There were exactly five more school days until the summer holidays. I was staying until 6.00pm at school each night doing paperwork to get it all done.
Every test result achieved by the children had to be passed on in triplicate, except for their books which went in the big bin after parents came to examine them on Monday, two nights before school finished! Before binning we had to choose the best page in each book to save for posterity and put it in a profile book. That night I was completing future projections in maths, reading and writing. While all this paperwork kept teachers on their toes and the children’s progress was strictly monitored, teacher burnout and low morale was a consequence of such time consuming attention to detail.
We had already met our new classes for the next school year and taught them for one day. I was extremely impressed with the organisation. The numeracy and literacy groups were already worked out, so from day one next term it would be smooth sailing. That’s a bit different to my experience in NSW. However I always felt as if I never had time to catch my breath as it was go, go, go all the time.
Suddenly it was all over and we were off to Munich, flying from Stansted with EasyJet and arriving at 3.45 pm. The train connection was smooth and the hotel was a short walk from the station. Fifteen minutes after arrival we met Barbara, our tour guide, who welcomed us and told us to be up at 6.00 am.
We made the obligatory visit to the Hoffbrau House where John recalled the heady days of the 1960s and we ate a selection of sausages, sauerkraut, mashed potato, apple strudel and drank a very large beer (I don’t like beer).
Cosmos Tours were not renowned for their high end hotels so I found myself the next night in the historic city of Prague eager to escape the smoke scented room with burn marks on the carpet and an ash tray on the bench. When I enquired at the desk the young woman assured me the room had been non-smoking “since the reconstruction”.
We had stopped in Nuremburg which was badly damaged during WW2 and rebuilt in original style with Marshall Plan money. The large town square was once the Jewish Quarter but the houses were demolished and the Jews driven out before the war.
After coffee and cakes in a bakery we were back on the bus and crossing the Czech border. The border town was full of small casinos and bordellos, most in a dilapidated state. Our next stop at Pilsen was notable for a wedding we saw taking place outside the Town Hall and the glass of Pilsener John and I shared, along with a Bratwurst on bread.
We were impressed with our short visit to Prague. On the first day we were given a brief tour but had most of the two whole days to explore on our own.
I was unsure whether I would enjoy the dinner cruise on the Berounka River but it was a highlight of the trip. There were only 15 on the boat, the buffet dinner was excellent and the piano accordion music very moving. In the darkness the illuminated buildings, especially the castle on the hill, took attention away from the ugly building sites and graffiti visible in the day.
When the musician began playing The Moldau by Smetana, I was transported back to my Teachers College days when we studied this piece in detail. Smetana wrote music that included folk songs and legends associated with his homeland when Bohemia (now Czech Republic) was under the repressive control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When Hitler and the Nazis invaded what was then Czechoslovakia in 1939, Czech symphonies played The Moldau as a protest against the German invasion until the Nazis banned all performances. It seems that Moldau and Vitava are the German and Czech names for the one river and the Berounka is the tributary that joins the Vitava at Prague.
Our perfect evening was spoilt when one of the women in our group had the contents of her backpack stolen as she stood on the jetty. Two young women pushed her from the front while another grabbed at her bag. After that I put two locks on my backpack and talked John into writing down all the numbers of our traveller’s cheques.
The next day we were free to do our own thing which involved a lot of walking but in the evening we were driven to a Folkloric evening which was so bad it was funny. During the day we climbed up the hill to the castle and then came down another way through orchards where we ate cherry plums and apricots off the trees. At the bottom we discovered a little café with a walled garden where we had crepes and salad. We saw so many historic churches and buildings we were overwhelmed but mainly observed them from the outside.
On the move again and Bratislava (Slovakia), a medieval city of large squares, cobbled streets and outdoor restaurants, surrounded by an ugly fortress of 50s communist tower blocks, was our next stop. It was trying to attract tourists but mainly operated as a lunch stop between Prague and Budapest for bus tours in 2004. I was delighted with the sculptures poking out of holes in the street and John enjoyed his plate of escargot.
Budapest was beautiful but again ugliness reared its head. Graffiti covered most walls at ground level. I thought this might be a post-communist phenomena. What impressed me was the enthusiasm with which Hungarians faced the future. Now they were in the EU and able to leave behind a tragic past. It was only the older generation who were suffering as their pensions were practically non-existent. Our guide was Hungarian and aged about 30 so she had experienced the changes over the past 15 years personally. We visited the House of Terror which was the place where people were tortured, first by the Nazis and then by the Communists. John loved to take me to these places I think because it was such a relief to get out of them.
We took off on bikes around Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube. It was good to get away from the city even though we were slap bang in the middle.
Leaving Budapest we passed through the Vienna Woods and stopped at Mayerling, a hunting lodge where Rudolph, Crown Prince of Austria, and his lover Mary Frelin von Vetsera were found dead in what appeared to be a murder-suicide pact, back in 1889. Rudolph was 30 and married while Frelin was only 17. Rudolph was the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his death triggered a series of events which resulted in the First World War. Such a sad event with such calamitous after effects!
I blame the beer I had in Baden with a sausage and mustard roll as the headache which appeared that afternoon nearly stopped me going to the concert at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. The evening promised Strauss, Mozart and extracts from opera so I was determined not to miss it.
Every time the soprano hit a high note I thought I would pass out. John said the concert was very enjoyable. The best part about the evening was going to bed.
Leaving Vienna we drove a short distance to Krems where we boarded a boat for a cruise along the Danube to Melk.
Here we toured a Benedictine Abbey which was now a school, admiring what I considered to be the most gilded church I had ever seen. Stucco marble frescos ascended to the heavens and so much gold! Completely over the top but great to look at just the same.
Austria was the lucky country because it wasn’t controlled by the Communists and is the most beautiful, pristine, chocolate box beautiful country I have ever seen (apart from Switzerland). What I didn’t know is that they were under joint American, British, French and Communist control for a while after the war and when they (the Communists) moved out, Austria had to agree to remain neutral. As a result they would not let the US fly over their airspace in the Gulf Wars. When I saw some graffiti in Vienna it was a shock. It is certainly rare. There is no rubbish, the lakes are pristine and every house and garden is immaculate.
Of course, we had to do the “Sound of Music Tour” in Salzburg. I found that different houses were used for the front and back scenes of the Von Trapp mansion. The “back” is on the lakeside and in 2004 belonged to a university and was used for post graduate courses. The summerhouse of “I am 16 going on 17” fame was in a public garden.
The church where they were married was some kilometres out of town. At times it was confusing reconciling the movie with the real life facts of the von Trapp family. Everyone was blown away by the town and shared excited stories of their discoveries as we left. I haven’t even mentioned Mozart!
Unlike our previous tour, this time the hat was passed around and there were no complaints from guide or driver. Some people were very generous and even we put in more than we meant to. We enjoyed the company of the other members of our group but were looking forward to a few days on our own before the next organised tour.