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No. of Recommendations: 4
The day we left for Austria started out with rain and stayed rainy throughout the afternoon. No matter -- it was a driving day, a change of locales, and we weren't going to be seeing much from the highways anyway. We headed south to Linz and then eastbound on the highway that connects Vienna and Salzberg. Or tried to. The transition included a 90-minute spell of sitting while crews cleared something out of the road ahead of us.

When you drive into Austria in a non-Austrian car, you have to get a highway sticker for your windshield. They are sold at stores and gas stations and start at around €9 for 10 days. I assume that's in lieu of paying tolls. I happened to read the section about this in my Austria guidebook, otherwise I'd never have known. There are a heck of a lot of semis on those highways, even more than cars at times. Another assumption: Europeans ship most stuff by truck compared to here, where a lot is shipped by rail. Drivers are quite civilized in Czecho and Austria. When you're in the left lane passing semi after semi after semi, you seldom find someone glued a half car-length behind, as you always do in France where everyone is frantic to get to a three-hour lunch or a picket line. And in Prague, drivers actually respect crosswalks as they do here. I was impressed.

Lonely Planet mentioned the town of Krems as a good place to find lodging in that stretch of the Danube that we wanted to see. We found a hotel LP liked but it was full. An information office sent us to another hotel where a €103 room was so small and dingy that it almost made us cry to see it. So we headed down the river to the first place that caught our eye, which was Dürnstein, an adorable little town overlooked by a castle ruin and close by vineyards. We lucked into an excellent room -- no apartment this time but a room so very long and with beds at each end such that my noise-abatement requirements were met. The place is called the Sänger Blondel Hotel, named for a minstrel who knew Richard the Lionheart from early days at court. Richard was taken prisoner and held for ransom in Dürnstein Castle on his way back from a Crusade. That part is true. The legend is that Blondel didn't know where he was and went looking for him, singing his minstrel songs as he went. When he passed by Dürnstein, Richard heard him and joined him in song, thus revealing his whereabouts. Kind of a medieval GPS. The castle is in ruins today but a hike up to it affords nice views of the town and the Danube which, to my disappointment, was not blue at all but more of a greenish brown. But really swell, as you can see from one of my photos. This stretch of the Danube was everything it's cracked up to be.

We visited a few cute towns along the river, did some walking and sampled some excellent wine. And of course you can't be in this part of the world without dropping by Melk Abbey, the impressive yellow building represented in my photo collection. We were not that far from Vienna but in general we like the little places a lot more than cities and Prague satisfied our city quota. After our rainy travel day, the weather cleared and behaved itself for the rest of the trip.

After three nights in Dürnstein ($135 each including tax, good breakfast and parking) we were ready to head back to the Czech Republic. We wended our way north along back roads through lovely hilly country dotted with little towns until we found ourselves having lunch in Drosendorf, just south of the border. The border marked a transition between hilly terrain and flatter agricultural land characterized by lovely pastel shades of green. We were practically the only car on the roads a good part of the time and feasted on the scenery until we reached our next destination, Vranov nad Dyjí, which means "Vranov on the Dyje River." The name of the river is subject to the same noun declension changes I mentioned in Part I. The drop in the quality of the roads and level of prosperity as you leave Austria is noticeable -- reflecting the difference between 60 years of economic freedom and less than 25 years of it.

To be on the safe side I had called ahead for a reservation at the Zemecky Hotel in Vranov. It was a nice enough ageing European-style hotel and we got a regular room on the third floor for $62 including a proteinaceous breakfast and parking. But almost next door was a pension with apartments that were becoming available the next night, so we made the switch for our second and third nights there, on the third floor of course, for just about the same price but without breakfast. But having a fridge ensured that purchased sausages would keep overnight. And we had a view of the chateau.

While staying in Vranov we hiked up to the Chateau, drove back to Drosendorf to enjoy the well-preserved medieval wall that surrounds it, visited the small city of Znojmo and Podyjí National Park. The park adjoins an Austrian park, like Glacier and Waterton only much smaller, with the Djye River separating the two countries. It was fun to walk across a pedestrian bridge into Austria and back, getting a view of Hardegg Castle while on the other side. I didn't get a decent shot of the castle, so here is somebody else's effort:

In the summer Vranov is packed with outdoors folks who jam the parks and I'm sure the room rates are significantly higher. When we were there, there was one tour bus in town our first night and then not much activity after that. Let's hear it for the off-season!

The most moving part of the trip was seeing the remnant of the Iron Curtain in the park, the barbed-wire fence and guard tower. The fence was built 2 km from the border and everyone living in the strip between the fence and the frontier was forceably removed and all buildings demolished. If you have any doubts about what an evil nightmare communism is, you need to visit this spot. The reality is very stark. It's too bad more of the Curtain isn't preserved like the German concentration camps.

After three nights in Vranov we headed back towards Prague after stopping for lunch in the lovely little town of Telc. It's pronounced "Telch" and the "c" has an upside down "^" on it but TMF won't reproduce that letter. Besides its main square, Telc is known for being partly surrounded by medieval fish ponds.

Coming soon: Part III

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