Expanding Horizons

In October, 2001, Owen and I took advantage of our son's posting to Europe to visit him and explore places new to us.  We spent a day or two each in Vienna, Florence, Rome, and Budapest and ten days in the Czech Republic, getting to Prague twice.  However, since Thom worked in Brno, the capital of Moravia in the Czech Republic, that is where we spent the most time.  We were extremely fortunate to meet and be entertained by some of his Czech friends.

We traveled by train, subway, trolley and bus except on one weekend when Thom drove.  Because walking was enough of a challenge, we did not burden ourselves with a camera.  Instead we noted some comparisons between Canada and the places we visited.  If you are interested in our observations read on, with colour coding and bookmarks to help you jump about in the text.  To opt out of these observations click on JOTTINGS or on WASHBURN.  










Public transportation in Europe is a joy.  Coming from a small Canadian city (Fredericton, NB) where we rely on private vehicles or taxis because trains have ceased to exist and bus transportation is sporadic, it was a pleasure to travel in Europe.  We purchased a Eurail pass for a five day cross-border trip and, in each city, day passes that could be transferred from one mode of transportation to another.  

Trains were frequent and on time.  Trams, busses and subway trains came as often as every 5 minutes.  The carriages were all clean and modern.  Often times they were crowded, but unfailingly men and sometime young women would give gray-heads their seat.   

Cars and trucks are generally smaller; in Rome we saw the tiniest of two-passenger cars, some of which had only three wheels.  We saw few, if any, RV's, SUV's and no monster half-ton trucks with dual rear wheels, something that has been spreading into eastern Canada recently.  These vehicles consume much gasoline, as does the van I own and love to drive.

After exploring several of the compact and multi-story walled cities in Europe the difference in urban design could be seen clearly on our decent into Pearson International Airport in Toronto.  Our sprawling subdivisions and the sun sparkling off thousands of car windshields in a multitude of parking lots proclaim a life-style based on cheap energy, little concern for conservation and no regard whatsoever for defense.  


Our son had not spent a full year in the Czech Republic, and we had the impression that the weather was fairly similar to Canada.  We did not expect to see such beautiful roses in October.  However, we were prepared for the many mountains, hills and forests of the country.  To our surprise we saw some clear cutting and tree plantations, although on a much smaller scale than in Canada.  We also saw evidence of selective harvesting of trees.  The rich rolling farmland in the CR and in Italy bespoke of generations,  even millennia of careful husbandry.  

While most Czech crops had been harvested, there were many fields of sunflowers, and some of corn, still standing.  Apples along roadside were free for the picking and we saw many orchards and vineyards.

We did see cattle in the CR and in passing through the Alps.  However it was the proliferation of feral cats in the ruins in Rome and the shortage of visible cats in Brno that surprised us.  In Brno many people had dogs, taking them on public transit, walking in parks and traveling in cars.  Dogs above a certain size were not only on a leash, but muzzled in public.

While Thom took us to gardens that must have been beautiful earlier in the year, we came closest to nature in the beautiful Farnese Garden in the ruins of Tiberius's garden in the Palatine in Rome. Designed in the mid 16th century it was one of the first botanical gardens in Europe and a wonderful place to wander, sit and watch birds.  


In Brno the population appears very fit, perhaps because they walk more than Canadians.  Very few carried the extra pounds that some of us Washburns do.

We kept seeing people who resembled people back home.  This physical resemblance is not matched by a similarity in language.  There are no common linguistic roots so there is no way to guess at the meaning of Czech words,  except for a few borrowed directly from English.  Only now is English being taught in school, the emphasis having been on Russian previously, and of course on German.  Fortunately Thom's rudimentary Czech benefited us in Brno and Owen's French helped us elsewhere.  In Prague and other European cities it was not uncommon to find someone with enough English to assist us.  

We were especially fortunate to have our son not only hosting us while in Brno, but also introducing us to his new friends and co-workers who speak excellent English.  No bus tour trip could give us such a privilege.     

Pavel Novak and Hana Novakova are both engineers.  What a treat to meet such well-traveled, accomplished people, to see their lovely home and to learn about their family and country.  Hana served us two versions of a typical potato-based Slovak dish which she learned from her mother.  Both recipes were delicious.   

Another friend, Radek, was born and brought up in Brno.  He's a top-notch volley ball player, one of the many fine Czech athletes who excel in so many sports.  

PEOPLE (Continued...)

 Radek took us to the "best Pub in Brno" that serves "the best beer in the Czech Republic".  He said that there is no better beer than Czech beer, therefore we obviously were being treated to the best beer in the world.  Since coming home we have been able to buy Pilsner Urquell in New Brunswick, albeit in the can, not draft, and it tastes almost as good.

It was humbling to meet so many people who speak so many languages, often including English, to be surrounded by beautiful art and architecture that their countrymen or ancestors created, to hear symphony orchestras performing free outdoor concerts and yet to have known so little about this city of 400,000 people before visiting it.  That's more than half the population of New Brunswick!

It was in Brno that a pickpocket targeted us as we pushed our way onto a crowded trolley.  Owen felt himself being expertly frisked and I had my purse opened, but fortunately our wallets were well hidden.  One woman had stepped back off the tram and was checking her purse and three plain clothes policeman were forcing a man face down on the pavement and handcuffing him as we pulled out of sight.  Radek expressed shame, but no apology was required for something that could have happened in any country anytime.   Furthermore, the thief was caught and we have an exciting experience to add some spice to our travel tales!


When we were there in 2001 it had been only ten years since the Czech Republic overthrew communist rule.  A member of NATO, the country was applying for admission into the European Common Union.  

The CR used to be dependent upon Russian natural gas, but now gas from other sources is piped into the country.  On the East coast of Canada natural gas from Sable Island is only now becoming available in bigger centres. 

The CR is highly industrialized and we delighted in the beauty of their industrial design of things like furniture and fixtures.  Of course we bought some samples of Czech crystal in Brno, where the prices were far better than in Prague. 

Many people smoke in the CR and there are no non-smoking zones.  We became accustomed to the air pollution, both inside and outdoors.  When we returned to Canada, the comparatively clean air was very noticeable and a welcome relief.


The cost of restaurant food was in direct proportion to the number of tourists.  The food in Brno was exceptionally inexpensive.  Except for water.  Everywhere it was cheaper to drink the excellent wine and beer than bottled water and it was unwise to drink tap water.  When touring, we carried bottled water, hoping not to have bought mineral water which Owen didn't like.  Back in Canada the free safe tap water available in restaurants without charge now seems a real luxury.  An Australian we met had been in the Maritime Provinces and envied our many lakes and rivers.

We always ordered food that was typical of the country we were in, and in 17 days we only had one poor meal poorly served, in Budapest.  Choosing food was somewhat of a challenge in Brno unless either Thom was with us or German was also included on the menu.  Whether we knew what we were ordering before it came, or not, exploring new foods and European cuisine really added to our adventure.  


Prague, Vienna, Florence, Rome and Budapest.  What wonderful cities to visit, and so little time in each.    

Prague, which survived WWII without a battle, is preserved in all it's medieval splendor.  Each building outdoes the next in its beautiful proportions and intricate stonework.   Thom delighted in guiding us down the winding cobblestone streets to the fascinating astronomical clock, the magnificent cathedrals, the statues and fountains, and the beguiling shops.  We enjoyed a chamber music concert, one of the many events promoted by hucksters in all the squares.  The opulence of the cathedrals was awe inspiring yet somehow disturbing - probably due to my Methodist roots.   I felt more comfortable in Italy where the church buildings were more obviously houses of worship as well as museums of art. 

Central Europeans were developing art and culture and engaged in endless intrigues and wars for dominance while seafaring countries like the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, France and England were colonizing countries around the globe and encouraging our ancestors to emigrate to the New World.  Near St. Andrews NB, my birthplace, France made its first attempt to establish a colony in  North American in 1604.  What is considered old in Canada is still young in Europe!

  Our half day in Vienna was only long enough to gain the impression of an incredibly clean and beautiful city.  The overnight sleeper landed us bleary-eye in Florence at about 6 AM.  We wandered around and by good luck joined a queue waiting for the Uffizi gallery to open.  There we saw the finest collection of art from the middle ages.  We thought of my Aunt Mary, an artist, who would have dearly loved to be there with us.

When we checked into our Hotel in Rome we received Thom's fax advising us that our booking for the return trip did not give us enough time to change trains in Venice.  The only heavy rain of the trip fell that first morning while we were back at the train station changing our reservations.  With only a day and a half left for sight-seeing we decided to concentrate on the Roman ruins.

ARCHITECTURE  (Continued...)

Our archaeologist daughter Sue had spent June in Jordan digging at Petra, a 2000 year old site.  To bring her equally old artifacts from Rome I collected a few chips of marble, concrete and brick from roadways in the Forum and the Palatine - somewhat to her horror I must admit.   

It was incredible to be able to stand on roads built so long ago amid the remains of ancient temples and public buildings - incredible artistically, historically and from an engineering sense.  At the same time that we were studying the amazing stonework in the Coliseum, a mason was repairing a stone chimney for us in St. Andrews; its mortar was crumbling after only 50 years.  We were awe-struck by the Pantheon, built by the emperor Hadrian's son in his memory.  However it was only when we read in our travel guide that the roof was made of concrete that has endured for almost two millennia, that we realized that concrete we had mistaken for modern repairs to the Coliseum was actually the original material, stronger and longer lasting than anything we manufacture today.

Our day-long trip back to Vienna was as awesome as expected, through tunnels and between high peaks with castles perched on not a few.  We shared our compartment with an interesting family from Sydney, Australia.

Thom met us in Vienna and whisked us off to Budapest.  Until then our accommodations had been more than adequate, but the Holiday Inn in Budapest was five star and almost exclusively ours.  This was the first time we fully felt the negative effects of 9-11 on European tourism.  Budapest, with its open vistas, is Thom's favourite city.  The drive through the Slovak Republic and the part of Moravia where Pavel grew up gave Thom a chance to show us some of the other interesting places he has discovered.  But we were glad to return to Brno and have several more days to explore that lovely old city, a smaller version of Prague awakening to it own less opulent beauty.

We have wonderful memories and a great incentive to learn more about the history of places we've been.  Thank you Thom.








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This site was last updated on 2003-09-30