Magnificence of Central Europe
Updated: Sep 10, 2018
Over 70 years ago, World War 2 tore Europe apart, leading to communism, another time of repression. Now, that history is depicted in anything from powerful murals on the remnants of the old Berlin Wall portraying the horrors people have experienced from all over the world to the beautiful churches and museums that have been rebuilt. Since we have visited numerous countries in western Europe, we planned a two week trip to explore central and Eastern Europe (Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Budapest, Vienna).
We were fascinated to find all four countries to be so safe (more so than other large European cities), welcoming, and brimming with culture. Our first stop was Berlin!
Berlin is city with a myriad of cultures, traditions, and people. It is home to more than 3.6 million people, with more than 12% of the population being immigrants. We were surprised to find vegetarianism to be so popular, so much so that we ate at multiple vegan and vegetarian restaurants throughout our trip. In Berlin we loved Soy where we dined twice. Public transport is so accessible, cheap and useful.
Berlin has dozens of museums, including a place called museum island. It is comprised of five interesting museums including the Pergamon, the most famous of the five. The Pergamon is one of the few places in the world where you have the opportunity to learn about the Mesopotamian civilization in depth while being exposed to real artifacts from the era. One of its most famous collections - Vorderasiatisches Museum - houses approximately 270,000 objects that were mainly found during the major German excavations in Mesopotamia and Syria. That includes massive architectural reconstructions of the colorful Ishtar Gate and Processional Way of Babylon, dating from the time of Nebuchadnezzar II (6th century BC). No less important are the earliest written documents known to humankind: cuneiform scripts on clay tablets from Uruk, dating from the late 4th millennium BC.
How can one come to Berlin and not talk about The Berlin Wall? The picture above marks a spot where the historic defection (change in loyalty) of East German soldier Conrad Schumann took place where he jumped over the barb wire marking the border between East and West Berlin on August 15th, 1961. Now though, The Berlin Wall is better known for the East side gallery. At almost a mile in length, the open-air art gallery on the banks of the Spree in Friedrichshain is the longest continuous section of the Berlin Wall still in existence. Soon after the wall came down, 118 artists from 21 countries began painting the East Side Gallery, and it officially opened as an open air gallery on 28 September 1990. We took pictures practically in front of every one of them- with the first picture right at top being my favorite. Rest of the pictures can all be seen here.
As we all know, the holocaust is dark part of history, but the important thing is that they do not hide it. We visited "Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe" which was very sad but we also learned a lot. It is located close to area where the entire Nazi murder machine operated from. The memorial is located near Berlin's foreign embassies, allowing political diplomats and leaders from around the world to observe how Germany acknowledges its past while continuing to move forward. The monument is composed of 2,711 rectangular concrete blocks laid out in a grid formation. It is designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere and depict a system that has lost touch with human reason. The information center, which is located below the memorial, has a timeline that lays out the history from when the Nazis took power in 1933 through early forties. The rest of the exhibition is divided into four rooms dedicated to personal aspects of the tragedy, e.g. the individual families or the letters thrown from the trains transporting them to death camps.
While there are innumerable sculptures scattered throughout the city, one which struck us most was housed in Neue Wache which is the"Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship". It is an enlarged version of Käthe Kollwitz's sculpture, Mother with her Dead Son. The sculpture is directly placed under the oculus (circular window in the roof) and so is exposed to the rain, snow and cold of the Berlin climate, symbolizing the suffering of civilians during World War II.
Next, we took a train to Dresden, the capital of Saxony- and known as the most beautiful city in Germany (it's gorgeous!). Dresden is stunning and you should definitely visit if you are coming to Germany. A unique aspect of the city is that it has been ruled by a single family for more than 800 years. A number of architectural monuments date to times of Augustus the Strong who ruled in the 17th century, and whose kingdom included Poland as well. While 75% of the historical center of Dresden was destroyed by the Allied bombing in 1945, it has been beautifully restored.
We started our trip with a guided tour of the historic center- including Zwinger, Royal Palace, Bruehl Terrace, and Procession of Princes. Zwinger palace was commissioned by Augustus the Strong after he saw the Palace of Versailles.
It is not at the same level as the Palace of Versailles, but where it stands out is in its collection of art (Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister), oriental porcelain collection from 1600s, and mathematical/scientific instruments. The collection of mathematical and scientific instruments was interesting; and so was the reason why Augustus the strong did it. On one hand, surveying instruments helped him effectively document, rule and collect taxes and on the other hand complex machines like astronomical clocks acted as symbol of power to impress his citizens into believing that he was powerful and intelligent enough to understand and explain the movements of celestial bodies.
We also happened to be in Dresden at a time when the Beach Volleyball festival (Die Techniker Beach Tour) was in Dresden. Alot of locals and tourists grabbed their beers and snacks and cheered on the teams enjoying the sunny June day.
Our next destination was Prague. We took a train from Dresden to Prague, where we met this lady who was originally from Brazil, came to study in Germany, and now has a wonderful German husband. We became friends and talked until she reached her destination. At one point, she stated how amazing it is that there is an Indian family living in the U.S. talking to a Brazilian lady living in Berlin all on the same train. Even a decade ago this occurrence would have been rare, yet today, almost nobody would bat an eyelid.
Prague is by far one of my favorite cities I have visited. The landscape looks like it came out of a fairy tale! You feel like taking a picture of every building around you. It is probably because Prague was not impacted much in second world war bombings as Berlin and Dresden were- so a lot of old buildings have been preserved.
We walked down to Wenceslaus square (St Wenceslaus - Duke of Bohemia in 9th century - is revered as the one who introduced Christianity to the area, his martyrdom and the popularity of several biographies gave rise to a reputation for heroic goodness that resulted in his elevation to sainthood). A concert was going on because it was the weekend.
Wenceslaus Square and the area around it has a lot of history- both from late sixties when communist forces occupied Czechoslovakia leading to student protests and immolations- and then 1989 when communists were overthrown in the "Velvet revolution"led by Vaclav Havel. Btw Vaclav is Czech name for St Wenceslaus.
We were following walking tour podcasts by Rick Steves - and on its recommendation, we found a bakery nearby where we ate their famous banana and strawberry ice cream (absolutely delicious!). Because it was the weekend, tourists from all of Europe seemed to have descended on Prague. We were surrounded by a cheerful atmosphere. Afterwards, I painted a brick with an organisation which supports children with mental illnesses
As we walked around- we came across a showroom of Bata- that made my Dad and Mom remember their childhood in India when shoes were synonymous with Bata. Thomas Bata was a successful Czech entrepreneur of the early 20th century. Here in his home of the Czech Republic, Bata shoe shops and superstores are located throughout the country. Pre 1991- India was very close to socialist countries and thus Bata dominated shoe market of India.
Later, we went to the communism museum where they explained the origins of communism, how it came to be so popular, and its importance in history. Although I had learned about communism in school, the museum taught all of us on a whole new level. Then, we went to lunch at a restaurant close by. Please order the beetroot risotto! I promise, you will not be disappointed!
After resting at the hotel for some time, we went to a black light theater (an amazing experience and a must do if in Prague!) It was a blend of pantomime, dance, music and a non-verbal theatre production. It relies on one simple optical illusion called "black box trick.“ Actors dressed in black cannot be seen against black background, you can only see the actors dressed in colorful costumes. Actors in black use various props and objects. These objects are lit by ultraviolet light or by moving spotlights. Since the actors are "invisible", the objects seem to be moving on their own and actors in costumes make you believe they can fly!
It was so much fun and at end of the show, I got a chance to test out how it works. I got to go up on stage and fly!
We walked through Old Town square where there a are a number of impressive buildings including Huss memorial. The square's center is home to a statue of religious reformer Jan Hus - a Czech priest who, a century before Martin Luther, called for reform of the Church and was burnt at stake. His death set off a religious, political and social revolution in Bohemia and 18 years of war.
Also nearby is Jewish quarter. In 13th century- Jews were ordered to vacate their disparate homes and settle in one area. Over the centuries, with Jews banned from living anywhere else in Prague, and with new arrivals expelled from Moravia, Germany, Austria, and Spain joining them, more and more people were crowded in. Most of the significant historical buildings (including six synagogues) were saved from destruction, and today they remain a testimony to the history of the Jews in Prague. They form the best preserved complex of historical Jewish monuments in the whole of Europe. The monuments even survived the Nazi occupation in the 20th century. Adolf Hitler himself decided to preserve the Jewish Quarter as a “Museum of an Extinct Race”. Actually the Nazis gathered Jewish artifacts from other occupied countries, transported them to Prague to form part of the museum.
Nearby was also the famous astronomical clock that has been working for last 600 years. Huge throngs of tourists surround the area at stroke of every hour when the procession of the Twelve Apostles sets in motion. Unfortunately it has been closed for repairs since Jan 2018.
It tracks Old Bohemian time, when the new day began with sunset; Babylonian time, which tracks the day from sunrise to sunset; Central European time, which is marked with a distinctive hand in the shape of the sun; and Star time, measured by the way the stars appear to move because of the Earth’s rotation. A calendar dial notes the days of the week, month and year, and a zodiacal ring shows the path of the sun and moon through the sky. But it is the astrolabe that is the heart of the clock’s mechanical operation. The apparatus, which tracks the position of the sun, moon and stars, has been an essential tool for astronomers and mariners dating back to antiquity.
Then we walked up Charles River bridge. It is a beautiful stone bridge across Vtava river and has been in existence since 14th century. It is lined with 30 Baroque statues of religious figures. It was packed with lots of tourists trying to capture the scenery on their phones and cameras. We requested a group to take our picture- and truly, in the spirit of Prague- they decided to photo-bomb !!!!
Finally, to end our busy day, we went out to a delicious vegan restaurant- Etnosvet. I cannot describe how many great vegetarian restaurants we visited in this trip. Another restaurant we visited was Maitrea in Prague as well.
The next day, we visited Prague castle, saw the guard of honor ceremony (cool, but not worth it), took a walking tour of the castle, and walked around Wenceslaus square. On the way to Prague castle, was a statue of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Good description on how Prague enabled them to achieve their milestones here.
Prague castle is the largest ancient castle of world according to the Guinness Book of world records- dating to 9th century AD. It also houses the Presidential residence. St Vitus Cathedral is the most visited part. The current cathedral is the third of a series of religious buildings at the site, all dedicated to St. Vitus. The first church was founded by Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia in 930. This patron saint was chosen because Wenceslaus had acquired a holy relic – the arm of St. Vitus – from Emperor Henry I.
Afterwards, my mom and I went into the store Marks and Spencer, intending to use the bathroom. We tried to open the door and it wouldn't budge. Then we realized that there's a pin code machine, ensuring that the customer bought something. I was astonished that they even charge you to go to the bathroom in Europe. My mom and I immediately proceeded to find the cheapest item (14 pence) and get our code as fast as possible. So there is a tip/trick for you if you are in similar situation. After that incident, we walked back through Wenceslaus Square and went to an Indian restaurant - Namaste India - for dinner.
The following day, we took a car trip to Cesky Krumlov, a beautiful small town a few hours from Prague. Český Krumlov, in Bohemia’s deep south, is one of the most picturesque towns in Europe. It’s a little like Prague in miniature – a Unesco World Heritage Site with a stunning castle above the Vltava River, an old town square. On the way, we saw Pisek sand statues, a stone bridge (oldest remaining bridge of country- even older than famous Charles Bridge) , and another small town.
When we arrived at Cesky Krumlov, we took a walk of the town and arrived at a vegetarian restaurant - Laibon, run by a super friendly dude who was proud tell us about how he lived in India for a year.
Afterwards, we began our walking tour with Veronica, our guide (she's amazing - a tour guide, ex-model, singer, theater artist - all rolled into one!), and saw both the tourist and residential parts. Then, we saw the revolving theater, which was amazing (you can possibly see a show there if you book a year or so in advance)!
Towards the end, my dad and I climbed up the famous tower to learn more about the history and for a spectacular view of the city.
On the way back, we stopped by a village which is on the UNESCO list and took an overnight train to Budapest.
The night train is something you have probably never seen before. There were 9-10 tiny rooms with 2 or 3 people in each one all equipped with bunk-beds, a sink, a closet, and a window. It was a unique experience and can save you time during your travels(the reason why we booked it).
We reached Budapest early the next morning and went out to breakfast at a cute cafe. Their quinoa, parfait, and hummus platter were delicious!
Afterwards, we walked down to St. Stevens Basilica passing by pretty streets and children play areas. St Stephen's Basilica is named in honor of St Stephen, the first king of Hungary in 10th century - whose supposed right hand is housed here. The current building was built over 1850-1900 on site of a theater and even now- many concerts are held here.
Stepping out of the Basilica, we had some delicious ice cream. After checking into our hotel- which pleasantly was a huge two room annexe- we went o Buda side of the city.
While Budapest sounds like a single city- it is actually twin cities like Minneapolis/St. Paul or Dallas/Fort Worth that were combined only 150 years back.
Built on a series of hills, Buda is the site of a grand Habsburg palace and has more imperial look. In contrast, populous Pest -- as flat as a prairie --is flat, busy, buzzing and bourgeois, with an assortment of bars, cafés and gourmet restaurants.
Buda side of the Danube is very hilly with many stairs to climb and is home to many of the historical structures. There, Dad and I did a tower tour which explained some history of the Austro-Hungarian empire and led us up to a beautiful view of the city. We then met mom at the Methias church and took a walk around. We quickly went and caught a bus to take a funicular up for the views. We ended the night at a vegan restaurant which mom disliked.
We went for a river cruise just after sunset and it was such lovely views. One issue was that we couldn't hear the audio guide - due to continuous chatter by fellow passengers - but other than that it was still enjoyable.
The next day, we visited the Hungarian parliament (absolutely stunning, a must see) and took a guided tour. It needs to be booked in advance as they control total number of tourists. The Budapest Parliament building was completed as part of the independence of Hungary from Austria. Although the size of this building is massive (apparently little bigger than UK Parliament), the tour only covers a few areas such as the main stairs, one of the lobbies,hallway, the House of the Lords and the section where the Hungarian Crown Jewels are stored. Even though Budapest Parliament holds the Crown Jewels now, they were stolen or lost many times. They found protection in the U.S. among the gold reserves until 1978 when the president at the time, Jimmy Carter returned them.
Later, we went to the central market hall (adorable and great memorabilia). As soon as we entered the area - we met a Hungarian lady who started talking to us in Hindi because she had lived in India for a year. We were so surprised and amazed at how fluent and friendly she was! For lunch, we ate at a Thai restaurant which mom was again, not too impressed with. After lunch, we walked to Hero square, only to discover that it was closed as school children were training for some big event. There, dad and I saw the thermal baths. I was initially interested- but on seeing the crowd and the fact that they are so hot (Budapest temperature was above 95 F)- I was happy that we did not go for it.
We took a night train to Vienna for last leg of our trip.
Once we arrived in Vienna, we had to walk a lot to reach our hotel where we had to use a key to get inside. The owners go home at 6 pm, so if anyone is checking in after that time they must have a key. We walked in and saw the most quirky elevator with a velvet seat inside (we even took pictures sitting on it lol).
After dropping our stuff off, we walked down to an Indian restaurant for dinner. The following day, we visited the Schönbrunn Palace. Schönbrunn Palace is a Unesco World Heritage site and Austria’s most visited tourist attraction. For centuries the palace served as the summer home of the Habsburgs. We wandered through 40 authentically furnished rooms, including the state rooms and private apartments of Franz Joseph and his wife Elizabeth, or Sisi as she was commonly called. One good thing was that they do not allow any pictures to be taken. So people move fast and we are not subjected to tourists taking random pics in front of each room.
We had fantastic lunch at Cafe Restaurant Leto. We were searching for a lunch restaurant with light vegetarian Mediterranean food before going to Hofburg Palace to escape 92 F temps in Vienna- and what a perfect choice it was. We had good veg choices- aubergine dish and ratatouille were exceptional. Q
From there, we visited Hofburg palace displaying he cutlery and China of the Austrian Habsburg royal family. There was a museum dedicated to Queen Elisabeth- who was married to Franz Joseph - and is better known as Sisi. Her story was so akin to Princess Diana and I think provided fodder for so many hollywood and bollywood movies. If interested- you can read here. It just was a collection of opulent items. One fascinating snippet we found was about foot washing ceremony conducted by the Emperor and Empress.
We walked around the museum area and witnessed a Disability pride parade called Power-parade with motto "All for all". They had colorful trucks with music and dance.
There, we met a man who had been homeless a few years ago and he was leading tours known as homeless tours. We got some information and planned to do it a couple of days later.
The next day, we took a day trip to Melk Valley. We made use of a combined ticket offer of Austrian rail that covers train ticket, boat ride and Melk Abbey entry ticket. The Wachau Valley, where the Danube River makes its way toward Vienna, is blanketed with vineyards and ornamented with cute villages. We took the morning train to Melk.
Melk is sleepy and elegant under its huge abbey. The restored Melk Abbey, was established as a fortified Benedictine abbey in the 11th century. It was destroyed by fire and was restored fairly recently — financed in part by the sale of the abbey's Gutenberg Bible to Harvard (which was later donated to Yale University) — was completed by 1996 to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the first reference to a country named Österreich (Austria). For 900 years, monks of St. Benedict have lived and worked in Melk's abbey, during the Reformation (1500s), occupation by Napoleon (1800s), and the Nazis (1900s). The tour guide was extremely knowledgeable. Since the 12th century a school has been connected with the monastery, and valuable manuscripts have been collected and created in the huge library. In the course of the monastery’s history, members of the Melk monastic community have achieved significant success in the fields of natural science and the arts.
After having lunch at Melk, we took a ferry ride to Krems. The 24-mile stretch of the Wachau between the towns of Melk and Krems is as pretty as river valleys come.
We got off the cruise boat at Durnstein. Richard the Lionheart (British King) was imprisoned here in 1193 while he was returning from Crusades. According to a tour guide in Vienna- the bounty received on releasing him was instrumental in growth of Vienna and Austria. The town is a delight — almost like a Disney movie. ALot of stores sell apricot products (jams, spirits etc). The ruined castle above town, where Richard was kept, can be reached by a fairly steep hike with great river views- which we indeed did.
Eventually we returned to Vienna by night - catching a train from Krems .
Next day- our plan was to take two walking tours. While heading to inner city, we saw the health conscious Vienna residents do yoga by the river.
It was a slightly cold day with drizzle - very different from 90 F day that we had seen on Day one. Our morning tour was very informative as the tour guide was a history buff. The group comprised people from every continent. Our guide had bunch of anecdotes ranging from whether Franz Joseph was good or bad emperor (on throne for 68 years - but oversaw fall of empire), how his younger brother Maximillian got recruited as emperor of Mexico thanks to being one of the only roman catholic eligible princes willing to go across the Atlantic- and so on. Having seen too many museums over the entire trip we did not enter too many of them over the walk.
Our afternoon tour was a bit unique.
It was organized by Shades tours. They organize tours on socially polarizing topics and the tour is conducted by affected persons themselves and thus look behind the scenes of the city. So our tour was conducted by a Nigerian immigrant who was trained as Doctor. However due to circumstances of life (business and medical issue of his own), he became homeless. The tour described how socialistic infrastructure and support network of Vienna takes care of such people. While going through the tour, we could not help see the sharp contrast between how Vienna treats its unfortunate citizens versus USA where such support framework is absent.
Overall Vienna was extremely clean, well planned beautiful city. We spent rest of the day roaming the streets.
And next we had to wrap all of our stuff back and head back to US. We were keeping fingers crossed as we heard Air France pilots were on strike. But eventually it worked out fine and we landed back safely in USA.
It was a fantastic trip - that I would love to go back on. We loved the weather, sites, people, organized public transport, easy availability of delicious vegetarian food- almost everything. Hope I get an opportunity to go back. And I also hope this travelogue/blog inspires you take on similar trip.