If you have been following Part One, Part Two follows.
We didn’t notice the border between Germany and the Czech Republic during our long train journey between Berlin and Prague; only the names of the stations alerted us as to which country we were in. The railway line followed a wide, attractive river valley from Dresden to Prague, where we arrived in the late afternoon.
After checking in to our hotel, which was near the old part of Prague, we ventured out to explore and soon came across Old Town Square, one of the finest squares I have ever seen, embraced on all sides by splendid buildings such as those shown below.
The next day found us strolling around the old town and on to the famous Charles Bridge. Our guidebook warned us not to venture across the bridge during the day, but to go there either first thing in the morning or in the evening. Perhaps it is very crowded during the summer months, but during September it was not crowded. A walk across the bridge was rewarding in that there were fine views across the river to the other part of Prague and we watched artists at work and listened to musicians. The Charles Bridge is, of course, highly ‘touristy’, but simply cannot be missed during a visit to Prague.
The next part of our walk that day took us to Wenceslas Square, not so much a square as a long sloping rectangular space. One of the reasons for visiting this part of Prague was to find a memorial that was significant to us, largely because all four of us were students in the late sixties, during which period we witnessed events that unfolded in Czechoslovakia when the armies of the Warsaw Pact invaded the country in 1968.
Jan Palach was a student at the university in Prague when the invasion took place. He committed self-immolation in January 1969 as a protest against the brutal put-down of the Prague Spring by the invading armies from the Soviet Union and its allies. His funeral was the occasion of a huge protest against the occupation and a month later Jan Zajic, another student, burned himself to death at the same spot. My wife, A, took this photograph of the memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zajic, which is at the foot of the steps of the National Museum at the top end of the square.
I took what might appear to be a rather anodyne photograph of a balcony because it is the place where, twenty years later, Vaclav Havel was instrumental as leader in toppling communism in what has become to be known as the Velvet Revolution. Havel, the first president of a free Czechoslovakia, brought Alexander Dubcek on to the balcony to the delight of a packed Wenceslas Square. Dubcek was leader of the country and attempted to reform the communism regime to the annoyance of the U.S.S.R. who invaded in 1968. Dubcek was forced to resign and lived in relative obscurity for many years. In was only fitting that the man who was successful in over-throwing communism in the Velvet Revolution stood on this balcony with the man who attempted to do so twenty years earlier. It must have been a very emotional sight, seeing these two men standing next to one another, overlooking the square.
The next day we walked across the Charles Bridge and up to the castle, seen in the next photograph, for an exploration of the part of Prague that is across the river from the old town.
Later, we walked to the top of the hill that overlooks the city and walked down towards the river for a tram ride back towards our hotel. In the evening, we attended a musical event in the splendid, art deco Municipal House. A small orchestra, a soprano and some ballet dancers contributed to an enjoyable evening of classics.
The two days we spent walking around Prague were a delight. It is a lovely city, in particular the old town, and a fascinating contrast to the scale and influence of Berlin.
The following day found us travelling, by train, to Vienna, a city that is graced by many fine buildings.
Our first walk took us towards St. Stephen’s cathedral, via the vast Hofburg Palace, the former imperial palace of the Austrian empire. We spent most of the rest of the day wandering around the streets of central Vienna, marveling at the many beautiful buildings.
It soon became apparent that there were a great many salespeople inviting tourists to attend musical events, of which there appeared to be several taking place around the city. On the grounds that a visit to Vienna isn’t complete without experiencing some music, we booked tickets to hear a quartet play in an impressive church. The players overstretched themselves to some extent in their choice of pieces perhaps, but the concert was enjoyable nonetheless.
Looking at paintings played a significant part in our visit to Vienna. Under A’s tutelage, she showed me works by Durer and Schiele. It turned out that the works by Durer are facsimiles: the gallery only brings out the originals every ten years! We decided to leave a visit to the famous Belvedere Palace to the next day, when we viewed, amongst other works, the celebrated Klimt paintings displayed in its extensive gallery.
Apart from visiting art galleries – the city has several – and generally wandering around the city on foot and by tram, our days in Vienna were punctuated by stopping for coffee and cake at elaborate coffee shops. One of our party, B, soon got the hang of trams as a mode of transport, to such an extent that he familiarised himself with the routes that we should take from our hotel to various parts of Vienna. Of the three cities on our Central European train tour, we used trams in Vienna much more than we did in Berlin or Prague.
During the morning of our last day in Vienna, we went to the Spanish Riding School in the Hofburg Palace to watch horsemen of the famous Spanish Riding School rehearse classical dressage in preparation for performances. The riders were immaculately dressed in their uniforms and pale-coloured horses looked magnificent as rider and steed were put through their paces in a number of dressage moves. It was fascinating to watch features of the tradition of classical dressage that dates back to the end of the sixteenth century in Vienna. (The term ‘Spanish\ refers to the original breed of Spanish horses that are now bred in Austria for the School.)
At length, it was time for us to leave Vienna and begin our journey home. Two trams took us to the railway station in Vienna, where were found ourselves immersed in the melee of refugees. (I have written about our experience that evening elsewhere.)
B had booked two cabins on the overnight sleeper to Cologne, a journey which took us most of the night, arriving after breakfast was brought to our cabins at about eight o-clock the following morning. Although our cabins were compact, it was an entertaining experience, sleeping on a train that sped through the night to take us from Austria to Germany.
Alighting at the railway station in Cologne brought us full circle to where we could retrace our steps back to the UK. We had an hour or so to wait for our train to Brussels, so A, P and B indulged me in a second breakfast at Fruh, where we had enjoyed an evening of several beers when we arrived in Cologne at the start of our tour: see Part One. One of the items on the menu at Fruh was ‘three eggs’. I asked for two, but was informed by the waiter that I had to have three; two was not allowed: I complied.
After a second breakfast for some – me – we retraced our steps with a mid-morning train to Brussels, a connection to London and finally, a train to Widney Manor and home, where we arrived in the early evening. An epic trip: twelve trains and three countries, not counting France and Belgium where we merely passed through and changed trains respectively. A huge thank you to P and B for being such grand company to my wife, A, and to me and a hearty thank you to B for making all of the on-line bookings for hotels and train tickets.
The short video that follows is my first, very inexpert attempt to shoot one on my iPhone. I dearly wanted to capture a sense of the scale of Cologne cathedral and the sound of its bells that were ringing out when we were heading towards the station to start our journey home. At the end of the video, I attempt to pan left to find A, P and B looking towards the space in front of this magnificent building.
(I apologise if you are not able to play the video. I suggest that you try to play it if you are interested: your browser will soon tell you if it is not able to play a video file of this format.)
We can put our cases away until the summer holidays.