Ever since the end of the Cold War I’ve wanted to visit Prague and Budapest. While working on the itinerary I found a river cruise that started in Prague and terminated in Budapest, and that seemed like a good way to connect them, see some other places along the way and spend some leisurely time floating along the Danube, courtesy of the good people at AMAWaterways.
The train ride from Salzburg to Prague was five hours, but the time passed quickly thanks to fellow travelers. After changing trains in Linz I was in a six-person compartment, alone for the first hour until joined by a nice young man named Peter Larndorfer, a teacher in Vienna on his way home to see his parents in a small town in northern Austria. “I would like to travel more, but I think I am too timid,” he said. “When I go somewhere I am always wanting to go home.” His only trip out of the European Union was to Israel, probably the place I am not visiting that I most want to see.
Peter worked as a guide for seven years at Mauthausen, the concentration camp I visited in September. I asked him about guiding relatives of victims. “Of course, I’ve had relatives of both victims and perpetrators,” he said. “It was just as emotional for families of the SS guards.” I told him how I had found the memorials there to be a symbol of hope. “Many of them were designed or built by people who were imprisoned there,” he said, which I hadn’t realized. “So yes, they do represent survival.”
He asked about the election and we talked about American politics for a while. “I like how strong people’s opinions are in America,” he said. “In Austria we walk lightly about such things, but in the U.S you always know where someone stands.” I asked where he learned to speak English so well. “From watching American films and shows.”
Peter got off, others came and went at various stops, but for the final 90 minutes it was just me and George, a young guy who was reticent at first to speak English. He works as a cook in a restaurant in Germany half the year, and comes home to Prague to be with his family the other half. He told me the most important thing to see in Prague is the Charles Bridge … “the oldest stone bridge in Europe” he told me, which turned out not to be quite true, but you have to love the civic pride.
I really liked George. When there was a lull in the conversation and I gazed out the window for a few moments, in the reflection I could see him looking at me, wanting to talk some more and thinking about what to say. His confidence grew with each sentence in English and he was clearly feeding off of it, so I asked him many questions. Sometimes I understood the answer, something not so much, but I enjoyed watching him dig for the right phrase, fail to come up with it, and then with great determination find another way to communicate his point. When I asked about the Czech language, for example, he said it’s very similar to Russian, but he made it emphatically clear that people in the Czech Republic have no use for anything Russian.
Walking from the platform into the main train station in Prague I saw a plaque dedicated to the man for whom the station is named: Woodrow Wilson. He was instrumental in Czechoslovakia becoming independent in 1918.
European cities are often qualified in architectural terms. Prague is 1,100 years old and therefore thought of as a product of the Romanesque Era, which lasted until the 10th century and was characterized by semi-circular arches. By the time of the Gothic Era in the 12th century (pointed arches, heavily-decorated facades), Prague was flourishing, and because both styles feature towers and steeples it’s known as the “City of One Hundred Spires”, even though it now has more than 500.
Prague has a rich and varied history. It has been the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and seat of two Holy Roman Emperors; it was an important asset to the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and after the First World War became the capital of the combined entity of the Czech state and Slovakia, which had been part of Hungary.
Czechoslovakia was the only democracy in this part of the world between the wars, but unemployment caused by the Great Depression made the country susceptible to Nazi propaganda, and Germany started to occupy it in the late 1930s before declaring it part of the Third Reich.
Following the war there was a predictable backlash against the extreme right of Nazi Germany, and the nation became vulnerable to the appeals of Communism, which was voted in in 1948. Those who didn’t agree were imprisoned or worse; many priests and resistance leaders were hung in the 50s. Gradually the private sector was eliminated, and the state ended up owning everything.
We had a guide named Hana who lived through it. “We could not go to Western Europe, only to Poland, Bulgaria and East Germany. We could not buy appliances, good clothing or jeans, and we had to buy bad East German cars, not even the good ones made in Czech Republic. We got fruit from Cuba. It wasn’t good, but I remember how much I loved the half a banana I got at Christmas time.”
They listened to Voice of America to get the truth. Students demonstrated peacefully – and effectively – in what became known as the Velvet Revolution. On one occasion 200,000 people protested in enormous Wenceslaus Square, and in 1989 things started to loosen up, with East Germans getting permission to go to the West in advance of the wall coming down on November 9. On the 25th the Communists finally gave up, a president was elected and the borders opened up. Slovakia had its own aspirations of independence and in 1993 there was a peaceful split, both countries agreeing to create a capitalist economy.
Today Prague is a thriving city of 1.2 million people. Located in northwest Czech Republic, not far from the German border, it has become one of Europe’s biggest tourist attractions. Like many European cities it has an “Old Town”, and this one dates from the 9th century (Prague’s “new” town was built in the 14th). And almost everyone speaks English. The Slavic language makes Russian and others languages in the region easy to learn, “but we no longer learn Russian in school,” Hana told us. “Since the end of Communism here we learn English.”
The leading destination for visitors is the Prague Castle. Built in the 1340s and on a hilltop overlooking the city, it is enormous and includes a beautiful cathedral that was started in 1344. We walked down from the Castle, through commercial areas and across the river on the famous Charles Bridge, which quite an experience with its statues of significance, vendors, street musicians and an amazing amount of people. I had been told about the crowds in Prague and it was no exaggeration; even in mid-November the number of tourists was staggering, with large groups of Chinese and Japanese dominating, but we heard most European languages as well. Not many North Americans this time of year, but others more than fill the void.
At a friend’s recommendation I checked out the Sex Machines Museum, which was weird but not uninteresting. There seem to be a lot of very creative people out there inventing things that would Caligula blush. I got a particular kick out of the intricate schematics in the patent applications; anyone who masters the assembly process deserves to have a little fun.
Architecturally, Prague is a beautiful city, but, like many parts of Rome, some of the beauty is ruined by graffiti, which is just a shame. And the city would be well served by giving someone a pressure-washing contract; old is great, but so is clean.
At night, though, Prague is magical. Any city looks better at night, but in Prague it seems different. The stone streets of Old Town and the huge squares shine under the street lamps, and the old buildings are beautifully lit. The huge crowds have dissipated and people move about energetically, in couples and small groups. There is music everywhere, from the street musicians playing exotic instruments to classical concerts in a wide variety of venues. Old Town Prague just feels romantic, with a pulse and a purpose.
I had two great nights there. The first I hung out with Ed and Cindy Berre, a terrific couple who live in Indian Hill, Ohio, the Cincinnati suburb where I went to high school. During the tour that day we’d seen a notice for a guitar concert that looked interesting, so we went to see the “Czech Guitar Duo” in the basement of an art gallery, where folding chairs seated maybe 50 people. The guitarists were brother and sister Jana and Petr Bierhanzl, and since Jana is also a painter of note, they often perform in galleries. They played some classical things, including pieces by Vivaldi and Paganini, and ended with some lively Flamenco numbers. A nice way to pass an hour.
The three of us then found a restaurant close to our hotel, and had fun time comparing notes about Cincinnati. In an attempt to extend the culinary adventure that has so far included kudu, impala and ostrich, I ordered lamb glands; which glands, I didn’t ask. It was tasty, unless you looked at it.
The following night I had dinner with Kriss Stallabrass, the Tour Director Extraordinaire of our AMAWaterways cruise. She took me to Krema, her favorite local spot, down an alley and into a wonderfully authentic subterranean environment. Kriss is a knowledgeable world traveler, a Canadian who lives in Holland, having moved there from Budapest, and we enjoyed sharing travel experiences. She introduced me to Becherovka, a local herbal drink. “If you’re sick it will make you better,” she told me, “and if you’re sad it will make you happy.” And if you’re sober it will make you less so.
I ended all three nights in Prague at the casino in the Marriott across the street from our hotel. The first night was horrific, the second included a minor comeback, and the third, with a couple of very engaging Brits sharing the blackjack table, was outstanding.
The three days in Prague passed too quickly. But it was time to cruise.