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New Year's Eve and a wonderful week in a beautiful city

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This was another great city. We spent a week here over New Year’s; I can’t imagine a better place to have celebrated New Year’s Eve. It’s a really beautiful city and very European. Lots of character, old buildings, and history. Over the week I feel like we got a good feel for the city, having the chance to see most of it. We did a walking tour the first day to get oriented and spent some time at the castle and in each of the other quarters of the city. Each district has a unique feel with lots to offer. We enjoyed the Christmas markets and the concerts, and were pleasantly surprised by Czech food. We also took a day trip to Kutna Hora to see the ossuary. It was definitely one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. Prague was an amazing city, with great food, beer, people, entertainment, and culture. So far it’s definitely up there as one of the best cities we’ve visited.

We arrived in the evening on boxing day and spent the next day touring the city. We did a general walking tour and walking tour of the Prague Castle. It’s the biggest medieval castle in the world and it has some great cathedrals and basilicas. I can’t say enough good things about these tours. It’s only a couple of hours and you get a great overview of the history and culture of the city, see the highlights within walking distance and can usually get some great recommendations for other things to do from the guides. Now it’s usually the way we start our visit to any city.

The second day we spent the day seeing more of the sites – the Charles Bridge, the oldest synagogue in the world, the New Town, and in the evening we saw the Nutcracker at the National Theatre. After seeing the highlights of Prague, we left for a day trip on our third day in the city. We went to Kutná Hora on a tour with the same company we did our walking tour with. It’s a really beautiful little town about an hour outside of Prague with an extravagant gothic cathedral and a really great restaurant, but what it’s most famous for is the “bone chapel”.

The next day we also spent just touring around the city. It was a Sunday so we didn’t plan to do much, but it turns out Sunday is just another day in the Czech Republic. The country is mostly atheist, so I should have figured, but everything was open and running as usual; the stores don’t even have reduced hours on Sundays. It was really nice change compared to Germany where you can’t find a coffee shop that’s open at 9:00 am on a Monday and entire cities shut down for an entire day every week. We ended up heading up past the castle and seeing a “miniature museum” in the monastery complex up there. It’s a collection of small – really small – artwork and objects made by a Siberian guy with a lot of time on his hands. There’s a picture of Jesus on half a poppy seed and a caravan of camels inside the eye of a needle, also the smallest book in the world is there, among other things. It was a fun way to kill some time during the day, and in the evening we went to see Carmen at the State Opera. So far that was the most beautiful performing arts venue we’ve been to. It’s very extravagant.

We saw a couple of other concerts the next day. It was New Year’s Eve, so during the day we went to a concert in a palace at the castle and then a show at the last minute inside one of the basilicas up there. Both were classical music. I love cities like Prague where there’s classical music playing anywhere, any time of the day, all over the city. We spent the rest of the evening hanging out around the castle before we went out to supper for New Year’s Eve. We spent the night at a restaurant called Lvi Dvur. The food was excellent but the portions were tiny, and it was rather expensive, but what can you expect on New Year’s Eve. It was definitely worth it, though; there was a band, fireworks from their terrace, and they gave us champagne at midnight. It was definitely a New Year’s Eve I’ll never forget.

We didn’t do a whole lot on our last day in the city. Just walked around, picked up some souvenirs, and saw the “official” fireworks show at 6:00 pm. I don’t know why the city had their fireworks show in the evening on New Year’s Day. I guess all the restaurants and people fire their own fireworks on New Year’s Eve, so this way it doesn’t get interrupted as much, maybe. Either way, we made it up to the castle just in time and saw a great show.

It’s sad to be leaving the city after such an amazing week, but there’s still a lot to see so I guess it’s time to move on. It’s nice to stay so long in one place once in a while, you really get a feel for the city and start to figure your way around. The only reason it’s not my favourite is that it’s very touristy. There are shops around every corner full of mugs, magnets, t-shirts, crystal, glass, absinthe, and everything else. It’s also very crowded, but that happens this time of year. It probably isn’t so bad most of the time.

Of all the cities we’ve been to so far, this one is probably the most “European”. It’s got great music and theatre, beautiful architecture, amazingly rich history, good food, and friendly people. On top of that it’s very cheap and well connected. It has some of the oldest and biggest buildings in Europe and the world and a lot of really recognizable sites. If someone could only visit one city and wanted to experience Europe, this would be the place to go. I hope we get the change to come back someday.

Here are some pictures.

Posted by kmclean 20:24 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged prague eastern christmas castle europe czech concerts republic hora kutna Comments (2)

Christmas in Vienna

Gorgeous place to be this time of year

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After Bratislava we took the one our train ride to Vienna. It was a beautiful place to be at Christmas time, and a gorgeous city overall. It’s famous for its music and performing arts, so we took advantage of that and got to see some quite amazing shows. The food was alright, definitely a step up from Bratislava, and the desserts were of course the best part. We had a wonderful time. It was definitely weird being away from home this time of year, but it was still a Christmas we’ll never forget.

We lucked out and got an apartment through airbnb for an unbelievable price for our stay, which was great. The hostels we’ve stayed in so far were all wonderful, too, and they’re definitely a great way to meet some really interesting people. It was nice being able to settle down though, even if it was only for 5 nights, and have a place to relax at the end of the day.

When we first arrived our hostess showed us around the city a bit and we spent the evening walking around and enjoying one of the Christmas markets. There were a lot of those here, the whole city was decorated for Christmas. It’s an unbelievably beautiful city, but also very posh. I don’t think I’ve seen so many fur coats in my life. Most European cities have one or two beautiful, old buildings; always a cathedral and usually a palace, castle, bridge, or other such site. But in Vienna these gorgeous, old, massive buildings never end. Everywhere we looked every building was a massive, old-looking, very fancy piece of architecture. Every museum or library or concert hall was some former emperor or prince’s apartment or palace or “winter home”. The entire city is so elegant, I guess partly because everything was re-built in the old style after the war, but also because it was an imperial capital for most of its history. It’s kind of like in Freiburg. Most of the buildings are less than 60 years old, but they were all rebuilt after original plans, so it still looks like a very old city.

We spent a few evenings in these former apartments and palaces enjoying the music the city is so famous for. We saw kind of a variety show in the Auersperg palace with an orchestra and opera singers and ballet dancers that accompanied them from time to time. We saw a really amazing quartet play in Mozart’s old apartment, and the Vienna Boy’s Choir sing in the Habsburg’s former winter residence. We also got standing places to see The Nutcracker at the Vienna State Opera on Christmas day. That is a gorgeous building. Standing during the entire show and only being able to see about half the stage was still worth the €3 ticket.

Besides all the concert halls and opera houses there are a lot of other things to do in Vienna. We spent a morning at the military history museum, which was really interesting. Austria has a very long and interesting imperial history which was really neat to learn about, but there were also exhibitions about more recent times when Austria was a part of Germany. We also spent a rainy morning in the Natural History Museum here. We could have easily spent the entire day there, I would definitely recommend it. Other than museums and music, the thing we always try to do in a new city is try a couple of restaurants.

One great thing about having an apartment was being able to eat some meals at home, but we still got out a couple of times. There are a lot of very expensive places and a lot of really kitschy places, but Christmas eve we managed to find a really great Italian restaurant downtown. Christmas day we also went out and I copped out and got pasta again, although I should have had the Wiener Schnitzel, which Mike was smart enough to order. I think only the Italians can make a pasta dish worth $15. After 3 months in Germany, though, and knowing that that’s where we’re headed after this amazing trip, I wasn’t keen on another pork and potatoes meal. At restaurants in Freiburg you usually don’t get a menu, rather just the questions “how many schnitzels and what kind of potatoes do you want?”. We also tried the fast food, but that was nothing special. You might be thinking “of course it wasn’t”, but probably the best thing about Germany is the fast food, if you can find it. The döners in Freiburg make for the most delicious $4 meal you’ll ever have. We gave them a try in Vienna, but it didn’t turn out so well.

To compensate for all the Turkish and Italian food, we had to try our share of Viennese desserts. They were all extremely overpriced, but sometimes worth it. The cakes were expensive, but I think $5-$8 is a reasonable price for a really delicious slice. The real scam was the coffee. It was just as expensive or more than the cakes and not that great. After Milan, though, coffee has never been the same. I would go back there just for the cafés. We tried the infamous Sacher Hotel Sachertorte, which was great but I have to say not as delicious as the one a couple of German friends back home make. We also went to the Café Central and had a similar experience – good food, but probably not worth the price. I guess you also pay for the atmosphere in these places, they were very extravagant.

Our time in Vienna was amazing, and it’s definitely a city worth visiting, if only for the concerts and concert halls. It’s definitely worth seeking out some smaller cafés outside the old city because the cake will probably be just as good and you won’t pay a fortune. Five days was enough time to get a good sense of the city and try out a little bit of everything, and also a good amount of time in the winter to allow for a couple of rainy days. It was a beautiful place to be at this time of year, although it was really weird not spending the holidays feasting with family. I’m sure this was a Christmas we’ll never forget.

Here are some pictures.

Posted by kmclean 20:23 Archived in Austria Tagged vienna eastern austria christmas europe cafes Comments (2)


Passing through a really interesting city

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We stopped over for a couple of days here on our way to Vienna. It’s definitely a convenient location, but doesn’t get as much attention as some other cities in the area. I guess it’s pretty hard to compete with neighbours like Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Krakow, and Wrocław. It’s definitely not as beautiful as Budapest or other cities we’ve seen, but there’s a reason, and it’s still got a really interesting character. It’s only been a capital city since 1993 when Czechoslovakia split up, and before then it didn’t get much attention. Prague was maintained and dressed up as the capital of the country. Bratislava was badly destroyed and neglected during the communist era, and it shows. The old city was mostly torn down and replaced with pre-fabricated concrete buildings and highways were built all around the main sites.

Even though it’s not as typically beautiful as some European cities, there’s still a lot to see. We arrived in the evening on a train from Budapest and went to the Christmas market. The closer we get to Germany the more and more things start to look a lot like Christmas. The glühwein here was good, but the thing to drink is medovina, honey wine. It’s delicious but too sweet for me to drink by the cupful, like they serve at the markets. It tastes like it would be a delicious dessert wine, though.

The next day we headed up to the castle in the morning and did a walking tour of the city afterwards. It’s always a great way to get a quick overview of a new city. Our one full day in the city out to be a beautiful sunny winter day, which worked out perfectly. The castle was beautiful and the old city here is really nice. We also took a short walk out of the centre and saw the “blue church”. It’s exactly what it sounds like, and pretty interesting. It’s definitely a change from the cathedrals you usually see. There are lots of cute statues all around the city, and a lot of interesting historical pieces. The city hall has one of Napoleon’s cannon balls in it, to remember the time he laid siege to the city, and also a plaque showing a mark of the water level during a flood one winter that practically submerged the entire city. After the walking tour we were freezing, as always, and went to a pub to try out some Slovak food.

Eastern Europe isn’t exactly known for its food, but I have to say, I’m not a fan of the Slovak specialties. The flavours were very strong, which is the opposite problem we had in Croatia where everything tasted like plain yogurt. It can actually be a good thing, especially coming from Germany where things are generally very mild-tasting, too, but I think here it was just a little too much. They have garlic soup, which tastes just like garlic-y cream. It’s pretty tasty but a couple spoonfuls are powerful enough, a whole bowl was just too much. We also tried their famous potato dumplings (kind of like gnocchi) and potato pancake with pork and veggies. The pancake was actually delicious, a lot like a savoury crepe. The dumplings, though, were very, very cheesy (read: salty) and had deep fried pork fat bits on top. Those were also really popular in Hungary. A lot of meat in this part of the world. The plus side about Slovak food is that it’s so cheap you can try a bit of everything!

Overall Bratislava was a wonderful city. I think one full day is enough to get a sense of the city, but two or three would have been great to see a few things outside the tourist centre. It’s a perfect stopover on the way from Eastern to Central Europe since it’s so well connected and definitely worth a visit. I’m sure we’ll end up here again on some other cross continental trip someday.

Here are some pictures.

Posted by kmclean 20:21 Archived in Slovakia Tagged bratislava walking eastern christmas tour europe slovakia Comments (0)


Our first stop on an Eastern-European Christmas adventure

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This has turned out to be a really amazing city. We got here in the evening on December 16 and are already leaving. As always I wish we had a month here, but I feel like we definitely should have given this city at least one more day. It’s got a much deeper and more diverse history than I ever knew about, and there is just so much to see. Plus, I guess one thing we kind of forgot about traveling in the winter is the shortage of daylight hours. They’re really limited this time of year, which is fine but it means there’s no time to go see a building or site after the museums close… sometimes you just have to choose, I guess.

We’ve taken advantage of some free (plus tip) walking tours here, which have been amazing. I would definitely recommend these since you get a great overview of the city and they show you great restaurants and museums along the way. Our first day here we did a general tour of the city in the morning, which gave a great overview of the history and the main sites, and in the afternoon we did a communist tour. This is the first post-communist country we’ve visited and the first former-communist city I’ve seen (other than Berlin – kind of). The difference is that here, there’s no wealthy western country footing the bills for re-development. East Berlin was definitely dingy and showed its scars, but nothing like the way Budapest does. In Berlin the whole city has kind of been turned in to a museum. Every subway station and street corner has monuments and public information. Here everything is still so raw. Some of the buildings have been repaired, but most haven’t. There are some buildings that have been re-purposed. A lot of old factories have been turned into bars or restaurants. It’s a really cool idea. There are so many gorgeous, old buildings, but you can always tell where the bombs fell because the holes have been filled in with the hideous concrete buildings the communist era is so well known for.

They have a really great museum here, the House of Terror, about the fascist regime at the end of WWII and the later communist rule that lasted over 40 years. The building was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross Party, the Hungarian Nazis, in 1944 and after that the communist terror organizations, the ÁVO and later the ÁVH. I had no idea how deep Hungary was into the communist mess before 1989, so I guess coming here in complete ignorance lead to a really interesting learning experience. The communist tour was really amazing because we got to hear and see what it was like under Soviet occupation and essentially Soviet rule.

After getting sufficiently bummed out about the communist era hell these people lived in, we lucked out and saw a show at the Hungarian State Opera. We got seats (terrible ones, but still close enough) for the Budapest philharmonic for 1000 Forints, about $5 – I never want to go back to euro countries! The opera house is beautiful, modeled after the one in Vienna.

The second day we did another walking tour through the Jewish quarter. It’s not a happy place to be learning about Jewish history, but it’s really interesting and they’ve got a lot of really great monuments here. There’s one right on the Danube, it’s 50 pairs of shoes about to walk into the water. A couple of other great monuments are right outside the “great synagogue” – the biggest synagogue in Europe, and one of the few that didn’t get destroyed during WWII. The Nazis only invaded Hungary in 1944 and left the synagogue standing because it was the highest place they could put their antennas to communicate with Berlin. Theodor Herzl had his bar mitzvah there. The original ghetto wall has been torn down but there a couple of segments that have been rebuilt in commemoration – one in the cemetery outside the synagogue. The Jewish quarter today is one of the liveliest and most diverse districts of Budapest and the locals say one of the least “touristy” places.

This morning we went to the castle hill on the Buda side of the Danube. We were there the first day with the general walking tour, but it was so foggy we couldn’t even see across the river. It was great to go back and see the view of Pest from the top. It really is a beautiful city. The parliament is huge and sits right on the water, so you get an amazing view from the top of the hill across the river. There are so many other things I wish we could have seen. There’s an art museum here that an Italian guy at our hostel said was comparable to the Louvre, a park with a few former communist monuments they keep for old time’s sake, and it would have been great to have time to check out the inside and the museums attached to the synagogues and the basilica. We definitely should have given ourselves at least one more day, this is a city we’ll definitely be back in.

I never really thought of Hungary as being so interesting, but it’s got such a rich history. Budapest has a lot of beautiful buildings and a great city plan thanks to the Austrians from the Austro-Hungary days, it’s had its tragic but fascinating fascist and communist eras and today it’s a really lively and diverse city, working on getting itself back together but with a long way to go. It’s cheap and well connected, overall and really great city. I hope we get a chance to come back someday.

Here are some pictures.

Posted by kmclean 20:20 Archived in Hungary Tagged budapest walking eastern tours christmas hungary europe Comments (0)

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