Two Scoops of Slovakia & Czechia, with a Viennese Cherry on Top

Last year Tim went to the International Meteor Conference (IMC) in Serbia by himself. This is unusual. He has been traveling with his family–me and the kids–since before the kids were kids, while the kids were becoming kids, and now that the kids are kids. We applied for Global Entry for the girls and realized they had 18 countries on their passports at ages four and five. Anyway, Tim is part of a meteor tracking project that involves everyone from amateur astronomers to scientists at SETI & NASA. These folks are spread out all over the world and the IMC gives them a chance to meet face to face and do nerdy stuff together. This year, to make up for previously going alone, Tim brought all of us, including his mom, Barbara, to the IMC in Slovakia.

We flew from San Francisco to Prague and spent the night at a hotel before driving south to Slovakia. Can I just say, without any originality on my part, that Prague is a beautiful city? It was cool to be there even for a few hours.

We crossed the Czech/Slovakia border with no fanfare at all thanks to the Schengen Agreement, which basically makes for open borders between 26 European states.

Southwestern Slovakia

The IMC was held at an equestrian event center, Rozalka, in the small town of Pezinok, Slovakia. Tim stayed at the conference while Barbara, the girls and I stayed at a penzion in town.

Penzions are like a cross between a hotel and a bed & breakfast. In this case, there was a receptionist and an area with dining tables, a couch, and a television. Our rooms had simple furnishing, a television, a bathroom, and spotty WiFi. We ate breakfast, European style*, in the reception area. *Coffee and tea, an assortment of sliced cheeses & deli meats, breads, sliced cucumber, tomato, and bell pepper, yogurts, granola, and eggs & sausages.

The weather in Pezinok was warm and humid. There were thunderstorms, which I love, and hot, sweaty nights, which made it hard to sleep, so I don’t love them. Intrepid travelers that we are, we quickly located the important things in Pezinok: an ice cream shop, the beer store and the playground.

It’s never too wet for ice cream.

The girls got to ride a horse named Duck at the equestrian center.

The Rozalka Stables were cleaner than my house.
Duck. Thrilled to be ridden by a four year old.
We couldn’t figure out how to tell the horse lady in Slovakian that Vanessa wanted to try controlling Duck herself.

I met Tim’s Czech friend, Vlastimil, whom he had roomed with the year before. Vlastimil recently earned his PhD in Astronomy and takes beautiful photographs. We made plans to meet up in Czechia with him in a few days.

On the second to last day of the conference, we joined Tim’s fellow scientists for an excursion to a nearby 13th century castle, Červený Kameň Castle, nestled in the Little Carpathian Mountains.

Don’t get any ideas, Tim.
The cellars of Červený Kameň Castle were atypically tall and airy.

A storm blew in and forced a cancellation of a local observatory tour. It rained so hard it was nearly impossible to see the road driving back to Pezinok. Dinner, more strudel than anyone could eat, and traditional Slovakian music and dance were a fun way to cap off that part of our trip.

It wasn’t all without tears, though. (In fact, with two girls, there are tears all the time.) Take, for example, the Pezinok Ball Pit Disaster of 2018. For lunch on our way out of town, we ate at a restaurant across the street from the penzion. Our kids had been told not to bring their new favorite dolls into the restaurant’s play area. So, of course, they brought their dolls into a ball pit and promptly lost them in a mass of plastic balls three feet deep. Both Vanessa and Zara tried to find them but couldn’t. The pit was stifling hot and designed for only small bodies to get in past the toy house and netting. Tim took pity on their tearful faces (and loud sobs) and somehow managed to a.) get his six foot frame into the pit and b.) find the dolls. But alas, this didn’t happen without him first accidentally tearing away a couple of his fingernails on a hidden snag. I gave him a “Daddy of the Day” award and two bandaids. The girls gave him big hugs.

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Vanessa in the ball pit after failing to find the beloved dolls. All hope is lost.

Bratislava, Slovakia

Dolls in hand, we piled into the rental car (which for unknown reasons smelled like a Portapotty) and drove to Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. We visited the old town and Slavin, a war memorial & cemetery for the over 6000 Russian soldiers who lost their lives freeing Bratislava from the Nazis in 1945. While we were there, a famous Slovakian pop star, Jožo Ráž, was being filmed by a TV crew. Locals were quite excited about it but we were like, “Who?”

Jožo Ráž on the steps in black, while Tim plays it cool and pretends he’s not looking.

Some of the graves had photographs of the Russian soldiers.

We wore Barbara out walking around Old Town Bratislava, which was to our advantage later when she wanted to stay at the hotel. She watched the girls and we got to be grownups for a couple of hours, having dinner at a restaurant we went to years ago on our first trip to Bratislava, and stumbling upon a cool night life spot.

Can you spot the tourist?

On our way back to Czechia, we stopped at Biofarm Nature Stupava, a place we have visited before. It has animals, a playground and a restaurant featuring simple, homemade food.

It’s a hard life.

Czech Republic, Southern Moravia

After lunch we made our way to Southern Moravia, in the Czech Republic, to the city of Brno. It is this area that Vlastimil is from.

Brno is a lovely looking city, with tall colorful buildings and amazing churches. We climbed lots of steps up to see the views and ring a bell, and lots of steps down to see some bones; we found a farmer’s market full of terrific produce (including a selection of super hot peppers, notable since nothing seems to be spicy in this part of the world) and ate some delicious traditional food–think goulash, dumplings, cabbage.

A farmer’s market in Brno.
View of Brno from the Old Town Hall Tower
The Dragon of Brno
Peter and Paul Cathedral from Capuchin Monastery
Capuchin Crypt. After seeing this place, Zara kept telling me she doesn’t want to die.

One of two bells in St. James Church, Brno, Czech Republic.

Vlastimil and his delicate, perfectly behaved rescue dog, Dessa, met us at an archeology museum, Archeopark Museum, built into a hill overlooking three lakes in village of Pavlov. It has a replica of the famous Venus of Dolní Věstonice figurine and is highly worth visiting. Then we went for lunch at Cafe Fara in Klentnice and took a hike to some castle ruins known as Sirotčí hrádek, the Orphan Castle. Barbara and the girls stayed at the restaurant while we hiked up the hill. It was so much fun to get away from it all and be able to see for miles.

View of Sirotčí hrádek from the town of Klentnice.
Vlastimil and Tim.

Sirotčí hrádek, the Orphan Castle

Our day of castles wasn’t done. The Czech Republic has the highest density of castles in the world, claiming over 2000 of them. Vlastimil took us on a drive through the Southern Moravian countryside, stopping at a few more castles and Lichtenstein buildings. This area is called the LedniceValtice Cultural Landscape, a World Heritage Site. We saw the Lednice Castle, the Temple of Three Graces, and the Valtice Castle. The whole time our girls focused exclusively on Dessa, castles be damned.

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Dessa was a highlight for our girls.
Family photo + borrowed dog in front of Zamek Lednice. Vanessa hurt herself & wasn’t up for a photo.
Tři Grácie, the Temple of Three Graces, used to be a spot for Lichtenstein hunters to gather for post-hunt feasts. Now it’s a spot for Dvě Graces.
Valtice Castle.
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See? It’s all about the dog.
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The greenhouse at Lednice Castle was filled with tropical plants.

Eventually we ended up in his home town, Břeclav, at a cool beer place–did I mention Czechia is the beer drinking capital of the world?–where we got to meet Vlastimil’s smart, funny girlfriend, Paulina, and the kids got to jump on a trampoline and play cards with us adults.

Visiting a science center in Brno. I thought I had a little more time before she starts driving!

Across the street from our hotel was a ropes course called Jungle Park. Of course we had to take the girls. It proved to be quite exciting.

Vanessa was a natural until she fell.
Go, Zara, go!

Just a couple of years ago they could barely walk.

The actual rope course was across the river from the place you get your equipment from. To get there, you zip line across (or in my case, carefully wade across). Both kids had fun doing the zip lining.

On the ropes course, Zara was impressing us with her bravery until she got to a section that was intimidating to her. She started crying and refused to continue to the next section. While we were focused on her, Vanessa went ahead. All of a sudden we heard Vanessa crying and yelling for help. She had climbed into a chair that was supposed to be untied by an adult before it zipped along a rope. Her body had slipped out of the chair. She had a harness on but it was tangled and her head was caught. She dangled above us, scared out of her mind. We talked her down, literally, and she was able to slip her head out of the chair and lower herself close enough to us that we caught her. Vanessa loves the monkey bars and has built up some awe-inspiring upper body strength which served her well in this situation.

All this happened without a park attendant noticing or helping (different than the US). I had mistakenly assumed an attendant was always at the zip chair spot. Vanessa had a nasty rope burn on her inner arm but was otherwise unhurt. After a break, she did the course again, including that scary zip chair.

Zara, meanwhile, already hesitant to continue, watched the whole thing from a tree platform. She ended up needing a ladder to get down. Watching her sister scream in terror and fall didn’t help her morale. She rallied, too, though, and boldly zip lined back across the river.

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We said goodbye to Brno and headed to Vienna, Austria, where we’d spend a day before flying home. On the way, we returned to Valtice Castle to see their Baroque Theater. The original was damaged in the 1940s and 1950s due to the war and communist sensibilities but they recently rebuilt it–it opened in September 2015– and since it is new, we were able to play with the sound effect equipment. Super fun! We made the sounds of thunder, rain and wind. We also got to see underneath the stage, with all the trap doors, ropes and pulleys to raise up the actors and move set pieces. It was complicated and brilliant. Barbara and I both agreed it would be marvelous to see a production there.

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The Baroque Theater at Valtice Castle.
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Zara making wind. No, not that kind of wind. Theatrical wind.

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After the theater tour, Tim and Barbara went to a “wine library” in the castle while Vanessa, Zara, and I played in the grass and daydreamed, finding shapes in the puffy white clouds. An added bonus was an Old English Sheepdog dog show being held on the castle grounds. One of those dogs is a thrill to see, imagine a dozen!

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Castles, clouds, and sheepdogs.

Along the road, we encountered an unexpected and delightful sight.

Vienna, Austria

Brno and Vienna are only about 1 1/2 hrs by car. We dropped Barbara and the girls off at the Intercontinental Hotel in Vienna and drove the rental car back to the Brno Airport. Goodbye Portapotty smell! We took a taxi to the Brno train station, and caught a train back to Vienna with only two minutes to spare. Tim is a master traveler.

Night train to Vienna.

The last day of our trip was spent at Prater, a landmark amusement park situated in the heart of Vienna. We took the subway, went on some rides including the Grottenbahn, a fun little fairy tale ride that gives children prizes at the end (our girls chose vampire teeth over water guns and cheap jewelry), a water ride, and the giant Ferris wheel, Wiener Riesenrad, and the Liliputbahn train that goes around the park.

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Notice who didn’t go on this ride. Me.
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All these beautiful trees right in the middle of Vienna.
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View of Vienna from the Ferris wheel.
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Time to go home…

We finished off the day with dinner at 1516, a beer place Tim and I discovered years ago when we first went to Vienna. Then we went back to our beautiful room at the Intercontinental to pack for the long trip home.

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