Just Czeching

This week Sharon and I have been in Prague, staying at the Movenpick Hotel.

The hotel is a little way out of the main city but easily accessible by tram and metro. It is constructed in two parts; one building on top of the hill and another at the bottom, they are joined by a funicular railway! The upper building gives magnificent views across the city and it was here that we held our project meetings and final conference.

We’ve been in Prague on behalf of our friend Khawar Iqbal and her company Teaching and Learning Challenges (TLC). I’d contributed to and was working on the final ILMAE (Innovative Learning Methods in Adult Education) project conference, which took place on Friday. Please see: http://www.ilmae.eu/.

Sharon and I both contributed to the development of the UK module and helped to deliver it in Wetherby this spring. Partners from Spain, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic were all involved in the project and were all therefore affected by the giant Icelandic ash cloud which erupted right at the end of the UK module delivery in April. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8623534.stm. Their journeys home are amongst the most interesting ash-cloud-tales I’ve heard and they should be congratulated for their perseverance.

However, back to our sojourn in Prague.

We arrived a day earlier than necessary because flights on the ‘right’ day were more expensive than an extra night in the hotel and also because the available timings for the ‘right’ day would have meant us arriving very late at night. This meant that we had our first day in Prague to ourselves and just for once, the weather was beautiful. We had been to Prague before, on a day trip we’d made to the city whilst staying in the south of the Czech Republic at Nové Hrady, close to Ceské Budejovice in 2006. But we’d not been impressed with the city at that time. Several factors contributed to our previous dislike: the tourists, the cost of food and drink, the rain etc. but this week we’ve been privileged to enjoy the city much more. Even now though, after all these years of its great role in European history, the city isn’t finished! There are all sorts of building work going on here; some is renovation, some is brand new and some is just maintenance – it’s a busy place.

Whilst recognising our own culpability, I have to say that the greatest drawback to Prague is the number of tourists. They are everywhere, and always in great numbers. They flock to all of the tourist hot spots by the coach load; a plethora of languages led by umbrella waving (there are variations of this such as red hanky on a stick!) ‘Guides’. During our first day there Sharon and I managed to avoid the bulk of all this and had some pleasant moments sitting quietly in busy places watching the mayhem take place. The one downside to this trip is that my camera, a Panasonic Lumix TZ6, broke. The screen, which is also the viewfinder, is not working and I cannot therefore see what it is that I’m photographing. So that’s a trip back to Costco I need to make!


On Wednesday evening the project partners began to assemble at the hotel and we were treated to our first of three forays into Czech cuisine. Actually, none of these were particularly impressive. The first was the best; I had a really nice steak but which was just a little well done for me (not what I’d asked for). Our second evening meal was poor, but that was my fault. I’d ordered something that looked a little more adventurous than everyone else and it wasn’t a successful choice. The third meal at a beautiful, well-positioned location just beneath the Castle was OK but there was something missing. I’m not sure what that was but they were either trying too hard (some choices were huge portions) or feeling the pinch (some choices were tiny portions). Nevertheless, throughout the week, at each venue, the beer was fine. As it should be in Czech!

During Thursday and Friday I worked with the project teams to finalise the conference preparations and then delivered a short presentation at the conference itself. This amused me greatly because although everyone in the audience was a competent English speaker (teachers and students from the Czech Republic and those accompanying project partners), I was the only native English speaker there – and I started by apologising for my accent :-).

Sharon had spent all day Thursday and Friday morning with those students and teachers accompanying the project partners. They REALLY did ‘do’ Prague. Sharon’s photographs show things both on as well as off the tourist trail. Their investigations helped when, after our final dinner together, we accompanied the Germans and the Spaniards on a night time walk around Prague Castle.

At night it presents an entirely different (and well lit) view of the cathedral, the palace and the city itself. And there are no tourists, which is best of all! By now we’d also managed to master the tram system and became experts at hoping on an off as necessary to get where we wanted.

On Saturday morning we joined the four Germans and the four Spaniards on another trip into the city. More than half the group hadn’t made this trip earlier because of the meetings and so one, so it was a good time to socialise. It was also good to be accompanied by Edith, who is an art historian. She was able to identify and explain the many different architectures we saw along the way.

That’s pretty much it. It’s been an interesting week and we’re just a little sad to be travelling home to an uncertain future [I wrote this at Frankfurt Airport]. Self-employment brings its ups and downs, but the coming months are looking pretty bleak right now. I know that I’m not the only one in this situation as many of my friends and colleagues are in the same boat, but I enjoy what I do and I know I do it well: I don’t want to lose that. We’re hoping to be part of a future EU project but even if we’re lucky enough to secure that one (and it is by no means certain that the bid will be accepted) it will be the middle of next year before it kicks in.

Uncertain times.

Advertisements

Good night Vienna

We’d had a great evening on Saturday, cold food notwithstanding, and all parted in good spirits. We arranged to meet Christophe and Edith for breakfast as they didn’t have a plane to catch – just a 600km drive back to Ansbach in Germany. Edith is composing a bid for a G1 project next year and wishes to include Eduvel Ltd as one of the partners. This is something we would enjoy very much and so, we therefore had quite a bit to discuss.

It was a beautiful morning, just like each of the previous two days. Once we’d been kicked out of the breakfast room, we agreed to continue our chat over another coffee at Café Dommayer http://dommayer.at/ which is just down the road from our hotel at Hietzing. This was a fine relaxing morning, spoiled only when the rain came and our friends had to set off back to Germany. I didn’t envy them their long journey in the rain.

The rain came and stayed.

Luckily, our Austrian host Andrea had very kindly given us two Sisi Tickets to use during our extended stay. This would allow us to visit the Sisi Apartments in the Hofburg as well as the Royal furniture exhibition in Vienna and the Imperial rooms at Schönbrunn. Although Sunday was the only day we could visit the furniture exhibition, we decided Schönbrunn would be best because it was closer and would not require too much walking in the rain. So we endured the Sunday crowds and toured the palace instead of going into the city. The palace is large and its heyday opulence was easy to imagine. The heating for example, was delivered by means of huge ceramic stoves, which were originally heated with wood via a heating duct running behind the rooms. This prevented the imperial family from being disturbed or becoming aware of the dirt such systems develop.

We stayed local for dinner and ate once more at the Wambacher Heuriger House. I had a Wiener Schnitzel – what else!

Monday, our last full day, was spent freezing in the city. I don’t know how I got so cold, but the brolly turned inside out and had to be dispatched; my coat leaked, and I had to buy a hat (a Dutch Cap). We decided that the best thing to do was buy some bits of food at the Nachtmarkt and some bread at a bakery before returning to the hotel to eat. We could then re-dress with warmer clothes. Just where the biting cold wind came from I don’t know, but it chilled me through to the bone.

We returned to the city later in the afternoon and visited the Sisi apartments and silver collection. Once again, in the wrong frame of mind I could have been depressed at the Imperial Dynasty’s sheer opulence, which must surely have flown in the face of their subject’s extreme poverty. However, I could only marvel at the size of this collection. Displayed over an entire floor area, we saw gold plate, silver plate, solid gold, solid silver and porcelain: plates, cups, knives, forks and every conceivable kitchen to table ware. The imperial family only ever ate off silver – even when porcelain became the norm, it was only used for soups. The golden centerpieces were so lavish; the cost of one could probably have supported a peasant family for a lifetime.

We then made our way to the Hundertwasserhaus, which I’d been advised to visit by Alison Iredale.  Although this is just outside the city centre, it took some finding as all of our maps finished just before the correct street.  Nevertheless, it was an interesting walk and another opportunity to work out the city’s excellent transport system. We’d had 24 hour passes which allowed travel on any of the systems available. All of the U-Bahn stops we used throughout our stay were conveniently close to tram stops, so if we knew where we wanted to be – we could get there. Hundertwasserhaus is a strange looking community building with (apparently; because you cannot go in) uneven floors inside too. I’m sure it would have looked even better in the sunshine.

So that’s it. I’m finishing this in the lounge at Heathrow, waiting for our flight to Manchester. The thing I miss the most – here in England (so far)?

The coffee!

http://europeforvisitors.com/switzaustria/articles/vienna_coffeehouses2.htm (types of coffee)

Naschtmarkt

The Naschtmarkt in Vienna is just a market. You can find markets that are similar to this in big cities all over the world, but this one has something quite unique. I’m not sure what that is, but I’ve not had so much fun walking around a market for a long time. First of all there is produce from all over the world, which is normal, but the combinations and sheer blousiness of produce was impressive. The stallholders were happy to let us taste all sorts of things – sometimes time and time again. We saw truffles: real, live, black, white, whole truffles – expensive, but truffles nevertheless – something I’ve never seen on a market before.

Following dinner, which I can relate below, we chose to return to the market for dessert. This ended up being glasses of Italian sparkling rose wine (kindly supplied by Christophe) and a plate of Parma ham, meaty olives and Austrian cheeses. Sharing these made for a great atmosphere, but one that (looking at the weather today – Monday) might be hard to repeat.

Right at the end of Naschtmarkt, just down the road from the Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) Secession [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna_Secession] building, there are two other preserved Art Nouveau buildings; Majolikahaus and Otto Wagner-Haus. The former is a wonderfully painted example and the latter an ornate building with some kind of gargoyles sat on the roof screaming down at passers by. Our dinner was in a restaurant just a street behind these and a little way along. I can’t remember its name or the street but it’s worth giving a miss anyway.

Our ‘final’ dinner was already depleted by the absence of Czechs, but as there was no one else in the restaurant for the rest of the night, atmosphere was something we eight struggled to achieve. We did manage it, but it was personal – unlike the restaurant. The menu wasn’t extensive but it did look nice. I had duck and thoroughly enjoyed it.

However, one of our Austrian hosts (Michaela) suggested to the waiter that her food; a herb ravioli, was cold.  It was probably lukewarm, but not to her taste anyway (or mine actually, I like hot food hot and cold food cold).  Our waiter seemed unable to comprehend and called a more senior colleague to deal with ‘the problem’.

This more senior person took Michaela’s plate, stood behind her (but in full view of six of the eight of us) and prodded the food with the back of his hand before saying no – it’s hot!

I was stunned. This just should not happen. I couldn’t speak for trying to compose a stream of forceful but understandable pidgin German to rebuke him with. And then he prodded it again (chuntering all the time) as he obeyed Michaela’s command to take it away and bring her a hot dish. I’m sure that the returned dish was just microwaved – which was another appalling example of bad taste, poor hygiene and incompetence.

As I said earlier, my own food was fine, but this surly, superior and downright unhygienic attitude to food service should not be allowed. First of all – the customer is always right (even if they are wrong – which, in this case they were not) and secondly, you should not touch the food in any way – at all – ever – in front of the customer. If a dish is returned, you should start again not zap it in the microwave. Grrr.

Michaelerplatz

picture of the brightly lit inside of Karlskirche - ViennaThe ILMAE meeting has now broken up. It’s been a difficult time for me as I have to write the UK handbook – which would have been easier (to write and understand) if I had been involved all the way through. However, I’ve still had time to spend a lot of time in Vienna, which is turning out to be a beautiful city.

I’d expected something as ‘in your cultural face’ as Paris or Berlin, but I don’t think that it is quite that – it has a hidden charm. We’ve been lucky to be shown around by the Austrian partners, especially Michaela who helped us to orient ourselves in the city on Friday evening. We’d been to the Vienna boys choir concert on Thursday and nothing was planned for Friday, so off we went, accompanied by warm sunshine.

Friday evening was a one-off, it was Austria’s ‘long night of the churches’ and for one night various activities were taking place in all of the specially opened up churches. We visited Karlskirche, which is right outside the -U-Bahn station we used for our city visits. We then toured the various big-name buildings to view later and eventually stopped in a back street pub that served cheap but excellent food. I had Goulasch and a beer! Then we had ice-cream.

On Saturday we had to finish off the meeting before we had more free time to visit the city. This time Sharon and I went alone. We started in the Volksgarten, where we’d been told we could get a good coffee and watch the world go by. Well, the garden was pleasant, with very much in-bloom rose gardens and the like, but the coffee shops looked dingy so we continued through the Hofburg and into Michaelerplatz, where there was a concert. As the weather was very pleasant and we’d managed to get some drinks, we sat down to listen for a while.

The whole atmosphere was special. We’ve been lucky enough to come on a festival weekend, so there was music being played everywhere, and lots of street entertainment. The bright, warm sunshine was also a pleasure.

We’d agreed to meet our colleagues (except the Czechs, who did their own thing) at Secession before taking advantage of a walk through the Naschmarkt to our planned restaurant. Unusually, the market was open in the evening as part of the festival. Music was planned and playing and the stallholders were still there sharing their wares. This was such a good market that we plan on going again tomorrow – Monday – rain or shine. Last night’s meal, the walk through Naschtmarkt, today’s rain and visit inside Schonbrunn, and our last day will be written later.

Schönbrunn

Most of our ILMAE colleagues had arrived by the time we met for breakfast on Thursday, our first full day. However, not all had arrived by the time we were met for dinner on Wednesday, so just Sharon and I accompanied Andrea, our host, to the local heurigan restaurant. We were joined much later by Christophe who had driven straight to us from Ansbach in Germany.

Typically, a heurigan restaurant is only licensed to serve it’s own produce. [See quote“Heurigans, by law are only open a few weeks each year and the vintners are allowed to sell a percentage of their wine tax free! In addition, the kitchen prepares all the traditional favourites.“] So we sampled local and not quite as local, wines and food. Apparently, (we were told by Andrea that..) heurigans in and around Vienna itself are not quite as pure as the tradition demands. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heuriger. I had dumplings stuffed with minced meat, and a Muskateller wine from Styria both of which were delicious.

Following our first meeting on Thursday morning, we were taken to Schönbrunn Palace Park. http://www.schoenbrunn.at/en/. Despite the often torrential rain, this was an excellent visit. We had a guide who showed us around the park (not the Schloss itself) and told us something of its history. As I write this in the hotel foyer, having escaped form the mostly procedural meeting upstairs, to continue with my own work, Sharon has returned to the park to see it again in the sunshine.

a view of Schonbrunn palace - rear view
My role here in Vienna is to support Khawar at the project meeting and to continue work on our own workshop’s handbook. ‘Handbook’ is something of a misnomer, as it will be online. It consists of several thousand words which will ultimately (hopefully) support other users of the resulting workshop materials. At the moment, that’s hard to see – but there’s plenty of time yet (really!!!)

After the park visit, we caught the U-Bahn into a part of Vienna where the Vienna Boys Choir [Wiener Sängerknaben] were to perform a free concert in support of a local community project. This is apparently a quite unique event and one I certainly won’t forget. Apparently there are four choirs – each one being billed as THE Vienna Boys Choir – so although the illusion is that they never stop working, there are plenty of boys to go around. This particular charity event was held in the church of a run down, multi-cultural area of Vienna and featured two other local school choirs. Both were sweet, as school choirs are but the difference in class was easily shown because the final school choir used discordant recorders and flute during their performance which was immediately followed by the crystal clear ‘boys’ voices. Lovely.

We then had another heuriger meal (not as good this time) and came home.

And we’re off

I’m sat in the departure lounge at Manchester composing this post by tapping away on my WordPress iPhone App. Hopefully it will work . . .

Both Sharon and I are en route to Vienna. We’re (me mainly) attending the final project meeting of the ILMAE project. I was employed by TLC of Wetherby to work with them in this.

We’re hoping to find the time to do some city exploration too – so look out Flickr.

So that’s it. A brief post .. To be continued .. [up to here was posted successfully from my iPhone. It didn’t indicate that it was a successful post but here it is ..]

Well, we’re here now.  We had a pretty uneventful journey, planes on time, reasonable seats and short trips – in fact the taxi from the airport in Vienna to the hotel took almost as long as the flight from Manchester to Dusseldorf. Flight one fed us half a ham and cream cheese sandwich (with tomato juice and coffee) and flight two fed us with some cake (and more tomato juice) – in between, after viewing the Giraffes, we had a coffee (Sharon had tea) in a cafe. As I’ve said on many occasions – coffee abroad, almost anywhere abroad, is better than anywhere in the UK.

We’re meeting everyone we worked with in April [see https://eduvel.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/wetherby-2/] at 7.30 in the hotel reception and then from tomorrow (Thursday) we have a full programme of work and visits. Hopefully Sharon and I will have figured out public transport by Sunday and Monday when we have our own free time.

Posted in diary. Tags: , , , . 1 Comment »