Champagne Bucket trips

It really pays to know Stepan if you’re in Yerevan… part five of our Armenian adventure!

Monday morning, we got up and had breakfast in the rooftop restaurant. I was enjoying the delicious cherry juice they had. I remember I used to buy that all the time when I lived in Yerevan. I might have to see if I can find it nearby. I’d probably prefer that to orange juice in the morning.

It was kind of warm during our visit. I seem to remember November being cooler in Yerevan in the 90s… but then, I think that was true for almost everywhere back then. Bill and I discussed how to spend the day. I suggested climbing the Cascade Steps and taking a walk around Victory Park, where Mother Armenia is. I used to live very close to that park.

Bill agreed with that idea, so once we were finished with breakfast, we got on our way. I used to climb the Cascade Steps on a daily basis when I first lived in Yerevan. I didn’t know about the escalators until I’d been there awhile, and going up and doing the steps was the quickest and easiest way to get to the center of Yerevan, short of taking a bus or a taxi.

The Cascade Steps have changed a bit since 1997. The idea of creating “cascades” down a hillside was originally conceived by the architect Alexander Tamanyan (1878-1936) as a way to connect the northern part of Yerevan to the central part. The idea didn’t come to fruition until the 70s, when architect Jim Torosyan revived it, and added in his own idea to construct a huge limestone stairway. Work on creating the Cascade Steps began in the 80s, but halted after the 1988 earthquake. Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the work stopped again.

In 1995, when I arrived in Yerevan, the Cascade Steps were still clearly not completed. Today, there’s beautiful landscaping and the complex houses the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. But in the 90s, I saw the halls in the steps used for other purposes. I distinctly remember there being a nightclub housed in one level at one time. My colleagues and I used to sit on the steps on Friday nights after training and play music and sing. Sadly, I also saw some pretty sad disrespect of the structure itself on the nights we did that. More than one intoxicated man would use the steps as a public urinal. As you can see in the photo below, there was a dirt road there and lots of trees– no sculptures, working fountains, or places to sit. And there were no bushes on the steps.

How I remember them in 1995… Special thanks to my Peace Corps friend Elaine, whose photo I ripped off from Facebook (mine are all in storage).

Anyway it’s much better there today, although the steps still aren’t quite completed. As of this writing, there are 579 steps that end at a huge, fenced off hole where, clearly, the steps will continue to be built, perhaps until they meet the monument for the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union.

By the time we reached the steps, I needed to answer the call of nature. We found a really great coffee shop nearby that offered all kinds of elaborate drinks and pastries. I was still feeling kind of flabbergasted, because in the 90s, we had nothing like this. The area around the Cascade Steps now has a whole bunch of restaurants. I think maybe one restaurant opened there in the 90s, and it’s long gone now. I took care of my personal business and we enjoyed a very nice round of drinks to fortify us for the climb.

Once we were finished at the coffee shop, we made our way to the impressive structure. I stalled a bit by taking pictures in the gardens in front of the steps. I hate climbing steps, even though it’s very good for one’s health. I always feel about 20 years older afterwards. 😀

We started the climb up the steps, pausing every so often to take in the view and catch our breaths. Unfortunately, the day we climbed the steps was not the best day for looking at Mount Ararat. It was a bit hazy and smoggy. But it’s still kind of a thrill to climb the steps, especially when you’re a fatass housewife like I am. 😉 A couple of months ago, after Bill and I visited the Crystal Cave in Hessen, I wrote a blog post about overcoming “physical challenges” when I travel. I’m very proud that I was able to conquer the ones I wrote about in that post. Not that it was easy in any case… I think the tower in Cesky Krumlov was the least challenging.

You can see the 50 year Soviet memorial in the last photo the gallery. To get there from the steps, you have to walk past the construction site at the top of the steps and past some housing. There was a guy up there trying to sell tours, and naturally he addressed us in Russian. But we were on a mission…

Hasmik and Aram were here!

After we got to the top of the steps and clambered up the rickety steps to the Soviet memorial, we made our way to Victory Park. To get there safely, we had to use one of Yerevan’s many underpasses. I was relieved that one in particular was relatively clean and in good repair. Some of Yerevan’s underpasses are in pretty bad condition and serve as unofficial pee stations. For an example of one of the less desirable underpasses, have a look here. Most of the ones we encountered on our trip were looking decent enough. Some even had thought provoking and interesting graffiti.

Victory Park is the home of Mother Armenia, who stands guard over Yerevan, and shows up in everybody’s pictures. She’s been there since 1967, and is surrounded by tanks and even an old MiG airplane. According to Wikipedia, Mother Armenia’s statue replaced one of Joseph Stalin. Good choice!

Victory Park is also home to an amusement park, with lots of rides for kids. I didn’t see many rides operating during our visit, but I did notice places to eat and a huge, modern looking ferris wheel, along with one that looked more like the one that was in the park in the 90s. I showed Bill the artificial lake I used to pass on my way to my first home for about 9 weeks after Peace Corps swearing in. When I lived in that area, the lake was filled higher and boys would swim in it. When we visited, a guy was walking what looked like a street dog turned pet. The dog happily jumped into the lake for a swim.

We also passed a restaurant that replaced one I used to pass that had a fox in a cage. 🙁 In the 90s, it wasn’t uncommon to see restaurants where wild animals were caged. I remember one place in particular; it was near Republic Square. We called it the “Feed the Monkey Cafe”, because they had a live monkey there. When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, I remember seeing people using animals at restaurants as a gimmick to drum up business. I was glad not to see any of that on this visit, although the practice probably still exists in some of the regions.

By the time we were heading toward the entrance of Victory Park, I was feeling pretty tired and sore. We stopped at a bench and gazed at the Radisson Blu Hotel by the park. It didn’t exist in the 90s. 😉

Here are some more photos from the park and the Cascade Steps.

By the time we got back down the Cascade Steps, Bill and I were both really tired, a bit hungry, sore, and ready for beer. I started looking for places to go. We rejected the Mexican place that served Paulaner beers, because going in there meant climbing steps. 😉 We crossed the street and I looked to my left, where I saw a beautiful young woman with long dark hair. She was smiling and welcoming. At the same time, Bill noticed a sign that read, “You look hungry. We should drink.” Alright, then.

I looked at the young woman and said, “I really need a beer.”

She enthusiastically waved us inside, and we sat down at a table in the middle of the foyer. I discovered that we were dining at Food Industry, a restaurant I hope we can visit again if and when we visit Yerevan next time. We ordered beer and salads, which were absolutely beautifully presented. This is one thing I’ve noticed about Armenia– food presentation is usually exquisite and artistic. Even if the food itself doesn’t taste good, it will be served with style. In this case, the food was both beautifully presented, and tasted really good. And the beer was a real morale booster after the few miles of walking and climbing we did. Maybe it’s not a lot for younger, fitter people, but for us, it was a great achievement and worth celebratory libations.

After we finished our salads, Bill was trying to dislodge some food from between two teeth. The very attentive manager noticed and had toothpicks delivered to our table. I thought it was sugar and put it on the table next to us, where a lady was drinking coffee. But then Bill said they were toothpicks and praised the manager’s attention to detail.

The manager noticed I was speaking Armenian, so he came over and struck up a conversation. He said his name was Ashot (a fairly common name in Armenia) and welcomed us to his restaurant. When I explained I had lived in Armenia 26 years ago and was a teacher, he asked me if I’d been a Peace Corps Volunteer. I said I had. Then he said, I have a friend who works at the Peace Corps office.

And I said, “Is it Stepan?”

He laughed and said, “Yes! I used to work at the restaurant across from the Peace Corps office and he often came in for lunch. We became friends!”

I said, “Well, I was Stepan’s teacher back in the 90s. He was in my ninth form English class.”

Ashot got very excited and gave us complimentary pastries! We talked a little about schools in Yerevan. Ashot told us his brother had gone to a Russian school in Armenia and could speak Russian with no accent at all. He said he’d gone to an Armenian school. The school where I taught had been an English specialized school. I noticed that Ashot wrinkled his nose when the subject of Russia came up. I sense that many Armenians are quite irritated with Russia right now. I can’t blame them.

Anyway, for many valid reasons, Stepan is a very good person to know… but in Yerevan, he’s very well known indeed! I have a tendency to run into people anyway. Over the years, I’ve run into many people I either knew years ago, or people who know people I know. These kinds of meetings happen to me pretty consistently. I don’t know if other people have this knack, but I sure do… On the other hand, I think Stepan is simply one of those people who has a lot of magnetism. I would not be the least bit surprised if, someday, he’s famous.

As we were paying the check and leaving a tip, I told Ashot that I thought he should commend the waitress who welcomed us to his restaurant. It was because of her smile, warmth, and encouragement that we stopped by Food Industry for refreshment. I used to be a waitress myself, so I know how tough the job can be. I hope he passed on my compliment to her… and the tip, as her shift ended before we were finished. Kudos to her for still smiling at the end of her shift!

The salads were large enough that we didn’t really need to eat anything else at a restaurant that evening. We went back to the hotel and relaxed with more Armenian wine and light snacks, including the lovely pastries Ashot gifted us, and a huge fruit plate that was sent to us by someone mysterious (I think I know who). I really felt like I’d come home to family. Armenian hospitality is LEGENDARY!

Champagne Bucket trips, churches

Onward to Prague… part ten of our 2023 Czech tour!

We woke Sunday morning to the first rainy day of our vacation. Until October 8th, we had enjoyed dreamy temperatures and sunshine. Now, the first signs that autumn was upon us had come in the form of a rainy, windy, chilly morning. As is our habit, we loaded more of our luggage into the car before breakfast. We had one more buffet style repast at Hotel JesteBrno, did one last check of the room, and checked out. Because Bill had parked next to the building, I couldn’t get into the passenger seat unless I moved the car, which I did. Bill presented me with the “gift” the hotel gave him– a fancy little box that had a single coffee flavored bon bon in it.

Gee, thanks!

Our drive to Prague was relatively short. It only takes a couple of hours to get there from Brno. Since the weather was kind of crappy and we were on a major highway, I didn’t get any interesting photos on the drive. Below is the only one I got as we were entering the vicinity of Prague.

We can’t escape BMW in Prague.

I also wasn’t feeling very well, because whatever bug I’ve had all last week was taking hold and making me feel icky. We were in luck, though, because I booked a great hotel called Nerudova 211. We were thinking we’d have to drop our bags after parking our car ourselves and find a way to kill the three hours before check in began, but our room was available at noon, which is when we arrived. Jan, who co-owns the hotel with his wife, Sarah, came out and helped us with our bags. Then he very kindly parked our car for us on the street, right across from the hotel’s entrance.

A very enthusiastic and pleasant young woman welcomed us to check in and took us to our room, which was the Deluxe King Suite with Winter Garden, otherwise known as Room 301. One time, Jan’s wife asked us which room we were in and I said 302, because that was our room number in Brno! But room 302 at Hotel Nerudova 211 is very small, and the people who occupied it were obviously Asian. I think Sarah quickly realized I got the number wrong!

In any case, we were definitely not disappointed with our choice. Our room was beautiful, and came equipped with a minibar that had complimentary beverages, as well as a decanter of Czech whiskey. The hotel, which dates back to the 16th century, was renovated and reopened in August 2022. I chose it because I noticed everyone was giving it really high ratings on all of the travel sites. The ratings are truly well-deserved, and I don’t think it’ll be long before this hotel is known as one of the best in Prague. Below are some pictures of our room. All of the rooms are individually decorated and offer cool original features like frescoes and exposed beams and bricks.

This hotel is located very close to Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge, which makes it convenient for sightseeing. There are also several good shops, restaurants, and bars nearby. The Romanian Embassy is right across the street.

After we settled in, Bill and I went out to find some lunch. We ended up walking around for awhile before we ended up at a Czech brewpub and had a nice, hearty lunch. Grilled salmon for me, and goulash for Bill, washed down with beer, of course… I noticed on our walk that there were a lot of people around… and it was going to be another one of those cities where someone is always close. Again, I was glad we were there in October instead of during the summer!

After lunch, we went across the street and visited St. Nicholas Church (Malá Strana). We paid a nominal fee to go inside and view the awesome interior of the Roman Catholic cathedral that dates from 1704. I’m glad we visited this church because it really is beautiful. It was convenient to the hotel, too, so although I badly needed a nap, it was no problem to duck into the church and take some photos. There’s also a tower you can pay to climb for views of the city. We didn’t do the tower, mainly because I was feeling so crappy. If I hadn’t been sick, we probably would have gone for it.

I wish I’d had more energy to do more sightseeing on Sunday, but by the time we left the church, I really needed a nap. So that’s what I did… I went back to the hotel and slept for about two hours. Bill went out for a walk to a nearby monastery and took today’s featured photo of the views from there. The nap was a good thing, as it helped give me enough energy to walk around Prague on Monday.

More on that in the next post!


Rheingauer Weinwoche in Wiesbaden– 2023 edition! And more dental woes for Bill…

Yesterday, I lamented to Bill that yet another Saturday was about to get away from us with no fun outside of the house. His answer to me was to suggest that we go to downtown Wiesbaden, where the Rheingauer Weinwoche is going on. This annual event started on Friday and will run through August 21st. COVID kind of messed it up in 2020 and 2021, but we attended in 2019 and we went several times last year.

Although we had some rain yesterday, we managed to get to the festival after most of the weather had passed. It was just partly cloudy with some breezes and a few drops from the sky. As usual, the big celebration is going on in the Schlossplatz, and there are dozens of wineries from the Rheingau region represented, along with some food stands and live entertainment.

Bill and I parked at our usual garage at the theater, where we soon noticed that they had a brand new parking system in place. It used to be, when you drove in, a machine would give you a ticket that you’d later feed into the payment machine. It would tell you how much you owed when you reclaimed your car. Now, you just drive in and input your license plate number when you leave. I also noticed that they had designated a bunch of spaces on the first floor for electric vehicles. I guess that’s one reason to get an electric car. You get prime parking spots downtown! 😉

Anyway, it had been awhile we were last in downtown Wiesbaden. We should probably go there a lot more often than we do, because it’s a really nice town… much prettier than downtown Stuttgart is. There is often a lot going on, too.

We walked around the fest, just to see what was available. I stopped at the first WC I saw, noticing that the price of a whiz has gone up to 1 euro. However, you can purchase an all day ticket for four euros, or a family pass for six euros. I ended up going four times and Bill went twice yesterday. Next time we go, we’ll have to get a family ticket. 😀

We stopped at a random wine stand that had plenty of seating and a good view of the festivities. I had a glass of Riesling and listened to a female singer in the distance, but noticed I could also hear a brass band on the other side. I was more in the mood for the brass band, so we left after one glass and went to the other side. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of seating there, so we went around the corner and sat at another random wine stand that happened to specialize in Sekt.

That other stand was also near a WC, which was very handy for me… so we just sat there and people watched, drank wine, and took some photos. I’m sure we’ll be back again at least once, because just as they did last year, Bill’s co-workers have reserved a table for this coming Friday night. I have a feeling Bill will be ready for a celebration, because on Monday morning, he has to visit a local dentist to have a tooth extracted and start the process for his very first dental implant.

Wednesday, he was at work, eating a gummi bear, and suddenly noticed that there was some rattling in his mouth. He spit out a hunk of gold, which turned out to be a root canaled and crowned molar that he’d had done in 2011 or so. It just sheared right off! He called our usual dentist in Stuttgart, but as usual in August, he had shut down his practice for his annual vacation. Since this was not a situation in which Bill could wait until next week, when Dr. Blair returns, he asked a colleague for a local suggestion. Her dentist turned out to be pretty excellent, too.

He called that dentist’s office and they got him in at 10:30. The oral surgeon– a young German guy who went to school in nearby Mainz– said he couldn’t save the tooth, which had a huge cavity in it under the gold crown. But since the tooth had already been root canaled, the dentist said Bill could wait until Monday to have it extracted without risking infection. Then, perhaps, he might even be able to get the implant put in without having to wait for the tissues to heal first (like I did when I got my implant in 2016). Truthfully, though, I have a feeling he’s going to have to come back later for the implant. They’re probably going to have to do a sinus lift, which will take more time. I had to get one of those, too.

So… not only did we just buy a bunch of new appliances for our house, but now Bill is going to have a big dentist bill. We do have dental insurance, but it’s still going to be pricey work. And when we go back to see Dr. Blair in October for our cleanings, he’s going to be like “WTF”? 😀

Honestly, though, given the number of appointments it takes to get a dental implant, it’s probably a good idea for Bill to have it done locally. If and when my other baby tooth finally gives up the ghost, Dr. Blair can do another implant for me. I know he does excellent work. The one I had done in 2016 is still perfect.

I figure the wine fest will offer Bill some pain relief, after he has his extraction on Monday… I don’t know if we’ll go back today. Bill just brewed a new batch of beer last weekend, so he needs to bottle his brew. My car also needs a spin to keep the new battery functioning. It looks a bit cloudy, too. On the other hand, the wine fest is a lot of fun– there’s also beer and non alcoholic beverages for those who aren’t into wine, as well as plenty of food. We capped off yesterday by having a rare east Sicilian treat called arancini. I noticed them early in the day and was intrigued. They’re deep fried rice balls, covered with bread crumbs and stuffed with mince meat and/or vegetables, mozzarella cheese, peas, and ragu. The ones we had yesterday were delicious and filling!

Here are some photos from our excursion…

I do love this about living in Germany… There’s always some kind of fun or interesting activity going on, and the vast majority of people are well-behaved. Yes, the police were there, and there was security, but I saw little need for them to intervene. The same isn’t necessarily true at events in the United States. So, I’m grateful to live here… and raise yet another toast to the annual wine festival week in Wiesbaden!

dental, trip planning

Our next trip is shaping up…

So, in my last travel post, I mentioned that I was planning our next dental side trip. If you are a regular follower and actually care about my posts (I don’t like to assume), you might already know we’ve done a few of these trips. Basically, they entail going down to Stuttgart, seeing our fabulous dentist down there, then taking a few days off to explore.

Bill and I love planning these breaks. These dental side trips give us a much appreciated break from Wiesbaden, and provide content for my travel blog… which is not as popular as it used to be. Of course, thanks to the pandemic, and the fact that we both had to get some work done last time we went to Stuttgart, we haven’t broken much new ground on the last few excursions.

We moved to Wiesbaden in late 2018, so prior to that, we had no need to do “excursions”, since we still lived in the Stuttgart area. In May 2019, we went down to Stuttgart to get cleanings and see Elton John perform, supposedly for the last time, but I believe he came back to Stuttgart again after that show. We never got around to coming down for cleanings in the fall of that year, because Bill was very busy at work. Then came the pandemic…

Our next journey to see the dentist occurred in August 2021. I got the bright idea to book a few days in Baiersbronn, which is a small town near where we used to live, famous for its many excellent Michelin starred restaurants. We stayed in a nice resort, but that only made me curious about an upgraded experience at the Bareiss Hotel, which is where we went last fall. We spent lots of money and ate wonderful food, but what really sticks out to me, besides the friendly goats and ponies, is the Bareiss Hotel’s incredible pool complex. I’d go back there just for that!

In the spring of 2022, we visited Sessenheim, an area of Alsace, France we had not seen on our many prior visits to the area. We stayed in an awesome little hotel that had its own Michelin starred restaurant, and we bought lots of new French pottery. We mostly decided to go to France because its COVID rules were much less obnoxious than Germany’s, but that was a great trip, anyway. I love Alsace!

Now that the pandemic panic has somewhat passed, it’s time to branch out a bit, and go further afield. As I revealed in the previous post, the Czech Republic won the coin toss. Folks, I think it’s going to be a really great trip. I think we’ve got a good itinerary shaping up.

Although Esslingen won the coin toss for local lodging in the Stuttgart area, I couldn’t find a hotel that was particularly exciting. I ended up booking us at Hotel La Casa, which is a boutique hotel in Tübingen. If you search this blog, you will see that we’ve spent a lot of time in Tübingen. We lived near there during our first Germany tour (2007-09), and visited often when we last lived in the Stuttgart area (2014-18). We have also dined at Hotel La Casa on three occasions.

Even when we lived down that way, I was keen to stay at the hotel one weekend. I actually thought about putting our dogs up and just doing a weekend at Hotel La Casa, even though we lived about 20-30 minutes away from the town. I liked the staff, the restaurant, and the hotel’s interior design. Now that we live in Wiesbaden, we have the excuse to book a stay. Plus, Tübingen is just a really cool town.

One of many iconic shots that can be taken in Tübingen… It’s a very beautiful city!

Once I booked that hotel, though, I realized we might have a slight problem. In retrospect, I should have listened to my friend, Susanne, who had suggested a visit to Schwabisch Hall, a very beautiful town about an hour north of Stuttgart. I decided against it, because traffic around Stuttgart is a nightmare, and I didn’t want to be stressed about getting to our appointment. But Schwabisch Hall is actually more conducive to getting to the Czech Republic, as it’s just off Autobahn 6, which is the route we’d be taking under normal circumstances. Staying in Schwabisch Hall would have been more convenient (and I do plan to stop there sometime– maybe in the spring!).

Tübingen is south of Stuttgart, so to access A6, we’d have to drive about an hour north, and that might involve dealing with more traffic. It would definitely require backtracking, which I wanted to avoid if I could.

But then I got to thinking… We really have no agenda. The one place I do want to visit in the Czech Republic is Brno, which is pretty far east. There’s nothing to say we have to access it via A6. We can always get there using a different route.

Then I remembered that in 2008, we went to Passau, Germany for my 36th birthday. I had been there before, in 1997, when I was coming home from my Peace Corps stint and spent a month hopping trains all over Europe. I knew nothing at all about Passau in 1997, and just got off there because I was tired of being on the train. I ended up loving the city. It’s very pretty… and it happens to be exactly halfway between Tübingen and Brno. Below are a few shots from our 2008 trip to Passau. I love the cathedral there, and it’s mighty pipe organ! And I love the confluence of three rivers: the Inn, the Ilz, and the Danube.

Then I remembered that October 3, which is the day we’d be traveling, is a German holiday. And I wanted to get out of Germany for the holiday, because things tend to be closed on German holidays, although restaurants, tourist attractions, and hotels aren’t. I’m as excited about German Reunification Day as anyone is, but I’ve been here for nine years (this time), and I already know how Germans celebrate that day. Besides, what better way to celebrate that day than going to a former Eastern Bloc country? Why not cross back over the eastern border for a chance of pace?

In the late 1980s, Bill actually used to help guard the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. When we visited there in 2008, he got visibly nervous as we approached the border, which, of course, was wide open! I remember stopping to change money and get a vignette, and two sexy Czech girls started cleaning the windshield of our Toyota RAV 4. I said to Bill, “I think you are expected to tip them”. He did, and we were on our way to a very memorable exploration of southern Bohemia.

The Czech border circa 2008. Bill was so nervous, even as two pretty teenaged girls cleaned the windshield for us.

I briefly considered maybe staying in Austria. I stayed in Linz back in 1997 and found it kind of boring, but we went back in 2008 and discovered a great Biergarten there. But other than the Biergarten, on our last visit, I still found Linz kind of boring. Other travelers’ reports confirmed that it wasn’t just me; there are more exciting places to be. So then I remembered Cesky Krumlov, which is a VERY charming town east of Passau.

Bill at said Linzer Biergarten… I’d love to go back to that place, but October is kind of when a lot of Biergartens tend to close, anyway. And I’m sure there are things to see in Linz, but there are more exciting cities nearby.

Funny story about Cesky Krumlov. We visited there in 2008, too. The owner of the hotel where we stayed in Passau had recommended it. The day we were there was my birthday, and it happened to be when they were having their annual Five Petalled Rose Festival. We ran into many locals dressed in medieval garb, and there were games going on. I took an awesome photo there that remains one of my favorite pictures of all time. I thought we’d stumbled into a theme park! I had no idea the festival was happening. I remember thinking the town was very charming, and I would have liked it even if the festival hadn’t been happening. The fact that it was going on only added to its charm.

From Cesky Krumlov, we went to nearby Cesky Budejovice, which is where the Czech Budweiser is made. 😉 I remember having lunch there and thinking I’d like to stay in that town. Below are a few shots from our 2008 trip. I wasn’t as much of a shutterbug in those days. I also used Microsoft computers, which aren’t compatible with my Mac.

For our upcoming visit, I found us a cute hotel in Cesky Krumlov that gets excellent reviews. We’ll stay there for two nights, then move on to Brno, which is maybe three hours away. I found another hotel in Brno that isn’t quite as cute as the one in Cesky Krumlov is, but has a lot of amenities. It’s located on the outskirts of town, but from what I’ve read, a lot of Brno’s charm is found outside of the city itself. Since we’ve never been to Brno, we’ll stay three days there, then move toward home.

At this point, I’m tentatively planning our last stop to be two nights in Prague. We last visited Prague in November 2008, as part of a trip we did to celebrate our 6th wedding anniversary. In those days, we had a lot less money, but thanks to Hilton Honors Points, we were able to score two free nights at the Hilton Old Town Hotel. I remember they brought us sparkling wine and strawberries because we were there on our actual anniversary. I also remember they had an awesome old school pool that was DEEP. But I think this time, we’ll stay somewhere different.

I still came home with tons of cool souvenirs from Dresden, Poland (Bolesławiec), and Prague. I’m hoping we can find some art for the house. Last time we went to Prague, I bought a painting at an art gallery with an Armenian proprietor! I got to speak some crappy Armenian with him. I had (and have) forgotten a lot. Below are a few shots from Prague. It was COLD during our visit!

I can’t book the Prague hotel yet, though, because we have to make sure Noyzi can stay an extra night at the Hundepension. I don’t expect it to be a problem, but you never know. I gave some thought to stopping at the Chodovar Beer Wellness Land in Chodova Plana (very close to the German border), but recent reviews of the place make it sound less than enticing. I’d like to go there, though, if only to pick up some beer and their awesome flavored mineral water. Last time we were in the Czech Republic, we found some at a grocery store, but there wasn’t much of it to be had.

Chodova Plana isn’t far from Karlovy Vary, which is a great spa town overrun with Russians (last time we were there, anyway). We bought two paintings from a talented Russian artist, last time we were there. The town of Chodova Plana itself, though, is pretty desolate, other than the brewery, beer spa, and hotel. Prague offers a hell of a lot more to do, plus they’ve now got beer (and wine) spas, too. That wasn’t the case in 2008.

From Prague, we can reach Wiesbaden in about six hours, barring terrible traffic. I think it’s doable… If it turns out Noyzi can’t stay another night, maybe we’ll stay somewhere a little bit closer to home. Brno isn’t super far from Prague. I think it’s only a couple of hours’ drive.

Hopefully, we can finalize these plans over the weekend. Bill is coming home from his latest trip today. I look forward to seeing him, as it’s been a very quiet, boring week here in Wiesbaden. On the other hand, my liver has gotten a break, as I have mostly been teetotaling. I had two beers last night, but they were my first since Saturday.

Anyway… I love trip planning. I hope to do more of it… at least until the next war or pandemic sidetracks everything. Maybe we’ll even get a chance to stop by the border of Slovakia, so I can get a new mug to replace the cracked one we bought in 2015. 😉

Champagne Bucket trips, Regent Seven Seas Cruise Lines

A warm welcome back to Tallinn, Estonia!

In June 2009, Bill and I visited Tallinn, Estonia for the first time, as Vision of the Seas pulled up to the rather primitive looking harbor. I remember getting off the ship and being serenaded by a local brass band. Royal Caribbean had local bands playing at each stop, which I thought was really cool. In fact, I even recorded some of their performance and put it on YouTube. Check it out!

This was a nice welcome to Estonia in 2009.

On June 25th, 2023, we were back in Estonia, having signed up for a “free” beer tasting excursion, courtesy of Regent Seven Seas. I immediately noticed, as we pulled in, that the port looked a lot more developed than it had in 2009. There was a large cruise terminal that I don’t remember being there when we visited 14 years ago. I also noticed what appeared to be an AIDA ship in port. It was unusually rusty. I didn’t think much of it, though, as we made our way from the Constellation Theater to the tour bus.

Our excursion was in the morning. I had a tough time choosing which trip I wanted to do. They were also offering a tour to a local museum dedicated to Estonia’s Soviet years. Since I spent two years living in Armenia, another former Soviet republic, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, I am especially interested in the history. But I needn’t have worried. We met our hilarious guide, Raul, who seemed to effortlessly channel the late comic Robin Williams as he delivered witty one liners and told us about Estonia. He added a fair amount of commentary about the Soviet years, making it very clear that the Estonians were delighted to be rid of that regime, even though the ensuing years after the Soviet Union fell apart were quite difficult.

When we visited Tallinn the first time, Bill and I walked from the port to the old town. It’s not that far as the crow flies. However, since 2009, there’s been a whole lot of construction. I think the walk today, while technically possible, would be more dangerous, due to all the traffic.

Raul explained that Estonia doesn’t have many inhabitants and, in fact, the COVID crisis was probably not so bad for their society, since they naturally “social distance”. He said that large families were not very common, and that their population is aging.

We started our tour in the “upper town”, which is different from how Bill and I did our self-guided tour in 2009. In fact, the one thing that disappointed me about Raul’s tour is that we missed the entrance to the old town, where “Fat Margaret” is. This tower, which dates from the early 16th century, is now home to the Estonian Maritime Museum. I remember taking some good pictures in that part of town. I also got a video of some Hare Krishnas!

Hare Krishnas in Tallinn, back in 2009…

And here are some of the more interesting photos I took in 2009…

But Raul did hit the highlights, including the beautiful Russian Orthodox church, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. I distinctly remember that when we visited in 2009, it was a Sunday, and there were many women with scarves on their heads in the church. I remember the heavy smell of incense and old ladies standing outside the church collecting donations from men.

It was Sunday when we visited this time, too, and we were reminded not to take pictures inside the cathedral. Those who did try to sneak pictures were quickly spotted and reprimanded, as a service was going on when we visited.

We also visited a Lutheran church, just before a service was to begin. Raul was talking when the organist erupted into a rendition of “Amazing Grace”. It was actually very beautiful. I left the church with tears in my eyes.

The organist played beautifully!

We had a chance to view the lower part of the town from a picturesque spot in the upper part, where we got some photos and shopped for souvenirs. We picked up a new beer stein for our collection.

After our potty and shopping stop, we went to the lower part of town, where we stopped by a chocolatier and bought some chocolate. I still haven’t opened the box to see if they’re any good. A lovely young lady was playing a key harp (Nyckelharpa)– an instrument from Sweden that looks like a combination of a violin and a keyboard. I dropped a couple of euros in her hat, because I have a soft spot for buskers. She played well, and her music added to the atmosphere.

At the end of the tour, we went to a restaurant to taste local beers and eat fresh local sausages. It was at this point that Bill and I met Lynn and Ron, a very nice couple from Dundee, Scotland. The beer tasting was a treat for me, since I liked the three beers that were offered. Not everyone did. Especially the delicious cherry beer! No one discussed the beers or even mentioned who made them. They were simply served with the sausages.