European travel

EUROPE 2011: Prague, Czech Republic

Biosphere area near Brno and the Austrian border by train

Overnight, the weather had turned colder and rainier. We packed, checked out, and waited inside the hotel lobby for our cab ride to the Western Railway Station. There, we planned to catch the express train from Budapest to Prague, about a six-hour trip. On the railway platform, Dave kept asking me not to lag behind.

Western Railway Train Station BudapestI was quite taken by the architecture of the building. Not modern by any means, but the unique design reminded me of something, but I couldn’t think what. Later, after some research, I found my answer.

McDonalds at Budapest train station The Western Railway Station was designed by August de Serres and built by the Eiffel Company of Paris. The construction took three years to complete, and the iron building was cast in Paris. The station opened in 1877, twelve years before the Eiffel Company built the famous Eiffel Tower. To date, the train station has retained its original style. Over the years most of the old iron structure has been recast and replaced. Yes, the building houses a McDonald’s, but as many have said—and I agree—it is the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world.

Inside Budapest Hungary Train Station Slightly lost as to which train to board, we were scoping out the station when a man hurried toward us saying, “Prague?” He yanked my roller bag out of my hand and took off. I scurried after him. He climbed the steps to a nearby train and demanded my ticket. I showed it to him but held on tight to it. He ushered us toward a compartment, hoisted my bag, along with Dave’s, into the overhead rack, and stuck out his hand. Dave gave him the equivalent of a six-dollar US tip in forints. The man looked at the money, looked at Dave, and back to the money, all the while shaking his head. Then he said, “Euros.” Dave dug into his pocket, took out the equivalent of an additional four dollars US, and said, “That’s it. No more.” Grumbling, the man walked away with his ten-dollar tip.

We had booked a semiprivate compartment, which meant we shared it with one other couple. We had just settled into our assigned window seats when the other party arrived, led by the same man, and he followed the same routine. He pocketed his forints and euros, and left grumbling. “I’ve never heard anyone in New York complain about a ten-dollar tip for two small bags,” said the man to his female companion as they made themselves comfortable in the seats next to us.

Villa Tugendhat in BrnoSome friends who had taken the same train trip the year before said the scenery offered nothing noteworthy, so pack a good book. I planned to spend the time writing my next book. However, I had read Brno was the most scenic part of the trip, and after scrolling through images on the Internet, I realized this town would have been an interesting place to visit for its scenery—and its architecture. From the moment I first saw a photo of German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat, an icon of modernism, I found it hard to pass Brno by. But I had no option; it all came down to time.

As the train left the station, we struck up a conversation with our compartment companions, Kath and Tom, two attorneys from Albany, New York. They were drawing to a close on a nine-week backpacking trip through Europe and “parts beyond,” as Tom put it. Between chatting, writing, and a short break to eat a ham and cheese sandwich, the ride moved along quickly. As we neared Brno and the Austrian border, we left our compartment and headed to the opposite side of the train to photograph the beautiful farmland. Someone mentioned we were passing through a biosphere area.

Prague Alchymist hotel Six hours later, we pulled into the Prague train station and wished Kath and Tom goodbye, then walked the two blocks to the taxi stand, where we caught a ride to the Alchymist Grand Hotel. As we neared our accommodations, an officer at a police checkpoint stopped and searched our cab. Later, we found out the Alchymist was located across the street from the US Embassy, and the search was a precaution. I noted this incident for a future book scene.

At check-in, while we sipped champagne served by the hotel staff, we were informed of a large family group staying on the lower floors, so we had been upgraded to a suite. The room was comfortable but a bit dark, and the overhead lighting poor. I drew aside the heavy damask curtains to let in more light, but the small dormer windows didn’t admit much illumination; that, coupled with the overcast day, meant no sun to brighten or warm the space. However, the soft lighting gave the room a certain ambiance. Never one to overlook an opportunity, I used my active imagination, immediately envisioning this setting as one for a scene in a future Darcy McClain and Bullet thriller. So while Dave unpacked, I typed notes into my iPad and photographed the room for future reference.

Across the hall, the small bathroom had a sloped ceiling, making the area hard to negotiate without hitting your head, especially if you were tall, but the solitary dormer window overlooked a series of balconies. The 1954 movie Rear Window, in which a wheelchair-bound photographer (James Stewart) spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder, came to mind. Another plot point in a new Darcy thriller?

On our first night in Prague, we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant. Before dinner, we unwound with a glass of wine in the lobby and listened to rain pelt the windows. We hoped the weather would clear overnight, for the next day we had a full agenda.


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EUROPE 2011: Venice, Italy

On our second day in Venice, we set out to sightsee. Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Square, was first on our agenda. Although our hotel was a short walk from the square, the hardest part was negotiating all the tourists, even in late September. Face it, Venice is a popular destination no matter what time of year. St. Mark’s is the largest square in the city and the only one given the designation “piazza.” The centerpiece is St. Mark’s Basilica, nicknamed Church of Gold for its opulence. As I stood in the enclosed piazza and gazed about, I was in astounded by its size, almost 240 yards long, and its grandeur.

Venice St Mark's BasilicaWith my back to the basilica, I studied the architecture of the historic buildings. To my right were the old offices, circa sixteenth century, and the clock tower. To my left, the new offices, circa seventeenth century, and beyond them the square opened to the water. Behind me was the Correr Museum. Despite its size, the square felt protected, intimate, and definitely romantic.

St Marks Basilica Venice Italy I gravitated toward the basilica, drawn by its Byzantine and Gothic architecture. Construction of the cathedral began in 829 with the intention of building a shrine for the body of St. Mark, believed to have been brought from Alexandria to Venice in the same year. Fire destroyed the church in 976, and it was rebuilt between 1043 and 1071. The exterior of the west facade is divided into three registers: lower, upper, and domes. The lower register has five arched portals that open into the narthex through bronze doors. The upper register has mosaics depicting the Life of Christ. The layout of the church is based on a Greek cross with four arms of equal length. Five domes cap the space—one over each arm and one over the center where the two arms cross.
Upon completion, the interior of the basilica was plain brick and stucco until the late twelfth century, when every surface was covered with precious materials—marble, gold, gems, and mosaic glass—a space of unsurpassed visual splendor. Although all this was captivating, my eyes were drawn to the apex of the dome, where Christ appears adorned in gold.

Venice Campanile Outside the church, we crossed the square to the Campanile, the bell tower, which stands 323 feet high and has an elevator to the top for a spectacular view of Venice. We snapped a few shots of the city and some of the exterior of the tower, then walked on, hundreds of pigeons scattering in our wake. Relieved that we had avoided being dive-bombed by the birds, we skirted the outdoor cafés and left the piazza to explore the island, bypassing a visit to the Doge’s Palace. We were more interested in some other sites: the Rialto Bridge, the Grand Canal, Bridge of Sighs, and a few churches.

Santa Maria della Salute in Venice After two hours of sightseeing, and a tour of the Accademia Gallery, we made the short walk from the Accademia Bridge to Santa Maria della Salute. The domed baroque church stands on a narrow finger of land between the Grand Canal and the Bacino di San Marco. From what I have read, Doge Nicolò Contarini, before his death from the black plague, made a solemn vow to build a church to the Virgin Mary if she would free the city from the disease. He also promised that every year, on November 21st, he would lead a procession to the church. After his death, Doge Francesco Erizzo fulfilled Nicolò’s vow with the construction of Santa Maria della Salute. The plague killed almost one-third of the population of Venice.

Rialto Bridge Late in the afternoon, we strolled across the Rialto Bridge to browse the shops and take in the scenery. We had been warned that some of the stores were not selling authentic Murano glass, but we had already made our purchases on the island and weren’t interested in buying more.

Venice St Mark's Piazza On our way back to our hotel, we stopped for a coffee at one of the cafés that line St. Mark’s Square, and to give our feet a short break before we made the jaunt to dinner. That night, we had reservations at Osteria Da Fiore.


Da Fiore Venice The warm evening was delightful, so we took our time walking through the maze of quaint narrow streets until we reached our restaurant. The waitstaff led us to a table for two on the only balcony in Da Fiore. It overlooked a quiet canal. The setting was very romantic, especially when the occasional gondola would cruise by and soft music would drift our way as the gondolier serenaded his riders . . . and us.

Public Fountain We passed on the six- or seven-course tasting menu and ordered à la carte, beginning with tiny shrimp tempura on creamy polenta followed by a seafood tower. For our mains, more fish. I had shrimp in seven spices, and Dave ordered wild bass steamed with apples. For dessert, I chose the chocolate cake and Dave an orange-apricot cream. Full, we sipped our wine and watched the next gondola as it slowly glided down the canal past our table, this gondolier too serenading us with a low, melodic tune.

Before I sign off, here are two tips from the locals. One: carry a lightweight water bottle that you can refill at public fountains. Venetians pride themselves on great-tasting tap water piped in from the foothills of the Alps, and it is cold and refreshing, especially on a warm day. Two: if you are dive-bombed by pigeons, resist the urge to clean the poop out of your hair. Let it dry, and then you can brush it out. I know this will take some restraint, but it works. However, if it lands on your clothes, wipe it off immediately to prevent a stain. On that note, see you next week!


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