This was our first big rail jaunt since 2018 when we’d taken the Eurostar to Amsterdam, flying home from Warsaw two weeks later. Our plan for the next one was to venture into Ukraine, sadly no longer an option. Instead, we decided to wend our way though Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to Budapest, one of the many trips H came up with after spending much of lockdown buried in railway websites.
Our first two nights were spent in Cologne whose twin cathedral spires were beautifully silhouetted by the sunset when we arrived. Rather like Milan’s cathedral which we’d admired last year, it took many centuries to complete, beginning in 1248. The architecture is, of course, superb but it was its stained-glass which struck me most. We pottered away the rest of the day in the botanical gardens, a late summer delight.
Climbing up into the hills just across the border into Czech Republic after a seven-hour train journey tipped us over into autumn. We spent a couple of days loafing around the pretty little spa town of Mariánské Lázně marvelling at the flamboyant Art Nouveau hotels the most outrageous of which is Hotel Pacifik topped by two huge angels, who looked more avenging than peaceful, and wandering along woodland paths. A much more laid-back town than nearby Karlovy Vary which we’d visited in 2016.
The temperature plummeted just after we arrived in Olomouc a couple of days later, resulting in lots of sitting in cafes. I spotted the fabulously decorated entrance to the Vila Primavesi (sadly not open to the public) on the way into one of them. Olomouc was once a grand medieval city and, briefly, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s capital. It has an impressive main square with an astronomical clock which puts on quite a show at noon, watched by us in light drizzle. The city is also home to the striking St Wenceslas cathedral whose interior painted walls have been beautifully restored, funded, surprisingly, by Norway.
A visit to the Archdiocesan Museum the following morning put the city in its historical context, followed by a wander through Smetana Park admiring its lovely autumnal planting. Many thanks to Paliparan whose excellent travel blog pointed us to Olomouc which we might otherwise have missed.
Wednesday’s six-hour rail journey took us up to the Tatras, skirting the Polish border not far from Zakopane where we’d been in 2019, and on to Košice, Slovakia’s second city and birthplace of Sándor Márai when it was part of Hungary. On the corner of the street where he lived, now named after him, sits his statue, legs crossed looking pensive, opposite an empty chair as if waiting for a chat.
Not a huge amount to see in Košice but the old town is much restored with lots of Art Nouveau buildings to admire including the Cafe Slavia where we ate a couple of times. Not too far away is a huge Soviet high rise housing estate which we spotted from the train, but we were on holiday, resolutely turning our backs on real life.
Our last stop was Budapest where we’d spent a few days six years ago falling in love with this city which has something to admire at every turn. After two days soaking up the chilly October sunshine, drinking coffee in stylish cafes and marvelling at extravagant nineteenth-century architecture, we tore ourselves away from our busy schedule, taking the Children’s Railway up into the Buda Hills. Overseen by adults, children run the train service, from issuing tickets to making announcements but not, you’ll be relieved to hear, driving the train. The kids, both on and off the train, seemed to love it, taking their duties very seriously. A great way of teaching children how to co-operate as part of a team, much more constructive than competitive sports.
Unusually for us we’d only visited one museum during the first fifteen days of the holiday, but we managed to cram two into the last day, both within spitting distance of each other. On our first trip, I’d been keen to visit the Museum of Applied Arts, disappointed to find it closed for restoration. It’s still closed but a tiny slice of its collection is on show at the György Ráth Villa which has a particularly impressive display of ceramics.
After lunch we visited the Walter Rózsi Villa, a beautiful modernist house built for opera singer Rózsi Walter and her husband by the architect József Fischer and his structural engineer wife Ezster Pécsi. Glowing brightly in the autumn sun, it was a delight inside and out: a clean stripped-down design – all pristine white walls and huge windows – meticulously restored after its time as a hospital at the end of the Second World War when the family fled to Argentina. We left Budapest already looking forward to going back.
Grateful thanks to H for spending so much time putting our trip together and for being, as always, the very best of travelling companions. If you’re wondering about that last photo, it’s Detective Columbo aka Peter Falk for whom, rather like the Albanians and Norman Wisdom, Hungarians have a particular, if inexplicable, fondness.
And the books? Rebecca Wait’s compassionate, witty I’m Sorry You Feel That Way which sees mental illness afflict a family already shouldering more than its fair share of dysfunctionality kept me going for the first week. I raced through Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot, a literary thriller about a blocked writer who uses the surefire plot a student recounts to him after he learns of the student’s death with dire consequences. The brilliant Being Various, an anthology of Irish short stories edited by Lucy Caldwell, was perfect for dipping in and out of on long train journeys.
Thanks to readers who’ve stuck with me to the end of what’s turned into a very long post. Back to books on Friday…