A springtime canter through Bohemia
Go back in time with a guided tour of Budapest, Vienna and Prague
The Charles Bridge in Prague. Photograph: Getty
Schönbrunn Palace and gardens in Vienna. Photograph: Getty
A springtime canter through Prague, Vienna and Budapest, plus 24 hours in a Bohemian village, could have been too much of a good thing. It was nothing of the sort. With eastern and central Europe intent on sharing experiences and culture, there’s never been a better time to disprove that particular adage.
Tantalising, eye-opening and hectic, an unforgettable six days began in Prague, went south through the plumply budding Czech Republic countryside to medieval Cesky Krumlov, on through the valley of the mighty Danube to Vienna and through the countryside to Budapest.
First impressions matter: Prague is lively, lovely and impressively getting its tourism act together. Vienna is majestic in its imperial way and dauntingly handsome. Budapest, with its careless elegance and affable citizens, is where you might just leave a piece of your heart.
But medieval, remote Cesky Krumlov: that’s where your childhood imaginings and latter-day fantasies will have the time of their lives.
We began in Prague – a mellow city of sandstone buildings, cathedrals, palaces, punchy graffiti and wide bridges, punctuated by the 430km river Vltava. began with a visit to a monastic brewery.The brewery, St Norbert’s, which dates from 1400, makes its amber and dark beers in a style very different from the ubiquitous Pilsner but is no more venerable than many others in a country with more than 100 breweries of all ages.
High above the city, in an area cobbled and radiant with forsythia (Czechs call it golden rain), both brewery and its Hell/Peklo restaurant are close to Prague Castle, a good place to meet the city, a great place to end an evening.
The Charles Bridge is the place from which to take Prague’s measure. The city’s oldest, (and until 1841 only) bridge, it has been spanning the river since 1402, with fortified towers at each end and statues of saints and lesser mortals towering alongside. Stop halfway and make a turn to see the soaring spires and turrets of Prague Castle with the Lesser Town (Little Quarter) in a red-topped huddle underneath. Keep turning to see the butter-coloured grandeur of the Old Town and New Town coming into view. It’s a great perspective.
Prague is a friendly, generous place, completely at ease with the grandeur that is a legacy of some 400 years of Austrian Habsburg rule.
The 18-acre castle complex, with 1,100 years of history, takes time. Battered by wars, politics, fires and renovations, the castle itself was the seat of kings of Bohemia for centuries. Today, it’s where the president of the Czech Republic has his offices. You’ll want to see St Vitus, St Wenceslas and St Adalbert cathedrals. You’ll want to wander the fortifications, museums, art galleries and cafes, and take in a lunchtime concert at Lobkowicz Palace or an evening one at St. George’s Basilica. Or you may not. Just being there is wonder enough.
The road to Cesky Krumlov travels through a landscape of neat, functional villages, and castle turrets that appear above treetops on hillsides. Cesky Krumlov has something dreamlike about it: locked in time, cut off by the Thirty Years War, its Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque houses all preserved and lit by gas lamps. About 14,000 citizens live there, their homes laid out around a giant of a castle dating from 1240, complete with a courtyard theatre .
Meandering along a couple of bends in the Vlatava river, Cesky Krumlov has narrow, hilly streets made for walking. That’s if you don’t get stuck into a dark tavern or restaurant, waylaid by music or a browse in the Egon Schiele museum and seductive cafe next door.
There are galleries of Czech culture, photography, ceramic art and a torture museum in the cellars below the town hall – something to ponder as you sip Eggenberg beer in the square above.
The castle dominates, and will probably dominate your time in Cesky Krumlov too. The brown bears living in the moat, a feature since the 16th century, seem happy enough. The endless halls and galleries of centuries of changing style are breathtaking, but none so much as the baroque theatre itself. There are still performances there, and a demonstration by our guide of the wind, rain and thunder machinery put latter-day special effects into context. We’ve a lot to learn.
And so to Vienna, through the valley of the Danube, stopping only to visit the Domane Wachau winery and the craggy village of Durnstein, dozily easy-going now, but less so in 1192 when Richard I, England’s Lionheart, was held captive by Duke Leopold V of Austria in the castle above the town. The Danube’s valley is predictably fertile, with ploughed fields, vineyards and cherry blossom along its banks. That city, a surprise to me at least, is traversed by the Danube canal and not the actual river.
The City of Music was ours for a day and night, a whistle stop that greatly concentrated the mind.
The Vienna State Opera house is open 10 months of the year, magnificent to look at, even more opulent inside. But our very special Viennese musical experience was a private performance in the Palais Auersperg, where the resident orchestra played a concert of Mozart and Strauss. This is where a six-year-old Mozart leaped into the lap of Empress Maria Theresia; where Emperor Franz Josef danced with his wife, Sisi, and where part of The Third Man was filmed. A privilege, indeed.
Next morning we headed for the Schönbrunn Palace and Gardens, a world cultural heritage site and the most visited place in Austria. Get there early if you dislike long queues. Home to centuries of Habsburgs, as splendid now as when they lived there, the residential and ceremonial rooms are as imperially gobsmacking as you’d expect, with Bohemian crystal chandeliers, garlanded gilding, marquetry floors and history flaunting itself everywhere. The gardens, fountains and walks are surprisingly soothing despite their vast scale.
Back in town, after coffee and a perfectly bitter-sweet rhubarb strudel, we visited the Albertina Museum, where Albrecht Dürer’s Hare is on view for the first time in 10 years. It will be on show until June, along with 400 highlights of the Albertina collection and loans from around the world.
In a vague attempt to put Vienna into context, I trotted the 500 metres to the Imperial Crypt (Kaisergruft) beneath the Kapuzinerkirche (Capuchin Church), principal burial place of the Habsburg dynasty since 1633. Context is everything, and the macabre, ghoulish and pathetically sad burial chambers gave a certain perspective to the lives and power of German and Austrian aristocracy. Hilarious, in its own way, and well worth the visit.
It’s just a couple of hour’s drive from Vienna to Budapest, but what a difference those hours make. Budapest is accessible in a way Vienna’s grandeur makes impossible, inviting you on to the streets, into strudel houses and street markets. The Danube runs through the city; Buda, Castle Hill and the recently restored Hanging Gardens on one side and Pest, with its wide avenues and narrow streets, museums and galleries, on the other.
For us, Budapest also had Erika Felies as guide, eloquently passionate about the years of ‘‘living here with eight other countries behind the Iron Curtain’’, and about the Hungarian espresso coffee ideal;‘‘hot as hell, sweet as love and strong enough to stand a spoon’’. Neira Milkovic was our escort , she dealt in the history, geography, gossip and cultures of eastern and central Europe with confidence and endless good-humour.
She laid her city before us and we followed, heard how the neo-Renaissance Opera House survived both world wars and has a performance almost every night, what composers have bequeathed what to the city, and how important music education is in Hungary and Budapest especially.
Heroes’ Square, with its statue complex, breathed history. Tree-lined Androssy ut was well into spring and full of hand-holding lovers. In the art nouveau style zoo there was a mosque-like elephant house and in the waters of the nearby Szhenyi Baths children learn to play chess according to Erika,‘‘Hungarians,’’ she said,‘‘love to solve problems, and love creating them too’’.
We crossed the Elisabeth Bridge to Buda, on the west side of the Danube and where the presidential palace overlooks the city, along with the Hanging Gardens, ‘‘restored in time for the election’’, Erika said.
Back in Pest we watched a strudel-making demonstration in the Strudel House, admired St Stephen’s Basilica and, in the evening, dined on the Danube while cruising past more European history.
WHERE TO EAT
Prague: Peklo/Hell, with its vaulted walls of stone and brick, is atmospheric. The large menu includes goulash, leg of of wild boar with bacon and and a good salad selection. Strahovske nadvori 1, 11800 Prague. email@example.com
or +420-220 -516 652
Cesky Krumlov: We dined in The Restaurant and banquet hall of the Ruze Hotel, where helpings were generous and the menu offers a hearty selection of Bohemian and medieval dishes. Svornosti square Horni 154 Cesky Krum . krumlovhotels.cz/Ruze
Vienna: For somewhere local and relaxed try Glacis Beisl. The menu has a mix of classic local cuisine and traditional recipes, served with beer or wine. Near the Museum Quarter, prices are very reasonable. Museumsquartier, Zugang Breite Gasse 4, Museumsplatz 1, 1070 Vienna. glacisbeisl.at
Budapest: Grundel is the place to be seen dining in Budapest. In the City Park, next to the zoo, Museum of Fine Arts, Millennium monument and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The walls are hung with the work of Hungarian painters, food is served on Zsolnay china and there is a resident orchestra. It will cost you, but you will have been well served and extremely well fed.
H-1146 Gundel Karoly ut 4, Budapest. gundel.hu
Much more modest but offering strudel to die for is the Strudel House, in an historic building (1812) in the heart of Budapest. You can eat a full meal there too: Hungarian dishes as well as wine and the local spirit, pálinka.
Oktober 6 str. 22 Budapest 1051.
Phone 361-428- 0134. reteshaz.com
WHERE TO STAY
Prague: the Art Nouveau Palace Hotel has a genuinely helpful staff. Bedrooms are brightly coloured, hung with drapery and have high ceilings. Wenceslas Square, the Old Town Square, shopping and the State Opera are a short walk away. There is a fitness and wellness centre and three dining options. palacehotel.cz
Cesky Krumlov: We stayed in Renaissance splendour in the five-star Hotel Ruze (the rose). Built as a Jesuit Monastery and University in the 16th century Hotel Ruze has been preserved and refurbished in Renaissance style, with shining dark wood, nooks, drapes and crannies. The breakfast will set you up for the day and the location, close to the town’s Namesti Svornosti square, is ideal. Horni 154 Cesky Krumlov. krumlovhotels.cz/Ruze
Vienna: The Hilton Vienna lived up to expectations. It has all the comforts required, and a location in the centre of the city that makes getting around a breeze. Next to the Stadpark for a morning or evening walk. Am Stadtpark 1, A - 1030 Vienna, Austria. hilton.com/Vienna Budapest: the Sofitel Budapest Chain Bridge is right beside the Danube, where most rooms have views. sofitel.com/Budapest
Rose Doyle travelled as a guest of Insight
Vacations. The Bohemian Rhapsody
tour is a 10-day easy pace Budapest, Vienna & Prague escorted tour. See