Autumn in Budapest & Bohemia: The trip comes to an end. Our return to Budapest, Hungary
We arrived back in Budapest via train at 8 p.m. with instructions from Barb to get her gate key from the office to let ourselves in to her place. Finding a phone, piecing together enough Hungarian to request a cab and to get to Barb’s…ah, the mentally stimulating joys of travel. I was quite proud of the pieced bits and pantomime that got us home that night!
Before heading home to Chicago, we spent a relaxing day on Margit Island. Fresh air, flowers, old trees, bikers, dogs walking. At the end of the island, we found the former Grand Hotel and the cafe. We ate a buffet breakfast there and made our way back to the Buda side steps down to the Danube. Sitting there for a little while enjoying the sun.
Finished the last vacation night with margaritas and Mexican food. Tomorrow we’d be home to a squirming bundle of dogs!
What a trip…Autumn in Bohemia along the edges of Europe: art nouveau buildings, Mucha, Kafka, Freud, Strauss, Charles Bridge, Steve the Church, border crossings, murals, and mountains, and the magic that IS the Eastern cities of the West. Days lost lingering in coffee houses, meandering the cobblestone streets, dozing with the sun in your face at the golden hour, and drinking wine and eating by candlelight while gypsy bands play.
Vienna (Wien) is considered to be the Eastern-most city of the West. Coins even read “Osterreich” or Kingdom of the East. I read somewhere that dogs are the preferred children…excellent! I also read that Vienna seemed to have been designed to help people simply meander through a day. It has long been a mecca for musicians–Mozart, Brahams, Strauss, Beethoven. I thought of waltzes, coffee houses, and the Vienna woods.
We arrived in Vienna at night–having shared a compartment with 4 other people who got on the train in Salzburg. We took the metro to our pension (Schweizer Pension Vienna … and the metro lines are named U2, U3, U4…gotta love that :). The pension is nice, but odd. We’re on the 4th floor of an old warehouse. High ceilings, older 70s style furniture, oriental rugs and energy-saving light timers for the bathrooms (you must hurry!). It was spit-shined clean.
Our first day was spent wandering the town. I was awed by a shop that sold teeny-tiny needlepoints. While there, Bryan asked the salesperson for a recommendation for schnitzel and he directed us to “Figlmuller”. What a great recommendation! This place was tucked away in an arcade-like alley. It has green and red painted cast iron light fixtures. The waiters were all older men, dressed in black suits with crisp white shirts. It was packed. We waited only a short while, then were seated alongside a couple from Oakland–Jim and Anne. We ordered wine (it came it mugs), salad and schnitzel (it came on a plate, thin and hanging over the sides of the plate). Something in that meal seemed to have drugged us like a narcotic. It was intensely good and we left in a happy haze.
We spent a lot of time in cafes–Cafe Hawelka had velvet settees, red & white-striped seats, wood floors, marble-top tables, ambient globe lights, red velvet curtains, snugs, coat racks, and dark wood lining the smoky rooms. Coffee came in tiny white cups served on silver trays with a small glass of water and sugar cubes in tiny glass bowls. Newspapers–from at least 10 cities–occupied a library-like shelf, with the wooden poles holding the papers into slots.
We spent our two days there wandering the city center. We saw the Plague statue with arms and legs sticking out of the mass, and a brown-coated bird lady hovering protectively around the pigeons there. There was “Steve” the church and its colorful roof. I bought a red velvet scarf and wore it to a standing-room only opera of the Barber of Seville. We petted other people’s dogs And we sat in the sun or cafes watching and smiling.
Bavarian Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Fussen, Germany
On Saturday October 17, we rented a car in Munich and headed out on the Autobahn. Bryan got a charge out of doing 100 mph, legally!
I got a charge from the yellow, red and orange leaves, the straight-as-a-pin pine trees, the green pastures and the blue mountains ahead. We stopped for lunch as we entered an increasingly Hansel & Gretel scenery. We passed by little Bavarian houses with wooden decks, red roofs, carved wood supports, flower boxes and murals–many with delicate lace curtains blowing in the breeze. And there were onion-domed churches and beer-hall restaurants along the corkscrew roads as we headed up into the mountains. I laughed out loud when Bryan said “It’s like Gatlinburg.”
We checked in to our small hotel (Garmisscher Hotel) and were delighted to find a small deck facing the mountains and a mini-bar stocked with beer and wine. We changed into the skimpiest clothes we had to improvise bathing suits, and spent the afternoon enjoying the sun and the view from our deck.
Bryan went into town to scout out a place to eat, while I enjoyed the solitude–writing in my journal and mulling my thoughts. You could smell the mountain trees, cow pastures, and firewood burning. I sat there a long time, and eventually watched the sun sink behind an onion-dome steeple.
We spent a few days in the area. It turned colder and the rain came. We wandered the little fairytale town–and even saw a big-eyed cow with a colorful cow bell around her neck meandering through the town. We ended up in a bar talking to the German bartender and an Austrian who lived there now.
We moved on to a B&B in Fussen (at the foot of Crazy Ludwig’s) to see the castles. Cute little wood-covered room and they served breakfast on delicate transfer-ware, with fancy teapots, smoke-cured bacon, cheese, and poached eggs. The castles were almost unbelievable in their size and ornateness–Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau and Crazy Ludwig’s Bavarian palace (the one that inspired Disney to create “the castle”). We stopped at a Bavarian restaurant for lunch of fried potatoes and braised steak in onion sauce…tasty…meat and potatoes.
On Oct 20, we left the area to return the car to Munich and catch our train to Vienna.
On the way, we took a solemn tour of Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp. It was an awful place. The pictures in the museum and the feeling of the rows of wooden bunks haunt my mind. I can’t understand how people can ever believe that they have the right to treat others like the Nazi’s treated people. It’s a sad, terrible thing. Our train left Munich around 4:30 p.m. Both of us admitted we may not ever want to return…not sure if it was the personal sadness, the concentration camp, or what…but we left Munich with heavier hearts.
This daytime train journey from Prague to Munich was relaxing. We ate our snacks, played cribbage and watched the countryside go by.
Munich was easy compared to Prague. The hotel (Hotel Europaischer Hof Munich) was just across the street from the station. We checked in, and made our way to the laundry mat for some much needed clothes washing. The afternoon was spent in the pedestrian zone. We ate pizza for lunch and dinner and I called home.
On the call, I learned my precious, 90-year-old grandmother was not recovering from a fall–and in fact she was declining rapidly. While my grandmother sounded like her usual chipper self on the phone that night, my mother told me that things were bad. My grandmother was not going to be able to return to her assisted-living apartment and would need to move out of it in the next 2 weeks. The family had already started packing up her place and selling her furniture.
Many thoughts scurried across my mind during that long, long-distance call…I saw the trinkets that lined her kitchen ledge, and the picture that had hung at the foot of her bed of the safe little red cottage in the valley surrounded by huge mountains. I always used to think I’d walk there someday…near that lonely little house that is oh so peaceful. I remembered something that I’d read on the el in Chicago…something about the difference between loneliness and solitude. I remembered the soft lamp glow of my grandmother’s cozy living room full of her beloved objects. I suddenly began to miss her already–and realized with a deep dread that she wouldn’t be there always for me to talk to. Was there something I needed to ask right now? Something really important for me to know? How could I tell her how much she meant to me? How could I keep her voice in my ears? Would she visit me in my dreams? She’s tired. Her friends have passed on. I don’t want her to suffer and I don’t want her to leave us. It was an intensely sad call, I was a million miles away. I cried for hours after, there in room 314 in Munich.
I wallowed in my thoughts and tried to focus on reading my book, Prague Farewell, over the next few days–neither of which were happy places to be. The book is the story of a Jewish Prague woman. During WWII, she and her family were taken to ghettos in Germany and later to concentration camps. She escaped months before the war ended and returned to Prague with no family and only a few friends who were brave enough to help her. She describes the slow conversion of Prague to communism and the horrors of watching a government go very very corrupt. Her husband is executed for treason, and once again she is left with no one willing to help her for fear that they too will be taken. It’s stunning in it’s loneliness.
It seemed that these thoughts of loneliness and loss would permeate the remainder of the trip. The next day we would head for Garmish-Partenkirchen up in the mountains.
I was intrigued by a romantic notion of Prague’s “stardust”–the crossroads of Europe, a city once larger and more magnificent than Paris or London, a city whose “glory will touch the stars”, that was “on the cusp of the divine”. I read “mazes of shady alleys, along with legends of demons and occult forces, lent the city of dreams a dark side and provided frightening fodder for Franz Kafka’s 20th century tales of paranoia. Be it benevolent or evil, a dreamy spell hangs over Prague, where the clocks run backwards or not at all…explore and you might find a bit of stardust left in the cobblestone cracks.”
On our first day there, I think we got a tweak from the dark side of Prague. We pulled into the Hlavni Nadrazi train station at 6 a.m. on Monday, October 12. The first few hours were plagued by golems. First, we couldn’t find a working ATM (finally found one and held our breath as the machine gave birth to our money with a sound like it was chewing our card &/or cash). Then, we couldn’t figure out the metro ticket machine…we, who pride ourselves on taking public transport in every city we visit. After about 10 attempts to get a ticket–an American stopped to show us the trick (it’s the order you push the buttons, feed the money). Getting off at our stop, Namesti Republiky was easy enough–but then we got lost looking for our hotel. We walked 7 blocks too far. It was an odd morning. Quiet and deserted city of cobblestone, sun beginning to peek into the alleys…and here we are forcing our wheeled luggage over the cobblestones…ka-klop, ka-klop, ka-klop, stop and free a wheel, ka-klop, ka-klop, ka-klop, stop and free a wheel… We found the hotel and settled into room 501 of Hotel Central, Rybna 8, Praha 1 (which was the exact room on the brochure cover), sleeping for an hour on the hard bed with tiny little flat pillows. We missed breakfast at the hotel, but picked at the scraps as the kitchen broke down the buffet. And we tripped out into a now rainy Prague.
It was cold. And the rain turned hard. We were tired and still smarting from the frustrations of the morning. After we were good and soaked, we made our way to a cafe to warm up and eat lunch–figuring out that we got taken for an extra $7 on the tab. What a “reality bites” way to start in what was supposed to be such a magical place.
After lunch, we stood with a small, damp crowd and watched the astronomical clock chime 1:00–with a smile-inducing rooster crow at the end. I can’t figure the clock out. And I suspect, it was never meant to be figured out. It has multiple faces–all simultaneously moving, 24 numbers, and what looks to be the moon phases and zodiac signs. And then there are moving statues that appear in windows, and skeletons, book readers, angels also. We stood there perplexed for a while–trying to see exactly where and how it told us it was 1 p.m.
We wandered into the Jewish Quarter, only then realizing it was Yom Kippur and sites were closed. We gave up for the day and retreated to a coffee shop to write postcards and pray for sun. Over the next few days we would spend a lot of time on Charles Bridge–often starting at the quiet dog-walking hour in the morning. The first morning, I saw a brindled, Boston Terrier/Pug dog crossing the bridge, leash-less with his owner. Over the next few days, I kept seeing this dog and other Boston terrier / pugs that made me take a second look and wonder if it was the same one. There was a plaque on the bridge with a dog in the scene–rubbing the dog in the plaque was said to be good luck, safe passage. The dog was golden–all the way from his nose to the tip of his tail–from all the petting while the rest of the scene stayed a steel grey (the scene was of a soldier patting the back of the lab/greyhound dog’s head, while a kneeling woman looks to be confessing in a church behind him). Later that first day, I found a gorgeous cyan-tinted photo of a silhouetted man walking a Pug over the bridge…same dog? I eventually bought the cyan photo, along with other cyan and sepia tinted photos by the same Charles Bridge vendor. The photos remind me of those cold, windy, quiet mornings on Charles Bridge.
So, we walked the bridge, taking in the statues and their guidebook stories one-by-one. We lingered on the windy bridge–people watching, looking at the art vendors’ work, listening to buskers (one man played Stairway to Heaven on drinking glasses–rubbing his finger around the lips of glasses filled with different amounts of water to create different notes). There was a “troll man” (as Bryan called him) at the end of the bridge. Troll man wore two small red rubber “ears” atop his head and sold what looked like childrens’ colorings.
We ducked into coffee shops often to warm up–cinnamon or chocolate always sprinkled on top of the cappuccinos and offerings of things like potato omelettes. One morning, we made our way to Kostel Sv. Mikulase (St. Nicholas) church. An amazing dome in an unbelievable church…paintings, statues, exceedingly ornate and still undergoing restoration. We walked up up up to Prague castle, loving the colors of the homes, the streets, the sites. Great views of the red tile roofs of the city.
It didn’t take long for Prague to charm us…rain and all.
Prague is like the dream of an artist. Murals on buildings of black stone, murals on buildings of white stone, murals across the face of golden yellow buildings, splendid and decadent curliecues and spires of gold, carvings and statues decorating most buildings’ windows, everywhere–colors of gold, golden browns, reds, and greens of old copper. Lanterns. Cobblestones. Candles outside the restaurants. And the nooks and crannies of countless alleys, each keeping some secret.
One night we went to the Rudolfinum for a performance by the Ceska Filharmonie. The hall was small, with nice lights and ornate grills and painted designs on the walls. The incredible and beautiful sound in the first few seconds pulled tears from me. Later a cello player who looked to be our age joined them on stage. I believe they said he had been a political prisoner before the Velvet Revolution. After a great round of applause for the “required” piece, he did an impromptu encore, “picking” his cello and playing a sweet little song. THIS was the Praha magic. I remember gazing at the ceiling and listening…hoping that I could record the music and feeling in my memories.
On our last day in Prague, the sun finally came out. We sat in the square in the sun before making our way around for gifts to take home. We bought hand-painted egg ornaments for our mothers, and a lifelike, delicate puppet for my grandmother. I bought a beautiful pen & ink sketch called “Pearly” for 600 kc (600 koruna was about ~$20) It is a sketch of chiseled lady fingering her long strand of pearls. We bought books for the train ride (I got the appropriately titled “Prague, Farewell”) and we spent a few kc’s at a little shop on cheese, chocolates, chips and juice boxes for the 8 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. train journey to Munich on Friday 10/16.
The night train: Budapest to Prague through Slovakia
We boarded the train around 10 p.m. on October 11, 1998… our one year wedding anniversary. It was about a 300 mile trip, scheduled for 7 1/2 hours.
The train was no great shakes, an old hard-working train with tons of character. We had a tiny sleeper car–a bunk bed, a shelf, and a window. We bought paprika pork-rind looking chips and cokes, lit a candle and settled into a quick game of cribbage before retiring.
We weren’t asleep long when the train stopped and there came a loud pounding at the door. “PASSPORTS!” (more like “PAHS-PURTS”). Sleepy and a bit shaken, we opened the door, showed our passports and watched as one of the uniformed border-crossing guards squeezed into our car to lift our bunks and have a look beneath. There was a lot of motion as the guards flipped pages in the passports and stamped. And then they were gone. We crawled back into our bunks and fell back to sleep to the cradle-rocking motion of the train. But this episode repeated itself again…and again…and again over the next few hours.
We ended up with 4 passport stamps that night. I was so exhausted, I don’t even remember the order of the stamps or the places we passed through. There are two with the date of Oct 11–SZOB and MZ STUROVO and two with the date of Oct 12–CZ KUTY and CR LANZH. It was like a weird dream–the border guards, the rocking train, the fresh smell of fields from the window, and every now and then seeing the lights of villages go past…the brilliant essence of travel.
Later I could piece together that we left Hungary at Szob, and a few miles later must have passed through the Štúrovo, Slovakia side of the border crossing. We left Slovakia at Kúty and entered the Czech Republic at Lanžhot. Best I can tell. We arrived in Prague around 6 a.m. at Hlavni Nadrazi station.
Our friend Barb was doing a work stint in Budapest–and she said “come see me”. That’s all it took of course. This trip would take us from Budapest, to Prague, to Munich and Garmish-Partenkirchen, to Vienna, and back to Budapest during two weeks in October 1998.
Budapest has an aura. I read somewhere that “if one is traveling from the east into western Europe, it is in Budapest that one experiences the breath of Western civilization. However, if one is traveling in the opposite direction, it is here that one first gets a taste of the east…” It is a hearty yet wistful place–a practical Prague. We would go in the fall–and that felt right considering this Budapest quote from Gyula Krudy: “This city smells of violets in the spring, as do the ladies along the promenade above the river on the Pest side. In the fall, it is Buda that suggests the tone: the odd thud of chestnuts dropping on the castle walk…autumn and Buda were born of the same mother.”
We arrived into Budapest on October 8, a rainy afternoon–ironically, we disembarked behind a midget who we would later run into a few nights later in the Irish bar Becketts. $1 U.S. was about 200 Hungarian Forint and a ride to the city via Airport mini-bus was 1,200 Ft each. Barb rented an apartment up the hill on the Buda side from Margit Bridge. A giant yellow house, her apartment was full of shiny white marble. It is rumored that the former home owners, pre-Communist takeover of Hungary, now rent the apartment upstairs. Sometimes we would see a kerchiefed older lady walking up the stairs by the kitchen window. I wondered if the story was true–and if so, what she must feel about her home.
On the first night, jet-lagged but with a second/third wind, we went to Artichoka for dinner. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep, the place, the food, the drink or the magic of travel–but that night was like a dream. The restaurant was in a dark narrow street. Five foot high wrought-iron candle sticks marked the entrance. The candles looked like they had been burning for ages…mounds of white candle wax had dripped and dripped and dripped until the drips made a white mass that looked like a mop turned upside down. A few drips had blown in the wind and solidified that way–wayward strands. There was a band, dressed as I would imagine gypsies dress, playing accordions and guitars. A dog cleaned up bits beneath the tables…roaming about your legs and scratching his back on a hanging plant. Candles floated in terra-cotta pots filled with water. We had 2 bottles of Hungarian Pinot Noir, Bryan had beer too. We ate and ate…tasty pastas. We lingered over the meal–seeping up the atmosphere. To this day, this is one of my favorite travel evenings.
We spent our days walking alongside the Danube. Up in Buda, I heard the chestnuts dropping. Falling yellow leaves rustled quietly. We took frequent and long breaks for coffee at outdoor cafes with views over the city and river. Over the next couple of days, we ate and drank and wandered. We spent a morning at Cafe Gerbeaud–soaking in the sun. I wandered through the art market and went back for a stunning blue/periwinkle/pink drawing of early evening Budapest. Saturday, we had an afternoon at Varosliget Park and the outdoor restaurant on the lake there–watching the dogs run, the kids play and the ducks on the water. On Sunday morning, we took in the buffet brunch at the Marriott–I remember tasty fruit, champagne and pastries. And all the people soaking in the sun along the Danube.
We walked to the crown of St. Stephens (Szent Istvan Bazilika–I love the frequent use of Zs, Vs and Ks in Hungarian!) for views over the city. The base of the building is blackened by many years of city soot…but the spires have been cleaned to their creamy white.
Someone wrote to “look up” when you walk in Budapest. Good advice…the balconies, the brightly-painted (yet faded to pastel) colors, the figures carved into building sides/tops/alcoves of buildings, mosaics, spires…it’s lovely. We rounded out Sunday at a riverside outdoor cafe–juice glasses of wine, sunshine on our faces, and watching the dozing old couples sitting on the benches enjoying the day’s sunshine, and so many dogs on the promenade too. It was perfect people watching. And I joined in, taking a seat on a bench and nodding off, the sun warming my face. As the sun went down, we began making our way back to Barb’s place. Just as we entered the Chain Bridge, the lights came on…beautiful moment. LOVED this day. It would end with Barb dropping us at the old, tired Keleti Station for our night train to Prague.