Tuesday, April 14, 2015


During the summer war with Gaza, Hamas made numerous threats to attack Ben Gurion Airport.  As flights were cancelled and various airlines temporarily suspended service to Israel's primary international airport, the cost of airfare plummeted.  Ever willing to turn lemons into lemonade, TJ planned ahead and, after reviewing the upcoming holiday calendar, scored two pairs of cheap tickets for future use.  By summer's end, the airport had emerged from the war unscathed, and we had a couple of  trips to look forward to.  And that is how, not even two full week after returning from the UK, we found ourselves spending Rosh Hashanah 2014 in Vienna, Austria.

Our flight landed in the early afternoon hours of Thursday, September 25th.  After checking into our hotel and familiarizing ourselves with the area, it was time for an early dinner.  And what better place than Werner Welser's Heuriger?  Okay, perhaps there are better places.  We still throughly enjoyed this one and would recommend it to anyone that asks. 

A heuriger is an Eastern-Austrian wine tavern in which only wine produced by the establishment itself can be served.  Generally, the wine is served with a selection of meats and cold salads, though prior to the 20th century it was customary for guests to simply bring their own food to pair with the available selection of wine.  Pre-recorded music is taboo at a heuriger; Music is usually performed live by two Heurigensänger, who accompany themselves on the guitar and accordion.  

After dinner, we took a relaxing stroll around the city, ultimately finding ourselves at The Wurstelprater, an amusement park located in Wiener Prater, a city park.  It is said to be the oldest amusement park in the world and was first mentioned in an 1162 document written during the reign of Emperor Friedrich I.  The land was donated to the people of Vienna in 1766 by Emperor Josef II.  The park is open 24 hours a day and entrance is free of charge.  Restaurants, attractions, and bars are open at varying times of day and night.

The park's main attraction is the Wiener Riesenrad.  Built in 1897 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef I, this 64.75-meter tall behemoth held the title of world's tallest extant Ferris wheel from 1920 to 1985.  One must conclude that tragedy befell whatever contraption held the title from 1897 to 1920...

Having missed multiple opportunities to ride the London Eye earlier that month, this was indeed a treat for me...as were the funhouses, carnival rides, and haunted houses that filled the remainder of the evening.

Friday morning, we began our day at Schönbrunn Palace, commissioned by Emperor Leopold I at the end of the 17th century to act as a palatial hunting lodge.  The palace became the focus of court life half  century later under the rule of Maria Theresa.  

The Neptune Fountain sits at the foot of Schönbrunn Hill and is the crowning element of the surrounding garden. 

Atop the hill sits the Gloriette, from which a stunning view of the palace below can be enjoyed.  

Our afternoon concluded at The Belvedere, an 18th century palace that acted as the summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy.  The palace grounds, which consist of an Upper and Lower Belvedere separated by an impressive garden space, are considered home to one of the world’s finest examples of Baroque architecture.

Construction on the Lower Belvedere (left) ran from 1712 to 1716.  It served as the residential palace and home to the prince’s private art collections.  Construction on the Upper Belvedere (right) began in 1717 and lasted for six years.  This palace served a representative function while under the prince’s domain but found renewed life as an art gallery in the mid 1770s. 

Approximately halfway through the garden, we stumbled upon a framed mirror labeled as “The Perfect Tourist Takes the Perfect Picture.”

This art installation by Hubertus von Hohenlohe invites guests to capture the perfect vacation photo and then put their cameras away so that they can “enjoy the beauty and power of the moment.”  As you can see, we didn’t exactly capture the perfect photo, but we certainly appreciated the beauty that surrounded us.  

In lieu of taking a generic, perfectly straight/framed photo of  our reflection and the frame, , TJ wanted to capture the reflection of the Upper Belvedere while also getting a glimpe of the Lower Belvedere and gardens in the background.  Remembering that detail, I think he did a fantastic job...but I must admit that when I was first going through our photo album, my initial thought was "Why is this thing so crooked?

We began our Saturday with a visit to Vienna's most important religions building:  Stephansdom.  St. Stephen's Cathedral is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna and the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna.  

Today's cathedral stands on the ruins of two earlier churches.  Heavily damaged during World War II, the church was rebuilt in its original splendor thanks to the donations and support of city residents.    

There are tickets available to explore the catacombs and the bell towers, but we just opted for the freebie peek through the front door.

Our day continued at Hofburg Palace, which served as the political center of the monarchy until 1918.  Photography was permitted within the palace walls, but there just wasn't much that inspired me to point and click.  The place was filled to bursting with silverware, fine china, and various knickknacks of the well-to-do that make up the Imperial Silver Collection.  The site also includes the customary royal apartments and a museum dedicated to the troubled life and tragic death of Empress Elisabeth.  Known as Sissi by her subjects, Elisabeth became the wife of Emperor Franz Josef I at the tender age of 16 and never forgave the world for stealing away her youth and destiny.  She was assassinated at age 60 while visiting Geneva.

Peterskirche (St. Peter's Church) is another beautiful Christian house of worship in Vienna.  This Baroque Roman Catholic parish church was transferred in 1970 by the Archbishop of Vienna to the priests of the Opus Dei (which you've probably only heard of because of "The DaVinci Code").

Saturday night was spent in the most relaxing and wonderfully unexpected manner possible.  The Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper), located in the city center, is an opera house and company dating back to the mid-19th century.

From April to June and in September, opera and ballet fans are invited to enjoy first-class performances in the open air and for free in Krajan-Platz (Karajan Plaza), where a 50 m2  LED video wall mounted onto the side of the opera house projects a live video feed of the performance occurring inside.  We camped out early to get the best seats.  TJ ran down the street and scored a couple of Whoppers at Burger King.  A nearby Starbucks provided bathroom support.  We curled up on that chilly fall evening and enjoyed our first ever ballet.  It was Swan Lake.  It was perfect.  

We made a brief stop at Café Central on Sunday morning to share coffee, croissants, and long overdue conversation with our old friend and colleague Monica, who is currently on assignment in Vienna with her husband Chris.  Café Central is a traditional Viennese café that occupies the ground floor of the former Bank and Stockmarket Building.  Opening its doors in 1876, the café became a key meting place for the likes of Theodor Herzl, Leon Trotsky, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, and Adolf Hitler. 

Monica surprised us by showing up with a big ol' pregnant belly!  This blog is so far behind that the happy couple has, of course, already announced the arrival of their beautiful baby boy.  We spent an all-to-brief hour gossiping about old times and catching up on what has happened in the interim.    

After breakfast, we reluctantly parted ways;  Monica and Chris had an early afternoon meeting to attend to, and TJ and I had a flight to catch. 

Our wonderful, relaxing weekend had ended much too quickly and without our permission.   

Who can complain, though?  Two weeks later, we found ourselves celebrating Columbus Day by using the second pair of discount plane tickets...but that's a story for next time.

Friday, March 27, 2015

R&R 2014, Part 5: Scotland

September 11, 2014

Following our pitstop in Manchester, we left England entirely and headed for Scotland.  Our first stop was Edinburgh, and we arrived just in time to start thinking about nighttime activities.  From what we could gather, Edinburgh doesn't have a terribly active LGBT nightlife, but we were elated by the opportunity to have snacks and drinks at none other than CC Blooms.

American comedian, actor, and LGBT advocate Margaret Cho once used this establishment as the basis for one of her better jokes:

"There's a bar in Edinburgh called CC Blooms.  CC Bloom is the name of the character that Bette Middler played in Beaches.  That is the gayest thing I have ever heard in my entire life.  That place should just be called F--- Me in the A--...Bar & Grill."

Oh, Margaret.  Thank you so much for the joke that led us here.  The snacks were tasty.  The booze was on point.  The music and lighting made us dance.  We had only two evenings in Edinburgh and we spent a good chunk of both of them here.

Unfortunately, two evenings also meant that we only had one full day.  Had to make it count.

September 12, 2014

St. Giles Cathedral is the historic City Church of Edinburgh.  It is the Mother Church of Presbyterianism and contains the Chapel of the Order of the Thistle (Scotland's company of knights headed by the Queen).

Edinburgh Castle has dominated the city's skyline from its position on the Castle Rock for over 3,000 years.

In ancient times it was known as Din Eidyn, 'the stronghold of Eidyn.'  Then, around 638 AD, the Angles invaded.  Ever since it has been known by its English name - Edinburgh.

It became Edinburgh's primary royal castle in the Middle Ages, enduring siege after siege during the long wars with England.  By the time of King James VI's birth here in 1566, the castle was little more than a garrison fortress.  The castle, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has since found new life as a museum and national icon, as well as home to the Honours of Scotland (aka Crown Jewels).

Our next stop had everyone buzzing...literally.  The Scotch Whisky Experience provides guests with a journey through a replica distillery that is very much trying to be a ride at Walt Disney World.  You sit in a faux whisky barrel as it glides gently along an Omnimover-style track as animatronics and light projections tell you how whisky is made.  You are then invited to enjoy a whisky tasting and a peek into The World's Largest Whisky Collection, which houses almost 2500 individual bottles.

The tour concludes at a bar, where you are of course invited to purchase all sorts of whisky.  There were simply too many to choose from.  So we did a flight.  Whee!  And, I gotta say, the Duty Free employees LOVED us on the way home.  

Calton Hill is just one of those things that you...notice...as you walk around Edinburgh.  It's huge.  So, it's only natural that we made our way up that particular hill.

Calton Hill, along with Castle Rock, was formed by volcanic activity some 340 million years ago.  Over time, numerous Ice Ages carved and gouged the many hills we see today.  Calton Hill is an important part of the city's World Heritage Site and offers some of the best views of the city.  It is home to several iconic monuments and buildings, such as the National Monument.

Intended to be "A Memorial of the Past and Incentive to the Future Heroism of the Men of Scotland, it was left unfinished in 1829 due to a lack of funds.  Whomp Whomp.

Several other monuments decorate the hill.  Among them are the Nelson Monument (left) and the Dugald Stewart Monument (right).  The former commemorates Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory over the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgarin in 1805.  The Dugald Stewart Monument is a memorial to the Scottish philosopher, who was a professor at the University of Edinburgh and held the chair of moral philosophy from 1786 until his death in 1828.

Also, these giraffes greeted me each time I walked to, and stumbled back from, CC Blooms.  They are cute and adorable and lovable and I want to share them.

You.  Are.  So.  Welcome.

September 13, 2014

On our last day of vacation, we said farewell to Edinburgh and hello to Glasgow.  In hindsight, I'm very disappointed that we didn't sing "Super Trouper" as we crossed into the city limits.

This was very much just a pit stop for lunch (Anwarul and I share an OCD that includes the need to eat at all Hard Rock Cafes and then buy merchandise....this was the fourth HRC in two weeks.  Ugh.) ((My OCD now wants to clarify for you that the other three were in London, Manchester, and Edinburgh.)) that incorporated a brief stroll through the city center.  So brief, in fact, that I can't seem to find any photos of US there.  Anyway, here's what we saw:

Glasgow City Chambers is located in George Square.  The building was constructed between 1882 and 1888 and has been the headquarters of the Glasgow City Council since 1996.

The Gallery of Modern Art is the main gallery of contemporary art in the city, and contains some of the most unappealing and awkward examples of modern art that I have seen to date.  BUT!  The museum offers a program of temporary exhibitions, so chances are it has all rotated out by now.  And I'm sure you've hear the expression "We can only go up from here."

The most interesting aspect of our trip to Scotland was the fact that it occurred during the days leading up to the vote on the Scottish Independence Referendum.  The streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow alike were filled with campaigners.  My personal observation was that Edinburgh was for and Glasgow was against the referendum.  It also seemed as if Glasgow skewed younger in terms of who was out on the streets preparing to rock the vote.  This could be true or not, as factors such as time of day and location within the city could certainly turn those observations on their heads.

Five days after leaving Glasgow, voters answered the question of whether or not Scotland should be a country independent of England.  The "No" side won with 55.3% of the vote. .

Final Thoughts

We understood when we began planning this R&R that our eyes were getting bigger than our allotted time in terms of just how much we could see.  In fact, the plan had initially included Dublin as well.  Without extending by two additional days and introducing some alternative mode of transportation, that would have been completely impossible.  In the end, Dublin was cut, along with one or two other sites within England that we had either thought about beforehand or during the trip.

On the backend of things, I personally feel that we still did too much.  In reviewing my iPhoto albums in preparation for writing this blog, I was struck by how blurry and/or poorly framed many of the photos were, as well as by how few photos were taken at certain sites.  One can just sense that we were in a hurry.  Of course we were! Did you see how much we did?

We've never attempted a vacation in which we had to travel to and from so many places, that were located such a great distance from each other, before.  Was it a failure?  Absolutely not.  This was one of our best trips ever.  Could it have been managed better?  Sure.  A show or two less, and we could have ridden the London Eye.  Removing Glasgow could have provided more time in Edinburgh.  Less clubbing at night could have convinced us to wake up earlier, thus having more time for all sorts of things.  Etc., etc.  But isn't that usually the case?  You always become a subject matter expert after the fact.

With that said, I regret nothing.  It as a wonderful trip spent with wonderful people.  I saw enough amazing things to make it worth the while, and left enough undone to warrant a return visit.

And as consistently far behind as my writing remains, I'm simply elated to have finally finished chronicling this particular journey .

Coincidentally, Anwarul is visiting Jerusalem this week.  We've explored lots of sites both new and old and can but hope that we've been half the hosts for him that he was for us.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

R&R 2014, Part 4: A British Medley

Following our day at Windsor, we returned to London for one last farewell show (West End Bares) before  heading to Anwarul's house in Henley-on-Thames.  And now Part 1 is in sync with Parts 2 and 3.  Whew!  On to Part 4...

Henley-on-Thames is, approximately, a 1.25 hour drive west of London.  For this and all of the travels planned for the days ahead, Anwarul rented a car.  Because he's awesome.  Also, because he's
British and, generally speaking, would prefer taking public transport when at all possible but the bloody Americans had to come visit with all of their luggage.

Sadly, we didn't do much exploring of the town; It served primarily as mission headquarters and was really just a place to lay our heads between bouts of tourism.  Plus, TJ developed a cold on our last day in London and spent most of his down time sleeping.  

We did have some great food at a local pub, a traditional Sunday roast,  and access to a washing machine that didn't require quarters...which was pretty awesome after a week in a hotel room.

There were also cute duckies and a mid-transformation mermaid statue that was pretty cool.

I'm sure there will be opportunities to properly explore in the future; I'd hate to think London and its surroundings have left my life for good.  But for now, we must move on with the adventuring that has been, not what could be. 

September 8, 2014

Thorpe Park is a theme park located between Chertsey and Staines, approximately thirty miles southeast of Henley-on-Thames.  Built in 1979, the park caters mainly to young adults and teenagers (or us older folk that haven't yet developed back problems) due to the vast majority of attractions being roller coasters and other thrill rides such as Saw-The Ride (yes, the movie) and Stealth.

The Angry Birds 4D Experience and the Tetley Storm in a Teacup did not count amongst the thrill rides.

This was an amusing day for us (good outcome for a trip to an amusement park, don't you think?).  TJ and I always try to sneak in a trip to a park whenever possible, and since we met Anwarul during our last trip to Disney World, it seemed to be a fitting inclusion for this vacation.  Now, don't get it twisted; Thorpe Park is no Disney World...but it did have an all you an eat pizza buffet and a Dairy Queen, so...

September 9, 2014

If you had told me that I was going to fall in love with Stonehenge, I would have told you that I thought you were crazy.  I mean, sure, as far as Bucket List items go, it's pretty high up there (and I was SUPER bummed for having missed the chance to see it when visiting London in 2001)...but it always struck me as the kind of thing you would queue up for, look at for five seconds, snap a picture of, and then walk back to the parking lot or bus stop whence you came.   

I was more than elated to find this was not to be the case.  The site and its surroundings, which were added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1986, feature a fairly expansive interactive indoor/outdoor museum space, a 360-degree time-lapse video showing Stonehenge through the ages, and models of Neolithic houses that would have been prominent at the time in which Stonehenge was built.  As for the ruins themselves, I don't know why I was surprised to find that I could walk all the way around them.  I mean, duh, right?  Have you ever seen a photo or video that looked like there was a fence or something that kept you on one side of it?  I sure haven't.  And yet, there I was.  Surprised.  At least it was a happy surprise.

Stonehenge, located two hours west of London in Wiltshire, is one of the most famous sites in the world.  The prehistoric monument consists of the remains of a ring of standing stones set within earthworks, an artificial mound made up of piles of earth, gravel, sand, rocks, or debris.  These stones were raised more than 4500 years ago by sophisticated prehistoric people and are aligned with the movements of the sun.

Archaeologists are still trying to determine just exactly what its purpose was, though evidence suggests that it could have been a burial ground as well as a site for memorial services.  

Moving on down the road, we found ourselves in Bath, 97 miles west of London.  Bath became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 due in large part to the Roman spa which is its namesake (Though it was known as Aquae Sulis in 60 AD when the facilities were built).

The Roman Baths flourished between the first and fifth centuries AD.  The facility was built around the only natural hot spring located within the United Kingdom, with temperatures rising to 46ºC/115°F.  The remains are remarkably complete and among the finest in Europe.     

Next door is the beautiful Bath Abbey with its 56 panel stained glass window depicting scenes in the life of Jesus Christ.  The Abbey has been a place of Christian worship for over a thousand years, though it has undergone many transformations and changed during that time.  Beginning life as an Anglo-Saxon monastery, it transitioned into a Norman cathedral before becoming the Abbey we see today.  King Edgar, the first King of all England, was crowned on this site in 973, beginning a long history of royal coronations here.

 The most moving sight from our travels was found within the walls of the Abbey:  A prayer and shrine for peace between Gaza and Israel.  To say this touched us emotionally, given our closeness to the conflict, was an understatement.  The prayer follows.

Lord God of compassion, whose will is for peace built on righteousness, we pray for peace in Gaza and Israel:
for an end to hostilities, for comfort and help for all who suffer, and for reconciliation between Palestine and Israel, through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

After feeding our souls, it was time to take care of our stomachs.  Number One on the complimentary "26 Things to Do in Bath...and Beyond" brochure and map was a meal at a place called Sally Lunn's Historic Eating House and Museum.  This probably means that Sally's descendants advertise heavily with the tourism board, but whatever.  The food was delicious...if not strict with the regulations on how to eat it.  Sally offers a variety of dishes that incorporate her famous buns, one of which you will typically receive open faced and quartered.  You do NOT get to select top or bottom half, though if you wish to dine with a friend, they say your odds are increased of getting one of each.  O...kay.

I think she's crazy.  But girlfriend can cook.

September 10, 2014
Home to the 11th Duke and Duchess of 
Marlborough, Blenheim Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1987) and is famous for being the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. 

With its gorgeous construction, gardens, and museum space, Blenheim kind of puts to shame a certain Palace found in London some 62 miles to the southeast.  Sorry, your Majesty.

Possibly the most exciting aspect of the palace was found within the Pleasure Gardens (mind out of the gutter, perverts), in which we discovered the Marlborough Maze.  We couldn't believe it!  Our very first hedge maze!  And we OWNED it.  Woo!  

Oxford was the last stop of the day.  It was fairly brief.  Poor Anwarul had wanted to show us around the University grounds, but a lot was closed off to tourists and I wasn't about to enroll so late into the term.  Plus, we were rapidly losing energy as we entered the homestretch of this vacation.  We still managed to see a few things, though:

L: Museum of the History of Science;  R: Radcliffe Square

 L:  Hertford Bridge, aka "The Bridge of Sighs";
R:  The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin

September 11, 2014
Manchester was our final stop on the England leg of this journey.  I'm sorry to say it was only to go to Starbucks and the Hard Rock Cafe as we passed through on our way to Edinburgh.  BUT!  We did see a lovely shopping plaza as well as a nightclub called "the birdcage."  Reason enough to go back, one supposes. 

Next time we will wrap up this vacation with a brief trip to Scotland.  Hang in there, folks!