Moving out of the flat in France just two days earlier meant that inter-railing somewhat snuck up on us. Neither of us had even unpacked from the Year Abroad before re-packing for these few bonus weeks. On the morning train to the airport, we could not shake the feeling that this was just another necessary train journey. It did get a wee bit better, though…
The first thing we wanted to do in Berlin was to head to the historic Brandenburg Gate, the site at which I delivered the first of many historical lectures to my ever patient – and even sometimes interested – sweetheart of a travel companion. From there, we walked the short distance through the picturesque Tiergarten park onto the Reichstag, the German Parliament building, scene of lecture #2, and if Emma was despairing, there was a lot more of that in-store!
Having begrudgingly broken my boycott of Starbucks on the promise of a delightfully refreshing fruit slush, my disappointment was soon replaced by intrigue as a crowd formed outside of a Dunkin’ Donuts, with police, the media, and assorted blokes with ear-pieces also loitering. Sure enough, within minutes, out strode Angela Merkel, “Big Ange”, looking as pleased as punch.
Anyway, back to being a tourist, if that doesn’t count. We then popped to Alexanderplatz and enjoyed a superbly simple currywurst, before taking the metro to the East Side Gallery. This mile-long stretch of the Berlin Wall is maintained as an open-air art gallery and is decorated with paintings depicting the feelings of change from around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Similarly thought-provoking was the Berlin Wall Memorial, the top of which overlooks a segment of the once menacing wall and its chilling no man’s land.
Berlin, it seems, is a city filled with such haunting memory, but it should be commended for its admirable transparency and will to educate about, and thus avoid repetition of, the most horrifying episode in its history. The imposing installation at the Holocaust Memorial is certainly intimidating, and the letters sent home by the then soon-to-be victims of the tragedy are the most harrowing things I have ever read.
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC (CZECHIA)
Prague was undoubtedly one of the closely-tied top three cities on this trip along with Vienna and Budapest, and it could not have been more different to Berlin. Surprisingly, given that the German capital had been one of the cities I was most excited to visit, I liked that this was so different. Turns out, olde-worlde really does it for me!
On our first amble from the hotel, we passed the marvellous Spanish Synagogue, and took one or two scenic detours before finally reaching the Old Town Square, home to the iconic Old Town Hall Astronomical Clock Tower and the very photogenic Church of Our Lady Before Týn. I don’t know how many times I walked into this square and thought, “I’ll have to take another photo of that. It can’t have looked that good last time”.
When in Prague, seek out the Hotel U Prince opposite the Astronomical Clock, and take the lift to the top for delicious, rooftop cocktails which, given the exquisite location, were very reasonably priced – enough even for us students to sample a fair few!
The following day, we walked up to Prague Castle, which is more of an estate than a castle. In fact, it’s probably several estates within which sits Saint Vitus Cathedral among a vast array of grandiose palaces, churches and art galleries, any one of which might well be the main attraction in a less illustrious city. After scouring the artisanal market and soaking in the gorgeous views of Prague from above, we headed for the stunningly eerie Charles Bridge before meandering home through the Old Town.
We’ve all been to cities with a handful of gems scattered across miles of ordinary cityscape – to an extent, that’s how I felt in Berlin – and that was how Vienna seemed in the beginning after first taking the metro from the shabby hotel to Saint Stephan’s Cathedral. The Austrian capital, however, is a resplendent expanse of consistently spectacular architecture, as we soon realised when we rounded a corner to find the intriguing Plague Column in the centre of a striking Viennese high street. In fact, it is the beauty of these everyday commercial building that leaves perhaps one of the greatest and most lasting impressions of the city. I’ll wager now that Vienna has the best looking H&M in the world!
The following day, we began at the Parliament Building, a majestic example of Greek Revival architecture to which the pathway was decorated with a series of allegorical statues of historically revered statesmen such as Tacitus, Xenophon, Caesar and, my hero and selfie-partner, the so-called “Father of History” himself, Herodotus of Halicarnassus. At the front, the Pallas-Athena, by showing her back to the building, is said to be rejecting the infighting hosted inside.
From there, we wandered to the spectacular City Hall, or Rathaus, and then onto the showcase Maria-Theresien-Platz with it’s opposing, and near identical, Natural History Museum and Art History Museum, the two separated by quaint gardens and a proud statue of Empress Maria Theresa, the last ruler of the once great Habsburg family dynasty. Finally, we enjoyed a walk around the tranquil gardens of Belvedere Palace. Unfortunately, we missed out on a visit to Schönbrunn Palace, but, as with Prague and, later, Budapest, we will return to Vienna.
The setting of the 1960s classic musical The Sound of Music, Salzburg is a small, pretty and peaceful city. Our stay began with a walk around Mirabellgarten, the picturesque house gardens from the film, apparently. From there, we explored the old town including all the regular hallmarks of such a quaint city: the central square, the city hall, the markets and, obviously, the Horse Baths.
Salzburg Cathedral was a particular highlight, even during the seemingly infinite procession of cathedrals that is European travel. The Sphaera, a huge art installation of a man atop a golden ball, and the giant chess set central in the courtyard, along with the backdrop of Salzburg Castle, added to the quirky beauty of this ideal day trip.
Finally, we took a very long, hot and less than enjoyable detour down, up, back and around to the scenic lakeside to take a peek at Schloss Leopoldskron, the grand chateau that played home to Fräulein Maria & Co. in the film.
The initial walk from our hotel to the Old Town took us, rather surprisingly past the grand Grassalkovich Palace and its earth-shaped fountain. Dubbed on TripAdvisor the “Slovakian White House”, the palace is home to the President of Slovakia, its fountain symbolising peace and freedom. Slap bang in the middle of town, it is an unusual complex in that it’s surrounded by the bustling streets you’d expect to find in a modern capital.
The Old Town, ensconced behind the gateway of Saint Michael’s Bell Tower, is littered with kooky statues, such as Napoleon’s Soldier , Man At Work, and Schone Naci, alongside all of which you may – or may not – want a selfie. Saint Elisabeth’s is also worth a visit simply for the fact that, being bright blue, it is a very distinctive and endearing little church.
The highlight of the trip for me, edging slightly ahead of Vienna and then Prague, is the magnificent Budapest.
We stayed in an apartment just a 2-minute walk from the famous Chain Bridge, and headed across it on the first day, up the funicular (an uphill cable railcar) to Buda Castle. We wandered around to the stunning Matthias Church, and finished up at Fisherman’s Bastion, best likened to a giant sandcastle, where we enjoyed some cocktails as we overlooked the Danube and the city below.
It was an early start on the second day for the single building I had been most excited for, Budapest’s incredible Parliament. Quite simply, this is my favourite building because of its sheer size as much as its enduring grandeur. Walking along the promenade to the Parliament, though, we also passed the prominent Shoes On The Danube Bank memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, a piercing reminder of the tragedy placed tactfully – and effectively – at the very heart of the city.
After lunch, we headed to Saint Stephen’s Basilica, before our much-anticipated visit to the world-famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths, which was certainly something different. On leaving, I immediately spotted a gyros vendor and, well, I was waiting for neither a finer eatery nor a second invitation. We wolfed down a gyros each – I definitely should have had two – and walked through the park to Heroes’ Square, where I was delighted to find not only a collection of statues to historic Hungarian heroes from across the ages, but also a number of references to my beloved Mongols (see here and here), after whom the returned King Béla IV, who had fled the invasion, set about the rebuilding of Hungary.
Tangent: after the Mongols defeated the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohi in 1241, King Béla IV and his men fled to the Dalmatian castles of Trogir and Klis, which we happened to have visited just last year. Incidentally, that defeat came on April 11th, – our anniversary. How romantic!
Anyway, from Heroes’ Square, we could hear music, and we followed it to Vajdahunyad Castle, outside of which there was a festival. Fortunately, the atrocious DJ was redeemed by the wealth of gorgeous, traditional food, drink and treats on offer.
ZAGREB Plitvice Lakes, CROATIA
After enjoying our final night in Budapest, we decided to pass on our reservations for the 6am train to Zagreb, instead leaving at lunchtime, and arriving around tea-time in Zagreb. As such, the Croatian capital effectively played the role of base camp for us as we headed out the following morning for a day trip excursion to Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Having visited the unparalleled Krka National Park during a trip along the Dalmatian Coast a year earlier, we were keen to experience it’s more popular cousin. It goes without saying that the lakes are stunning, and perhaps it is a result of our fortuitous exposure to lakes from living in the English Lake District, but we found it a little underwhelming in contrast to the magnificent Krka, though irrefutably beautiful. It was, of course, markedly hotter in the Croatian sun, but, in truth, we need not have travelled so many hours to see a poor imitation of what lies twenty minutes from our doors at home.
The Slovenian capital is a pretty, little city, though I was disbelieving about its capital status given that we had bypassed many of its top sights during the meagre ten minute walk from the train station to the hotel!
In terms of the city’s sights, Ljubljana Castle sits majestically atop its hill overlooking the city, and the Franciscan Church is rather striking in salmon pink. The Old Town is quaint and, like Bratislava, it has its fair share of quirky installations, if only to make up for the lack of more impressive sights. Perhaps overshadowed for us by one or two far more impressive locations earlier in our trip, Ljubljana was nevertheless lovely.