Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany
15.04.2012 - 02.05.2012 18 °C
Budapest extended a hearty welcome to us with a perfect European weather. A driver was waiting at the airport with a name board. A nice young man who practiced his language of English on us with stories of Budapest. This is the main national museum you must see. That is the football ground named after Ferenz Puscas. And be careful when you go through Kaleti railway station.
Claudia’s apartment is located right in the city centre. A nice flat in ground floor with a quiet central courtyard. A bird spent all the time undisturbed digging soft ground for instant meals.
Budapest reminded me of Paris but with a difference. It is not commercialized with upscale branded stores. Nor are there Asian street pedlars selling useless stuff. Budapest has the river Danube, many imposing buildings on both sides of wide boulevards, fountains, cobbled streets, tram cars and variety of cafes everywhere. Did not see any children or aged people on the roads. River Danube separates the colourful Buda hills from downtown area called Pest. This is a city with many centuries of history and many statues and structures erected during this period. Buildings on both sides of the river must be centuries old. The neo gothic Parliament looks majestic, the freedom statue on top of a hill can be seen from far away.
On our sightseeing days we hopped on and off from multiple tour buses. Buda Hills area with the Kiryali palace, Matthias church and Fisherman’s bastion was alive with tourists from many countries.. Margareta island with a sprawling park is a delightful retreat from city life. The Opera House constructed in 1884 retains its original ornate glory. St. Stephen’s basilica is massive as we looked in amazement from the square outside and then at the painted dome from inside. Two lions guarding each side of the bridge had same defect, they had no tongues. Boat ride on the river convinced us that may be there was never a blue Danube.
From Budapest we drove to a small Austrian village Burgao near city of Graz. With no cell phone connection or satellite navigation system to help us, it was like – let’s follow the copy of Google map and road direction that we have. Go through Erzsebeth bridge to exit Budapest , then M1 that becomes E75 , then E65 and find somewhere route 50 that goes through many winding ways to cross into Austria and then somehow find the road towards Graz and not towards Vienna please. We finally reached the village but where are the people to tell us where is Frustuckpension Kleinschuster? Travel to and fro a few times on the only village road and then a guy in a restaurant said – go back out of the village and then find the only dwelling among the fields. Well, driving towards the village we had missed seeing the signboard. We found it. Relief.
To this place with a long name, I can go back again and again. Acres of fields with yellow rapeseed plantation, looks like a huge painting spread over a big canvas .Tall trees in the near horizon must be part of the forest around. Three cottages side by side .One for the family, one for an elder brother of the family and one having few guest rooms. A stream flowing behind a thatched roof structure used during summer as a dining area of a beer garden. A few wooden benches thrown around. A tractor sitting idle with few farming accessories. Few flower beds, multitude of rose buds ready to bloom in summer.
And then hear the birds singing all around at all times. The silence of this place interrupted with music, you need to follow just one tune and then you can hear multiple ones. It’s melodious, it’s addictive. You watch the birds as they fly from one place to another. A busy lot constantly looking out for friend and feed. As I sit quiet and motionless, I feel the time has finally stopped. Nothing else matters or exists.
Everyone in the family works hard to maintain the guesthouse, do farming and also work at the wine making business they have. It’s hard life. Thomas, a young man decided not to leave for city life to take care of family property and business. Growing grapes and making wine for 3 months of the year. Cultivation of farms for 4 months of the year. Running the beer garden during summer months. Managing the guest house at all times. I have seen his mother diligently cleaning all guest rooms and arranging the breakfast area. His 93 years old grandmother doing her bit to de weed the flower beds. During summer seasons the family kitchen will be a beehive of activities to feed 100 guests at the beer garden. It was nice to know all of them. We kept on watching as they all stood and waved us goodbye at the end of our stay. How do you connect again with people and place we liked so much but we may not visit again?
After admiring beauty of Budapest, how will Vienna compare I wondered. This city has remained a destination in my tour plans for many years. A classical city that reminds one about operas, classical music , ball room and waltz. The European aristocracy, a seat of political power for centuries. And genius of Beethoven and Mozart who spent much of their creative years in this city.
We got into the city quite easily from motorway A2. The building of Hotel Kolbuck was a tavern and is about 150 years old. The hotel was started in 1905 by a couple whose photos and few items of use are on display in the reception area. As you read the advertisements and menu card of that period you get transported to the beginning of 20th. Century. That’s a long time gone.
Our hotel is located next to a pedestrian only mall lined on both sides with many shops. Crowds walk about enjoying the afternoon sun. Food is available everywhere, cafes extend their seating on the roads. We stroll leisurely through this happening place and find a Doner Kebab place run by two enterprising Turkish guys. Food is sumptuous and delicious.
Next day we are off to see Palaces and museums. We locate a vending machine at the metro station for our day pass .Then authenticate the pass from another machine located closeby. This time we found all railway stations are unmanned. No gates, no barriers and no one around even to check the tickets. Trains come and go at regular intervals as if by remote control. No doubt many jobs in Europe have vanished overnight.
We have heard and read so much about the British Monarchy and their rule of the world over the years. The Hapsburg family of Austria had a very long history of ruling large parts of mainland Europe dating back to 11th. Century. Their domain at various times extended to parts of Spain, Germany, Holland and Italy apart from major parts of Austria and Hungary. They extended their empire by marriage alliances with other ruling families. The dynasty was finally banished as late as 1918 at the start of World War 1.
We visited Shonbrunn palace built at the beginning of 18th. Century. We could see only 45 of total 1441 well decorated rooms that have so much history. The room where Mozart at age six gave his first performance before the Austrian empress. The room where Napoleon’s young son was banished from France after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Rooms and offices showing Spartan lifestyle of Franz Josef, the last King of this empire. Stories about unhappy Queen Elisabeth and her passion to maintain her figure. The large hall where on their first historic meeting Reagan exchanged jokes with Gorbachov.
(This one is real. Reagan told Gorbachov - we have so much freedom that anyone can come in my oval office and say that I am wrong. Gorbachov replied – We have the same freedom as yours. Anyone can come to my office and say that Reagan is wrong).
We visited the crown jewels at Hofburg palace. Diamonds, pearls, gold, emeralds and many precious stones. The crown and sword of King Charlemagne. Some artefacts related to Christ, hard to accept as genuine. Monarchy and religion prospering side by side. Huge size heavy and decorative clothes worn by Kings and Emperors to impress their subjects. What pains and drudgery the Kings had to go through to maintain semblance of power...
St. Stephens Church built during 13th. Century is massive in structure. People wearing traditional dresses were standing at the entrance to sell musical show tickets. We quietly went in to gaze at monuments, tombs, sculptures and paintings. At a small lane behind the church lies Mozart house. We knocked at the door and found that he had retired for the day. Will come back tomorrow, we said.
No one stopped us to reach the main door of the imposing Parliament building for a photo shoot session. On that rainy evening we stood huddled in front of the famous Opera house watching on a giant screen telecast of the show that was happening inside. We had difficulty in deciding which palace, museum or building to focus on. They were everywhere and there were so many. The true grandeur of this historic city was simply too stunning for us to completely absorb.
Cesky Krumlov is a small town in the South Bohemian Region of Czech Republic., best known for the fine architecture and art of the historic old town. Old Cesky Krumlov is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I narrowed down on this place on the map based on recommendations of several travel bloggers. Reaching this town as we drove from Vienna was totally a different proposition. We missed some exit , went away further off the destination , checked with several people in stores and petrol bunks , with people who knew only the Czech language .Finally the Czech country map had to come out for us to say – yes here it is and this is the way to go.
The Pension is on an uphill location. From our window the old town centre looked like a picture postcard. Small buildings with few winding roads reaching the small town centre. A castle as the town backdrop. A church rising above everyone. The narrow river going serpentine way as it went in and out of the town. In the morning we sat in the small town square in front of a fountain. Headed by guides waving coloured flags large groups of Japanese tourists emerged from all road inlets. They were everywhere, posing in front of all statues and monuments, shooting all they could survey. The small bridges that went across the flowing river had turned into an extended photo studio. People sitting in the sun enjoying beer and wine. We went in and out in quick succession from scores of small curio shops. Paintings, artificial jewellery, handcrafted woodworks, silk – stuff that you can see in any tourist location. Food at the Chinese restaurant was average, the lady in charge was screaming to manage a large group of Japanese tourists busy talking in high pitch to each other. Walking back on a cold drizzling afternoon through the empty streets, we heard a bird singing sitting on top of the chimney of a building. The melodies followed us as far as we walked. We absorbed in silence the quietness and existence of this quaint little town.
Our next destination Prague is probably the tourist hot spot of the world. As we emerged from the underground station at Wenceslas square (Times Square of Prague) there were tourists everywhere. Around the fountain. On the steps of the museum. In the central pedestrian boulevard. Walking to and from the Old Jewish town area where all actions happen. A square mile of area meant exclusively for tourists. People were jostling with each other on Royal route leading to the famous Charlesbridge and beyond. A group from some college were clapping and singing as their friends danced to local music. Large crowds gathered in front of the famous clock tower to see 12 apostles go round in procession at every hour. Newlyweds in their bridal dresses followed by cameramen and friends looking for locations to pose. Someone offering to change currency receives repeated decline. Continuous line of small shops in the alleys selling puppets, crystals and merchandise meant only for tourists. People watching crowds go by as they sit leisurely with food and drinks in roadside restaurants and cafes.
On Charlesbridge with its 12 baroque statues painters wait patiently for anyone wishing to have a quick self portrait. A group of musicians are performing with people clapping and quietly walking away after every performance. With their dholaks and cymbals a band of dancing Hare Krishna crowd appear from nowhere. A few join with them and go dancing round and round as the tempo of the beats increase and singing becomes louder. It’s a happy bunch of crowd that has come from everywhere.
Next day we cross the Charlesbridge to see the Castle area. It’s uphill walking on a bright sunny day. The square in Front of Church of St. Nicholas is worth looking around. After visiting so many churches we decide no more Church that needs ticket to get in. We break for lunch at Gopal, the vegetarian restaurant run by the Hare Krishna group we had met yesterday. There is a small open yard with dwelling rooms all around. We enjoyed the red cabbage potato curry with rice cooked in satwick style. Pure food cooked in ghee, no spice. I thought of checking whether there is a vacancy here for a chef’s position. Simple food, easy recipes to cook, simple lifestyle, opportunity to smile always, opportunity to sing and dance on the roads sometime. And run out for fish and chips when in dire need, if time, opportunity and funds permit.
The monumental complex of Prague Castle has witnessed the changing fortunes of the city for more than 1000 years. The Cathedral of St. Vitus was built from 1344 till 1929 and represents styles from many periods. This is also where many coronations have taken place. In the crypt lies in rest many Kings and monarchs. A photographer was lying on the ground trying to fit in one frame newlyweds and the tall cathedral top. A tall order indeed. Two palace guards stood in the silence as tourists nearly leaned on them to get a close photo shoot of themselves in guarded company. This is also where the President of the country now resides. Standing next to the palace wall you can see a beautiful panoramic view. The City of Prague is beautiful...
Writing rather a short travelogue for a 4 countries, 6 cities, and 20 days tour is difficult. Seen so much, met so many people, made friends, had different cuisine at so many places, tried to know and understand history of 1000 years. Every country and city has its own identity, culture and taste. There is the present economic situation of Europe effects of which are visible in behaviour of people and their lifestyle. A general worry about what is going to happen tomorrow, where will opportunities come to earn money for a decent living. Very different situation in many ways from what we are accustomed to experience in our own country. We did not do the Budapest thermal bath. Nor could attend the musical shows of Vienna. No wine session in any fancy restaurant. We had a lovely dinner evening at a noisy drinking hole with Gabor my friend from Travellerspoint . People screamed around us watching the Intermilan and Barca match. We visited the wine factory of Thomas Kleinschuster and had white wine poured from a vat. We met an elderly German couple and had long sessions of communications without being hindered by barriers of speaking very different languages.
Berlin was our last stop. We stayed in a hotel cum hostel in the Eastern part of the city. There were large batches of students on shoe string budget tour. The difficulties of bad economy were visible in streets littered with dirt and dog poop. Young boys walking in streets drinking beer. People looking for shelters to sleep. Big window displays of shops blocked with plywood sheets to stop vandalizing on eve of May Day. Convoys of Police vehicles on the streets. Beggar sitting with empty stare and a begging bowl.
We also saw for the first time during this visit, young mothers pushing prams with small infants.
Berlin tourism is all about the Berlin wall and the East West Divide. Fortunately both do not exist. As the hop on hop off bus travelled from one end of the city to another, it criss crossed many locations that had the Berlin wall. A small piece of the Berlin wall is affectionately touched by some tourists. At Checkpoint Charlie the actors dressed like US marine pose for photographs. At Brandenburger gate some protests are taking place to mark May Day. Why Mr. Neptune at the fountain looks so angry when four beauties are around him at all times? The Sieggessaule monument is too tall and cannot be captured fully from our bus. Statues of Marx and Engel in a small park do not get much attention. Massive Ka De We departmental store with multiple floors is useful location for toilet break. The tour guide repeatedly mentioned about the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the cruelty of Communist leaders who erected the Berlin wall. The monotonous designs of pre fab structures of multi-storeyed buildings on the Eastern sector were not spared. East side gallery is a continuous wall of amateur wall paintings that draws crowds to watch. We find Ritter Chocolate at .99 Euros each at Kauffhoff is a very good price.
People were camping and lying down in parks on this hot sunny afternoon. We heard no one minds if the people wear no clothes in this big central park. We realize our East Europe tour may have finished as we have finally arrived in the West.