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A TRIPLE CROWN OF CLASSIC ELEGANCE: PRAGUE, VIENNA AND BUDAPEST
 
(2014 - Winter Issue)

Writer: CHRISTOPHER MITCHELL



It had been four long years since I was last in Europe and, as the plane touched down in Prague, a feeling of elation swept over me.

I’d changed a lot in that time, and I was eager to see if the same was true of the three European capitals I was about to revisit—Prague, Vienna and Budapest, often called the pillars of Central Europe. My tour was named “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which, apart from having a nice ring to it, turned out to be very apt.

Castle Capital of the World

At the Prague airport in the Czech Republic, we were met by our very knowledgeable tour director, Neiha, who knew more languages than I thought reasonably possible. She guided us to our luxury coach, which made airplane legroom appear laughable.

Prague’s medieval history, the formation of the city of today, started in the late ninth century. Prince Bořivoj, of the Premyslid dynasty, founded Prague Castle, and more than a thousand years later we’re still thanking him.

On the way into the Old Town, I was struck by the notion that Prague doesn’t just look old; it feels old. A sense of history surrounds you, which you can get lost in. On cue, Neiha turned on the microphone, “My advice to you, when it comes to Prague, is to leave your map at the hotel and get lost in the depths of the city.” 

We stayed at the gorgeous centrally located Palace Hotel, near the historic Old Town Square in the heart of Prague. On our second day, we listened to the personal experiences of our local guide, Jara, who spoke passionately about growing up in Prague. He vividly described being 12 years old when the Velvet Revolution happened in 1989 and recalled the short period of peaceful, widespread demonstrations that led to the Russians’ ultimate departure.

He led us to Hradčany, the Castle District. In fairness, it’s more a collection of historical buildings than one castle, and is highlighted by the enormous St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica and the Golden Lane. Arrive early in the morning to beat the crowds, and you’ll enjoy a fantastic day of exploration among some of the most beautiful buildings in Prague.

Staroměstské náměstí—the Old Town Square—is quintessential Prague. Standing in the middle of the square, it would be difficult to imagine a more impressive view in all of Europe. There are the Church of Our Lady before Týn, with gothic spires straight out of a fairy tale; nearby St. Nicholas Church, a Baroque masterpiece in its own right; and Old Town Hall, which lays claim to the famed astronomical clock. My suggestion? Climb to the top of Old Town Hall Tower for a panoramic view of medieval Europe at its finest.

We stopped next in Český Krumlov, a small town described in our tour information as a “fairy-tale vision from the Middle Ages.” We stayed overnight at a special place; the Hotel Ruze, a castle-like boutique hotel, is synonymous with the city. The nearby Český Krumlov castle was a marvel, and, for reasons unexplained, it had a large bear wandering around a fenced-off area out front. The town is one of surreal beauty, well worth experiencing and impossible to forget.

For the Love of Arts and Architecture

Soon after, our coach crossed into Austria, a country known for everything from schnitzel to Schwarzenegger and Swarovski to strudel.

En route to Vienna, we crossed the stunning Wachau Valley, stopping in Dürnstein, a picturesque town straddling the Danube River. I wandered through its sunny streets, which smelled faintly of onion and schnitzel in a surprisingly appealing fashion. The town is famous for holding Richard the Lionheart captive in the 12th century.

There aren’t enough adjectives to describe Vienna. It’s a true masterpiece, a place with enormous aesthetic appeal and cultural significance. Vienna seems to have succeeded at whatever it set out to do—opera, science, architecture, music, art and even schnapps. Shortly following our arrival, we attended a private performance of the Vienna Residence Orchestra at the Auersperg Palace. The music filled the glittering room, and the dancers were so close I could feel the reverberations beneath my feet. Full of Johann Strauss’s music, but still hungry, we embarked on a “dine-around experience” during which we were free to wine and dine in one of several recommended smaller restaurants. All I can say is that wheat beer and schnitzel are a delectable combination. 

After a restful night at the Vienna Hilton, it was on to Schönbrunn Palace, a must-see destination. Schönbrunn Palace, which dates back to the 16th century and the rule of the once powerful Habsburg family, boasts close to 1,450 rooms. In the Imperial Gardens I wrote in my journal, “this was and is a city fully realized.”

The rest of the day was spent touring the Ringstraße, or Ring Road. It’s a boulevard created by Franz Joseph I of Austria after the circular city walls were torn down, and a true showcase for the Habsburg Empire. It comprises opera houses, parliament buildings, hotels, universities, museums, palaces, cathedrals and a beautiful Town Hall.

Before leaving Vienna, a Canadian friend tweeted that I must check out the National Library. Of course, I headed straight there, and like everything else in this city, it left me speechless. 

The Historic Heart of Europe

Travel three hours by bus in any direction, and you’re exposed to a new culture. Such is the reality of wondrous Central Europe. Last stop? Beautiful Budapest, Hungary. We checked into the centrally located Hotel Sofitel on the Pest side of the city. Buda and Pest are actually two parts of the city separated by the Danube River. Buda is the more elevated portion (“bumpy Buda”), whereas Pest tends to be much flatter (“plain Pest”).

That evening we cruised up the Danube, along which the buildings, especially the magnificent Hungarian Parliament Building, were brightly illuminated. I can imagine that even the most esteemed dignitaries would be impressed, let alone this Canadian journalist. 

The following morning, we headed to Buda to take in the splendour of Fisherman’s Bastion, designed in the late 19th century. It’s a remarkable vantage point from which you can take in the ships floating down the Danube, and all of Pest across the river. Photo opportunities abound here.

A stop at the famed Heroes’ Square, which stands in honour of the great leaders in Hungary’s history, is also highly recommended. Interestingly, Heroes’ Square can be reached by public metro, which dates back to 1896 and is in itself a World Heritage Site. And don’t forget to sample the strudel in Budapest. I recommend cottage cheese with lemon strudel and, of course, the apple strudel.

Our final dinner was at the famous Gundel Restaurant, a Hungarian culinary institution. Eating there on the last night, surrounded by those with whom I had spent my time, I drifted off to the place where I was four years ago. I thought about how different I was yet these cities have hardly changed. They are timeless masterpieces and that, of course, is their eternal appeal.

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