PRAGUE, VIENNA & BUDAPEST by road instead of RIVER
It’s no surprise that central European river cruises are booming. Gliding along the Danube or the Elbe through the countryside, perhaps topside with a glass of wine, is a lovely image. But my wife Eileen and I instead chose a “road cruise” from Budapest to Vienna to Prague last September. And we’re glad we did.
Mulling the pros and cons of river and road touring before making our plans, we noted that the per-diem costs are roughly similar for each form of travel, depending on the amenities offered. On a riverboat there’s no unpacking and repacking, and many meals are prepared by galley chefs who become familiar with travelers’ preferences. Boats tend to stop at smaller river towns, too, which aren’t on most land-based itineraries.
For our vacation, though, we had targeted the Hungarian, Austrian and Czech capitals specifically: joined in history, but each with its own particular cultural wonders and political twists. Curious about how leaders of all three nations had moved closer to Russia lately – a quarter-century after the Soviet Union fell, to end Russia’s stranglehold on both Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia – we even hoped to gather some understanding of the shifting political winds there.
Slowly churning the Danube between Budapest and Vienna would steal time from our city explorations, we knew, and the thought of a small stateroom didn’t charm us, either. We liked that our Wilton, Connecti- cut-based tour company, Tauck (which offers both river and road trips) had booked elegant, centrally located hotels for its eight-day “Week in Imperial Europe” tour.
“I don’t think of it as better or worse when I compare road and river touring,” says Tauck spokesman Tom Armstrong. “Each has its strong points; each its limitations.” Buses can take groups more places, but that promise of effortless one-time packing remains a huge draw for many customers. As for our plan to get a deeper experience of the cities, and a feel for politics there, though, Armstrong agreed that the road trip prob- ably was the right choice.
After flying into Budapest’s Liszt International Airport we headed to the Kempinski Hotel to meet our Tauck tour director Lurdes Cambronero. During our very first group venture – smack in the middle of the larger, more populous Pest side of the city – we quickly became fans of the compact, comfortable motor coach that also would serve as our intercity transportation. It took our group of 24 west across the Danube, and up to the 13thcentury castle atop the city’s Buda side. At dinner in a nearby restaurant’s private room, the new traveling companions introduced themselves and were led on a walk giving us closer views of the castle, the Royal Palace, and a dramatic lookout post called Fisherman’s Bastion: the three structures that dominate the western skyline from Pest.
Lurdes was joined by a local guide, Vincent. A business student who conducts tours on the side, he mentioned in passing the country’s current flat economy, and his own plans to find work in Germany instead. When I asked what he thought of Hungary’s pro-Russian prime minister, Viktor Orban, Vincent demurred – but offered his view that Budapest’s voters tend to be outnumbered these days by a rural populace that shares Orban’s fear of immigrants, doubts about the European Union and admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Monday’s explorations began at the glorious 1884 opera house, where we got a taste of the city’s deep sense of competition with Vienna. The Austrian capital was the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that ended with World War I, and Budapest its oft-snubbed “second city.” Our opera-house guide noted that Emperor Franz Josef had ordered that the new Hungarian hall be built slightly smaller than Vienna’s. Yet proud Hungarians still feel their building outshines Vienna’s. (In a few days we’d have a chance to put that to the test.)
One stop that first day was the enormous Byzantine-Moorishstyle Dohany Street Synagogue. Somehow, it had survived the Nazis in World War II, perhaps because its high spire doubled as a radio tower. In its courtyard stood a glittering metallic tree, the centerpiece of a moving Holocaust memorial. Each leaf bore the name of one of the many thousands murdered when the Nazis exterminated entire Hungarian Jewish communities in the 1930s and
1940s. It would not be the last such stark memorial we would see on our tour.
Tauck’s guides also provided a diverse sense of modern-day Budapest, including a Monday late-night visit to some “ruin
Visitors crowed the Christmas market in front of the neo-Gothic City hall in Vienna, Austria.
The sun sets behind the medieval Charles bridge in Prague, Czech Republic.