Visiting Vienna & Perusing Prague

Note: For those of you that only care about my posts on weather, you can ignore this if you choose. I don’t often write totally off-topic, but seeing as I wanted to share a recent experience with friends and family, this seemed like the simplest way to do so.

After a whirlwind 2 weeks, we’re back in Houston, and trying to adjust to an extra hour of daylight and some sense of normalcy. In conjunction with my wife’s science conference in Prague, we decided to make an adventure of it and visit both Vienna and Prague, my first trip to Europe, Denise’s second. I’ll walk you day by day and give you some brief text and lots of pictures.

You can click *most* of the photos to bring up larger versions of them. Hover over and if the finger pops up, you can do so. There are a few that you won’t be able to though.

Monday, March 14th: After having our bags arrive 6 hours after our plane did on Sunday, we sort of got off to a sluggish start. We started by exploring the Stephansplatz, or the plaza around Stephansdom (St. Stephan’s Cathedral). The view from the South Tower:

Vienna Morning From Stephansdom

It took 343 steps to get up here, but it was worth it. Vienna is beautiful from above. We then toured the inside of the cathedral, which was brimming with history. The South Tower took 65 years to build: 1368 to 1433. The interior was beautiful architecture and was dressed up for Holy Week:

Interior of St. Stephen's Cathedral

From there, we had lunch and then toured the Mozarthaus, or the only surviving residence Mozart inhabited while he lived in Vienna. We then visited another church: The Jesuit Church (Jesuitenkirche). Whereas St. Stephen’s was more gothic or Romanesque architecture, the Jesuitenkirche was decidedly Baroque. It was built in the early 1600s and remodeled in the early 1700s. Baroque style showed up a lot on this trip, and it’s easy to pick out by how flashy and ornate it is. The ceiling fresco is trippy with lots of depth:

Portion of fresco inside the Jesuitenkirche

We concluded Monday with wienerschnitzel and a performance of Aida at the Vienna State Opera House.

Tuesday, March 15th: This was a museum day. We visited the Hofburg Palace, saw the Imperial Silver Collection, the Imperial Apartments, and learned extensively about Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth (Sisi). Fascinating history. The Habsburg Empire has a pretty interesting storyline. The afternoon was spent at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. This is Vienna’s fine art museum, and it has a stunning collection of art. Overwhelming almost.

Denise in front of the Kunsthistoriches

From there we walked through Burggarten, a former royal gardens. A statue of Mozart now resides here. I enjoyed how flamboyant the designer made it. It seemed to match the personality of Mozart:

Statue of Mozart

Matt in the Burggarten

From there, we had dinner and toured the Haus der Musik that evening to learn some musical history.

Wednesday, March 16th: We started today at the Secession Building, which was interesting. It represented an interesting style war between traditional and modern, which I can see having an impact in a place like Vienna. The Beethoven Frieze was pretty cool though. After seeing the Naschmarkt (outdoor food/good market) and lunch, we visited the Karlskirche, a Baroque church just outside Vienna’s Inner Ring. We were able to see the dome and an overview of Vienna from a viewing platform:

Portion of the dome fresco in the Karlskirche


From there, we walked through the Stadtpark, a park with statues on our way to the Museum of Applied Arts (Museum für angewandte Kunst) or MAK. The Star Wars: Identities roadshow was there, where we got to see original costumes, artifacts, and more from the movie series. We walked around Vienna a bit more before dinner at the Albertina, a modern art museum, which we enjoyed more than almost any museum in Vienna.

Thursday, March 17th: We got out and over to the Schönbrunn Palace in the morning. This was the summer residence of the Habsburgs. It was also the site of a meeting between Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1961.

Grounds of Schönbrunn Palace

Denise outside the palace

Scenes from the Schönbrunn:

Schönbrunn Palace

Vienna Skyline

From there, we took to the Belvedere Palace back in Vienna. This is a Baroque palace complex, built for Prince Eugene of Savoy. Very picturesque gardens and setting.

Vienna and Belvedere Palace

That about wraps up Vienna. Friday was a transition day on the train between Vienna and Prague.

Saturday, March 19th: We started the day walking around Old Town Prague to get our bearings. Our first stop was the Powder Gate, or Powder Tower, which is one of the original city gates in Prague, separating the Old Town from the “New Town.” It was constructed in the 1400s.

View from Prague's Powder Gate

We then walked around Old Town, visiting the Church of St. James.  It was a Franciscan church destroyed by fire in the late 1600s and rebuilt as a Baroque church. We then went to see the Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square. The clock was installed in the early 1400s and puts on an hourly show that attracts THRONGS of tourists. From there we walked along the Vltava River to get some nice views of Prague Castle and the “Lesser Town” (Mala Strana), then walked the other side of the river to get views of Prague. Here’s a view of the Statue of Harmony and Old Town:

Prague from Mala Strana

We continued past the Lennon Wall and over the Charles Bridge back into Old Town.

Denise on the Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge is probably the iconic Prague landmark. It was built in the mid-1300s. After lunch, we walked across the river again, this time to the north to a fantastic place called Letna Park. The views were phenomenal.

Old Town Prague

Prague and the Vltava River

After taking all that in, we wrapped up for the day.

Sunday, March 20th: We began this day walking to the “New Town” part of Prague. New Town was developed in the 1300s, the youngest of the five older cities that make up the older core of Prague. We headed back to the river to get a view of a building known as the Dancing House, along with many other beautiful older buildings:

The “Dancing House” and older buildings along the river

Legion Bridge and Prague Castle

We went to lunch and then changed hotels for Denise’s conference.

Monday, March 21st: With Denise in conference, I got to explore Prague a bit. This day was dreary, which was fitting, as I visited the Jewish Museum and the Museum of Communism, both interesting, but also sobering museums. The Jewish Museum is spread out over a wide part of Old Prague, with several parts to it. I started at the Spanish Synagogue, which had numerous exhibits on Jewish history in Prague and Bohemia, including a number of sobering items from World War II. I visited the Old Jewish Cemetery, where numerous important people from the 1400s to the 1700s are buried. The rain was fitting for pictures.

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague

In the afternoon, I toured the Museum of Communism, learning much about Central Europe in the 1900s before returning to the hotel and meeting up with Denise for dinner.

Tuesday, March 22nd: Denise had a free morning, so we came back into Prague and walked around some more with Denise’s colleagues. We got to walk the Charles Bridge with only a handful of tourists, which was nice.

Prague Castle in the Morning


We then visited a museum dedicated to Johannes Kepler.

Kepler Museum in Prague

During this morning, the news broke of the attacks in Brussels, so I opted to stay low after we went back to the hotel where Denise’s conference was being held.

Wednesday, March 23rd: Denise was back in conference all day, so I took a couple subway trains to the Vysehrad, a fort on the south side of Prague established in the 10th century. This was a very peaceful place to walk around, isolated from the busy city below.

Prague from the Vysehrad

The oldest building in Prague is located here, dating from the 11th century, the Rotunda of St. Martin:

The oldest building in Prague

After Vysehrad, it was lunch then back to the hotel to wait for Denise’s conference to wrap up.

Thursday, March 24th: After changing hotels one final time, it was off to explore Mala Strana, the “Lesser Town.” We started at St. Nicholas Church, which is a Baroque church, considered to be the greatest Baroque building in Prague, with one of the largest ceiling frescos in Europe:

Interior of St. Nicholas Church

We then walked up the Nerudova, a street lined with embassies, shops, and quaint old buildings.


We enjoyed a delicious midday snack here, featuring some of the best hot chocolate ever, as well as Prague chocolate cake (ganache, caramel, chocolate torte):


We walked through the Novy Svet neighborhood. The famous astronomer Tycho Brahe lived here in the year 1600.

Tycho Brahe’s home in 1600

We meandered around the neighborhood a bit. The buildings were fairly idyllic.

Building on Loretanska

We worked up a hill to Prague Castle. The view of Prague was probably the best of the trip.

Prague from the Castle

We toured the inside of St. Vitus Cathedral, the behemoth overlooking Prague. The Cathedral was built over the course of 600 years, from the 1300s to the early 1900s. The interior:


We walked the grounds of Prague Castle some more after St. Vitus. Here’s St. George’s Basilica, just behind St. Vitus Cathedral:

St. George's Basilica

The Basilica was originally built in the 900s, then rebuilt in the 1100s and given a Baroque makeover in the late 1600s.

One more view of Prague from the Castle:

Looking Over Prague

One Prague skyline oddity is the Žižkov Television Tower. It was built from the 80s into the early 90s, likely as a strategic Cold War technology. It now has practical utility but sticks out like a sore thumb amidst all the beautiful old architecture.

Žižkov TV Tower & Old Prague

We continued to walk around a bit before dinner.


Polish Embassy & Budding Trees

Swan and the Charles Bridge

That wrapped up our Thursday.

Friday, March 25th: Friday was a day to tie a ribbon around the trip. We cleaned up Prague Castle, visiting the interiors of some of the places we saw Thursday: St. George’s Basilica, the Royal Palace, and Golden Lane. One cool experience was to see the Windows of the Defenestration of Prague:

Windows of the Defenestration of Prague

This is a fascinating period of history that ultimately started the Thirty Years War across Europe. They may just be windows, but the global history that was written here is incredible.

We continued our tour of the castle, eventually exiting through St. Wenceslas’ Vineyard, one of the oldest ones in Bohemia.

St. Wenceslas' Vineyard

From there, we visited the Franz Kafka Museum to learn a bit about the author’s life. It was a rather trippy museum, with lots of sensory overload going on, but interesting nonetheless.

Denise in front of the Kafka Museum

We wrapped up with some souvenir shopping and a great dinner before packing up and getting ready to fly home on Saturday.

All in all, it was a really fun trip. I think we both found Prague to be a smidge better than Vienna. Part of that was the language (Austrians expect you to know German, whereas Czechs don’t seem to care). Part of that was the layout (The Vltava is more woven into the fabric of the city than the Danube is in Vienna). Part of it was also the history. Vienna has so many big ticket history items, but Prague can hold their own with them. And the stories in Prague are just as good, if not better than those in Vienna. It just felt like a more accessible city. That isn’t to demean Vienna a bit (if you have an opportunity go there, go). But we just put Prague on the next rung up.

Anyway, we hope you found this interesting and enjoyable. Thanks for reading!

Matt and Denise




Why Don’t We Listen?

Imagine for a moment that your state spends $100 billion each year. The nation spends roughly $3.5 trillion each year. Now, what if I told you that between your state and the nation, you could spend about $10 billion to insure against $100 billion or more in future losses? Does that sound like a good deal? What if I told you that in any given year though, you only have about a 0.2% chance of seeing that event you’re insuring against? Seems like a low risk. Do you think that $10 billion would be better spent elsewhere or not spent at all?

This is the issue Southeast Texas is grappling with.

On Thursday, one of the most important pieces of journalism written about the risk of a worst case scenario hurricane in the Houston area was published. The Texas Tribune/ProPublica mashup called “Hell and High Water” is worth your time. It describes, in detail, how a worst case scenario storm would play out in Houston. Without any mitigation or protective measures, the economic, human, and environmental cost of a worst case hurricane would be utterly catastrophic.

I read stories like this a lot. I’m a meteorologist. I work in energy. I’m pretty well acquainted with the concept of risk. And the more I read these stories, the more I ask myself: What in the hell are we doing?

It’s 2016. I fully appreciate the skeptical world we live in, where cable news is shouting at us 24/7 in hyperbolic terms about the next big threat. There is an element of hyperbole that exists in media, and  yes, sometimes in science too. Objectively, this idea of a worst case scenario storm is not hyperbole, not in the least. If Hurricane Rita in 2005 had tracked further south and west, or if Ike had been a tad stronger or bigger and tracked a tad further south and west, Houston would have been in a bad, bad place.

Yes, that’s 2 storms in the last 11 hurricane seasons that had the potential to be a worst case scenario for Houston. It’s not difficult to get monster hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. This area has been hit time and again by big ones. The concept isn’t new. It will continue.

Someone might argue that it’s just that “global warming alarmism.” Here’s the thing. Even if climate change weren’t real (it is). Even if sea levels weren’t rising (they are). This would *still* be as serious a concern as it is today.

So again, I ask: What in the hell are we doing? From this article, there are multiple groups spending millions of dollars to conduct multiple studies on this issue. And no one is committed to implementing any one of these plans. We have the information we need to get this thing moving. But what do we do? Because no major storm has threatened us since Ike, we sit on our hands, dawdle, and just hope and pray it never happens? People don’t see true risks until they’re realities. And over time, interest, concern, and motivation to act fades. Why are we still doing this in 2016, when we have the technology and capability to SEE risks before they happen? Think about that. We have abilities to understand and protect against disasters that even 50 years ago weren’t possible. It’s borderline miraculous.

Everything’s about saving money and gearing up for the next election. We see candidates for president arguing about the size of their hands and who can get married. Newsflash: We have clear evidence that we can mitigate potentially hundreds of billions in losses and unspeakable environmental and human catastrophe for what amounts to a drop in the bucket in terms of what we spend in this state and country. It would be great if we actually acted proactively and did something for the actual good of the people for a change. We have an incredible gift to see trouble coming. We also have a way to help minimize the toll. Why throw that away?

Read the article. Let it sink in. Then let’s get real about this risk.

I’m on Twitter: @mattlanza