May 2014 – Eastern Europe

BUDAPEST

On May 19th, more than 19 hours after we left RDU (Raleigh-Durham airport) the prior day, my traveler companion, Karen, and I arrived in Budapest, capital of the Hungary. Our taxi driver, who didn’t believe in the benefits of deodorant, took us to our hotel, the K&K Opera in downtown Pest. (The city is divided by the Danube in two main sections: Buda, the hilly and more historical area and Pest – pronounced Peshst – the flat and more commercial area). The hotel was very nice and was the best we had in our stay in Eastern Europe.

Being kinda early for us we went for a walk, discovering the neighborhood. We stopped at a restaurant called Evidents, were we sat in the sidewalk and had our meal prepared right in front of our table. So far so good…

We were not far from the Danube (Duna in Hungarian) and we crossed it walking on the Chain Bridge (an historical suspension bridge opened in 1849). After a short walk on the Buda site of the Danube, we returned to our hotel for a well-deserved rest.

The next day, we had an excellent breakfast buffet at the hotel, and we went for a walking tour of the city. We joined a group that gathered at the Wörösmarty Square. It was a free tour (The Original Budapest Walking Tour), although at the end of the tour, you were expected to give a tip to the tour guide. He was knowledgeable  guide, who took us through many of the important sights of the city, so I didn’t mind giving him a nice gratuity.

Our guide pointing out some landmark in our walking tour.

The blurb of the tour indicates: “Lack of money has prevented that squeaky-clean modernization machine to roll through town, the way it has recently glinted up so many other cities on the continent. As a result, some buildings are run-down, plaster is peeling and roads are bumpy, but the beautiful reward for the intrepid traveler is a genuine city filled with real character. A wide variety of architectural styles are on display, sometimes combined in the unique Hungarian Eclectic that blends elements of Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau in a single building.” I found that was true. Budapest has definitely an aura of “old Europe”.

Entrance to the Presidential Palace at the Buda Castle.

We ended our walk at the Buda Castle, the historical castle and palace complex of the Hungarian kings in Budapest, which was first completed in 1265. Nowadays it includes a museum, several churches and the Presiential Palace, in front of which we viewed the ceremonial changing of the guard. Buda Castle was built on the southern tip of Castle Hill, bounded on the north by what is known as the Castle District, which is famous for its Medieval, Baroque, and 19th-century houses, churches, and public buildings. We eat (a very mediocre pizza, but great beer) at one of the many outdoor restaurants that line the main street of the district.

Parliament Building from the Buda site of the Danube.
A street in the Jewish Quarter

After returning to our hotel for a rest, we went back to Buda (using their excellent subway [Metro] system) for a Hungarian State Folk Ensamble production, based on Transylvanian folk music, at a theatre called Buday Vigadó. A lot of slapping, foot stomping, and strange (for me) music and singing. Not exactly what I had expected, but still highly entertaining.

Next day, on Wednesday, we had a walk on our own through the Jewish Quarter of Budapest. The historical quarter dates to the 13th century and at the beginning of the Second War there were about 220,000 Jews living in the district, which became a walled ghetto under Nazi occupation. Almost half of that population perished during those years. Today only a few thousand Jews live in Budapest, and very few in the Jewish district.

We had a lovely lunch at a sidewalk café, a rest at the hotel and then an evening at Budapest Operetta Theater, to see a Franz Lehar’s operetta, “The Land of Smiles”. It was sung in Hungarian and with upper titles in German (the concierge at the hotel told us that they would be in English). But the story line was easy to follow, and the voices and the music were very good, so we had a delightful evening.

The night ended with a light supper at another sidewalk café, who had live music. Next morning we continued our journey by train to:

VIENNA

Te prior time I was in Vienna (in 1979) I remember arriving in a traditional train station, probably build at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th. Not this time, our train left us at Vien-Meilding, a bare looking train station, which didn’t appear to offer much help for tourists or those that don’t speak German. (A few days later, when we took our train to Prague, from the same train station, I found out that on the other end of the platforms, there is an underground hall with the usual amenities that you can expect in a mayor train station). I had to walk more than a quarter mile to find a bank where I could exchange dollars and florins in euros, so I could pay the taxi that would take us to our hotel: the Art Hotel, in the district of Margareten. The hotel was a notch under the one we had in Budapest, but it was clean and more or less comfortable.

Vienna Opera House

In order to get to downtown, we had to take a bus, which in 10 minutes would let us out in front of the famous Vienna Opera House. BTW: in Europe you don’t pay the conductor of the bus or trolley for the fare. You buy a ticket or a pass, at the bus stop and validate it on a machine on the bus, trolley or underground train station. Supposedly, inspectors roam the transportation system requesting to see your validated ticket, but during the two weeks we traveled in four cities, nobody did ask us for our tickets.

Another comment about public transportation: in every bus, trolley or subway stop there would be a sign indicating when a certain mode of transportation would arrive and as far as I can recall, there were always on time.

We had lunch in an Italian restaurant near the hotel and returned for a long rest at the hotel. At dinnertime we went downtown. I had been in a restaurant, back in 1979, called the Twelve Apostle Cellar, and expected to recreate the good experience I had then. However, we were very disappointed. The staff was unhelpful and ignored us, and we felt that we couldn’t stay. So we walked a few yards ahead and sat in a small Italian restaurant call Il Vino, which had recently opened. Karen had spaghetti with white clam sauce and I had octopus carpaccio. (salad), with excellent red Italian wine. A real treat.

Hofbrugh’s complex.

On Friday we went downtown and had a long walk among the imperial landmarks. Also visited Volks (People’s) Park with an amazing display of roses. We had our first taste of authentic “apfelstrudel”, sitting in a café in Heldenplatz (Square of the Heroes), part of the Hofbrugh’s complex.

Hall of the Vienna Opera House

On the afternoon we went to a tour of the Vienna Opera House. We walked the halls, sat at the orchestra and went to the backstage. There Karen, sang a few lines from “La Boheme”. Now she can say truthfully that she sang in the famous Opera House.

That night, after a forgetful light dinner we went to a concert in the Vienna Musik Verhein. There the Mozart Concert Orchestra, dressed in period customs, presented a full program of Mozart music (with and ending of Strauss). We were seating at the first row, so we could really appreciate the effort of the musicians and singers.

Hotel Sacher

After the concert, we walked to the famous Sacher Hotel, sat outside and enjoyed pink champagne and their world famous Sacher torte…. what a memorable day!

Saturday: we had our usual breakfast at the hotel and took a bus again into downtown. We strolled through the Nachsmark. Several city blocks long, this

One of the many stalls in the Nachsmark

market offers produce, meat, dairy, oil, spices, breads, sweats, and many, many more staples. There are also all kinds of restaurants or just food stands. The colors and the smells are unique and can be dazzling. We walked through the crowd for a while and then left for the more peaceful Karlplatz (Charles Square), where we rested for a while, before visiting the Karlzkirche,

Karlskirche

considered the most outstanding baroque church in Vienna. Then, we returned to the Nachmark for lunch. We had a bite at (where else) another Italian restaurant. Before we got back to the hotel, we visited the Opera Museum (took us a while to find it, and if wasn’t a lot worth it. Just a bunch a photographs through the years.)

That night we attempted to eat a restaurant recommended by Trip Advisor, but we found it closed. Luckily we spotted another restaurant a few blocks away that surprised us with a delicious Viennese dinner. (Unluckily, I forgot the name of the place.)

Panoramic view of the Schönbrunn’s Palace.

Sunday: We decided to visit Schönbrunn’s Palace, in the outskirts of Vienna. This was the baroque summer palace of the Habsburgs. Build between 1696 and 1730, it contains 1441 rooms. (We visited 40 of them.) Empress Marie Therese and her 16 children left the greatest impact on the palace. Emperor Franz Josef I, who was born in the palace and reigned for 68 years, was the last ruler to live here. For me, as many of the castles and mansions that I visited in my travels, (including Vanderbilt’s Biltmore estate, in West N.C., the opulence and luxury of the place reflected the narcissist state of mind that evolved among the European (and American) aristocracy from wealth and power, with no regard of the needs of the working class and the peasantry, who lived in abject poverty. (Sadly, many still do.)

St. Stephen Cathedral

We returned to downtown and tried to visit one of Mozart’s homes in Vienna. However, the fees they charge are outrageous, so we decided not to go in. Instead we had a beer and a cheese strudel in a nearby outdoor café, close to the St Stephen Cathedral.

 

PRAGUE

Monday: That morning again to Meidling’s train station. Catching a train to Prague, where we arrived around 2:30 pm. In the train we make an acquaintance: a very helpful Czech, a businessman named Merrick. Although is English was limited, he helped us to exchange money and get us on a taxi that took us to our hotel: Petr.

The hotel was again clean, but without many frills. Still, it was close to public transportation and not far from the city center. We took a walk, rested a while and went out for dinner. We ended in a restaurant that claimed to serve authentic Czech food. We waited for more than 30 minutes (although we were the only ones that were there eating) and when the food arrived, it certainly was not worth the wait. On the other hand, the beer (Pilsner Urquell) was excellent.

Charles Bridge

Next day the weather had changed: it was cloudy and drizzly. We took a tramway and then walked the famous Old Town, or Charles Bridge,  build in 1357 over the river Vltava (Moldau). Dozens of statutes, mostly of religious characters decorate the sides of the bridge. Throngs of people walk on it and we make it to the other side of the river to Josefov or the Jewish Quarter. Although, we didn’t find out the number of Jews that used to live there, it is know that they was a large and prosperous community living there from the 16th century to the early part of the 20th. Today, the Jewish community in Prague, is less than 3,000.

Wenceslas Square

We were supposed to meet with Merrick at 2 pm at Wenceslas Square, in downtown Prague, in front of the equestrian statute of King Wenceslas himself. A few minutes before that time a downpour, including hail, fell over the city. We decided to take refuge at the archway in front of a subway entrance, which in a few minutes of us being there, got flooded. We waited for a while, (Karen got in touch with Merrick, who wasn’t able to end his business meeting and could not meet us) and after a while, when the storm relented, we walked down the avenue and entered a restaurant for lunch. The restaurant features a little train that runs thru the tables and brings the drinks to them. We had, besides a tall glass of the famous Czech beer, an incredible delicious Czech sausage with mustard and relish, with bread and cherry tomatoes.

That night we went to a concert with music by Dvorak, at Villa America, a museum dedicated to the memory of the Czech composer. The music was mostly vocal, with an extraordinary mezzo, a good soprano and a mediocre baritone. Also, participated a very good violinist and a brash pianist.

At the end of the concert, we had dinner at an Italian (where else) restaurant, called Colessum. It had actually been mentioned by Merrick as a good place to eat. An enjoyable evening all around.

Wednesday the weather was again miserable. After breakfast we braved the streets and decided to take the “Hop on, hop off” bus tour. We took the tram to a bus stop, near Wenceslas Square and bought two 600 kr tickets that entitled us to unlimited travel on the buses for two days. So, we first stopped at the Prague Castle district, and after a short walk,

Vlatava (Moldau)River

we hopped again to another bus and made our way to the embankment, were we boarded a cruise boat on the river. At that moment, the rain had stopped so we sat leisurely on the top of the boat having a soda and taking in the sights.

Prague has a varied collection of architecture, from Romanesque, to Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, Art Nouveau

Prague Castle seen from the Vltava (Moldau) River

and ultra-modern, and our river cruise gave us the opportunity to admire many outstanding buildings. Churches represent a high percentage of these styles. However, the Czech Republic is the most atheist society in Europe (60% of Czechs do not believe in any deity), so most of the churches are just tourist attractions.

Music at the Mozart Café

We returned in another bus downtown and had lunch in a bakery. Karen had an excellent spinach soup and I had a sandwich. Then we took another Hop on Bus route. Did the loop and returned to take a final bus for the day and to the hotel. After resting a while, we dressed up and went once again for a night of food and music. This time to the Mozart Café in the Old Square. The food was mediocre (a sirloin beef tough as leather), but the music interpreted by a quartet, dressed again in 18th century customs, was good. Another enjoyable evening.

Thursday again was cloudy and drizzly. Our train departed to Krakow at 10:30 pm, and we couldn’t stay at our room until that late. So we braved the weather again and went to the Castle district. It took us a while to find the Castle, but we got there. Again, the outrageous fees prevented us to visit the interiors, but we had a good time visiting the outside. The weather cooperated and we were able to have lunch, and then after a walk, back to downtown, where we hopped again to a bus. We were tired and snoozed most of the time. We hoped in the last loop we hadn’t used for an unremarkable trip. Finally, we returned to the area close to our hotel, where we had left our luggage and had dinner in a “typical Czech” restaurant on our way

We got to the train station with plenty of time. I had an espresso and bought some liquid refreshments for the trip. We met a couple from Oklahoma at the espresso stand and interchanged some impressions. Finally, we headed to our platform and train. Our car was the first one, so we had a long walk to get there.

Our compartment was ready for sleeping when we got in. I took the upper berth and sometime in the early hours of the morning I needed to visit the restroom. I started to go down, but missed a rung in the ladder and fell down, hitting my left side against the ladder. A minor but painful accident, and the bruise that developed in the next few days was as big as small watermelon.

(Note: On Tuesday June 3, I saw my hematologist and she suggested that I had a CT scan of my abdomen to make sure that I had no internal bleeding. The results of the CT scan showed negative and that no internal bleeding had occurred.)

KRAKOW

13th-century Gothic basilica of the Virgin Mary’s at the edge of the Central Grand Square.

We got early to Krakow Station. Exchanged money (at a usurer’s rate), were lucky that the taxi driver didn’t rob us, and the hotel Panorama let us have a room, even if it was only 8 am. We rested for a couple of hours, took a tram that dropped us near Stare Miasto, (Old Town). Had a typical Polish meal drowned with a ½ litter of beer. Then, we took a walk around the Main Market Square, a huge 10 acre square, encircled by buildings dating to the Middle Ages, perhaps one of the most beautiful plazas of the world.

There we joined a group that was ready to start a free walking tour through the Kazimierz Jewish Town, which had been a self-government town, for three centuries, since the end of the 15th century. The

A street in Kaziemierz Jewish Town

young guide, named Tomek, had a master in History, and was proud of the Polish contributions to humanity, including the Jewish heritage and gave us a lot of information, which, of course I mostly forgot.

Powstanscow Slaskich Bridge with “lover’s locks” decorating its sides.

Afterwards we cross the Powstancow Slaskich bridge over the river Vistula, were we visited the Jewish ghetto, were the Nazis crammed 15,000 Jews in an

Memorial to Jews from the Krakow Ghetto on their deportation site. Each chair represents 1,000 victims.

area previously inhabited by only 3,000 people. The ghetto was walled and its inhabitants were prohibited to have any contact with the outside world. Several deportations to concentration camps took place starting in 1942 and ended in March 1943, were the last Jews deemed fit to work were transported the Plaszow labor camp and Auschwitz. About 2,000 who were judged unfit for labor, where shoot in the streets.

Our tour ended at the Schindler’s Paint Factory (made famous by Spielberg’s movie: Schindler’s List), where Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist, managed to save around 1,200 Jews that worked for him, while he had his factory in Krakow, and then when it was closed he convinced the SS authorities not to kill the Jews, but to transfer them to another factory in the Sudetenland, where they were freed eventually by the allies. A very emotional and instructive tour.

We returned to the Old Town and had dinner at a small restaurant called Chimera, located in a fourteen-century cellar. Good food and atmosphere.

Gardens in the Wawel Royal Castle

Next morning, our last day in Poland, we decided to visit the ever-present castle of the town. This castle, called the Wawel Royal Castle, is as usual; build on a hilly part of the city, from where the country rulers could have a non-obstructed view of the surroundings. Kings lived in the Castle from 1038 to 1596, when the government was moved to Warsaw. The complex now houses, among others, a museum, where currently Leonardo Da Vinci “Lady with and Ermine” is exhibited. After a good cup of coffee and a piece of cake, at an outside café, in the Castle’s

Cloth Hall

courtyard, we returned to the Old Town and the Square. Here we walked the Cloth Hall, probably the oldest shopping mall in the World, which has been in business for 700 years. Nowadays stalls on the ground floor and shops in the arcades sell mostly assorted souvenirs.

We continued exploring the Old Town and returned to the square for an early

“Living statute” in the Central Grand Square

supper in an outdoor place. I was delighted that the restaurant had pirogue, a Polish type of ravioli, which my mother used to make when I was a child.

We returned to our hotel and tried to rest for a few hours. Our plane for Frankfort was leaving at 6:35 am the next morning, so we had to get up by 3:30 am. Our taxi was on time and we got on time to the airport. For some glitch in the system, we couldn’t get our boarding passes for our stopovers in Frankfort and Washington, but at each of these airports, the people were helpful and got into our connections in time. By 4.00 pm Eastern Savings Time (10:00 pm Eastern European Time) we arrived in RDU. We were home.

SOME ADDITIONAL COMMENTS:

Three of the countries we visited (Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland) were under Communist regimens during more than 40 years, right after WW II and until 1989, when the Iron Curtain felt. However, each county had tried during those years to shake off some of the shackles that Communism imposed on their societies. Hungary saw the Budapest uprising in 1956, which was crushed by the tanks of the Soviet Union that invaded Hungary. The Czechs had their Prague Spring in 1967, but again tanks from the countries of the Warsaw Pact, put an end to the attempts of democratizing the regime. And in Poland, in 1956 and 1970 had temporary relaxations on the grip of the oppressive regime. And in the 1980s, a labor movement known as Solidarity, started to make inroads, becoming a political force that ousted the communist from power in 1989.

Of course 1989 was the year that the Soviet bloc started to disintegrate and many of the countries under its influence become democratic. Today, the citizens of Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland are proud about their democratic – although still unsteady – political and social institutions.