Thoughts — 26 September 2011 including Travel to Austria

Family trip to Austria — photos in and around Salzburg, Vienna, along Lake Fuschl and Castle Rosenberg.

Our kids keep us on our toes. We put a lock on the inside of our bedroom door. We are tired of Jeremy coming in during the night to sleep in mama’s bed. We asked him what he thought of the bolt – he said he thought it was to keep Karen inside if she were naughty. As in time out. (Except that wouldn’t explain why the bolt was on the INSIDE of the door.) But anyway…..Elizabeth was late yet again today to school. Not actually her fault; just Jeremy making us all late. She suggested that we use the late pass that she still had from yesterday (that she must have kept) instead of going to the office to get another one. Amazing how quickly they learn to game the system. Elizabeth is taking hip hop dance, gymnastics and drawing – she’s got some great moves and someone asked her as she was exiting the elevator “you sure you ain’t black?” To give you an idea of where our kids are at these days, click here for a one minute video on a train ride from Salzburg to Vienna where the two kids discuss the ins and out of the “Quiet Car.” I think it’s pretty darn funny.

We just came back from a few weeks in Austria with the kids. They now seem to recognize Mozart on Little Einsteins, having seen his face on chocolates all over Austria. … My wife notes how I enjoy picking hotels for holidays based on Andrew Harper’s Travel Club recommendations. She says that I should only be buried in a cemetery that is recommended by Andrew Harper. Now that’s an idea – given how much attention we all bestow on interesting places to spend a night of leisure, don’t you think we ought to have companies rating resting places of eternal repose?

We came across the 9/11 10th anniversary memorial on TV; every channel was showing it on that Sunday morning. The kids recognized that there was a fire in America, and to them it seemed that it was happening now until we told them otherwise.  Elizabeth wanted to keep on watching but Jeremy said to switch to Mickey Mouse.  And then I considered that roughly half the adult population in Afghanistan still don’t know that 9/11 even happened.

Jeremy informed Karen that he was told that boys are the bosses of the house even if they are children. Karen was not amused. We are still trying to figure out where he thinks he learned this.

Our local grocery is offering a cooking class in honor of the Jewish New Year called “Shiksa in the Kitchen.” It’s good if you can laugh at yourself and the Upper West Side of Manhattan certainly can.

Moving onto the rest of the world, Turkey is all talk and no walk with Syria despite all their threats and ultimatums. They have been using Israel-bashing as a cover-up for the fact that they really don’t count for much on their own, and the West is encouraging it because Turkey looks like the better horse for Arabs over those pesky Persians in Iran. This past week witnessed Turkey’s president in Egypt trying to show Egyptians how much he hates Israel and trying to get brownie points with Egypt’s populace. It is a stupid move – Turkey and Egypt have no lobby in Washington and alienating the Jews won’t get it anything here. Egypt’s new government looks like they can’t control their own show and the people demonstrating against Israel’s embassy were shouting that Saudi Arabia’s embassy down the street would be next to be ransacked.

I was watching the Republicans debate each other last week and thought the “my neighbor’s dog has created more shovel-ready jobs than Obama” line was great until I found out the next day that the candidate stole it from Rush Limbaugh who had used the line the day before. This whole lineup of candidates is so ridiculous – I get the feeling that I could do this job better than any of them, but I’m not stupid enough to spend 2 years of my life campaigning for it and then 4 or 8 years of my life trying to get anything done with the losers running the Congress and the other countries of the world. If I and 10 of my buddies (you all know who you are) could take over the top jobs around the world, we could definitely kick ass. Gets me thinking – maybe we should just outsource all this government to a private company. America does a lot of things right in the private sector – maybe we should just do government too. I once said (and continue to think it’s not a bad idea) that we should just turn over the management of the holy sights of Jerusalem to Disney.

I believe Obama is in serious trouble; he has only a third of the white vote and half of the Hispanic vote, according to the NY Times which supports him. He can’t win with those numbers. But the Republicans have no ideas and no candidates. I know that last month I warned that Perry would be a formidable opponent but he along with the others are going to be unelectable as they are. One of my friends who is in a position to know things says that the electoral college favors Obama and that the Democrats are playing up the weakness of their hand in order to stimulate fundraising efforts and that the media are being manipulated or just playing along. In my opinion, Obama ought to say he will be a one-term prez and Hillary Clinton ought to run for the next term or else the Republicans have a very good chance of taking over the presidency if they get somebody from the mainstream to run – and that person doesn’t have to be running this early. Clinton is electable and a lot of people these days probably think she would have been the better choice 3 years ago. Had she run as Hillary Rodham instead of Hillary Clinton, she might have passed go but the nation was in the mood for something that was neither Clinton nor Bush.

To get jobs in this country, the country should pass the compromise from Congress announced this past summer to deal with fiscal policy and taxes; stimulus and payroll tax cuts aren’t going to do anything; business wants to see a policy in place to deal with the future and the world is thinking less and less of America. I will be at the World Business Forum first week of October. One thing to consider is that everyone I talk to everywhere tells me that 2011 has been better for them in business than 2010 – that’s probably why the markets haven’t really fallen even though they have swung. The markets were at their high when the compromise was announced in Congress; it started falling as soon as Obama hid from it and when it became clear that it wouldn’t pass and it’s gyrated ever since.

Stratfor is stating that the Syrian opposition is a figment of the Western media’s imagination and that the regime is not going anywhere. They were correct in their assessment of Iran’s staying power several years ago when it seemed the country’s regime was in danger of falling. I think that Assad could be around for a long time unless he happens to be convinced that he needs to go. I don’t know if all the media reports that say that various foreign sources expect him to be out of power sooner than later represent wishful thinking, misinformation or honest calculation.

The Euro system is not supported among many European countries who feel the victim of parasitism, and ironically Eastern Europe is actually more healthy than Western Europe. I just don’t see it lasting another decade…Russia is a really loser country these days and young people want to leave it. Putin announcing he will be president for a decade is no surprise and just reflects the loser country status that exists…A lot of the global warming investments by other countries are in technologies that don’t work and a lot of it in the US is being oversold to little effect. Propping up a few companies. Truth is that autos are more fuel-efficient and the US is making more progress than many other countries on this regard in an unsexy way. I am being told that the US should not be pressured into these green technologies just because other countries are investing in them; so far the results have been less than stellar.

Israelis and their supporters should stop hacking about how Egyptian peace is falling apart. There never was peace. Egypt and Jordan treaties are peace agreements with dictators that have no public support and never had any. If Israel wants peace, it has to stop hiding behind these facades and dictators and deal with public opinion. Which means real compromise on the Palestinian issue. Or else just say that you’re not in the market for compromise with the Palestinians because you just don’t believe that there is a deal to be had and recognize that the Arab world will continue to hate your guts. That is a legitimate position if in fact that is the reality. But at least be honest about it. It’s a package deal – reconciliation with the Arab world has a price and that is a Palestinian state which is what the UN was offering both sides in 1948. I still think that as long as Syria and Iran are stirring the pot, within a year of becoming a state Palestine will be taken over by Hamas. But if you could get them out of the way, you’d have a shot at a future. Abbas has gained himself a place in Palestinian history as the person who went to the UN against the US instruction and asked for a state. It is folly but he had nothing to lose. He would be more beloved if he actually gave his people a reason to believe that something could come of it. The Israelis insist that he wanted to stage a show hoping to build momentum that would lead to a state; and that he was never really ready to do the deal. Netanyahu doesn’t look like he wanted it either.  It’s like 2000’s meeting between Clinton, Arafat and Barak – today we still don’t know what really happened, and we might never know. So again, I say as I’ve said now for years – look past Israel and the Palestinians. Get the Syrians and Iranians out of the business of mucking things up and then we’ll really know what’s possible. Once the parties can’t blame assassins and nuclear bomb threats for standing in the way of a deal, we’ll know if it’s all about partisan politics and political cowardice.

Some interesting hotels I visited this month – St. Regis in Houston is a favorite in Houston (you’d be surprised how few good hotels are in that city) and the Chatwal in New York City is an interesting property. It’s a good boutique hotel on West 44th street just off Times Square and it recently joined the Starwood chain’s Luxury Collection. Good if you want to not be in a huge chain hotel and in that location.

Austria Trip Notes — our family went on a 2 week holiday to Salzburg, the Lake Fuschl area, Vienna and the Wachau region.

Austria Airlines business class JFK-Vienna – If you buy tickets way in advance, business class can be about the same as an economy class ticket. Food was better than expected. The Lufthansa beancounters haven’t yet tried to destroy this carrier’s food. The 777’s have middle seats which I can’t imagine anyone wants in business class. Lounges are bare-bone and entertainment on board is limited. Not always a fish option.Vienna airport is still easy for transfers; hasn’t grown too much. No kiddie play areas in this airport although Jeremy made do with his leash (we have trouble with him running wild in public places) and crawled around like a dog in the concourse after getting kicked out of the airport lounge. The downside is that there are not as many flights available out of Vienna as other transfer points. We transferred by air directly to Salzburg which is another 35 minute flight over lovely countryside. Salzburg airport is tiny and it is a 10 Euro taxi ride to town. Schloss Monchstein is an excellent top-rated hotel and was the best of the hotels we stayed at on this trip. It is above the city on a small mountain reached by an elevator from the museum of modern art about a 6 minute walk away through the forest (hotel gives you an elevator pass). The Monchstein suite is beautifully decorated with unique art and old-fashioned building materials, has a terrace and a beautiful views of the city. We were there during a heatwave and the air conditioning was inadequate for the size of the room and the bed was hard. Nevertheless, it was a lovely property and it had everything you needed a good city hotel to have except for a decent gym.

Salzburg Sites – Furst and Tomacelli were the best chocolate and pastry shops. Furst had the best chocolate ice cream and sorbet we had in Austria and Tomacelli is an institution. Both are on or near the main square. Not much to buy here and VAT is 20%. Nordsee chain has a location on the main shopping street and is a good standby for fish and veggies for the kids. House of Nature is an excellent science museum that was among the best we’ve seen anywhere. We spent a few hours there and their shop had good toys too. Great place to hang out during the heat of a summer day. Festung Castle over the city is worth a visit and a horse and buggy ride is nice toward the end of the day. The city walls have hearts of flowers and our daughter liked that. 6pm chimes of music and bells from the big clock in the main square. Romantic dinner in the tower of the Schloss Monchstein hotel, billed as the Smallest Restaurant in the World – a table for two in your own private dining room — pay the 50 Euro fee and pass go if you can get the reservation. Definitely something to do if you’re in town. Very nice dessert of plum, poppyseed and chocolate cake. Lots of fish everywhere. Sound of Music tour we did with an individual guide who had a car; better than the group tours that run in and out and don’t cover everything. We went to Mirabelli Gardens in center of the city, the original Von Trapp family house and another one used in the movie, saw the area where the kids hung from the trees in the movie. Visited Schloss Helbrunn, a castle built by an archbishop with a sense of humor – hidden fountains splash water all around and the guide makes sure all the kids on the tour get soaked. Jeremy was in heaven! The gazebo from the Sound of Music movie is on property (from the “16 going on 17″ dance number) and there is a great playground there. In 3 hours you can cover it all. There is a marionette theater in Salzburg; check the internet listings before you come to town; most of the shows are in German and lengthy. We were there during the Salzburg Music Festival but were not in the mood to pay 200 Euro a ticket to see the Chicago Philharmonic. Salzburg has lots of day trippers filling the streets; it is better after hours and 2 nights here were plenty. We had a 40 minute taxi transfer to Schloss Fuschl for the next leg of our trip.

Fuschl – Schloss means “Castle” by the way. This next castle in Fuschl is part of the Starwood Luxury Collection of hotels. Yet they use recycled toilet paper – it seemed the manager wasn’t aware of this when I asked about it, but he had only been on the job for a month. He was decent with us – gave us 50% discount on our kids’ laundry when I raised hell about it. A suite might be better here than 2 adjoining rooms; the rooms are a bit small and the showers are tiny. If you want the real lake view, you gotta be in the tower overlooking the lake. The other lakeside rooms are of a small lake without the mountains. Dinner on terrace overlooking this beautiful green lake with mountains framing it from the sides. Turned out to be the last summer night for such dinners because when the heatwave ended, the temperature went down 40 degrees the next day and all future dinners were inside. You get a lot of bees all over Austria during the daytime hours so it’s not great fun to eat outside. Inside the dining room there are postcard picture windows overlooking the lake and the food was uniformly excellent. They serve excellent sacher torte every day at breakfast. The Sheraton is about a half mile away and has a bowling alley; also has an Italian restaurant good for feeding kids pasta but their pizza comes out of a box. The two hotels are linked by a shuttle bus and you can charge food at either place to your room. They both have spas and gyms and this one has a really nice indoor pool and an outdoor jacuzzi (a bit nutty when it gets cold or rainy). Service is a bit spotty – the answer you get depends on who you ask and you get more of “not yet” than “coming right up” and lots of people are not big on thinking outside the box here. Dinner in the Austrian themed restaurant in the Sheraton was good and homey, but we’re not big on the plum bread pudding desert that is popular here – people eat it as a main course and it’s a wonder there are not tons of obese Austrians.  Hotel has some vintage cars and they drove us in a 1956 Rolls Royce (used to belong to the Queen of England) about a half hour to St. Wolfgang where we took this cog railway up a big mountain and looked around and came back. Allow 90 minutes for the up and down journey unless you want to spend more time hiking at the top of the mountain. All the trains are basically the same so don’t get concerned trying to get on the old fashioned steam train. There was a fair going on in the town and we walked around; it was very classy and they had kids activities such as bungee jumping (jump up and down on a trampoline connected to a bouncing cord and you can do flips). The kids wound up doing this 3x in a week on this trip. It was a 20 minute walk to the city center which is all pedestrian. Lots of people here wear regional costumes with a Bavarian flavor; there were also some Hassidic Jews from Israel on a trip walking around town and they looked like they were in costume just like all the others. From town you can take a ferry ride to St. Gilgan which is a gorgeous ride on the glacier-like lake. At St. Gilgan near the ferry landing is a small park with a zip line that the kids loved. They also got to see the volunteer fire department respond to a real-life fire. From here you can take a bus ride back to the hotel; it is about 2 Euros for the 20 minute ride but check the schedules because on Sundays the bus runs once every one or two hours. Busses do run on time though. Another attraction was the salt mine near Salzburg. From here it was a 40 minute taxi ride about 70 Euros. This is a great attraction that lasts about 90 minutes – you don miner’s clothes and go on a tour of the mine. You go down steep wood slides, a boat ride on a salt lake, and a train that goes in and out of the mine. A few minutes away by city bus is a tobaggan slide down a large mountain (chairlift up the mountain) — the kids loved it; Karen hated it. We had dinner in the small village of Fuschl, a few minutes from the hotel at a hotel called See Hotel Schlick that had great salad bar, fish and desserts. There is a nice little promenade by the lake. On the whole, this region turned out to have more attractions than we expected and we had no trouble filling 4 nights here. From the hotel it was a 30 minute taxi ride to the Salzburg train station where we took a 2:45 minute train scenic and pleasant ride to Vienna.

Vienna – I was here about 10 years ago and you can see my notes on Global Thoughts from that visit. It is a very different thing to be here with wife and 2 small kids. We stayed at a small boutique hotel near the StadtPark (city park) called Palais Coburg. Most taxis drivers had never heard of it, so we just learned to tell them it was next to the Marriott. This hotel was also poor on the air conditioning side and most of the rooms were loft-duplexes, so it would be even hotter where the bedroom was up on the second level during the heat wave that was going on. Breakfast in the garden was nice. The hotel had spent a lot of money on renovation but cut weird corners – no weights in the gym, the PC’s in the rooms didn’t work, the PC in the lounge had no @ key, and you had to be 7 feet tall to reach the faucet inside the bathtub to get the shower on and off. I would recommend a hotel closer to the main shopping street (Kartnerstrasse) such as the Bristol which is right across from the opera house.  Our hotel was eerily quiet at night and had the feeling of a locked-down fortress. The best toy store is not Kober on Graben street but rather Spelzeug Schachtel just behind the rear entrance of the Steffel department store on the Kartner Strasse. Better selection of toys and much better service. One evening we took the kids to what used to be the Movenpik Marche in the downstairs of the shopping gallery next to the Bristol hotel – it remains a buffet offering cooked to order items and the kids got exactly what they wanted – pasta, green beans and a crepe filled with banana and chocolate. An excellent streetside restaurant was Da Moritz about a block from the hotel. The kids loved the thin crusted crunch pizza and every single thing we had there was great. Pound for pound it was probably the best restaurant on our trip. Our biggest disappointment on the tourist attraction front was the Spanish Riding School – we paid 12 Euros each to see the morning training exercise, which basically means horses being ridden around in a circle for the entire morning. 5 minutes watching this is 5 minutes too much. We are told the evening shows are more interesting, but we have this feeling that the Austrians profess to delight in a lot of entertainment that we consider to objectively be utterly boring. Take the tram #1 around the ring and get a sense of orientation. We rode to the Prater and walked in from the rear. It is an outdoor amusement park primarily for kids 6 and up. It was eminently skippable. We made up for this by having lunch at Café Demel – the spinach pie was very good and of course there were many dessert delights. The Jewish Museum was closed for renovations and we then went to the City (Stadt) Park – there were two playgrounds next to each other and the kids had a ball. Dinner atop the Royale hotel which offered Italian cuisine; you get a nice view of town right next to the main cathedral and the food was good including some raspberry tiramisu. Public transport is essentially free for tourists. We didn’t see anybody with tickets for trams or subways. The Schonbrun palace also has a children’s museum (check first to see when it’s open) and it was a very good attraction. We did the Imperial Tour of the main palace in about 10 minutes which is what you should expect with kids, although Elizabeth was very impressed with the gold colored rooms in the palace. Don’t wear nice clothes there – there is a playground with a lot of dirt and the maze is huge – go inside at your peril and take water and cellphones. Expect to spend at least 3 hours at Schonbrun as it takes time just to get in, out and around. There is also a puppet theater and carriage house to see. We went to an attraction called Miniopolis which was supposed to be a great thing for kids – it mimics a town and kids get jobs and pretend to be adults. It was a huge bust – the kids couldn’t deal with the German videos that gave all the instructions to do the jobs and it was school holidays so every pavillion was full of people waiting for jobs. Vienna has a “Zoom” children’s museum – you should book tickets 2 weeks in advance if you are coming during school holidays. The activities that you want take place in the afternoon and require separate tickets. There was also a House of Music museum – very innovative presentation and the kids loved “conducting” the pretend digital orchestra (you wave a wand and the orchestra responds).  Vienna has lots of diagonal streets and it can take the first 24 hours just to realize that you could get somewhere in 5 minutes that took you 20 minutes earlier that day. Very good to really look at the map carefully before setting out to walk in this city. Ate at the kosher restaurant Alef-Bet and the chicken and veal shnitzels were excellent. Went to the Hofburg Palace in the evening for a 90 minute concert featuring light classical music (including the obligatory Strauss) with singers and some comedic interruption by a percussionist with attitude. Not everyone wants to go to the opera or the main concert galleries, and there are several tourist-oriented concerts and our 55 Euro ticket was perfect. The company has been doing this show for over 30 years and tour groups come every day and enjoy it. There are two main department stores are on the Kartnerstrasse – Steffel and Pete & Coburg. I wasn’t terribly impressed with either of them although Steffel had a nice children’s department with a good Petite Bateau section and I could find my size in socks at Steffel. Met a friend for lunch in the City Park at Meieri – the menu contains a schedule of when which dessert comes out of the oven. I ate the apple strudel when it came out (it was at 1pm that day) and it was one of the best strudels I’ve had anywhere. That opinion is seconded by my wife and kids who had some too.  My friend in Vienna is involved in commercial real estate – he feels that Eastern Europe is still a casino but has good prospects for long-term future growth and that the banking industry in that region offers real growth opportunities. He feels the bank stocks were beaten down further than necessary. To sum up Vienna, even with small kids in tow, we had fun. If you are into the opera and philharmonic, don’t come here at the end of August or beginning of September as most of the venues are closed. And don’t expect to be doing art museums with kids. But if you like treats and just going around to nice parks and walking on the Kartnerstrasse and seeing lots of street artists and cafes, and pick your museums carefully, you can have a very nice time here.

A 75 minute taxi ride takes us to the village of Durnstein where we will spend the next few days. It is a small village along the Danube in a region known as the Wachau. Ask the hotel in Durnstein to send a taxi – our hotel charged us double to have their driver take us there.

Durstein – We were offered this really cool triplex in a castle called Schloss Durnstein but gave it up for a single junior suite because the kids would have probably killed themselves on the steep spiral staircase in the middle of the night looking for mama’s bed. (Remember how this month’s edition of Global Thoughts started?) Room “Tower 3” has a 2 bedroom apartment that costs the same as the other rooms and one of those rooms is a pretty children’s bedroom with lots of stuffed toys. But that apartment lacks a river view. Our room #40 had enough space and felt like a tower in a castle with lovely Danube river views. The owner didn’t want to see us but spoke to the other guests. We were told she only spoke German – I felt that in another era she would have turned us into the authorities (or might have been among the authorities). Dinner on the terrace was good but not exceptional. The castle is right at the edge of the main street and the whole town is walkable in about 5-10 minutes. A little train will take you to the wineries. There is a little playground among the vineyards. It was pretty hot from the sun and I got the feeling that this is exactly what you would get if you spent time in Tuscany. A 20 minute boat ride will get you to the town of Krems – a little train meets the boat and will take you to city center. The center of the city is a historical area with pedestrian-only zone. There was a county fair with rides going on; unlike the one in St. Wolfgang this one was very low-brow. Taxis were absent – we were told the next day that so many people were drunk the taxis were busy ferrying them home from the fair. That turned out to be lucky for us – the bus ride back to the hotel passed thru vineyards and small towns an hour or two before sunset and was really beautiful. Turned out to be one of the serendipitous highlights of the trip. Dinner at the Richard Loewen hotel in center of Durnstein was also OK. One problem we consistently found here (and elsewhere) is a tendency to salt fish a lot – you need to ask them to go light on the salt if that bothers you. There are castle ruins above the town but no roads to them – you have to walk about half an hour – not happening with small kids. A 40 minute drive to Rosenberg Castle where a children’s festival was going on. They had everything going on here you could possibly want – pony rides next to the castle; face painting; paper rocket launchers; falcon show; children’s orchestra; puppet show; castle tours, more bungee jumping. Elizabeth chose to be painted as a butterfly and Jeremy wanted to be a train. Karen cracked up watching the irony of the kids dancing to a German version of Oh Suzanna in the castle courtyard with Austrian folkdancers in native costume. Returned to the hotel for coffee and cake (and apricot juice which is big here); there is an indoor swimming pool and dinner on the terrace featured a very enjoyable piano player who performs on the terrace and in the lobby Wed-Sunday evenings. The hotel makes good apricot pancakes as well. So basically the castles are fun but beware of the lack of air conditioning which can be a real problem if it’s not cold at night. The hotel itself was nice and offered beautiful decorations in the public areas. Lack of tipping in Austria makes for sometimes surly service, especially at restaurants and cafes, despite what you hear about European service. Lots of social welfare makes for disincentives to work; you can do better taking unemployment benefits than working. Our taxi driver owns his taxi company and says it is very hard to recruit drivers. Every where you go you see signs leading to Prague and Budapest; this is a crossroads and the Austrians greatly resent Schengeng and the open borders with these Eastern Europeans who can basically enter the country freely. They are not at all happy with the European union with some countries taking advantage of the others.

This area of Austria was more for adults than kids; we got lucky with the child’s fair at Rosenberg Castle. But the scenery here is beautiful and it is a nice place to rest up before the trip home.

It is just over an hour’s ride to the Vienna airport. The day flight with kids is tough because they won’t nap on the 8½ hour flight to NY. If you are in business class, you don’t have to worry about batteries on your DVD going dead, but you got to bring the AC adapter aboard. At JFK you have front of the line privileges for your family if you have the Global Entry registration (which lets you normally use the kiosks at customs).

Summing up Austria, we never had any bad food here. It is a lovely little country with beautiful scenery and everything clean. Very good with chocolates and treats. Lots of fun things to do with kids. It’s a perfect neighbor to the German part of Switzerland. If only they didn’t have the Holocaust as part of their history, it would be up there in the pantheon of favorite countries. It just amazes me that it all happened in a place like this. As I kept going through my summer holiday, I just couldn’t get that thought out of my mind. It’s a bit hard to totally enjoy all this stuff when you know that only 65 years ago a Jew couldn’t have walked anywhere in that country without being sent to your death.

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