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:

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