And there we were, my man and I, ready to hit the road. Have car, will race, was the motto of my companion on our tour of Czech Republic – Prague, Bratislava (Slovakia), Budapest (Hungary) and Zagreb (Croatia). We were both raring to go, no doubt about that, after ten delightful days in Germany, we wanted to explore what lay on the east side of things. Needless to say, we did race at a 120 miles per hour as often as we could, stopping just once between countries to fill up.
Driving is charming when you have the quiet and exploring, curious mind. It wasn’t a charm though on our first leg, from Hochholzen, Germany, to Prague as we ended up encountering many road-works on the highway that carried us forth. It did put a spoke in our wheels, in a manner of speaking, eager as we were to reach our destination, but we were quick to remind ourselves that oftentimes it is the journey that’s the thrill, not simply the arrival at a given goal. That said, we did race every time the path cleared up. Signs were all good.
I could barely hold my breath when we crossed the toll booth, the entry point to Czech Republic, where we purchase a card for a certain amount to be brandished, whenever asked, to prove that we were legal entrants. The cloudy weather made it all seem very drab and uninteresting after the golden rapeseed fields of Germany. Yet we were exhilarated at crossing over.
The Air-bnb we arrived at without much ado thanks to our efficient GPS. Our host, Peter, was a kindly gentleman with a beautiful mansion boasting off a large garden and a cosy apartment meant for us. A fabulous welcome. I, for one, just couldn’t get my head around the fact that the entire apartment was all ours for our two-night stay. I ran around like a headless chicken into the garden, back into the apartment, scouring every nook and corner. It felt great, it felt right. The air was cool, and we headed out the moment my hubby found me trying to catch a breath.
We were in Prague- east Europe, and everywhere we looked, people smiled back at us. Our first evening was spent walking around the castle and just taking in all the sounds that fell upon our ears. No English. There was a language in the air that we were not accustomed to, adding an allure to the experience. We stood agape at the top of the hill that gave over the city- boasting a wide vista of steeples and thick clusters of homes and roofs that seemed to belong to another era. It took painful hunger pangs to draw us away and back downhill to search and ultimately find a restaurant that would satisfy both the meat-eater, me, and my vegetarian partner. We were the only ones in that eatery, and we discovered that the food on our plates was less than satisfactory. I decided that cooking might be the more palatable option.
The following morning we reluctantly left the confines of this beautiful ground floor apartment with a garden, armed with a map of both the metro lines and the city to take on our roles as tourists.
With help in broken English from a mother and her toddler, we found our way, quite easily to the town-centre which was teeming with holiday-makers from around the world, and we joined them – to be entertained and to enjoy whatever Prague offered in terms of history and beauty- both wrapped up in each other quite seamlessly. A hop on-hop off bus gave us the ride of our lives, allowing us to get a peek of all of Prague, or so it seemed. The fresh air, the continuous chatter in our ears, of the guide via headphones, and a blue sky above, rolling along with the bus- was perfect. The sun shone brightly. We were two content people. Our ride ended at the quay, where we descended into a motor boat that swayed, just so, and we were blown away, by the sights of innumerable steeples, and verdant hills that bowed to us. We barely heard the guide, as the waters of the Danube splashed about, beating relentlessly, the body of our boat.
Later we had a far more sumptuous meal at our temp home. Prague had hosted us generously enough, and we were not about to ruin our evening with yet another struggle for a good meal for two very hungry tourists.
Slovakia – Bratislava
The ride to Bratislava was an uneventful one, but we rode fast and arrived by lunchtime at another lovely apartment, which was fitted with both expensive and modern equipment, sporting the look of a designer home. We did not meet the owner, but were handed over the key by a friend, who left us in peace for the days to follow. It was quite a contrast to Peter’s home in Prague. We felt we needed to keep it as ‘delicately perfect’ as it was, and me being me, I feared soiling anything I touched. The centre room had designer sofas and a rather ‘cool’ centre table, and aesthetically lined porcelain vases adorned the corners. It was like walking into a magazine that displayed homes for the rich and famous. Being neither rich nor famous, it took all of my energy and self-belief to roam unfettered in this apartment.
Our evening was spent in the local quarter, shopping and eating ice-cream cones, and just roaming around, taking in the feel of the people and the land. We felt we were being watched, since we happened to be the only Asians in that area. It was ok, and truth be told, I felt a bit of a celebrity who hadn’t quite made it in the big league. Back in the apartment we gorged on local fare, which was a bag of Bratislavan chips and local wine. We ended this high caloried dine-in with grapes and apples. Not so bad eh!
The following day we did visit the Castle, whose gardens were more attractive to us, sprawling as they were. They immediately drew our attention away from the lofty castle itself, as they gave over the city’s riverside, and its skyline. We wandered around like two lost souls, soaking in the greens, the large number of couples that lounged on the benches, taking in the sun’s warmth – just allowing it to wash over them, even as we deftly marched on the shaded areas. We marveled yet again at the rising steeples, the hanging bridge across the vast Danube, and gorged on a delicious Italian meal- playing it safe paid off, and we were richly rewarded by some excellent service and tickled tastebuds. A strong double expresso rounded off the meal quite impeccably.
We ambled along and found our way to the Slavin memorial after losing track of both time and tracks. However, it afforded us quite an insight into other areas of the city, which proved to be the best part of our day yet. Later, on the insistence of the partner, we drove out of the city to visit the Devin Castle, dating back to the 13th century, which definitely stands out as the highlight of our tour of Bratislava.
It is quietly positioned upon a hill and casts its vision upon undulating prairies and quaint villages. I reminded myself that this was one rare occasion when I felt not an ounce of regret at having listened to my partner’s obsessive persistence to drive all the way out of town.
On learning more about Devín : since the 19th century its history inspired several romantic poets. It became an important national symbol for the Slovaks. It featured on the reverse of the former 500 Czechoslovak koruna banknote. Now that’s something!
This was heaven- we stood agape on the side of a broken castle wall and watched the sunset. The sight of the confluence of two wide and strong rivers wormed its way into our hearts, forever more. Two water bodies- the Danube and the Morava rivers flowing into one another to form a third wholesome body. In the mellow light of the setting sun, what met our eyes was nothing short of mystic. We had to tear ourselves away on being told that time had run out and we might miss our boat back to town. A half an hour later, we were aboard a humming boat-bound to arrive at Bratislava port in an hour, celebrating the union of Morava and Danube then and now. We were naturally quiet as cold winds whirled around us, and allowed us the time to absorb recent images we now carried.
Grand old Budapest where we spent time shopping, eating gourmet food and riding the river. This time though, the air-bnb quarters were neat but windowless, and our bed had a strange blue light that it emitted ceaselessly. It was eery and exceedingly claustrophic. We managed to survive the night, and rushed off to Zagreb thereafter.
Buda-Pest – two sides of the same coin bespeak history, much like most east European countries, and has clearly lived through many a war to claim and stake its place in the scheme of things. It is a bustling city and there were a large number of tourists combing the city by any means at their disposal. We walked, well mostly, until we embarked on a water cruise. It is a truly lovely city, with hills, waterways and yes, steeples meaning church-goers aplenty. But from what I understood from our Hop-on, Hop-off (yep, best way to rush through a city to pick and choose for later, that which is more attractive), only thirty percent of the country is a regular God-fearer. Surprise, surprise, yet no surprise there! With so much bloodshed and war upon war, what would you have one believe, that God’s all love and kindness? I suppose not.
People here were exceedingly helpful and kind. Walking permitted us to really observe them, their behavior in general up close, and grab a bite – falafel wrap, on the way. There is much to buy in this city, including handcrafted crystal-ware, which we dared not- delicate and heavy as it is.
ZAGREB – Croatia
The following day, was clearly distinct in its ethos. How, you might ask- it was the air, its folk, so much simpler and that much more curious. We spent two luxurious days at Screcko’s home, and were given a small but well-appointed apartment. It overlooked a large park abundantly lined with trees and the cheery patter of happy feet. On our first evening we just hung out in the local marketplace, which reminded me of Gurgaon’s Vyapar Kendra, minus the discomfort of it being likened to a maze. It had all sorts, and we were instantly made comfortable on entering a sandwich shop (imagine a rather large Pita stuffed with chunky tomatoes and goat cheese, sprinkled with salt and pepper) and being told that ‘India does gooood cinema!’ English is rarely spoken apart from this young person who had started with English at school as a third language; as for the rest, ‘No inglis’. We managed just fine- charming information out of unsuspecting Croatians. The weather was glorious, and we wistfully observed a large variety of dogs being walked on leash. It is our favoured domestic pet, so the delight was all ours, remembering ours back home, now gone.
Zagreb is a very pretty town- with great places to eat and shop. Its air is clean as are its people. For us the highlight was both shopping at Müller, a large department store, and spending over two hours at the Musuem of Broken Relationships. The latter displayed items that held deep significance in a narrative that recounted the fabric of a broken relationship. It was not just deeply moving, it also told us how a common thread binds all relationships – be their tying or their untying. Some items on display included a hammer, a high heel shoe, a gum wrapper and even a little bottlette that once carried drugs like Ecstasy. Even as I read the accompanying tale, I felt a tremor rise within me. Each one left me either with a teardrop, or a quickened pace, on to the next one.
Zagreb to me, was the best part of our four city tour. I would have liked to stay for another two days- not so much to see anymore on offer, but just to be. We both, hubby and i, felt similarly, and we both will continue to feel the need to return to Croatia, inshallah we shall!
This trip was unique in many ways for us, but that would require another post. So long for now!