St. Nikolaus Church, Innsbruck, Austria

I spent an October day in Innsbruck, Austria, a chance to relax in between larger, more demanding travel venues. The small city is beautiful, featuring plenty of scenic vistas provided by the Tyrolean Alps, more monuments to the Hapsburgs, and good food and beverages. I did little more than wander around for a day, but was in town long enough to get this postcard cliche shot of a lovely Gothic church in late afternoon light with the rugged Alps in the background.

Busy Old Town, Kraków, Poland

The last stop on my trip was Kraków, Poland’s second largest city in the south of the country. During the three weeks since I had left Vietnam, I had covered a lot of ground in Europe, dozens of kilometers walking about the places I stopped and hundreds of kilometers in trains connecting me to destinations in Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Czechia, and Poland, all of which I was visiting for the first time. I had enjoyed myself throughout, but by the time I got to Kraków, I was suffering from a mild case of travel fatigue.

In fact, Kraków turned out to be an ideal place for this rather weary traveler to end his trip. Most importantly for me, the city is considerably smaller than Prague or Vienna, in terms of both area and population; it was much easier to get around Kraków. The main island of Venice is also small, but it is a difficult place to find one’s way, whereas Kraków is wonderfully simple.

Kraków is beautiful, and it is obvious that considerable effort has gone into preserving the historical character of this very old city, the origins of which date back to the 10th century of the Common Era. For hundreds of years, Kraków was home to Polish kings; today the city’s museums house relics of Polish royalty. The Kraków Old Town and Wawel Castle, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, are at the heart of what was medieval Kraków. I spent a good deal of my four days in Kraków walking around this part of the city. There were other places to see in and around Kraków, but I was content to limit the scope of my visit. When I visit a Kraków (or Vienna, Prague, of Venice) for three or four days, I am well aware that going to one site means, in effect, that I have chosen not to go a dozen or more other sites. I give little thought to this, nor do I feel compelled to move “must see” attractions to the head of my list of places to see.

St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace in Venice were impressive indeed, but walking through some of the small calle was the most exciting part of my visit to Venice. Several years ago in Paris, I waited in the long line to get into the Louvre and stood with the crowd holding iPhones in the air to get a shot of the Mona Lisa. I can tick the Have Seen box for that painting, but honestly I was not very impressed. It was the huge Renoir’s hanging in the Musée d’Orsay and the sculpture in the small Rodin Museum, which I entered to escape an oppressively hot July day, that left me breathless.

But I am straying from delightful Kraków. The image here was taken in the medieval market square at the center of the Kraków Old Town. It is late afternoon on a busy Friday. St. Mary’s Basilica, built in the 14th century in the Polish Gothic style, is on the left. A section of the massive Cloth Hall is one the right. This was an important trading center for merchants throughout Europe for many years. Today it is filled with stalls selling souvenirs to tourists. I bought a number of t-shirts of the I Love Poland variety to give as gifts when I got home.

Sunset on the Final Day in Prague

The Church of Our Lady before Týn is on the east side of Old Town Square; it’s Gothic towers were directly opposite the sun that was soon to set in the west. St. Nicholas’ Church, pictured below, is on the north side of the Square; the light on its facade was a subdued gleam, not the intense glow of the other church. The next morning I would leave Prague on a train headed to Krakow in Poland. The magnificent sunset on my final evening in Prague was a wonderful send off.

Saint and Martyr, John of Nepomuk

The Charles Bridge has 30 statues that line the balustrades on each of its sides. The statue pictured here is that of Saint John of Nepomuk; it was installed in 1683 and is the oldest statue on the bridge.

John was born in a small town in Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic) in the 14th century. He studied canon law in Prague and Padua in Italy, and eventually became the head vicar of a large cathedral in Prague. At this point, John ran afoul of Wenceslaus IV, the king of Bohemia, over the appointment of an abbot to a powerful abbey in Bohemia. To add some spice to the stew of religious nonsense that John got caught up in, there were two popes at the time, one in Rome and one Avignon, France. Naturally, the two popes were antagonists quarreling over the kind of stuff that religious types always seem to be fighting about; you know, god, beliefs, doctrine, all of which generally boil down to money and power. In the case of the abbot’s appointment, the king’s man was favored by the pope in France, while the choice of the Archbishop of Prague, John’s boss, was supported by the pope in Rome. In the event, John appointed the archbishop’s nominee. The king threw a hissy fit and, on 20 March 1393, had the hapless head vicar tortured and thrown off the Charles Bridge to drown in the Vtlava River. John was canonized some 300 years later; there was only one pope in Rome at the time.

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle

St. Vitus Cathedral is the centerpiece of Prague Castle; perched on a hilltop, the cathedral’s towers are readily visible from throughout Prague. Construction of the Gothic cathedral, the third church to be built on this site, began in 1344, and proceeded for several hundred years, interrupted by war, fire, lack of funds, and changes in designers. Work on the church was not completed until the latter half of the 19th century. The cathedral was finally consecrated in 1929. Just short of 600 years – this must be a record of some kind.

The massive cathedral stands in a courtyard that is small relative to the size of the building. I used an ultra-wide 20mm lens to capture the entire building in a single frame. The price one pays for the wide view this lens gives in tight places is perspective distortion. It is possible to correct for this distortion in Photoshop, but bringing the towers to a position perpendicular to the ground flattens the image. The towers looked squashed, for lack of a better word.

I headed out to Prague Castle early on a chilly October Sunday morning, arriving at around 8:30. The ticket I bought gave me entrance to several of the Castle’s attractions including the interior of the St. Vitus. But because it was Sunday morning, the church was closed for services until after 12 noon and I never made it inside.

St. Nicholas Church, Prague

When I began thinking about a trip that would take me to central Europe, Prague was at the top of my list of destinations. What little I knew of the city conjured up romantic visions. Though unfamiliar with all but the broadest outlines, I knew Prague had a long history and had played an important part in regional history and development. I had seen beautiful photos of the city, many of which seemed to be focused on the Vltava River that runs through the heart of old Prague.

I am not a fan of travel guides, I don’t carry a copy of Lonely Planet or Frommer’s in my bag, nor do I spend much time with online travel guides. I am, however, very interested in the history of the places I visit. I read a decent, though definitely not world-class, account of the Hapsburgs, which consisted mostly of a series of portraits and anecdotes of Hapsburg rulers over the years. Rigorous historical analysis of the societies the Hapsburgs ruled and molded, and the influence this pivotal family had over hundreds of years on the drama of European history were largely missing. I started and put down after 50 or so pages a history of Venice. Because the book contained blatant factual errors that a non-expert like me could identify, I assumed that the large parts of the story with which I was not familiar were also riddled with factual errors and misinformation. Seemed pointless to continue reading.

Finding information on the history of Prague proved difficult. There are a number of books tracing the 20th century history of Czechoslovakia, established at the end of WWI after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Freed of Soviet domination with the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, the Czech and Slovak areas of Czechoslovakia agreed on a friendly separation and on the first day of 1993, the Czech Republic and Slovakia came into existence.

That is all well and good, but there is simply not much written in English about the Czech people and the Czech lands before 1918 when Czechoslovakia was born. For hundreds of years Prague was the social, economic and political center of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Many of the city’s best known historical sites and tourist attractions had their origins during the Bohemian years. Bohemia was a key part of the Holy Roman Empire for much of its 1000 year history. Beginning early in the 1500s, Bohemia became one of the lands ruled by a Hapsburg monarch, and it remained a Hapsburg dominion until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918. Complex, convoluted history, the stuff I find fascinating – I will continue looking for reading material that provides more about Prague, Bohemia, and central Europe more generally.

I stayed in a hotel within easy walking distance of Prague’s Old Town, originally a walled enclosure that formed the center of the medieval city, the origins of which date back to the 9th century CE. My walk to the Old Town took me through a part of the New Town, a latecomer to Prague’s development founded in 1348, an area of some paved avenues with considerable traffic, public and private, and quiet cobblestone streets lined with buildings displaying a medley of architectural styles. Walking west past the Old Town brought me to the famous Charles Bridge, and after crossing that I found myself in the Lesser Town, a walk through which takes one to Prague Castle, perched on a hilltop and visible from many parts of the city. Honestly, trying to figure out how the various old districts have been put together into what makes Prague today is material for a world-class headache. Suffice it to say, Prague is a beautiful city. On all of my walks, I was treated to alluring mixes of very old to merely old to relatively modern structures – Baroque churches, art-deco public buildings, medieval gothic towers, and the occasional contemporary low-rise hotel or office building.

The St. Nicholas Church pictured here is one of the landmarks of the Lesser Town. The baroque church and the buildings around it are an example of the stylistic medley that makes up much of Prague.

The Archbishop’s Door, Hue

This beautifully carved wooden doorway is the entrance to the residence of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Hue. The image shows just a section of the double doors of the house inside the residential compound. I saw the door from the street, the gate was open, and I wondered inside to take a photo, having no idea at the time what the building was. A groundskeeper appeared quickly to inform me where I was. He was very friendly, we spoke for a moment, I took several photos and left. The door is a magnificent piece of woodworking.

Curious, I looked around online. The Archdiocese of Hue includes the city of Hue and surrounding countryside. It serves around 67,000 Catholics, a little over 3% of the local population. I was surprised to learn that only some 7% of Vietnamese are Catholic, I had thought that figure was somewhere between 10% and 15%.

The current archbishop, Joseph Nguyễn Chí Linh, took his position in Hue in 2016. Born in the north of the country, as a boy he fled with his family from communist controlled northern Vietnam to southern Vietnam in the 1950s after French colonial forces were defeated by the Viet Minh and the country was divided. He received his training in Vietnam and later earned a doctorate of philosophy from the Catholic University of Paris. Before moving to Hue, he was appointed bishop of Thanh Hoa, the province of his birth, by Pope John Paul II. He is now 73 years old. Alas, he did not invite me in for coffee when I meandered into his front yard.