Saturday 26 May 2018

Such a Pretty City!

When I was growing up it was hard to imagine that I would ever be able to visit eastern Europe, or if I did I would be constantly under suspicion and in danger. There were exotic cities like Budapest, Bratislava, Belgrade, Berlin, Prague and Warsaw which I never expected to see and yet now all are easily accessible. They are in EU countries and as an EU citizen I can visit them and feel at home – until next year anyway, and even though language and currencies vary, it is easy enough to mix with fellow citizens of what Mikhail Gorbachev called “our common European home”. This year I managed to visit some of these on an escorted rail tour with Great Rail Journeys. I have already written about our very brief introduction to Berlin, probably the city that symbolises the past division of Europe, and from there we moved on to Prague which was a totally different experience. Prague was almost completely untouched by 2nd World War bombing whereas Berlin was almost destroyed; Prague was the centre of an early attempt to break free from Soviet domination; Prague has an enormously long history as a capital city of an historic principality, then kingdom and finally a republic as it is today.

We arrived there by direct train from Berlin, and when we left we took a direct train to Budapest, both operated by the Czech national railway with comfortable, modern carriages and electric locomotives. They were not high speed trains but reached 90mph at times and some very good food and drink were available from the restaurant and buffet car: this was neither the down-at-heel slow and dirty train of film-noir spy stories nor the glamour of international expresses of the inter-war detective story.

Down to dinner!
Getting off the train at Prague's main station we were amazed at the highly decorated circulation space at the main entrance with its vaulted ceiling and classical style. There was clearly still some restoration work to do at this station, but what had been completed was stunning. A coach took us through the city's congested streets (we arrived at the evening rush hour when an accident had closed a main road tunnel) and eventually got us to our hotel on the other side of the city centre. The hotel had two buildings at the top and bottom of a steep hill and we were delivered to the upper building where our rooms were. To get to the restaurant for dinner we had to go down by a cable-hauled funicular railway to the lower building. The view from our room over the city was brilliant, although the same could not be said for the weather for most of our stay, although it had some good patches.

We had a spacious, comfortable room and after a good night's sleep were ready for the tour of Prague following morning. It was the same sort of early start which had one of our Australian fellow-travellers on last year's holiday ask the tour manager, “Do we get a holiday some time?” but, really, if you've come all this way to an exotic place you do really need to get out and see something of it! At least this time we did not have to have packed before the day started, as we were staying a second night at this hotel.

St Wenceslas' shrine in the cathedral
The tour began with a coach transfer to Prague Castle, and then we were on foot for the rest of the morning, for Prague is very much a "walking city". Unfortunately the morning was punctuated with showers, some of them moderately heavy, but we were prepared for the weather from the accurate forecast and everyone had umbrellas or hooded coats. Prague Castle is the biggest castle in Europe (Windsor is the second biggest) and includes a cathedral and three other churches as well as the presidential palace. The palace has been the official seat of the rulers of the Czech people ever since it was founded, surviving changes from principality through kingdom to republic. Wenceslas, the nation's patron saint, was probably the most famous resident, but he was a prince, not the king of the well-known Christmas carol.

The castle is on a hill overlooking the rest of the city and after a thorough exploration of all the public areas, and a coffee break, we walked down through a vineyard area to the city centre via the famous Charles Bridge with its statues of the saints (which have remarkably survived both Nazism and Communism). Many of the tour party then made their way by tram back to the hotel, but we decided to walk back through the city and see some more of Prague's sights.

It was by now lunchtime, and one thing we needed to do was to try the trdlo, a sweet confection made from bread in the shape of a cylinder, similar in taste to a Danish pastry, for example, but much less sticky. We had no Czech currency with only being here a short time but in the tourist streets where these things were on sale we could pay with Euros (like the UK, the Czech Republic is an EU member state which still has its own currency). We found a place where we could sit outside with a coffee and a trdlo (mine filled with strawberries and whipped cream, Alison's plain). As we were about to leave the heaviest shower of the day began, so we waited until it subsided before we walked on - fortunately there was no queue for our table. The principal place we wanted to see was Wenceslas Square, scene of the demonstrations and meetings which ended the communist era just a few years ago. Wenceslas Square is not actually square, but a long rectangle (like Eaton Square in London) and is a major shopping street, now with a large branch of Marks and Spencer in it: the capitalists have moved swiftly into eastern Europe!

And so back to our hotel through the streets of Prague with their varied, often Parisian-looking, buildings and over the River Vitava. The hotel grounds, full of trees and climbing steeply up the hillside, looked great, but the new highway in front of it, with bits still under construction, rather spoilt the effect its architect had intended. Still, reunited with the rest of our party it was soon time for dinner, a shower and sleep ready for our next move. The following morning we were to depart at a similar time again, but this time packed and ready to catch our train. We were driven slowly through the morning peak traffic back to Prague main station and waited for the platform indicator to show where we needed to wait for our EuroCity train direct to our next stop at Budapest, capital of Hungary, another city I once never imagined I would be able to visit.

This was a long journey of around seven hours, all on one train, which this time did have the scheduled buffet/restaurant car which served superb hot and cold snacks and full meals. We had a hot snack lunch with Prosecco which we took back to our seats, but there was also seating the bar area and a small restaurant where we could have opted to have a waited meal. We also had our morning coffee and afternoon tea on board the train. I wrote much of the previous blog post during this journey, too!

We were about half and hour late getting to Budapest, so our coach ride along the Pest side of the Danube towards our home for the next seven nights, the MS Amadeus Brilliant, took place in the thick of the evening peak and added several more minutes to the delay to our arrival, so we missed tea on the ship but at least we were in time for the briefing for life aboard the vessel, followed by the welcome drink (more sparkling wine) and dinner. After dinner our visit to Budapest began, and of this I shall say much more in the next post.

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