Sunday, July 6, 2014

Day 16 - The Voyage Home

Today we got up frightfully early for our trip home.  We assembled in the hotel lobby around 2:45 a.m.(-ish) and loaded up the bus.  The hotel had thoughtfully prepared snack bags for each of us upon checkout -- juice, an apple, and a couple of sandwiches. We were blocking the narrow street in front of the hotel but due to the hour it didn't become an issue until just before we were ready to leave.  We finally pulled out for the airport at 3:05.

We got to the airport about 3:40 a.m. and bid a last farewell to Juraj and Jaroslav, then went into the aiport and got our boarding passes.  We had a long wait before we were able to check our bags in (like, 4:30 a.m.) and the staff were being a lot more finicky about bags than we had experienced coming the other direction.  They asked to see our  carryon bags and weren't satisfied with some of them so there was some last minute rearranging or checking of bags which was frustrating.  Finally we were through, and then through security and got to the gate about half an hour before boarding our KLM flight to Amsterdam.

The flight was short and reasonably smooth. On arrival at Schiphol we had to basically retrace our steps from when we arrived there 15 days previous.  Our layover was much shorter, though, just a couple of hours.  After a trip through passport control and a Bio-Technical break (and some shopping for some of us) we went through security (again) and finally boarded the plane and headed back to PDX.

The flight was mostly uneventful other than a little bit of turbulence at one point and a very upset baby.  We arrived at PDX about half an hour early (wow!), went through customs etc. and collected our bags and then proceeded to do a lot of hugging and good-bying before we parted and went our separate ways.

For me this trip was a wonderful opportunity and so much fun.  The chance to sing with my friends again and to enjoy seeing such amazing sights with people I really like was terrific and something I will always treasure.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Day 15 - Prague/Wrapping Up

Today was a "free" day for us in Prague.  Juraj led a group of people over to the Jewish quarter and around a bit.  I slept late, then walked up to the Saint Nicolas church (amazing!) and then did some shopping.  The weather had been nice but broke for a downpour around 5:30 or so, then cleared up again.

We gathered around 6:45 to walk over to the Ambassador Hotel for our end-of-tour banquet.  This lasted about 3.5 hours (!) and included a yummy dinner, folk dancers and a trio of musicians, and a lot (a lot!) of fun.  Tim C and Colin had some "true or false" questions for the participants that were very funny, there were some songs, and Bernie had some fun observations for Juraj.  We also presented Juraj and Jaroslav (our driver) some gifts and of course our heartfelt thanks and best wishes.  We then walked back to the hotel to get some rest before our early morning departure.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Day 14 - Prague

Today started with a tour of Prague Castle, the Old Town and some other famous parts of Prague.  We left the hotel at 9 on our bus and after some driving around we were dropped off near Prague Castle.  We walked around the complex and visited the Cathedral of St. Vitus -- we sang Non Nobis.  From there we walked around the perimeter and saw the gardens, then headed down the hill.  We went by the American embassy (it was closed for the holiday, of course) and sang our nice arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner in front as an Independence Day tribute.  Locals came out and took pictures :-).  From there we walked through a small church near the river, then over the Charles Bridge and back eventually to Wenceslaus Square near our hotel.  We had free time for lunch.

At 3 p.m. we left the hotel and walked over to the square for a group photo, then on the bus and back up pretty much where we were dropped off this morning.  From the drop off we had to walk up a significant hill and through some grounds to get to the church.  My feet were not happy :-(.

The St. Laurence church is quite small.  It's an Old Catholic church, which was surprising to me since I hadn't realized that was the case (I thought it was a Catholic church).  We met up with the event coordinator and the bishop, then we started rehearsing for the Mass and concert.  Between the Chorale and our roadies we took up just over half the pews in the church!

Mass started at 5 p.m. and we were warmly welcomed by the priest who was concelebrating the Mass with the bishop (the priest was the only English speaker).  We sang our usual Mass parts (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Pater Noster and Agnus Dei), though I'm pretty sure we sang the Kyrie as the opening hymn and the Gloria as the psalm (it seemed to me to be a daily mass, not a longer feast day (one reading only)).

After Mass we had about 10 minutes, then we started the concert.  We sang:
  • The Star-Spangled Banner (split)
  • Verbum Caro Factum Est (split)
  • Beati Quorum Via
  • Abendlied
  • Zahucaly Hori
  • Aka Si Mi Krasna
  • Hombe
  • Wasn't That A Wonder
  •  Cornerstone
  • I've Been In the Storm So Long (Ann solo)
  • Were You There?
  • Battle of Jericho
  • Praise to the Lord (split)
  • Ain'a That Good News (split) (encore)
The church was a delight to sing in.  It was very live, but since it was so small there was almost no reverb time.  Even very soft singing was clearly heard.  I especially thought that Were You There? was perhaps the best we've ever sung it.  Alas I had a small goof on Beati Quorum Via that kind of spoiled it for me a bit.  Oh well!

After the concert we took another group photo (everyone, not just the choir) and Cindy introduced us to her relatives that live in Prague.  Then the long walk back and we were on the bus back to the hotel.

Tomorrow is a free day for us, capped off with our group dinner.  Sunday we leave verrrry early for our 6:30 a.m. flight to Amsterdam and then home.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Day 13 - On To Prague!

Today was a travel day for us.  We checked out of the hotel in Krakow and were on the road at 9 (ish).  We stopped for a "Bio-Technical Break" just after crossing the Czech border, and then once again for a quick lunch stop in Brno around 2.  We got into Prague about 5 (there was construction that slowed us down).  It was a kind of a long day on the bus.

After checking in we mostly hung out or walked around the immediate vicinity.  Our hotel is close to the Opera House and National Museum and not too far from Old Town.

The plan for tomorrow is a city tour in the a.m., then we will leave a little early for our 5 p.m. Mass and concert --- before we get to the church we are going to stop for a group photo in some to-be-determined picturesque spot.

I think for a lot of us there's a feeling of.... turning the corner and heading for home.  We've been gone for 2 weeks tomorrow and while we are having a great time, it will be nice to be sleeping in our own beds in a few days.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Day 12 - Auschwitz

This morning we had our tour of Auschwitz.  Only 19 of us chose to go.  Auschwitz is about 70 km from Krakow.  We visited the museum which is at the main camp ("Auschwitz 1") and then briefly drove by the camp where most of the killing was done ("Auschwitz 2 - Birkenau") as most of what's there is a reconstruction; the Nazis destroyed most of the evidence before the Russians liberated the camp.

It's a sad and sobering experience. I think pretty much everyone cried at least a little, at one point or another.  The section that got to me the most was in the area where they displayed personal effects that had been taken from the victims -- there was a display of thousands of children's shoes.  It was just too much.

After our visit we returned to Krakow and we have the rest of the day free.  Tomorrow we have a long drive to Prague.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Day 11 - City tour & St. Catherine's Concert

This morning we left the hotel and had a tour of the city.  We set off by bus and briefly saw the old Jewish Quarter, then went across the Vistula and saw where the Ghetto had been and got to drive by briefly and see Oskar Schindler's factory.  Then back across the river again and we drove to Wawel Castle.  Wow!  I'm comparing it to the castle in Budapest.  Not as large, but in some ways more impressive.  Very cool.  After the tour of the grounds and a brief peek inside the Cathedral, we went back to the bus where some of us returned to the hotel and others (including me) went on a walking tour of the old town area.  We looked at several churches including the Corpus Christi Church, St. Mary's Basilica and a couple of others that are not coming to mind.  We had time for a leisurely lunch, then walked back to the hotel via the Florian Gate.

Krakow is definitely a city of churches, more so than any other city we've seen here.  It's a great tribute to the faith of the Polish people.  Often churches would be very close together (we saw a Franciscan church right next to the church of Ss.Peter and Paul, for example).  We also spotted a number of religious (men and women both) walking around the street in full habit (Franciscan monks and secular priests alike).  Not surprisingly we saw statues and pictures of Pope St. John Paul the Great all over!  The Poles are rightly proud of their former Cardinal-Archbishop, especially here in his former diocese.

After we returned to the hotel we had about 90 minutes to relax and change before leaving for the concert venue at 4:45.  Traffic was horrible so it took us a while to get to St. Catherine's.  We finally got there about 5:25 (?) and got our concert order and then spent about 45 minutes running through some of the stuff we had not done.  Unlike our previous church venues, St. Catherine's allowed us to sing secular as well as sacred music. After our rehearsal we adjourned to a nearby room, then started the concert at 7.  We sang:
  • Kyrie (Mass in G Minor) (split) (Shawn, Sheryl, Josh, Terry)
  • Sanctus
  • Parce Domine
  • S'Andasse Amor a Caccia
  • Si Ch'io Vorrei Morire
  • Yo m'Enamori d'un Aire
  • Hiney Ma Tov
  • She Moved Through the Fair (Paul, Ann)
  • Bring Me Little Water, Silvy (Diane, Karen, Kristi, Cindy)
  • Abide With Me
  • Let Me Fly
  • You Are the New Day
  • Praise To The Lord (split)
  • Ain'-a That Good News (split) (encore)
We had a pretty good sized audience -- The church was probably half full.  They were enthusiastic and gave us a standing ovation, which was really nice.  Afterward we looked around the church a bit and had some brief words from Jacek, the event coordinator for the church.

I have to say some words about St.Catherine's.  Wow!  What a joy to sing in.  This church is about 650 years old (!).  They do a lot of concerts there and they have created a small stage on the nave end of the church.  This worked really well for us and for them as well; no issues with having to remove the Blessed Sacrament or having people wandering around the altar.  The church has no pews anyway (pews are a Protestant invention and churches of that time and for centuries after didn't have them), just chairs, and so while the chairs close to the altar faced the altar, the ones further back faced the stage at the rear.  The church is comparatively plain (compared, that is, to some of the churches we've seen in Krakow) but has a huge, amazingly beautiful mostly gilded retablo over/behind the high altar.  It's probably 60 feet tall and just stunning.  Other than that, though, the church is not gilded and decorated to the extant many of the other churches we've seen are.  I'm not sure why that is.

The acoustics in this church were just AMAZING.  I'd guess the reverb was around 5 seconds.  It was very live, and very easy to sing in.  I'd go back in a heartbeat!

Tomorrow we are going to see Auschwitz  (well, many of us) and then we'll have free time.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Day 10 - Salt Mines, Krakow

Today was another travel day.  We left Levoca at 9 a.m. and drove off on a side trip to see Spiš Castle (Spišský hrad).  We didn't get to drive up to it but we drove around it and took pictures; we also stopped at Spišská Kapitula and looked around a bit.  Then we came back then way we'd come, and after a "Bio-Technical break" as Juraj calls them we were on the road to Krakow.

The road was a fairly narrow one through the Tatra mountains.  The mountains are just gorgeous -- really, really beautiful.  It wasn't long before crossed the border into Poland and after a bit more traveling (about 3 hours total) we arrived in the outskirts of Krakow at the Wielizcka Salt Mine.  We had 90 minutes for lunch, then we had our tour of the salt mine.

It's amazing.  A lot of walking ( we eventually walked down a total of 135m).  The carvings and large rooms and art that the miners created is just astonishingly beautiful.  Eventually we made it to the largest of the 3 chapels, where we sang:
  • Adoramus Te
  • Beati Quorum Via
  • Parce Domine
  • Cornerstone
  • Ain-a That Good News
The acoustics were pretty good, and those present seemed pleased.  Later on we came on a big open room (not a chapel) where we were permitted to sing one of our secular pieces, Yo m'Enamori d'un Aire.  The tour was about 3 hours total.  Pretty cool.

After the tour we loaded up the bus and drove about 25 minutes to our hotel and checked in. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Day 9 - Levoca

Today was a travel day.  We left the hotel at 8:30(ish) and made our way in the direction of Levoca. 

One of the appeals of this part of the journey for me was to come close to the village of Vráble in the Nitra district, where my grandmother was born in 1901.  Although we did not pass through it we did pass within a few kilometers of it so I got to see the area and landscape my grandmother knew as a little girl.  Neat!

Along the way we stopped first at the wooden church in Hronsek.  It's about 300 years old.  As it happens the caretaker was there so we got to go inside and look around and hear about the church; then we sang Non Nobis.

After that it was back on the bus with a stop at Banská Bystrica. We walked up to the Church of St. Mary which has an altar done by the famous sculptor Master Jan Pavol from Levoca.  We sang The Glory of the Father and Non Nobis there.  Afterward we had lunch ( a very nice central square, and it was a nice day) then we walked back to the bus with a stop to look at the Museum of the Slovak National Uprising.  Alas there was not time to go IN the museum but the grounds were pretty neat.

From there we drove straight to Levoca.  We checked into the Hotel Stela and had about 25 minutes to change into our formal gear and get over to St. James Church (right across the street, fortunately).  We got a quick tour of the church and then had about 35 minutes of warmup.  The priest had told us he would hold Mass until 7:15 p.m. (!) from 7 p.m. so we would have a better audience.  We sang our concert at 6:45:
  • Glory of the Father (split)
  • Verbum Caro Factum Est (split)
  • Aka Si Mi Krasna
  • Vita de la Mia Vita
  • Abendlied
  • Du Ser Meg i Auga
  • There Will Be Rest
  • Let Me Fly
  • I've Been In the Storm So Long (Sheryl solo)
  • Battle of Jericho
  • Praise to the Lord
The audience really, really loved "Krasna".. and you could have heard a pin drop during "There Will Be Rest.".  In general they were really appreciative.  After we were done we trooped up to the choir loft as the Mass started, and sang our Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Pater Noster and Agnus Dei at the appropriate times.

I was really struck by how enthusiastically the congregation sang!  They sang the Creed!  It was pretty cool.  I had planned on going to communion and had extricated myself from the last row of the choir (we were jammed in pretty tight) -- but when I saw there were a lot of other folks up in the loft area I assumed they would send a minister of communion up there so I just stayed there and waited... and nope, they did not, so I missed my chance.  I was disappointed, but oh well.

During the last part of Mass it started to rain quite hard  so we all got fairly wet just in the block or so between the church and the hotel.  We all went upstairs to the hotel restaurant for dinner... which was really really slow.  Like really slow.  We were there for about 2 hours and it took forever to get served.  The food was okay but not exciting.

The hotel was quite old and not very modern; they had an elevator but it was not much help since the hotel is on multiple levels.  I wound up lugging all my stuff up two flights of stairs.   There was no wifi in our room but apparently there was some access elsewhere.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Day 8 - Vienna

Today we had a day trip to Vienna.  We left at 9 and arrived in the city a bit after 10.  We walked up to the StephenPlatz and checked out St.Stephen's Cathedral -- amazing.  Then we had some free time for lunch, and then (most of us) went to the Schonbrunn Palace tour.  It was truly stunning.  Unfortunately we only had time to tour the palace, but we didn't get to really look at the gardens and grounds which are ridiculously extensive.  The glimpses that I saw were just amazing.

After that we went back to the city center and walked around the Hofburg palace and stopped in several churches -- the Augustinian Church, St. Peter's (we sang Non Nobis there) and then St. Michael's.  After that we were back on the bus and headed out toward Bratislava again.  We took the back roads and stopped in Hainburg for a leisurely and yummy dinner followed by a quick look around the town (it has some pretty awesome medieval fortifications).  Eventually we were all herded back on the bus (really, it's like herding cats!) and headed back to the hotel in Bratislava.  We arrived back about 9.

I have to say a quick word about our guide, Juraj.  He is amazing.  He is from Bratislava.  We met him in Budapest and he will be with us until we leave from Prague.  He speaks 5 languages (English, German, Slovak, Czech, and Russian) and has a Ph.D in architecture.  He's incredibly knowledgeable about the history of the region, and of course he gives us a lot of information about the architecture of the various things we see.  In addition he has a wonderful sense of humor, he's very very patient (important with this group) and he's VERY TALL (which makes him easy to spot in a crowd :-) ).  We are very lucky to have such an excellent guide!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Day 7 - Bratislava; St. Martin Cathedral Concert

Today started off (after a hearty and rather impressive breakfast) with a tour of some of the high points (literally) of Bratislava.  We visited the War Memorial (commemorates the Soviet soldiers who died liberating Bratislava from the Nazis), then the Castle (now seat of the Slovak Parliament) and then walked around the old city center looking at buildings, followed by lunch.  Bratislava's original castle and fortifications were quite impressive (somewhat reminiscent of Budapest though not as large).  The War Memorial gave me mixed feelings -- I wouldn't want to slight the bravery of the Russians soldiers who fought the Nazis, but at the same time 20 years later Russian soldiers rolled into Prague to liberate it from... the Czechoslovakian people.   So.. a little mixed there.

After lunch most of us went off to a pottery demonstration/cultural thing and wine tasting.  I did not attend so I can't comment on that.

At 5 p.m. we were back on the bus to go to St. Martin's Cathedral for our 6:30 p.m. concert.  This church is... amazing.  I'm kicking myself because when I was changing into my formal gear I left my camera behind so I didn't get any pictures.  It's a beautiful, beautiful church -- the coronation church for Hungarian kings and queens for many many years.  We had about 35 minutes to warmup and get used to the space.

Tonight's concert:
  • Verbum  Caro Factum Est (split)
  • Kyrie (from Mass in G Minor) (split) (Shawn, Sheryl, Josh, Terry for quartet)
  • Pater Noster
  • Beati Quorum Via
  • Wasn't That a Wonder
  • Aka Si Mi Krasna
  • You Are the New Day
  • Hombe
  • Abide With Me
  • I've Been In the Storm So Long
  • Cornerstone
  • Were You There?
  • Battle of Jericho
  • Praise to The Lord (split)
  • Ain'a That Good News (encore)
We had a small audience, maybe 30 or 40 including our "groupies".  Cindy Uecker's family that lives in Bratislava were there and were very enthusiastic.  Afterward they thanked us and seemed very impressed.  For myself, this was the first time I'd actually sung "Storm" since it was handed out last week and I'd never done it before.  I was pleased that my practice paid off and I did pretty well.

After the concert we returned to the hotel and went our several ways for dinner, etc.  Tomorrow we are off to spend the day in Vienna, which is about an hour and a half drive from Bratislava.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Day 6 - Esztergom, Bratislava

Today was mostly a travel day for us.  I got up early enough to attend 8 a.m. Mass at Szent Roch church down the street from our hotel.  Of course I didn't understand a word, but the Mass is the Mass and it was nice to go.  Then mailed a couple of postcards and zipped back to the hotel in time for our 9 a.m. departure.

We left Budapest (which takes a while... Budapest is really a huge city) and drove into the hilly area north to Esztergom.  We were on fairly narrow roads which was interesting at times, and some of it was a bit torturous with switchbacks etc.  We got into Esztergom and went to the Basilica there, at about 10:30.  We were there for about an hour.  It  is SO BEAUTIFUL!  It's huuuuge.  And just amazing.  We all took a bazillion pictures.  We got permission to sing, so we sang:
  • Agnus Dei  (Lotti)
  • Glory of the Father
  • Parce  Domine
The acoustics were astonishing... quite bright but a lonnng reverb time, like 6+ seconds (we were in the middle of the nave).  Nice.  Afterward we took a group picture on the steps.

From there we drove on to Komárno where we stopped for lunch.  Then it was on to Bratislava where we checked in to our hotel.  For some reason they insisted on getting our passport #s and looking at our passports when we checked in -- something that didn't happen in either Bucharest or Budapest.  Odd.

We are free for the rest of the evening; tomorrow is a city tour in the morning and then some opportunities for side tours.  We have a concert at St. Martin's Cathedral at 6:30 p.m.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Day 5 - Puszta, St. Michael's Concert

Today was a busy day!  We set off at 9 a.m. for an excursion to Puszta, south of Budapest.  We went to Tanyacsarda, a stables and horse breeding area.  We went on a hayride, saw an exhibition of the various horses there (Arabian, Hungarian halfbloods, and Lipizzaner), then an opportunity for a quick horseride, followed by a walk through the stables, a look at some farm animals and a light lunch with some wonderful musical entertainment.  We were back at the hotel around 2 p.m.

We were scheduled to leave for the concert at 3:30 p.m. but there was a snafu -- the church had a 4 p.m. Mass scheduled so we couldn't be in until after that.  As it happened, we got to the church about 4:40 or so and had just enough time to warmup briefly before singing our concert at 5 p.m.  We sang:
  • Verbum Caro Factum Est (Hassler)
  • Adoramus Te (Gasparini)
  • Tambur 
  • Wasn't That a Wonder
  • Abendlied (Rheinberger)
  • Hiney Ma Tov
  • Wana Baraka
  • Glory to God in the Highest (Thompson)
  • Sanctus (Courtney)
  • Beati Quorum Via (Stanford)
  • Let Me Fly (DeCormier)
  • Were You There (Bob King III)
  • Battle of Jericho (Hogan)
  • Praise to the Lord (Christiansen)
Our encore was Dawson's Ain'-a That Good News.  We had a good audience, actually.  The church was small, and between our "groupies" and the audience that wandered in the church was almost full.

After the concert we took the bus back to the hotel and had an evening to ourselves.  Tomorrow morning we are off to Bratislava!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Day 0/1 -- Heading Out

The tour group met at the Delta counter at PDX on Friday June 20th at 10:30 a.m. (ish). After checking our bags we proceeded through security, then split up to grab some lunch before the flight.  I made the most of the opportunity to hit the PDX Burgerville franchise conveniently located in Concourse D, and others made other choices.  We met at our gate approximately 1 hour before our flight, and then had a  bit of a wait before we finally boarded our plane (an Airbus 330) for the long flight to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.

The flight was uneventful --I was not able to sleep so I took advantage of the opportunity to watch a couple of movies on the inflight entertainment system.  Unfortunately I was further back in the plane than most of the tour group so I couldn't readily converse with them.

We arrived pretty much on time at 8:30 a.m. (maybe a little earlier), and found ourselves with more than 4 hours to kill.  We had a bite to eat, and a lot of conversation.  We were amused by the frequent warnings over the PA that particular passengers were delaying their flights and needed to show up ASAP or their baggage would be offloaded!

Finally we were able to go through (yet another) security screening and board our flight to Bucharest (this time, a KLM Boeing 737).  After a roughly 2 hour flight we were landing at the Henri Coanda airport (a.k.a. Otopeni) near Bucharest.  We proceeded through customs and collected our baggage, then went on to meet up with our tour guide, the delightful Alina.  Alina collected us and directed us to our tour bus, ably driven by Christian.  We departed the airport and drove to our hotel in the middle of Bucharest, with a short tour of some of the city sights along the way.

By the time we arrived at our hotel and checked in it was late and we were all seriously zonked, so most of us grabbed a quick bite and headed to bed.  It had been an absurdly long day.

Friday, June 20, 2014

2014 Tour

Hi readers!

We are off on our 2014 tour to Central Europe!  We will be hitting 6 countries in 16 days, starting in Romania, then Hungary, Slovakia, a day trip to Vienna (Austria), then Poland and finishing up in the Czech Republic.