A tale of two cities
Originally a blog post, covering the highlights of Budapest and Prague. Travel dates April 22 to May 4, 2013.
Our latest vacation had us spending about one week in Budapest, Hungary, and another week in Prague, Czech Republic. This gave us time to visit both cities in a fairly relaxed fashion, spreading out the sights we wanted to see over multiple days, leaving plenty of time for just ambling and enjoying.
Budapest was a return visit. It’s a very attractive city, its two halves bisected by the Danube. Jean’s default suggestion whenever we weren’t sure what to do next was to “go to the water”. We stayed in a hotel in central Pest, a convenient location that allowed us to walk almost everywhere. We were further encouraged in that approach by the weather, which was sunny and warm every single day.
It was our first time in Prague, which is just gorgeous: stunning architecture and sculptures everywhere. It too has a river, but the focal point was really the Main Square, from which you could fan out (often on pedestrian-only streets) to most any of the city sights that you were interested in. Our hotel was about 3.5 K from that area, though, so we made good use of the city’s excellent metro and tram system to get there, when we would resume walking. Weather was cooler and cloudier than Budapest, though fortunately not as rainy as predicted.
Synopsis of activities
Budapest: Monday—Got oriented to the city while jet-lagged. ■ Tuesday—Took guided tours of Parliament House, and of the State Opera. Attended a concert in a church featuring organ with other soloists. ■ Wednesday—Hiked up Castle Hill. Stopped in at the Liszt Museum. Went through the House of Terrors. ■ Thursday—Saw the sights at Heroes Square and in City Park. Spent time at the Széchenyi Baths. Stopped in at New York Cafe. ■ Friday—Day trip to the small town of Eger, for wine tasting and marzipan art museum. ■ Saturday—Went to the market, saw the Holocaust memorial, and took the night train to Prague.
More details here; highlights below
Prague: Sunday—Got oriented to the city. ■ Monday—Encountered aftermath of a big gas explosion in Old town. Visited Prague Castle sights and the nearby Lobkowicz Museum and (briefly) Strahov Monastery. ■ Tuesday—Took walking tour of the Old Town. Visited the Mucha Museum. Walked on the Charles Bridge. ■ Wednesday—Visited the Jewish Museum sites, other than the Old New synagogue. Visited the Castle again, at night. ■ Thursday—Went to the Museum of Communism. Stopped in at the Cubist Cafe. ■ Friday—Took a bus tour to Terezin Concentration Camp Memorial. Attended a performance of La Traviata opera at the National Theatre.
More details here; highlights below
A night at the opera
Back when we visited Vienna, we had really enjoyed a tour of the Opera House there, so we decided to tour Budapest’s opera house as well. That was also very enjoyable—much better than the brief, uninspiring Parliament House tour we’d had earlier, for which we had to wait an hour in line for tickets. At the Opera, no waiting, longer visit, better information.
We were brought around to see various parts of the beautiful Budapest State Opera House: The boxes, the old smoking room (very advanced in its day to separate out smokers, but all that smoke meant major restoration work needed later), the bar, rehearsal rooms, and of course, the concert hall. We even got a little mini-concert at the end, with a tenor doing excerpts of three songs.
But as for attending an actual opera, we decided to do that in Prague, largely because it offers English super-titles, whereas (as far as I know) Budapest does not.
Getting the tickets in Prague proved more difficult than expected, though, not because shows were sold out, but just because I hadn’t properly researched how to do so. I was confused about which opera was taking place at which hall, where you bought tickets for what… At one point I even ended up buying tickets for a “puppet” opera by mistake. Fortunately, those were returnable.
Eventually, with some help from Google, I got it straightened out, and bought the tickets. They $55 each, for eighth-row center, for Verdi’s La Traviata at the National Theatre. Pretty amazing price, eh? Similar seats in Toronto would run you $365 each.
So then all we had to worry about was: How bored were we going to be during this opera? I’d read the synopsis, and it wasn’t much of a plot. Kind of Moulin Rouge, simplified: Doomed love affair between courtesan with consumption (and old baron boyfriend) and gentleman with disapproving family.
But Prague’s National Theatre is just gorgeous. And the people who attend the opera there dress to the nines. Between the place and the people, it was a feast for the eyes before a note had been sung.
And the performance? Was just amazing. It begins with a big party scene and lots of lively singing by the chorus in fantastic outfits, so it’s all very entertaining. The leads were physically gorgeous as well as having beautiful voices. And sure the story is simple, but you can’t help getting emotionally invested in it anyway. We both got a bit verklempt during Violetta’s death scene.
So, no, I was never bored. Jean wasn’t bored. If you get a chance to see opera in Prague, I say go for it. (I’ll explain to you how to buy tickets.)[Final aside: On the flight home I happened to watch Quartet, a film about old musicians. One character teaches young people about opera, and explains that the extended singing of all these emotions reaches the heart in a way nothing else can, and that Verdi writes for the human voice better than anyone else. That sounded exactly right to me.]
Nazis and communists
Both Hungary and the Czech Republic had the misfortune of being invaded by the Nazis, liberated by the Russians, then taken over by a Communist dictatorship. So a lot of the sights we saw focused on memorials of those times.
In Budapest, we went into the House of Terrors, a building that was once a headquarters of the Gestapo, then became the headquarters of communist Hungary’s secret police (equivalent of the KGB). The top floors gave a high-tech presentation of this dark history. The Nazi era was presented fairly quickly, to the soundtrack of Jews being shot into the Danube. Then there was a model of a Hungarian “changing clothes”, from Nazi to communist oppressor. The rest focused on that part of the history.
In the Gulag room, around the displayed artifacts, we got video testimony of people who were sent to these work camps and survived. Another room showed faux democracy at the front, election fixing behind the curtain. We saw propaganda posters and bricks of pork fat representing shortages.
At one point, we had a wait for an elevator, then as we slowly descended in it (with a bunch of other people), we got a gory description of how executions were done. On exit, we were in the actual basement rooms, left much as they were at the time, where people were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. The last part was a wall of photos of the “victimizers”: those who committed these crimes. Some of whom have never been convicted.
A worthwhile visit, but not exactly cheery.
The Lobkowicz Museum in Prague gave a different perspective. The Lobkowicz’s are a formerly wealthy and prominent (Christian) family who lost their fortune twice: once to the Nazis, then again to the communists. They were able to regain it via a program run by the Prague government, and have put much of this treasure on display in the museum on the Prague Castle grounds.
The audioguide that accompanies the museum visit is by a member of the family, which makes it really interesting. The family did some amazing things in the past, such as subsidize Beethoven regardless of what he composed, for which the whole world should be grateful. And they have some beautiful items, like gorgeous rifles (really), original scores by Beethoven and others, and some amazing sketches of Rome in past times—though many of those sites remain in place today. It was maybe the best museum we visited on the trip. (Photos not allowed, though.)
The most visited museum in Prague, however, is the Jewish Museum, and we went to that as well. The most striking parts, to me, were the old cemetery and the Pinkas Synagogue. The cemetery was, for a long time, the only place the Jews of Prague were allowed to bury their dead. And it’s just so strikingly crowded, as they had to pile the bodies and fit in the gravestones as they could. Very sobering.
The Pinkas Synagogue itself had, painstakingly painted on its walls in red and black, the names of every Jewish person from Prague and surroundings killed by the Nazis. So many names. When you think of it, it’s overwhelming. It also had an exhibition of drawings done by children from the concentration camp of Terezin, the only one where art materials were readily available (as the Nazis gathered Jewish artists there, to create propaganda posters for them).
Prague’s Museum of Communism didn’t have the drama of either of those, but I still found the tour of that fairly recent history pretty interested (Jean, less so). They had a lot of footage from the time of the Velvet Revolution, when the communist regime was defeated.
And yes, we visited a former concentration camp, Terezin. The camp was originally in two halves: a smaller part for non-Jewish prisoners—gays, gypsies, prisoners of war, and so on—and a larger part for Jews. The smaller one has been preserved much as it was at the time. We did have a tour guide to take us through it, which was good. The information on the extent of the crowding, the limited food rations, the work requirements, the minimal clothes, the unsanitary conditions, was just staggering. Though it had no gas chambers, most people did not survive this camp, and all that explains why.
The unusual thing about this camp is that, at one point, the Nazis let the Red Cross tour it as “proof” that Jews were not being mistreated. The Nazis were given 14 months to prepare, during which they did things like build an entirely new shower and bathing room—though it was never used. You can still tour that room. They temporarily gave prisoners more food and clothes so they wouldn’t look as bad, and filmed them playing soccer and singing. You can see part of that film here.
As Jean described it, though, it was horrible, but in an abstract kind of way. I guess because it was seemed more historical (unlike the House of Terrors, where we heard still-living people describe their terrible experiences).
Experiencing the culture (kind of)
Budapest is fairly famous for its thermal baths, so we wanted to try them out. Traditionally, men and women bathe separately, in the nude. You can still do that today, at many sites, such as the famous Geller baths. But we instead went to Széchenyi Baths, where we could bathe together, wearing a bathing suit. Those baths also happened to be near Heroes Square and City Park that we also wanted to visit, so that all worked out.
But at the baths themselves, first we had to figure out the entry, towel rental, and change “cabin” (“more like a change closet”, Jean said) systems. Then find the pools. And then we got ourselves into the warm water, and we looked at each other, and we were kind of like, “Is that it?”
Fortunately, we then got more into the swing of things. We visited the “fun” outdoor pool, which had vortexes you got pushed along in and jets to play in. We also went in and toured the indoor pools, and some other parts of the building. Then we just switched between fun, cooler pool, and the warmer, calmer outdoor pools. We ultimately found it fun and intensely relaxing.
In Prague, we felt we should have Czech food and beer at least once. We did that the first day. Jean had this pork knee thing that was just huge; it looked like something from the Flintstones. It wasn’t bad, but it’s just not our preferred food or beverage. So after this, we did a lot of ethnic eating in Prague.
Hungarian food, on the other hand, we quite enjoyed. The goulash, the Jewish eggs, the paprikas… Most every meal we had quite good, often involving duck or foie gras. Which brings us to…
“Oh, that’s lovely”: Dining experiences
When we travel in Europe, we don’t go to the best restaurants. Who can afford that when eating out every single meal? Instead, we look for good value restaurants: Good food that doesn’t cost a fortune. But, in Budapest, we did visit a couple of their finest offerings in a budget-conscious way.
Cafe New York is called the most beautiful cafe in the world, and that could be true. To be able to peruse its architecture, we stopped in for non-alcoholic beverages only. The beverages cost more here than elsewhere, but they’re still just beverages, and they are very good. And it is a lovely room to sit in.
And near the Széchenyi Baths, dining options are a little limited. But Grundles, one of Budapest’s best restaurants, kindly offers a 3800 Hungarin forint (about $19) three-course lunch, including glass of wine. So we went for that. The service is amazing: Your food is brought on silver tray. And yes, it tastes good, too: sour cherry soup (sounds weird, but these Hungarian fruit soups are wonderful), grilled chicken in mustard paprika sauce with salad, and chocolate lemon cake with vanilla custard for dessert.
We did spend one day in Eger, a not that exciting little town near Budapest. But it is in wine country, so I did a wine tasting. It wasn’t that informative, as the wine guy didn’t speak much English (a very rare thing throughout this trip, actually). But all the wines I tasted were very good, and what they call a serving is way more than what you get at Canadian wineries. Eger also has a museum full of things made of marzipan. Kind of amazing, really.
Prague also has a number of interesting cafes. We went to the Cubist Cafe for coffee one day; everything there is constructed on cubist principles (which we concluded really means angular designs, rather than a strict definition of cubes). And we had lunch at the Kafka cafe, whose motto is: Kafka snob food.
Definitely the most interesting and maybe the best place we ate at in Prague, though, was at Maly Buddha, near the Castle. It’s quite dark and candle-lit inside, with bamboo-based decor and corners set up like Buddhist shrines. Though meat dishes are on offer, much of the menu is vegetarian, and that’s we went for. (We were at the point in the trip where nothing seemed better than a big plate of vegetables!) Both the veggie soup starter and our two plates of vegetarian selections were just excellent.
Lehka Hlava (Clear Head) Vegetarian Restaurant, in Old Town, is a super-popular purely vegetarian that we also liked, though not quite as much as Maly Buddha. It has an enchanted forest setting and good food. We were lucky to get in without reservations.
Also worth mentioning is a little Chinese / Japanese restaurant we found, only because it took such effort. One night all the restaurants we had targeted (from guidebooks) turned out to be closed, or we just couldn’t find them. And ones we did find just seemed too expensive. And it was raining. So about an hour’s search, we finally went into this not-very-promising looking Chinese / Japanese restaurant.
Which actually, to our surprise, had very good sushi. Phew! (We even ate there again.)[“Oh, that’s lovely”, by the way, was Jean’s favorite descriptor of food he enjoyed on this trip. Fortunately, I heard it quite often!]
Running into news
When we first turned on BBC News in our Budapest hotel, we were surprised that Canada was the top story. That was the day those terror suspects were arrested (before they did any damage). Otherwise, though, we didn’t really encounter anything newsworthy in Budapest. We did see the filming of a gum commercial, but that was about it.
In Prague, though, they did have a “top story of the day” major gas explosion downtown, right by the place where we planned to go first that day (in a doomed attempt at opera tickets). Hence we were there about an hour after that happened, in time to see the police barricades, helicopters, ambulances… From a Czech guy on the street we were able to decipher that it had been a gas explosion; at lunch I used my cell phone (on wireless) to read the story. Then we later emailed / Facebook’ed people to let them know we were OK.
Strangely, a police barricade also stopped us on another effort to buy opera tickets. I have no idea what that one was about. (And was rather amazed that two attempts at ticket buying had been stopped by police barricades!)
We also came across a big political protest another day. No idea what that was about, either. We made out the Czech words for Democracy and Capitalism on the signs, but couldn’t tell if the (mostly young) protestors were for or against them.
(I will add that we felt very safe in both cities, always, whether walking during the day or at night, or taking the metro or tram, day or night.)
At a dance we attended the day before leaving on vacation, for some reason someone was giving a demonstration of how to pack light for the trip. And the friends we were sitting with were laughing about them bringing an iPod, and a tablet, and a Kindle.
Well, for the record, I did pretty much the same thing: cell phone, iPod, tablet, and Kobo, all separate. I had my reasons; and besides, the total of all four still weighed far less than the stack of books I would otherwise have travelled with!
Most used, by far, was the Kobo. I put the travel books on it (along with a bunch of novels for leisure reading), and referred to it constantly. It was lightweight, had a built-in light, had a long battery life, and easy links to whatever part of the guidebook was needed… It worked much better than carrying around actual books (or a tablet). Only problem was maps being really too small to read, so we went low-tech for those: we supplemented with paper maps.
Second most-used was the tablet, whenever I could get wifi. In Budapest we didn’t want to pay for it at our hotel, so we would periodically wander the city with our tablets, looking for restaurants with free wifi. Fortunately, the cafe next door was one, so we went there a lot. Helped that it also had good food at reasonable prices.
In Prague we also didn’t want to pay for wifi, but it was free in the hotel lobby, and we were on the first floor—and that was close enough for us to connect. (It’s sad we were so pleased about that.)
And the iPod was great on the Eger bus trip, and the phone was occasionally useful for quick photos and checking of news items.
The travel part of travel
Since I’d knocked KLM Airlines a bit regarding our Danube trip, I’d now like to say that I was very impressed with them on this trip. They were pleasant, on time, served good food (for an airline), a good amount of food, alcohol included, had a nice entertainment system (I recommend the documentaries Searching for Sugarman and Queen of Versailles), offered advance check-in, didn’t lose our luggage… It was as good as flying economy can get, I think. We were even in seats with no one behind us on the flight up, so we could put our seats back as far as we wanted without being rude.
The night train from Budapest to Prague was also a good experience, generally. You don’t sleep that well on a train—it’s a bit noisy, bumpy, and it stops periodically. But you sleep some, and you save time and money that way. I think the trip actually includes a deliberate longer stop (during which you sleep better), both so you get a reasonable amount of sleep, and so you don’t arrive a 4:00 in the morning. And they include an alarm to wake up, and they give you breakfast! There’s even a shower available.
(For both plane and train, I must say, it helps to be short. All this stuff has to be more uncomfortable for the tall.)
The main downside was that you still arrive pretty early. We couldn’t check into our hotel when we arrived, and even after having a second breakfast there, we were still pretty early to be touring around Prague. Did mean we saw it without crowds, though, which is very rare in the Main Square. So I don’t think that was a bad way to go.
And finally: Customs at Pearsons has finally improved! They actually separate out Canadians and others (which I’ve been saying they should do for years) and they have an automated scanning option that lets you go through faster. So much better than before!
More details or more photos: