The Journey, Part 6

21 November 2013

I realize now that a couple of days, some incidents, a coincidence and a conversation or two, have been unaccounted for. After all there were two days in Prague, an overnight train to Krakow and a frosty early morning in Krakow without zlotys.

Prague has a small labyrinth of a central city (Olde Town Square and environs), a historic bridge and a fortress across the river, peering imperiously over its protectorate from high on a hill. Nice, and it does attract folks. I’ve been in close-order drills in the army, where there was a lot more room than on the shoulder-to-shoulder trek to the Charles Bridge. And it was October, after the ‘real’ crowds had gone.

Prague might be a long way to go for a concert, but I did see two that were memorable. One, the Czech Philharmonic in a wonderful concert hall on the river named the Rudolfinum, lit up, enticingly, like Camelot, and daring me to cross six lanes of snarling rush hour traffic and two sets of trolley tracks. I flew eight hours to hear Beethoven, but the last fifty yards was a bit iffy. The other concert was in a more sedate neighborhood in the Spanish Synagogue, where a group of six played and sang bits of Mozart, Dvorak, Gershwin and more. Better yet I happened on a restaurant / tap room (beer, not dance) nearby to round out those two evenings. Among the Czech’s well-practiced talents is brewing beer. They do it well…and in quantity. Better was a pastry shop (everywhere I go I seem to find a pastry shop) for mid-afternoon comfort. Everyone should have a Linzer Tart before dinner, right. (An army…and tourists…travel on their stomachs.)

There is a long water front, along the Vltava River, pretty nondescript, when you’re used to Riverwalk along the Hudson in New York. It was a mile and a half along the river from the Charles Bridge to find a Frank Gehry building (architecture as art) called “Fred and Ginger”…the dancing building. (Search “Frank Gehry in Prague” to see the building, which is diverting.)

Trying to do some things differently, I booked an overnight sleeper train to Krakow…a sleeper with two beds, wanting to be “European”…they stay in hostels, ten to a room…how bad could two to a room be? Overnight meant that the train left at 10:30 p.m. to arrive at 6:30 a.m. There’s no a.m. or p.m. in Europe…they use all 24 hours to tell time. I only used 20, so I got to the station four hours ahead of time and waited in a cold sweat for Krakow to appear on the destination board. Of course, it didn’t and my mind ran on, figuring that somehow the train came and went without me. Then I found a ticket agent who spoke English. “The train, she said, “will come…but in four hours”. Still nervous I tried making a slice of pizza and a Coke last the four hours. I couldn’t read, because I imagined that seedy train station types were circling like vultures, aware that the train wasn’t coming and I was going to be easy pickings…”it’s late, he’s tired, he doesn’t speak the language…we just have to wait”. (In the poetry section, see “Disoriented Express”).

When the train finally came, I then had to deal with the etiquette of “sleeping” with a stranger. Don’t get your hopes up for a better story…it was a “he”, going to visit his girlfriend in Krakow and well-practiced in the couchette arts. He was into his skivvies and asleep before the train cleared the Prague city limits. My upper bunk, however, had a closer connection to the clicking tracks and fortunately for all aboard, I stayed awake and made sure everything went smoothly. Truthfully, there was a porter, who had the same job of oversight and, between the two of us, we got the train to Krakow without incident.

At 6:30 a.m. on a frosty Saturday morning the Krakow train station is not a bustle of activity. But more on that later.