As so often happens, our travel plans ended up barely recognizable from the original theme. In this case, what started out as an idea to settle into 2 or 3 long stays in Central Europe slowly morphed into something slightly more hectic, involving many more days spent finding, riding and memorizing directions to and from various forms of public transport. Took a train from Budapest to Vienna because, I mean, how can we be so close and not stop in such a famous city? Then a bus to Cesky Krumlov, one of the hidden gems of Europe, just across the border in the Czech Republic, because, well, it is basically on the way, and invariably ends up on every single internet list of “nicest towns in Europe”. Even on the truly ridiculous travel blogs slash fashion advice slash photos of a tiny dog in lots of different sweaters. Especially those ones. Then a bus to Prague, the final stop on our 100-day European extravaganza, but do you think we could leave well enough alone and just stay there? No, we could not. So after one brief night catching up with an old friend who happened to be passing through beautiful old “Praha” we were back on another train the following day, headed east to the small, and reputedly “divine”, city of Olomouc (pronounced Ohl-o-moots, or vaguely similar to “I’m so hungry I could eat all-a-moose”). No particular reason for that one other than, you know, we’d never been there, and a friend told us the astrological clock tower ended its popular noon show with a weird animal sound. Unfortunately, somehow our busy schedule precluded us from ever quite making it there at the right time. I am currently living under the assumption that the animal noise in question would have been the nervous chittering of a squirrel, but I also can’t see any way to rule out the laboured growling of a mating platypus. Perhaps Mr. Looney will demonstrate it for us one day. Maybe as an anniversary gift or something.
No sooner had we tracked down our apartment for the weekend, checked in, relieved bladders, replenished my body’s water supply, etc. than I was immediately back out the door fervently searching for Charlie P’s English Pub in hopes of watching the big Premier League match between humble, graceful Arsenal and evil, tacky Manchester United. The search proved successful, although Arsenal’s performance did not, yet a last-minute Oxlade-Chamberlin cross for Olivier Giroud to head in – the type that look so easy that it is honestly hard to understand how they can’t do that every time – saved a point for the good guys. It may not have been a win, but any day that ends with Jose Mourinho in apoplectic rage has to be considered a pretty good day. I had also drank several quite large beer by that point which likewise helped improve my mood.
Vienna itself – the part outside the smoky mahogany confines of Charlie P’s, I mean – is probably one of the most objectively beautiful cities I’ve ever seen, and chock-full of fascinating historical sites, which is probably why the sightseeing tours of Vienna are so popular with tourists from all over the world. It isn’t necessarily beautiful in a stunning, extraordinary or incredibly memorable way, exactly, just very nice and neat and full of grand old architecture, with block after block of large symmetrical cement buildings. Impressive under any circumstances, even considering how much our modern, 7 billion and counting, era has numbed us to big buildings and large cities, but it is almost hard to fathom how magnificent it must have seemed a few hundred years ago with its endless streets of beautiful multi-story complexes and extravagant palaces, churches, squares and fountains. And, if downtown Vienna is anything to go by, the technological revolution has in no way reduced the demand for horse-drawn cart rides.
Other Viennese highights:
We shared a genuine Austrian frankfurter. Did you know that the word “wiener” derives in part from the German name for Vienna, “Wien”? Do you know if those two things are in any way related? Because I’m honestly not sure, it just seems like there must be some connection.
We were lucky enough to get a sunny morning to visit the glorious Schonbrunn Palace. On the one hand it would have been a bit nicer in the summer before all the flower gardens hadn’t been violently ploughed under for winter. On the other, it was still fun watching all the tour bus folk gasping and wheezing up the hill to the best viewpoint.
Vienna’s enormous and imposing city hall is called the “Wiener Rathaus”. Which I found pretty funny, obviously.
The countless large open squares were unfailingly surrounded by massive picturesque buildings, and unfailingly featured one or two homoerotic statues of scantily-clad men wrestling. Sometimes men wrestling each other, with at least one sporting a mischievous smirk, and sometimes just one naked man wrestling a gigantic, frisky animal, and generally looking more frightened than aroused. Although still a little aroused.
Everybody loves little Cesky Krumlov, and for good reason. What is already a very small city is then further condensed for tourism purposes into a tiny island in the centre, along with a few scenic buildings, castles and parks lining the far banks. At several points while meandering around its adorable, senselessly-arranged little streets lined with cute, colourful buildings and surrounded by narrow, glassy canals the phrase “fairy-tale village” came to mind, and anytime a place can remind us of Bruges I’d consider that a win. There are castles, churches, cobblestones, overpriced china and petite, mismatched bridges that seem to have been designed specifically for big fans of selfie-sticks and the reflection of old buildings off the water. Other than a brief period of sun one morning, nearly the entire time we were encased in a thick, atmospheric fog that only added to the medieval feeling. Also, interestingly I thought, at least 90% of the tourists in Cesky Krumlov were Asian (and those unofficial statistics certainly do include both of us, as well as the one tall Scandinavian man who dropped his phone while taking a photo of a bridge, stood stock still as it bounced across the damp cobblestones, then stared at it in mesmerized silence for a while longer before finally picking it up and slipping it into his pocket without even checking for damage, like it was a dirty nickel he was embarrassed to be seen with). Obviously, there have been plenty of Asian tourists everywhere we’ve been – people with businesses in the travel industry always say Asian tourists are the best customers in the world because they travel all year-round, seemingly just as oblivious to the changing seasons as they are to overcrowding or the fact there really is such a thing as having too many destination-themed hats. It’s just that in other places there have also been lots of other tourists from lots of other places. Not in Cesky, though, which made us begin to suspect that an extremely popular Japanese magazine recently named it “European City of the Year”, or that the Chinese government was offering free panda-fur iPhone cases to anyone with an authentic photo of themselves on the castle’s ever so photogenic bridge, qualifying only as long as they are pictured standing rigidly erect and as solemnly unsmiling as one of the famously silent palace guards on his first morning back after a wild weekend of stag partying and drinking yards of beer in Riga. You know the pose I mean.
Anyway, like I said, beautiful place.
The 2-hour train ride to Olomouc was so easy it almost felt like we were cheating, if, of course, we were actually competing against someone else and there was also some third party that strangely cared enough to both develop a set of rules and then enforce them. Spacious aisles, comfortable seats, good views, acceptable bathroom hygiene, and even on-board wifi. At first glance, the old town area of Olomouc offered a number of similarities to the previous, and much larger, European cities already visited on this trip. Expansive plazas filled, at this time of year, with all the trappings of festive Christmas markets – temporary wooden booths selling hot wine, cold beer, steaming sausage, shiny trinkets and, occasionally, some awful concoction they literally call “grog”, and which people actually drink while huddled standing around high outdoor tables shivering in sub-zero weather. More large, morally-ambiguous statues of men and animals doing dubious things to each other. Tall, narrow church spires reaching up to the heavens. Narrow, cobbled streets that never remain in a straight line long enough to allow a decent grasp on nautical direction, or the location of the last pay toilet you saw right before downing the last of your “grog”. Weird-as-shit clock towers.
Their great park, Bezrucovy Sady, was probably the standout feature of Olomouc for me, a picturesque stretch of grass and trees and pavilions and slumbering homeless men squeezed in between a tiny little creek on one side and a colossal medieval wall lined with mansions and guard towers on the other. The kind of place that makes you say, “hey, if I absolutely have to get caught in the rain, I’m just really happy I happened to get caught here”.
The apartment we rented (once you go “toaster and en-suite washing machine”, it’s hard to go back) was great, but inexplicably enormous, especially for just two people. Despite all the extra space and needless rooms and a gargantuan parquet-floor living room seemingly designed with huge, jubilant tango parties in mind, it nonetheless had just one little double bed tucked away in the corner of a side-room hidden up in a precarious loft, opportunistically creating all sorts of extra space below for, well, I guess that weird old trunk. Also, the toilet and sink were in completely different rooms, just like our place in Guatemala. It even had a very similar spider living in the corner, which made us uneasy and nostalgic at the same time.
Back to Prague, taking it seriously this time
From there, it was back to another apartment, this one in the Vinohrady district of Prague, to settle in for a full two weeks. The perfect amount of time to decompress and mentally gear up for the busy Christmas season back home, although slightly too long to keep from running out of English-language movies in the nearby theatre, yet somehow not quite long enough to fully master the pronunciation of the Czech word for thank you.
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