Category Archives: Austria

How a Starling Wrote a Piano Concerto

Mozart's Starling

These days it  is totally illegal to keep wild birds as pets as this is in contravention of the Protection of Birds Act of 1954 and what’s more, under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, there is a potential fine of up to £5,000, and or six months imprisonment.

Until we realised that we had made a mess of the natural biodiversity of the world and started getting precious about birds and wildlife it wasn’t unusual at all to keep wild birds as caged pets and of the most famous pet birds of all was a starling that belonged to the composer Mozart who died on 5th December 1791.

The story goes that he had just been writing a new piano concerto and feeling rather pleased with himself he went out for as walk and was whistling the catchy little tune as he passed through the city of Vienna.  As he went by a pet shop he heard his new masterpiece being whistled back, which must have surprised him somewhat because it hadn’t yet been finished or published.   As he tried to find the source of the whistling he apparently looked up at a bird cage outside a pet shop and in it was a starling mimicking the composer perfectly and joining him in a duet rendition of his new work.

Starling singing

Now this does seem rather far-fetched and might be hard to believe but I have discovered an interesting fact. The starling is in fact a relation of the Myna Bird, which is well known for its ability to mimic. The starling too is accomplished at copying other birds and other quite complex sounds, so perhaps it isn’t so unbelievable after all.

William Shakespeare knew that Starlings are accomplished mimics and in Henry IV Part I Hotspur is in rebellion against the King and is thinking of ways to torment him. In Act 1 Scene III he fantasizes about teaching a starling to say “Mortimer” – one of the king’s enemies.

“Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion”.

When I was at school I used to have a friend called Roderick Bull (really) who had a pet myna bird who lived in a cage in the hall of his house and who was trained to scream ’Bugger off’ (or something similar) whenever the doorbell rang.

Anyway, to go with the story, Mozart was so impressed that he immediately purchased the bird and went home with his new pet starling. Apparently (and quite frankly this is a bit hard to believe) the bird assisted him in making some final improvements to the concerto and thereafter its party piece was to sing the beginning of the last movement of the piano concerto K453 in G major.

The bird and composer remained close friends for three years but eventually the bird died and the grief-stricken composer had to compose his own music again without avian assistance. After the bird’s death, Mozart gave him a first-class funeral and wrote a poem as his eulogy.

Mozart it seems was rather fond of wild birds, this is a portrait of him, aged eight with a bird’s nest ( I know it looks like a pork pie), by the artist Johann Zoffany.

Young Mozart with Bird's Nest

 

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Wrocklaw – Food, Street Entertainment and Beer

We were travelling with our friends Mike and Margaret and Christine and Sue and it was late afternoon when we left the hotel and made our way to the Old Town.

The sun was still shining so after a swift circuit of the Market Square and as we hadn’t eaten since breakfast we found a restaurant with outside seating arrangements with the intention of ordering a small snack to tide us over until evening meal time.

It seems however that the Polish people have a different interpretation to the English of what constitutes a small snack and what we thought would be a modest sharing platter turned out to be a mountainous plate of sandwiches, pastry, chips, bacon and sausage and something called Zapiekanka (a sort of baguette, about twice the size of a double Big Mac,  with nothing left out and then smothered in tomato sauce) which provided in one setting our entire calorie allowance for the day and completely eliminated the need to make any more plans for evening meal.

After all of that food and drink the only sensible thing to do now was to try to walk some of it off so we left the Market Square and headed out-of-town along one of the long boulevards which brought us eventually to the City’s main railway station and being a train enthusiast was to be the highlight of Mike’s day.  It was refurbished in 2011 in preparation for the Euro Football Championship and although it is an impressive structure it looks rather out-of-place, designed as it seems to be in the style of a North African Palace that would be more at home in Marrakech or Tangiers..

Image by Tim Richards – Lonely Planet

By the time Mike had tired of train spotting it was dark and becoming quite cool so we made our way back to the Market Square where various entertainments were in full swing.

This is one of the great pleasures of travelling to the Continent because the evening time is so very different to being in England where the town centres close up and empty of people very early and everyone rushes off home, close their gates and retreat behind their front doors.  Generally we are suspicious of people who hang around town centres at night – when Polish people living in England walk out at night people get upset and start writing letters to the local newspaper complaining about anti-social behaviour.

Once in Krakow I asked a tour guide why Polish people walk out at night even in bad weather and his explanation was that many people live in small overcrowded units in apartment blocks and rather than spend the evening getting in each other’s way they go out instead for some recreation and to be neighbourly….

… and sometimes to get drunk!

Here in Wroclaw the Market Square was buzzing and vibrant and families and friends were flowing like lava into the Old Town from every side street and alleyway and filling the bars and cafés around the perimeter.  I don’t know what they call it in Poland but this was the equivalent of the La Passeggiata in Italy or La Paseo in Spain and it was wonderful to be a part of it.

We walked around the square, several times I think, stopping frequently to watch the street entertainers and to throw some small coins in the collection boxes as we passed and when we had seen enough we looked for somewhere to stop for a drink.

We knew a place from our previous visit, a little place close to our hotel which is rather simply called ‘Drinks Bar’ which may seem unimaginative but avoids any confusion about what you are going to do in there or any other possible catastrophe such as inadvertently walking into a shop by mistake.

The really good thing about the ‘Drinks Bar’ is that it serves a variety of good beers and it is cheap so we stayed longer than we planned and drank more than we should have before moving on.

The Poles are statistically the fourth highest beer drinkers in Europe with per capita consumption of around one hundred litres a year just slightly behind the Germans and the Austrians at one hundred and five but some considerable way behind the Czechs who are way out in front with one hundred and forty-five litres per head.  So we thought we might make a contribution to a Polish challenge upon the Czech Republic beer consumption statistic and on the way back to the hotel stopped off several times at anywhere that looked bright and cheerful and would dispense foaming glasses of ale!

The Official Travel Guide in Wrocław – visitWroclaw.eu

Travelling – The Grand Tour of Europe

Tourists The Grand Tour of Europe

“…nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.”  –  Mark Twain

People have always travelled to other parts of the world to see great buildings and works of art, to learn new languages, to experience new cultures and to enjoy different food and drink…

…In 2008 I flew to Athens and in the departure lounge queue behind us was a couple of girls and one announced to the other that ‘I only go on holiday for three things, to get drunk, get stoned and get laid’, I had to see who this person was and when I turned round she turned out to be so unattractive that I was tempted to say ‘Don’t build your hopes up, if I were you I would concentrate on the first two!’ but she was bigger than me so I said nothing of course!

In 1936 the League of Nations defined a foreign tourist as someone travelling abroad for at least twenty-four hours and its successor, the United Nations amended this definition in 1945 by including a maximum stay of six months.  In early 2010 the European Commissioner, Antonio Tajani, unveiled a plan declaring tourism a human right and introduced it with the statement that “travelling for tourism today is a right. The way we spend our holidays is a formidable indicator of our quality of life.”

Young English elites of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (early Rahs really) often spent two to four years travelling around Europe in an effort to broaden their horizons and learn about language, architecture, geography and culture in an experience known as the Grand Tour.

In fact the word tourist has its origins in what used to be more correctly called the Grand Tour of Europe, which was a term first used by Richard Lassels in his 1670 book ‘Voyage or a Complete Journey through Italy’ and after that it came into general usage to describe the travels in Europe of wealthy young men and women in the years of the Enlightenment where it was quite normal to take a gap year (or four) in the quest for a broader education.

Lassels was a Roman Catholic priest and a tutor to several of the English nobility and travelled through Italy five times. In his book, he claims that any truly serious student of architecture, antiquity, and the arts must travel through France and Italy, and suggested that all “young lords” make the Grand Tour in order to understand the political, social, and economic realities of the world.

The Traveller Oviedo Spain

The primary purpose of the Grand Tour lay in the exposure both to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance and an an introduction to the aristocratic and fashionably polite society of the European continent.  In addition, before museum collections went on tour themselves,  it provided the only opportunity to view specific works of art, and possibly the only chance to hear certain music and it was commonly undertaken in the company of a Cicerone, a knowledgeable guide or tutor.

The Grand Tour had more than superficial cultural importance as the historian E.P. Thompson observed, “ruling-class control in the 18th century was located primarily in a cultural hegemony, and only secondarily in an expression of economic or physical (military) power.”

While the general objective of the Grand Tour was essentially educational (and this probably what mum and dad thought that they were forking out for) they were also notorious for more frivolous pursuits such as getting hammered, partying heavily and sleeping with as many continental lovelies as possible and so began a tradition that thousands of holiday Brits continue to this day in the party hot-spots of Europe.

When young men on the Grand Tour weren’t misbehaving like people on a stag weekend to Amsterdam they were mostly interested in visiting those cities that were considered the major centres of culture at the time, primarily Paris, Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples.

90 Rome

The Grand Tourist would travel from city to city and usually spend some time in smaller towns and up to several months in the three main cities on the itinerary.  Paris was considered the grandest and most cultured city and was usually first en-route and tourists would rent apartments for several weeks at a time and would make occasional visits to the countryside and adjacent towns.

From Paris, they travelled south either across the Alps or by a ship on the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and then they would pass on to Rome or Venice.  To begin with Rome was initially the southernmost point they would travel to but when excavations began at Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1738 the two sites also became additional major stop-off points.

Other locations sometimes included as part of some Grand Tour included Spain and Portugal, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic States. However, these other spots lacked the cultural and historical appeal of Paris and Italy and the substandard roads made travel much more difficult so they were not always the most popular.

Some of them didn’t have vineyards either so I suppose that might have reduced their appeal somewhat.

The British it seems have always been rather keen on travelling abroad and we have left our mark all over Europe (and not just through football violence either) in Nice one of the first and most established holiday resorts on the French Riviera, the long esplanade along the seafront is known to this day as the Promenade des Anglais and in many other historic resorts in continental Europe, old well-established palace hotels have names like the Hotel Bristol, the Hotel Carlton or the Hotel Majestic, reflecting the predominance of English customers.

In fact there are nearly three hundred hotels around the world called Bristol. They take their name from Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730-1803), the 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, who spent most of his life travelling around Europe enjoying the best hospitality money could buy.  What a good life that would have been, to be sure!

This sort of thing really appeals to me; both the exploration and knowledge and having a really good knees up at the same time and I have become determined to travel as much in Europe as I possibly can. There are forty-six countries in Europe and I have only so far been to twenty-nine so I am just over half way towards my objective of visiting them all.

Ryanair was Europe’s original low fares airline and is my favourite which is lucky for me because the airline has over eleven hundred low fare routes to one hundred and sixty-one destinations in Europe and North Africa.  In the last three years I have flown thirty times at a very reasonable average cost of £40 return all inclusive.

Not all of these flights were with Ryanair of course and I have been forced to use others but I generally find that these work out more expensive.  A return flight to Athens with Easyjet for example costs £120 and my biggest bargain so far was with Ryanair to Santander in Cantabria, Spain at just £10.02 return.  To put things into some sort of perspective it costs over £80 to go to London on the train from Peterborough with National Express and for that you are not even guaranteed a seat.  That is about .90p a mile and on that basis it would cost approximately £1,800 to go to Santander and back by train!

Ryanair over the Alps

In 2015 the most visited country in Europe was France, followed by Spain, Italy, United Kingdom and Germany.  Spain made the most money out or tourist revenues and on average the Germans spent most while away from home.  The most visited city was London (although as usual France disputes the official figures) and the most visited place was Trafalgar Square, followed by the Eiffel Tower and then the Vatican.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation, which has its headquarters in Madrid, produces the World Tourism Rankings and is a United Nations agency dealing with questions relating to tourism.

For the record I visited Trafalgar Square in 2008, the Eiffel Tower in 2005 and the Vatican in 2003.

Doors and Windows of Hallstatt, Austria

Hallstatt Window with ReflectionHallstatt Window with CatHallstatt Windows AustriaHallstatt Door with Big Step

 

Worth a Detour (Part Two)

Worth a Detour 2

Following on from my previous posts about places worth avoiding where I suggested the charmless Liechtenstein capital of Vaduz, the dreary Austrian city of Klagenfurt and the pointless Poble Espanyol in Barcelona, I come to my nominations for the top 2…

No. 2  – Les Rochers Sculptés, Brittany, France  

Driving in France we were delayed by a longer than expected stop in the attractive town of Dinan and were seriously behind schedule so the sensible thing to do was to go directly to our next intended destination of Mont St Michel but Kim was intrigued by a visitor attraction marked on the map called the sculptured rocks so sensing unexpected delight we left the main highway and set out on the coast road.

Let me now straight away give you a piece of advice – unless you are really determined to see rock carvings do not take an unnecessary detour to Les rochers sculptés!  We were expecting a stack of rocks standing in the sea pounded by waves into interesting formations but the site is a small area of stonemason carvings in the side of the granite cliff.

Rock Sculptures St Malo

These sculptures were carved just over a hundred years ago by a hermit priest, Abbé Fouré, who had suffered a stroke and lost his ability to hear and speak and the story goes that he began these sculptures as a means of alternative communication. I am not trying to underestimate the value of the work here you understand, what I am saying is that it is a tedious detour and the visit is going to be over in about twenty minutes or so (if you stretch it out as long as you can or go around twice).

If you do want to go and see them then I would do it soon because after one hundred years they are seriously eroded by the sea and the rain and it can’t help a great deal either that visitors are allowed to climb all over them.

After the pointless visit I was impatient to get to Mont St Michel but stuck on the coast road progress was infuriatingly slow as we passed through several towns and villages all with inconveniently snail like speed limits.  Out in the Gulf of St Malo we could see the abbey on the island but it seemed to take a frustrating age to get there as the road snaked around the coast and every few miles or so we came across a tractor or a school bus which slowed us down even more.  Several times I cursed the decision to go and visit Les rochers sculptés.

Les rochers sculptés St Malo France

Drum roll Please…

No. 1 – The Astronomical Clock in Prague, Czech Republic

Astronomical Clock Prague

I have no hesitation at all in declaring this the runaway winner of places I nominate not to go out of your way to visit and I am not the only one who thinks so because this overrated tourist attraction regularly makes an appearance in similar lists.

We arrived with about forty minutes to spare so sat at a roadside bar and watched a sizeable crowd beginning to assemble.  After a second glass of the excellent beer we wandered over to take up a good position to see the famous astronomical clock that stands in the centre of the square strike one.  It really was very impressive to look at but not nearly so good that it justified the city authorities blinding its creator after it was completed just so that he couldn’t make another one elsewhere.

Anyway, bang on time, the mechanism creaked into action and the little statues started to do a little jig, I especially liked the skeletal figure of death that to be absolutely certain of the time diligently inspected an hourglass and then rang a tiny bell to get proceedings started.

First came the promised highlight of the event when a small window opened and the twelve Apostles passed by in procession each one in turn blankly gazing out over the square.  They had to be quick though because this wasn’t so much a procession as a hundred-metre dash and they sprinted past as though the landlord at the rugby club had just called last orders at the bar.  Then a cock crowed and the clock chimed out the hour and that was it.  I thought the whole horological experience was over rather too quickly.

Whilst I am in Prague let me also mention  Wenceslas Square because this is another huge disappointment.  I had been expecting something similar to St Marks Square in Venice but it was lined with shops and familiar fast food restaurants and it felt a little just a little unsophisticated and disappointing.  It was big too, much bigger than I had imagined.  I was expecting it to be like the Grande Place in Brussels, the Plaza Mayor in Madrid or the Piazza Navona in Rome with an attractive open space and stylish pavement cafés but it wasn’t even pedestrianised and it was full of impatient cars and speeding trams that made the visit rather an ordeal.

If you go to Prague you will probably go and see the clock and the square but don’t expect too much is all that I am saying!

Have you seen the Prague Astronomical Clock? What did you think?

Worth A Detour (Part One)

Kim The Navigator

Recently I was reminded about a story I have told previously about map reading.

Driving in Switzerland I allocated navigation duties to Kim and we made steady progress towards our destination – Liechtenstein.  After a couple of hours we stopped at a restaurant and this gave us time to examine the map again to find the most suitable route and Kim explained how she had carefully plotted a course to avoid places that the map helpfully pointed out as ‘worth a detour’.  Kim had interpreted this information as ‘worth avoiding’ when of course it actually meant ‘worth going out of your way to take a look’.  

This little memory nudge made me begin to think about some places that we have gone out of our way to visit and then found them to be desperately disappointing.  I offer here my top five places worth avoiding…

No. 5 – Vaduz, Liechtenstein

Vaduz Liechtenstien Concrete

“It occurred to me that there is no reason to go to Liechtenstein except to say that you have been there.  If it were simply part of Switzerland… nobody would dream of visiting it” – Bill Bryson,  ‘Neither here Nor there’

We passed into the World’s sixth smallest country and very soon arrived in Vaduz which although looking overwhelmingly dull we felt compelled to stop there and take a quick look.

I don’t really know what I was expecting, it just sounded as though it should be more interesting than it is, the very fact that it has been able to remain independent through two hundred turbulent years of European history should have given me a clue.  If none of its more powerful neighbours had taken a fancy to it or annexed it for themselves in all of that time that probably says a lot about its value or its interest.

It is a city completely lacking in interest or charisma, it appears to have rejected completely the enchanting picture postcard charm of neighbouring Switzerland and chosen instead to build a bleak city of tarmac and concrete worthy of the very best Soviet town planners with nothing to relieve the monotony of box buildings and Spartan austerity.

Perhaps this is deliberate, Liechtenstein is a country of tax dodgers and secret bank accounts and the men of finance don’t want too many tourists dropping by.

For an immensely rich place (the Prince of Liechtenstein is the world’s sixth wealthiest head of state) I was expecting something special but I have to say that I found it bone-crushingly dull, the sort of place you might send prison inmates for special punishment, worse even than solitary confinement.

No. 4 – Klagenfurt, Austria

Klagenfurt Austria

For a few years we were in the habit of visiting different European Christmas markets.  In 2007 we travelled to Ljubljana in Slovenia and an examination of the train timetables suggested that we could cross over into Austria and travel to the city of Klagenfurt to see a different market.

This was not a straightforward journey.  It was not a direct route and required some time and effort to get there.  The train stopped at the border and the Slovenian engine was replaced with an Austrian model and then a few miles later we had to change trains to make the journey to Klagenfurt, we didn’t mind, we were confident that we were going to see a magnificent traditional Austrian Christmas market.

How disappointed we were when we discovered that the market in Klagenfurt was even tackier than the one in Ljubljana – it was full of cheap trash and repetitive rubbish that none of us had a mind to purchase.  And there wasn’t a great deal of seasonal good cheer on offer either.

I am sure that the market would be more lively and vibrant at night but in the middle of a cold and overcast day it was just dull and lifeless and minding every stall was someone who looked as though they wished that they were somewhere else.

We hurried through the market towards the city centre but this was in turmoil of improvement works that closed off the main square and the Lindwurm fountain, which is about the only one thing worth seeing in Klagenfurt.  I am sure that it is a fine city because it is the sixth largest in Austria and the state capital of Carthinia but the grey clouds made it seem uninteresting and without charm.  I do not recommend a visit to Klangenfurt!

No. 3 – Poble Espanyol, Barcelona

Poble-Espanyol-2

On a Tourist Bus excursion in Barcelona we sat on the top deck to just about as far as it is possible to go to visit Poble Espanyol before it turns around and comes all the way back.

This is a showcase attraction built for the 1929 Barcelona Exposition and is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster with various bits of Spanish architecture and heritage stitched together in one open air museum.  Whilst this may work at Beamish in County Durham in the UK which restricts itself to the North East of England or St Fagans in South Wales where the exhibits come from a relatively small geographical area it is quite something else to try and bring together all of the differing cultural heritage of a country as diverse as Spain into one setting and succeed.

I found it to be a rather odd sort of place that aspires to celebrate the various regions of Spain but, for me anyway, failed to effectively capture the spirit of the country and it isn’t really a museum but rather a collection of shops and restaurants claiming to sell and serve regional specialities.  For anyone who has been to Disney World EPCOT World Showcase you will probably know what I mean.

An interesting thing about Poble Espanyol is that it claims to introduce the visitor to the heritage and culture of each of the Autonomous Communities of Spain and yet it only showcases fifteen of the seventeen and as we left I couldn’t help wondering why the Canary Islands and La Rioja didn’t rate a mention or at least a shop?

The Disney view of the World doesn’t include Spain in the World Showcase, which is an oversight if you ask me, but if it did then something like Poble Espanyol would be exactly what it would most likely look like.  It is a curious place, without heart or soul and if you ever take the Barcelona Bus Touristic I suggest that you stay on board when it pulls up here and continue to the Nou Camp stadium instead.

On a countdown of my places to avoid this is 5 through to 3, next time I will reveal my top 2.

Have you ever been somewhere and been terribly disappointed – do tell!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Circle

Woodpile Hallstatt Austria

Hallstatt – Prettiest Village in Austria…

The village is set on piles driven into the lake with an intricate system of intersecting timber ramps, buttresses and ascending terraces like hanging gardens creating an air of mystery and the eeriness of a mirage, a village that seems to be almost lost in the middle-mist of folklore and fable.

The mountain flanks rise sheer from the lake, leaving no room for a road and all but the smallest of vehicles are prohibited from entering the centre of the village.

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