A taste of the East

Last week I added three new countries to my ever growing travel list – Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic. My first taste of Eastern Europe definitely impressive: this winter getaway introduced me to new foods, new languages, new currencies, new traditions and lots of old buildings.

Czech Republic:

Eight years ago, I made a friend at university who I remember thinking was the most exotic and foreign person I’d ever met. He told me he was from a city in Eastern Europe called Prague – a place I had never heard of, which sounded so distant and so unfamiliar, I thought I would never go there. Now, eight years later I have the opportunity to visit this amazing city, explore the country and countryside, and to experience its culture and language.

On my first morning on Prague I did what I like to do most when travelling and sought out a cute, hidden, non-touristy cafe. It was a cold walk though Letna Park – beautiful and very much showing autumn at this time of year. The whole park was yellow and orange, the grass piled high with leaves and narrow paths swept between. I spent one long morning planning my days at a local coffee shop which served only homemade cakes and coffee, sharing my table with the resident black cat and starting a tradition on this trip of eating cake for breakfast, lunch or dinner!

I visited all the typical touristy spots in Prague but at this time of year (November) ‘touristy’ things weren’t too busy. In the main square is the famous Astronomical clock which was built in the 1400’s and is still functioning. Whilst it is impossible for many to read, this clock draws 100s of spectators every hour as it performs a (interesting) 30 second show – described by a tour guide as the second most over-rated attraction in the world, following the Mona Lisa… I would probably agree.

I explored the narrow, quaint streets of the Old Town, wandered through market stalls selling an abundance of pork and mulled wine, local stores selling hand carved marionettes, puppets and Matryoshka Dolls (although not Czech, they were everywhere!). I reached the Vltava River, crossed the Charles Bridge to the candy coloured town opposite complete with cobble stone main road and a stone arch entryway. From there I climbed the hill to the Prague Castle. 300 steps up the bell tower I had the most amazing view of the city looking down from the roof tops.

My final stop was the John Lennon wall which has been covered in inspirational quotes about love and hope since the 1980’s. The atmosphere was so unique – 100s of people taking photos amongst the huge overhanging trees, with autumn leaves covering the ground, completed by a young guy playing (mostly!) Beatles songs and the crowd joining in singing and dancing – it really was a special moment.

Amongst other things, for me Prague was a city of food tasting. I’m not the most adventurous eater but something about this quaint city encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone (just a little!). Whilst originally Hungarian, Goulash is very typical in Czech and very popular at every restaurant, hence I tried but didn’t overly enjoy it! More to my taste was Trdelník, which is basically dough wrapped around a thick rod then cooked over a fire whilst constantly turning. The result is warm bread topped with cinnamon and sugar (and sometimes nutella!) – this I loved!

Almost two years ago, just after finalising my move to London, I was walking along Cheltenham Beach in Devonport with my family and a close friend. My upcoming trip was the topic of conversation and I remember this late summer’s evening with such clarity. Our friend was talking about this far away country, one that I’d heard of only a handful of times, but knew nothing about, including where it was located or how to even spell it! She herself had visited recently and was speaking so highly of this small town in the south of the Czech Republic, saying how it was the most magical place she has even been. I have had the name of the town written down in my phone ever since that night: Cesky Krumlov.

When I decided to visit Prague, I made sure to have a day spare to visit this small town which is about three hours south of the Capital. Cesky Krumlov is such a small, Gothic style old town, situated around two bends in the river, creating this town with quaint alleyways and bridges crossing between the two sides. I had an amazing day visiting this tiny town, exploring every corner, drinking hot chocolate to keep me warm, visiting every local store, enjoying a long lunch beside the river, climbing up to the castle at the top and mapping out the maze of underground tunnels which is now host to an art gallery.

I would highly recommend visiting Cesky Krumlov if you find yourself in Prague – it has so much character and charm, and adds to the overall feeling of what the Czech Republic is like as a country.

Vienna:

Referred to as a ‘little Paris’, the architecture in Vienna is strikingly similar to that of its French sister, however it still stands apart as a city of its own. Vienna seamlessly integrates its history with modern life – the ‘old town’ is situated in pockets all around the city, connected via newer streets, buildings and squares. Narrow, covered alley-ways, lined with cozy, historic restaurants are dotted alongside wider boulevards, populated with modern chain stores and busy cafes.

We explored the oldest part of the city – the surroundings of the Hofburg Imperial Palace – and discovered two ancient libraries, the fanciest stables for the city horses and the famous balcony where Hitler officially declared Austria to be under German control.

Close by is the National Opera House and whilst exploring the exterior, I had one of those amazing travel moments where you’re in just the right place at the right time. I heard some girls talking about how you can get last minute (and cheap!) tickets to that nights show by arriving an hour early and purchasing standing tickets. For 4euros, this was something I recommend to everyone visiting Vienna – that night was a three part ballet and we were in the most perfect (albeit standing) location in the theatre with an amazing view of the stage. This was another unexpected and unplanned event which ended up being a highlight of my trip.

Another surprise highlight was the Naschmarkt – Vienna’s largest and most famous food market – and just across the road from where we were staying! Open all day, every day, this market provides the biggest range of food in the city. Walking through this 1.2km long market early on a Wednesday morning, as the stores were still opening and accepting deliveries, locals arriving to beat the crowds, with mist still hanging in the air from the 2degree night, I knew I would remember this morning for a long time. The Naschmarkt is also home to some trendy cafes and restaurants – some of the best in the city! They are open from morning until night, offering their unique cuisines at all hours, including to guests seeking a late dinner following the Ballet (like we did!).

It wouldn’t be a successful trip to Vienna without stopping by Demel Cake shop – possibly the most famous cake shop in the country. Surprisingly reasonably priced (or maybe everything outside of Paris just seems reasonably priced to me?) I enjoyed a delicious slice of apricot sponge cake and the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had (and I drink a lot of them…). The salons are perfectly restored to their historic glory – think dark panelled walls, tiled floors, mirrored bars, high ceilings and grand staircases. The downstairs salon has also been divided into half restaurant/half bake house. All cakes are baked on site in this modern, huge, dreamy kitchen in which guests can watch the chefs whip butter, melt chocolate, decorate cakes…  truly a fantastic experience topped off by the delicious smells of freshly baked cakes.

We also found an amazing hidden place for lunch – an underground traditional restaurant with vaulted ceilings, brick walls, wrought iron chandeliers and lots of candles. Ordering chicken schnitzel was a must – however we didn’t anticipate what seemed to be almost a whole chicken worth of schnitzel each!

Vienna is a beautifully composed, poised city – similar to Paris but with an air of its own.

Budapest:

My favourite city of this trip was easily Budapest. Before visiting, I knew little of this city except that everyone I spoke to said they really loved it – and I now feel the same! It feels like such a ‘trendy’ city, with a nice balance between old and new. Old buildings and interiors are fitted out with cool cafes, restaurants and shops. Courtyards become hidden beer gardens and abandoned buildings become busy Sunday markets.

‘Ruin’ bars are a big thing here – think multiple level concrete block buildings comprising of numerous small rooms, covered in graffiti, overgrown plants, a bath-turned-sofa, steel winding stairways, wrought iron, mismatched furniture and a bar in every third room. These ruin bars are the heart of Budapest – there are about five main ones and whilst I only visited one, I got a good feel for what their culture is like.

The touristy, historic locations were amazing – I visited the Chain Bridge, National Gallery, Eglise Saint Matthias (I actually climbed the Bell Tower and the view was A M A Z I N G), Fisherman’s Bastion, Liberty Statue, St Stephen’s Basilica, the Grand Synagogue and Parliament Building – all their architecture was amazing! I also visited the huge Central Market Hall which is a huge multiple level warehouse selling fruit, vegetables and meat on the lower level and souvenirs and street food on the second.

There is a monument on the river called ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ which is a memorial to those who were shot in this location during the second world war. Whilst somber and moving, this is definitely worth visiting when in Budapest as it is such a strong reminder of our past.

Budapest is situated on a patchwork of thermal springs, thus visiting a ‘bath house’ is a very typical thing to do here and dates back to the Roman times. I had visions of this experience being like the Arab bathhouse I visited in the South of Spain last year, but when I did my research I realised it was more similar to a public swimming pool, so I decided it wasn’t really my thing.

Budapest was the perfect way to end my trip – finished on such a high in such a vibrant city, this is one I feel I would love to return to, although with a local who can show you all the best ‘non-touristy’ spots!

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