"Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow" -Anita Desai
The unknown...it's both frightening and exhilarating. I am keenly aware of my smallness in comparison with the great expanse of the world, yet I yearn to experience more of it. What adventure awaits outside my glass panes, beyond the familiarity of my city and state and past the watery borders of this continent? I find it fascinating that what is foreign to me is completely ordinary for another.
This desire to experience more of the world is like a pulse. The hope of "someday" has carried a faint but steady rhythm throughout the last decade as we added babies and a mortgage and other things that seemed to hold us to our tiny pocket of the earth. But when my youngest brother and his wife moved to Prague in the summer of 2015, traveling abroad seemed like more of a possibility. And we got a chance- a wonderful, now-or-never window of opportunity. We booked the flights from Detroit to Prague using Marriott hotel points converted to airline miles (our home is in Michigan but my husband works in New York City...the Fairfield on 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn is basically a second home). Oh the anticipation! Two weeks of complete freedom, directly following one hectic month during which we sold our house and had three weeks to pack up 3500 square feet and a two-car garage and move out. We could not have done it without our gracious parents and incredible friends, who so generously afforded us this experience by taking care of our children. It was a long time to be without those three, but we were in need of it. Relationships go through so many changes, and if you've been married for any length of time and add a few kids into the mix, you can probably attest to this...friendship can fade. So what started out as not-our-average-vacation unexpectedly turned into a rekindling of friendship. It took twenty-something hours to get to Prague between flights and layovers. We binge-watched season two of Turn and used our free United Club passes to fill up on hors d'oeuvres and take naps between flights. When we landed in Prague, my brother met us just outside the airport with a handmade welcome sign, huge smiles, and giant hugs, and excitedly led the way back to his place. We took the Prague Metro to Namesti Miru in the Vinohrady district, which has the longest escalator in the European Union- 533 steps, an impressive workout if you choose to walk up it (which we had to do once because it wasn't moving). The two men had spent the previous months planning our whole trip-giving me the focus I needed to pack up our house and transition. They arranged for us to stay at my brother's apartment in Prague, followed by a Mariott in Munich, a bed and breakfast in Fussen, a youth hostel in Salzburg, and an Airbnb in Cesky Krumlov. We traveled by plane and car and tram and bicycle and foot. We shared tables with people from around the globe. At a monastery-turned-brewery in Salzburg we talked for hours with an Australian couple who had a fascinating story involving a Pre Decimal coin. In an incredible it's-a-small-world-afterall coincidence, we met some Americans from the band of Electric Six at Las Adelitas, a Mexican restaurant in Prague, and we quickly discovered they were friends-of-a-friend. It was a feast for my senses to discover different sights, smells, sounds, and tastes- and I felt carefree for the first time in a long time. This trip was a wonderful lesson in culture, patience, friendship, perspective, acceptance, and gratitude, and I returned home a changed person with unforgettable memories. I hope you enjoy these selected photos from my travels...it has been nearly a year since we were there and I think about those two weeks nearly every day (truthfully in part because the food looks and tastes so fresh, so delicious, so beautiful- I will most likely crave it for the rest of my life). If you feel inclined to read on, I've finally taken the time to chronicle those two weeks and some particularly memorable places we visited.
My brother was our tour guide in Prague, and our first three days did not disappoint. We walked through Wenceslas Square, trekked to the Prague Castle where the Bohemian Crown Jewels are kept, and up Petrin Hill. We stood awestruck in front of the altar at the gothic and baroque St. Nicholas Church. We sipped sangria and savored affogatos (a shot of espresso with a scoop of ice cream), observed the 607 year-old astronomical clock show in Old Town Square, toured some synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Jewish Quarter, and bought some flaky croissants and fresh baked confectionaries at the corner Bakeshop, an honest-to-goodness visual gem.
We marveled over the spectacular views of Prague's Old City from the Letna Beer Gardens and played cards at one of the hundreds of picnic tables beneath mature shade trees illuminated with small lanterns of light. Dogs ran about unleashed, sniffing everything, freely acquainting themselves with complete strangers while never wandering too far from their people. We walked the grand stone Charles Bridge, and drank iced chai tea at The Coffee Room before shopping for treasures to bring back home- a small frosted cobalt vase, hand creme from an apothecary, a watercolor and a leather journal from an outdoor market. On day four, we loaded duffel bags, backpacks, and pillows into the trunk of a compact rental car and hit the road.
About four hours later, we arrived in Munich. It was dusk when we meandered the cobblestone streets and alleys of Marienplatz near the most famous Glockenspiel and ate at the hip burger grille Hans im Gluck. The next morning, we selected necessary items for our backpacks and the four of us left our spacious rooms with umbrellas in hand to join a three-hour Sandeman's walking tour. Large crowds gathered in front of the towering Glockenspiel, but we eventually found our guide. He was young and energetic, quick-witted and well-versed on the city's history- from the origins of Ocktoberfest, to details about the Bavarian royal family, and from the chaotic and unstable 20th century to the earliest days of the Nazi movement. We walked through the medieval center of Munich and admired the towers, the time-worn buildings that have witnessed hundreds of years of life, of change. When the tour ended, we found our way back to the elaborate, historical Hofbrauhaus. It was such a novel sensation to sit in the place that Mozart frequented, as well as Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Marcel Duchamp, Louis Armstrong, and many other notable figures throughout history. Later we walked through the marketplace, sampled food from local vendors, and admired the delightful pop-up gardens.
The next day, after a hearty breakfast at the Mariott, we drove to the Dachau concentration camp and memorial site. It was the prototype, the first of many Nazi camps opened in Germany in 1933, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were taken as prisoners. They were terrorized and died horrific deaths in the span of twelve years, all in close proximity to the town of Dachau (who were the people who lived there? How could they not know what was going on? Did they care?). It was the most sobering thing I've ever experienced-to walk the same ground as those poor tortured souls. It's hard to put into words what I felt as we quietly navigated the dark buildings past cell after tiny cell, into the reconstructed barracks, across the grounds with the many concrete-lined gravel beds which represented even more barracks, and onto the courtyard where executions and other atrocities were committed- all of it still surrounded by a deep ditch, high borders of barbed wire, and guard towers. The crematorium was a short walk from the courtyard. It seemed like a secret place in the trees, a relatively small cabin nestled in green foliage. But the inside was a harsh reality- it was haunted, nauseating. The lust for killing had been erased for some time, but it's cruelty bore witness all around us in unfathomable forms. Our emotions stirred, we walked back to our car. The air was cold and carried a solemn quiet, chilling our bones. Rainclouds threatened us in the gray sky, while the poplar trees lining the main camp road stood watchful.
We drove on to Fussen, and arrived in time for dinner. Nearly every store was closed that weekend due to some holiday, and the town was dark and quiet except for the rain which hit the rooftops, ran down gutters, and collected in puddles. We found an open restaurant, Il Pescatore, and waited at a small bar in the back for an hour until a table was available. The place was cozy and warm, with white cloth-covered tables and candlelight. Our food arrived, and we sampled each other's pasta dishes, relishing each tasty bite. The next morning, we left early for the famed fairy-tale castle. We waited in a long line for our tickets then played Euchre in a hotel lobby while we waited for our tour.
The stunning white castle, Neuschwanstein, sat high on a mountain, surrounded by green and rock, isolated above the village below that bustled with tourists. A bus transported us up the steep, rugged mountain, taking sudden sharp turns that drew quick breaths from the passengers. Set against the foothills of the Alps, the castle itself is truly a marvel, and we soon discovered that for all its breathtaking charm, it was also equipped with the most advanced technology of its time. Pretty and smart.
The history combined with the beauty and the tragic account of King Ludwig II's mysterious death made visiting this castle a most appealing and satisfying adventure. We carefully treaded down the mountain afterward, enjoying the sweeping views of Hohenschwangau, bordered to the west by the serene lake Alpsee...where I might have been satisfied to sit for hours and stare at all its sparkle and those distant stoic mountains. My eyes scanned the horizon, searching out the beauty arrested in every little village, in the dense forests and lush landscapes, in the ancient architecture juxtaposed against the modern.
Salzburg was our next destination, and we arrived (again in the evening) at a youth hostel, where we slept for two nights. It was simple but spacious and clean, and it provided a satisfying breakfast in the mornings. We walked the streets in the late evening, and found ourselves in front of a bright yellow, six-story, 12th century house-turned museum, the birthplace of Wolfgang Mozart. We bought bratwurst from a food truck and peeked into brightly-lit shop windows. A concert was underway-a throng of young people created quite a commotion, all assembled under a giant tent, music blasting loudly through giant speakers. We took a taxi back to the hostel, and made plans for the next day before crawling into our bunk beds and giving in to sleep. Although the weather was not ideal, the rain held off for Fraulein Maria's Sound of Music bicycle tour, which was a highlight of our stay in Austria. We biked about eight miles from the Mirabellplatz across the Salzach River, into old town, and up an enormous hill on a narrow, winding path to Nonnberg Abbey (whose famous postulant Maria Kutschera taught the von Trapp children and later married the widowed naval commander Georg von Trapp). The stop provided a stunning vantage point of both the city and the mountains. It was a short ride to the Leopoldskron Palace (that grand white mansion with large lake which became the film's exterior location for the von Trapp home). We rode through an Austrian residential area, alongside expansive farmland, and straight through Hellbrunner Allee's tunnel of mighty chestnut trees. We took a twenty minute break when we reached the Frohnburg Palace and the Gazebo ("I am sixteen going on seventeen"), then pedaled back to town, with a stop at the Mirabell Gardens. Even the men enjoyed the tour, and we all sang along when the guide put a bluetooth speaker in someone's bicycle basket and played the soundtrack from the Sound of Music. It was probably a mildly obnoxious tourist-y thing to the locals, but for those of us who grew up watching the movie, it was kind of awesome.
After lunch at L'Osteria, we walked around the Hohensalzburg fortress castle (which dates back to 1077) and hiked a few miles from the fortress to the Augustiner Brewery, a former Benedictine monastery from the early 1600s. The clouds released rain occasionally, but a natural leafy canopy kept us dry for much of the hike. We had a little trouble finding the location, but when we did, it was a welcome respite for our cold, weary bones. The vast indoor halls were loud, warm, and wonderful, with a buzzing atmosphere and a wide assortment of local food and drink. We stayed for hours, and with elbows bumping at a long wooden table, we ate and drank and talked and laughed with each other and some new Australian friends. We ended up parting ways- the men wanted to stay a while longer, so I left with my sister-in-law to go back to our hostel. It was a long journey back at night in cold and rain, figuring out which buses to take to which stops, relying on strangers who spoke different languages to help us figure out where we needed to go. But we did eventually make it, feeling exhausted but proud. We changed into pajamas, curled up under some blankets, and continued watching a movie we'd started in Prague...Gone with the Wind (I'd never seen it...I know). It was a wildly wonderful day.
The next morning, my husband and I got up early and walked the streets in Mozartplatz, spending our last moments in the company of some hard workers, who waited patiently for their day to begin. An artist stood with his paintings under the protection of an archway and we bought a watercolor of the Mirabell Palace Gardens. We even encountered our Australian friends from the night before as they came out of a shop together, and we said our final goodbyes.
When we first arrived in the Czech Republic, it was sunny and warm. Germany and Austria were cold and wet, fifty-something degrees (I wasn't expecting that and had to wear the same clothing layered for a few days straight) but when we reentered Czechia toward the end of our trip, we were welcomed with sunshine again, and temperatures in the high seventies.
This dreamy town in South Bohemia adorns a river, a life-giving source whose water continues the same course and has provided sustenance to people for over seven hundred years. The Cesky Krumlov Castle and Gardens were impressive, but we preferred walking the cobblestone streets and perusing the antique shops. We bought a well-constructed leather bag and tasted trdelnik, a cylindrical grilled pastry sprinkled with sugar and filled with sweet ice cream and topping of choice. I ordered the plum jam- it was tart and delicious. We found a little restaurant near the river, TW Mary, and sat on the back terrace. We ordered hot almond mead, garlic soup, and the Bohemian Feast- one huge platter of smoked meat, millet, potato cakes, dumplings, and salad. The cook was visible through an open second-story window (was it their home too?), and a friendly cat cozied up to anyone who would pay it attention. At dusk, we walked nearly a mile from the town back to the modern fourth-story apartment we rented through Airbnb.
The following day, we ended up where we started, in my brother's apartment, where the wine bar on the ground level hosted a fashion show on the back lawn. We had three days left to enjoy our surroundings and each other's company. We napped on the grass in Stromovka park, steered a paddle boat on the waters of the Vltava River, and frequented Angelato for their divine pistachio gelato and mango sorbet. We ate meats at the Nase Maso butcher shop, practically inhaled melt-in-your-mouth tiramisu at Pizzeria Giovanni, and tore apart slices of brick oven pizza on a riverboat at 11pm with people we'd just met. What an unforgettable trip!
And I feel like the luckiest girl in the world, because we are going to Europe again this summer, this time with my dear sister and brother-in-law (courtesy of those airline miles-again!)- first to Rome, then to Florence and Venice, over to Croatia, then up through Slovenia with a quick stop at some underground caves, to Vienna, and finally back to Prague. I can hardly wait for the adventures ahead!