East is east

East is east
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First Published: Fri, Aug 28 2009. 09 16 PM IST

 Milestones: (from top to bottom) The Wenceslas Square in Prague. AFP; statues of Hungarian heroes at Budapest’s Heroes Square. AFP; Rodricks in front of the Budapest House of Parliament. Jerome Marre
Milestones: (from top to bottom) The Wenceslas Square in Prague. AFP; statues of Hungarian heroes at Budapest’s Heroes Square. AFP; Rodricks in front of the Budapest House of Parliament. Jerome Marre
Updated: Fri, Aug 28 2009. 09 16 PM IST
Designer Wendell Rodricks went on a dream holiday through Eastern Europe with his partner Jerome Marrel over the summer. Edited excerpts:
Was this your first train trip through Europe?
Milestones: (from top to bottom) The Wenceslas Square in Prague. AFP; statues of Hungarian heroes at Budapest’s Heroes Square. AFP; Rodricks in front of the Budapest House of Parliament. Jerome Marrel; and the window at St Cyrils, where Nazis killed the Czech fighters.
When I was 21, I backpacked my way through Europe. It was a carefully planned trip based on a Europass, involving travelling on night trains to save on hotel rooms, depositing belongings in station lockers and seeing a city by day. Those days have gone forever. The locker rooms are now cafés (thanks to terrorism) and a night train is costlier than a flight. But this June, my partner Jerome and I decided to do Eastern Europe in style by train. We took the Eurostar from London’s St Pancras station to Brussels and then went on to Cologne. From Cologne we went to Budapest, Prague, Warsaw and Kraków. We went back to Paris via Cologne and then back to London on the Eurostar.We travelled first class all the way. From Brussels to Cologne and from Cologne to Paris we travelled by the French high-speed TGV train called Thalys.
Seems like the journey, not the destination, was the highlight.
It is a joy to travel by train in Europe. Not only is it comfortable and on time but it affords beautiful views. We had to plan to arrive well in advance, as finding a train or compartment in larger stations can be daunting. Also, one needs to check if there’s a dining car: In some cases, despite the trains leaving around suppertime, there were no dining cars and we had to rush out and buy fast food at the station.
All-night trains have a key to lock the compartment, as there are rare cases of robbery and assault. Though European trains are known for being on time, we missed a connection in Cologne. So it’s a good idea to book through an agent, so that one can get reimbursed for such mishaps.
What made you want to visit East Europe?
I have seen a lot of Western Europe and it was always a dream to see Prague. So we decided to do the three countries that were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. I have always had this fascination for Marie Antoinette. Her mother was empress of the Austro-Hungarian empire and I wanted to see her world. Bizarrely and coincidentally, Hitler attacked these three countries before he went on to West Europe.
You say it was your dream to visit Prague. Why?
As a child in 1975, I saw a movie twice that made me resolve to see Prague one day. Operation Daybreak is a riveting cinematic translation of a World War II event that destroyed one village with all its inhabitants and threatened to raze the beautiful city of Prague to rubble. Czech freedom fighters descended by air from England to plot the murder of Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague. After a daring operation that killed Heydrich, I recall very clearly the tragic end where the last of the two anti-Nazi rebels were holed up in a church; they committed suicide rather than die at the mercy of the Nazis. An infuriated Hitler made a lesson of Prague that prompted Churchill to vow not to attack high-ranking officers of the Third Reich if it meant the murder of millions of innocent civilians.
Thirty-five years after seeing Operation Daybreak, I visited the Sts Cyril and Methodius cathedral, where the two Czech men died, saw the bullet blasts in the crypt’s stone window and said a prayer for all those who give up their lives for their land.
Which were the sights you found most interesting?
Prague is like a jewel. Its brilliant buildings, streets and fabulous churches are a walker’s delight. One has to put on a sturdy pair of shoes and be prepared to walk 8 hours a day. It’s possible to cover all the sights in two days. We rode on the No. 22 tram, visited the Jewish quarter, the Old Town Square with its dancing figure astronomic clock, and the expansive Wenceslas Square, bordered by beautiful baroque buildings. The interiors of hotels here have featured in many movies—one of them was the grand dining room in Titanic.
Prague has so many old cars and vintage streets that film crews are perpetually at work here. It’s not unusual to see Tom Cruise or Nicole Kidman in swank hotel lobbies or shooting on the streets. Must-sees are Prague Castle, a complex of churches and architectural marvels, and Charles Bridge, with its many statues of saints.
I had heard about the miraculous statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague in the church of Our Lady Victorious, at the base of the castle hill. The statue has 365 garments and they are changed daily. The statue has a loyal following with a reputation for granting all wishes. This pilgrim site had a surprise in the sacristy. When I went to bless the rosaries I had purchased, I met a Goan priest, Father Vincent Fernandes.
Did you visit other cities that had felt the repercussions of World War II?
Yes, we visited Warsaw, a lively, bustling city, with an economy to match. Though not one of the great cultural cities of Europe, the Polish capital is well worth a visit. Indian friends living in Warsaw took us to see the sights. Off the tourist track, we took in the sulphur vapours at a park in Constantin and the spectacular Warsaw University library. Both were impressive: the former for its simplicity, the latter for its Sovietesque grandeur in glass and brass and fabulous views. The main Town Square, amazingly, was rebuilt from the rubble of World War II. The Nazis were so angered at the revolt of the Jews in the Jewish ghetto that they left Warsaw a burning mass of roofless buildings razed to the ground. Polish director Roman Polanski’s movie The Pianist portrays this tragedy. But now the square looks untouched— the Poles have lovingly pieced together their capital.
I am still baffled by World War II. When we travelled through these countries I could not imagine the horror of the Holocaust. The serene fields and beautiful cities are impossible to connect with movies such as The Pianist and The Reader. It is surreal that these peaceful, pastoral places were subjected to such brutality. In Warsaw they asked me if I wanted to see the concentration camps nearby. I declined as I have seen Dachau (a concentration camp) in Germany and it left me sleepless.
What were your experiences in Budapest?
Budapest is a magical city. Comprising two parts—a hilly Buda and a flat Pest—this metropolis is a bargain. To get a feel of the city, we could either take a ride on the Danube river or do a city tour by bus or ride on Tram No. 4. We did the former two. Like Prague, Budapest is a walking city, of grander proportions. After 10 hours walking and climbing per day, I was deadbeat but deliriously happy.
For the best Spanish artists outside Spain, we had to visit the Museum of Fine Arts on Heroes Square. The square itself is worth a visit, with its gigantic Hungarian heroes cast in metal. We saw Strauss’ opera Salome in this fabulous jewel of an opera house. We got seats in the gilt balconies where royalty sits; I felt I was back in Mozart’s time.
What was your culinary journey like? Any run-ins with goulash?
To be brutally frank, I hated the Hungarian goulash. I am neither a meat-eater nor a lover of excess carbs. For gourmet cuisine, we’d been told to go to Gundels, which is in all the guidebooks for its fusion goulash and dumplings and is now owned by the daughter of Estée Lauder (who was Hungarian). We didn’t eat there, as it needed a reservation and we had just three nights. In these countries, vegetarians are in dire straits. Budapest had superb foie gras, which Jerome devoured. I tried the goulash in a teaspoon and the dumplings as well. The food is not happening unless you like meat Pastries are good, but a tad sweet for me.
Can you share some tips for potential travellers?
Plan to visit East Europe before 2011. It’s the year when Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary convert their zlotys, korunas and forints into euros. Till then these countries of the Austro-Hungarian empire are within reach of the Indian tourist.
Getting there
Use a travel agent to book your passage on Eurostar. Check the website for steal-deals and combination offers. Thalys tickets are available up to three months in advance on the Web: The best fares are available early.
As told to Parizaad Khan. Share your last holiday with us at lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Aug 28 2009. 09 16 PM IST