Monday, April 30, 2012

April in Paris

My heart fluttered as if meeting a lover as our high-speed Thalys train from Amsterdam pulled into Paris’s Gare du Nord terminus station. It was almost ten in the evening so all we saw were the twinkling lights of the city until our car slipped under the massive triangular fanlight on the track-side entry of Paris Nord and into the station itself. I’ve arrived in Paris countless times by both plane and train, but this arrival was different. Maybe it was knowing that Chris and Caroline would soon join us or that the marathon was imminent or having just completed a great big circle around Europe with stops in so many new, unfamiliar places, returning to Paris felt like coming home. As we disembarked under the paned glass-ceiling characteristic of so many French rail stations and heard the familiar three-tone arrival chime and the announcement, “Le train en provenance d’Amsterdam est arrivé sur la voie huit,” my heart was aflutter, my palms sweaty and my face flushed. I was actually trembling as we made our way, luggage in tow, towards the metro escalator. “My beloved awaits me!” I whispered to myself. And the best part was, Joe felt exactly the same.

We had about 33 hours in Paris before the kids arrived, to get reacquainted with her, recharge our metro Passes Navigo and stock the fridge of the apartment we’d rented (with a view of the Tour Eiffel!) with eggs and ham for Chris, yogurts, cereal and nuts for Caroline and wine and cheese for us all. It’s remarkable how frugally Joe and I are able to live when it’s just the two of us. But add the children to the mix and it’s equally remarkable just how quickly we can hemorrhage money. The minute we saw their fresh American faces come around the arrivals corner at Charles de Gaulle, we were a family together again and ready for celebration. Let the money-spending games begin -- the children have landed! We treated them to the delights of several restaurants that had become our haunts during our month’s sojourn: the steak/frites bistro near Porte Maillot, Hemingway’s La Rotonde cafe in Montparnasse, the candlelit restaurant on the Île St. Louis and the falafel joint on the Rue des Rosiers. Chris and Caroline are just as content as we are to plan travel itineraries around where we’ll eat.

April in Paris can be quite chilly, but the temperatures hovered in the high fifties and the lilacs were bursting in full bloom, radiating maximum fragrance. Whenever the weather permits, Paris is filled with flowers but I’d never seen the lilacs in such glory. From intense purple to pale lavender and white with even some surprise blossoms of deep mauve, the lilacs made the city even more gorgeous than ever, especially in the gardens around the Eiffel Tower just a few blocks from our apartment. My Mom would have loved it – lilacs were her favorite.

We quickly went from being just Marianne and Joe, the lone American travelers to a critical mass of Americans over the course of a few short days. We arrived on a Tuesday night and were joined by the kids on Thursday morning; our nephew Patrick studying abroad in England arrived on Saturday morning and our friends Neil and Nora, her son and his friend met up with us for a pre-marathon, carb-loading dinner on Saturday night. Nine boisterous Americans raised the decibel level at Carmine’s on the Avenue de Suffren more than a bit that Saturday evening. It was April in Paris at its best and the time for us to run had arrived.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Tip-toe Through the Tulips

While studying in France in 1979, I visited Holland’s Keukenhof Gardens, southwest of Amsterdam just outside the little town of Lisse, with friends. It is the largest bulb flower park in the world and I promised myself I would return one day with Joe. My personal pledge was at long last fulfilled on our Gap Year stop in the lovely land of tulips.

Flowers make me happy. I like being near them, planting them, nurturing them (I inherited my Dad’s penchant for gardening, or maybe it was the hours I spent puttering around the yard as a child with him) and I love to simply look at them. I take the expression, “Stop and smell the roses,” as not just a metaphorical suggestion to slow down but as literal counsel to behold, sniff and delight in blossoms wherever I can find them. Now that spring has arrived, I couldn’t wait to return to Keukenhof (Dutch for kitchen garden), in my opinion one of the most beautiful places on earth, with its full palette of tulips and jonquils, daffodils and hyacinths, in full splendor. The garden features blooms from more than seven million hand-planted bulbs that burst into a kaleidoscope of color for just two months a year, from mid-March to mid-May. In many instances, memory tends to magnify, but such was not the case with my recollections of the beautiful spring gardens I’d experienced over 30 years ago. The gently rolling landscape blanketed in patterns of flowery color and scented with their perfume was as delightful as I’d remembered. Towering beech trees filtered the sunlight and blossoming fruit trees lining the footpaths around the central ponds provided delicate whites and pinks that offset the swaths of ground level brilliance. After a several hour visit, Joe agreed that yes, Keukenhof was indeed a charming, beautiful sanctuary and even though he will never be able to distinguish a narcissus from a rose, now believes that flowers can indeed make one happy.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Bikes, Blue Eyes and Canals

Big city hopscotching has been the pace of our journey for the past few weeks, which lead to many days when we awakened and had to ask each other where we were. I was thrilled to finally wake up in Amsterdam, for my third visit and Joe’s inaugural, because I was anxious to show him why I so love the Netherlands. It was a delight, and an oddity, to finally be somewhere at the height of its season (and the price of our Easter week hotel room proved we’d found Holland’s peak) since we’ve spent so much time in so many locations where the attractions are closed and the place is deserted. The tulips were in bloom and Amsterdam was teeming.

You first realize that this city will be different as you gaze over the hundreds – no, thousands – of bicycles parked and packed like sardines in row after row beside the Amsterdam Centraal train station. Our hotel was right next to the always-bustling transportation hub and overlooked what is the largest bike parking lot I’ve ever seen. The multistoried facility was filled with the city’s carriage-of-choice, all of them rattletraps with rusted rims, duct-taped seats, patched tires and corroded bodies. They were transportation tools at their most basic, did the job for their owners and what they looked like didn’t much matter. The extent to which Amsterdam is bike-centric becomes readily apparent as you stand on a street corner waiting for the pedestrian light to give you the go-ahead. To one side are cars in the vehicle lane awaiting their green light and on the other, in the ever-present bike lane, are riders waiting for their very own cycling light to turn green as well. Yes, there are three directional lights at each intersection and walking around town can become quite dicey at times, even if you’re paying close attention. While the automobile is certainly present in Amsterdam, it appears to be much less important than the almighty bicycle and the trolley. As a pedestrian, you’re much more likely to get hit by a bike than a car or a tram, and on several occasions we came awfully close.

Amsterdam is a beautiful city and for several reasons is unique among European metropolises. Its more than one hundred kilometers of canals (it boasts even more than Venice) that radiate from the harbor in a concentric pattern of semi-circles crossed by perpendicular spokes carve the central city into a patchwork quilt of increasingly large canal-bordered islands and provide its distinctive charm. The urge to treat ourselves to a special meal hadn’t tempted us since we’d left Italy, but the allure of a romantic dinner cruise on a canal boat caught our fancy. We hesitated just a bit, thinking it might be too touristy, but we went ahead and lost ourselves in a lovely two-hour, candlelit meander through Amsterdam while enjoying a delightful dinner with fine wine a-flowing.

The city is filled with fabulous art and architecture and we managed to fit in visits to two of my favorite galleries in the world: the stately, old world Rijksmuseum and the contemporary, sunny Van Gogh Museum. We enjoyed the works of the Dutch Old Masters and marveled at Rembrandt’s massive Night Watch. The exhaustive Van Gogh collection always makes me both happy and blue because the paintings are so lovely and the colors so bright (like my favorite, Bedroom in Arles), but the gifted artist suffered such a short, tormented life. While I don’t find the Dutch monumental buildings particularly appealing -- the churches, palaces and municipal structures -- I absolutely love the narrow townhome residences and small shops that line the canals with their peeked, crenulated rooflines and interesting, white, multi-mullioned window frames. They appear to be filled with warm, cozy garrets and interesting office spaces in which I could imagine myself wanting to spend lots of time. My cheery imaginings quickly vanished however, with our visit to the Anne Frank House in one of the homes along the Prinsengracht. It was my second pilgrimage to the former warehouse and now museum in whose secret, concealed annex the young author, her family and four others hid for two years prior to being deported to concentration camps in 1944. Moving through the cramped living quarters on whose walls Anne’s celebrity magazine clippings are pasted and the wall chart her parents used to mark the growth of their two daughters, hit me just as hard as it had 35 years earlier. There’s no statute of limitations on sadness and heartache.

As is our custom, we did much wandering around the city, in and out of the winding streets combing for potential dinner spots. We sought out the establishments we’d glimpsed on our dinner cruise but those that appeared to be warm, cozy boîtes in the dark from our canal cruise were simply plain, local hangouts when we returned in the early evening sun, so we continued our rambling. We had five dinners in Amsterdam, only one of which was at a Dutch restaurant where we had a simple but hearty meal of pea soup, salad and roast chicken. The other four nights we chose Italian fare twice (we do miss the pastas we’d so come to love), Indian once and of course, we had to experience an Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table). This elaborate meal, adapted by the Dutch from the cuisine of their former colony, consists of multiple small dishes (we had seventeen) served all at once with several varieties of rice. Our meal included egg rolls, lamb, pork and beef satay with peanut sauce, stewed and pickled vegetables and nuts and was delicious. While Dutch cuisine is not the reason most visitors come to the Netherlands, it does include some incredibly fine cheeses, my favorite of which was a sharp cheddar-like Polder Gold. 

Amsterdam is an experiment in progressive living and thrives on its attitude of live-and-let-live. Prostitution is legal as is the sale and use of cannabis in so-called “coffee shops.” I’ve always found it suggestive, given Amsterdam’s reputation (or perhaps its just convenient for the purveyors of all-things-erotic), that the official flag of the city is three white X’s on a black and red background. I understand that they’re actually Saint Andrew’s crosses with a link to tradition, but the evocative triplets are used ubiquitously to exploit X-rated entertainment. A trip to the city of laissez-faire would not be complete without a mosey through the lanes near the train station where deep cleansing breaths in fragrant clouds of smoke outside hazy coffee shops have the potential to ease all manner of aches and pains. And then there is De Wallen, the infamous Red Light District. Just as I’m always amused when visiting New Orleans by the sight of Midwestern, suburban parents pushing strollers and older couples clutching their grandchildren’s hands walking down Bourbon Street parting the waves of wild partying, so it is in Amsterdam. The incongruity gets me every time. Tourists of every variety stroll the streets: there are Asian tour groups snapping pictures, backpackers munching on gyro sandwiches, elegant couples arm-in-arm and elderly troupes with matching visors off cruise ships. Witness the quarter in the evening and it’s like being in some strange otherworld on steroids. I feel a bit like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life when he stumbles into the sleazy, neon world of Pottersville that developed in his absence. You leave the conventional world of Amsterdam, cross the street and enter the tenderloin knowing exactly what you’re going to see – prostitutes in windows under dim red lights -- but to actually see the women on display in person, like mannequins (or electronics), is definitely surreal and more than a little sad. You want to avoid looking but just can’t help yourself -– it’s like watching an accident about to happen and not being able to turn away. So many of the women just looked bored, were busy texting or chewing gum and others would catch men’s eyes and then tap on the window. It was unnerving, depressing and downright bizarre.

We took the train north of Amsterdam to see the flat, marshy countryside in the Zaanse Schans area on a rainy, windy morning and the raw weather, typical of the Netherlands in April, chilled us to the bone. The open air conservation park presents life in Holland as it used to be and we welcomed the temporary shelter from the elements provided by the well-preserved, functioning windmills and the collection of historical dark green cottages with pretty white trim and red accents. Our explorations outside Amsterdam also took us to Alkmaar, a picturesque town known for its cheese. Hundreds of visitors flock to the town for the weekly reenactment of a typical market day of yore (and lucky for us this day was sunny) with workers in traditional costumes -- loose white pants and shirts with black sashes and straw hats with brightly colored bands -- hustling enormous cheese wheels on shoulder barrows across the square. We met many lovely Dutch people both in Amsterdam and on our visits to its environs and as I’d noted on my previous trips, while we saw few with the flaxen hair often attributed to the Dutch, we’d never, ever seen so many people with beautiful blue eyes – light and dark and all shades in-between.

Holland is a compact country with so much to experience beyond the classic highlights of windmills, wooden shoes, tulips and cheese. We made sure to include all of these in our visit, but we’ll have barely scratched the surface before it will be time to leave. We have one more essential stop to make before our departure – the world-renowned Keukenhof Gardens – and then it will be time to head south for our return to the city of light, our next reunion with Chris and Caroline and our long-awaited participation in the Paris Marathon.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Necessary Visit

Twenty-five miles north of Berlin sits the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Initially built for political prisoners in the 1930s, the repugnant complex heralded for its innovative semi-circular fan-of-barracks design became the administration headquarters for all camps and training ground for SS officers who were then sent to supervise other compounds. Not originally intended as an extermination center, Sachsenhausen eventually began to regularly execute prisoners: Jews, Communists, homosexuals and Soviet prisoners of war. Most of the killing took place in an execution trench, either by shooting or hanging, but the addition of a gas chamber and crematory oven facilitated what was systematic murder.  Thousands were executed while supposedly being measured for a uniform with a shot in the back of the neck through a hole hidden in the wall.

When I hear that those who lived in proximity to concentration camps were unaware of what took place there, I become enraged. Impossible, simply impossible. Sachsenhausen is in the quintessentially suburban, albeit haunted and disgraced, town of Oranienburg. Residential tree-lined streets lead the way to the death museum entrance and tidy little homes with painted shutters and manicured flower gardens sit quietly beside the barbed wired barricades. Just as in Dachau (which I visited when I went to Munich in 1977), the camp is part of the town, not on its distant peripheries, and those who lived in Oranienburg had to have known -- they had to have known as they must have in Dachau, what was going on in their orderly little town behind the camp’s walls.  

Our trip to Sachsenhausen was both a necessary and anguishing part of our visit to Berlin. Walking the gruesome terrain of both death camps changed me. Each rearranged my internal wiring, weakened my belief in people’s essential goodness, sharpened the realization of the horrors human beings can inflect on others they hate and diminished my capacity for forgiveness. Economic fear may have initially fanned the flames of bigotry, but at a certain point shear sadism took over. The magnitude of Nazi cruelty was unimaginable and thus we often hear that there are simply no words to describe or discuss the Holocaust. While the limits of language may indeed lead to inadequate vocabularies, there are words that come close, must be applied and have to be expressed: words like revulsion and terror, butchery and slaughter, fanaticism and intolerance, criminality, immorality, evil, genocide and murder. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Berlin Was Fascinating, But...

Our arrival at the massive Berlin Hauptbahnhof left us wondering if we’d gotten off the train at the airport by mistake. The futuristic construction of metal and glass soared upwards around us, enclosing a multileveled atrium of escalators transporting travelers up, down and around its honeycomb of corridors and railway tracks. Our first impression of Berlin was that it was grand, sleek and modern and that characterization pretty much held firm throughout our five-day visit. The reconstruction that arose from the rubble after all was nearly leveled in the devastating bombing of WWII and then resurged post-reunification when the Berlin Wall fell is a lesson in how a city can stand back up, brush off the dust and completely reinvent itself. Historic areas like the Potsdamer Platz (now a showcase of modern architecture), Pariser Platz (in front of the Brandenburg Gate and new American Embassy) and the storied Friedrichstrasse (once the site of a terrifying Cold War stand-off) have been completely rebuilt in the image of a contemporary metropolis. It’s actually quite a surprise when you catch a glimpse of a building that is old in central Berlin. Even the steeple of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on the broad, fashionable Kurfürstendam boulevard, left in its post-bombing condition as an ongoing reminder of the destruction of war and as a symbol of the city's resolve to rebuild itself, was covered in a modern sheath as it undergoes refurbishment to prevent further deterioration. Poor Joe was seriously disappointed he didn’t get to set his eyes on the iconic image of the damaged tower. Unfortunately, despite the addition of a few new buildings, the sprawling Alexanderplatz with its 1,200-foot high East German-built TV tower and open plazas retains its bleak Soviet appearance. But most everything else that was old is now new again in Berlin.

A suitably modern hotel served as our Berlin home base -– the Spanish-owned Eurostar, all sky-high plate glass and steel rising almost directly above the Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof in the Mitte district. We were surrounded by the familiar German names we’d encountered so frequently in history books and seen pictured on the big screen (the Unter den Linden, River Spree, Spandauer Vorstadt quarter, Leipzig Strasse and Friedrichstrasse) and it was comforting to have a Starbucks around the corner for venti morning coffees and buttery croissants. We did also indulge in German fare: we ate currywurst (pork sausage in a warm curried ketchup and a favorite among Berliners), partook in the Sunday brunch ritual in the trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood and had lunch in the truly amazing food court on the top floor of the KaDeWe department store (crab salad sandwiches and fresh strawberries with whipped cream). We never made it into one of Berlin’s most famous landmarks, the enormous Reichstag, home of Germany’s Bundestag parliament, since we needed to have reserved visitor spots at least a week in advance given that it was Easter week. But we did spend a good amount of time out front gazing at its imposing facade while Joe filled me in on the building’s history, including a catastrophic fire in 1933 (possibly set by the Nazis who blamed it on the Communists, a ploy which helped augment and solidify Hilter’s hold on power). While I was getting my history lesson, the weather, which had been cold and gray since we’d arrived in the city, suddenly took an even further turn for the worse and we were pelted with biting winds, hail and sleet. The relative warmth we’d enjoyed since the middle of March had made us wonder how we’d managed to dodge the typically chilly first days of spring. Well, it was just our luck to run smack into them in Berlin and the freezing weather with blustery winds immediately made us regret that we’d shipped back to the US almost all our winter layers. Despite the “lovely” April weather (it was April Fool’s Day, after all), we managed to endure a walk through the famous Tiergarten Park without getting frostbite. As is the wont of early spring flora in defiance of the glacial temperatures, the cherry trees were flowering and patches of daffodil and crocus color dotted the lamp-lined pathways.

Just east of the Tiergarten is the Holocaust Memorial, officially called “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” designed by American architect, Peter Eisenman. I saw the representation of a horrific cemetery but Eisenman’s project text describes the full city block as an “ordered system, which has lost all touch with human reason.” In what could perhaps be considered a fitting physical placement, the memorial is within view of where the Führerbunker, Hitler’s final subterranean residence and site of his suicide with Eva Braun in the final days of April 1945, was located before it was finally destroyed after reunification. The spot is marked with an informational signpost and the terrain is covered by an unremarkable parking lot. I was particularly anxious to visit Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on the western edge of town, designed by Walter March and built by the Nazis for the 1936 Summer Olympics. As a piece of epic architecture, I found the structure itself beautiful -- a gargantuan yet graceful geometric masterpiece in light natural stone with its symmetrical columns and interior lower half below ground level. Der Fuhrer intended the Olympic Games and his grand Olympiastadion to be the ultimate showcases for Aryan athletic prowess and racial superiority. How appropriate that the arena-cum-propaganda tool became the site of the four gold medal wins by African American sprinter Jessie Owens.

And then, of course, there is that troubling Soviet era. Several blocks down Friedrichstrasse from our hotel was the intersection that put the street in the global spotlight. At the end of October 1961, just over two months after the Berlin Wall split the city in two, American and Soviet tanks faced off at the Checkpoint C (Charlie) crossing gate from West to East Berlin. Both tanks at the barrier had live ammunition ready-to-go and each had orders to shoot if fired upon. The chilling stare-down ended without violence but the Cold War had begun in earnest. Today, the barbed wire and dividing wall at Checkpoint Charlie are long gone and only a cobblestone trail in the pavement shows where the wall used to stand, separating families from each other and freedom from subjugation. The soldiers standing ready with rifles cocked have been replaced by a faux guardhouse complete with sandbags in front of which actors dressed in full military regalia pose for pictures for the cost of a euro. Vendors peddle East German military paraphernalia and odds and ends from everyday life in the GDR in what has come to be known as ostalgie – nostalgia for the ost (east). And I thought, really? What a strange era to inspire sentimentality and spawn its own portmanteau.

Two significant stretches of the Berlin wall still remain intact. One is a couple blocks from Checkpoint Charlie next to the outdoor museum, the Topography of Terror, which stands on the site of the former headquarters of both the Gestapo and the SS and is accompanied by a riveting exhibit which details the oppression of the Nazis. The other section of the wall, just short of a mile long, is further south near the Ostbahnhof along the Spree and is covered with colorful murals by artists from around the world. The more we explored Berlin, saw pictures of its eastern sector beyond the wall and recognized the day-to-day realities of life in a divided city, the more disgusted we grew with what the Soviet and East German governments had done.

Berlin was fascinating with so much to see and we easily could have extended our stay by a week and not done all on our list. We never made it to neighboring Potsdam or Sanssouci, Frederick the Great’s summer retreat, and there were several other museums and neighborhoods we would like to have visited. Multiple dark chapters of history unfolded in the city and now that they can be viewed through the lens of history, Berlin draws tens of millions of travellers every year. It’s obvious that the city has once again taken its place as one of the great capitals of the world – it’s dynamic, energetic and appealing – but it was impossible for me to forget for even a moment Berlin’s reprehensible Nazi past. While no one actually demanded, “Show me your paperz,” I always had the uneasy feeling that someone just might. Exploring the capital city of a country with such a shameful past was difficult since the urge to curse all Germans was there at every turn. And that kind of hateful emotion makes me extremely uneasy.

After more than a dozen trips to Germany for both business and pleasure, I remain uncomfortable as a visitor; I just can’t warm up to the place. I have no appreciation for the language, delight in little of its food and will never get accustomed to the brusque Germanic manner. But a trip to the history-laden city of Berlin was a must and thus our trip itinerary included just one lone stop in what is perhaps my least favorite country in Europe.

Pictures of our adventures:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Budapest or Prague?

We arrived in these two great cities of Eastern Europe with vague notions of their history, tidbits of knowledge about their culture and no understanding of their language whatsoever. And after spending three days in each, I still have no feel for either Hungarian or Czech (everyone spoke English and try as I might, I couldn’t grasp the different accents and markings, not to mention the words with no vowels), but I do now have an appreciation for these two beautiful places. 

I know only two people who have visited both Budapest and Prague, and each has a definite opinion about which they like best. My brother Al has traveled to both on multiple occasions and while he enjoys each in its own way, Budapest is definitely his favorite. He has a good friend in the US who comes from the city and filled him with all kinds of background and travel tips prior to his first visit. Perhaps for him, familiarity was the first step towards appreciating the new locale. But a former colleague placed Prague well above Budapest especially in terms of the city’s architectural beauty. We were simply going to have to see for ourselves which of the two struck our fancy.

Our arrival in Budapest was a bit disconcerting. While train stations and their environs can be a city’s nadir, the Budapest-Keleti terminal was particularly dreary with all sorts of curious characters milling about. There’s a beautiful belle époque building underneath the grit and grime, but it’s in need of a good cleaning, not to mention a renovation and more modern conveniences. Our hotel was another story altogether and we were always happy to return to our modern, urbane, boutique lodging in the city center that was efficient and cozy at the same time.

Budapest is the amalgam of "Buda" and "Pest" since they were united into a single city in 1873. Buda is on the hilly western side of the Danube River and Pest is on the flat eastern side. Joe took a trip to the city as part of a Master’s program in 2004 and all he talked about on his return was the terrific funicular ride up the steep hill to the Buda Castle, former home to Hungary’s royalty. The railway links the Chain Bridge and the square at river level to the colossal castle above. If Joe was so excited about this attraction, then we were going to put it at the top of our sightseeing list so I could walk down memory lane with him. But what a letdown! To hear Joe reminisce about the ascent, you’d think the railcars would be taking us up Mount Everest. I teased Joe mercilessly about the 95-meter long ride that takes just over a minute to complete, maintaining that it was his favorite outing because of the wine-tasting event he and a buddy enjoyed just after the ride. We could have walked up and down the hill four times in the half hour it took to wait in line for the almighty funicular. I will admit, however, that once up, the views over Pest were spectacular. We explored the quarter around the castle, the premier sight in the capital city, including the Fisherman’s Bastion walkway along the ridge; we walked along the Buda and Pest embankments, past St. Stephen’s Basilica and through Heroes’ Square to one of the thermal springs and bathhouses; we admired the beautiful Parliament House, the third largest in the world and reminiscent of London’s Palace of Westminster.

As to food, we ate very well in Budapest. We were surprised to find many more warm, welcoming spots all over the city than we had meals to consume, especially along Andrássy Avenue, on Franz Liszt Square and near the huge central market (all my brother’s recommendations). We tried Hungarian specialties like garlic soup and dumplings, but we also ate sophisticated plates like tuna carpaccio and fish prepared with delicate sauces. We had a delicious late lunch of huge portions of goulash and salad at a quirky pub and then finished our day with oversized ice cream sundaes and coffee at Gerbeaud’s, the famous, traditional coffeehouse on Vörösmarty Square.

Not that we are enthusiastic shoppers – quite the opposite, in fact -- the potential for spending money in the city was readily apparent. Budapest boasts block upon block of pedestrian ways lined with a mixed bag of Gucci and Armani showrooms next to trendy boho-chic boutiques, tee-shirt emporia and of course, a variety of shops for woman’s underthings. Given the wealth of choices, I took advantage of the opportunity to make a critical purchase at Triumph, the UK lingerie company. There is nothing like a fresh set of bras, their full elasticity and hugging properties intact, to give a 56-year old woman a new lease on life. After my Budapest purchases, I was ready to move on to Prague and tackle the additional months of our trip well supported.

Prague’s central train station was a bright, shiny, modern transportation hub, certainly quite different from Budapest’s Keleti. There were many fewer loiterers than we’d encountered in the Budapest station and the presence of police and train officials was much more apparent. However, as Joe went to withdraw some koruna from an ATM, I watched as an officer interrupted a group of eight Roma including two children and a young woman with an infant in her arms, in what appeared to be a pre-begging game huddle, and escorted them out of the train station. We’ve seen such groups throughout our travels and the use of children by organized beggar rings as ploys to lure money from pedestrians is profoundly disturbing.

While Budapest had a good share of visitors, Prague was mobbed. Everywhere we went, the streets were overrun with tourists and we couldn’t even imagine the summer crowds. Italian universities must have been on Spring Break because while there were smatterings of young people from the US, France, Spain and Germany, every Italian between the ages of 16 and 22 appeared to be in Prague. In contrast to the Carat Boutique Hotel in Budapest, Prague’s Golden Tulip Hotel was around the corner from the train station in the shadow of the elevated freeways. The red taillights passing by the tops of our windows lulled us to sleep each evening and fortunately, the windows were impenetrable so we didn’t hear a beep.

Most of Prague escaped destruction in WWII while Budapest didn’t fare quite so well. As a result, Prague’s historic center largely remains intact, including the monumental castle compound on the hill, the largest in world. We hiked up to the castle (no funicular assistance needed, thank you) and strolled through the labyrinthine complex of courtyards, the St. Vitus Cathedral, museums and the Golden Lane, an ancient street lined by historic houses. We had lunch at an outdoor cafe in the Lesser Town clustered around the castle and then headed down to the Vltava River, across the 15th century Charles Bridge, adorned with 30 statues of saints and lit with lanterns, and then into the Josefov, Prague’s old Jewish Quarter. We saw the Town Hall’s Astronomical Clock and had a drink in the sunshine on the town square. I can’t say that we had any specifically Czech cuisine in Prague; it was much like what we’d had in Budapest and Vienna (schnitzel and goulash soup).

We also took in two of Prague’s recently added highlights, both of which I loved: the Fred and Ginger Dancing House and the John Lennon Wall. The former is an undulating apartment building built in 1996 on the east side of the river and designed by Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić with Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry (quite the international team). The controversial piece of deconstructivist architecture cuts a curvy, dramatic figure much like two dancers, in sharp contrast to the traditional baroque buildings that surround it. The latter is a bright graffiti-covered wall that runs along the side of a church on a secluded square across from the French Embassy and features lyrics from Lennon’s songs, anti-communist political slogans and peace activist drawings. Despite never having been to Prague, the former Beatle was adopted by the city’s youth as a pacifist hero, especially after his murder in 1980 when western music was banned behind the Iron Curtain. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, visitors from around the world have added their own expressions of non-violence to the colorful paintings on the block-long wall in honor of the musician.

It’s easy to forget their somber communist pasts since neither Budapest nor Prague is any longer a leaden, impoverished city of the east. Each has a lot to offer and which a visitor prefers likely has to do with what is being sought. Both capital cities have a genuine sense of place and are clean and lively in a very modern way with many bright spots including plentiful outdoor cafes for outstanding people-watching opportunities. Our three days in each locale gave us glimpses of why the cities should be justifiably proud of what they’ve become. Prior to our visits, my thoughts of Budapest and Prague were always laden with an intense sense of “the other.” And while I can hardly claim to know either city or its people well, they’re now very real places with nice, genuine people that no longer exist in my imagination alone. Just as with every other place we’ve seen, personal visits have made the world a much smaller place and I will experience news events, novels and the history that took place all along our itinerary so much more vividly and understand them much more.

At the end of the day, if I have to choose one of these grand cities, I’ll have to take Budapest but I can’t really say why. Maybe it was the preponderance of welcoming restaurants, or maybe it was my new undergarments, but most likely it was the ice cream.

Pictures of our adventures: