Danube trio: Vi­enna, Bratislava, Bu­dapest

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL -

Strung along the Danube River, three cap­i­tal cities — Vi­enna, Bratislava and Bu­dapest — make up a tri­an­gle of en­joy­able ur­ban­ity at the heart of cen­tral Eu­rope. Each of these cap­i­tal cities shares a com­mon Hab­s­burg his­tory, and thanks to their prox­im­ity — only one or two hours apart by train — com­bin­ing all three into one trip is a breeze.

Vi­enna ranks at the top of my list of el­e­gant Eu­ro­pean cities. Once the cap­i­tal of the mighty Hab­s­burg em­pire, it has a rich cul­ture you can al­most in­hale — and an easy liv­abil­ity that I ad­mire.

From a sight­see­ing point of view, Vi­enna is the sum of its il­lus­tri­ous past, with a dizzy­ing num­ber of sights and mu­se­ums to ex­plore. But the over­all vibe of the city it­self is just as en­joy­able. Hav­ing lost World War I and her po­lit­i­cal power, Vi­enna has kicked back, be­com­ing an ex­pert in good liv­ing.

Vi­enna has a long his­tory as Eu­rope’s mu­sic cap­i­tal, and clas­si­cal mu­sic per­for­mances are ev­ery­where, from pub­lic parks to the Vi­enna State Opera — which belts out 350 glit­ter­ing shows a year. Gilded high cul­ture can be sur­pris­ingly af­ford­able here — an opera stand­ing-room ticket is about the same price as a cin­ema ticket.

Whether you’re en­joy­ing Strauss in a park or lin­ger­ing in a gen­teel cafe, Vi­enna is a class act. For a lit­eral taste of old Vi­enna, step into one of its cafes to re­lax with a cup of cof­fee, a thick slice of cake and a news­pa­per. With crys­tal chan­de­liers and worn red-vel­vet chairs, these es­tab­lish­ments have the charm of times past.

Less than an hour’s train or boat ride away from Vi­enna, Bratislava, the Slo­vak cap­i­tal, is a con­ve­nient “on the way” des­ti­na­tion be­tween Bu­dapest and Vi­enna. Its com­pact old town is lined with ven­er­a­ble cafes, Re­nais­sance ar­cades and fun-to-browse bou­tiques.

A few hours are pl enty to get the gist of the city. Though lack­ing block­buster sights, Bratislava is an un­ex­pected charmer and per­fect for strolling. Head straight to the old town and wan­der its mostly traf­ficfree streets.

The petite main square fea­tures a his­toric foun­tain, built to cel­e­brate the 1563coro­na­tion of Max­i­m­il­ian II — the first Hab­s­burg em­peror to also be crowned “King of Hun­gary.” Back then, Slo­vakia was part of Hun­gary, which was ruled from Aus­tria. (Got that?)

Fin­ish your stroll with a hike up to Bratislava Cas­tle, the city’s most prom­i­nent land­mark. Orig­i­nally a mil­i­tary fortress, in the 18th cen­tury it was trans­formed into a royal res­i­dence for Hab­s­burg Em­press Maria Theresa. While it now houses ex­hibits, the main rea­son to head up the hill is for the views over the city and the Danube.

Bratislava’s en­ergy is in­spir­ing, but the true pow­er­house of this re­gion is Hun­gary’s cap­i­tal, Bu­dapest. It can be chal­leng­ing and com­pli­cated, but Bu­dapest is worth it: It’s an en­joy­ably cos­mopoli­tan place of un­ex­pected el­e­gance.

Strad­dling the Danube River, it’s tech­ni­cally two towns in one, with mighty bridges link­ing his­toric Buda and modern Pest. Hilly Buda is dom­i­nated by Cas­tle Hill. The royal palace marks the place where one of Eu­rope’s might­i­est cas­tles once stood. Since the 14th cen­tury, Hun­gary has been ruled from this spot.

Be­cause of its her­itage, Bu­dapest feels more grandiose than you’d ex­pect for the cap­i­tal of a rel­a­tively small coun­try. The city boomed in the late 19th cen­tury, af­ter the Hab­s­burg rulers made it co-cap­i­tal — with Vi­enna — of their vast Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire.

QThat boom peaked with a flurry of con­struc­tion in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a city­wide party in 1896, the 1,000th an­niver­sary of the ar­rival of the Mag­yars (Hun­gary’s orig­i­nal eth­nic group). Bu­dapest’s long-stand­ing ri­valry with Vi­enna spurred its plan­ners to build big­ger and bet­ter.

Many of the city’s finest land­marks date from this era, in­clud­ing the neoGothic Hun­gar­ian Par­lia­ment, the op­u­lent State Opera House and the vo­lu­mi­nous Cen­tral Mar­ket Hall.

Bu­dapest’s res­i­dents, like their Vi­en­nese neigh­bors, have re­tained a keen knack for liv­ing well. Spend an hour or two (or the whole day) splash­ing and soak­ing in one of the city’s many ther­mal baths. Though pub­lic baths can sound in­tim­i­dat­ing, they’re a de­light — and are my per­sonal fa­vorite among all of Bu­dapest’s invit­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.

The city’s cafe cul­ture has made a strong come­back (the com­mu­nists had closed down the cafes, fear­ing a dis­si­dent breed­ing ground). The old cof­feeshops are be­ing re­stored, ri­val­ing those in Vi­enna and drip­ping with Hab­s­bur­gian nostal­gia. Whiling away the af­ter­noon at a gen­teel cof­fee­house while nurs­ing a drink or sa­vor­ing a del­i­cate dessert is a fa­vorite pas­time.

For panoramic views from the re­main­ing cas­tle ram­parts, ride the cute fu­nic­u­lar up to Cas­tle Hill. Or cap a day of sight­see­ing with an evening cruise on the blue Danube — the chain that links the three cap­i­tals of Vi­enna, Bratislava and Bu­dapest.

Rick Steves (www.rick steves.com) writes Eu­ro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at [email protected] steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

CAMERON HEWITT/RICK STEVES’ EU­ROPE PHO­TOS

St. Michael’s Gate in Bratislava’s old town is the last sur­viv­ing tower of the city wall.

Bu­dapest’s sin­gle best at­trac­tion: steamy Szechenyi Ther­mal Bath in City Park.

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