Travel logs
2014 Central Europe
Prague, November 6
After settling in, we took an orientation walk near our Old Town hotel, the Grand Hotel Bohemia, before dinner tonight, toasting to great company and tour ahead.
Prague, November 7
We started our introduction to Prague from our very centrally located hotel. We passed by the grand Paris Hotel, erected in the busy years of urban renewal at the turn of the 20th century, the impressive baroque St. James Church that has an 18th-century tombstone sculpted by Brokov, a well-known local artisan; and Tyn, the wholesale marketplace for luxury goods in medieval times with a beautiful sgraffito Renaissance palace. On reaching the Jewish Quarter, we couldn’t but admire the exquisite – gilded, wooden, or stucco – decoration of imposing Art Nouveau palaces on the streets around the Old New Synagogue. The Old-New Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Europe, as we learned from our guide, is surrounded by numerous tales and legends about Golem - the artificial creature made of clay that was animated by the Rabbi Loew, the chief rabbi of Prague at the end of the 16th century, in order to protect the Prague community from anti-Semitic pogroms. According to legend, Golem is still in the synagogue’s attic; however, there is no evidence to that effect. The 16th-century Renaissance Pinkas Synagogue is now a memorial for the Bohemian and Moravian Jews who died in the Holocaust – about 80 thousand names are inscribed on the walls of the main nave and the adjoining areas, grouped according to their last place of residence. This was very moving for all of us – the effect was more overwhelming thanks to the display of children’s drawings and paintings created in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp (1942-44). A walk through the Jewish cemetery, the oldest in Europe, felt all the more “real” thanks to the misty November day and fallen leaves of myriad colors. The last stop on our Jewish walk was the opulent Moorish “Spanish Synagogue,” home to rich collections of silver artifacts used in Jewish liturgy, as well as objects and memorabilia related to famous Jews (writers, poets, musicians, etc).

We then strolled through the 13th-century Old Town Square, past Charles University, the oldest university in Central Europe, founded by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1348, the first Secessionist house (1897) and the House of the Black Madonna. The spiral staircase of the latter, an unusual Cubist building with complex angular shapes, is the “pearl of Prague architecture:” it’s like a keyhole when viewed from directly below.

Lunch was at the sumptuous Art Nouveau Café Imperial – an unforgettable dining experience amidst stunning tile work of Oriental and Moorish motifs on the walls, pillars, and ceiling.
Prague, November 8
On a beautiful sunny day, we set out for the Castle District. The first stop: an insider’s visit to the library of the Strahov Monastery. Founded in the 12th century by Premonstratensian monks, the monastery contains some 60,000 rare volumes in the two library halls, the Theological Hall and the Philosophical Hall. Their magnificent 18th-century fresco decorations revolve around the themes of wisdom, knowledge, and human progress by science and learning, within a spiritual context, of course. There is also a collection of “curiosities,” including a xylotheque or “library of wood” – books fabricated from the subjects (trees) they were cataloguing. On leaving the monastery, we enjoyed a panoramic view of Prague’s rooftops and church steeples and a short coffee break before making our way to the Castle square, passing remarkable buildings such as the early Baroque Cernin Palace, the sgrafitto-decorated Renaissance Schwarzenberg Palace, and the Rococo palace of the archbishop. 

St. Vitus Cathedral offered us many surprises. As it was completed only in 1929, after 600 years in the making, the architecture abounds in a multitude of decorative elements, from Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque to the extraordinary stained glass of the early 20th century. We learned interesting facts from the lives of Charles IV, the founder of the Cathedral (1344), and Saint John Nepomuk, the patron saint of bridges, and found out why the Cathedral was dedicated to the Sicilian saint San Vito. We then continued to the Old Royal Palace, admiring the exquisite Late Gothic rib-vaulting that supports the vast space of the Vladislav Hall (big enough for jousting tournaments) without columns, and the Riders’ Staircase, by which the knights and their steeds gained access to the hall.

We stopped for a quick photo-op before walking down into the Mala Strana (lower town) district, taking delight in the gorgeous views of Prague below.  A lunch of hearty Czech foods –  garlic soup and pork knuckle with pickles – followed in an ancient cellar restaurant.

Tonight we attended The Jacobin, a serious comic opera by Dvorak, Prague’s National Theater. Filled with nationalist sentiment and Bohemian folkdance, it was beautifully played and sung to an enthusiastic, capacity audience.
Terezin and Nelahozeves, November 9
Known as the “waiting room for Auschwitz,” Terezin was originally built as a military fortress to protect Prague from invaders to the north by Joseph II – a typical 17th-century, two star-shaped earthworks forts, the larger of which enclosed a lovely planned city (people live here today) intended for 6,500 soldiers and their families plus the smaller, outpost fort with its moat and thick brick and earth walls.

 Our first stop was at the museum, where we watched a 13-minute movie that juxtaposed Nazi propaganda segments displaying the Terezin “model town for the Jews,” with drawings and paintings of notable Jewish artists who lived here, recording the horrors that they witnessed. We visited the site of a “secret” synagogue within the ghetto (the town, built for 6,500 was packed with ten times that many), a barracks where women lived, and the art works created at Terezin – “islands of spiritual freedom” in a dehumanized world. None of us will forget the musical excerpt we heard from Brundibár, a children's opera Hans Krása composed for the children to perform at Terezin. Krása, like most of his fellow composers at Terezin (Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein) perished in Auschwitz. The small fortress, which became a prison for political prisoners during the waning years of the Habsburg empire, was used for the same purpose under the Nazis and during the communist era. Stepping inside through the gate with the inscription Arbeit machs frei, we visited the cells in which the prisoners lived, the prison hospital, the shower room, and the model washroom which was only built for the Red Cross inspection – and never used.

We then drove to Nelahozeves, the birthplace of Dvorak, to visit a 16th-century Renaissance Castle of the Lobkowicz family. Splendidly decorated in Italian sgrafitti on the exterior, the castle boasts a rich collection of furniture and art, as well as a library of 60,000 volumes, the largest castle-library in Europe.  After a sumptuous lunch at the palace (opened just for our visit), we enjoyed an exclusive tour, admiring the sophisticated furnishings, precious paintings by Brueghel, Cranach the Elder, Rubens, Veronese and others, weapons and hunting trophies. The curator of the library presented us the most interesting and famous pieces of the collection, including a late 9th-century manuscript gospel (the oldest book of the collection), the oldest printed book in Bohemia (1462), and highlights of the musical collection, including an autograph by Beethoven and scores probably handled by Mozart. We made it back to Prague in time to freshen up before returning to the National Theater for the very first real “Czech” opera, Bedrich Smetana’s rollicking The Bartered Bride. Again, the performance was full of high spirits and energy and we witnessed the splendid choral singing and orchestral playing for which the Czechs are justly renowned.
Prague, November 10
Today, those who wished to find out more about the communist era in Czechoslovakia took an interesting walk, mostly in the “New Town” (founded in the 14th century!). Inside the Museum of Communism, a beautiful baroque palace, we listened to the speech the first communist president, Gottwald, gave on the occasion of the communist takeover in 1948; passed by the current headquarters of the Communist Party (which is growing in popularity!) and the  Palace of Commerce, the former headquarters of the secret police. We learned about the history of Czechoslovakian communism and its main leaders, Gottwald, Dubcek, Svoboda, and Husák, as we made our way to Wenceslas Square. This is where the Soviet tanks were positioned in 1968, and the location of a memorial to Jan Palach – a Czech student who set himself on fire in 1969 as a political protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Warsaw military Pact and reinstitution of press censorship. Just two decades later, Wenceslas Square witnessed the non-violent Velvet Revolution. The Late Art Nouveau Lucerna Palace was an appropriate space for a discussion of Vaclav Havel over coffee: the palace itself belongs to Havel’s family. We then walked toward the National Theater but not without stopping at several architecturally interesting buildings, such as the Art Deco Adria Palace, the Mozarteum, built before WW I, and the Grand Café Louvre. The New Stage of the National Theater houses Laterna Magika, a world famous “nonverbal” theater and was the Civic Forum’s headquarters during the Velvet Revolution. The massive glass exterior gives way to a surprising interior with a monumental circular staircase constructed of green marble. The “Iron Curtain Walk” ended with lunch with a view across the Vltava (Moldau) at the Café Slavia, a favorite of Vaclav Havel.
Bratislava to Budapest, November 11
The long drive to Budapest was broken up quite nicely with a visit to lovely Bratislava, the capital of today’s Slovakia and for over 200 years (1536 to 1784) of Hungary. Our walking tour was preceded by a sumptuous lunch framed by the best of Slovakian and Austro-Hungarian cuisines: bryndza soup (Slovakian cheese soup) and somlói galuska, a traditional Hungarian dessert made of sponge cake, rum, raisins, walnuts and whipped cream. Our utterly delightful guide, Lubka, showed us around Old Town, pointing out Rococo-Baroque palaces of the 18th-century Hungarian aristocracy, buildings that demonstrate the city's multicultural history, and a granite wall that stands in testimony of a historic synagogue that was destroyed to make way for a highway through Old Town. We also say sites associated with Mozart (where he gave one of his first world tour concerts at age 6) and Liszt (he was an old man of 9 when he gave his first concert there), and the lovely 19th-century theater built in Neo-Renaissance style, among others. Then we were back onto the bus for our drive on to Budapest.
Budapest, November 12
Often called the "Paris of the East," Budapest offers a multitude of opportunities to suit every traveler's interests: an abundance of cultural events, rich and varied museums, and impressive late 19th and early 20th-century architecture, from handsome Gothic Revival and Neo-Classical through Eclectic to Art Nouveau and even modernist buildings.

Our scholar guide took us on a bus tour starting on the Buda side of the city. Rising 165 feet above the river, Castle Hill is the site of the former royal palace, the Fisherman's Bastion, the remnants of a Dominican cloister integrated into a posh hotel, the Matthias Church, six museums, and charming cobblestone streets full of old houses (reconstructed following heavy bombardment during World War II). Matthias Church impressed us with its unusual Oriental-Byzantine interior (in a Roman Catholic Church!); a conscious effort of connecting the Western Christianity adopted by Hungarians in 1000 AD with their Eastern roots. We learned about Hungarians and the importance of “magic numbers” in Hungarian national mythology: 7 (number of Hungarian tribes conquering the Carpathian Basin) and 96, derived from 896 (year of Hungarian settlement) and 1896 (millennial celebrations). We then made our way across Chain Bridge to enjoy a coffee break in the former Paris Department Store on Andrássy avenue (now a bookstore and cafe), a three-storey Neo-Renaissance building – in a space called the Lotz Hall, after the stunning Art Nouveau frescoes executed by Károly Lotz. Afterwards, we drove along the majestic Andrássy to Heroes Square, admiring the buildings along the way (including the Opera House); we then passed through the city park where the zoo and the world-famous Széchenyi baths are located, and made our way to the opulent Moorish Synagogue – the second largest synagogue in the world. Lunch followed accompanied by an authentic Gypsy band, playing not only Hungarian and Viennese music, but anything we liked to hear. Some of our more adventuresome travelers even joined Zsofi for a csárdás!

Tonight we saw “Frau ohne Schatten” – one of Richard Strauss’s less-frequently-performed operas. That is in part attributable to the ostensibly impenetrable plot and impossible scenic requirements, but also to the especially huge orchestra and vocal demands made on the cast. Undaunted, the Hungarian National Opera rose to the occasion, providing a production and performance equal to all those seemingly impossible requirements. Of the four productions I (Dean) have seen, this one most effectively elucidates the highly symbolic plot, making the ostensibly impenetrable quite clear. That critical element, along with highly effective, emotive playing, singing, and acting, made for an almost overwhelming experience for the engaged viewer.
Budapest, November 13
We had a special guide today for our architecture tour – a scholar art historian who introduced us to some representative examples of Hungarian Art Nouveau (Secession) and modern architecture.  We started our walk on the Városligeti Fasor (City Park Esplanade), which boasts beautiful villas and buildings designed in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Kőrössy Villas (1899 and 1910) surprised us with amazing stained glass by Miksa Róth, the chief stained glass designer in Budapest at the turn of the 20th century; another designed by Emil Vidor in 1902 (nowadays a dormitory of the nearby Franz Liszt Music Academy) is a fairy-tale building, with floral motifs and organic forms imitating vegetation, a representative of international Art Nouveau. Walking along the wide esplanade flanked by trees was a great experience in itself, as the leaves were at the height of their beauty – the most gorgeous golden, red, and brown.  We ended our walk at the other end of the esplanade to take a peek inside the Reformed (Calvinist) Church designed by Aladár Árkai (1912): a most impressive church with gorgeous decoration: simplified geometric motifs (even under the eaves), Hungarian folk motifs such as the kopjafa (totem pole), Zsolnay tiles, and beautiful stained glass windows.
Next, we explored the Hungarian avantgarde of the thirties, as exemplified by a model housing estate of Pasarét and the Franciscan Church and Monastery of St. Anthony of Padua (as well as a complementary bus terminal across the street), all designed by Gyula Rimanóczy.

Lunch was Hungarian cuisine with a modern twist, at a fine café near the Great Market Hall. Time remained for shopping at the beautiful turn-of-the-20th-century market before tonight’s various musical events.
Esztergom and Szentendre, November 14
We traveled northwest of Budapest to Esztergom, where the Danube bends 90% - the first capital of the Hungarian kingdom and the most important center of Christianity in Hungary. As the town was destroyed under the Turks, the Cathedral was rebuilt in the 19th century, before the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, and therefore unlike St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, its decoration is not particularly “national” or “Hungarian.” The 100-m high church (one of the world’s largest) impresses you with its dimensions from the exterior as well as the interior – which one feels both in the nave and in the crypt. A real delight was the 15th-century Bakócz-chapel, named after the bishop of Esztergom under King Mátyás (Matthias); reconstructed just off the main nave of the cathedral, it is one of the finest remnants of Renaissance architecture in Hungary.

Szentendre is a truly unique town on the Danube, with a Mediterranean atmosphere. Its first settlers were Serbians, who fled to Hungary to escape Ottoman rule; they were followed by Greeks and Croatians.  Soon it became a thriving merchant town, with merchants trading up and down the Danube – and one can see the anchor symbol on many houses (and sometimes, the number 4 indicating that one could expect to pay only that “fair” profit margin there). The charming town drew an influx of artists at the beginning of the 20th century, and today we find many art galleries and museums of famous Hungarian artists here. We visited the Marzipan Museum, which surprised us with everything from tiny, detailed pieces to life-sized statues of Michael Jackson and Lady Diana, the Hungarian parliament building, fairy tale figures, even a steam engine – all in marzipan!

Tonight’s performance at the Bela Bartok hall, one of the world’s greatest concert spaces, was an indelible musical event (and one for which tickets were completely sold out months ago): Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The Berliners were assisted by two small, professional-quality Hungarian choruses: the Debrecen Kodály Chorus and that of the Hungarian Radio, totaling about 90 singers.
Eger and Tokaj, November 15
Some of the group took a day-trip to Eger and Tokaj.  Eger is a beautiful Baroque town, with a visible legacy of the hundred-year Turkish occupation: remnants of Turkish baths and Europe’s northernmost historic minaret. We started our walk on Esterházy Square, between the imposing Neo-Classical Cathedral and the Esterházy College. We continued past the palace of the provost and entered a courtyard see impressive wrought iron gates designed by brothers Henrik and Lénárd Fazola, and then to the Turkish minaret. The main square of the city is named after the heroic commander of the Eger fortress, István Dobó, under whose leadership a mere 2,000 Hungarians (mostly civilians, including many fighting women) successfully held off an army of 60-80,000 Ottomans in the 1552 Siege of Eger. Most Hungarians know this famous battle from the 1899 novel Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, compulsory reading in schools and one of the most popular books in Hungary. Lunch was at a csárda in Szépasszonyvölgy, or “Valley of the Beautiful Woman” – a small valley on the southern edge of town where numerous wine cellars are carved into the hillsides, comprised of rhyolite tufa stone hundreds of feet thick. We had the opportunity to taste the famous red and white wines of the region, including the Bikavér, or Bull’s Blood.
Our stalwart Hungarian driver ferried us through a thick fog to a chateau-like property close to the village of Tokaj. We had a tour of the Degenfeld Estate, learning about the history of the Degenfelds, the methods of making the world famous sweet aszú wines (made from boytritized berries that look as if they should be thrown away), and seeing for our own eyes how the black mold called Cladosporium cellare feeds upon the evaporated wine from the barrels kept in the cellars. Then it was time for a wine-tasting and of course, wine shopping before a nice nap on our way back to Budapest.
Budapest to Vienna, November 16
We broke the drive to Vienna with a visit to the grand palace of the Esterházys in the Burgenland region, built by Prince Nicholas Esterházy in the 18th century. The sprawling Rococo palace and gardens, modeled on Versailles, in its heyday fulfilled Nicholas’s ambition to rival the Habsburgs – it had 126 rooms, 70 gardeners, 2,000 servants, and a nice 400-seat opera house to boot. The estate was the place of employment (he was a liveried servant) of the celebrated Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, who wrote the majority of his symphonies for the Prince's orchestra, and for whom the opera house was actually built (most of Haydn’s operas were destroyed when the opera house burned to the ground). A nice surprise was a temporary exhibition of world-famous, very expensive Herendi porcelain, produced at the manufactory nearby; the Eszterhazi's private pattern is surprisingly modern.

Lunch followed at a nearby csárda (inn) – zucchini cream soup, Hortobágyi palacsinta (crepes filled with a wonderful ground meat concotion and covered with a paprika sauce), pike perch from the nearby lake served with buttered potatoes, accompanied by excellent red and white wines of the region; sweet cheese dumplings with a berry sauce followed.
Vienna, November 17
Our introductory Vienna walk was made more enjoyable by our lovely guide, Gabriele, who spiced her lecture with anecdotes and interesting details about the history of Vienna and the 640- year-rule of the Habsburgs.  We walked from Karlsplatz near our hotel, across what used to be the city walls, now the Ring Strasse, familiarizing with the Opera House, the Albertina Square, and the imposing complex of the Hofburg – the residence of the Habsburgs. Just outside the palace entrance we dropped in on the imperial pastry shop for cakes and coffee. Then we walked through the Graben, past the 17th-century Plague Memorial onto Stefansplatz, where the third largest church in the world (sporting the third highest spire) is located. Then we turned into Backerstrasse where we discovered a beautiful Renaissance courtyard and a 16th- century fragmented mural, depicting a serious theme in an amusing way: a cow wearing glasses is playing backgammon with a wolf (which is hardly recognizable as most of the paint from the upper part is gone). The smart wolf represents the Catholics while the cow with glasses symbolizes the Protestants. Before lunch, we went inside the 17th-century University or Jesuit Church to witness what the Habsburg Counter Reformation wanted to impress upon its subjects: a sense of the overwhelming power and triumph of the Catholic Church.
Lunch couldn’t have been more Viennese: hearty soup with pancake strips, Wiener schnitzel with potato salad, and for dessert, apple strudel, all washed down with some of the region’s excellent wines.
Vienna, November 18
On our way to “Hundertwasserhaus,” the social housing project designed by artist Hundertwasser in 1985, we had the opportunity to see, from the bus, the most famous buildings on the Ring Strasse (the Parliament, Burgtheater, Rathaus, Stock Exchange, and Votive Church), the oldest church in Vienna (Rupertskirche on Schwedenplatz), and the hyper-modern “Danube City” on the other side of the Danube. Bright colors, unusual, irregular forms, and extensive vegetation on rooftops– this is Hundertwasser in a nutshell. The Hundertwasserhaus certainly impressed us with its radically innovative style – the contrast made even more obvious as Hundertwasser included a piece of the kind of traditional façade that he was reacting against.
Schönbrunn Palace, the former 1,441-room Rococo summer residence of the Habsburgs, overwhelms visitors with the lifestyle they led here since they took it over in 1569, and the precious treasures that the family amassed over the centuries.  After the tour, lunch followed at the palace café: salad, pork medallions with green beans and gratin potatoes, and walnut soufflé with chocolate sauce.
In the evening, we gathered for a brief lecture on tonight’s performance: Khovanshchina by Mussorgsky. The opera has an overcomplicated plot and static scenario based in Russian history. The set – basically a series of platforms on elevators, made to look like burned out ruins, on which the cast and huge chorus rose and fell – and stage direction did nothing to elucidate. Nonetheless, the soloists, chorus, and chorus (under the musical director of Semyon Bychkov) more than compensated for the directorial missteps!
Vienna Woods, November 19
On a glorious sunny day (the only so far in Vienna!), we set out for the nearby Vienna Woods, to which generations of Viennese have escaped from the hustle and bustle of the city. Our first stop was the Cistercian Heiligenkreuz Monastery, which impressed us with a variety of architectural styles shaped by the passing of time. Robust Romanesque alternates with grand Gothic and over-the-top Baroque, producing a fascinating experience, from the cloister, the Parlatorium, through the Chapter House to the church itself. Easily overlooked treasures are the intricate 17th-century linden wood sculptures and choir stalls in the church, executed by Giovanni Giuliani. As we passed by Meyerling on our way to Baden bei Wien, we listened to the intriguing story of Archduke Rudolf and the murder-suicide that took place there in 1899, at the former hunting lodge of the Habsburgs (currently a convent). Baden is a charming little spa town with beautiful classical Biedermeier architecture, which we had the chance to explore on our own before feasting on delicious local cuisine at a gasthaus. On our way back to Vienna, we drove through scenic landscape – rolling hills with vineyards, charming little villages with narrow streets and heurige (traditional wine taverns). Part of the group chose Mozart (Marriage of Figaro at the Staatsoper or Magic Flute at at the Volksoper), while others took the opportunity of hearing a concert by a French youth orchestra in the famed “Golden Hall” of the Musikverein.