View of Prague and the Vltava River (photo © Domandrey63 / dreamstime.com).
From the moment the train leaves Dresden, it is impossible to pull myself away from the window, to ignore what is unfolding beyond the glass to concentrate on the book and the newspaper I brought with me for the journey. Instead the book remains face down on the seat next to me and the newspaper folded away in my bag. As we move through the sandstone mountains of Swiss Saxony, crossing the border into Bohemia, following rivers upstream through villages and industrial towns, there is always something to look at. Always something to take in.
To my mind, there are few better railway journeys than this one, as fine an example as you can find for the joy of travelling by train. In Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, he writes of train travel as “a continuous vision, a grand tour’s succession of memorable images across a curved earth,” and his words come to me again as our train follows the Vltava River towards Prague. I’ve taken this journey many times, but for all its familiarity, the scenes unfolding beyond the carriage window are never exactly the same, and there is always something new to discover.
What’s the best way to approach your destination? Is it from the air, a city appearing as the plane descends through the clouds, laid out like a miniature model? Is it on foot, where the gradual shift from rural to urban via the edgelands in between is most tangible? Both of these are fine ways to meet a place for the first time or to come face to face with it again, but for me only the train can combine both the sweep of a skyline and the thrill of spotting the landmarks that give a place its visual character, and the tiny details of ordinary lives that are offered up via the backyard glimpse of living rooms and balconies, of a future footballer scoring goals against an alleyway wall or a daydreaming figure standing at the kitchen sink.
In 1905, as he moved through the city by train for his book The Soul of London, Ford Madox Ford noted the “many little bits of uncompleted life,” visible through the carriage glass, and there is plenty of fuel for the imagination on offer for the train traveller who sits, nose pressed against the window. As the countryside gives way to the outer suburbs of Prague, I tell stories in my head of what it is like to live here, in an apartment between the railway tracks and the river. I read billboards offering items for sale in a language I don’t speak, and I try to catch the names of stations we pass through without stopping. Roztoky u Prahy. Sedlec. Podbaba.
Fellow passengers have begun to gather together their belongings as we approach Holešovice. The train stops and then moves on, crossing the river. Another tunnel and then out again, a view of allotment gardens and apartment blocks, a football pitch and the Žižkov Television Tower, it’s socialism-meets-the-Jetsons futurism made all the more odd by the duplicates of David Černý’s fibreglass babies crawling up the side. And then there’s a moment, as the tracks sweep around to approach the city centre and the main station when the scene opens out and the towers and spires and rooftops of the Old Town are visible beneath the Castle, high on the hill, and the view is like a postcard through the glass, if only for a second or two.
It’s just enough. Ford Madox Ford, reflecting on train journeys, wrote “the comparative quiet fosters one’s melancholy. One is behind glass as if one were gazing into a museum.” I like to think of it more like a gentle film, being screened just beyond the window. As we approach the platforms of the main station, the show is almost over. Soon the detachment of the carriage will give way to the bustle of the station and the city streets beyond. Welcome to Prague. But my experience of the city has already begun, viewed from the train, well before I step down onto the platform.