THE JOURNEY BEGAN uncomfortably. We spent it on the train floor, in fact; in that vestibule bit between carriages, the same one that seems to take every bump and rattle much more significantly than the comfortable, padded, almost luxurious-seeming seats we had been robbed of next door. By the time we had arrived at Regensburg, most of the passengers had disappeared, save for the gangly student who wished me ‘Gesundheit’ when I sneezed three times in a row. But by the time we had approached the Czech border, the train had more or less entirely emptied itself out, stopping at silent and sleepy train stations with unpronounceable names where nobody seemed to get on or off. Half expecting the whole train to mist up and Dementors to swoop in, I distracted myself with the countryside. It didn’t help much – it had morphed into swathes of thick, dark forest, almost ghost-like, in fact, where a thin mist hung around the trunks. I asked myself what sort of stories those woods could tell: what they had seen, what they had hidden, what they had played host to. I thought about the film Defiance – the one with Daniel Craig – where Jews took refuge in a forest like that in the Second World War, haunted by the fear of persecution. Perhaps those forests flanking the German-Czech border had experienced something of a similar kind. This was now, after all, what was once behind the Iron Curtain.
I didn’t spend too long brooding. We arrived in Prague and trekked through the city to the hostel, crossing the city’s gaudy diamond ring that is Wenceslas Square. I sort of liked the brashness and artificial ‘class’ of Prague’s largest square; it reminded me a lot of the Champs-Elysées with its overpriced restaurants and bars, tourist shops and vast branches of clothes shops of varying affordability. It is not Prague’s highlight, it has to be said. That prize is contested rightly by the Old Town Square, where our walking tour kicked off. The square is what you might expect from a major capital’s public square – it is agog with tourists taking selfies and drinking beer at ten o’clock in the morning, but it is surrounded by beautiful buildings and statues, mostly Gothic but Baroque, too, blessing Prague with the look it is famous for. The chiming of the astrological clock, apparently Europe’s most overrated tourist attraction according to our tour guide, Callum, is indeed as overwhelming as a Lib Dem victory in a general election; it is essentially a series of ringing bells and three statues of personified cardinal sins (who look a bit like the Bee Gees) shaking their heads to the calling of Death, as represented by a skeleton. Its engineering, however, is really quite a marvel for its day, and it is the nicest decoration in a square already dripping in things to admire. Our tour went on in a humorously informative way as I suspect most English-language city walking tours do, delving into the deep history the Czech Republic has seen. And don’t call it Czechoslovakia; you’ll look a bit ignorant if you do, apparently – even though the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated peacefully and amicably, and that there is no bad blood between the two. I know this because of the tour. I also now know about the Czechs’ penchant for throwing people out of windows, which I’m sure will be useful to know if ever I find myself in an argument with a Czech person on the fifteenth floor of a building.
My mother had warned us of the climb up to Prague Castle after her trip there a few years ago. Fortunately I have had good practice climbing hills thanks to my choice of university (fellow Exeter students will understand) and no urban ascent will match the climb up to Fourvière in Lyon I’d done a few months before (God, that was high). The walk up to the castle is nice, actually; you’re rewarded for your physical endeavours with occasional step-side kiosks selling ice cream and busking singing John Legend with dodgy accents. Once at the top of the hill, Prague Castle (which resembles more a collection of palaces than what I consider a ‘castle’) gives you stunning views of the Czech capital, with all its spires, domes and bridges crossing the lazy Vlatva. It’s worth the climb and a leisurely amble through the cobbled streets back to ground level is a much less exhausting ordeal for your thighs.
I either drank four or five beers that day. I think it was four. In fact I’m sure of it. Four and a sip of Sean’s treacly black bitter. Either way, after number three I was a bit merry, but I can’t be blamed – the Czechs like to charge an equivalent of something crazy like a pound for a probably-too-large-for-me glass of beer, resulting in an inevitable dip in standards and me giving into such excellent value for money. I was initially a little disappointed we didn’t have time to join a pub crawl whilst in the contestable European capital of beer, but after that perhaps I’d dodged a bullet. Or rather, Sean dodged a bullet. More on pub crawls later.
The following morning we breakfasted with two of the three people staying in our room, one, Jarrod, from Minnesota who was going back to Berlin that weekend for the Halbmarathon, and Natasha from Wandsworth who worked in TV production. Wandsworth! I made the usual ‘oh, it’s a small world!’ comment as I always do as we talked about our travel plans. If you were wondering about the third roommate, Brad from Virginia, he had risen and got off early to drive back to Berlin. Apparently he intended to get hold of a hire car and make the three and a half hour journey back to Berlin to ‘pick up some stuff’ he’d left there before turning round and driving all the way back to Prague. I asked him what ‘things’ he was talking about, to which he replied with a dreamy, slightly delirious tone: ‘clothes, books…some other stuff’. I didn’t probe any further, but from one look at him I was fairly sure the ‘stuff’ was probably green and grown in a an artificially-lit basement somewhere.
We went off to explore the city some more, including the Jewish Quarter. If there is any part of Prague whose history and story compels the most, it must be this one. Originally a ghetto that flooded several times a year, the pocket of the city was unsurprisingly ridden with crime and disease, hemmed in by a number of synagogues. Most of them still stand today, which is strange for a city occupied by anti-Semitic Hitler and co. According to Callum, the font of all Prague-based knowledge, it is because Hitler intended to keep Prague’s Jewish buildings and convert them all into a giant museum, showcasing the former life of an extinct race. In one of the synagogues, there was an exhibition showing some of the artwork of ill-fated Jewish children. It all chilled me. Suddenly the sunny, beautiful streets of Prague turned dark and sinister. Fortunately such evil plans were never realised, and in a dramatic change of events, the once-deprived Jewish quarter transformed itself into the city’s most desirable quarter, evidenced by Prada and Louis Vuitton etc. Just one of the many tales hidden in Prague’s streets.
Prague is certainly one of Europe’s most captivating capitals. Its cobbled, shadowy streets tell as many stories are there are shops selling Bohemian glass and it has a wonderful array of eat, shop and noticeably drink. I can’t help but see Prague as a sort of fairytale city, where Rapunzel and Rumplestiltskin live, so enchanting are the towers and spires of the Czech capital.
We left Prague on Friday evening, coursing through the green Czech countryside towards Austria. We arrived in Vienna, once more in the dark, and I had the immediate sensation that this was an important place. Prague, please don’t be offended, but at times feels like a provincial town, but Vienna does not. Its Hauptbahnhof is clean, clinically so, rounded off with straight edges and polished metal. Oh, and a hoard of noisy Italians getting the same metro as us. We were greeted in the hostel by a young couple from New Zealand who were far too serious for their own good, Hamish interrogating us sternly on our travels. I half-expected him to sit me down to one side and gather my thoughts on the financial situation of German-speaking economies before presenting me with his 68-page prospective plan for said countries typed in Arial size 12. Lighten up, I thought. For a couple who’d been spending the whole of winter in Austria, it was quite clear they’d taken the coldness to a metaphorical level, too. Nevertheless they were nice enough, even if our conversations revolved solely around what we’d seen and done in Vienna that day.
As I said, Vienna feels important. Although it rushes with people and cars, many of its streets feel invariably soulless, many of its Paris-esque apartments overshadowed by graffiti and what could be neat gardens spoilt by overgrown grass and streams of tarmac. It also seems to lack any sort of heart – well, this would likely be Stephansplatz, but in comparison to many other cities, it feels devoid of much character and the hugely impressive Stephansdom with its dazzling coloured roof plays second fiddle next to a giant branch Zara. Nevertheless if you look close enough you can find the Vienna people imagine: the iconic prancing white Lipizzaner horses of the Spanish Riding School (something Sean had zero interest in seeing), the Wiener schnitzel (which at times seems less ubiquitous than ice cream cafés (no complaints from me)) and the grandeur of the Opera (something Sean also had no interest in seeing). The biggest personal draw for me comes in the form of dense almond sponge smothered in chocolate, a.k.a. the Sachertorte. We took a seat one morning at Café Sperl, supposedly one of the city’s best Kaffeehäuser, awaiting a slice of the county’s signature cake. These coffee houses are perhaps the most Viennese thing to do. Subdued, bordering on shabby elegance, bedecked with dark wooden furniture and crowned with warm, gold lightning, they are emblematic of the city’s culture. They are firmly rooted in Vienna’s way of life, much like the British pub or French café, and offer you the perfect chance to while away the hours. I did just that. In fact, these very words were scribbled into my notebook from a marble table cluttered with cups and crumbs of Sachertorte. Which was rather good, by the way.
Another thing worth mentioning is the Naschmarkt. Ignore the rather harsh-sounding name, the open air market was perhaps the biggest unexpected delight of the trip so far.
Oh, on that note, perhaps the second. Whilst eating an ice cream on the Saturday evening, we were approached by a fat woman in a veil, apparently a bride, flanked by her friends who were holding a box. She asked s if we wanted to buy anything from her for any random amount because she was getting married. Naturally, I assumed this was an Austrian premarital tradition, and so I tossed her a euro and peered into the box, revealing four small items wrapped in newspaper. I picked one, and Sean another. A friend of hers lingered, curious to see what it was, she claimed, and laughed her head off when she saw it was a bar of extremely cheap soap and Sean a tiny bottle of rancid-tasting anise liqueur. ‘Immer nützlich!’ I laughed, trying to make light of the fact I’d wasted a euro on what was soap – not even convenient liquid soap of the 21st century – most likely bought from Lidl that morning. She went off giggling, shaking her head in disbelief at the supposed hilarity of her soon-to-be-wed friend’s sense of humour, whereas I was left stranded with a bar of soap. Great, I thought. Miss Piggy and co are off politely mugging the people of Vienna, palming them off with fourteenth-rate bric-à-brac so they finance a night out. Good for them. At least I will smell nice in the morning.
Anyway, I digress.
The Naschmarkt was where we were meeting Claudia, a very German-looking German leading a tour of the city. She strung together a very obvious spiel about how the Naschmarkt is Vienna’s largest market and that we should take care of our belongings in such a crowded place. She didn’t, however, remind us to stay together in such a crowded place, and so within minutes we had lost her. Genuinely, we couldn’t see the little Austrian flag she had dangling at the end of a stick above our heads. And so, we were left in the wilderness of Austria’s biggest market, as she had informed us. ‘Links oder rechts?’ cried people around us. Indeed that was the question. The Naschmarkt is a row of beguiling awareness of food stalls stretching east and west for as far as the nose can smell. It is chaos, but in a pleasant sense of the word. Think a more civilised Moroccan souk – certainly a more Germanic one – a tangle of smells and colours, people and market traders, who separate themselves from the mayhem with counters and stands or tempting delights. Dragon fruit to bizarre Danish cheeses, scarlet tuna steak to candied watermelon. My mouth underwent an obstacle course for an hour, being fed falafel and chocolate and mango and olives from traders attempting to seduce us with their wares. Gradually we made our way through the teeming market, passing diners sipping Viennese and chugging oysters, when suddenly the market threw us out into the real world. But we missed the whimsical headache of the Naschmarkt, and we turned round and jostled our way through once more. Claudia told us that the food market takes place only on Saturdays. Just as well, I thought; if this place was available to the Viennese every day, it would render them dizzier than a wild weekend of waltzes.
Perhaps I was a little too disparaging of Vienna at first, saying it’s rather bland. Indeed I feel Vienna has let some of its regal charm slip away through decades of architectural re-jigging, but there are gems in the Austrian capital – the Rathausplatz, for example, is surrounded by what are surely some of Europe’s grandest buildings: the Parliament, the Burgtheater, the Museumsquartier. In fact, there’s a moment when you leave the Riding School towards the Museumsquartier that all of Vienna’s beautiful buildings come into view, peering regally over the treetops. This was the Vienna I had expected, the Vienna of smart and high culture with the sound of hoofs on cobbles echoing through the quiet streets of museums and cafés. In fact, I might have gone so far as to say that I even liked Vienna when I was sitting in a little square with a coffee, listening to what I think was Pachelbel coming from a nearby church.
We left the hostel on Monday morning, quietly saying goodbye to an already-awake Josephine (Hamish’s girlfriend), who just blanked us. Well good luck to you and Hamish, Josephine; I hope you both find a sense of humour somewhere on your travels. After a Zimtschnecke at the train station, we hung around the platform for the train to Villach, deep in Austria’s south. We waited at platform six. 8.30 came but there was no train. I am still under the impression that Austrians are like ze Germans in their approach to public transport punctuality, and so at 8.45 I asked a woman at the info desk where the hell the train was. ‘It’s already gone,’ she said remorsefully. ‘Next one at 10.30.’ Somehow we had missed the bit where our train arrived at a different platform than the one on the screens. So we retreated back to the concourse for WiFi, whiling away an hour and a half. It wasn’t the end of the world, I told myself, and quite honestly the wait didn’t bother me too much; it was rather that my carefully-calculated itinerary was now disrupted. Up until then we had caught each specified train with no hiccups, and I felt quietly optimistic that the entire trip would follow suit. Alas, no. I consoled myself somewhat with an average coffee and another Zimtschnecke, telling myself that at least we could reach Slovenia that day without having to find a rogue lorry on the outskirts of Vienna bound for the hills. Luckily we had some internet to research onward trains. Nonetheless it felt like a long wait; in the time we spent sitting there, the revolving column of raw chicken at the kebab bar in front of us had cooked, ready for a small number of passenger somehow keen for a kebab at ten in the morning. Strange people. On that note, I found the Viennese a bit of a frosty bunch, other than my new friend at the train station info desk, who say only a handful of words when talking to you and don’t even wish you goodbye at the end of it. Say what you like about the Germans, but I have found them to be much more hospitable even in big cities. Sadly n o such luck in Vienna. I can’t say I’ll rush back to the Austrian capital. I have found it a fairly ordinary European metropolis, its seductive coffees and cakes the only thing that would rope me back in. Even at the coffee houses they don’t smile. One person who does, though, is Miss Conchita Wurst, still riding the glittery wave of her Eurovision win last year, and clearly the poster boy (or girl?) of the city’s hosting of the Song Contest this month. The woman is everywhere! On ad boards, posters stuck to lamp posts, newspapers… Bank Austria got her to face their latest campaign and she’s even been doing announcements on the metro this month. Not bad for a bearded bloke in a dress.
Part Three: Slovenia to Nice: https://theconnorsseur.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/year-abroad-blog-14-trains-of-thought-part-three-slovenia-to-nice/