Not the Orient Express

To get from Krakow to Budapest, we opted for an overnight train.The trains in general seem to poke their ways from Poland through Slovakia and into Hungary.  In Krakow, I noted a cluster of street signs showing distances to major cities in Europe, and Budapest was listed at 290 km away, about 180 miles.  Driving would have been quick, and if we left at 6:00 in the morning, we could have taken a six hour bus ride.  Any train ride was going to be 10-12 hours.  Rather than getting into Budapest at 10:00 p.m., we elected the evening departure/morning arrival option.

This train, the Selisian, back tracked to the Czech Republic, into Slovakia, touched briefly in Austria, and finally got to Budapest.  The equipment was a bit less polished and less contemporary than that on the German and Czech lines.  It was clearly functional but showing signs of wear.

 A few days ago I made snarky comments about Amtrak service.  In one aspect, Amtrak surpassed the Silesian–it had bigger sleeper compartments.  We climbed aboard about 9:30 and barely managed to stow our suitcases and bags. Besides sleeping, the compartment offered little space.  And since the train lacked a bar car or bistro car, we climbed into our bunks. There was a small sink in far right corner, the only amenity.

The bed was firm, or rather, quite hard, the pillow minuscule, and the comforter, comfortable. Lights out before midnight, and we settled in for long night of clacking rails, swaying berths, and odd sounds and noises.  Not a fast or direct train, this one stopped often. No other travelers climbed into our sleeper car, so we had no disruptions from clanging doors or hushed whispers.  In fact, on our car with about 12 compartments, only 3 seemed to have inhabitants.  And since the train was electric, at each stop, the car was completely quiet.  I enjoyed the sounds, the swaying, the frequent moments of high speed, but I and Nancy both slept fitfully.

We arrived in Budapest about 9:30, 12 hours after climbing onto the train, a bit tired, feeling rather grubby in yesterday’s clothes.  The shabby Budapest train station looked about how I felt, rather tired and run down, with a bit of grit and dirt.

Waiting until our hotel room was ready, we wandered around for a bit, down half a block the a major basilica, St. Stephen’s,

and then down to the Chain Bridge for a first glimpse of the Danube.

Dining, al fresco, on the square, at night.

One submits to the elements when eating out doors.  Ants, yellow jackets, mosquitos can all disrupt a most elegant picnic. Krakow Square, Rynek Główny, is lined with cafes that project patios onto square.  This time of year, the cafes also stage large gas heaters among the outdoor tables and provide blankets for additional warmth.  The tactics work since the cafes are lively well into the night.

We tried one last evening since the weather was so mild and enjoyed a pleasant dinner, featuring Polish soured rye soup.  The soup was excellent, the strolling crowds unobtrusive. In the distance, a local entrepreneur was demonstrating toy helicopters featuring lighted propellers.  He’d launch them into the dark sky and they’d slowly drift back to the square with their rotors spinning. All through dinner, the carriages added the rhythmic clopping of iron hooves on cobble stones. For a brief moment, a guitarist paused outside the cafe and sang  what I could only assume were Polish folk songs, slow and sad.

So far, a romantic evening.  But–somewhere across the square a rather insistent busker set up an amplifier, plugged in his guitar, and started singing.  All I can say in his favor is that he knew a lot of songs, beginning with a wretched version of Leonard Cohen’s Alleluia, a song that will never need anyone else to sing it but Cohen himself, and I think even he is tired of that song. The busker performed throughout the entire course of our meal. As he announced his final thanks, I gave thanks for the quiet. I don’t begrudge him what he earned, but I hated the schlocky pop music with which he filled the square.

Other than that, we had another nice day.

The old town of Krakow is circled by a walkable part, and hazy sun offered glimpses of fall.

On a quick trip to the castle, Wawel, we climbed to the top of the basilica tower, to the Sigimund bell, for an overview of the city. (We passed several bells on the way up and down, through dark, narrow, and steep stairways. This is just one of them).

In Krakow

We arrived on a stunningly gorgeous fall day, the kind of day that friends who have lived here suggested was anomalous. Nonetheless, the intense blue sky made the old square especially magical. Like all medieval cities, Krakow had a commercial district at the center of the city, a square dominated by public buildings.  Krakow’s was a particular surprise after Prague’s. The alignment of streets is a bit more regular, a grid pattern, making what I’ve seen so far easily negotiable (meaning, I didn’t get lost).  Prague’s center is a warren of twisting and narrow streets; Krakow’s open up and lead easily to recognizable destinations.

At the center of the Square is Cloth Hall, the original trading center of the city, and some say the oldest shopping mall in the world. The inner length of the building (longer than a football field) is still a market, more of a bazaar, featuring mostly knick-knacks, Polish souvenirs, and craft items.  The upper floor is a museum featuring 19th century Polish art.

The heart of the square, however, is Bazylika Mariana, the Basilica of St. Mary. The 14th century gothic character seemed familiar, but the brick work surprised me; I tend to associate monumental churches with massive stone work. I’ve always been impressed with the work of brick layers since I can’t imagine maintaining a straight line for laying bricks evenly while perched 80 feet up.

Nancy and I spent a bit of time dawdling over drinks on the square.

We did not take a carriage ride, though several were available. The carriages clop around the square at an elegant pace, but I don’t think I could maintain a dignified expression in such a vehicle. When parked, the horses and driver pose patiently.

On the Road, a Real Highway.

To get from Olomouc to Krakow, one has to split the journey:  train to Ostravo, CZ, and then a bus to Krakow. I had a bit of a panic when I couldn’t book a train directly, and while Olomouc had its charms, not least of which was wandering around the squares at night, with no one else around, and then stopping at a cafe for a shot of cold Bercherovka, the Czech digestif, we had reservations in Krakow that we did not want to lose.

My friend Matthew quickly found the train/bus connection, and we booked our trip.  As usual, the Czech train left on time and took us easily to Ostrovo, nearly at the border with Poland.  The bus is run by Czech Transport and was parked nearby waiting for the train.  It was not immediately apparent, and as we left the station, an urchin approached and with a few words figured out where we were going.  He pointed, started off, and waved us to follow.  I soon noted the bus with our destination and offered my thanks by emptying my pockets of the loose change I had, about 80 kroner, just over $3.00.  He looked at the handful of change and then at me with supreme disappointment.  I had only 500 kroner notes left and managed to walk on to the bus, in spite of his attempt to embarrass me for being niggardly.  Would it have been appropriate to have offered a 500 kroner note and asked for change?

On the route to Ostravo, in the agricultural heartland, there is quite a bit of heavy industry to moderate the landscape.

Trains in Europe are better than trains in the U.S., or at least better than the ones I’ve ridden.  I suspect that busses are the same everywhere.  (With one exception in my traveling: Cornell offers a non-stop bus from campus to New York City that is, in fact, quite comfortable.). The Krakow bus has wifi, but it drones like a bus, sways like a bus, and just pokes along. The view from the bus looks exactly like any ride on an expressway in the Northeast.  Still, I think the ride is non-stop and will arrive in Krakow early afternoon.

Moravian Culture.

We arrived in Olomouc at an auspicious moment.  Saturday morning the town was celebrating a “hunt” festival. Festivities began with a parade into the upper square; sadly, I was not asked to serve as drum major.

I can only speculate that the guys in the capes and the hats are the huntsman.  The major event of the morning was a dog show, with handlers displaying their not really well-trained dogs.  During the Czech announcements, I could understand “setter,” “retriever,” and “springer spaniel.”  The high point, however, was avian, not canine.  

Like the Ithaca festival, this one featured lots of food, but of a particularly local variety:  potato pancakes, game, lots of pork, and sausages.

Our local hosts–Matthew, Martina, Sarah, and Nell–kept us busy and amused.  

We enjoyed the introduction to how other cultures entertain themselves.

On the Road to Olomouc

I have a friend who lives in Olomouc, an ex-pat who settled here 20 years ago, learned Czech, got a PhD from the University where he now teaches, and started a family, so we stopped off on our way to Krakow.

Not quite Kansas, but those are dried corn stalks in the distance.

Beyond the open farm land and pastures the route lead through a hilly area, lined with narrow valleys.  Fall is not far advanced in this part of the world.  A quick impression:  the dominant color is yellow with just a bit of dull red.  No maples trees here, I suspect.

I learned from Matthew, my Olomouc friend, that the town was destroyed during the Thirty Years War, and then rebuilt. And rebuilt later as it grew to a city of 150,000.  The old town retains its 17th century facade.

Why I Came to Prague.

Prague fixed itself indelibly in my imagination because of two early memories.  As I child I would gaze at the statue of the Infant of Prague that my grandparents kept on top their television.  For anyone not versed in Catholic iconography, let me describe the statue:  a child, clothed in flowing robes, holding in his left hand a globe and raising his right hand to give a benediction (little and ring finger closed into the palm, middle, pointer, and thumb stretched out). He is also wearing a very large crown.  On the Castle side of the river is a church dedicated to the Infant.  And of course, every souvenir shop in Prague features several versions.  The Infant actually originated in Spain, supposedly as an apparition to St. Theresa of Avila. A member of the Spanish royal family, being married to a Bohemian noble, brought the statue of the Infant to Prague.

The other detail that made Prague seem so real to me came from a world history class I took in high school; of course, it was called “world history,” but it really meant European history.  We were studying the Reformation (major lesson: protestants bad, catholics good) and a chapter on the Thirty Years War mentioned, as a major cause of the war, the “defenestration of Prague,” when protestant citizens threw catholic officials out a window. Naively, I imagined a rowdy scene during which people were tossed out of a first floor window onto the grass, like a bunch of kids at over-exuberant play.  I’ve learned since that the Bohemians used defenstration to show their displeasure at those with whom they disagreed.  Walking the streets of Prague, I came to appreciate that being tossed out a window onto the cobblestones below could cause serious injury and death.  Those officials tossed out at the defenstration are rumored to have been saved from death either by angels or by landing in a dung heap.  I expect your choice salvation depends on your doctrinal leanings.

Walking through the old city of Prague is a bit like eating marzipan.  The first taste is amazingly rich and luxurious; the second pleasant, and the third cloying.  On our last day, we walked away from the old city toward Wenceslas Square, needing some more common fare, and found a long boulevard lined with stores ranging ranging from elegant and expensive to every day and commonplace.  The shoppers moved quickly and with purpose, buying what they needed or would use; they didn’t dawdle and window shop for knick knacks as they did in the old city’s narrow winding streets.  

I learned on this excursion that Wenceslas, the figure in the Christmas Carol was not a king, only a duke.  But he was good.  
Once away from the dense city center, we drifted along more open streets, slipping in and out of doorways, discovering gardens, small remote squares, and surprising buildings.  I realized that roses were still blooming in Prague, smelling them before I could locate the origins of the scent.

And we found a garden, just a block off the main boulevard that offered a contemplative view of the Church of St. Mary of the Snows.

Walking toward the river, we paused at this reflection of the old in the new. 

 The building turned out to be the Czech Academy of Science, which opened into an ornate reading room and offered an unusual exhibit of French modernist and advant garde art.  Guarding the extrance were two mounted lions, more aggressive than those posing at the New York Public Library.

Prague is a city of bridges and today we took a third one across and caught a different perspectives of the Castle and the roofs of the old city.

On the Charles Bridge, heading back to the old city, was a bit like swimming up stream into the crowds still pressing toward the Castle district.

But even the crowds parted in the middle of the bridge, for a couple posing, with insouciance, for wedding pictures, allowing any passers by to take pictures.

Through most of the 6 and a half walk, Nancy had a good time. 

Random observations from abroad.

1.  The sun never sets on American pop music.  Lunch on Tuesday, I heard a Roy Orbison track from The Traveling Wilburys.  Wednesday night during dinner, the play list was late 50s, early 60s rock.  When asked, the waitress said it was the chef’s favorite music.  A waitress in Berlin gave the same reason for why we were listening to rock and roll while eating.  Maybe kitchen crews need high energy music.

2.  Speaking of rock and roll, I just learned that at 90, Chuck Berry, will be releasing a new album.  I saw Chuck Berry in a funky night club in Ithaca in 1972.  He’s clearly got more energy than I have.

3. Every morning I go off for coffee wandering the streets looking for cafes.  Europeans drink lots of coffee, but none of it is as good as what I get from Gimme! (in Ithaca).  But it is served more quickly, and it is cheaper.

4. And as I sit in a cafe this, reading my iPad and typing, I realize that I have seen no one else with a computer or tablet for days.  I suspect I am not in an area frequented by students.