I fully realize a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And when it comes to these cities that’s all I have. We spent one night and two days in Budapest and two days and two nights in Prague. Enough to do the eastern European version of “hop on/hop off” bus tour and to only skim the surface of the tourist sites. My disclaimer for the opinions that will follow is that I realize I wasn’t in either city nearly long enough to develop a “feel” for it. Like we did with our ten days in Vienna. Boy, what a city! But I digress.
My husband describes Budapest as a “grand old dame”. “What do you mean?” I reply. He smiles. “Well, she’s a little past her prime, but you can see how great she was.” Reconstruction and renovation is evident everywhere and it would be interesting to see how things look in twenty years or so. The neglect of the communist era is evident. Which in itself is interesting, to me, to see. Crumbled balustrades at main tourist sites and blocked off stairways due to unstable masonry is not uncommon. But it’s not defaced; it’s just been neglected. And it is such a beautiful city! Nested on two sides of the Danube River, Buda is the hilly part with the flatter, more “citified” Pest on the other. Connecting the two are half a dozen architecturally different and historically significant bridges. The architecture along the river is stunning – the old and the new. Budapest is famous for its healing mineral waters and so many high end hotels, spas and civic buildings enjoy front row seats along the water. Budapest’s Parliament Buildings are as stunning as Westminster (or more?) since they share the same architect. The first western hotel, the Mariott, was opened in 1977 and its white marble clean lines are still fetching. Factoid: it’s where Richard Burton brought Elizabeth Taylor to celebrate her 40th birthday back in the days of communist rule. St. Stephen’s Cathedral is jaw droppingly impressive. And this is hard to do, because we’ve been in Europe a couple of months now and looking at “old stuff”, as my kids call it, can wear thin. But we’ve learned the old stuff gets more interesting for them if you can climb it, and the top of St. Stephen’s has a great view of its city.
It’s an intriguing place to me because it is beautiful. But it’s also back roads Mexico. Not gritty, but definitely run down. Getting off the train we were hit by shimmering sun that warmed the air and allowed the deposited smells from the night before to drift by. Not exactly appetizing, but then I’ve learned train stations aren’t necessarily located in the best parts of town! And Budapest is a bit of a party town because of its relative low prices. Old style western rockers headline in cities like Budapest (and Prague)….Bryan Adams was there one of the nights we were in town. This summer, so were the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And there’s a fair contingent of a certain clientele looking for (and finding) cheep booze and a good time. So I had to teach myself to look past that.
With our short time, we decide that the “hop on/hop off” bus tour that was sold to us at the train station is the best bet for seeing the sights and getting around town for two days. Note to self: do not take any hop on tours that are any colour other than red!! Our blue tour was, in retrospect, quite hilarious. The open-topped bus people handed out straw hats to keep sunstroke at bay. I tried not to think about lice as I allowed the hat to hover over my head, but not be squished onto my head like the rest of my family. Oh please, God, let them not get lice because then I know that means I am the one who will suffer, since I will be the one spending hours and hours getting rid of it. And my husband kept trying to push the hat on my head thinking there was something wrong with it and he was being helpful. Would I like a different hat? Was there something wrong with the chin strap on my hat? NO!!!!! Then we played musical chairs while I tried to find an audio guide outlet that worked. Everyone else’s seemed to work except mine. I am seriously the Bermuda Triangle of technology. I got so distrustful of my headset that I made my husband tell me every time he heard someone say anything. Then, depending on which bus you hopped on, and then hopped off, some of the speakers didn’t work so I couldn’t hear what our guide was telling us. Invariably, my family would be the last ones sittting when everyone got off since we didn’t know about the shift change he had announced, and he would have to – annoyingly, I thought- wave and hand gesture us off his bus so he could go home. Not my problem! I thought, but then I was grumpy because I was hot and my family had been selfishly wearing possible LICE hats on their heads…
But their night time cruise made it (almost) worthwhile. If you ever go to Budapest, you MUST go on a nighttime Danube cruise. All those marvelous buildings along the riverfront are lit up to show their best side. And if you spend a little more money than us on your cruise, and maybe are not on hard wooden benches with your kids draped over you, bored with all the very interesting (I think) commentary, sipping a beverage of some kind, it would be very romantic. But I still enjoyed my cruise thoroughly. When I showed a friend pictures of Budapest, she said it reminded her of Florence. She’s right. Budapest has all the charm of those great Italian cities but with its eastern European “spice”. Hungarian goulash? Delicious. Hungarian red wine? Wonderful. And if you have more money than you know what to do with, stay at the Intercontinental on the waterfront. A five star architectural masterpiece. With its own spa, of course. But unlike some other “four star” hotels that we’ve stayed in on this trip, the one in Budapest was a palace. So your money can go quite far!
Now here is the point in this blog where some people are going to take issue with me. Prague. It’s obviously been a tourist destination for some time. And deservedly so in many respects. But I’d take ten Budapests over one Prague any day. In fairness, maybe it’s because we’ve been on the road for awhile, but its setting wasn’t as pretty as Budapest. The old town, the new town, the market square…all very “cute” architecturally…but so touristy all the signage is English. And all sort of the same. Wenceslas Square was kind of cool for all its historical and political significance, but otherwise…not so interesting (Remember the Xmas carol “Good King Wenceslas last looked out, on the feast…blah blah?).
If you want to see a “museum”…no problem…many stores have figured this out and you can go see the “comic book museum” or the “miniature train museum”. It cheapened it for me somehow. There didn’t seem to be much to see other than squares, Prague Castle, and a beer brewery. Having said that, Prague Castle was amazing, especially its basilica. Without question, the most impressive church I’ve seen in Europe. The art, the sculptures, and especially the stained glass windows were absolutely incredible. People talk about the stained glass in St. Chappelle in Paris, but it’s got nothing on this church. And for entertainment, the “Black Light Theatre” in Prague is unique, artistic, entertaining (ie. funny) and stimulating for all members of the family. We loved it. Best money we spent in Prague.
Now in fairness to Prague, maybe if we’d gone there first in Europe we’d be all over it. But in the short time I was there, I got a very different feeling from it than Budapest. We did a hop on/hop off tour of Prague as well. It was a very different tour from other cities and took us into far flung parts of the city. Parts of the city that had graffiti all over utilitarian-looking apartment walls, small businesses, and under overpasses. Prague gave off a feeling of oppression from its communist era. It’s almost like an anger. Budapest was so different. We went to the museum of communism in Prague and it was a sobering experience. I left with the impression of oppression, martyrdom, uprising, sacrifice, hardship and a general feeling of having something imposed on a country that didn’t want or accept what it got. Budapest didn’t seem to have a bitter edge to it that I got from Prague. I had much more of a sense of acceptance. “This was our history, that’s done…now it’s this. Let’s move on.” Prague felt a little “stuck”.
So…I apologize to all those people who said to me “Oh Prague! It’s my FAVOURITE European city!!” It’s nice and I think everybody should go see it. But it isn’t my favourite. So far, I’m a Vienna girl. Maybe that’s it…maybe I was missing Vienna when I was in Prague.