Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Europe By Train #6: Prague: Walking the Streets of Time

You know how those holiday pictures never capture your feeling of the place?

Prague is a city of utterly jaw-dropping views, every time you turn your head...every angle. 

And yet, my photos seem flat, at least they don't convey the magnificence of the views, the architecture, the sense of time. Our first view was pretty good, though...

And our good morning view, as well. For that you can't beat the elegant Hotel Leonardo!

It's hard to go wrong with an ancient hillside castle, a graceful river, and old stone bridge, the many-arched Charles. Near our hotel is Old Town, gasp-inducing with its pastel, red-tiled buildings, soaring spires, twisting lanes. Prague is like a dessert buffet, so much to choose from. Almost too much. 

But we sample the delights. Dating from 1410, the Astronomical Clock is the world's oldest working clock, its saints moving in and out on the hour.

We climb an old spiral staircase...

then further up creaking wooden steps...

to the tower where early astronomers mapped the heavens. 

The city views are staggering, yet here is where my photos don't capture the majesty.

We learn of an early power struggle when the astronomer, Kepler, is rumored to have fed his Danish competitor, Brahe, a poison potion in order to get his job - and achieve world renown. (Hmm...What a story idea!)

We visit Prague's ancient Klementinum Library, where most of its books are being digitized in Germany.  Here is how it will look again soon.

Later, we take a tram to the castle-side of the Vltava.

At our ease, we climb the hillsides with the goal of walking back over one of the bridges - but not the Charles, a Prague must and always packed. We will do it later, some evening.

Here we discover the quieter side of Prague, fewer tourists, more airy somehow, despite the narrow lanes. 

In a little square at the base of high stone walls, we come upon a procession of uniformed men and women in WWI-era wardrobe.

We discover Maly Buddha, a yummy restaurant run by a Vietnamese architect.

It is dim with shrines and hidden alcoves -- the setting for a scene I must one day write.

I search out Franz Kafka's statue next to the Spanish Synagogue. Two English girls are taking their picture here and I get to tell them who he is. A writer whose name itself evokes the surreal reality of modern life.

Surreal images accompany me back.

The last evening we finally walk back over the Charles Bridge. It is cool now and we buy some local handicrafts as gifts. A vendor tells us she wants to visit SF and see the "red bridge." People touch the stone saints for luck and a cellist plays.

The light is dimming and we absorb the true beauty of Praha, impossible to describe. Impossible to capture by camera.

It is hard to leave this place, but we have a rendezvous with history in Budapest - and a train to catch. http://dianarchambers.blogspot.com/2014/08/europe-by-train-7-budapest-finding-past.html

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Europe By Train #5: Night Train to Prague

A Long Day's Night 

Amsterdam is not an easy city to leave, but we had a train to catch. My original plan had been to take the sleeper to Prague, recommended by "The Man in Seat 61." The Man, Mark Smith, is a real railway professional and lover of old-fashioned travel, who has developed this site over the past decade. 

I'd learned of www.seat61.com from an English businessman on an earlier Amtrak trip to Seattle - and it really is the Bible of international train (and ferry) travel. He even tells you how to get from London to Australia without flying! In his Orient Express section, Smith writes of WWI arms dealer Zaharoff - "the mystery man of Europe" - who always booked compartment 7 in and out of Istanbul. His own preference is seat 61 in Eurostar's first class, which lines up with the window for a fine view.

Happy to avoid airports, I booked the Eurostar to Paris and Thalys to Amsterdam online, advance purchase, non-refundable: cheap. But when I had trouble with the Prague train, I needed help. Richard, the head of German booking agency, EurAide, ferreted out some "trouble on the line" and routed us through Munich - in a first-class sleeper. 

And so here we are, back in Amsterdam's Central Station, our departure platform finally announced. 

We find our three-berth compartment and enjoy the northern summer's late sunset.

Midway till dawn, my fellow-traveler husband comes up with a locked-room mystery plot ready for Christie, or Columbo, or me. The night is short but the crisp white duvet delicious. In the morning we arrive in Munich. 

Connecting on to Prague, we share a compartment with a charming German insurance exec en route to deliver a presentation to an IT firm in Regensburg, near the Czech border. The tidy countryside is covered with solar panels and arrays, even the oldest train station. 

Rolfe tells us Germany has the goal of being energy-independent by 2024. Recent events have proven the considerable risks of relying on Putin's Russia for natural gas. There is special anxiety these days in Europe, so scarred by the past. So interconnected. 

At an Amsterdam concert we attended, a moment of silence was observed for the victims of MH 17, many of whom were Dutch AIDS' researchers en route to a conference in Australia. The Ukraine is a tinderbox and it's a hot summer. 

After Rolfe departs, we continue through fertile farmland toward the Czech Republic, so aware of the tides of history, the once-bloodied soil now so peaceful.

These days there is not even passport control at the border.

Just another punch of our tickets.

But there is still trouble on the line, it seems, as we are forced to change trains for Prague. 

By rumor alone, we find our new train, grateful not to be left on the platform. 

We are now on the local, stopping at every town. The countryside is less manicured than Germany, the language now Slavic, with the buttery sounds of Russian.

After a long night and day, we cross the River Vltava.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Europe By Train #4: Amsterdam: Going Our Own Way

Amsterdam is a city on the move.

Mainly on bikes. 

A population going to and fro.

Straight-backed, with easy panache on bicycles of every color and configuration.

Women in summer dresses. Or sleeveless sheaths and high heels. Riding their bikes one-handed with baskets of flowers, panniers of groceries, a bottle of wine.

Or children in attached carriages...

Or handcrafted wooden "wheelbarrows." 

Every street has a special lane for bikers and motor-scooters, their riders chatting or listening to iPods. 

This is also a walking city with little neighborhoods where centuries-old tall, narrow houses line cobbled lanes and canals.

One of these is our delightful Hotel Fita, located in a quiet neighborhood, minutes from the Van Gogh, and Rijksmuseums. We loved it! One evening we strolled to the Royal Concertgebouw, where I was smitten by this fanciful chandelier.

Like bikes, the graceful canals define Amsterdam, with their bridges and boats. 

And houseboats, decorated with the people's whimsical style.

Anne Frank lived along a canal in the Jordaan area, where she wrote of hearing church bells...in the world outside. 

Inside her room, she had a picture of an elegant dancer of the day...a dream of beauty and freedom that I find almost unbearably poignant. The street below is filled with endless lines of visitors waiting to visit her house, to pay homage to her great spirit.

The other great soul whom people come to connect with is Vincent, also honored by queues snaking outside the Van Gogh Museum. Inside there is quiet reverence, as if we are on a shared pilgrimage. 

We see him develop, practicing his craft, seeking his  voice. From the earth tones of his early work, he moves on to Paris where he begins to flower...and then to Provence where the light he captured dazzles us to this day.

He never stopped working, experimenting. Struggling. Painting himself to save money, or old shoes, or over old canvases. In Paris he tried to paint floral still-lifes for caf├ęs, but sold nothing. In Arles he had hopes of an artists' commune, but he and Gauguin quarreled. Disappointed, he sank into despair. But still he painted. Soldiering on. 

Vincent touches people like few others. We feel his spiritual yearning, and honor his gifts. This is his palette. 

This is a box of yarn where he experimented with color combinations. 

Another art magnet, the Rijksmuseum, is the vast home of Rembrandt...a sublime library...

And art as quirky as the city itself.

And what about this elegant Guanyin?

Eat your heart out, Paris.

This is Amsterdam, a city with a history, once the capital of a world power. But as my daughter said, you get the feeling of been there, done that. While the French experience a crise of identity over their place in the world, the Amsterdamers revel in the good life they have. 

Sailing along on their bikes, living in the now.

This too could be another life. A house by a beautiful canal. 

But instead, we must catch the tram to Central Station and our night train to Prague via Munich. http://dianarchambers.blogspot.com/2014/07/europe-by-train-5-night-train-to-munich.html