Bohemian Pleasures: Revisiting the Labyrinth

Prague is a labyrinth. Seen from Google Maps satellite view, it is all red roofs twisting and winding into one another. There are streets and street numbers, but they are hidden under the labyrinthine turns of the red roofs, and a first-time visitor is likely to get lost. At least we did. Last October, when we arrived in Prague, we took a taxi from the train station and were left off in the center of a picturesque part of Old Town. The driver indicated that our hotel was close, but for some reason he couldn’t take us there. We had the address but couldn’t find the street. Wheeling our suitcases over cobblestones for at least an hour, we asked for directions from shop owners and restaurant waiters and tried to follow their leads, but all we did was walk in circles. Finally, someone pointed us toward a narrow alley that appeared to go nowhere, and we entered, veered left, passed some hanging flowerpots, and found our hotel’s office. To call our accommodations quirky would be an understatement; the “hotel” was an assortment of apartments located in very old buildings with creaky stairs. Our apartment was furnished in mid-last-century Hit-or-Miss, but it was roomy, with a large kitchen and sitting room, and it was located exactly in the center of Old Town. Now that we knew our way into and out of the labyrinth, we were exactly where we wanted to be.

That was last October, almost a year ago, and it was a real-life trip. We were early into a whole month’s adventure in Central Europe, having just spent some time in Berlin and Dresden. Our train pulled into Prague in the middle of the afternoon, but by the time we found our apartment, freshened up, and set out to explore the city, night had fallen. At night Prague is golden. It glows.

Last Thursday I returned to Prague, but this time I experienced the jumble of sensations virtually and with the aid of memory. I had reached the final destination on my Sagres-to-Prague virtual walking tour, having, since my last post, enjoyed the delights of Venice, Italy; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Graz and Vienna, Austria. I walked every step of the way, tracking my progress with the help of my Apple Watch and an Excel spreadsheet. I was not there and I was there, both at the same time.

What is there to do in Prague? First off, the new visitor must buy a trdelník from a street vendor and eat the spiral of roasted pastry dough while walking around the square taking in the sights. Trdelniks originated in Transylvania just like someone we all know and love, but there’s nothing vampiric about them. I wish I had taken a photo, but I was in too much of a hurry to sink my teeth into that flaky, sugary goodness. Next, the visitor must check out the Astronomical Clock, locate the statue of Franz Kafka, walk across the Charles Bridge and of course back again, sit in a heated outdoor cafe and enjoy a glass of wine or beer, and stay out of the way of the horses that clop along pulling tourist carriages. It isn’t necessary to ride in one of the carriages, but it is de rigueur to admire the horses, especially the dappled greys. On a less frivolous note, a tour of the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Jewish Quarter is a must. In a restored synagogue there is an exhibit of children’s drawings that will break any visitor’s heart.

After a few days of seeing the sights, learning the history, eating the food, and admiring the horses, and before moving on to the next stop in the incredible journey, a visitor must, of course, go shopping.  Prague is a great place to buy Bohemian garnets, which are deeper in color than garnets mined in other parts of the world, and Czech glass beads, which are very pretty and surprisingly inexpensive. I couldn’t resist.

I allowed myself some time some time to wander virtually around this charming city of twists and turns, but, because the world is large and because other destinations are calling my name, I have already started my next virtual walk. Where am I going this time? Here’s a clue: For part of my journey I will be following the route of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Putting One Foot in Front of the Other: Marseille to Bologna

Public domain image courtesy of Pixabay.com

“Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun,” wrote Charles Dickens, using the English spelling of the name of the French city. He went on to describe the “blazing sun upon a fierce August day,” stared at and staring back in return, as well as the “staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away.” This focus on oppressive sunlight comes at the beginning of the first chapter of Little Dorrit, a novel set mostly not in Marseille and largely in places where the sun forgets to shine, like, for example, prisons of differing degrees of dankness.

Although I had read several Dickens novels, some more than once, and even watched (and, I’ll admit, enjoyed) the Wishbone version of A Tale of Two Cities, I came late to Little Dorrit. I came to it after reading John Irving’s The Cider House Rules,which is also not set in Marseille. In Irving’s novel, a character is reading, or trying to read, Little Dorrit, although, if I remember correctly, she doesn’t get very far into it, and neither does anybody else. Still, Little Dorrit keeps popping up, almost like a leitmotif. Perhaps Irving was simply paying homage to Dickens, whose work he has said he admires.

The late James Welch, whom I met when he came to Cornell as a visiting writer a number of years ago, wrote a novel that actually is set in Marseille. In The Heartsong of Charging Elk, the main character, a young Oglala Lakota, finds himself unable to adjust to reservation life in the late 19th century. He joins Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild troupe and leaves with them on a European tour. During a performance in Marseille, Charging Elk falls from his horse and is seriously injured. When he wakes up in a French hospital, he learns that Buffalo Bill’s company has gone on without him. Stranded in Marseille with few possessions, no friends, no money, and no knowledge of the French language, he must fend for himself. Bad things happen, good things happen, terrible things happen, good things happen. At one point, Charging Elk finds work in a soap factory.

I arrived in Marseille (virtually) a couple of days before last Christmas. (For anyone who is not familiar with my virtual walking tours, I do the actual walking wherever I happen to be, using my Apple watch along with Google Maps to track my mileage and map my journey. I’ve been doing this for years.) Because I have never been to Marseille in real life, my touchpoints were literary; for me, Marseille is Little Dorrit, The Cider House Rules, and The Heartsong of Charging Elk. And there is one more touchpoint, a nonliterary one: soap. Marseille is famous for the quality of its hard-milled, scented soaps. Joe and I have been using a particular brand of Marseille soap for years; when our local Wegmans stopped carrying it, we found an online source. I am not surprised that Charging Elk worked briefly in the soap industry.

After Christmas in Marseille, it was time to move on. My next stop was Nice, with memories of the Bastille Day, 2016, terror attack still fresh in my mind. And then off to Genoa and beyond. 

And here I am in Bologna, another city that I have never visited in real life, and my literary associations are scanty. Bologna figures only slightly in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy; Naples is, after all, the main character in those books. Years ago, when I sold foreign rights for an academic publisher, I met once a year with my European and Asian  counterparts at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I especially enjoyed meeting with a woman named Luisa who worked for a publisher in Bologna. I remember the year she showed up breathless and exhausted; she and her co-workers had just pulled into Frankfurt after spending the night driving across the Alps. We talked about books and, because we were about the same age, we talked about our lives.

As I explore (virtually) the very real attractions of a very old city–the terra-cotta hues, the tiled roofs, the leaning towers (because Pisa doesn’t have a monopoly on leaning towers), the piazzas and basilicas, the arcaded streets, the university (oldest in Europe), and the marvelous food (which, alas, I will be tasting only virtually), I expect to discover that I would very much like to visit Bologna actually, to put real boots and ballet flats on the ground. It’s already on the list.

But I have other places to go on this walking tour from Sagres to Prague, so I’ll have to say Arrivederci for now. Next stop: Venice.

Greetings from the End of the World

That’s where I am, Cape Finisterre, which translates as “end of the earth” and feels like it.  This peninsula in Galicia, Spain, narrows and pokes into the ocean and into the wind so that you feel totally disconnected from what your life used to be and ready to start anew.  For a long time people believed that Finisterre (or Fisterra, as it often is called on maps) was the end of the known world, but the honor of being the westernmost point of continental Europe belongs to Cabo da Roca, Portugal, which wins by a few feet, although the two points of land look more like noses than feet.  That’s horseraces for you.  

Actually I’m in Finisterre virtually, at the end of my most recent virtual walking tour. I started in Le Puy, France, and walked through Moissac, St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and Roncesvalles before reaching Pamplona, Spain.  From there it was Burgos, León, Santiago de Compostela, and Finisterre, which is an optional extension of the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James).  My itinerary was virtual, but the walking was real; I use a pedometer and chart my progress on a spreadsheet.  But I’ve been to Finisterre in real life.  A couple of years ago, Joe and I took a trip through Galicia and Portugal.  We stopped in Pontevedra, where I had the best Spanish tortilla I’ve ever had in my life, and in Santiago, where we saw more pilgrims than I would have believe existed.  There were pilgrims in Finisterre, too, like the nun in the above photo.  We were cheating, though.  We traveled in a rented car and slept in hotels rather than pilgrim houses.  This time around I did the walking, but I did it elsewhere; in fact much of the legwork for the last part of my route was done on wide Parisian sidewalks dotted with Parisian cafes.

Finisterre became a pilgrimage destination in pre-Christian times.  People believed it was the place the sun went to die.  Modern pilgrims don’t make sacrifices to the sun, but they are likely to leave something behind in that sacred place, perhaps their hiking boots or an article of clothing.  

Where do I go next?  I’ve already decided that I’ll walk down the coast of the Iberian peninsula, visiting Cabo da Roca, of course, and ending up in Sagres.  I’m still mapping out the route, but I’ll definitely stop in Porto to sample some of that 20-year-old Tawny.

Being In Two Places At One Time

I am well into a virtual walking tour from Le Puy, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, with a further trip to Finisterre. I reached Léon, Spain, on April 1, during a long layover at Heathrow Airport on my actual trip from Ithaca to Paris. Right now I’m virtually between Léon and Santiago but actually in Paris. I’m thinking this is sort of like being stuck inside of Mobile while wanting to be in Memphis, which was pretty much the pattern of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, as I think I remember one reviewer saying, but that was a long time ago.

Neither virtually nor actually, but truly, madly, deeply, I am not stuck anywhere. I am where I want to be–in Paris and in Léon–and there are a few other places I would also like visit all at the same time. I think that’s what life is like, and while living in the moment has its benefits it also has its limitations. Why should geography deter us when the mind can fly faster than a speeding bullet or a powerful locomotive?

Three days ago we took a day trip from Paris to Chartres, toured the Cathedral, saw the sights. One sight I didn’t expect to see, although perhaps I should have, was a marker in the sidewalk indicating that Chartres is on the route to Santiago de Compostela–not my route, which began much closer to the Spanish border, but the one that starts in Paris. Pilgrims can begin anywhere they want. Where you are is always the starting point, and the journey radiates outward.