ja! After a few lovely days in lovely Berlin (perhaps it was because the hotel sheets were so nice? because it drizzled and I drank coffee and it reminded me of home?) I took off with J. and his parents to Prague via one night in Dresden. It was a quick journey then, less than four hours on either side. In Dresden we landed mid-afternoon on the unlovely avenue that leads into the prettier old part of the city; after stuffing our bags in the train station lockers we went to foray for food and lodging. There is always something disconcerting about landing in a train station or airport that is under construction, as the Dresden station is. It feels far less friendly and much more unstable, as if you weren’t really supposed to be there at all.
For lunch we had unmemorable Italian (that wonderful cuisine which will save a vegetarian again and again in eastern europe — god knows what’s on the menu in, say, Hungarian, but “spaghetti pesto” is always the same) and then booked (aka, starting with a lonely planet number and moving on from there, J. was on a pay phone feeding in fifty euro cent coins for half an hour) a hostel which turned out to be in the older, dilapidated, funky and graffito’d part of Dresden. The manager was hilarious, though, and the coffee was good, and there were trams to take us into the scenic old heart of the city, where we:
1) discovered beautiful buildings and ice cream
2) disovered a *beach volleyball* tournament — an inter-city european travelling affair, with beautiful men and women in skimpy outfits playing volleyball on trucked-in sand on the main square in the city — tres bizarre, I tell you. Especially since it was overcast and slightly chilly.
3) discovered that “museumnacht” was on — e.g., the one night of the year where the museums of Dresden, as well as some other institutions, are open til midnight, all accessible with one 9-euro ticket with free transportation. And we were there! Of course we did it; first we went to the zoo, which had a little orchestra set up in it and was very cute (“Romanticnacht at the zoo”) then we took the most adorable! little garden railway train through the park that the zoo sits in, and then (and it was getting on to be 9 or 10 o’clock by now), we went to the thing next door, which was a tour of a completely glassed-in Volkswagen plant.
I have never been a huge Volkswagen fan, but it turns out that J. and family are, and so we stood in line for an hour or two (during which I broke down and had a bratwurst, which was nasty) and then toured the plant at midnight or so, in German. It turns out that the plant — which is clear glass, so you can see the cars inside — only puts the finishing touches on the new luxury Volkswagen, and it is very much a luxury factory — they only work two shifts and, you know, they wire up the dashes and buff the leather. There wasn’t a drop of oil or dirt in the place. It was enjoyable, although I was dead tired, but mostly it was just odd and atmospheric and one of those things that just happens to you when you’re travelling — there you are in Dresden, and suddenly you’re in line to tour a Volkswagen plant with crowds of people at midnight and a swank DJ entertaining you. Again, tres bizarre.
And then the next day on to the Czech Republic, through some absolutely lovely countryside that made me want to stop and wander down to the river to go canoing at every turn. We were met with torrential rain on our arrival and a crowded station and yet another currency, but we were able to take the metro into town and all seemed well. Prague is an intact, over-crowded, touristy city, with “a hundred spires” and a couple of hills on which one can catch a breeze off of the river. It is a beautiful city, but I had a hard time getting into the swing of things. There was something about the infinite technicolor watercolors of the Charles Bridge that mediocre painters produced and tacky crystal figurines for sale and the innumerable touts for concerts in innumerable churches that made me cranky. I suppose I’d gotten used to not being in western Europe; getting back to it was a bit of a shock, and J. and I had an involved argument about tourism and whether it’s a part of the culture there or not and if the tacky t-shirt shops are acceptable if they are or if tacky t-shirts are never ok. And so on.
We stayed in a “youth hostel” that was actually student dorms that had been let out for the summer. I suppose it could have been worse (in fact, it was, just a few days later in Krakow) but it was awfully sterile and dull. On the plus side, it was “newly renovated” (there was still tape on the mini-fridge) so everything was fairly clean.
We walked around and went, indeed, to a concert, and saw the Frank Gehry building in town (this is what happens when you travel with a posse of architects) and debated renting a paddleboat. Instead we got caught in the rain numerous times and walked around some more, and took a funicular up to the park at the top of the city, which may have been the nicest part of the whole thing. We also, excitingly, toured the exhibition room of the National Library — it was a gorgeous, gorgeous, baroque reading room that still holds books that are part of the Library’s collection and that looked like nothing so much as a movie set (they don’t allow tourists in the rest of the library). Also as part of the tour there was a climb up an astronomical tour though which observations to set the time used to be made. That part of the day was lovely and made me feel like I was seeing something.
Otherwise, there were bagels every morning at a great bagel shop we found (there were unlimited refills on coffee, which is why we kept going back there) and there were two trips up lookout towers and numerous grainy icecreams and in general I felt like I should have been having fun but wasn’t. Fortunately my opinion was not shared; the other members of the party seemed to like the city well enough.
I did buy a stack of postcards, since the postcards are lovely, and many of you will be getting one soon. They’ll probably get mailed from Berlin, when I end up there again.
But then we took the day train to Poland, which was fun (and involved much playing of cards and drinking of beer in the dining car — hurrah.) (One thing I find bizarre about these middle europe countries is that beer is, quite literally, cheaper than water.) Anyway, we landed in weather that threatened to pour but didn’t (it was again torrential further up the track, in Katowice, where we changed trains) and got, somewhere in there, touted by people on the train(!) into staying at a youth hostel, which turned out to be crappy and far away. It was student dorms again, much like the ones before, except these were older.
Due to all of this — and the nearby ATM not working, and some other mishaps — J.’s parents were grumpy and the atmosphere tense, but I saved the day by finding a grocery that would sell us tram tickets with a credit card, and then a lovely, lovely meal of polish things which means cucumber salad and spinach perogie, for me. But it was lovely and then we walked into the main square, which rises up impressively, swallowing up the heart of the city, and everything was better. We walked around late that night looking for a new place to stay and J. and I stumbled into a tiny hostel with a tiny sign just off the main square, just on an off chance, you understand, and lo and behold! They had two double rooms — with bunk beds and up stairs, but otherwise acceptible for both the parents and for us. And the location! We have been here three days now and every morning I marvel at coming downstairs sleepy and finding myself in the street crowded with people outside, of whom no one notices our tiny sign. It is like being in a magical, hidden place, and plus there’s a washing machine.
We discovered later that there were rooms available because the place is all of *three days old*. Imagine that! I’d like to come back here in a couple years, just to see how the hostel is doing.
So that is Krakow. There is a big square, ringed with cafes and restuarants, and tons of bookstores, and tons of tourists, but somehow not as obnoxiously as Prague. There are bells that ring from the half-dozen churches and there is a trumpeter that plays on the hour, commemorating the invasion of Krakow a millenia ago. There are clubs that pick up at night and 24 hour grocery stores, and crowds that seem to do nothing but meander around the square, again and again. There are perogie shops and amazing things done with potatos; and there is internet, which I am at now, which is on the second floor looking out over the square. J. is off riding a rented bicycle and J.’s parents are exploring before they leave tonight, and I have done absolutely and literally nothing the entire time we’ve been here except catch up on my email and catch up on my sleep and do some reading. This city seems to make me lazy. I haven’t even gone in the church or the museum that sits not a hundred meters from my door. Who can be bothered? the new Harry Potter is out, and it calls my name.