Eighteen Days in Central Europe and Two Books

20160903_101714Bear with me – this is likely to turn into a long post.  After last year’s successful jaunt in the Baltic states H and I decided that this year we’d take to the central European railways. We started in Berlin where, after two winter trips visiting a multitude of museums, we hoped to explore the city’s many green spaces. Beautiful weather on our first day saw us heading off to the Grunewald woods, a short S-Bahn ride away from central Berlin, along with lots of Berliners out enjoying the last days of summer, not to mention their dogs who may have popped into Pets’ Deli for a lip-smacking plate of fresh meat on their way for a swim. We spent the next few days walking our socks off – setting the tone for the rest of the holiday – admiring Berlin’s elegant architecture and parks with a trip out to Potsdam, a sweet little town half an hour away, where we had a nosy around the Russian colony with its gingerbread houses and large orchards. On one of our evening walks we stumbled upon Dussmann‘s a fabulous bookshop: three packed floors including a very respectably stocked English section.

Dresden was our next stop, full of florid architecture some of it rebuilt after the war when much 20160907_131108of the city was fire bombed, including the Lutheran Frauenkirche which we visited along with umpteen other tourists. It would have been stunning without being told of its reconstruction but knowing that most of it had been painstakingly put back together using the rubble of its bombed ruins made it quite breathtaking. The beginnings of a heat wave curtailed our plans a little but we managed to fit in a lunch at the resplendently tiled and curlicued Pfunds Molkerai plus a look around the hipster Kunsthofpassage, its walls adorned with mosaics and murals.

The Molkerai would fit nicely into Karlovy Vary, a hilly Czech spa town packed with extravagant architecture including some lovely art nouveau buildings, where we spent the weekend: Bath with knobs on as H put it or as le Corbusier, perhaps a little more elegantly, dubbed it ‘a rally of cakes’. A favourite with Russians, it was stuffed with blingy shops but we loved it.

20160913_121215Onto Prague where it was beautiful but blisteringly hot. It wasn’t my first visit but a sprained ankle on the Charles Bridge put the kybosh on that particular holiday. This visit was much more successful. We spent most of our time wandering around admiring  Prague’s many stunning buildings. Look up is the thing to do – even some of the grimmest shop fronts are graced with fabulously ornamented facades on their upper floors

We’d booked two nights in Brno the Czech Republic’s second city, hoping to visit the Villa 20160915_130608TugendhatMies van de Rohe‘s modernist masterpiece which inspired Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room. I’d been trying to reserve places for us on a guided tour for four months with no luck. Undeterred we set off anyway and were rewarded with a delightfully laid back day, very welcome after the seething masses of Prague. The villa is gorgeous, a work of genius. All white walls and glass it seems to float above the ground. Although we weren’t able to go inside we were allowed to wander around the garden pressing our noses to the window to see the equally lovely interior. The villa was the draw for us but there are a multitude of other things to see in Brno, so many that we regretted having booked only two nights. Definitely a place to revisit on another expedition.

20160918_160930Our arrival in Slovakia’s Bratislava for our last few days coincided with the EU summit rubbing salt in our Brexit wounds. It’s a sweet little town but truth be told we’d both tired of it within a day or so. A boat trip out to Danubiana, the city’s beautiful modern art showcase with its sculpture garden stuffed full of goodies, cheered us up no end. As part of their Miró exhibition they’d hit on the idea of mocking up his studio, which we’d visited in Palma last year, displaying several of his paintings as if he’d just completed them. It’s a great exhibition – vibrant tactile tapestries, sculpture and paintings all demonstrating the supreme talent of the man.

Given Bratislava’s limited charms and a late flight home from Vienna we decided to catch a morning train and spend our last afternoon there, despite a slightly disappointing visit earlier in the year. Lunch, a bit of culture at the Albertina then a plate of kaisershmarrn rounded off the holiday nicely. It was a wonderful trip, made easy by the spiffy transport links in the countries through which we traveled and their excellent websites. All credit and thanks due to H who painstakingly put it together.

And the books? Not much reading was done with so much hopping on and off trains plus researching the next destination but two stand out. My favourite was Wilton Barnhardt’s Lookaway, Lookaway, a very funny novel which lampoons the pretensions of the old families of the American South – loudly proclaimed Civil War connections, class, old v. new money – ending on a suitably histrionic note. Totally inappropriate for where we were but very enjoyable. Much more relevant was Emanuel Litvinoff’s The Lost Europeans. Originally published in 1958, Litvinoff’s first novel explores the legacy of the Second World War through the story of Martin Stone, visiting Berlin for the first time since he fled the Nazis with his parents aged nine. It’s an interesting period piece, enlightening and atmospheric for me having spent the first few days of the holiday in the city but cringe-makingly heavy-handed in its writing.

Back to real life for us both now, and back to books for the blog next week.

20 thoughts on “Eighteen Days in Central Europe and Two Books”

  1. Sounds like my kind of trip, Susan! Growing up in Vienna, but with a Romanian passport, my parents often took me on train and car trips to all of those places, so it’s my old stomping ground. No wonder you didn’t get much reading done, though, it sounds quite tiring!

    1. Tiring but well worth it, Marina. I thought it might seem a wee bit familiar too you. I came out of it wishing that the UK had the same attitude to transport as continental Europe, but I could say that about many other things, too. Now we’ve discovered how easy it is I think we’ll be doing more of it. I may turn to you for a few tips on Romania!

  2. What a brilliant trip! I love how easy it is to travel around Europe by rail. We did a similar thing last year (France, Italy, Germany, Belgium) and it was exhausting but incredible fun. Lots of long train journeys which combine excellent reading time plus watching the delicious landscapes roll by. What was your favourite part of the trip?

    1. It’s great, isn’t it! Hard to pick out a favourite but if pushed I’d have to say Brno because it was such a surprise and there’s so much more to see. I doubt I’ll ever tire of Berlin, though.

  3. O fabulous , I’m v envious of your trip. We went to Brno (quite) a few years ago en route to an ex au pairs wedding . Unfortunately we didn’t see much of the country but the wedding was in a beautiful area close to the Polish border all pine forests and hunting lodges . On the way back to the airport we passed a memorial to the battle of Austerlitz ….so much history in that part of the world . We are going to Prague next June but again for a wedding so sight seeing opportunities will again be limited . We keep
    Saying we’re going to do a road trip there.

    1. It was wonderful, Helen. I’m very keen to visit Brno again. Looking at those forests from the train made us both think about walking holidays in the area. Prague was gorgeous. I hope you manage to see some of it, although we avoided the main sights – too many people!

  4. I love Berlin, too: have family there, so visit often, and never tire of its many faces. Sounds like you had a great trip. My wife and I have travelled across Europe by train the last two summers, and I agree, it’s a wonderful way to experience places and have a real sense of movement and passage through space – not possible in hermetically enclosed aircraft.

    1. We certainly saw a different Berlin face this time after temperatures so low we barely went out at night on our first trip. Absolutely agree with you about train travel. It’s another way to learn about a country. We thought about starting our train journey in the UK, travelling to Hanover first, but that’s a plan for when we have more time on our hands, I think.

  5. Loved reading about your trip, particularly the Berlin bits. I’ve only been to Berlin once but it was love at first sight, and probably the place I most want to visit again. Very jealous that you saw Villa Tugendhat 🙂 – another place on my travel wishlist.

    And although it wasn’t about the books, glad to hear you enjoyed Lookaway, Lookaway – I have this one in the TBR stack but pushed it down the pile after reading a few ordinary reviews.

    1. Thanks, Kate. It’s always a pleasure writing these posts. Brings it all back! I suspect that won’t be my last trip to Berlin nor to Brno although I’ve given up hope of ever actually getting inside the villa. I hope you make it there some day.

      As for Lookaway Lookaway, it did take me a while to get into it – although that might have been the distraction of travel – but once I had I thought it was very funny. Many of the characters are despicable but oddly likeable.

    1. It certainly was. There are so many gorgeous facades in Prague aren’t there. The only problem is tripping over the cobbles while gazing upwards. Toes were stubbed!

    1. Lovely to her that, Naomi. It was absolutely great, far too much to see to settle into a book – and I don’t say that very often! Already thinking about the next one.

  6. Oh I can’t wait till I have the lifestyle that allows these kinds of adventures via train, just the ebst way to travel. Sounds like it was an excellent trip and one that has enticed you to want to do more!

    Look forward to your reviews coming up soon too.

    1. We were lucky this year. Both of us could manage an extra few days, and yes – definitely want to do more. It’s such a great way to travel, although not always the case here in the UK, sadly.

  7. Looks like an exciting trip! I’d like to see more of Germany and do the Czech Republic. Having done a quick jaunt out to Bratislava from Vienna in June, I’d agree with you that it doesn’t have too much to offer. We only had a couple of hours there and were running out of things to see, plus it was brutally hot. The Litvinoff sounds like the perfect book to be reading on the way through Europe.

    1. It was brilliant, Rebecca. I think if we hadn’t been so weary after so much traveling we’d have tired of Bratislava sooner. It was thirty degrees when we arrived but I imagine it was hotter than that in June. I’m still thinking about the Litvinoff which shows you how interesting the themes were but, sadly, the writing was excruciating!

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