PRAGUE, VI­ENNA & BU­DAPEST by road in­stead of RIVER

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Travel - BY ROY HAR­RIS Washington Post

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

RON­ALD ZAK AP file

Visi­tors crowed the Christ­mas mar­ket in front of the neo-Gothic City hall in Vi­enna, Aus­tria.

PETR DAVID JOSEK AP file

The sun sets be­hind the me­dieval Charles bridge in Prague, Czech Repub­lic.

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