Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

A Dive into Scotland’s Past

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

127_thumbnailWith a Ph.D. in medieval history, Cassandra Hannahs spent most of her academic career at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she was a tenured professor of history. At Middlebury, Cassandra regularly taught courses on Celtic, Viking and Anglo-Norman Studies, as well as more general courses on the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the history of Christianity. In her research and lectures, Cassandra explores the cultural and political exchanges that have historically linked Ireland, Scotland, England, and Europe. As Study Leader for the Smithsonian since 2000, she enjoys sharing her love and knowledge of the British Isles and Ireland with travelers on land and sea.

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Archaeologists see the past in layers, vertical timelines in square holes.  The oldest stuff is buried deepest, and each successive strata gets closer to the present.  History is not so neatly stacked for us on this tour of “Scotland’s Treasures.”  As we travel north from Glasgow making a loop through the Highlands and then south again to Edinburgh, we ricochet around the centuries.  A discussion about monuments over breakfast veers from Pictish stones (6th-9th centuries AD) to chambered cairns (4000-2000 BC) to memorials that mark the graves of clansmen who died at Culloden (1746 AD).  “Don’t forget Hadrian’s Wall (2nd century AD),” someone adds helpfully from another table, reminding us to define our terms.

Still discussing distinctions between monuments and a military fortifications, we’re soon driving past Inverness to Carrbridge to see the oldest stone bridge in the Highlands (1717).  A delicate arch over the River Dulnain, it was designed for pedestrians and pack horses, clearly too steep and narrow for wagons.  We’re told that local teenagers still use it as a diving platform into the river, a daring and chilly prospect even on this August day.

 Carr Bridge, 1717 Doug Madsen, 2013

Figure 1: Packhorse Bridge at Carrbridge.

 Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

 

We continue driving to Kincraig to watch the collies at Leault Farm working their sheep.  We’re impressed by the intelligence and intense work ethic of the dogs, each one responding to a specific set of whistled instructions.  An excited seven-month old puppy can’t resist joining his elders, and although his happy, clumsy enthusiasm confuses the flock, it warms our hearts.  After the sheep have been collected by the dogs, some of us take turns shearing them and feeding the lambs.  One member of our group who spins her own wool at home is invited to collect all she wants from the piles of fleece left in the field.

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 Figure 2: Shearing a sheep at Leault Farm, Kincraig.

Photo by Janet Lohl, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

Afterwards, we pass the ruins of an 18th-century military barracks which had been built on the ruins of a 13th-century castle near Ruthven.  Layers upon layers:  it was here that several hundred Jacobites reassembled after the Battle of Culloden (1746 AD) and vowed to keep fighting.  Their resolve collapsed, however, after receiving Bonnie Prince Charlie’s message acknowledging that their cause was lost and urging each man simply to save himself as best he could.  Burning the barracks was probably the last collective action of the Jacobite army.

 Dunkeld Cathedral, Doug Madsen, 2013

 Figure 3: Chapter House, Dunkeld Cathedral.

Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

Following lunch in a Victorian resort town, we tour a local whiskey distillery.  Dunkeld Cathedral next deserves a visit, and we stroll around its romantic ruins on the banks of the River Tay where a church had existed since the 6th century.  It was here that Kenneth MacAlpin had Saint Columba’s relics brought from Iona when he combined the lands of Dál Riata and the Picts under one crown, founding the kingdom of Alba (the Gaelic name for Scotland) in the 800’s AD.

Dunkeld Cathedral, Doug Madsen, 2013

 Figure 4: Ruins of Dunkeld Cathedral.

Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

While the great Cathedral of the 13th and 14th centuries was destroyed during the Reformation (1500’s), the chapter house survives and serves today as a museum of local history, providing a timeline of local history from prehistoric to modern times.  It is almost reassuring to see the centuries behaving themselves in this display, lined up properly in chronological order.  But inside the remaining bell tower of the Cathedral they resume their haphazard dance, and we’re exhilarated to find a Viking gravestone (10th-12th centuries), beside a Pictish stone (7th-8th century), under wall paintings from the early 1500’s.

 Dunkeld Cathedral, Doug Madsen, 2013

 Figure 5:  Viking Gravemarker, in the bell tower of Dunkeld Cathedral.  Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

Back on the bus, we flip through the centuries as we sort out what we’ve just seen.  And I suggest to my fellow travelers that what we’re doing is a kind of archaeology in reverse:  instead of extracting artifacts from specific strata and excavating them from a physical site, we are encountering a wide and disordered array of historical data and figuring out where they fit in the framework of centuries.  And as these artifacts of our journey click into place and fill out our own timelines of Scotland’s past, our understanding of this nation and its people deepens and becomes personal in the way that can only happen when we gather the evidence for ourselves.  It is a privilege and a pleasure to discover Scotland this way, with a group that understands implicitly that the real treasures we find here are the insights and memories that we share on the journey.

Tarbat museum, Doug Madsen, 2013Figure 6: Pictish Stone, Tarbat Discovery Center.

Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

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To learn more about our Scottish Treasures trip, click here.

A Journey Through Southern Spain

Friday, November 8th, 2013

_DSC6039_1140H. Rafael Chacón is Professor of Art History and Criticism at The University of Montana-Missoula where he lectures on a broad range of art historical subjects. He received his doctorate in art history with honors from the University of Chicago, having been awarded numerous research fellowships to study in Europe, including an award from the Spanish Ministry of Culture for his dissertation on Michelangelism in renaissance sculpture. He has written on a range of topics related to renaissance and baroque art, both in Europe and in the Americas, most recently focusing on Spanish-style revival architecture in the U.S. northwest during the late 19th century. In 2002, he completed the full pilgrimage from France to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain and in 2010 one of the four principal routes across southern France leading to the “camino.” Dr. Chacón has led numerous successful travel abroad trips with students and has been a speaker for the Smithsonian Journeys program.

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The evening sun is casting long shadows across the vast Andalusian plain and from the vantage point, high on the balcony of the Parador in Carmona, it is easy to contemplate the rich history of the Iberian peninsula. It is autumn, yet the air is still warm and redolent with the scent of boxwood. It is also harvest time and row after row of the silvery blue olive trees hang dense with the promise of another season. Gold begins to tinge the leaves in the vineyards also ready for harvest. In the distance, we see thin wisps of smoke as farmers clear brush and prepare their fields for the rainy season still to come. Portugal-and-Spain-2013-188515

From this perch, it is easy to imagine the thunderous sounds of horses’ hooves on the plain and the clang of steel as armies of Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, and Christians clashed over centuries to seize the promontories and thus take control of these precious agricultural lands. The very stones we have tread on our walk around the charming town of Carmona evoke Roman soldiers marching across ancient Hispania and merchants haggling over the prices of fruits and vegetables: “No thank you, Tullius! Your oranges are much too bitter, only good for decorating the garden or marinating that suckling pig I intend to roast next week!” Today’s faithful enter churches populated by the subtly carved saints and richly embroidered tapestries of renaissance- and baroque-era bishops, but whose foundations were laid by Visigothic kings or Moorish emirs.Portugal-and-Spain-2013-187515
In fact, as we enter through the horseshoe arches of the gates of our parador, once a fortified palace, and walk past the courtyard with its lovely portico of slender marble columns, patterned stucco walls, and bubbling fountains, we cannot help but think of the Moorish kings who built and defended these very walls and spaces for centuries or of King Pedro I, whose love of Islamic ornament guaranteed that mudejar workers would continue to elaborate and expand the palace after it fell into the hands of Christian conquerors.Portugal-and-Spain-2013-183515
But now as the sun begins to set, we finish sipping our glass of sherry from the nearby Jerez region; it is time to retire and our minds turn to the gifts of art and culture that this amazing peninsula will reveal to us tomorrow.

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To learn more about our Treasures of Southern Spain and Portugal tour, click here.

The Summer Home of Storks – Falling in Love with Poland

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

638_thumbnailCarol Reynolds weaves high energy, humor, and history into everything she does. After a career in music history at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Professor Carol and husband Hank began designing multi-media fine arts curricula. Her unprecedented Discovering Music: 300 Years of Interaction in Western Music, Arts, History, and Culture (2009) has reached students across the world. In 2011 she released a cross-discipline course called Exploring America’s Musical Heritage. She is now creating a curriculum on the history of sacred music from Jewish Liturgy to 1600. Her research interests include German Romanticism and the musical court of Frederick the Great. She is fluent in German and Russian and maintains a home in Weimar. Dr. Reynolds is a staunch advocate of arts education at every stage of life and speaks regularly at educational conferences across the U.S. A pianist and organist, she is a popular speaker for organizations like The Dallas Symphony, Van Cliburn Concerts, The Dallas Opera, Tulsa Symphony, Kimball Museum, Fort Worth Opera, San Francisco Wagner Society, and the Davidson Institute.

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Storks. They were quite a topic during our Fall 2013 Old World Europe tour. Particularly true in Poland, where the stork is an iconic figure. Twenty percent of the world’s population of storks—as many as 50,000—make Poland their summer home. And while storks migrate to Africa for the winter, they return to their massive nests when the weather warms.

Villages are proud of their storks, whose nests are tucked into all kinds of rooftop alcoves and built even atop chimneys. People see themselves sheltered from bad fortune by the presence of those nests. And the nests are astonishing: up to six feet wide, they can weigh over a thousand pounds. They are easy to spot.

And that’s what our Smithsonian Journeys’ guests did in our first days of travel across Poland (Warsaw to Krakow) and on the dazzling ride across the Carpathian Mountains to Budapest. It became a stork-nest spotting competition: “I’m up to four,” cried someone in the front of the bus. “Oh, that’s nothing: my husband has seen six nests so far.”

“Counting storks nests” won’t appear in the promotional material for Smithsonian Journeys, but it’s a perfect example of the delight that characterizes this terrific itinerary across Old World Europe. We spend a generous amount of time in some of Europe’s most significant cities: Vienna and Prague, of course—the two that draw many guests to join this tour; also, Budapest which entices those who’ve never been and many who have longed to return.

The big surprises on the Old World Europe tour, however, are Krakow and Warsaw. Often, we aren’t taught much about these cities, unless we have Polish ancestry.

Recalling the unspeakable destruction of Warsaw in the Second World War, our Smithsonian guests aren’t sure what to expect. They discover a vibrant city filled with the country’s best talent, dedicated to making careers in the new, post-Communist economy. They see a swirl of fashionable young Poles, proud of their ultra-clean business district and excellent public transportation. And they shake their heads in awe, strolling through a resurrected pristine Old Town that war had reduced to ruble.

Krakow is an even bigger surprise. It’s just about the perfect European city.  Small enough so that you can traverse the historic areas in an afternoon, Krakow teams with activity. Museums, cathedrals, towers, arcades, and picturesque alleys remind us that this city was one of few to escape large-scale destruction in Hitler’s time. The miraculous survival of much of the Jewish Quarter allows us a rare chance to imagine how vibrant Jewish life was, before the horrors of genocide tore Europe asunder.

In my experience as Study Leader for this itinerary, I enjoy watching people fall in love with Poland. I hear comments like “I didn’t expect to be so impressed by Warsaw” or  “I can’t wait to come back to Krakow—I had no idea how wonderful it was.”

After all, travel is about discovery and enjoyment. Partly that happens with the impressive architecture and breathtaking scenery. But it happens, too, in the little moments: standing beneath St. Mary’s Tower in Krakow Square as, twenty-four times on the hour, a lone trumpeter serenades Krakow with the plaintive fanfare Hajnal. Or it happens when we breathe the fragrant air of the Łazienki gardens, realizing what a garden paradise Warsaw must have been before its destruction in World War II.

And it definitely happens as we look for stork nests! Ancient legend comes alive in the brave and loyal stork. Art, too, abounds in storks, as in this beloved painting by Józef Chełmoński entitled Storks (Bociany).

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The Old World Europe tour is filled with generous blocks of free time in every city. So when you join us, walk just a few blocks from our hotel in Warsaw to the National Gallery. In its spacious galleries, expect to be captivated by storks and an array of dazzling images as you begin your journey into Eastern Europe’s beguiling history and tradition.

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To learn more about our Old World Europe tour, click here.

Poulnabrone Dolmen – The Stones of Ireland

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Miriam C. Davis has an M.A. in medieval archaeology and a Ph.D. in medieval history. She is a professor of history at Delta State University, where she teaches European history and the history of Christianity, and has participated in archaeological excavations in Mississippi, Alabama, England, and Scotland. In addition to her scholarly publications, Miriam has written for the popular press on archaeology, history, and travel. She has lectured throughout the U.S., Great Britain, and Israel.

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Silhouetted dramatically against the horizon, it’s a stark reminder of past millennia, millennia that we know too little about.

We pile out of the bus and begin the short walk up the trail to our destination. Our tour has taken us to Poulnabrone Dolmen in County Clare, one of the most famous portal tombs in Ireland, and a relic of the Neolithic Age. “Neolithic” means “New Stone Age,” when agriculture emerged in Ireland. It’s also the period of the megaliths, the great stone monuments that dot the landscape of Western Europe.

At Poulnabrone, as we circle the tomb, taking pictures from different angles, we must step carefully. Deep fissures fracture the ground; it’d be easy for the careless visitor to trip or twist an ankle.

That’s because we’re in the Burren, a stretch of land in northwest County Clare in the west of Ireland. Long ago, erosion carved deep grooves in the limestone pavement, leaving a jagged moonscape. But the Burren can also be surprisingly green, as grass readily grows between cracks in the rock due to the mineral-rich soil.

The dolmen itself is made of limestone slabs. A pair of portal stones – that is, large upright stones at the dolmen’s entrance – and two smaller standing stones support the capstone, which slants downward from the front to the rear to create an 8 x 4 foot chamber. (In the 1980s, one of the portal stones was replaced because it had cracked; the original stone still lies nearby.)  Originally, a low, oval-shaped cairn, or man-made pile of rocks, surrounded the dolmen to steady the whole structure.

“How did they get the big stone on top?” someone asks. It’s a good question; twelve feet long and seven feet wide, the capstone weighs over 3,000 pounds.  Probably a mound of dirt was constructed and the slab pulled up it using rollers made of tress. No doubt it involved a lot of sweat. And cursing.

And manpower. It’s no accident that the megaliths (“big stones”) appear in the Neolithic period, after the introduction of agriculture. Hunting and gathering during the Mesolithic Age had supported only a very small population, eight or nine thousand in all of Ireland, living in family groups of about twenty-five. But the coming of agriculture about 3500 BC brought food surpluses that supported larger populations, providing the manpower necessary to erect the dolmens.

We know the dolmen was a tomb, because archaeological excavations have uncovered the remains of at least thirty individuals. From the bone fragments we can tell that the dead bodies were already decomposed when they were interred in the chamber around 3000 BC. Why were these particular individuals chosen, and why was so much effort put into their interment? We don’t know.

While its ritual and symbolic functions remain unknown, Poulnabrone Dolmen continues to exert a powerful attraction in the modern world, drawing in thousands of visitors each year. As we walk back to the bus, past the sellers of Celtic crosses and other souvenirs who congregate at the entrance to the site, I think of these long-ago people, whose names we’ll never know. We, with our modern technology — our smart phones and our laptops – we can still be awed by what people did 5000 years ago.

That’s not such a bad thing.

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To learn more about our Emerald Isle tour, click here.

A River Runs Through It: The Heartbeat of the Cities of Old World Europe

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Hugh Agnew has been fascinated by Czech history and the Czech lands since first arriving in Prague as a graduate student in 1977. Now Professor of History and International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., he has taught courses and published books and numerous articles about the Habsburg Empire, the Czech national identity, and Czech heritage and history. His insightful talks on past Smithsonian journeys through the Bohemian countryside, on the Elbe and Danube Rivers, and in Prague at Christmastime have made him a favorite with Smithsonian travelers.

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This year I was trying to decide what makes the “Old World Europe” journey so special. To be sure, the rich history, cultural and artistic treasures, and vibrant modern life of the cities on the itinerary—Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava and Prague—definitely help make the journey so attractive and memorable. But each one of these destination cities also shares one important thing—to quote the title of Norman Maclean’s novel, “A River Runs through It. A river (sometimes the same river) is an inseparable part of the cityscape, history, culture, and present day life of each of these cities. Yet each city, in its own way, enjoys a unique relationship with its river, and the place of the river in the city’s life (and our experience of the city as visitors) differs in interesting ways from destination to destination. I set out to explore the relationship between these cities and their rivers.

The river Vistula (Wisła) flows through both Warsaw and Krakow, yet its personality in each place (like that of each city) is quite distinct. Warsaw’s Old Town and the major areas visited on the Old World Europe journey lie on the western side of the river. Here the Vistula, flowing through the broad Mazovian plain, has broadened out significantly, with wide riverbank areas and sand beaches that Warsovians enjoy on a sunny afternoon in Indian Summer. On the afternoon of our arrival in Warsaw I used my free time to take advantage of the reasonably fine-weather and walk across the bridge named for Prince Józef Poniatówski  to Warsaw’s suburb of Praga, in particular to the district known as the Saxon Meadow (Saska Kępa). Spared much of the wartime destruction that left 85% of Warsaw in ruins, this part of the city now has pleasant tree-lined streets with bistros, restaurants and shops. Warsaw’s relationship with its river is celebrated in the city’s coat of arms, featuring a mermaid armed with a sword and shield. The story goes that the mermaid (syrenka, or “little siren” in Polish) led the Polish prince Bolesław of Mazovia to the site of a fishing village on the river and ordered him to found a city there. From that beginning, sometime at the end of the thirteenth century, the city developed further. When Poland joined with Lithuania to form a Commonwealth of both nations, Warsaw’s location midway between the two capitals of Krakow and Vilnius led the Kings to make the city their new capital, a change that became permanent in 1596.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Krakow, the ancient capital of the Polish kingdom, also lies on the Vistula, but much closer to its sources in the Silesian Beskids near the border with the Czech Republic. As we looked down from the Wawel Castle, we could see that the river is narrower here than in Warsaw, and seems more intimately connected to the old city. Yet while the river is central to the current modern city of Krakow, the old part of town lies only on the northern, left bank of the river, and the associated district of Kazimierz seems in some ways closer to the water. Indeed it should, since Kazimierz was once an island in the Vistula, as recalled by the name of the street that marks one of its boundaries, Starowisłna (Old Vistula) street. City development gradually filled in the former branches of the river, leaving only memories behind. A modest walk along Starowisłna from Krakow Old Town led a group of us to the Kazimierz district for a pleasant evening meal in one of its many restaurants.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

In contrast to the two Polish capitals, Budapest is both divided and joined right through its center by the river Danube—a situation that is commemorated in the coat of arms adopted by the united city in 1873. The river is an intimate part of the cityscape, and the Margaret Island in the river one of its favorite playgrounds. Yet it is still a broad and formidable power, bridged permanently only in 1848 by the suspension bridge designed by Adam Clark and financed by the patriotic Count István Széchenyi.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge remains one of the landmarks the visitor will use for orientation purposes, and an impressive engineering feat. So many of the city’s significant buildings are along the riverbanks that a tourist river cruise after dark is a wonderful way to enjoy the sights.  But the best place to appreciate the position of the Danube in the life of Budapest is from the summit of Gellert Hill, where we stood on a sunny morning after the previous day’s cold rain, and looked along both the Buda and Pest sides. We could see such landmarks as the Royal Castle and the spire of Matthias Church, the Houses of Parliament, St. Stephen’s Basilica and other buildings of Pest, and the Chain Bridge providing a connection between them. Walking or riding across the Chain Bridge was part of our enjoyment of the life of Budapest.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Bratislava, too, was once the capital of Hungary—at least that part controlled by the Habsburgs while the Ottoman Turks ruled over most of the rest of the kingdom. Now it is the capital of Slovakia, which joined the ranks of independent states at the beginning of 1993. Here, too, the Danube, navigable for its entire length from Bavaria to the Black Sea, is an important part of the city.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Gazing down to the three countries corner from the castle hill, we could see that the Danube is a thoroughfare for goods and visitors on the way between Vienna and Budapest, constantly busy with the ebb and flow of working and pleasure craft. Yet although the Petržalka district of Bratislava (joined to the new state of Czechoslovakia in 1919 after the First World War) lies on the southern, right bank of the river, the old town and Bratislava Castle lie only on the northern, left bank. Several bridges join the two sides of the river at Bratislava, the most striking being the assymetrical suspension bridge, the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising (also simply called the “new bridge”). Built between 1968 and 1972 to connect Petržalka with the Old Town, the bridge destroyed most of the old Jewish quarter of Bratislava, including a moorish style Neolog synagogue (the Orthdox synagogue had been destroyed already in 1961). The bridge juxtaposes the old represented by the castle and the palaces of Austro-Hungarian nobility on the left bank with the new of a densely settled residential district, dominated by the concrete panel apartment blocs built beginning in the 1970s by the Czechoslovak regime.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

The Danube is inseparably linked with another Old World Europe destination, Vienna, thanks to the immortal music of Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz.” But (as the Viennese like to say) not only is the Danube seldom blue, depending on the weather, but it is not as central to the cityscape of the old part of Vienna as it is in Budapest. True, a canal drawn down from the main course of the river provided the Habsburgs with a moat around their residence city and castle in Vienna, but the river is essential really to the modern, Danube City section of Vienna with its soaring skyscrapers housing the headquarters of international organizations. There too are the river islands with their sandy beaches, where the Viennese can join the Warsovians in some late-summer sunbathing, but the fact remains that the river is more part of the picture frame of Vienna than it is the heart of the picture.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

But for the final city of the Old World Europe journey, the river is the central heart of the experience. Flowing into Prague from the south, the Vltava (or Moldau, to use the German name more familiar still to most foreigners) makes a large S-curve as it flows through Prague before it continues north towards the Elbe and eventually the North Sea. Immortalized in Bedřich Smetana’s tone-poem “Má Vlast” (My Homeland), it is impossible to remove it from my experience of and feelings about Prague. The Vltava and its bridges knit together the towns of Prague into the great metropolis that is the Czech Republic’s capital. The oldest, and the one most familiar to foreign visitors, is the Charles Bridge, built in the fourteenth century to replace an earlier structure destroyed by floods.  Now the second oldest bridge in Central Europe—after the one across the Danube at Regensburg—the Charles Bridge is a link (or perhaps, as we jostled for space with other visitors crowding along its length during the height of the season, rather an obstacle course!) between the historic Old and New Towns of Prague and the Castle, Castle Town, and Lesser Quarter.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

If Budapest and Vienna, the two ambitious former capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, impress us as visitors with their almost imperial scale—and with impressive riverscapes in keeping with that scale—the impact Prague makes is somehow different. Though a proud royal capital in its own right, to me Prague’s scale is smaller, more intimate, even (dare one say it?) provincial. Yet every city of the Old World Europe journey has its intimate and small-scale moments for us to enjoy, along with the grandiose relics of the past and the bustling present-day life of a modern European metropolis. And a unique part of all those experiences, making these cities what they are, are the rivers that run through them.

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To learn more about our Old World Europe tour, click here.