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Sep 05

Upper Eastern Europe

Prague, Bratislava and Budapest are all old bastions of the Hapsburg empire. Each city has a hill overlooking the town and the Danube with a castle of some description sitting on the hilltop. So, that’s what I’ll start with in a brief roundup of each city.

The dominating feature of Prague Castle is St Vitus’ cathedral, a large cathedral with a impressive set of stained glass windows and chapels. We climbed the three hundred or so stairs to the top and were rewarded with a fantastic view of Prague and all its warmly coloured buildings and cobblestone footpaths. We caught the sunset on the famous Charles bridge at the bottom of the hill, a pedestrian-only bridge perpetually milling with tourists, portraiture artists and a variety of buskers. (Incidentally, the scene in the movie Eurotrip, where the group is sitting on the bridge in Amsterdam was actually filmed in Prague, very near the Charles Bridge.)

In the evening we listened to a performance of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Vivaldi’s Quattro Staggioni by the Prague Chamber Strings at the National Museum at Wenceslas Square. A bit of a tourist trap, but a good recital nonetheless. Wenceslas Square is currently hosting a variety of contemporary art sculptures which are somewhat questionable in their artistic merit. Among the works of art were a model of Superman flying straight into a block of concrete (his head is actually embedded in it), an anatomically exaggerated abstract representation of the “relationship between men and women” (the man is actually balanced on his oversized appendage) and a row of men built out of metal and with balls of steel (literally).

The only disappointment about Prague was that the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town was under a three month long restoration when we visited. It was all covered up with scaffolding, but that didn’t stop a crowd from gathering under it and bitching about how unlucky they all were to have come at such an inopportune time.

L: Cheryl and a guard at Prague Castle
M: View from St Vitus’ Cathedral
R: Near the Charles Bridge

Bratislava stands in contrast to Prague. Once part of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia peacefully became independent from the Czech Republic in 1993. Its capital, Bratislava, is the poorer cousin of Prague, being more compact and less visited. Bratislava Castle is a very plain building and seems to have been stripped bare and partially converted into offices. However, it does offer a picturesque view of the city. There is also a small museum in the castle which displays various objects found in the region from Roman times in nicely lit glass cases.

Bratislava’s city centre is a network of cosy pedestrian walkways, overflowing with cafes and restaurants and shares the same warmth of colours of Prague. Again, we had unfortunately visited during a period of heavy restoration – the town hall square had been uprooted, leaving an ugly hole and dysfunctional fountain in the middle of town.

L: Bratislavan street
R: City centre

L: Park
R: Bratislava Castle

Budapest’s castle is more like a small town. It contains a variety of museums, churches, hotels, restaurants, a palace and the Fisherman’s Bastion. The Fisherman’s Bastion is a distinctive structure built of white stone a hundred years ago. It overlooks the Danube and was used as a checkpoint on The Amazing Race (where Gus and Hera were eliminated, if memory serves).

Reminiscent of Prague, after visiting the castle we made our way down the hill on foot and crossed the Chain Bridge, one of the bridges connecting Buda and Pest – respectively the Western and Eastern halves of the city. Rumour has it that the Chain Bridge’s designer was so assured that his bridge was perfect, he had resolved to commit suicide if it was proven otherwise. After the bridge was opened, it was discovered that the lions standing on the bridge corners lacked tongues and consequently the creator took his own life. This rumour was summarily dismissed during a boat tour we took on the Danube at night, when all the major buildings are lit up with floodlights. The boat tour’s pre-recorded commentary offered a surprisingly frank overview of the city’s history, including an appraisal of the Marriott Hotel complaining that it was “too big, the angles are bad and it looks like a fortress”.

L: View over the Danube to Pest
M: Us at the Fisherman’s Bastion
R: Chain Bridge and Budapest Castle at night

Throughout these countries, the food was great. Hearty garlic and onion soups filled with melted cheese and served with a wide variety of fresh breads normally kick off meals. Main courses heavily focus on meat and gravy (with dumplings to mop up the sauce in Prague). Vegetables are normally ordered as side dishes because mains normally won’t come with them, maybe except for potatoes or sauerkraut. Beer is the standard drink during meals and is cheaper than soft drinks which come in ridiculously small quantities (200mL bottles!).

Interestingly, it is the custom to specify the weight of dishes on the menu. It is also customary to clear plates from the table as soon as possible, which means that you have barely taken your last bite when your dish is whisked out from under you.

From a travelling perspective, the three countries reminded me of Western Europe and all felt quite safe. Romania and Bulgaria proved to be an interesting counterpoint to the “Westernised vibe”…