, Tinkoff, braving monsoon rains without an umbrella in the process. Very nice brew pub with an excellent variety of beers, super hard croutons that were surprisingly addictive for complimentary munchies, and R-rated commercials playing on the seemingly endless array of televisions present. Sweet. I think when we left it was still daylight.

The next day we woke up early and went to the Hermitage before it opened. There was already a line. This is where we were introduced to what Sam and I call 'Russian Style' From previous Megamails, you might be familiar with Brazilian Style, which means, no line. "Everyone for themselves." Russian Style, we would learn, means "Lines are for Suckers". People cut in line in Russia like their life depends upon it. Well, maybe it once did, who knows. Anyway, lines, if you see them, don't bother. Just go up to the front, and when they open the gate, thrust forward like you have every reason to be there.

Afterwards we found out you can buy tickets online for the Hermitage and you should definitely do that to avoid this mess. Just to give you an idea, if you search for St. Petersburg on Google maps, the teardrop that highlights St. Petersburg is roughly where the end of the line was. To get to the front of the line, head straight towards the river. Enroute you will encounter a very large building with an impressively sized courtyard. On the opposite side of this courtyard you will find the entrance to the Hermitage. What is that, 200-300 meters? Yikes. I haven't seen one of those since Pearl Harbor, but at least that one moved!

OK, so why are so many people interested in seeing the Hermitage? First, it was a former royal palace. And the Russians, always trying to outdo their European cousins to the west wanted it bigger and better than anybody else's. The rooms in the Hermitage are numerous, enormous and marvellous. And it just keeps going and going and going. Second, the Hermitage now is an art museum. A very impressive art museum.

We spent literally all day at the Hermitage and didn't see everything. It was a race to see if we died of exhaustion before they gave us the boot at closing time. Unfortunately, as you are reading this, exhaustion clearly did not set in fast enough. The Hermitage alone should put St. Petersburg high on everybody's list of places to go.

Speaking of that ballet that we went to. It is surreal to leave the theatre after the performance at 10:30 at night and it is still daylight. Time enough, in fact, to find someplace to watch the sunset, such as it is.

Of course, having these extended daylight hours means a lot of work can get done. I was seeing construction crews working well past 9pm on a site once. If you haven't experienced these really long days before, it *is* strange. I mean, I had an idea in my mind what it would be like, but that idea didn't really compare with reality.

Anyway, another thing that St. Petersburg had in plenty was churches. Now, given the Communist take on freedom of religion wasn't all that favourable, this may be surprising, but in fact, most of these churches aren't churches anymore, but museums to religion, or something like that. Regardless, the grandeur of the places cannot be ignored. The Church on Spilled Blood for instance, just from the outside is a site to behold. But it would be crime not to enter it for the mosaics present are simply awe-inspiring.

Another church, during it's period of shame, was turned into a swimming pool. It is a church again now, but the swimming pool seating remains. Very interesting. Like you'd expect the priest to do laps during his homily or something.

The oddest attraction we saw in St. Petersburg was the metro. Yes, we actually made a point of seeing the subway. Some of the stations built back in the 60's are monumental. Each one is different and make heavy use of granite. Oh, and apparently there were also bomb shelters in the event you know what happened. Just ignore the No Photos signs. They haven't gotten around to taking those down yet. We have this on good authority of a native.

The other thing of note during our trip to St. Petersburg was a half-day trip to Peterhof. Yet another palace outside of town. I say that because there are two or three others that we did not go see during our visit. We took a boat there and back, which, although not particularly scenic, is actually more convenient. We did the Russian Style entrance to the Palace, which isn't all that amazing. What is amazing are the grounds and there numerous water fountains and other water features. Those were spectacular.

Though a map would have been a nice feature. Sam and I found a billboard with a map to the grounds, took a photo of it, and then kept reviewing the picture in the camera to figure out where we were. The grounds are that huge that it is easy, not to get lost, but to miss stuff that you don't want to miss.


Running along the theme of vacations that almost weren't, there is a funny story about our trip to Dubrovnik. But first, a little about the destination. Upon coming to Europe, I have to admit that I never heard of Dubrovnik before. Upon investigation, it is coastal town in Croatia (the former Yugoslavia). In fact, it is a very nice coastal town in that the old town is entirely surrounded by walls and the entire old town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. During the breakup of the former Yugoslavia it received moderate damage from naval shelling. But now, it is once again tourist destination central with multiple cruise ships anchoring there each day, and that was in the so called slow season in late September.

Sam and I wanted to go some place warm and chill out for a week. We somewhat quickly narrowed that down to some place in Croatia or some Greek Island, Crete, being the one that bubbled up to the top of the list for some reason. And for one reason or another, Greece once again got the shaft. I say once again, because we considered going to Greece instead of Ireland but in the end picked Ireland.

So, what almost prevented this trip from happening? Trains. Let me explain. To get to the airport in Vienna from our house, we normally take a subway a few stops and then take a train about 25 minutes to the airport. There is also a bus, but that is usually reserved for when we just miss a train (as it is more expensive) or it is very early in the morning when the metro isn't running yet.

Anyway, the day that we were travelling to Dubrovnik I arrived at the train station and saw that all the trains were running late. I went up to the platform and happened to see that the train there was for the airport so I hurried on, counted my blessings and then... waited... and waited... and waited.

Where was Sam during all this? She was going to take the next train after me. I was going to check in all of our stuff, or if nothing else, stand in line. Trains run every 30 minutes, or less, so it works out.

Eventually, an announcement was made, in German, and suddenly a bunch of people got off the train. Oooooookay. That can't be good. Looking at the time, I said hell with it and decided to try and catch the next bus. In the meantime I called and informed Sam of all this. She was already on her way.

We met up and asked some guy in uniform what was happening. He said a train was stuck on the tracks and so nothing else could move in that direction until the track was cleared. 30 minutes at least. He recommended going to a different bus that we have never used before to go to the airport because we have already missed the bus that we normally take.

What we really should have done was just take a taxi then and there. But that would have been boring. No, instead we took the guy's advice and went off in search of this bus, several metro stops away. When we got there, we promptly got turned around. They are renovating the whole area into the new central train station and everything is totally ripped up. Very confusing. But furthermore, no sign of the airport bus. We asked somebody and they pointed in some direction, a number of blocks that way.

Well, that isn't so convenient. So *then* we started to look for a taxi. Of course, there were none to be found. And the ones on the street were either full or just didn't care. We were very much like chickens with the heads cut off because we saw the time and we were running out of it.

Suddenly, some guy of Middle Eastern descent comes running our way and wants to know if we are going to the airport? Yeees, do you have a taxi? No, but I'm taking my cousin there right now so I'd be happy to give you a lift. Any other time and we probably would have declined but we had few options so we accepted. I know mom, just lay off.

We get to his car and don't see a cousin. He says, he is just a block this way. Anyway, we stuff our suitcases into this trunk and he speeds off. Well..., we were in the car too so it isn't as bad as it first sounds. And he didn't lie, his cousin was about a block away, but on the other hand, his cousin wasn't like ready to go.

There were some phone calls and eventually we saw his cousin run out of the building across the street carrying two enormous suitcases. Great, let's go! No, he has more stuff in the apartment. He comes back with two more, not as huge, but not small either, suitcases. But wait, there is more. He goes back a third time and gets another armful of stuff.

By this time we are committed to this course of events because our bags are buried under a mountain of other luggage, though we considered just bailing and trying for a taxi again, though even that route looked doubtful because we didn't see many taxis go by and certainly none that weren't already in use.

Anyway, eventually we got everything loaded, the trunk was packed full and everybody had stuff at their feet and in their laps. That car was full and the driver did make pretty good time to the airport. At the dropoff we threw out their luggage, got ours, we shoved a wad full of bills (probably more than cab fare would have been) at the driver, thanked him for his generosity and took off inside to drop of our bags in a nick of time. We did make our flight but there really wasn't much time to spare. Whew!!!

So was it worth the pre trip drama? Ab-so-lute-ly! Dubrovnik is an awesome place to visit. And like I said, this was pretty much a trip of nothing, which is a drastic departure from our normal trips. We did do one day of sightseeing around town, we walked all along the city walls, which takes a couple of hours and is the one must-do thing in town. The town inside the walls is entirely pedestrian and has many narrow streets and alleyways, and numerous stairs climbing up to impressive vistas. A lot of atmosphere.

Of course, it isn't like we are the only ones who know this and during the day time the city is actually too crowded because, as I said earlier, thousands of people get dropped off by the cruise ships and those narrow city streets are packed with people. It loses some charm then.

But that really didn't impact us much for our daily routine was to wake up whenever, take the bus out of town to where all of the resorts were, walk along the shore to one of the places, roast in the sun with occasional dips into the sea for hours on end, have a few actually not that expensive foo foo drinks, pack up, goto a different resort that had a great outdoor bar where we watched the sunset and had some more foo foo drinks. Then, take the bus back to town, by now the cruisers were gone, back to our apartment we rented in the city and showered up.

For whatever reason, I had some crises to resolve back at work so I took Sam's computer to a place that had free WIFI, ordered another foo foo drink and started to fix whatever needed fixing. We tended to go to the same places and so I ensured I tried a number of the tropical concoctions they had on the menu. My favourite was the Faithful Bitch. Very tasty!

Then we went to dinner somewhere. We tended to stick with beer with our meals because for whatever reason, the wine in Dubrovnik was horrible. Like, gasoline really. Our best dining experience came at this place in the harbour. You can't miss it because every guide book mentions the place and there will most likely be a line. It is well worth the wait. Good-sized portions of various seafood and it was the one place the wine wasn't bad. The baby calamari is incredible! Not expensive either.

After dinner we just roamed around town looking for a band to listen too and have a few drinks before returning to the apartment. We also on occasion followed the Cold Drinks signs to the hole in the city walls that leads to a little terrace outside on the shores of the Adriatic. This place is very popular at sunset. And they do indeed have the coldest beer in Dubrovnik. But don't go at night if there is no moonlight or you'll get a serious case of vertigo.

And that was our routine for a week, with one exception. One day we took a trip to Montenegro. Montenegro has been on Sam's list of places to go since the first Bond movie with Daniel Craig. It is supposed to be beautiful and it is just a couple of hours away from Dubrovnik via catamaran. We did this as part of an organized trip which is generally not our style, but hey, whatever.

Despite the horrible English-speaking tour guide we had (Sam actually told me what the French-speaking dude said) one could plainly see that Montenegro is a beautiful country. Of course, one could also plainly see that it is not well taken care of. Trash is everywhere. In the water, along the roads, it was disappointing. The standard saying, 'Good from far, but far from good' certainly applied. I hope they get their act together.

Probably the best part of Montenegro was Kotor and the Bay of Kotor. Kotor is a walled-city, triangular in shape and the fortifications head well up the hills overlooking the city. They are extensive and if we had more time we would have liked to climb them to get those breathtaking views from up there.

Probably the most disappointing was Budva. The old town was extremely small, nice, but small. And one could tell that Budva was just becoming overrun with development. Supposedly there are more millionaires per capita in Budva than anywhere else in the world. I'm not sure why though because it isn't that great.

The only other thing that I can think to remember about Dubrovnik was cats. There were certainly more stray cats in Dubrovnik per capita than anywhere else I have seen. And you could clearly determine which residences were cat friendly because there were dozens of cats loitering around those places waiting for handouts. Dozens! And then around the corner, another softie and dozens more. There was even one with a "Spare Change" sign around its neck. I'm not kidding!

Getting back to the deathmatch theme of this megamail, let's move on to Heidelberg versus Graz, shall we? What title are these cities battling it out for? Mmmm, how about "Best city with castle on hill overlooking old medieval town center with raging river." Hmmm, actually, I think Salzburg and Cesky Krumlov could also be added to the competition as well as half of Europe's cities, but as Salzburg was during the road trip with my parent's, I'll leave that one for later. OK, so the competition for Best German-speaking city that begins with the letter G or H, with castle on hill overlooking old medieval town center and raging river begins!


First, Graz. Graz is about two hours drive from Vienna which makes it ideal for a day trip or an overnighter. Graz is also the home of Arnold, I'll be back, Schwarzenegger!

I had the honor of visiting there twice. Once before Christmas 2008 with Sam as we dropped off Jake and Lola at the sitter before we left for Spain for the holidays. The second time was with Tuppy in July 2009 when he came for a visit with Mindy and his sister. This gives me both the winter and summer perspectives.

But anytime you go, Graz is a pretty nice place to visit. The castle overlooking town is clearly the main draw though. There are numerous ways to assault the castle. The indirect, switchback, meandering path to the summit. This can also be embellished with a long, dark cave ascent. Highly recommended. There is a funicular on the back side which is kind of out of the way to be convenient. There is an elevator, which costs some coin, but is certainly the easiest and fastest way to the top. And finally, the frontal, staircase climb of death straight up. When viewing this staircase from the ground, particularly at night, it has a fantastical feel to it. Like something straight from Rivendell.

At the top you get the obligatory spectacular views of the city including mountains in the distance, that raging river and something that can best be described as a giant space slug, slowly devouring the city. This is in fact, an art museum, or so they say, but I never ventured in because I never saw anybody coming out!

You'll learn that much of the castle was destroyed by Napoleon, that louse. Although he tried to take the castle by force, numerous times, he failed them all. But at some point and I forget the particulars, they had to surrender and Napoleon wanted to show them who's boss and set about nuking the place. He was also going to blow up the symbol of the city, a clock tower, but was bribed sufficiently to keep it safe. Double louse. You can still see the clock tower today.

A great place to eat is at the restaurant at the top in the shadow of the clock tower. Awesome views, airy, decent menu and not ridiculously overpriced.

There are a number of other things in Graz to keep your interest for a day. The center has a nice energy to it, and it is a university town so there is always something happening there to catch your interest.


Heidelberg on the other-hand, I just went once. Sam had work there and we went the weekend before to give it our touristic best. As far as castles go, Heidelberg is the clear winner over Graz. Although not in perfect shape, the castle in Heidelberg is larger, has greater infrastructure than Graz's, and includes possibly the world's largest wine vat at 58,000 gallons. I'd hate to see that thing rolling down the hill at me!

I think the views from Graz's castle are a little better and it also has that nice restaurant. You're out of luck in that capacity in Heidelberg. Also the approach to the castle in Graz is better. But other than those minor metrics, Heidelberg Castle is an awesome place to visit.

The rest of Heidelberg is also nice. The old town has numerous pedestrian streets, including I believe, the longest pedestrian street in all of Europe. How did such a small town manage that? There is also some nice architecture around and a very nice bridge going over that raging river.

Something about Heidelberg it seems is that they want the biggest, or longest, or most, something or other. They also have, according to them, the strongest beer. Not the beer with the most alcohol mind you, but at 10.5%, it still has a serious kick. No apparently it has the highest density at 33% platos, or was that socrates... I crack myself up!

As far as which city will prevail in this particular Death Match, let's give the edge to Heidelberg. I think Graz as a city in general is nicer, but as a tourist destination, I think Heidelberg has more to offer.

Wow, we are just cruising. Just think of it. On most Megamails, when we arrive to page ten we are just ending up the first day, but here you are, four destinations and two deathmatch winners declared! How sweet is that? It is probably best that you don't answer that actually.


So how about ski trips? We ended up doing two in 2009 and three in 2010. They were all to Austrian venues, but probably ones you never heard of: Hochkönig, Bad Aussee, Obertaeurn, Schladming and Nassfeld. We did all of our ski trips with the ski club at the IAEA. It is a nice arrangement. They provide the transportation, the lodging, breakfasts, one dinner and half-day group ski lessons at all levels. Lift tickets are extra, but there is a group discount. Most times the tickets are downright cheap as compared to the US. And the bus includes cheap Czech beer in the fridge so that is a nice perk.

Skiing in Austria is definitely different than in the US. First, you get the immediate sense that people know how to ski a lot better here. I don't know if I've seen a yard sale since coming here. People go fast and seem to be in perpetual training for the Olympics or something. Helmets are very, very common. Children are pretty much learning to ski as they learn how to walk. Its funny.

Lift lines tend to be shorter here than in the US. This is because a lift will generally support two or maybe at most, three trails. Sometimes, only one trail! Of course, many times those lifts will be T-Bars, or as they quite accurately call them here: Schleppbahns.

I have been a little disappointed in the conditions though. They have been a lot icier than I was expecting. However twice we had fresh powder and those were sweet times. Sam has a movie of me showing the powder who is boss. It did not end well. The Marx Brothers had more grace.

One super cool thing they have are the lift tickets. Unlike the 20th century model in the US where the lift attendant scans in your lift ticket manually, all lift tickets here are RFIDs or something. You pass through a gate that will open when you near it. Now that aspect may not be super cool, but what you can do afterwards is go to a website, enter your lift ticket number and viola, out comes a graph showing you where you skied during the day, how much vertical distance you skied and how much trail distance you skied. I was really impressed at some of the numbers we put up.

Let's see, what else is different. Snowboarders, although present, are the distinct minority. Lift lines, though not as common, are done Brazilian style, which I find surprising given the generally orderly nature of Austrian.

If I'd rate the places we've been so far, my top three would be Obertaeurn, Nassfeld and Schladming. Obertaeurn has a huge amount of territory, and nice variety of terrain. Nassfeld also has a good sized area, not as challenging, but you can ski down to Italy and snag a pizza for lunch. Schladming also had a huge territory, not as challenging, but the crowds there were the worst we saw anywhere else.

Czech Road trip

Let's go back and review what is next on the list: The Czech Road trip. We did this over a long weekend at the beginning of May 2009. May 1st is a holiday in Austria and so we decided to go up to Cesky Krumlov which we had heard very favourable things about. You may not know it, but Cesky Krumlov is the 2nd most visited place in the Czech Republic after Prague. After visiting there (twice in fact, the second time was with my parents during their road trip), we can see why. Incredibly charming.

OK, so this is yet another one of those medieval cities where this is a huge castle on a hill over looking an old town with a river running through it. What's so special about this one? Probably the river. The way it loops through town, it makes sort of a big W shape with the center of the W a big tear drop. The river is not raging either, but a nice gurgler, perfect for lazy days. In fact, the number of kayaks, tubers, and other slow floaters you will see on the river boggles the mind. That is probably the number one activity to do. It looks very refreshing on a hot summer's day.

So with the extremely charming geologic backdrop, Cesky Krumlov is just a wonderful place to 'be' Kick back and relax. Meander the cobblestone streets (as you may know, Sam and I love to meander), sip a cool pivo at an outdoor cafe by the river, maybe there is a band playing, maybe just watch the fishermen try their luck, maybe just watch the drunken tubers tip over. Climb up the tower of the castle. Take in the view. Grab something to eat. Meander some more. Repeat as necessary.

You won't need a lot of time to see Cesky Krumlov. Heck, you probably could see everything in half a day, but where's the point in that?

If you are looking for a place to eat in Cesky Krumlov, my favourite place is probably the one at the corner of Satlavska and Masna, just off the main plaza. Can't remember the name of it, but if you like meat, this is the place. Make reservations though as it is always busy. They grill their meats right out in the open in the fire place in the dining room. And they were very tasty. Yum, yum.

Krumlov was, however, very touristy. There were a ton of people, especially during our first trip in May. But later in August, I think everybody was in the river cooling off!

Prior to our stop in Cesky Krumlov, we stopped in Linz, Austria (so not worth it I won't even tell you about it) and Freistadt, Austria. A little walled community northeast of Linz. Freistadt also has a brewery. A lot towns have breweries here, nothing special about that. But the story behind the brewery is kind of special and reminded me of the Green Bay Packers!

So, apparently, the townsfolk were at one time worried that the brewery would be lured away to some other town. To prevent that from happening the entire city (at the time, the city was entirely within the walls, now the city is much larger) became owners of the brewery. Kind of like the Packers. Nice little story, yes, but it gets better: DIVIDENDS!

Back in the day, the brewery paid dividends to their owners in the only way they knew how: beer. Quite a lot of beer actually. Something like 60 liters a month! Talk about heaven. Today the arrangement still stands. If you own property in the city walls you own a part of the brewery. But the 'no fun patrol' got into the picture and now dividends are paid in cash. Booo!

As soon as we crossed over from Austria to the Czech Republic we found ourselves some hookers! Well, we weren't looking for them, but they certainly weren't hard to miss. The road was thick with them! Apparently prostitution is legal there so there are a lot of border towns catering to the business next to the stingy German and Austrian borders.

OK, after Cesky Krumlov we took a leisurely drive back to Vienna through the Czech Republic. It was very picturesque. The bright yellow mustard fields (at least that's what I think that was) were in full bloom and the road weaved (for no apparent reason, a straight road was certainly doable!) through the rolling hills.

Let's see, some of the highlights here were some hiking in the Sumava National Park along the German border. The hiking was OK. I'm not sure it was worth all the effort, but whatever. Apparently the Park used to be the no mans land along the border. There were lots of fences and guard towers and therefore the citizens never actually went there. That is part of its popularity now. A place you can go now that you couldn't before.

We also went through Telc. Telc is definitely worth a look. There are two man-made ponds making an isthmus between them. This isthmus contains the old town. The old town contains a castle naturally, but also an enormous thin triangular shaped plaza which has brightly painted houses all around. Very nice. We stopped for some lunch here and were overlooking a garden where somebody actually kept deer in their yard. Jake let them know who was boss.

The final highlight in CZ was the town of Znojmo. Good luck pronouncing that one. It is perched along a river at the doorstep to Podyji National Park. It was very scenic from both a natural and cultural perspective. We would have liked to spend more time there but we got tired by this point and just wanted to go home.

But not for long. Soon after this trip Sam had to go to Tokyo for work. Having nothing better to do, and having never been there, I opted to tag along. This was my first time to the Orient and it won't be my last.


Tokyo was... interesting. I've never quite felt so much like a fish out of water, or at least a salmon swimming upstream. It is very alien in the sense that you are walking down the street and you really have no idea what are in the stores you are walking by. You look at a menu and pray there are pictures because otherwise you have no idea what you are going to get. And of course, unlike places around Europe, it is quite evident to those around you that you are a stranger in a strange land.

Yet strangely, wearing tennis shoes, a faux pas in Europe, is quite acceptable in Japan. If only I had known. I hate to admit this, but the Eurofication of Gracy may be nearing the point of no return. I am finding wearing tennis shoes quite distasteful. GASP! Sandals are quite fine with me though.

In all these regards I found Tokyo positively fascinating. The tourist type things that I saw were not as interesting, but being in Tokyo itself was very much fun. In fairness, because the weather was so pleasant, I spent most of my time just walking around Tokyo and visiting a lot of parks and other outdoor venues. I didn't go to a single museum for instance, but I did go to a lot of temples and shrines.

Upon arrival, I was immediately aware of how orderly everything was. Germans and Austrians pride themselves on how organized they are. Although they are above average, Japan is way ahead in this regard. I knew I was taking a bus into town, but just waiting for the bus I was given a ticket, and then waited in a line that was within the boundaries painted on the concrete. I was politely nudged back in between the lines when I strayed. There was one person in front of me and one person behind me. No possible way cutting in line was going to happen. I call this Japanese style. Way better than Russian and Brazilian style.

I found evidence of this elsewhere too. Especially on the subway where again, there were lines painted on the ground so people knew exactly where to wait prior to getting on the trains, but allowing space for people to leave the trains too. No, I was never there at a time when there were attendants pushing people into cars. Thank God!

But there are definitely a lot of people, everywhere, all the time. It is really claustrophobic after awhile. I thought I would have been adjusted after living in a bustling city for the past year but no, nothing prepared me for the constant presence of people that we experienced in Tokyo.

I was fearful for my life during the bus ride into town. The airport is at least 90 minute, uneventful, drive away from town. I could see the driver in the rearview mirror and he had some serious issues staying awake. Poor guy.

But safely I did arrive and then walked a few blocks from Shinjuko train station to our hotel. Sam was already at her conference. Along the way I was nearly trampled to death by all of the people. I made a failed attempt withdraw money from an ATM. There are tons of ATMS around town, but apparently very few that accept foreign cards.

I scoped out the nearby neighbourhood and found an interesting place for lunch with Sam later. I'm trying to remember how that worked. Vending machine style I believe. As in you order and pay at a vending machine and the machine spits out a ticket that you give to the cook who then prepares what you ordered. Strange and the only place like that we ate at. The food? Strange.

The rest of the first day, while Sam was slaving away in some boring old conference, I primarily went from park to park south of our hotel. I also saw the first two temples during my stay. I was amazed at their simplicity and really, tranquillity. Churches and cathedrals in the Western world tend to want to amaze you with their sculptures and frescoes and soaring ceilings. But in Japan it was all very minimalist. And in that regard I think it is very much more spiritual.

I ended my first day in Shibuya, what a trip that was. This is a major shopping area in town and it was packed. Again, I have no idea what the hell was being sold anywhere, but it was clearly popular. I stumbled upon the statue of the famous Akita who went to the train station to meet his master every day. But then one day his master died and he still went every day, for the next six years until he himself died. OK, hanky time out. Sorry about that.

Let's talk about mass transit in Tokyo. I kept myself pretty exclusive to the subway. I didn't want to mess with busses or trains. The metro I could grasp rather easily, or so I thought. If you have a map, navigating the metro is not a problem. However, what I sometimes forgot is that there are two or three different subway companies in Tokyo and although you can exchange between them, you don't get to do so for free.

My solution to this dilemma was to get the PASMO card. This thing is sweet. Basically, it is a card you wave in front of a sensor and it automatically deducts what is needed. If you run out of money, you can go top off the card. I loved this thing. Better yet, you can use it in vending machines and numerous 7-11 type stores you encounter. I really wish EVERY other mass transit system in the world used these things because it is really easy, it is pay as you go, and it can be used for things other than the metro.

OK, next day I used my handy little PASMO card and moved further afield in town. Sam? Still stuck in work. Hah! First I went to the Sensoji Temple. This place is definitely tourist trap central. No, the temple is nice and comes complete with five-tier pagoda, a Buddha you can rub for good luck, and lots of incense. The thing is there is long market street leading up to the temple and THAT is tourist trap central. Then again, unlike China, nobody was really trying to sell you anything so I guess it wasn't that bad.

After that I was off to Ueno Park, which contained another Shrine and well hidden pagoda. Honestly, this thing is like a hundred feet tall but they disguise it well amongst the trees. There also I saw some fine Japanese acrobats. How she flipped a table with her feet so quickly, it made me think of how many times she hurt herself before she could be seen in public. Muy bien!

After lunch with Sam, I was off to the Forbidden City or Imperial Palace or whatever it was called. Or, actually, the parts that you can actually see as there is still a major chunk of it that is forbidden. This was again very park like but with some serious kick-ass walls.

I hit another ho-hum park before I met Sam for a trip to her past. See, this was far from Sam's first time to Tokyo. On one of her trips a few years ago she went with a bunch of college-aged students to the night-life part of Tokyo, Roppongi. And in particular, a place called the Gas Panic where if you were not drinking you were asked to leave.

Well, time has either favored, or maybe not, the Gas Panic. Now there are at least three locations in Roppongi alone! So finding the original took some time, but we eventually found it. Then again, each of them was kind of dead so although the signs still existed saying if you weren't drinking you were leaving, that rule was pretty much ignored.

But Roppongi in general kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. There are people outside their establishments actively recruiting people to come in, prices are high and most of the clientele are foreigners so I would go someplace else to take in Tokyo's nightlife.

Now let's talk about that quintessential Japanese sport: SUMO. There are tournaments roughly every other month and it just so happened that we were there during one of them. So obviously we had to go. We both loved it!

It can be an all day affair if you want it to be. Think of a baseball game doubleheader, but the first game is minor league. Or, think of NASCAR with Busch League (or whatever the hell they call it now) the day before, but instead it is all in one day. That kind of sums up Sumo. It goes on all day and they build up to the best wrestlers at the end. For us, we only went to see the top two classes, and a little of some of the other ones.

Buying tickets was an ordeal. Our hotel was no help so we did a lot of research on-line and then just ended up going the day of to get tickets. As it was not a weekend, it wasn't sold out. And much like tickets for sporting events elsewhere, different seats have different prices. This is critical to know because the guy at the ticket booth said they were sold out. But it turns out they were only sold out of the cheap, first-come, first-served variety. The reserved tickets they had plenty of and weren't that much more, for a once in a lifetime event.

We found not just the matches, but the rituals leading up to the matches, the variety of results (it isn't just one fat guy moving another fat guy out of the circle), the rituals after the match and the fact that there are non-Japanese sumo wrestlers, and popular ones at that, all very fascinating. If ever in Tokyo again I would definitely set myself up with sumo tickets.

The next day I could finally tear Sam away from her conference (or maybe it was over as it was Friday) and we took a day trip to Nikko. Nikko is about a two hour train ride north of Tokyo and is basically a huge conglomeration of temples and shrines. Unlike the temples in Tokyo, which were very much overrun by the surrounding city, these were out in the wilderness, as much as wilderness can exist in Japan.

There is a nice little package that includes train, bus (because the temples are not near the train station in Nikko) and entrance fees to most of the temples. It is a steal compared to if you add these things all up separately.

The problem with Nikko, and subsequently with Kamakura, which we did the following day and is located an hour south of Tokyo but is the same kind of deal with lots and lots of temples and shrines, is that really it is just too much of a good thing thrown all together. I mean, consider the equivalent for our Western sensibilities. Assume that all of the churches in Rome were grouped together in one spot. After a very short while you will get rather bored with them because it is the same thing one after another.

I mean, yes, there are variations, but in principal they are all the same so how different can they be really? So while I found Nikko and Kamakura enjoyable, I don't think I really appreciated them as I should have, or would have if I saw them with some more time separating each one.

Though, in Kamakura, they do have the big ass Buddha. Well, in China, we saw an even bigger Buddha, but that was made of wood. The one in Kamakura is made of metal and really is an engineering feet on the scale of the Statue of Liberty, but a mere 700 years older.

Let's see, I haven't talked too much about food and drink in Japan yet, no Megamail would complete without discussion of that. Easily the best food, and cheapest, I had in Japan was conveyer belt sushi. Sushi was a recently acquired taste of mine so coming to Japan is like going to Oktoberfest for beer drinking. And the thing I want with my sushi is variety. I don't want all salmon or all tuna, I want other stuff too. And conveyer best sushi, or running sushi as it is apparently called over here, offers just that.

Basically the sushi or maki come out on different colored plates the plate color indicates how much it is. You save up your plates and pay at the end. If you want drinks there is a single waitress for that. If you want wasabi, look out because the chef will thwack you with a handful of it if you aren't looking. And if they are not making the things you want, just ask and they'll whip it up in a jif. We went twice to once of these establishments and could really have gone every night.

As far as drinking, you know I didn't like Roppongi, but where can one go? Well, in Shinjuko head to the Beer Signal. I know it isn't very Japanese, but they have an enormous selection of Belgium beers to die for. If you are in Ginza, head to the Sapporo Beer Hall. It reminded me so much of a German beer hall like Oktoberfest it is not even funny. A big wide open space in Tokyo? Sign me up!

Okay, so we've been out of the country for awhile here in this Megamail, and when I mean country, I mean Austria, our temporary home. Despite all these great adventures to the far corners of the globe, we still find time to enjoy trips in plain old Austria.

Actually, this reminds me of a very recent dinner we had with a French visitor we met in China. We took him to a heuriger (a rural wine cellar) when he came. At some point the subject of Austrian cuisine came to the table. Now, Sam and I, having spent almost three years here now, would somewhat rudely call Austrian cuisine "boring and unimaginative," although Tirolean food (from the mountainous portion of Austria I DO find to my liking). This French friend of ours said, in the most polite way you could imagine "Austrian food is not well known outside of Austria." That comment leaves a lot of room for interpretation but I think the underlying meaning is accurate.

Anyway, I digressed there because although Austrian food might not lure you here, the cities and the landscape surely should. Austria is beautiful, no question about that. I've already talked about Graz in the Megamail, so what about some of the other places? Let's talk about those now and then I'll give you a rest.

Tirol Road Trip

This was undertaken in early August 2009. The goal of which was to see an opera in Bregenz, Austria. Where is Bregenz you ask? The complete opposite end of Austria; on the border with Germany and Switzerland. And the town is rather small too.

Must be some opera then? Well, yes, yes it is. In fact, in the second James Bond reference of the Megamail, in the second movie with Daniel Craig, there is a scene which takes place during an outdoor opera in, drum roll please... Bregenz, Austria. It was probably the best scene in the second movie. And naturally, Sam was so enamoured with it that we had to go. I hate to see where the next movie will require us to go.

What we found out is that each summer there is an opera festival in Bregenz. And as it turned out, Sam and I got the last two tickets (I'm not kidding, really, the last two tickets... we weren't even sitting together) to the first performance in August on a Saturday. They were not cheap, but they were so worth it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself a little. I mentioned that Bregenz is on the other size of Austria. That is like a six hour drive from Vienna and so it is not something you just get up and do. Especially if you are leaving after a day of work on Friday.

So what we did was drive the somewhat reasonable four hours to Innsbruck, stayed the night, and then took a very leisurely drive through the Tirolean Alps on the way to Bregenz. We had enough time to quickly tour Bregenz itself before getting all gussied up for the big night out.

As hard as it was finding tickets for the opera, finding a hotel proved equally as challenging. We ended up at some posh place on the outskirts of town. Did I say Jake came with us? He did and he liked the place. The bathroom was enormous, bigger than my bedroom growing up as a kid. See mom, I told you it was a prison cell! Anyway, Jake stayed in the room, probably square in the middle of the bed while we were out.

The opera itself was amazing, really, and I'm not into opera if truth be told. It was Aida for those of you who know these things. So why is it so amazing? Well, just like when we saw Ka in Las Vegas a few years ago, the stage is certainly a highlight. I previously mentioned that it was outside, but here are some other things to know, the stage is in the lake. No, it is not on the lake, like on a pier or something, it is actually in the lake. And it rotates and moves up and down so sometimes it is above the lake and sometimes it completely underwater.

There was an energetic dance sequence that took place in a couple inches of water that was probably the highlight for me. Sam, being in the front row, was actually splashed during this scene, but she loved it.

They are doing the same opera again this year so we aren't going to go again, but definitely if you find yourself in these parts in July and August, it is worth looking into.

The next day was another travel day back to Innsbruck. Along the way we spent some time in the sleepy little hamlet of Feldkirch. You know the routine by now: castle, river, old medieval town... check.

We then tried to do some hiking in the mountains with Jake near Silvretta but were cut short by cold, rainy weather. Very scenic nonetheless.

The rest of the day and the next day we spent in Innsbruck which is everything you've heard it was. As in it is a charming mountain city with lots to see and do. As Jake was present we had to do our turn-based tourism. Which meant one of us would enter some museum or church or something and would give the thumbs up or down to the other. Thumbs down meant we could move on to something else. Thumbs up meant the dog sitter now got to see the attraction while the person on point now got to watch after Jake. Not a particularly efficient system, but it's what we have.

We really liked Innsbruck. Well, we really liked the downtown portion of Innsbruck which was very charming. The bad part was the all of the roads were ripped up for some reason so getting anywhere proved a real problem. Especially leaving. We spent a very long time just trying to get out of Innsbruck.

Salzburg Road Trip

Not but two weeks later we were off on another Austrian road trip, this time with my parents... and Jake. My parents finally came to visit us and after spending a few days in Vienna, it was time to show them some of the sites elsewhere in the country. That included Halstatt, Salzburg, Czesky Krumlov and finally Melk.

If Halstatt sounds familiar, it was mentioned in a previous Megamail. It must be totally awesome if we went back, right? So yes, a beautiful medieval town climbing the shores of a large mountain lake. But no castle or raging river so I guess it is kind of lame in that respect :)

Then we spent a couple of days in searing and sizzling Salzburg. Does Salzburg meet the minimum criteria: raging river, castle on top of hill overlooking old city quarter, yep, yep, yep. OK, must be good then. And indeed it was. Especially that first night.

As anyone who travels with me knows, I'm always on the hunt for brew pubs during our adventures. I found prior to our arrival that Salzburg not only had one, it had a very, very good one: the Augustiner Braustubl. Basically, it is a bunch of merry monks that have perfected the craft of brewing beer, and then selling it to an eager and appreciative public at large.

Their beer cellar, north of town, is enormous, both inside an out. But as I mentioned it was so warm, we, along with half of Salzburg, preferred to sit outside in the beer garten. Fortunately it was well covered with trees to cool it down and it was huge meaning that we were lucky enough to find one of the last tables. Not too long after it was standing room only.

First things first, let's get some beer. The concept was a little strange actually. First you go to cashier to get a slip of paper saying what you wanted. Then you grabbed your own mug and rinsed it out yourself in the fountain. Then you gave the mug and paper to the bartender who set you up. The beer was unquestionably quaffable. Perfect really. And then spending a few hours with friends, or in this case family, talking about nothing important... it was a taste of the Terrace in Madison all over again.

Of course, at some point the munchies hit us so we had to venture inside to see what they had available. Another interesting situation there. After weaving our way through the maze of beer halls, we found ourselves at what is best described as the beer hall food court. A lot of different vendors selling, well, just about anything you can think of that would go with beer. Bratwursts, roast chicken, sauerkraut, other identifiable and unidentifiable meats and cheeses, burgers, fries, the list went on. We ended up getting a smattering of various wursts to graze upon.

That first night, the best night, came to a close all too quickly. I can't wait to be back in Salzburg to head back to the Augustiner.

The next day was a lot of walking around Salzburg. Salzburg has really hooked its tourism lure to Mozart. Everywhere you go, Mozart, Mozart, Mozart. It's a little too one-dimensional actually, especially given all the other things you do and see around Salzburg. For instance, the aforementioned castle? Quite lovely. I found the Franciscan church particularly enjoyable. And enjoying a meal and some beer at the Stieglkeller whilst overlooking the cathedral is another.

Salzburg also has an enormous performance hall gouged out the side of a cliff. We tried to get tickets for a performance there, but everything was sold out long ago. Maybe next time, which should be a couple of months. There is also another castle and some ice caves in town a few miles south of Salzburg so there is plenty to keep us busy for another visit.

After Salzburg we went to Cesky Krumlov, which I have described previously and will thus spare you a rehashing of the details. The only stop after that on the way back to Vienna was to Melk. Melk is home to an enormous abbey. You'll see it by train, plane or automobile about an hour west of Vienna. Definitely worth the detour.

After that we leisurely drove along the Danube River in the Wachau wine region, the best in Austria by most measures, back to Vienna, where I am sitting at the moment, roasting my arse off. It's hot. Too hot for a shirt and, well, I'll let you fill in the blanks for what else I may or may not be wearing.

And with that pleasant thought I bid you all adieu.


The Vasa.


Cruising around Stockholm.


Possibly the smallest island in Stockholm.


Terrace outside City Hall.


Inside City Hall.


Hanging out near the downtown palace.


Houses on Gamla Stan.


Drottningholm Palace outside Stockholm.


Church on Spilled Blood at night.


The KGB following Sam.


The swimming pool church.


One of the canals in St. Petersburg.


Drinking beers at Tinkhof.


The line at the Hermitage.


Quiet moment in the Hermitage.


Long room in the Hermitage.


After our conquest of the Hermitage.


Sam by Church of St. Peter and Paul.


Mosaic in Church on Spilled Blood.


Church on Spilled Blood.


The front gardens of Peterhof.


What's this guy doing?


The main fountain at Peterhof.


The canal leading to Peterhof.


Sbarros in St. Petersburg.


The road leading to Dubrovnik.


Dubrovnik's main street.


Sucky view along city walls.


The Cold Drinks establishment.


Dubrovnik's main street at night.


Dubrovnik from atop the city walls.


What did we mention about a lot of people?


Islands in the Bay of Kotor.


View of Kotor heading over the mountain.


City Walls of Kotor.


Streets of Budva.


Typical crappy sunset.


City Walls of Dubrovnik at night.


View of Graz from castle.


The space slug museum in Graz.


The space slug eating tourists.


Stairway up to castle.


Sam, Jake and Lola wait diligently.


Sam along busy main street in Heidelberg.


View of Heidelberg Castle from town.


View of Heidelberg from castle.


View of Heidelberg from castle.


Heidelberg Castle and bridge.


Skiing in Hochkönig.


Beautiful mountains of Hochkönig.


Sam at Obertauern.


Eric ponders Obertauern.


Sam views terrain near Obertauern.


Sam stands up to the mountains at Schladming.


Eric in the powder at Nassfeld.


Sam at Nassfeld.


Yours truly in Cesky Krumlov.


Sam in front of Cesky Krumlov Castle.


Castle at night.


Cesky Krumlov and surroundings.


Buildings in Telc.


Sam in dogs in front of Telc.


Mom and Dad in Cesky Krumlov.


Mom and Dad in Cesky Krumlov.


Streets of the Golden Gai.


Hanazono Shrine.


Scene from Shinjuku Gyoen Park.


Meiji Jingu Shrine.


The streets of Shibuya.


The world's most famous Akita.


Sensoji Pagadoa.


Tourist Trap Trail leading to Sensoji Shrine.


The skyscrapers of Shinyuku


Walls of the Imperial Palace.


Quinessential photo of the Imperial Palace.


Sam and Gustavo find the Gas Panic.


Banners outside sumo arena.


Sumo wrestlers prepare for battle.


Shrine in Nikko.


Some of detailed workwork on a shrine.


Big Budha in Kamakura.


THE Bridge in Nikko.


New landscaping fad, sand raking.


Sensoji Pagadoa.


The streets of Ginza.


Samd and Jake take in the sites of Vorarlberg.


Sam looks over the opera stage beforehand.


The opera Aida in Bregenz.


Samd and Jake take in teh sites of Feldkirchen.


Eric and Jake by the road in Silvretta.


The symbol of Innsbruck.


The tomb of Maximilian.


The streets of Innsbruck.


Sam and the 'rents in Hallstat.


Catching a beer in Salzburg.


Finishing our beer at Stieglkeller.


Jake was there too.


Sam with Salzburg castle in background.


Jake back in Cesky Krumlov.


The rents in Melk.