The Grand Tour 3: I spent cities like a handful of change (south)

(Part 1: can’t you hear that whistle blowing?)

(Part 2: rise up so early in the morn: north and east)

18 April 2018

My journey was the exact reverse of the one I’d taken forty-three hours before – but this time it was in broad, bright, day, a clear and gentle sunlight that suffused the landscape. We ran through pine forests, passed opaque blue lakes, and ponds still half-frozen over, wooden buildings painted red or yellow. First class meant free coffee, fruit, and chocolate truffles, for the mere trouble of getting up to collect them. From the window I saw two hares, and birds I’d never seen before. I took to Twitter for help identifying them. ‘Like a monochrome great crested grebe on stilts with a feather duster on its backside.’ The internet knew the answer. Cranes. It was, all in all, a beautiful afternoon.

At Malmö I went down the escalator to a subterranean platform. There I ate a roll and cheese and watched the virtual railway journey that was being projected onto the opposite wall, while I waited for my train to come in. This seemed to be more of an urban transit affair, though very soon it departed even suburbia and headed out along windswept, coastal hillocks towards Trelleborg.

The foot passenger terminal at Trelleborg was slightly more impressively appointed than, say, that of the Cowes floating bridge, but I couldn’t have said much more for it than that. By comparison with any of the Solent ferries it was paltry. It didn’t even have a building to itself; it occupied half of the bottom floor of a waterfront office building. And this was an international port.

There wasn’t anybody there, either. I followed the instructions to extract my boarding pass from the machine, but it gave me an error message. I concluded – or, at least, I hoped – that I was just too early and that I’d be able to make it work later in the evening. At the worst, the check-in hatch would be open. Probably.

Another part of the building was occupied by a hotel. I retreated to the bar of this establishment, and ordered a glass of white wine, which I drank while finishing Heavy Ice (I’d started this during March, as part of IndieAthon, but it’s very long) and watching the last stages of a large group meal. I felt a little jealous of the diners and their camaraderie. At the end of the glass of wine I got a cup of coffee. At the end of that, I gathered up my coat and my bag and strolled back across the foyer to the ferry terminal.

The machine gave me my pass. There were a couple of other people on the circle of benches. There still wasn’t anybody at the check-in hatch, but that was less of a concern now.

I waited. I read. I waited. The two other people got into a conversation about their respective families, and holiday houses. She was from Slovakia, I think; he was from Germany. I waited. I read. The benches filled up; a raucous dozen or so turned up together. We waited. The coffee wore off. We waited. The end of check-in time came and went. The boarding time came and went. At last, an official-looking man turned up and led us out into the dark. We boarded a bus. It trundled off into the unknown. When it had got there, we all got off again. The unknown turned out to be a little Portakabin where our passports were checked. This all took place in a language I was too tired to understand – almost certainly Swedish, which I had no hope of getting even when wide awake – but following the crowd seemed to work. At any rate, I ended up back on the bus and then, finally, blessedly, on the ferry.

I went straight to my cabin. A sign in the Portakabin had warned rather ominously that cabins on this crossing might have to be shared; I worried about this a little, ineffectually, placed my valuable belongings at the foot of my sleeping bag liner and my less valuable ones in my suitcase under my bunk, and went to bed. In the event, I was disturbed by nobody except the smokers outside my porthole.

19th April 2018

My alarm went off at five, which felt far too early for breakfast. I got a cup of coffee and sat in the lounge, watching the sun rise huge and red over the Baltic Sea, and texting Tony. He was awake, too, waiting in the departure lounge at Stansted Airport. We reported on the demeanour of our fellow travellers: his were tourists getting started on the holiday drinking already; mine were truckers, and partaking of a more solid breakfast. And coffee, of course.

I don’t know what happened to the group that got on the ferry with me. There were only a few of us foot passengers getting off at Rostock, and only one other girl who seemed to be trying to find the railway station. I followed her as she picked her way across the wasteland of vehicle lanes towards a bus stop.

It was good to be once more in a place where I could, with a bit of work, generally understand the signs. Understanding the spoken language was more of a challenge; still, I managed to get the idea that this bus did not go all the way to the station; that I should get a ticket, validate it, stay on the bus for several stops and then change to a tram. I thought that this really wasn’t bad going on five hours’ sleep.

I had assumed, when I was looking at the map of Rostock and planning my journey, that it would be dense dockland all the way into town. In actual fact the port gave way swiftly to scrubby farmland and then blocks of flats. Several advertisements on the ends of bus stops asked me why I wasn’t writing my book. I already had.

I’d hit rush hour, and stood all the way to the station – which was a study in contrasts: a stainless steel subterranean labyrinth below a light and airy superstructure. I decided it was now breakfast time and sat on a bench in the top level to eat my bread and cheese.

The train was a double-decker Deutsche Bahn Regio. I shared the top deck of my carriage with one other person. It was an unhurried, sunlit, progress south through gentle woodlands that were just beginning to acquire a dusting of green. South, into spring.

By the time I got to Berlin I seemed to have made it all the way into summer. It was hot. Tony had got there before me and met me at the Hauptbahnhof, from which we took the U-Bahn out to Unter den Linden to see the Brandenburg Gate, looking as if it had always been like that, and Pariser Platz, looking very new next to it, and eat currywurst for lunch before checking into our hotel, which had a window stretching the entire breadth and height of the front wall, and curtains featuring the faces of various celebrities associated with Berlin. My favourite was Marlene Dietrich. It also had an excellent view of the tram stop below, and the trams that frequented it – mostly yellow, although there was one in a stylish black paint job advertising Lego Star Wars.

In the evening it was cooler, and after wandering around for a while we ate at an Italian restaurant opposite the magnificent Friedrichstadtpalast, which grew ever more magnificent as dusk fell and the exterior was illuminated.

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20th April 2018

Tony had prepared a fairly thorough itinerary. We looked at the Fernsehturm, but didn’t go up it. We visited the cathedral, which had an exhibition about Luther, Bach, and anti-semitism, via Mendelssohn. I had what I described in my diary as ‘predictably complicated feelings’ about it: my great-great-great-grandfather Sir Julius (born Isaac) Benedict followed a very similar trajectory to Mendelssohn.

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Lunch was more currywurst, after which we went on a tourist river cruise, which was more than usually interesting and amusing as it was an independent outfit and the guide was allowed to have a personality. Also there was the opportunity to have drinks served at one’s seat; I had a Radler, which under its British name of ‘lager shandy’ I’d never tried, and found it exactly the thing for another very warm day.

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I’m just too young to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, therefore, what things were like on either side of the Iron Curtain before it came down. And knowing the ending changes the way you understand the story. The DDR Museum, in a cellar in the riverbank opposite the cathedral, went some way to filling in the gaps. Afterwards, we went to see one of the remaining fragments of the wall, made gorgeous with street art.

21st April 2018

The next day we went to see Checkpoint Charlie, thinking that we really should, and discovered that it had become something to be seen – if possible – over other people’s shoulders, Trabi tours, and beer bikes. I was sorry, though, that we didn’t have time to visit the museum, which did look interesting.

Fifty hours in Berlin – and it was more than I’d spent or would be spending in most cities on this trip. We returned to the Hauptbahnhof, where there was no sign of the through train to Dresden that the InterRail app promised me existed. In the end I took a train to Leipzig instead. My InterRail ticket confused the guard on the Leipzig-Dresden train; she said, ‘Mein Gott!’ I suppose it’s not what you usually get on the commuter inter-city. I’d booked two nights in the Dresden youth hostel, thinking that I’d do a day trip to Leipzig. By the time I got to Dresden I was less enamoured of that idea. And I’d only just had a day without any trains. Perhaps I was getting soft.

The youth hostel at Dresden had more than a whiff of DDR worthiness about it; though it was equally reminiscent of some of the more tired university halls of residence I’d seen in my time. It was a long, tall, block with two sets of staircases, each floor with a straight corridor running its whole length. I had a single room almost at the southernmost end of the fourth floor, next door to the toilet. It had a washbasin and a little table and chair, and that’s about as luxurious as one can expect of a youth hostel.

I fretted a little over whether or not I was allowed to eat in my room and, finding nothing that proved that I wasn’t, got everything out of the coolbag. It whiffed a bit. The Swedish salami chips were sweaty and suspicious looking; some of the tomatoes were plain gone. I put myself a sandwich together out of what still seemed to be sound, and chased it down with an apple and some lemonade from the vending machine in the reception area.

Having eaten, I got out the Rail Map of Europe, and Europe By Rail, and the European Rail Timetable, and considered my options. Prague was booked, and after Prague I could go on to Budapest, perhaps, and then Ljubljana and then Vienna. Or I could go from Prague to Bratislava to Budapest to Ljubljana… I went to bed without having arranged much more in the way of firm plans, but with a better sense of the direction I wanted to take, when once I was done with Dresden.

22nd April 2018

The set-up for breakfast was a little confusing. There was one big room where the buffet was laid out, and several smaller dining rooms assigned to various groups. I wandered up and down the corridor, and looked lost enough for one of the kitchen staff to take it upon herself to guide me into the one given over to the unattached.

Coffee, juice, rolls, ham, cheese, jam, fruit salad. Youth hostel breakfasts – continental youth hostel breakfasts – varied only in the specifics. When I’d finished this one, I got a town plan from the reception desk and walked the few hundred metres into the centre.

The previous night I’d written of Berlin, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere with such obvious signs of such recent trauma,’ which I think remains true. But the Second World War devastation of Dresden is visible still, whether in the quantity of flat, shiny, post-war buildings – or in the clean, yellow new stone blocks in among the old smoke-blackened ones of those that have been rebuilt. I started with the Zwinger, climbing up to the walkway at first floor level, and noted just how many of the nymphs and putti were replacements.

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It was a bright, clear, Sunday morning, still cool, and for the first half hour or so I just wandered. I found a statue of Carl Maria von Weber. I have a soft spot for Weber, based less on his music than on the fact that he taught Julius Benedict. He stood opposite the opera house; I looked at the website to see if there were tickets for that evening, but they came in at about €140, which was considerably more than I had budgeted for an entire day’s survival.

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I got some singing, though, very unexpectedly. It being Sunday morning, I decided that I really did want to go to church. The closest one was the Hofkirche, and the bells were ringing somewhere else, and the service started at half past ten. I smiled forgivingly at the sidesman who told me that the church was closed to visitors until twelve, and slid into a pew towards the back. I was still having complicated feelings about Judaism and family and Anglicanism, although for some reason mass made it better. I did wonder – no, I did think that others might wonder, if they knew – what on earth I was doing listening to preaching I couldn’t understand and watching a sacrament I wasn’t allowed to partake in, but being there was in fact enough, for the moment. And the choir was thrillingly good, and it hadn’t occurred to me that there would be a choir at all: they were out of sight in the gallery.

After the service I looked on the town plan for public toilets, and found one in the art gallery at the Zwinger. Upon discovering that it was only public in the same sense that the art gallery was – i.e. that anybody was free to go in, but only if they had a ticket to the art gallery – I decided that I might as well look at the art. It was a very Grand Tourish thing to do, after all. So I spent a few hours wandering among Crucifixions and Adorations and Nativities, sinuous Saints Catherine and Barbara (Cranach), plaster casts of antiquities, and vast, cool, views of Dresden by Canaletto. My handbag was heavy and my back hurt; when at last I came to a room with huge canvases on the walls and a bank of seats in the centre, I sat, and couldn’t pay all that much attention to the paintings.

I emerged again well after two o’clock into a hot city. My back hurt; I was getting hungry. Too hungry, in fact, to make a sensible decision about where to eat. The correct answer would have been ‘anywhere’; as it was, I wandered up and down being shy and pernickety, and eventually settled for a sausage place. A glass of Radler (I was a convert now) a Schloßburger (four slim pale sausages in a bun, with sauerkraut and mustard), a seat at a tall table and twenty minutes writing postcards, and I found myself more ready to take on the afternoon.

Europe By Rail recommends seeing Dresden from the terraces overlooking the south bank of the Elbe, and a walk along the riverbank itself. I’d been intending to do both these things from the moment I left the youth hostel, but I’d kept getting sidetracked. Once more, I set off in the direction of the river. This time I was sidetracked by the idea of ice cream (I didn’t follow through on it, because the queue in the gelateria was too long) and by the transport museum. This contained a display of bicycles and cars, thoroughly explained in both German and English, and a less expansive selection of railway locomotives, labels in German only. Well, the two displays had an equal amount of floor space allotted to them, but railway stuff takes up more space. Nor could it be accommodated on a mezzanine floor, as a whole post-war traffic jam had been on the other side of the building. I wasn’t really in the mood to attempt a lot of German, so I did little more than look at the stock and nod in an intelligent fashion.

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After this I really did manage to find my way up to the terraces, and to look out across the breadth of the Elbe, at the paddle steamers moored at the bank, and up at the gracious buildings, and to set out eastwards along the riverbank.

All of Dresden had had the same idea, and why not? It was a lovely afternoon for a picnic next the river. All along the wide grassy banks there were people sitting and sprawling on blankets, the odd bicycle lying on its side, children playing with balls and frisbees. It was too hot for walking, really, and I was uncomfortably conscious of my feet and back. The idea of ice cream returned to me, and when an ice cream van trundled along the path to come to a halt fifty yards ahead of me, I walked up to it and bought one. Heidelbeer. This, I learned some days later, was blueberry; the mauve colour and tiny seeds had given me to suspect as much. The transaction was completed in alternating German and Italian; thinking that I was equally deficient in both at this point, I followed the ice cream man’s lead. ‘Prego.’ ‘Grazie.’

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I wandered down to the riverbank, ate my ice cream, and sat quietly for a little while before heading back, trying not to notice how much my feet hurt. Wandering aimlessly around the square on my return (I had meant to go into the Frauenkirche, but a service was starting) I discovered that the next session of a festival of short films was about to start, so I sat down in a deckchair and watched four somewhat depressing pieces on various social justice themes.

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I gave up on the Frauenkirche by degrees: I was looking for a corner shop or similar to get cheese and bread for the trains, but I couldn’t find one, and eventually had gone far enough that it wasn’t worth turning back. A Camino de Santiago waymarking and information panel at the church behind the youth hostel was pleasing. So was the free dinner that I got when I asked about buying dinner. Apparently a group hadn’t turned up, so pork roulade, potatoes and vegetables were mine for the taking. It wasn’t quite on the level of Patrick Leigh Fermor scoring invitations to every castle in Europe, but it was good enough for me.

That night I booked rooms in Bratislava and Budapest.

23rd April 2018

From The Prisoner of Zenda to Song For A Tattered Flag, I’ve always had a weakness for the sort of story where a reasonably young, reasonably adventurous person goes off on holiday and finds themselves up to their ears in political intrigue. I had no intention of doing anything of the sort myself, and indeed thought it most unlikely. I’d stayed nowhere for longer than two nights – more usually moving on the next day – and had no conversation lengthier than a food order with anyone I wasn’t married to. Also, I’m essentially a wimp. Waiting on the platform at the station the next morning, I couldn’t help thinking of The Prisoner of Zenda. Dresden is the last place in the real world that’s mentioned in Rudolf Rassendyll’s itinerary: after that, he heads into Ruritania. I wasn’t going to Ruritania. I was going to the Czech Republic. (Bohemia, it would have been then.) And the train was a Czech train. It was called Carl Maria von Weber, which made me smile.

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I sat, as Europe By Rail recommends, on the left hand side of the train, for the best view of the rugged grey cliffs of the Elbe gorge. And it was a good day for a good view, with the trees in bright young leaf, and the buildings on the banks looking cheerful in the sunshine. I rather pitied the girls across the aisle from me, who were sleeping through the whole thing.

On the other side of the border, the announcements dropped German – and gained a couple of bars of Dvořák’s Humoresque, which made me think of The House of the Four Winds. I admitted to myself that my next novel, once I’d finished the sequel to the one that had won me this prize in the first place, would be a Ruritanian caper. The Society of Authors weren’t actually expecting a novel to come out of this Betty Trask Award-funded adventure, but, if they had been, a Ruritanian caper was what it would end up being.

I was a bit nervous about navigating urban transit systems on my own, but I didn’t really have a choice here: my hotel was quite a long way from the station. I made a bit of a meal of it, walking out as far as the tram stop and then finding that I should have bought a ticket before leaving the station, so trundling my suitcase all the way back again… The tram was a delight, though, a duo of red-and-cream cars that bounced through the Art Nouveau streets before crossing the river and zig-zagging up the blossomy hill towards the castle.

I have a nasty habit of getting off buses and trams a stop too early, born of a nasty fear of being carried too far, perhaps into the wrong fare zone… I did it here; which was not such a bad thing. The stop before the one I should have got off was at the castle gate, and there was a pleasant little café with tables in the sun. I ordered a lemonade and a sandwich, and then some coffee and a piece of apple cake, while I caught up with my diary and waited for check-in time.

After that I got on another tram and got off again at the correct stop. The hotel was across the road, elevated a little way above it. I was fairly sure that I’d opted for a view of the castle; they gave me a view of the tram stop. I didn’t quarrel: as is probably obvious, I like trams, and it seemed pleasingly appropriate after Berlin. I certainly had no complaints about the room more generally: it had a huge bed, a well-appointed bathroom, and a chocolate on the pillow. I rather regretted the fact that I was barely going spend any time there.

Once unpacked, or as unpacked as I needed to be, I set off out again. I walked down the hill a little way: there was a stiff wind rattling around it, whipping up petals of blossom and sending them fluttering around me. The sky became dark; a few thick spots of rain fell. I decided that, after all, I would do better to take the tram down the hill.

The rain came in force a couple of minutes after I’d got off in Malostranské náměstí. I bought myself a town plan from a tourist information office, then sheltered under the arcades for a little while, together with an Asian – Korean, possibly – couple in wedding attire. The bride had an embroidered tracksuit jacket over her white dress.

The rain showed no signs of stopping, so eventually I dashed across the street to a souvenir shop where I bought, along with my customary postcards and fabric patches, an umbrella with Mucha ladies trailing vines across the width and depth of it. It was a little flimsy, but it kept me drier than I would otherwise have been as I wandered through the town.

My father had lent me a book of Czech baroque architecture to have a look through before I went away. Baroque tends to be a bit florid for my taste – I like Gothic and Romanesque better – but since there was plenty of baroque around it seemed a pity not to have a look at some of it.

The first church I found was St Nicholas’. There was little enough daylight outside to get in, and it was obscured still further by a great tower of scaffolding running the length of the nave. Whether it was also damp, or whether I had just brought my own impression of damp in with me from the street, I don’t know. It was a gloomy place, its wall paintings and curlicues all seeming rather subdued. In a gallery reached by a flight of stairs there was a series of paintings of the Stations of the Cross (again rather dark).

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The sky cleared, and I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering. I had a few sights in mind; most of them, when I got to them, turned out to be closed, but there was plenty else to see, and much of it was beautiful, lavish, sinuous: baroque in the churches; Art Nouveau in the streets. I wound up eventually in Wenceslas Square. I couldn’t see the famous astronomical clock, which was under repair; there was an animation projected onto the mesh that shrouded it, but I thought it wasn’t quite the same, really… Dinner was ham, cabbage, and potato dumplings, at one of the touristy establishments around the edge of the square.

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Wandering a bit further, I came across a puppet theatre where W. A. Mozart’s Don Giovanni was to be presented, and since it was a good deal cheaper than watching real singers in Dresden, I went in to watch. The puppets did not, of course, sing; but they mimed very entertainingly.

Afterwards I rode around the place on a selection of trams, letting the city lights pass me by in a pleasant glowing blur, paying attention to where I needed to change, but without much more sense of where I was than that, until eventually I decided that I probably ought to go to bed.

24th April 2018

In the morning I walked up to the castle and wandered around the courtyards. I’d intended to look into the cathedral, which stands within the castle grounds, but as opening time approached the queues got longer and longer, and I decided that I couldn’t be bothered. Instead, I walked down the hill to cross over the Charles Bridge before returning to my hotel to check out.

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I spent most of the journey from Prague to Bratislava feeling discontent, unsettled. A chocolate pancake distracted me for a little while, but it only filled so much of the four hours. Then Booking.com phoned me to tell me that the apartment I’d booked.com in Budapest was double-booked.com. They offered to find me an alternative; while they did that, I took another look at the map and decided that perhaps I didn’t need to go to Budapest after all.

Bratislava’s main transport interchange was not an inspiring place. Hot, dusty, graffitied concrete. I couldn’t even bring myself to be enthusiastic about the trolleybuses. I went down an escalator to find the trams, then back up again to find a place to buy a ticket, then down again. Google Maps had shown me that my hostel was right next to a tram stop, ‘Vysoká, Tchibo Outlet’. I pictured a plate glass shopping mall gleaming harshly in this April sunshine.

The reality was rather different: a motley shopping street of the sort that you might find in any English market town. There seemed to be a few hostels on this stretch, but I found mine without too much trouble or embarrassment and hauled my suitcase up a narrow, twisty flight of stairs.

The landlady greeted me effusively and in English, gave me a set of three keys, showed me my room and my bathroom, and told me that the old town was down the road and to the left, and that the establishment opposite was good for food. I immediately felt better about everything. I liked the room: it was spacious, with a sofa as well as a wide, low, bed, and the bathroom was en-suite.

After a shower I went out into the evening sun and the old town. The air was cooling; the buildings – a delicious assortment of Gothic, baroque, and Art Nouveau – glowed golden. In the first square that I came to, two rows of souvenir booths were still open, just about. I sat for a little while in one church, observing respectfully if not reverently the remains of a saint, came out (charmed to see a couple of Franciscan monks in the street) and looked through the open door of another. Mass was being said, so I didn’t go in. Instead, I wandered along the square and read the educational signboards on the sides of the booths, which were all closed up now. A little further on, I found a decal on a wall, a stylised yellow scallop shell on a royal blue ground. I knew it well for a waymarking of the Camino de Santiago. I’d seen that one in Dresden, too.

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I bought an ice cream flavoured with lavender, and then walked due south to eat it on the bank of the Danube. It was not particularly blue, but it was majestically broad. The sky was clear, except for a few gentle clouds over the opposite bank, shaped almost like birds.

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I walked a little way eastward along the riverside, and then, when the light began to fade, turned north again and walked back through the old town.

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I dined that night, as my landlady had recommended, at 1. Slovenská Krčma (‘No. 1 Slovak Pub’, as was helpfully painted on the wall), which held itself up as a paragon of typical Slovak cuisine. I ate tiny little dumplings in a sheep’s cheese sauce with crisp morsels of bacon on the top, and washed it down with a glass of white wine. In between eating, and writing postcards, I glanced around the room. The pub doubled as an informal heritage centre. I was in the ‘Poets’ Room’: quotations and portraits had been painted on the walls. I finished the night off with a Slovak whisky and made the short journey across the road to bed.

The next morning I was woken by screaming. I’d left the window open in the hope of cooling the room a little, and when the first tram of the day passed a few feet below and to the left of my left ear, the screeching was quite alarming. With more trams to follow that one, the prospect of going back to sleep was remote, so I read a Roan Parrish m/m romance (it didn’t do much for me; it was so focussed on the characters’ issues that I never got a sense of them as characters) until it seemed like a reasonable time to get up.

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Even so, there weren’t many places open or serving breakfast. Eventually I found one that had tables on the pavement and a man finishing a cup of coffee at one of them. It was a happy chance. The menu (offered in both Slovakian and English editions) exhorted me, ‘If you can’t choose with your head, choose with your heart… MON AMOUR.’ I think it was probably my stomach that led me to the platter of poached eggs, roasted vegetables (cherry tomatoes, peppers, onions), green leaves, brown toast, and vivid paprika sausages; whichever part of my body was responsible, it was the best breakfast of the entire trip.

I went on to look at the cathedral, which had been closed by the time I’d got round to it the day before. It was a plain, friendly building, which felt larger than it really was because of its simplicity. It was dedicated to Saint Martin, and a magnificent eighteenth century sculpture of the saint on horseback, slicing his cloak in half to share it with the beggar on the floor, stood in the corner of the nave. What made it unusual was the fact that it was eighteenth century in dress as well as date: Saint Martin appeared as a hussar, and the cloak that he was dividing was a very fine pelisse. (The beggar had the customary loincloth.)

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Back to the hostel to check out (waiting a while on the landing, not sure whether I’d managed to rouse my hosts or not, before knocking a second time) and then back on the tram to the station. Time to head west. From here, it was only an hour to Vienna.

 

(Next: Part 4: you’re so ambitious for a juvenile: west)

5 thoughts on “The Grand Tour 3: I spent cities like a handful of change (south)

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