From Berlin to Budapest in 1892 (XI)

Chapter XI

We stayed in Dresden a week, mid had we waited n few flays longer we might have enjoyed the double spectacle of cycle championships and royalty. But if there is one fact upon which we both agree, it is that cycles are made for the road and not for the track, and to us cycle racing is but vanity and vexation. And so, to the infinite disgust of the hotel porter, who had tickets of admission to the race-course to sell, we turned our backs upon Dresden just as cyclists from far and near were hurrying towards It. “Brace up,” said Joseph, “don’t tumble off!” And I looked down the road, and then came a Saxon club, and in the middle, well-guarded on every side by men on ordinaries, were two women on safeties – two rival Palaces of Delight. My greatness at once went from me : no longer did J monopolise the laughs by the wayside. But for comfort, and with spontaneous amiability, Joseph  told me that I rode far better than they. Germany, now that we were about to leave it, became more picturesque the farther we went. Our road followed the Elbe, and brought us first to Pima, on a hill overlooking the river, where, in the fine old market square, we found a brass band, in top hats, playing the “Racoczy,” the national Hungarian air. We took this for a good omen: were we not on the way to Hungary? To be sure, it was some distance off yet, but in an hour or two we should be in Bohemia, which to us meant a land as remote and as wild and as Eastern. Perhaps because we were in particularly good spirits we could imagine—though as a rule we are not over-imaginative—that we heard in the “Racoczy” a farewell to the familiar Western civilisation, a welcome to Orientalism and all its wonders. Certainly, when we had crossed the wide tableland along the road lined with cherry- trees to Konigstein, the famous fortress on its hilltop, impressive and fine as Edinburgh Castle, looked as if it were prepared to defy all the Eastern hordes that ever devastated Europe. But, after Konigstein, we were not yet in Bohemia. There came first a ride, that would have been enchanting had not the greater part of it been a walk, through the Saxon Switzerland. I do not know how many sham Switzerlands there are in Europe: we came to three in the course of the summer’s journey. But the Saxon is a very creditable sham, with its winding green valleys, its dark pine forests, and its rocky precipices, where there are enough “needles” and ‘‘old men” and “gendarmes” to stock a whole guide-book. And there were tourists enough on the road and in the villages to pay them the usual honours—rude tourists, who smiled superciliously when they saw me walking on an up-grade, delighted tourists, who applauded when they saw me coasting, polite tourists, who directed us on the way. We never knew when we crossed the frontier. There was no visible Customs station, there were no Customs officers, German or Austrian, to ask us where we were going or what we had in our knapsacks. But we knew that Tyssa was a Bohemian town, and so, when we reached it and found it one solid mass of booths and merry-go-rounds and people, we fancied a distinct difference in the character of the faces, just as we saw a distinct change of costume in the handkerchiefs worn, by the women on their heads. There was an open- air circus going on, and we stopped to look. The performance might have been in a little English town; and as for the fair It might have been any place, except, that never had we seen so many boots for sale in our life. But then, at that time, we had not yet been to Hungary. I was a Palace of Delight again before the afternoon was over; my Saxon rivals could never have crossed the frontier, indeed, I made almost too great a sensation on the outskirts of Aussig, where endless beer-gardens line the highway. And I think every man, woman, and child accompanied us in our search for an hotel through the town, which looks as if it sprung up overnight and might tumble down before morning. Aussig would have left a blank in my note-book had we not there had our first experience with Austrian money, which its a delusion and a snare. It takes weeks to master the difference between a gulden and a mark—that is, if you come, as we did, from Germany into the Austrian Empire. You look at the bill of fare and think.“ How cheap!” and you order recklessly. And then, when you pay, you realise suddenly that you have spent twice as much as yon meant to. More welcome to the thrifty woman is the Austrian custom of paying as you eat in the restaurant or cafe of your hotel: but, if an excellent plan for the guests, it is in the long run, I fancy, the landlord s loss. There was nothing very wild or Oriental about Aussig, as brand-new as a town in the far west of America, and we hurried away from it at five the next morning. But it was not too early for servants we had never laid eyes upon to insist peremptorily on being tipped. This demanding of tips, be it noted, is also another Austrian custom; the average Austrian waiter would be rejected, I think, everywhere else, for he is as importunate as a Neapolitan cab-driver and almost as dirty as a Polish Jew. Beyond the town the rood was uncivilised enough to make us long to be back in civilisation, and on the other side of the ” Racoczy ”und the unknown wonders we had been rhapsodising about only the day before. It was a by-road at first with ruts in which our wheels were half buried, and mud that in places was up to our shoe-tops. It spoiled the pleasure of what might have been a lovely morning’s ride by the Elbe, where it winds beneath high hills, many vine- clad, and crowned with church or monastery or little town. I think it was after Lobositz, which, like Aussig, had that look of having sprung up in a night and being on the point of as speedy a collapse, that we struck the high road; but I would not like to be too sure, the difference was so slight. The one advantage was that there was an apology of a side path, where, once or twice, the Austrian soldiers, in their red caps, coining up to our Oriental expectations, politely got out of the way for us. But it was not much to boast of, and, beyond the next town, it ended suddenly in a sand-heap and a big pool, across which We had to be ferried in company with a postman. It did the same thing again—this main highway to the capital—in the afternoon, on the shores of a widish river, where an old gilded state-coach, turned into omniibus, was waiting for the ferry. But its worst feature was its execrable engineering, or, rather, want of engineering. It run across the country in a long, straight line, taking in every hill, rushing straight up at its steepest angle, and, as there are nothing but hills thereabout, our ride was very much like climbing up and down an endless succession of cathedral roofs, I never knew that wretched road to turn from its straight course except when by chance the hills it loved were a little to its right or left; then it made a bee-line for them. But it would not go an inch to one side, even over a level, to let us pass through a town where there was something to eat, and at noon we had to choose between riding several kilometres out of our direct route, or else pushing on dinnerless. We decided for the dinner– “ naturlich, ‘ as the Germans say. But a more ill-tempered person than I when I reached the decent commercial hotel of Randnitz you would haveto travel far to find: and the walk alterwards along another atrocious by-road in the burning hot sunlight of three o’clock did not help to put me in good humour again. And then we both resented the fact that the people and the country were not in the least what we had expected. It is a mistake to have preconceived ideas about a place. Where was the wildness of our ideal Bohemia? I do not think that we were over-romantic or unreasonable. We had not looked for an arid waste, or the jungle, or an African desert in the heart of Europe. We had hoped modestly for a sort of natural Sherwood or Fontainebleau, forest and heath unreclaimed, not preserved. And it was trying to find, instead, a land over cultivated, over-civilised, over-populated. Why, there was not a slope or a level space where the plough had not passed and seed been sown.

Leave a Reply