Two weeks, almost 2000 kilometers, five countries, three major cities, three more of their little sisters, an agreeable array of country villages, and an assortment of amazing hikes: this was the Euro-version of a late summer road trip, right on the heels of the U.S excursion I’d taken alone just weeks before.
We chose our route to cover some places I’d been before, a few husband J had visited on a post-college rail trip, and a number that were new to both of us. Arrival and departure points were determined solely by airfares; in between, we attempted an itinerary that gave us city days interspersed with hiking time in the mountains. This arrangement was ideal, keeping us stimulated both mentally and physically as we bounced from historical tours to rocky trails throughout the trip.
We started in fair-haired, sophisticated Vienna. Warm in temperature and topped by a pale blue sky that matched her palace ceilings, Austria’s capital exuded a cool grace and refinement. She was the well-groomed, grown-up sister of her fellow Central European siblings. Perhaps a little prissy at times, she nevertheless offered a courteous and easy entrée to the region: familiar enough, yet fancily and intriguingly European in her costume of ornate facades. We found ourselves putting on nicer clothes for dinner here, and we strolled along elegant tree-shaded avenues all day long, from Schönbrunn Palace to Stephansplatz to the charmingly retro Prater park and amusement area.
Brilliant Budapest offered a pleasing contrast in many ways. More flamboyantly (and invitingly) overdone in her architecture, this more spread-out metropolis captured our imaginations in a different way than pristine and picture perfect Vienna. Budapest sprawled and lounged, her elegance ravaged at times by her history. The ruin bars, the Jewish quarter overall, the enormous thermal baths, and the outrageously large and magnificent buildings – from Parliament to the Buda hill complex, from concert venues to monuments – all bore a patina of faded beauty. Budapest felt larger-than-life and brainy in almost a mad scientist kind of way; she was the gorgeous but messy kid who forgot to comb her hair each day. Its glut of high culture notwithstanding, Budapest was a blue jeans kind of place for us, a grungier, looser city, and I think I enjoyed our time here more than in any of the other Big Three of the trip.
Prague was the last big city we visited. Everyone we talked to said it was their favorite, but for me, it suffered a bit for its place in the itinerary and the gray, bone-chilling dampness that hovered over the river and the town during our stay. Certainly clad in a similar – really, even grander – wardrobe of extravagant vestments, Prague impressed with its opulence, but wearing those pretty pastel fronts was a dark-haired, more serious girl, with a touch of masculine sensibility thrown in. Here we distinctly felt the presence of our former lives in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago in the dark bars down a few steps from the street, with their heavy beer mugs and pretzels dangling on wooden stands. Dumplings like anchors in the stomach, soot-darkened stone, wood carvings and benches, leaden skies – the overarching feeling of Prague was a heaviness that might have been lightened by softer weather … but maybe not, I decided by the end.
Which brings me to beer. And bread. The Czech Republic won back all the points lost to the climate with those two beloved carbs. We drank beer, nearly all of it dark, in every place we sat down, no matter the time of day. We consumed baskets of bread meant for a family – no petite baguette rounds here; no, these were dense, earthy slabs, and there were times I think we ate a whole loaf between the two of us. We made good, solid Prague as good and solid as we could, and we came to appreciate her Baroque charms. Our final dinner was a cozy repast in a monastery outside of town; unlike the night before when we had desperately sought out lighter fare at a vegetarian place, this evening we filled our bellies with rich, warm barley, dumplings, and of course, more beer and bread.
Our time in the countryside was a fresh air counterpoint (and badly needed exercise opportunity) to these three lovely, cultured ladies. We ventured into the High Tatras mountains of northern Slovakia for some jaw-dropping scenery and hardcore hiking prospects. We circled alpine lakes on foot in Slovenia and elsewhere, climbed high above picturesque little towns in Austria, and ambled on a quiet Sunday morning through a village nearly untouched by tourists deep in the woods of Slovakia.
Every few days, we popped into the baby sisters of the bigger cities: Bratislava, with its unnecessary inferiority complex; Ljubljana, the quirky, bubbly little sibling; and Salzburg, a lovely riverside city unfortunately overrun with conspicuous consumption. We checked out a few travel darling locales and were surprised at our reactions; we adored Hallstatt, Austria, early one morning before the crowds arrived, but we were left feeling pretty ambivalent about Český Krumlov as we took a break on our drive north through the Czech Republic into Prague.
Random observations: Smoking is alive and well in this part of the world, as is flamingly fake maroonish-red hair. Europe does manhole covers better than anywhere else. I was freezing for much of the trip, but the locals were often in t-shirts and higher heels than I could have managed on old stony streets (and trails, but that’s for another post).
The driving was easy and fun; although I hated the long tunnels under the Alps, I appreciated as always the proper use of left lanes for passing only throughout Europe. The back roads, as they are everywhere, were a window into the true soul of these countries, and we rarely minded when we got stuck behind tractors, belching local buses, and the occasional horse cart.
We were chagrined to find that tourist behavior has continued a downward spiral, with selfie sticks at peak density even in smaller cities, young girls and couples posing with ridiculous pouts and/or cringe-worthy, exaggerated emotion, boorish elbowing in crowds, and blatant disregard for property. There were many times I felt sorry for the local people with all of the tourist ruckus in many of our destinations.
We interacted with both kind and gruff residents and shopkeepers throughout the region. As in many countries outside the U.S., service people seem to have a different idea of helpfulness; a vague answer or a shrug were often the only responses to a question or problem. It is what it is, they imply, and as always, we learn to adapt and eventually embrace the whatever attitude many other cultures possess.
The languages made for some fun deciphering, especially those that were closely related, and we built on our scant knowledge as the days went by. Perhaps it was manufactured in our minds, but we seemed to feel a tangible difference in the vibes of the countries we traversed. From proper to rugged to intellectual to laid-back to outdoorsy to blue collar to cultural (in that order, if you want to peruse the map again!), we followed a trail of central European personalities in a roughly clockwise loop. We wouldn’t have skipped a thing, but we both agreed that we wished for a lot more time in the mountain towns of our hiking bases. More on all of our destinations in upcoming posts!