Le splendide voyage

Reflections on exploration & travel

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New discoveries along the “Golden Path”

My next assignment was going to take me to France. Thus, while researching multiple road maps, I decided to follow an unfamiliar road to learn more about the region.

The two greatest commodities in medieval times were gold and salt. For that reason, these materials  became chess pawns for the development of prolific trade routes throughout Europe. One of the best known routes was the “Golden Path” from Salzburg to Prague. Hence, this route became my chosen itinerary from Prague to Regensburg, Bavaria (Germany) and on to Salzburg, Austria.

At first, I was intrigued by the vast fields of yellow flowers abiding for several kilometers. Later, I found out that these yellow crops produce canola oil while the sunflowers produce oil and seeds.  On the side of the road bright orange, blue and red wildflowers provided inspiration for artists to take out their pallets. It was incredible to observe this natural landscape south of Prague. Close to Regensburg, I took a two day break just to walk along the River Danube and discover a series of picturesque hiking trails.

My trip proceeded toward the Alps as I entered the Bavarian’s Berchtesgaden National Park, Germany.  The eastern, southern, and western boundaries of the park shape the border between Germany and Austria. Again, numerous and amazing hiking trails are available for a traveler to inhale the magnificence of the park. In particularly, the center of the park is identified by a large lake called Königssee and also by the church of St Bartholomew patron of alpine farmers and dairymen.

After a few days in this idyllic sanctuary, I proceeded to one of my favorite cities, Salzburg (Salt Fortress) in Austria. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthplace was famous in medieval times for its salt production collected from the neighboring Alps.  The city is usually inundated with tourists during the summer season or during music festivals, yet in early spring it was quiet and ready to be discovered. Hence, I pursued a walking tour for awhile to learn about its history and visit Mozart’s home and then with confidence, I proceeded on my own following its the narrow lanes, its baroque architecture, its gardens while looking into the hills. At some point I had to whisper “…the hills are alive with the Sound of Music…” Indeed, the popular 1965 motion picture, The Sound of Music, was filmed in Salzburg and proximate locations. The first scene in the movie starts on a mountain with Maria (Julie Andrews) singing with open arms, pirouetting, embracing life and the wholesome resplendency around her… that scene took place in Mellweg, about five miles or so from Salzburg.

With that kind of introduction, I knew I had chosen the right itinerary and decided to stay for a few days.

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Welcome to Central Europe, Prague, Czech Republic

One day, I was visiting a Czech colleague and she asked: “This is your first time in Prague, isn’t it?” I replied:”Yes, this is my first time in Eastern Europe.”  During my childhood, anywhere east of the iron curtain and within the Soviet bloc (even after it was dismantled) was considered east.  Nevertheless, Prague lies just above the “western” Austria and also has borders with Bavaria, Germany. Certainly, throughout the centuries, these nations belonged to powerful empires!  Hence, as we continued our conversation, my friend began a detailed geography lesson.  She opened an historical atlas which displayed the multiple regional configurations during the course of time.  She ended with a generous smile and said:”Welcome! As you can see, you are now in Central Europe!” Duly noted!

When visiting Prague it is important to keep in mind the numerous touristic attractions that are available such as: Old Town Square with the astronomical clock, Charles Bridge, the Prague Castle, an array of beautiful churches, a cruise & brunch on the river, haut couture shopping at Parizska Street, or shopping along Na příkopě and ending at the modern Palladium shopping center. At Na příkopě, the latest movies in English can be seen at the Palace Cinemas Slovanský Dům. The tour would not be complete without sampling traditional Czech cuisine at the “Bredovsky dvur” restaurant, on Politickych veznu.  A true bohemian taste is offered throughout their menu, such as their appetizing fare of pork and duck with stewed cabbage, potatoes pancakes, and sauce. All of these spaces are small introductions to the assorted flavors of Prague and will leave a pleasant still-life imprint of the trip. However, if time constrains are unimportant, then walking unhurriedly through the streets of Prague will bring a broader historical and cultural awareness.

Prague rests on seven hills or perhaps nine depending on the contributor of the information. They are: Hradčany, Vítkov, (Opyš), Větrov, Skalka, (Emauzy), Vyšehrad, Karlov and Petřín.  The significance of this information is that from each elevation a different side of Prague is revealed.  The same is true for the architectural influences converging at every square and street corner.  Blocks of graceful structures and styles adorn the city: the Romanesque style can be seen in some of the Basilicas, the Charles Bridge and main battlements are Gothic, the baroque style can be identified at Troja Castle and Saint Nicolas Church, and the neo-Renaissance style shapes the National Theater. Still, there are a few unattractive and utilitarian buildings which the locals may refer when giving directions as “…it is near that dark soviet looking building.” Nonetheless, other buildings are unique and project an unexpected diversion from the norm as seen in the postmodern creation, the Dancing House (1996), with towers nicknamed “Fred & Ginger,” designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunic, and the most colorful Synagogue in Prague, the Jubilee Synagogue,  built in pseudo-Moresque style in 1906.  

While embracing the reminiscences of several eras with judicious elegance, Prague, the city of a thousand spears, will enchant the traveler through its arches, passages, and architectural landscape making it impossible to think of future commitments, at least for the moment.

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Trains, Snow and Dr. Zhivago

On March 2010, as I admired the Florida sun setting in the firmament, I received a phone call announcing that my next destination was Prague. I was not simply going for a visit; I was going to live in Prague for at least 8 months. My lips greeted the news with enthusiasm and soon I began to read all about the nation and its history. Two weeks latter my plane landed in a familiar territory: Milan, Italy.

Typically, if the opportunity is available, I prefer to use ground transportation. Thus, at “Milano Centrale” railroad station, I bought a one way ticket on a sleeper train to Prague. The convoy’s trajectory encompassed four countries: Italy, Germany, Austria and Czech Republic. At 15 minutes before departure, a melodic boarding call alerted everyone to take their places. The individual quarters were comfortable and I received a small “bon voyage” basket filled with fresh fruit and cheese. These little morceaus were welcomed since the journey was about 14 hours long. However, since I slept for the most of the trip, it was pleasant way to travel.

The trip began uneventful and I woke up early in the morning to change trains in Munich. Then, somewhere after the Austrian/Czech border the train came to a halt.  I communicated in German and a crew member answered me politely using an unusual blend of Czech and German languages. Thus, my hazy appraisal was: a rail malfunction had occurred, we were asked via gestures to come out of the train with our luggage and … wait. As we disembarked and unloaded our luggage, we identified that our minute train station was an open structure. A Swiss passenger looked at me with admiration and stated: “Such a little woman and such large suitcases…”  I replied with a mystified smile as our empty train moved gradually away from our view.

There are moments in life when after completing a task, you lift up your eyes and you finally take notice of your surroundings. At that instant, all I could think was: Doctor Zhivago! Do you remember when in the film doctor Zhivago the train halts in the middle of nowhere and all around are endless fields of snow?  There I was, consuming the same magnificent view, inhaling the crisp air and yet able to feel the frail warmth of the sun. Certainly, this interlude was lasting!

The passengers were a medley of British families on holidays, a group of Swiss backpackers, different groups of lively Italians, old, young and even a priest. Without much awareness, all passengers had stacked their luggage neatly on the edge of the field. Hence, as I sat quietly on my suitcase, I did not worry. I was well prepared! In Milan, I had bought a jar of olives, a Swiss chocolate bar, 2 Kiwis, a baguette, 2 bottles of water and a book on “The Comprehensive History of the Hapsburg Empire.”  Yet, my deep thoughts were interrupted when everyone started to share their commodities with glee and rich conversation began to thrive. Two young Italian minstrels seized their guitars and started to harmonize sounds of love and bliss.  As result, this meeting of nations together with the “breaking of bread” allowed two hours to elapse swiftly, and then modern Daimler buses arrived to our rescue. Once inside the bus, we were offered delicious hot chocolate, coffee and tea. Finally, we were on our way to Prague.