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  • Writer's pictureHiker Tom

Europe: Part 7

Prague, Vienna, and the Power of Reading


After Dresden came another city in another new country - Prague. Prague is unique for the region in that it remained largely unscathed throughout WWII. Consequently, most of the buildings that are dotted around its sprawling historic centre – many of which date back to the 14th century, a few others as far back as the 9th – have kept their traditional appearance. Cars can be driven through the centre, though it is clear that this is neither a wise nor popular option, and so the narrow cobbled streets are mostly pedestrianised. Furthermore, the swan-covered Vltava river bisects the old town, mirroring its medieval spires in a beautiful reflection, and serves as the perfect place to bask in the sun accompanied by a beer (which is really, really cheap!).


The Vltava river runs through Prague, with the backdrop of the castle behind


All of the above therefore made the city a great place to explore and relax, though there was plenty to entertain me, too. High above the old town the city’s castle sits upon a hill encasing within its walls the iconic St. Vitus cathedral, and for the equivalent of £10 you can gain entry to both. Inside there was plenty of information concerning the medieval history of Bohemia and learning about the region’s culture of Kings, Knights and Serfdom, as well as its intricate canon of folklore, was inspiring! In the town itself can be found the John Lennon (wall as part of a small neighborhood dedicated to The Beatles), the Beer Museum (which details the history and development of the brewing process from the ancient Egyptians through to modern day), and the wildly popular Sex Machines Museum (which I need not go into detail about).


The Colourful St. Vitus Cathedral


All in all, it is needless to say that I enjoyed the lively and interesting atmosphere of the city during the day, but when I think back to Prague now the immediate thoughts that spring to mind are the nights – or, rather, the people that I spent those nights with. On my first evening I overhead three Americans drinking in my hostel’s bar and I think it is a good indication of my growing confidence that I immediately approached them to ask “Do you guys mind if I join you?”. They accepted without any hesitation, and the rest was history. Their names were Sarah, Konrad, and Nithish: three twenty-somethings from California who were enjoying their miserly amount of Annual Leave by partying their way through Europe. Later that night I accompanied them to a bar that they had been to three years ago. It was the type of bar that has no advertisement or promotion of any kind on its exterior, so the average passer by would have no idea that it was there unless knowing about it already. I was incredibly lucky, therefore, to have been shown it by my three acquaintances. Upon entry, a staircase wound down to a network of small and crowded caves all interconnected by a maze-like tunnel system. Each room presented something different to the last, be it an Alcoholic Tea Bar, a Reggae band, or a Czech food stall. Konrad and Nithish, the two who had been before, were adamant that there was an even lower level that they had reached last time, and when they asked a staff member about it the reply that they received was “It’s hell, and you’ll find it eventually” – perhaps she was speaking metaphorically, perhaps not.


We never did find hell, but it was a great night nonetheless, and I ended up spending the next evening with them again. Being able to spend more time with the same people gave a different and nice perspective to my evening as I felt that I already knew them, was able to skip all of the formalities, and have a fun time. Those three Californians massively enhanced my enjoyment of Prague, evidence of which is that we never even paused to take a photo together before it was time to move on. After an intense hour of panic and stress wherein I left an expensive pair of Beats headphones on the train and proceeded to race that same train via the underground to the next station where I (luckily) retrieved them, I eventually arrived at my hostel in Vienna. I felt angry at myself for being so careless, but ultimately I didn’t lose anything, and thus I was also slightly impressed that I managed to beat the train to the next station! Otherwise, Austria’s capital city represented somewhat of a challenge to me. It is certainly an interesting place packed full with beautiful architecture, rich historical locations, vibrant cafes and delicious eateries, all of which I enjoyed profusely, but I couldn’t help but feel that my experience was tarnished by a general low mood that I had been in for the weekend. I’d been away for about five weeks at that point and it was the first time proper on my trip that I had started to miss a lot of friends and family, as well as some basic home comforts. These two things were enhanced, I believe, by the feeling of ‘big-city-burn-out’ that I was also experiencing. Vienna was the fourth major city that I had visited in a row – also the fifth in two weeks – and, as much as I enjoy the fast paced environment of cities, I was pining for the chance to return to nature to relax.


A selfie from Schönbrunn Palace grounds


Vienna, then, was a tougher place to become excited about than a lot of my previous destinations, however, not wanting to miss the opportunity to explore a city that has been on my to-do list for many years, I still set out in pursuit of something inspiring. I was rewarded. While the grandeur of some of Vienna’s iconic buildings – there are probably more standout structures here than anywhere else I have visited – is no doubt impressive, I eventually found solace in a much more unexpected source. Within the grounds of the famous Schonbrunn Palace lies the Palmenhaus – an enormous greenhouse which is home to all manner of trees, plants and flowers from every corner of the globe. I had been told about this place by Sorrel who, incidentally, had been in Vienna just a month earlier, and I am so grateful that she encouraged me to go! As I walked inside an intense array of floral aromas filled my nostrils and my eyes were faced with a vibrant spectrum of colours. The scene was gorgeous and, in such a stark contrast to the monotonous wintry atmosphere outside, the naturally perfumed air that I was breathing was both intoxicating and addictive. I walked round smelling every single flower up close, showing visible excitement when each one revealed something different to the last, then I sat down on one of the many dainty garden chairs became lost in my book for the next few hours. When I finally left the greenhouse my body felt cleansed and my mind was much clearer. There was still a lot on my agenda for Vienna, but I was in such a positive mindset that I decided to cherish that moment by continuing my book in a nearby café, instead, and left myself with plenty of reasons to return to the city another time.


I have chosen to write less specifically about Prague and Vienna in this instalment because I also wanted, and to an extent, felt obligated, to talk about something that has been a part of my entire trip thus far, but which has recently established a much more important role within it: reading. I love reading. Books – whether they be fiction, non-fiction, long, short, old or new – have and always will provide me with a unique means of enjoyment that captivates, entices and provokes my mind, and those who know me well will know that I have spent many a summer engrossed in a book (at times to the detriment of doing anything else).

Since graduating I have found myself free of the hundreds of pages per week that the final year of my degree had demanded of me; naturally I have begun to read increasingly fervently. In the past nine months I have been attempting to broaden my intake to include more than the epic-fantasy novels that so hogged my attention as a teenager and young adult, and resultantly I have read a variety of literary fiction from authors such as Ian McEwan, Elena Ferrante, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, and Sebastian Faulks. Furthermore, when I set upon my travels I endeavored to read some literature from every country that I visited in order to better grasp those countries. To begin with I had kept to that schedule, reading some especially impactful Norwegian and German novels, however, the historical allure of Prague left me pining for a return to the imaginary worlds that fantasy novels create, and I was soon beginning the 700 page behemoth that is Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon (a fantasy novel that I doubt will mean much to most of you, but is riveting!).


I mention all of this now because I found that reading helped me to no-end when I was in Vienna and feeling low. The escape of an alternative world was the perfect remedy for my loneliness; whenever I felt any negative thoughts creeping through my mind I turned to my novel, the surrounding real world became an unimportant blur around me, and with this those negative thoughts almost immediately dissipated. Then, when I finally returned to reality I was left in a state of clarity and composure. Despite reading regularly before Vienna, I had forgotten quite how powerful a good book can be – its impact, I find, can actually be similar to that same one that is attained by exercising – and this appreciation for such a simple art is something that I want to ensure I continue to cherish. As I sit writing this I am on a train from Slovenia back into Austria; I’m well on my way with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and I haven’t felt so excited about reading for a long time!

 

📚Read: Europe - Part 8 📚

📚Head back to: Europe - Part 1 📚

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