Spring Travels: Part III, Zagreb to Prague – Hungary, Czech Republic, Europe

With little sleep, I got the 7:20 train to Keszthely, Hungary, a ride to Heviz, a spa town with a thermal lake. After weeks in a country where I had at least superficially studied the language (Greek) and two more weeks where I passed through several languages and currencies, but had guides, I was now on my own surrounded by Hungarian, second language German and Italian, a distant third. If anyone in the tourist office spoke English, I never found out as I had the misfortune to be there on WhitSunday and WhitMonday when all such services were closed. German is not the strongest in my repertoire, but without a word of Hungarian, it would have to do. I explored the town and managed to get a room looking out to a park. It was quiet and after doing some laundry, I slept well.

The following morning I had a walk and coffee on a deck in the sunshine. I changed hotels to one closer to the lake so I could dress in a robe and have a float around bathers “taking a cure” or just having a good time. That evening I enjoyed the various pools and jacuzzi, so much stronger and warmer than at last night’s hotel.

After two days of learning thank you and good morning in Hungarian, speaking only a bit of remembered German, I joined an American and two Dubliners at breakfast. We chattered away, sharing our stories and adventures. Later we visited the lake again for some stretches waist-high in the water and then caught a bus to Keszthely for the train to Budapest. My roommate from the tour met me at the station with her daughter’s fiancé; they took me to the apartment where the daughter is living while working for an NGO, and which would be our base for six days in Budapest.

The following day I took a long three-hour walk to the Szechenyi Baths to explore the pools of various temperatures, saunas and steam room. A different way back led through residential streets of interesting architecture and embassies.

The next day was more strenuous as we walked to and around Parliament, across the Margaret Bridge to Buda, around and up to Castle Hill. We enjoyed the view down a street in Pest looking across the Danube toward the Fisherman’s Bastion, crossing back to Pest on the Szechenyi or Chain Bridge toward a former palace, now a hotel.

There is excellent public transport, but I chose to walk. Hours of wandering each day were both tiring and interesting as the streets of Budapest are architectural art galleries, though often dirty and dusty – buildings marred with bullet holes. On entering the large Public Market on the way to crossing the Liberty Bridge to the Gellert. I decided not to use the famous baths. Instead I had lunch on the terrace, looking toward traffic and the Danube.

A Hungarian friend drove us up the Danube Bend to the village of Szentendre with its Serbian Orthodox church (and many tourists). At an open-air museum we explored homes and farms of various regions of Hungary and its history.

Judy and I took a train from Budapest to Brno, Czech Republic, passing through Slovakia on the way. In Brno we went to the Tourist Information Office to find lodging (a ritual we repeated in each town we visited in the southern states of Moravia and Bohemia). At the Spilberk Castle we noticed the path and grounds were peaceful, clean and filled with the songs of birds. Except for the noise and dirt of the re-construction of the central plaza, I was very impressed with Brno. There was not the graffiti that plagues Zagreb and Budapest. It had less traffic, without the constant roar of motorbikes and mopeds. Being the second largest city of the Czech Republic, Brno has several universities and colleges, a symphony, theater and lots of parks – a livable city.

We continued by bus along a country road to Trebic. We found lodging in the Jewish Quarter, the largest preserved complex of its kind in Europe, and a UNESCO World Heritage site (practically every place we visited in Czech Republic was a UNESCO World Heritage site). We walked the town which included seeing the Romanesque-Gothic Basilica of St. Procopius and the Jewish Cemetery.

On to Telc next. We got a garret room right on the (you guessed it!) UNESCO World Heritage central plaza with its painted façades, one from 1555. We saw the chateau with its Romanesque arches along the gallery, and the adjoining park by the river. Judy spoke more German than I did, though I was busily picking up as much Czech as I could from our phrasebook. We used both with whatever English the locals had, sometimes with amusing results. For our evening stroll in Telc, we were instructed to turn at the “godmother church”. We were curious to see what it would be, when, logically enough, there we were at the Church of the Mother of God.

The bus to Trebon took us along a scenic road lined with lupin. The White Horse Hotel had a good view of the main square and the town hall tower. We went by the flower gardens, the park beside the chateau, and the 14th century brewery. Almost every day in the Czech Republic our main meal, usually a late lunch or early dinner, was fish (trout, carp, or “fish fillet”) and a small glass of the local Czech beer.

After such small towns, Ceske Budejovice seemed huge, but it shared the elements of a wonderful central plaza with tower and fountain. It served as a base for an early departure the following morning for Cesky Krumlov, considered by many to be the most scenic of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Czech Republic, with its high castle and river setting.

By chance our visit coincided with the annual Festival of the Rose, which meant all lodging was booked, but which enhanced the medieval atmosphere of the town. People wore rich brocade and other costumes. There was music at various locations and a procession of “royalty” on horses, accompanied by dancers and musicians.

Another bus, this time to Tabor. We found a room in a pension by a park. With map in hand, we thoroughly toured the town, climbed a 13th-century lookout tower for vistas, and had dinner on Zizka Square looking toward the fountain and Renaissance houses. All the towns we visited in the southern Czech Republic had common features, yet each was lovely in its own way. We prepared to enter “the big city” early the next day.

Prague has a population of 1.9 million, so we took a Metro and then a streetcar to the section where we stayed known as Mala Strana, just below the castle. I spent the whole first day visiting the castle, “the largest continuous castle complex in the world” with palaces and ecclesiastical buildings from the 10th century through the end of the last century. I also saw St. Vitus Cathedral with its marvelous stained-glass windows (one by Alfons Macha) and bell tower, the spacious hall of the Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica (the second oldest church in Prague), Golden Lane with 16th-century houses. As the day was very hot, it was nice to sit within cooling stone walls of the Old Royal Palace and watch the film, The Story Of Prague Castle.

A long thunderstorm with heavy rain curtailed evening explorations, but the next morning we meandered across the Charles Bridge to Old Town Square, and through streets large and small to Wenceslas Square (actually a wide boulevard), New Town Tower, Divadlo Theater, St. Martins in the Wall, Bethlehem Square where John Hus preached, Astronomical Clock for a blessing of the Apostles on the hour. Then we went on to Kampa for a late lunch at Rybarsky Klub, looking over the Vltava to the spires of Prague. We continued to the Church of Our Lady Victorious to see the Holy Infant of Prague. Close to the castle I watched three artisans doing restoration work; it was interesting to see the chipping of concrete plaster creating the designs of a palace façade. We went by the house of poet, Jan Neruda, too.

It felt luxurious to sit in the back of an arranged car and be driven to the airport at 5:00 a.m. on MidSummer’s Day. We were on a Lufthansa-to-Frankfurt flight to change to a nonstop to Portland – and then days of adjusting to a different time zone.