Exploring Budapest, Prague, and Berlin

Last month, Jake and I took a 2 week trip to Europe. It was somewhat unexpected, as we hadn’t planned to leave the country this year. However, when Jake won a river cruise from Viking, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity! I’m now calling 2017 The Year of Two Cruises, since we also spent a week on an Alaska cruise in May.

We chose the Romantic Danube, traveling from Budapest to Nuremburg. We bookended our trip with a few extra days in Budapest at the beginning, and Prague at the end. In this first post, I’ll describe Budapest and Prague, and in the next I’ll describe the cruise portion.

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We’d heard great things about both Budapest and Prague, and wanted to be sure we had time to explore them. Of course, there’s never quite enough time to see everything, but the effort (and expense) of flying overseas demands at least 2 weeks abroad.

Budapest

Budapest was one of my favorite cities of the trip. We arrived mid September, finally escaping the 100+ degree temps in Phoenix. We checked into our hotel, got some Hungarian goulash at a cute little neighborhood café with live music, and then managed to stay awake long enough to visit Rudas Thermal Baths.

We didn’t know this until the next day, but one of the reasons the Romans settled here was to use the natural thermal springs. The early Romans constructed enormous baths which are now in ruin, but new baths were constructed during Budapest’s Ottoman occupation (1541-1686) which are still used to this day. I’m really glad we stayed awake for this one, because the baths felt so good after a long day of flying, and there was also an open-air hot tub on the roof. From here we had a great view of the city all lit up, and we could see down the river with the famous bridges. Our walk back across the river to the hotel was equally magnificent. Below is the Parliament building.

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For our first day in Budapest, we did what we normally do – a free walking tour with Sandeman’s New Europe. We LOVE these tours. They’re completely free, you just tip the guide at the end. And we’ve never had a bad one! We’ve had local guides, guides from Australia and the UK, and even a guy from New Mexico, and they’ve all been extremely knowledgeable. I’d highly recommend these tours as a starting point for any city in Europe.

Walking Through Budapest

Our guide walked us through a thousand years of history, describing the many changes that have occurred socially and politically in this area.

First and foremost, Budapest used to be 2 separate cities, Buda and Pest. The city’s names are most likely from Slavic the word вода (voda, or water, a translation of the Roman settlement of Aquincum) and the Slavic word for cave, peștera. There’s also a legend saying Buda came from the name of its founder, Bleda, brother of Attila the Hun. Buda is the historic, hilly part on one side of the river, while Pest is the social and cultural hub on the other. Visitors are often told to visit Buda, but stay in Pest.

Budapest was first a Celtic settlement, then a Roman capital. Hungarians arrived in the 9th century, then the Mongols came to pillage, followed by a full-scale occupation by the Ottomans. In 1873, Buda and Pest became one city, and Budapest became the co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The city suffered through several revolutions, WWI and WWII, then Soviet occupation until 1991.

Our guide took us to Dohány Street Synagogue, the world’s second or third largest synagogue, depending on who you ask. Interestingly, it was built by a Christian architect. It was also erected over the foundations of Theodore Herzl’s house (the founder of Israel). During WWII, the neighborhood surrounding the synagogue was a Jewish ghetto. During the harsh winter of 1944-1945, under German occupation, anywhere from eight to ten thousand Jews died of starvation or froze to death. Our guide told us that when the area was liberated, many bodies lay frozen in the streets. The Soviet soldiers buried the bodies in mass graves within the walls of the synagogue. Because the bodies cannot be moved after 24 hours, they remain here for eternity.

There is also a weeping willow monument to the Jews who died. Their names are engraved on each of the metal leaves.

After this, we cheered up a bit by exploring a few other spots in the city, ending our tour at a ruin pub. Essentially, after the Soviets left, there were a lot of abandoned buildings in Budapest. Some enterprising people decided to rent this one as-is, and it became the first ruin pub. It has quite a unique décor, and they don’t get mad if you write all over the walls.

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After the tour, Jake and I headed to Nagyvásárcsarnok (the Great Market Hall) to get some lunch. We explored the many sausage stands, bought some paprika and other souvenirs, and then sat down for a drink at the café on the top level. It seemed to be a popular spot for locals and tourists alike.

After lunch we went back to the hotel for our swimsuits, and took the metro to Heroes’ Square. We were surprised to find the square closed for a big festival! We discovered it was a national horse race, and the area was full of people. We couldn’t really see through the fence, so we explored the nearby stands full of food and local products. One of our favorite stops was a stage with traditional music and dancers. We got some langos, which is a sort of flatbread with toppings. It’s a specialty here, and it was delicious.

We eventually found our way through the crowds, stumbling across Vajdahunyad Castle. Built in 1896, this castle is now part museum, part Library of Hungarian Agriculture. We paid a small fee to climb the castle tower, where we caught a glimpse of a marching band parading below.

Next, we visited our end goal, Széchenyi Thermal Baths. These baths are a bit newer, dating from 1913. There are 21 baths and multiple saunas, ranging from the large Romanesque outdoor baths to the smaller Greek style indoor bathing pools. We stayed until dark, and enjoyed every minute.

Historic Budapest

Our next day was full of history, and a few more sobering moments. Although Budapest is now a beautiful city, for many years it would have been a very depressing place to live. We started at The House of Terror, a museum which used to be a headquarters of the Nazi and then Soviet regime. For years this was a place of interrogations, imprisonments, and hangings. Everyone knew what was happening, but no one could help those who ended up here.

We walked toward the river, stopping at the Soviet War Memorial. There wasn’t much explanation here, but about a block away was another monument, which apparently has been quite controversial. We read about it on a small, laminated sheet written in English and pinned to a wire. In 2014, the government of Hungary erected a new monument which commemorated “Hungary’s German Occupation”. This became a huge scandal, as people took this to mean the state of Hungary was taking no responsibility for the deportation and genocide of its Jews. The wording on the monument has since been changed to be a “Memorial to the Victims of the Occupation”. The pebbles, photographs, books, and documents you can see below were brought here by citizens “outraged by the falsification of history manifested in the monument erected peremptorily, without having consulted either cityscape professionals or the community”.

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Before reading about this, I hadn’t given much thought to this concept. There are many people who want to pretend that the Holocaust was just something that happened a long time ago, not something their government and perhaps their relatives participated in. But the people who live in Budapest now demanded the truth be represented here. They want the government to acknowledge what happened, to ensure it never happens again. Kudos to this quiet protest, for changing the way we think.

We walked past Parliament, an astoundingly beautiful building even in the daytime. Beside the river we found a small monument to a group of Jews, who were forced from their homes and shot into the river during WWII.

The day was saved by a tour of the Opera House, which was quite stunning. Unfortunately we couldn’t attend a performance, as it was under renovation, but our tour ended with a brief show by a female opera singer.

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Wikipedia claims Budapest is the 6th most popular city in Europe, but to me, it didn’t seem all that crowded. With 80 geothermal springs and countless parks, this city felt spacious enough for us and all the other tourists. We did a little more touring when we joined the cruise, but we could quite easily have spent another week here.

Following our explorations, we returned to the hotel and boarded our ship! Read about the cruise portion of our trip soon. While on the ship, we stopped in Austria and Germany, ending in Nuremberg.

Prague

After a few days exploring Nuremberg, we hopped a bus to nearby Prague.

We tried to go on a Sandeman’s tour here, but we arrived a bit too late. So, we went to see Old Town Square and the famous Prague Astronomical Clock.

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We wandered across the river to Prague Castle, surrounded by vineyards and red-roofed buildings.

The next morning, we walked to Old Town Square to meet up with our walking tour. We were a bit early, so we stopped to listen to some buskers. The guy with the washboard (in the middle) was amazing!

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After our walking tour, we stopped at the Old Town Bridge Tower for a great panoramic view of the city. There was a small fee to climb to the top, but we really enjoyed the little animated video describing the Charles Bridge over the years, and the view was well worth it.

We wandered a bit more, exploring the trail around the river and the Lennon Wall.

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Even though Prague has become more expensive with its popularity in recent years, you can still buy a beer at the grocery store for less than a dollar.

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Speaking of beer… now for Jake’s favorite part of Prague! We took a pub tour to sample the famous Pilsners of Prague. Even though I’m not a huge fan of beer, this tour was really interesting. Our first stop was at the pub below, which was full of cartoons poking fun at the Czech national love of beer.

The first recorded beer brewing in the Czech Republic has been traced back to a monastery in 993. The Czechs traditionally brew pilsners, and this area has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world. Our guide said beer is basically considered bread. Popular brands are the world’s first pilsner, Pilsner Urquell, and Budweiser Budvar, which was the original Budweiser that we drink the U.S. (but is very different from what we drink).

Now, Prague is very different from what we’re used to. Each pub only serves one brand of beer, with the option for dark or light. We visited 3 pubs on our tour, sampling dark and light at each one. Our guide spoke a bit about the brewing process, and traditions related to drinking and dining here.

Below you can see the options for a pour. The Czechs love a good head. The one on the far right is pretty much all head, and some people do actually order this, usually at the end of the night.

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We spent the remainder of the night eating goulash and getting to know a young Aussie couple that had been on our tour. And the next morning, we headed back to Old Town Square for our final tour!

Kutna Hora

A highlight of our visit to the Czech Republic was a day trip to Kutna Hora. If you haven’t heard of this place, it’s best known for its macabre bone church, Sedlec Ossuary. We took the Sandeman’s tour here, which included transportation by bus and admission to all of the main sights. Our guide gave us a lot of intriguing information about this building that looks more like a haunted house than a place of worship.

The graveyard above the ossuary became popular in 1278, when the abbot of a nearby monastery brought back a jar of soil from the Holy Land. During the Black Plague in the 14th century and the following Hussite Wars, thousands of people were buried here in mass graves. In 1511, a monk was given the task of exhuming and stacking all of the bones in the newly-built ossuary. Poor guy…

In 1870, a woodcarver was employed to put the bones into order. He created the four massive pyramids, the chandelier, and many other strange combinations of bones. There are anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 bones in this place. Our guide told us they will soon begin deconstructing each pyramid, cleaning the bones before putting them back or creating replicas of the ones that inevitably turn to dust. Can’t say I’d want that gig.

After the ossuary, we visited St. Barbara’s Church. Here we learned about the silver mining which took place in the nearby hills. The image below depicts the miners and minters, hard at work to produce the wealth of the region.

Like all history of labor, the miners had terrible lives, but the profits of their labors built this church, and the cathedral in Prague Castle. Some of the miners were underground for so long that they became colorblind, while the minters (who made the silver into coins) were paid 100x more for much less dangerous work.

We explored a few other spots in Kutna Hora before returning to Prague.

Upon our return, we took a steep walk up the hill by the castle. You can take a funicular, if you don’t feel like walking. Below is Petrin Tower, an Eiffel Tower replica. Although this tower is much smaller than the original, the Czechs claim it’s higher! You can climb up the stairs for a view, although it was so crowded with children that we decided to skip it.

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This park also has an observatory, rose garden, memorials, and some short hiking trails.

Like Budapest, we could’ve easily spent another week here. I found Prague to be very crowded, so if you’re spending any amount of time here, I’d highly recommend taking at least one day trip to a nearby town. And if you like cheap beer, this is certainly the right place to be.

Berlin

So, we weren’t actually planning to see Berlin on this trip. It’s on our list, but this time it was just supposed to be a 3 hour layover for our flight back to the States. However, we booked our flights with Air Berlin, which went bankrupt during our trip. We got to the airport and were told we could catch our flight from Prague to Berlin and then talk to customer service, or book a new flight home. Since flights home were $1,400 each, we flew to Berlin and crossed our fingers.

Luck was with us. We were booked on flights with Lufthansa the following day. So, we quickly booked a hostel in Berlin, dropped off our things, and booked a rental car from LAX to Phoenix (as we’d miss our flight and it was far too expensive to rebook). We ate some currywurst (my favorite!) and then headed toward central Berlin.

After such a stressful day, it was nice to just walk around in the crisp fall weather. We stopped at Potsdamer Platz, reading the signs and finally seeing the famed remnants of the Berlin Wall.

I have no idea why, but the wall is currently covered in pieces of chewing gum.

We headed toward the Brandenburg Gate, stumbling across the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This is one of the coolest memorials I’ve ever seen. It’s basically cement blocks (called stelae) arranged in a grid on a 4.7 acre sloped field.

According to the creator’s project text, the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, representing a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. It’s also been described as a place where people can grasp the meaning of loneliness, powerlessness, and despair. When you’re down in this monument, you can’t hear anything. You catch glimpses of other people, but they disappear from your field of sight instantly, never to be seen again. And you catch glimpses of the outside world, but it seems to be small and so far away.

There’s been some controversy over this monument, but I think it’s simple yet very impactful. We tried to go see the Brandenburg Gate, but there was a concert stage being set up in front of it. September is definitely festival season in Europe!

We then walked around the Tiergarten for a few hours. This garden in the middle of Berlin is massive, and absolutely gorgeous. During stressful times in history, people escaped here for private conversations. It was just what we needed. We got kebabs for dinner, and the next morning we caught our flight to LAX, drove back to Phoenix (getting in at 1 am, very painful), and got a bit of sleep before heading in to work. A rough end to a great trip, but it was certainly worth it.

Stay tuned for Cruising the Danube!

 

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