10 Days Down the Danube – Exploring 3 European Capitals
Vienna, Brno, Bratislava, and Budapest: May 6 – May 16, 2017
For as long as humans have been hunters/gatherers, food has always been the centerpiece of comforting and celebratory moments. A few weeks before we became nomadic back in March 2016, my wife and I sat down for one of our usual Friday dinners at the home of our dear friends, Marc and Christianne in Sunnyvale, CA. In between sips of some of our favorite Northern California wine, I posed a question to Joanne, Christianne’s mom – “if you had to pick between visiting Prague or Budapest, which would you choose? “
I asked the question given that I’d already visited Prague back in late 2009 but had never been to Budapest. It didn’t take too long for her to provide an answer that would later shape our travel schedule. She chose Budapest, stating that while Prague is absolutely gorgeous and a must see, Budapest was simply on a different level.
Our passport limitation as US citizens only allow us 90 days inside of the Schengen area of Europe (within a 180-day period). While we considered going to Budapest during our first springtime stay in Spain in 2016, it simply didn’t fit into our schedule. Yet, we promised ourselves that if we came back to Europe in 2017, Budapest would be a prime destination. The more I considered Budapest, the idea of a 10-day dance down the Danube river (by train) emerged, as we could spend a few days in two other European capitals (Vienna and Bratislava).
When we returned to Spain in 2017, I posed the question again. This time to my wife over another meal accompanied with wine. Since she’d never been to either city and this trip (in between our two 1-month stays in Valencia) coincided with her birthday, I felt it would only be fitting for her to choose where she’d want to spend her special day. She ultimately sided with Joanne and chose Budapest.
I decided to add a wrinkle to the trip by including a 2-day jaunt up to Brno – the second largest city in the Czech Republic and only a 1.5-hour train ride from Vienna. At the very least, she could get a taste of Czech culture and I could rekindle some of my fond memories of visiting the land of the Velvet Revolution nearly 8 years prior.
First Stop – Vienna for Lunch
For what it’s worth, I simply hate early morning flights. Though (knock on wood) I’ve never missed a flight, the anxiety always weighs on my mind. I DO NOT sleep well the night before early AM flights. I’d almost prefer to simply stay up the entire night rather than sleep. That particular night was no different and I didn’t fall asleep until nearly 3:00 am, only to have to rise again at 4:30 am for our 7:00 am flight. Fortunately, I was able to get a few minutes of rest on the 2-hour flight to Frankfurt and the one-hour flight down to Vienna. Just enough sleep to be fresh and ready to venture into the center of Vienna for lunch and then cut clear across town for our mid-afternoon train to Brno.
After having lived in South East Asia for the previous 7 months and then 1 month in Spain, the first thing that hits the senses when arriving in Vienna is simply how clean it is. While it’s not immaculate, it’s close relative to the other cities where we’d recently stayed. Whereas in Vietnam, you walk through the streets smelling fish sauce and in parts of Spain you may smell oranges, in Vienna the soothing aroma of freshly baked bread pinches your nose and wraps you like a warm blanket. My mission for the day was simply to find a Radler (beer with lemonade – my favorite summertime drink in Europe) and a comforting “meat and potatoes”-type meal, typical in Central Europe.
Hitting the center of Vienna at midday on a Saturday was quite the challenge. The center of town is not as big as one might think and everyone crowds into town on beautiful days, as it was, making it great for people watching but difficult to find a good restaurant with seats available. We lucked upon a restaurant slightly off the beaten path that quickly became our go-to place in the city.
From the first sip and the first bite, Vienna welcomed me with open arms. For me, nothing is better than a enjoying a Radler on a hot European day and nothing could have been more welcoming to the culinary delights of Central Europe than a Beef Goulash with potato dumplings. Vienna welcomed me through my taste buds and I promptly moaned with delight and said “thank you.” Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves on a quick 1.5-hour train ride up to Brno, pleasantly satisfied and ready to explore the second city of the Czech Republic.
From Chopping Heads to Dangling Keys – One Country Becomes Two
It’s fair to say that Brno doesn’t compare to Prague in anyway. Most travelers probably never even stop to visit the city along the typical train route from Prague to Bratislava and Budapest. Yet, for someone who’s never been to the Czech Republic, it’s a good alternative to visiting Prague if you simply want a taste of Czech culture.
Though it is the country’s second city, it only gained this status after the split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia that occurred in 1993 a few years after the fall of the Soviet “Iron Curtain.” Prior the split, Bratislava was the second largest city in the country. Now, Bratislava is one of the smallest European capitals and Brno is noticeably a fairly small second city.
As a 20th century history buff, I’ve always been fascinated by Czech culture and history. Throughout their history, Bohemians (as many in this region are called) have never taken well to be ruled by authoritarian or outside powers. They are known historically for their odd nature of overthrowing ruling leaders by decapitation and showcasing their severed heads in public spaces – only after having thrown the remains of their headless bodies out of the windows from where they had once ruled. However, after WWI, the nascent country found itself in a precarious position with little support from its Western European allies, as parts of Czechoslovakia were ceded to Hitler’s Germany in the late 1930s by way of English and French appeasement. And though the Third Reich eventually fell to the Allies, the country (which is geographically Central Europe) found itself behind the Soviet “eastern bloc.”
Ironically, the Bohemian history of overthrowing oppressive leaders never emerged during the Soviet reign. For as much as the country tried to be a beacon for “Socialism with a Face” during the Prague Spring in 1968, their liberal desires were quickly squashed by the Soviets for fear that it would spread across other parts of the eastern bloc and weaken the Soviet hold on the region. Yet, as the Soviet influence began to fade in the late 1980s, the people of Czechoslovakia took to the streets. This time they would not be parading the decapitated heads of their oppressive leaders but instead they simply joined in the streets to dangle their keys and initiate one of the most peaceful transitions of power to occur during the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Velvet Revolution (as it is called) occurred weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall and began a series of actions that would shape the geopolitical landscape of Central Europe. Just 4 years later, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist and the Czech Republic and Slovakia became two separate nations – almost like two identical twins becoming cousins overnight.
Beer and Apple Pie
For as much as I was interested to visit the Czech Republic for historical reasons, I was also looking forward to enjoying their famously good and cheap beer. Brno did not disappoint, at all, in terms of satisfying the craving. With only two days in town, we kept the itinerary fairly light, primarily focusing on the strolling through handful of major sights (churches, parks, and castles) and trying as much beer as possible. Ironic, yes, as I’ve never really been a beer drinker. But since my travels to Germany and Prague in years past, I relished the idea of revisiting a typical Czech beer house and sampling regional beers at prices seemingly less than a cup of water (no joke!).
While we didn’t come across any amazing meals in Brno, two things stood out for us – the beer and the apple pie. We just happened to pass by a café on our way home one evening and sampled the most amazing apple pie that I’d ever eaten. And now, as I sit and write these memories at a café in Medellin, Colombia, I can reflect on that special night in Brno with each bite of apple pie that I taste today. Even for as technologically focused as our lives become, food continues to be a powerful force in our experiences and memories.
Our Taste Buds Explode
After just two days in Brno, we hopped on the train and headed about 2 hours south to Bratislava – the small capital city of Slovakia. Though small in the sense of a European capital city, its position along the integral Danube River makes it both regionally and economically prominent. It may not be a primary destination like its larger capital city neighbors (Vienna and Budapest), but it is a popular stopover between the cities.
Though we stayed for two days/nights, the city is small enough to be explored as a daytrip. All of the major sights and tourist center are no more than a 30-minute walk apart, making it easy for the tourist herds to arrive in the late morning and head back on their river cruise ships by sunset. Given that we had the good fortunate of staying in a former palace turned apartment building in the center of town, it was best to go against the crowds and explore Bratislava Castle and St. Martin’s Cathedral before and after the herd. We left the outer parts of the city (like the Presidential Palace) for exploration during the peak periods of crowds in the center of town. In addition to exploring the typical river – castle – church – old town tourist route, we made it a point to venture to the lesser-traveled parts of town to get a feel for life outside of the tourist bubble and remnants of life behind the “Iron Curtain.”
Like much of Eastern Europe, there is a dynamic street art scene to enjoy along with the usual historical landmarks. Yet, as we walked around, I noticed one “interesting” Italian coffee brand (Lucaffé) popular in Slovakia that threw me off a bit. Perhaps you can see why in the picture below.
The Darker the Berry, the Sweeter the Juice
It’s fairly cliché to say that traveling is about expanding one’s boundaries. This is not only true in terms of physical and mental boundaries but also in terms of taste. We can explore foods that contain many of the same ingredients of those prepared back at home, but with minor twists of culinary fate that have evolved them into special regional dishes. In Bratislava, the food was simply on a different level and extremely economical given the quality. Though each meal we enjoyed was simply a variation of meat and potatoes (dumplings) or French toast (for breakfast), they ignited our taste buds in a new way. It was like an explosion of flavor followed by a calm and soothing breeze on a warm day.
By sheer accident, I tried my first dark beer (Leffé) which birthed a new fondness for stouts that I never thought I would ever like. I’d tried Guinness in the past and wasn’t impressed at all. But after that first Leffé and later a Kozel, I craved dark beer nearly every night during the rest of trip.
I also forever damaged my taste buds for American cola drinks by trying the Czech cola, Kofola. From that point forward, Coke and Pepsi have never tasted the same. Invented behind the Soviet “Iron Curtain” in the early 1960s, Kofola was the East’s answer to Coke and Pepsi – and I have to say they hit the mark. For starters, it’s generally served by tap and has much smoother and less sweet taste than its American counterparts – though its caffeine content is supposedly much higher. After the first sip, I was hooked.
Unfortunately, as we departed towards our next destination – Budapest – I discovered that Kofola is only available in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland. So just before we departed to Hungary, I savored one last glass at the Bratislava train station – a comforting way to say goodbye to the smaller half of the former Velvet nation.
Saying “Happy Birthday” In Budapest
Two and a half hours later we arrived in our fourth country just in five days. We were becoming a bit exhausted with all of the movement – lengthy train rides every other day, daily 3-5 mile walks exploring the cities, changes in currencies and language, and changes in residence. Fortunately, we organized the trip to have more time in Budapest and it’s great that we did. Budapest is simply massive – both in city size and architecture – and rather than trying to do it all in a short period, we slowed down and settled in for 4 days of exploration.
When traveling in quick bursts, it’s best to pick 2-3 things to do each day and allow the rest of day to simply unfold along the way. It reduces stress yet allows enough wiggle room for spontaneous and serendipitous events – like being able to make it down to the Danube River right at sunset on our first day. It was a fitting way to say “Hello” to the city and say “Happy Birthday” to my wife.
Over the next 4 days, we explored the usual suspects – the riverfront, Buda Castle, and the awe-inspiring Parliament Building. Prior to visiting Budapest, I used to say that Il Duomo in Florence was perhaps the most impressive man-made structure that I’ve ever seen. However, now I HAVE to say that it’s the Parliament Building in Budapest. Day or night, it’s simply breathtaking and pictures do not give justice to the absolute massiveness of the structure. It’s hard to imagine that this structure was built in the 20th century, as it resembles designs from centuries gone by.
In between seeing the sights, we made it a point to sample as many Hungarian local dishes as possible at local establishments. We lucked upon a family run restaurant not far from our apartment that was only open during midday and it was easy to see why. It stayed packed during the brief 4-5 hours it was open midday. Though simple in nature, the dishes were spectacular – reminding me of home-cooked Midwestern meals in the US. On another night, we stumbled into another local restaurant and were serenaded in the dining room by a pianist as we sampled more Hungarian comfort food.
Over the last couple of years, Budapest has emerged as primary digital nomad spot in Europe. It’s location in Central/Eastern Europe makes it easy to get almost anywhere in the region in 2-4 hours by plane and the cost of living is considerably less than its rival European capitals (Paris, London, Rome, and even Madrid). So for us this trip was just as much about exploring the sights, as it was about getting our feel for the city as a possible European home base, should we decide to return to Europe in future years.
Now having been to both Prague and Budapest, I have to agree with Joanne in her original assessment. Budapest would be my first choice for travelers with limited time, unable to visit both cities on a single trip. In the end, we decided that Budapest was great for a few days but is not a longer-term option for us. At this point in our lives, the city is just too big (as well as a bit too hipster) for our liking. By the end of our four days, we were ready to head back to Vienna for a quieter and less hectic end to our 10-day trip.
Back Where We Started – Wrapping up in Vienna
Though we’d only been in Vienna for about 4 hours during our initial stopover, returning to the city felt like returning home. At the very least, we knew the layout of the city and had a feel for how to get around. After all of the movement of the previous 8 days, it was comforting to return to a somewhat familiar location. Speaking of comfort, it should be of no surprise that the first place we visited for lunch this time around was the same place where we enjoyed our first meal in Vienna.
Our last two days in Vienna were light and simple. The central part of town is where most of the sights are located, making it easy to stroll around lazily to take it all in. Outside of our visit to Schönbrunn Palace and its magnificent gardens (a definite must see), we spent most of the time in the center city – drinking a Viennese coffee at every opportunity. Since my trip to Torino, Italy back in August 2015, I’d been fascinated with the sheer size of Baroque-style architecture and Vienna was a key architecture jewel of that design era. The feeling of power and wealth hits you as you walk through streets and plazas lined with buildings that seem too large to build and maintain, let alone walk through.
Yet, the city seems to have a nice balance between structures and nature. It’s just as easy to spend time inside of its many grand buildings, as it as to simply spend hours lounging in the shade with a book and/or beer in hand at its many city parks and gardens. It’s easy to see why it’s consistently rated as one of the world’s most liveable cities. Though we’d considered attending a jazz club or viewing the opera from standing-only seating, our bodies simply couldn’t summon the energy to enjoy this “City of Music” in the evenings after being out and about for so many days. Instead, we’ll have to save those experiences for another time.
Who knows if we’ll ever return to any of the cities that we visited on this trip – though they were all special in their own way. What I do know is that now each time I have a bite of delicious apple pie, sip a glass of dark beer, or enjoy a Viennese coffee, the memories of our 10-days down the Danube in Central Europe will flash before my eyes.
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.
DJMoeMoeAugust 6, 2017
Sounds like a great time! Would have loved to join and sample all that good food and sip on some Kofola.