I’ve enjoyed a much more leisurely pace for most of August, spending a week each in Budapest, Prague and Vienna. These cities have many similarities, architecturally, culturally and otherwise, but each has its own unique feel and flair.
This period has been my most relaxed and tourist-oriented of my trip thus far, and while it felt strange at times to not be on the road every few days, it was most enjoyable.
FYI, this post is a little more laundry-list – and less reflective / observational – than most of my posts thus far, due to the more traditional tourist-oriented focus of these three weeks.
Budapest was the first stop on the leisure circuit. I was joined there by Amy, my girlfriend from Seattle. This was her first time traveling abroad (I know: what?!), so early on I encouraged her to figure out what it would take for her to be comfortable. To that end, she arranged a lovely apartment on Bakats Ter, in the Pest side of the city, across from a beautiful cathedral and within walking distance of lots of the attractions of the city. We took our time getting to know the city, on the first day venturing out only far enough to acquire food and other vital concerns. Example: a representative sample of local beers, light and dark. :)
During our stay, we struck a fine balance between relaxation and sightseeing. Some of the tourist highlights we took in were:
Given who I am, there was a quest to eat and drink some of the local specialties. These included goulash (of course), Unicum (a traditional Hungarian herbal digestif / aperitif – think Jägermeister only less cloyingly sweet, with more bitter herbs), and Pálinka (fruit brandy native to the Carpathian basin). It seems that plums are one of the most common fruits used to make Pálinka, but my favorite was an elderflower variety at Szimpla Kert. Truly amazing! I was also delighted to discover that foie gras – one of my guilty hedonistic pleasures – is a traditional Hungarian food.
Budapest is a lovely city – split by Danube river, with hilly Buda on the west bank and mostly flat Pest to the east. I look forward to returning there one day to see more. If / when I return, I definitely plan to allot more time to the ruin bars. ;)
Prague made up the second half of my two-week hiatus with Amy. We took a very early morning (what were we thinking?) train that got us into Prague around 1pm. We found our way to our second lovely apartment (in Praha 2 about 6 blocks south of Vinohrady and close to trams and Metro – Amy did a great job in choosing locations for our lodging!) where we proceeded to collapse from exhaustion. The next morning, I wandered a bit in order to stock up on basic foods, and discovered a very pleasant little coffee shop with quite good espresso and an offering of about a dozen whole-bean varieties. After enjoying a nice double espresso, I stocked up for the apartment and wandered home. (I like aimlessly wandering through a city quite a bit more than going to destinations.)
We managed to see a lot of the standard tourist highlights of Prague, including:
Prague also has a river running through its center (as do many big cities in Europe; waterways were great highways for commerce prior to trains and roadways) – in this case the Vltava (known in Germany as the Moldau). There are numerous bridges spanning the river as it winds its way through the city, offering many scenic views of both sides of the river, well worth a leisurely stroll across one or more.
The architecture in Prague is really impressive. Compared to other European capitals, Prague was only minimally bombed (this bombing was claimed to be a mistake due to weather conditions and radar failures; the pilots and bombers believed they were part of the bombing of Dresden going on the same day). As a result, there’s a greater architectural record there, particularly of the Art Nouveau architecture style popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After two wonderful weeks, the time came for me and Amy to part ways – she headed home to Seattle, and I returned to Budapest on a sleeper train in order to retrieve my motorcycle and head onward.
Vienna was my next destination, where I visited with Tünde, a lovely woman who is a cousin to Istvan, the groom in the wedding I attended in Romania. I briefly visited Vienna on my way to Romania and liked it, so when Tünde invited me to visit her there, I happily accepted.
I don’t have as specific recollection of the places we saw, but enjoyed walking through the city with her as personal tour guide. Vienna also has numerous examples of Art Nouveau architecture (there known by the German name Jugendstil, or ‘youth style’). One highlight of the visit was the lovely Museumsquartier, a square that is home to four museums and several bars and cafes, encouraging a hearty nightlife.
Again, a river runs through it, this time being the Donau (Danube), the second-longest river in Europe. There are fewer scenic vistas of the river in the heart of the city, though, as its main waterway runs to the east of the central area of the city.
I ended up staying in Vienna several days longer than I originally intended, for two reasons:
First, Tünde’s sister Emöke invited us to join her and her family for dinner – the night of the day I’d originally planned to depart. I enjoyed interacting with Emöke, her husband Tibor and their kids at the wedding, so was pleased to have a chance to spend an evening with them all.
Then the next day as I was about to depart, I realized that my license plate was missing from my motorcycle. I don’t know whether someone decided they’d like to have a US motorcycle plate for their very own, or if it came off of its own accord somehow. No matter, really – I needed to work on getting a replacement, which required a couple days of work to get all the necessary paperwork taken care of and sent off to the US, and to get a temporary Austrian plate so that I could continue legally riding in the EU until my new plate arrived. All in all, an expensive and time-consuming process. I strongly encourage anyone traveling outside the US with your own vehicle learn from my tribulations and take extra precaution to ensure that your license plate remains attached to your vehicle.
Tünde and I had a great time together, enjoying lots of good conversation, food and drink, exploring the city, and more. I even managed to get her to try sushi for the first time, which I consider a great accomplishment – especially given that she enjoyed it!
I had a great time in each of these lovely cities, and encourage anyone who has considered visiting any of them but not yet acted on such considerations: do it! Eat local food, drink local refreshments, see the sights, wander around with no goal in mind and let each city deliver unto you some unexpected delights. I find that many of my best experiences in a city – any city – come from just seeing what’s around the next corner or across that bridge over there. It is possible – nay, even likely (for Americans particularly, with their limited vacation time) – to over-plan so much that one ends up harried and exhausted rather than enjoying the joy of travel at a leisurely and serendipitous pace.
PS: I’ll be working on posting photos of these cities (and other locations visited since) soon.