Travels with Clare. Impressions of Central Europe Part 2 – The Train, Prague to Budapest

img_0638 Our Train at Budapest Station

After a couple of days in Prague, it was time to catch the train to Budapest, a seven-hour journey through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. We were excited at the potential for seeing the countryside and views offered from a train carriage that would offer the unspoilt rather than the signs, barriers and verges of a motorway or the blue and white nothing out the window of a plane. We downloaded lists of birds and animals peculiar to the region to help identify what we might come across.
The train itself didn’t disappoint. It was a large, imposing diesel and our seat was in an old fashioned six-person compartment similar to those featured in “Stranger on the Train.” Our fellow travellers were welcoming and chatty. One lady, Svetlana, was returning with her partner to her home in Budapest and was eager to tell us where to visit and what to be wary of. My first question concerned the type of countryside we were to travel through. I had visions of mountains and barren spaces, wild vistas and sweeping flatland.
“Industry likes railways, so mainly you’ll see the backs of industrial estates, scrap yards and such like and a lot of farmland.”
This was not promising but I consoled myself with the notion that having travelled that way often and being a local, she had probably become blasé about the world around her and what would be new and fascinating to us, was too familiar to rouse any depth of feeling in her.
The journey started promisingly enough. We travelled through a dense and extensive forest. The sun streaming through the trees which when combined with the onward rush of the train caused a flashing effect as of a strobe light so intense, I feared for any epileptics that may be on board. We strained our eyes into the forest trying to catch a glimpse of bears, boars, wolves. The chances were remote and we saw nothing. It was more likely we could have spotted some birds but, whether because of the speed we were travelling, the time of day or just through sheer bad luck, we didn’t glimpse so much as a pigeon.

Once out of the forest, the scenery disappointed.  The stations we stopped at along the way were drab, dingy, uninspiring places but their names such as Brno and Bratislava intrigued us as to what the cities and towns behind them may be like?
As Svetlana had warned, the rest of the journey was barren fields and the backs of industrial estates but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless. The buffet car offered a fine bar and more than passable food.

The waiter was a gift from heaven to an author ever on the search for characters. Our stay in Prague had inspired me to attempt a Kafkaesque short story. The waiter’s polite attitude only partially concealing an assured superiority coupled with his job of travelling up and down the same line for seven hours every day, offered the perfect material and the story is now complete, awaiting revisions.

Svetlana continued to wax enthusiastically about her home city. Top of her list were the spas but we hadn’t come equipped for bathing and subsequently gave them a miss. The Hungarians are very proud of them so this was probably a mistake on our part. If you are considering visiting Budapest this is a generally recommended attraction.
Finally, just short of Budapest, Svetlana asked us how we intended getting to our hotel. When we showed her the address, she remarked on it not being a very salubrious area. We expected this to a degree, as a necessary risk of taking up a special promotion. When she learnt we intended taking a taxi she launched into a very serious warning about which taxis to take.
“They are all yellow so it is hard to distinguish the crooks from the genuine taxis. Only take one with a logo on the side. These are quite small and hard to see, especially when moving and you are trying to flag them down.” She then went on to list the companies that could be trusted, all the others will overcharge.
Finding a taxi proved more difficult than you would expect outside a mainline station but that was probably just us not looking in the right places. We had a drink and then set our mind to searching one out. We were finally successful about half a mile from the station.
I asked the driver for a price before we set off, as Svetlana had told us the maximum we should pay. His price seemed reasonable, despite being a little more than Svetlana’s advice, but we were ready to check in and this was convenient. Outside the hotel, we paid him and only as he drove away and we stood there with a handful of change, did we realise that after all the precautions, we had still been had.
Kudos to his skill and daring and a reminder to us to try to understand the currency a little better.

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Outside Budapest Station

Hiding Beneath a Beacon

I spent a little time in Prague and Budapest last week, hearing some horrific and at times heroic and ingenious stories about those who resisted the occupations of both the Nazis and Communists. This is a small homage to those brave people.

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PHOTO PROMPT © Sandra Crook

Clouds shrouded roofs like a tarpaulin spread over a gazebo. Pavel appreciated the claustrophobic weather covering his way.
He rapped out a coded knock, bursting through the door as it cracked open.
“That roof? Bit conspicuous don’t you think?” He cried, waiving polite greetings. “It draws attention. Why not put up a sign, ‘Resistance living here?’”
“Indeed, it’s brought some visits from nasty men in grey suits. They’re concerned with building regulations. The nastier black suits ignore us; they see the state colours and some zealous patriots. It’s a level above hiding in plain sight; it’s hiding beneath a beacon.”

Written for Friday Fictioneers – a 100 words story based on a photo prompt. Hosted by Rochelle. Read the other entries here

 

 

 

 

 

Travels with Clare. Impressions of Central Europe Part 1

Stansted Airport, James Martin and Proper British Food. proper-brtish-food
It’s holiday time! We decided to get to Stansted early because that’s the type of people we are but, also because I love to indulge myself on significant occasions, with a full English breakfast. Unfortunately, we hadn’t allowed for the tighter security measures these days, so by the time we’d queued, taken belts and shoes off, waited for the trays the other side of the x-ray machines, had our shower gel confiscated and put belts and shoes back on, time was eking away.
We rushed in the direction of the gates, through the maze of endless stalls populated by driven people trying to swipe your wrists with the latest offerings from Chanel, Lancôme and Paco Rabanne and others insisting you sample their whisky at 7.00 in the bloody morning. I use the word stalls because these tiled airport halls resemble nothing more than a posh scented market place.

Finally, the restaurant section and the first in line looked just the ticket. James Martin’s café with Proper British Food brandished in huge letters across the wall. He knows what he’s doing and appreciates the value of using the finest ingredients, he’s said it often enough on the tele. So let’s see, croissants, pain au chocolat. Must be the French section, over here, oh…giant pretzel. Hardly proper British, where’s the proper British? We had a choice, sausage or bacon bap. Now, I know Yorkshire men like their bacon streaky but, this stuff could have taught Erica Roe something about streaking. I had the sausage, a cup of Italian coffee and huge disappointment at missing out on my full English, including black pudding and mushrooms.
Thanks James, I will have to check out some of your other restaurants.

Impressions of Prague

img_0549 Statues
On arriving in Prague we headed for Wenceslas Square. A little confusing in that it is not square but a long wide thoroughfare. As you emerge from the metro station, the first thing that greets you is an impressive statue of King Wenceslas himself on a giant horse, atop a huge plinth. My immediate reaction was to start singing, Good king Wenceslas looked out on the feast of… Oh, not what I’d hoped, he looks out on a feast of McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC and Burger King. The proliferation of these companies is insidious but, business is business and the way the homogenised world is nowadays. (At least when KFC says southern fried chicken that is what you get, James Martin.)

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Prague is full of beautiful buildings, like the food big and hearty, which I can appreciate, but my particular preference is for a good statue and the Czechs are brilliant at them. They are everywhere. A friend had warned us that Prague is a city best toured looking up and it’s true, some of the best architecture is up there, adorned by incredible statues, carvings and mouldings.

img_0579Prague was Kafka’s home, an author I haven’t read since my student days but, the statue to his memory saw me reaching for Metamorphosis once more.

Somehow, Prague is the ideal setting for his surreal work complemented as it is by my favourite statue anecdote heard whilst there. Four of the best statues are of composers who adorn the roof of the Concert Hall. One of them is of Wagner, who the Nazis revered another is of Mendelssohn. During the Nazi occupation, Heydrich ordered the removal of the statue of Mendelssohn, a Jew by birth. The soldiers he sent up on the roof had no idea which one was Mendelssohn. They fell back on their anti-Semite lessons and the only thing they thought they knew about Jews; they have big noses. So they removed the statue with the largest nose, Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer.

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Museums
Prague seems to have a museum dedicated to everything some of them strange and macabre, like the several to different forms of torture and one to sex machines. We didn’t go in any of these, although from the vestibule it appeared the sex machines of Prague’s past were large mechanical, Heath Robinson affairs, driven by cogs and chains. The one that piqued my interest was the KGB museum. I was interested in hearing about the cold war schemes and practices and specific instances. Whilst there were plenty of gadgets on display, miniature cameras, recording devices and some of the weirdest weapons, our guide, a Russian who obviously lamented the breakup of the Soviet Union, gave more than a little cause for concern.

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He practically stood to attention whilst watching a Red Square parade, whispering to himself “Beautiful, beautiful.” The more he related the story of the Second World War in particular, the more he revealed himself as a warmonger. Suspicions were confirmed when, holding up a knife, he explained it had been used to kill several Nazis and there were still traces of blood where the blade met the hilt. Raising it to his nose, he took a long and exaggerated sniff whilst uttering with closed eyes, “Aah, Nazi blood.” We left with raised eyebrows and disappointment that we hadn’t heard about the cleverness and subtle intrigue of Cold War spying and the comfort that we hadn’t been lone with the guy.

Quirky Prague.
As most old cities, Prague has its fine buildings, cafes and an area for the tourist, the Charles Bridge where musicians play, you can buy watercolour landscapes, enamel and leather trinkets or have your caricature drawn. It has a fabulous river for cruising on, enjoying a drink or dinner and a castle, but there is also a very quirky side which I would recommend hunting out if you’re there.

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There is the John Lennon pub and just up from it, the John Lennon Wall where over the years people have written messages inspired by their love of the Beatles and in particular, John Lennon. It is graffiti on graffiti; continually being added to so the wall evolves and is different to the last time you visited.

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Prague seems to have a museum for everything and round every corner, besides those already mentioned, there are the serious, Jewish, Communism and the fun, Beer, Toy, Railway, Lego and Gingerbread. As well s these, every famous son of Prague seems to have a museum, Kafka included.

Finally, for some unaccountable reason, the Czech passion for Russian dolls has resulted in at least two shops, stacked to the ceiling with dolls representing football teams. Every English premier and championship team was there, as well as others from the lower divisions, I would imagine. img_0630

I can’t imagine myself buying one but, there must be a market for them, I suppose. And now we take the 11.54 train to Budapest, passing through Slovakia on the way.