Friday was a day of travel with little really worth recounting though it was packed full of events. For anyone interested, here’s a bullet point list….
Hostel roommates arrive home at 6am
Wake up 7:15
Rush to bus station on a packed metro
Catch the bus at the last minute (well almost)
Lose window seat to kind Nigerian man
Kind Nigerian man tries to make me ‘born again’
Active conversation ensues
Friendship results - he doesn’t give up though...
Grand views of brittle landscape
Colorado/Utah-like mesa topography
Almond orchards in bloom
Blog-city and catch up/multi-tasking
Arrive in Barcelona
Locate hostel via metro
Arrive - it’s on the 12th floor - whew!
Enjoy the awesome open air terrace on the third floor
Sauna next door!! Yes, and it was included in the hostel price
Incredible 3 course dinner (first meal of the day at 10:30 pm) with wonderful waitstaff, Catalunyan birthday - complete 360 from dining experience the night before
Nice conversation with a lovely young Portuguese man
Return home - bed…..
I had to set off early this morning to make sure I caught my flight. I pulled my things out of the high-tech hostel lockers (activated by a card you swipe past a sensor on the door), did my best not to wake any of my roommates and set off for the Barcelona airport. The metro trip there was very straightforward. I’ve been blessed by very convenient travel throughout much of this trip. I’ve grown especially grateful for cities with metro systems as they make for such expedient, accessible public transport.
My flight left at 11am, and the trip to Prague took only two hours. While I had a window seat, cloud cover obscured most of the views for the first hour or so (we spent much of it above the Mediterranean Sea anyways though).
The second hour on the other hand proved to be pretty spectacular. Our route over the Alps featured crystal clear skies and breathtaking views of the high alpine terrain and the towns and villages typically located in the valley bottoms. I snapped a couple dozen photos of the landscape below. Beyond the Alps, the countryside opened up, appearing to be a spreading plain, featuring clustered settlements with roads radiating out from the center, and adjacent fields and woodland pockets that seemed to serve each respective community. I later confirmed that this is the typical settlement pattern in the area, which makes a lot of sense from a historical development perspective.
We arrived in Prague more or less on time, and now it was time to get used to a new language and currency. I hopped on a bus bound for the city center and from there stumbled onto my hotel after getting severely turned around a few times. In the limited travel I’ve done in Eastern Europe, I’ve found myself particularly inept. The radial pattern of the streets, coupled with complex and unfamiliar names make even clear maps feel more or less useless. I noticed I was most definitely not alone in my ineptitude as I recognized innumerable tourists, nose firmly planted in their map, displaying confused looks. Re-reading through Oliver Rackham’s Trees and Woodlands in the British Countryside, I got a chuckle later that night as I came onto a quote describing an old historical method of recording property boundaries. I imagined this quote being used to give directions to someone to get from point A to B in Prague...
'Start from Twyford along the road to Bracken Ridge, from there along the road to Carrion Barrow; then in a straight line to the pear tree; then along the road to Ceardic's Barrow; the to Withy Grove; then to the road that shoots over the ditch; then along the road to the pollard oak; from there along the road from where it adjoins the wood... by the little hedge along the spinney... along the hedge to the old maple tree. . from there to the hoar (ie - lichen-covered) apple tree; then along the ditch out to the river Test; to its southern bank; then along the bank; then below the timber weir to the northern bank; along the bank back to Twyford.'
Boundary of Hurstbourne Priors (Hants), dated AD 901
Well, fortunately for me, I’d brought my compass with me which meant that in the evening when I had no sun to provide orientation, I could still tell which direction I was heading. That, coupled with a map, made me immensely more effective in finding my way around.
I checked into the remarkably reasonably-priced Pension Alabastr and was greeted by the very kind proprietors. The fourth floor room was lovely and featured a small terrace providing me with a wonderful view of the cityscape. I was only to spend one day in Prague - my scheduled visit was actually in the city of Brno - about 2 hours south, but it proved far more economical to travel to Prague first - so I figured I’d make the most of the opportunity to visit this exquisitely-beautiful city with a rich cultural and architectural history.
Making use of the limited daylight hours, I headed north towards the old town. The architecture in Prague is absolutely stunning. Ornate, well-proportioned building facades often feature decorative paintings of some sort depicting imagery from folklore and rural life. The city has become a particularly popular tourist destination during the last decade plus for this and much more. Some of the most impressive structures in the city date back to the 14th century. My knowledge of the history and architecture of the city is very limited - all I can say is that the experience in the old town center is immensely memorable.
I was greeted with a festive atmosphere when I arrived at the square. A crowd had gathered around a group of costumed performers armed with puppets, masks, stilts and creative, engaging games. Nearby, vendors manned wood fired spits rotating hams and offering mulled wine. I had to partake in this cultural experience, and it was a true delight. As one might imagine, it was a lot cooler in Prague than it had been in Barcelona that morning, but it was something of a relief to put some warm clothes on once again.
I continued to stroll through the city, pausing to admire the incredible detail in the clock tower of the old town (perhaps its not actually called the ‘clock tower’ - I can’t recall but that’s the best I can do). I believe it is 600 years old and features the only astronomical clock in the world! And it still reads correctly. At this point I happened to be standing immediately in front of an English speaking tourist group so I soaked up as much insight as I could. Basically, it’s very complex - I don’t think the guide really understood it, but the clock features the 12 astrological signs as well as the sun and the moon and indicates their relative location to one another at this point in time. Below, there’s a rotating clock face that features the names of a canonized saint for all 365 days of the year, which functions as a current calendar. And above, the clock itself provides a show every hour on the hour with a door that opens, from which emerge the 12 apostles who do a little dance of some sort along with additional characters (one of them a skeleton) on either side. I’m sure there are videos of it on youtube and far better explanations of it all somewhere on line. If anyone digs it up and could add a link or better description in the comment box below, please do. But check it out. It’s pretty mind-blowing.
Not much else to say really. It’s hard to imagine visiting Prague without feeling inspired.
The next morning, I’d hoped to visit Dobra Tea in the city center. A few friends of mine opened up a branch of this original tea house in Burlington, Vermont, and I’ve already logged in several full work weeks there, chipping away at this book. It would’ve been nice to have a chance to visit the original and say hello, but alas, they didn’t open until 2 on Sunday, and I needed to get myself to Brno.
I hopped on a bus on the other end of town and we set off for the two and a half hour journey towards the southeast. The landscape is largely agricultural in this part of the country (I can’t say much for any other parts as I really haven’t visited them). Gentle topography blanketed by wide expanses of grain crops. This time of year, there’s actually little to see but stubble, bare soil or in some cases, newly-germinated seed. Not much in the way of woods - at least on either side of the highway. Occasional hedgerows break up the monotony of field crops, and from time-to-time scattered woodland plots emerged, but by-and-large it was a prairie-type landscape.
We arrived in Brno around 4 in the afternoon. I glanced at a map and intuitively made my way in the direction of my hotel on the northern edge of the city. It took a little bit of guesswork but I eventually found it and settled in. The following morning I had a 10 am appointment to meet with Peter Szabo, my Hungarian, Brno-residing contact. I spent the evening exploring the old town - it followed the same general pattern as that of the rural villages I’d seen from the air the other day despite the fact that it’s a fairly large city of 400,000 - a dense central district with roads radiating out from the middle and a ring road around the perimeter. Like Prague, the architecture is truly inspiring and it was entertainment enough to simply stroll along the cobblestone streets taking in the history embodied in this centuries-old built environment.