Travel Diary for Eastern European Capitals Tour
A day-by-day recounting of the Eastern European Capitals Tour visiting Moscow, St Petersburg, Krakow, Warsaw, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Berlin in 5 star luxury hotels.
Thank goodness that all tour members’ flights arrived at the same Moscow Airport - Domodedovo. Moscow is served by no fewer than four airports [New York has only 3, but London has 5]. Domodedovo is the most modern of Moscow’s four. I don’t care to transit the others. We smiled nicely, refusing to give in to frustration with bureaucracy, and soon we were reunited with our luggage.
Beautiful Orthodox churches in Moscow
No rail journey is possible from the airport so we took a transfer coach to our 5 star luxury hotel, the historic National Hotel, now in the Meridien stable. The grand nineteenth century hotels of Eastern Europe fell into disrepair in the early years of the Communist regimes. Then the party officials discovered the good life and took them over for their personal use. In post-Communist days these old hotels have been refurbished and are once again among the world’s leading hotels.
After check-in, the remainder of the day was free to rest from the flight. Some wanted to get started on their exploration of Moscow. This was easy, as directly opposite the front of the hotel is the northern entrance to Red Square, the very heart of Moscow. Turning left out of the front door we were on the main shopping street of Moscow.
There were ATMs everywhere. The Russian rouble is worth 21 to the Australian dollar. In our hotel, prices are given in International Units. An International Unit equals one US Dollar, but they are not allowed to say that.
Near the hotel the restaurants all seemed to have an English language menu available. Elsewhere the signs presented a challenge since the Russians do not use the Roman alphabet, rather the Cyrillic one, invented by St Cyril around 860AD. It bears some similarity to Greek, but since I have forgotten most of my Greek, that comment is not particularly useful.
Russia has a fascinating history.
Gardens at Moscow's Kremlin
A country recognisable as Russia first appeared on the European/Asian scene in the 10th century, centred on Kiev, the capital of modern day Ukraine, under Grand Prince Vladimir. Orthodox Christianity (accepting the authority of Constantinople, rather than Roman Catholic Christianity which accepted the authority of Rome) was adopted as its religion and dominated its life for close to a millennium.
The 13th century ushered in a period of 250 years of Muslim Mongol domination. Among the local princes appointed by the Mongols to collect taxes for them, Prince Ivan, the local prince of the region around Moscow, led a rebellion against the Mongols. In the late 15th century the Mongols were expelled by Ivan III. Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) unified Russia along borders close to those of the 20th century, and he was the first to be called “Tsar of all the Russias”. Among Ivan the Terrible’s less inspired acts was the murder of his own heir so that upon his death, Russia fell under the control of Poland.
One of the wonders of the modern world - the Moscow Metro
A new era began for Russia in 1613 when a group of Russian nobles invited Mikhail Romanov to become tsar, establishing the Romanov dynasty which endured until 1917. Mikhail’s grandchild Peter ascended the throne in 1682 at the age of ten. He is remembered in history as Peter the Great. Aware that Russia straddled Asia and Europe, but realizing that in his century Russia could flourish only as a European nation, he decided to turn Russia into one. First, it needed a navy and a naval port. So St Petersburg was founded on the swampy marshes and frozen bogland facing the Gulf of Finland. Soon it became his new unequivocally European capital city as a “Window on the West”. While Peter the Great’s main interest in St Petersburg was as a fortress capital, succeeding Tsarinas Elizabeth and Catherine were keen for St Petersburg to be a courtly and fashionable capital like Paris or Vienna.
Russia’s brave stand against Napoleon is well known to readers of Leo Tolstoy’s classic “War and Peace”. The ideals of liberal democracy born in the French Revolution would meet bloody suppression for most of the 19th century and when Russia was bled white by the enormous manpower losses of World War I, it seemed powerless to resist the Communist takeover.
One of the wonders of the modern world - the Moscow Metro
The key locations of the Bolshevik seizure of power are in St Petersburg - Finland Station whence Lenin returned from exile and declared the Soviet Republic; the Winter Palace stormed by the mobs and now part of the Hermitage Museum. The Tsar and his family were murdered and the dream of the workers’ paradise soon became the reality of seven decades of totalitarian repression. Christianity - indeed all religion - was outlawed.
Under Lenin the Bolsheviks moved the capital of Russia to Moscow and St Petersburg was renamed Leningrad. Despite this repression 20 million still gave their lives for Mother Russia in World War II against the Nazis. World War II ended with the Allies in the West and the Soviets in the East marching into vanquished Germany. Where they met, Europe would be divided between a Democratic West and a Communist East for 45 years - the so called Cold War.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 heralded the end of Communism in Europe, and by 1991 the Soviet Union had disintegrated as “all the Russias” sought their independence. The Russian Orthodox Church is again a significant feature of Russian life. The resurrection of private ownership and a free economy have caused many headaches. Moscow, the capital, has close to 11 million people.
We met in the bar at 6pm for welcome drinks and dinner, then an early night.
The Kremlin in Moscow on the Eastern European Capitals Tour
The Kremlin was open today but not tomorrow, so our visit to the Kremlin comes before the city orientation / sightseeing. As well as the standard magnificent buffet spread at breakfast, there were some Russian specialities to sample - Sirniki (cottage cheese fritters), blini (pancakes) with smetana and varenia (sour cream and jam). - at breakfast!
The Kremlin, the oldest part of Moscow, is the official residence of the Russian president. It was built as a fortress - and still looks like one. Its distinctive red walls and towers - with green roofs - dominate the skyline from our hotel. It has been the centre of Russia’s military and political life for centuries. For many of these centuries it was also the religious capital of “all the Russias”, hence the great concentration of cathedrals in the Kremlin.
Christianity came to Russia over a millennium ago. There was an East-West split in the Christian Church in 1054: in the West there was the Latin speaking Catholic (i.e. Universal) Church taking its authority from Rome, hence Roman Catholic; in the East was the Greek speaking Church Orthodox (i.e. straight teaching) Church taking its authority from the Patriarch of Constantinople. Rome had died four centuries earlier as the capital of the world, that is, of the Roman Empire. Constantinople on the other hand continued to flourish and prosper as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.
St Basils, Moscow
Since successive Bishops of Rome had laid claim to the leadership of the Christian world because they were the bishops of the capital city of the world, perhaps the Patriarch of Constantinople had a sound argument for wanting to take over the role of the head of the Church. In any case, with the invasion of Constantinople by the Turks, it ceased to be a Christian city and Moscow, in fact, assumed the mantle of headship of the Orthodox community. But the Eastern Church never knew a Reformation such as that in Northern Europe under Luther and right up until the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Orthodox Church of Russia remained un-Reformed and the puppet of the oppressive Tsarist regime. Little wonder that the Russian Orthodox Church was swept away with the Tsar by the Bolsheviks.
Our local guide, Katerina, was excellent, very proud of her city and its history. The highlights of the Kremlin visit for me were the Assumption Cathedral with its five golden domes, the Tsar Bell - the largest in the world, but cracked before it was ever rung, thrones encrusted with jewels, the collection of Tsar’s coaches, and of course the legendary Faberge eggs, and Tsarina Catherine the Great’s 190 carat diamond ring was much admired by the ladies.
Thursday^ Top ^
The view at breakfast from our hotel on the Eastern European Capitals Tour
Red Square (almost the front garden of our hotel) has been at the centre of Moscow life for as long as there has been a Moscow. It is bordered by the Kremlin on the Western side, the GUM department store on the Eastern side and St Basil’s Cathedral sits at its southern edge. From our hotel, on the northern flank we passed through an historic gateway (big enough to roll a few missiles through) into Red Square.
This morning’s sightseeing focussed on Red Square and its immediate surroundings. We walked because the distances were so small. St Basil’s Cathedral’s distinctive chromatic onion dome is stunningly beautiful. Katerina told us that Tsar Ivan the Terrible had its architect/builder put to death so that he could not reproduce such a beautiful building elsewhere. Personally I find the interior a bit dingy with a series of smaller darker spaces quite inconsistent with the magnificent exterior.
We then visited Lenin’s tomb. His body looks incredibly well preserved given the fact that he has been dead for almost 90 years. Consider the preservative properties of Russian vodka. This is something of a sacred site for Russians with long queues standing in reverent silence.
Our next visit - to the GUM department store - was proof that, despite Lenin’s best efforts, the capitalists have won. The impressive 19th century building with three glass roofed arcades and a host of top end boutiques presented us with thousands of capitalist opportunities to contribute to the Russian GDP.
No tours of Russia - especially train tours - are complete without one of the highlights of Europe by rail - the Moscow Metro. A famous person once said “you can’t possibly get lost on the Moscow Metro; all the signs are written in English”. That person was wrong. Twice. The Metro stations are works of art, or perhaps galleries of art. The journey is the destination.
Russia's signature train, the Red Arrow from Moscow to St Petersburg
We had a last free morning in Moscow. I made sure that sure that everybody had the hotel address - in Russian script - in their wallet or purse.
We lunched together in an Italian restaurant quite near the hotel and at 2pm were collected by our transfer bus to Leningradski Railway Station to join the Aurora Express, Russia’s flagship train, to St Petersburg. We were about six weeks too early: the high speed train on this route is due to be trialled next month. While included in most lists of the great rail journeys of the world, the Moscow to St Petersburg expresses are still well behind the French, the Germans and the Italians in the great train tours of Europe stakes - for both speed and luxury.
The six hour journey was across flat plainlands with almost no bends in the track.
We were on the train across dinner time and, in First Class, were served a free hot meal in our seats. We arrived in St Petersburg at 10pm, and were transferred to our hotel, the sumptuous Grand Hotel Europe. Talk about the excesses of St Petersburg before the Revolution!
St Petersburg's unmistakable skyline
I got up early to do some exploring. Left out of the front door of the hotel along Mikhailovsky Ul, I came to a pleasant park. Veering left, I came to the canal, and looked right. Wow! The Church on Spilled Blood, built in the late 19th century on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. This is the source of everyone’s mental picture of a Russian Orthodox Church. Behind the Church there is an excellent craft market.
Tour members couldn’t quite believe the restaurant in the hotel where breakfast is served - the room resembles a palace ballroom more than a restaurant. There was even a harpist playing while we crunched our cornflakes. First Class all the way on the Great Trains of Europe Tours.
Our morning’s sightseeing programme (another fabulous local guide) included short stops at the Admiralty, built by Peter the Great to house his Navy, and the St Peter and Paul Fortress with its St Peter and Paul Cathedral, the final resting place for generations of Tsars. The last Tsar - Nicholas II, murdered by the Bolsheviks - was reburied here in 1998. We stopped at the Saint Isaac Cathedral, and saw also the Winter Palace. This now houses part of the Hermitage Museum which we shall visit tomorrow.
After lunch most of us visited the magnificent shops along Nevsky Prospect. I walked the full length of Nevsky Prospekt all the way to the sea.
Just along Nevsky Prospekt from the hotel is the Literary Café where Pushkin sipped coffee and did much of his writing. We had dinner together tonight in the Literary Café.
Sunday ^ Top ^
Today we visited the huge Hermitage Museum. Our local guide collected us at the hotel for the short stroll to the Hermitage. Along with the Louvre in Paris, the Uffizi in Florence and the National Gallery in London, the Hermitage completes the Europe’s Big Four Museums, in my opinion. The visit was arranged to show us a few of the “must sees” and then it wound up inside the museum to permit tour members to bail out when cultural indigestion set in.
At 1.30pm our guide bade us farewell but quite a few stayed on until closing time at 6pm. The excellent collection of Impressionists in the Hermitage is little publicised.
St Petersburg is one of the world centres of ballet and opera, and I had arranged tickets for some of the tour members to attend the ballet “Cinderella” at the Maryinsky Theatre tonight. Stunning!
A last morning in St Petersburg to enjoy a lie in, before we indulged in another one of those massive breakfasts. On to Poland today. It is possible to take a rail journey from St Petersburg to Krakow but it is not listed among the great train tours of Europe, so, preferring our home comforts, we relented and took a flight.
We checked out of the hotel and were collected at 12.30pm for our transfer to St Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport. There is no direct flight from St Petersburg to Krakow; rather we have a brief transit in Warsaw.
Heading west we gained two hours and arrived in Warsaw before we leave St Petersburg. An immediate connection had us in Krakow in 45 minutes. We arrived at the (deserted) domestic terminal in Krakow Airport. Here we met our fantastic guide Filip. He accompanied us for our transfer to the Sheraton Hotel. There is no “grande olde worlde” luxury 5 star hotel in Krakow, so we booked at the Sheraton.
Polish presented us with a new and indecipherable language, but at least some of the letters look familiar, unlike Russian. The currency in the zloty pronounced ‘zwotty’ - written zl but it is also sometimes written PLN. Who knows why? It is worth 40 cents Australian, or 100zl = $A40. There are ATMs everywhere and Poland seems a little less expensive than Russia.
What a sad history Poland has:
Warsaw's Gardens: Enjoy them on the Eastern European Capitals Tour
As well as being repeatedly invaded and more often than not comprising some other country’s backyard, Poland disappeared completely from the map of Europe between 1795 and 1919.
By about 800AD the people living on the plainlands between the Odra River in the West and the Vistula River in the East came to be called the Polanians - “people of the plains”. In 966AD the Duke of the Polanians, one Mieszko I, converted to Christianity in return for Rome’s recognizing his authority as legitimate ruler of the area. His son, Boleslaus the Brave, became the first King of Poland in 1025 with the Pope’s blessing and ruled over an area similar to present day Poland. In 1038 the capital was moved from Poznan to Krakow and, despite civil strife within and sporadic invasions from without (remember Shakespeare’s Hamlet), the dynasty lasted for four centuries.
When the Royal line was threatened with extinction for want of a male heir, a strategic marriage sealed an alliance with Lithuania and for almost two centuries the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania was a formidable European power stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic. Under King Zygmunt I, Poland saw a cultural Renaissance, with the astronomer Copernicus the most prominent figure.
Again without an heir in 1572 the Polish Royal house became the puppet of the Polish aristocracy and a string of foreigners were invited to sit on the Polish throne. One of them, Zygmunt III, from Sweden, moved the Polish capital from Krakow to Warsaw. At the same time her closest neighbours - Austria, Russia and Prussia - were competing for control of Poland, and between 1773 and 1795 it was partitioned and disappeared from the map. Napoleon then occupied Poland as the launching pad for his ill-fated campaign to invade Russia. Polish uprisings in 1794 (under one Kosciuszko) and again in 1831 and 1863 were ruthlessly crushed by the Russians.
The Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I re-established the state of Poland in 1919, but on September 1st 1939 it was invaded by the Nazis. Hitler also used Poland as the launching pad for his equally ill-fated campaign to invade Russia.
Poland's magical Kkrakow
Under the Nazis three million Polish Jews were annihilated and the rest of the population, overwhelmingly Slavic by race, became slave labourers for the Nazi war machine. A further three million Polish Slavs died under the Nazis. The Warsaw Ghetto will live on in infamy as long as men draw breath. It was here that the brave but futile Ghetto Uprising of 1943 took place.
Equally tragic (but not to be confused with it) was the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The approaching Red Army from the East, in contact with the (largely Communist) Underground Resistance in Warsaw, encouraged them to rise up against the Nazis. The Resistance members believed that their uprising would coincide with the Red Army’s storming of the city. But no; the Red Army then held back and waited until the Nazis mercilessly crushed the Uprising, ensuring that there would be no Polish resistance when the Red Army arrived and defeated the Nazis.
There followed 44 years of Communist oppression, lightened in its final years by the Solidarity Movement within and by international pressure applied by US President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, formerly the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow. Democracy triumphed in 1989.
We have chosen Krakow rather than Warsaw as our base for visiting Poland. Warsaw has been the capital only since the 1700s and has been almost completely rebuilt since its destruction in World War II. On the other hand, Krakow - the historic capital - was not destroyed and stands much as it has since the twelfth century. For centuries after the capital moved from Krakow to Warsaw, Polish kings continued to be crowned and buried at Krakow, in the Wawel Castle which overlooks the town.
We took a short stroll and, in a few minutes, were in the medieval Market Square, probably the size of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, with the 800 year old Cloth Hall in the middle. There are literally dozens of open air cafes and restaurants around the square. We had dinner in my favourite, Wenzl.
This morning’s sightseeing began in the Wawel Castle, Poland’s Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey rolled into one. An interesting footnote with an Australian connection: from the Wawel we looked across the Vistula River to the Kosciuszko Mound, constructed to honour the leader of the failed 1794 insurrection against the Russians. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of its Australian namesake. On the way down from the castle we passed an equestrian statue of Kosciuszko.
While Krakow has many fine - and large - churches, it is the tiny chapel in the Wawel Castle that is the cathedral church of Krakow. When the late Pope John Paul II was cardinal archbishop of Krakow, this was his seat.
Later, we moved on to the Market Square and had to choose again between dozens of open air cafes and restaurants for a leisurely lunch while watching the crowds. Judging by the books and pictures and postcards in the shops, Krakow’s most famous son - Pope John Paul II - is alive and well, and living in Krakow.
The Cloth Hall which occupies the middle of the Market Square is full of market stalls, many selling the local speciality - amber.
The afternoon was free but ten tour members had expressed interest in visiting grisly Auschwitz. There are no rail tours to this, perhaps Europe’s most depressing shrine, so we arranged for Jacek, our local bus operator, to take us there. Words fail when I try to capture the indescribable horror of the place.
Wednesday^ Top ^
The evocative Memorial to the Warsaw Uprising, Warsaw
About half of the group joined one of the commercially operated tours of the sights in and around Krakow associated with the life and ministry of its most famous son, Pope John Paul II.
The others joined our day excursion to Warsaw. We crossed to the Krakow Glowny Railway Station and took our reserved First Class seats on Poland’s premier train, the Krakow - Warsaw Express. OK, so it’s not the Japanese Bullet or the French TGV, but it does reach 160kph, making it Poland’s greatest and fastest rail journey - one of the fastest train tours in old Eastern Europe, in fact. There was a chef on board and a good supply of Pilsener. The countryside is rich agricultural land - one can see why Hitler wanted it.
On arrival in Warsaw’s Centralna Railway Station, we commenced our city sightseeing with our local guide, Adam. We began by visiting the Chopin Monument in the main city park which also contains the tiny White House Palace. Then we took a stroll along the historic boulevarde called the Royal Walk. We paused outside the imposing Royal Palace with the King Zygmunt III memorial obelisk serving as a traffic roundabout. Moving on we passed through the Old Town Square and on to the New Town Square. It is difficult to believe that these buildings which all look 500 years old were, in fact built only since 1945. They are exact reproductions of the original buildings which were completely destroyed in the closing days of the Second World War. Adam took us to a restaurant where the portions were huge! He bet us a beer that nobody could order the pork knuckle and eat it all.
Chopin Monument in Warsaw
After lunch we came to the memorial to the heroes of the Warsaw Uprising. A very sad chapter in Polish history. The conflicting emotions were repulsion at the deceit of the perpetrators and empathy for the utter desperation of the victims.
We then proceeded to the area where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood. Few buildings from pre 1939 still stand, but there are a number of very moving memorials. A Holocaust Museum is being constructed here. We visited a section of the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto that still stands. There was barely a dry eye as we stood there and pondered man’s inhumanity to man.
We returned to the Old Town Square and chose an open air coffee shop for a pick me up after our harrowing afternoon of sightseeing. We farewelled Adam and again took our reserved First Class seats on the Warsaw-Krakow Express for the rail journey back to Krakow in time for another dinner on Market Square.
The world's musical capital on the Eastern European Capitals Tour
There is only one direct (i.e. no changes) InterCity train a day between Krakow and Vienna, and it leaves Krakow station at 6.53am. The tour members accepted in good heart this one early morning start on the tour. It beats a 50 minute wait between trains in the decrepit station at Katowice. Again, not one of the great rail journeys of the world, but in First Class it was very comfortable. We traversed rural Poland, and the Czech Republic before crossing into Austria. We were in Vienna by 2pm.
On arrival we were transferred to our luxury hotel near the Ringstrasse. We stayed at the Sacher Hotel, a fabulous 5 star luxury hotel, home of the Sacher Torte cake. This is our home for four nights. It is right across the street from the State Opera House, and at the end of the pedestrianized central shopping area.
The histories of Germany and Austria are inextricably linked. Until 150 years ago Austria was but one state of the sprawling area called Germany. Julius Caesar came to Germany before the time of Christ. The English name for the country derives from the Latin “Germania”. Germans themselves call it Deutschland; Austria is its Eastern realm - “Ostereich”. The collapse of the Roman Empire in the West in the fifth century AD left a power vacuum, soon filled by the Roman Catholic Church, which had become the official religion of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century. The Church came to realize that some sort of political organisation was necessary and on Christmas Day 800AD Charlemagne was created Holy Roman Emperor.
The Holy Roman Empire occupied for over a thousand years (until dismantled by Napoleon) roughly what we call Germany and Austria today. The Holy Roman Empire was a loose confederation of about 300 principally German-speaking dukedoms, states and imperial free cities. A small number of these princes were styled “electors” for, along with a number of archbishops, they elected the Holy Roman Emperor. One of the strongest of those 300+ small Germanic princedoms and city-states was Austria, centred on Vienna. The Viennese princely family were the Hapsburgs, who became the Holy Roman Emperors. Prussia and Austria became the dominant German states, but Austria had built up a large non-German Empire including Hungary and much of the Balkans. When Bismarck unified the Germanic states under Prussia in 1871, he excluded Austria.
In World War I, Austria was an ally of the Germans and in the carve up of the defeated countries at the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, Austria lost its empire and was reduced to its present borders. In 1938 Hitler (born, incidentally, in Austria) invaded Austria and made it a part of the Third Reich. At the end of World War II, Austria was occupied by the Russians until 1955. It has since become a successful and prosperous federal republic and part of the European community.
After dinner we took one of the great rail tours of Europe - by rail on the tram tracks, that is - right around the Ring, past Vienna’s floodlit stately buildings.
Today we explored Vienna, on he rails again. We purchased 24hour tickets - these could be used on the trams and the underground. Our hotel is situated just one block from the Ring, the circular route around the historic centre, which we saw floodlit last night. The great buildings of Vienna are along this Ring - the Opera House, the Rathaus (the Town Hall), the Hofburg Palace of the Hapsburgs, and the parliament building. The Ring changes its name from place to place - Parkring, Stubenring, Opernring etc.
The landmark of Vienna’s skyline is the Gothic Stephansdom - St Stephen’s Cathedral. We are in Roman Catholic territory now. The northern German states followed Luther at the time of the Reformation while the southern areas - Munich, Vienna - stayed with the Roman Catholic Church. Completed in 1359, St Stephen’s is one of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. We already knew it from the opening credits of Inspector Rex. Mozart was married to Constanza here. St Stephen was the first Christian martyr, stoned to death for his faith.
Vienna has long been renowned for its Coffee Houses, and we tried one or three today. The European fashion for drinking coffee first took hold here in Vienna. We took the tram to see the beautiful Blue Danube River. No - the Danube is very brown. The Viennese say that it only appears blue to those who are in love. I told Kerrie how blue the river looked today.
The suburban underground train to the Schonbrunn Palace of Empress Maria Theresa, runs a block from our hotel. The Schonbrunn (beautiful fountain) was built as a copy of Louis XIV’s Versailles Palace outside Paris. We took afternoon tea in the gardens of the palace. The train returned us to the hotel.
Also just one block from our hotel is the Kunsthistorisches Museum, one of the great art galleries of Europe. Brughel’s “Hunters in the Snow” one of my favourites, is here.
But Vienna is Music, and there are monuments to its most famous musical sons all over the city. The greatest concentration of memorials is in the park near our hotel, and a few of us visited them this afternoon. Gluck was court composer in the 18th century, and introduced opera to Northern Europe. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart followed Gluck as court composer, but died a pauper. The location of his grave is unknown, except that it is in St Mark’s cemetery. The 18th century Viennese composer Joseph Haydn also had a profound effect on Mozart. The next generation of Viennese musical luminaries include Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven. Then Vienna was set on its ear by the waltz and the operetta: the Strauss family and Franz Lehar are the best known names.
Saturday^ Top ^
Budapest the second Capital of the Hapsburg Empire
Today we took an excursion to Budapest, the second Hapsburg Imperial Capital for the last half of the nineteenth century. Back to one of the great train tours of Europe - a rail journey on Austria’s flagship train, the JetRail. We took our reserved First Class seats.
The Romans occupied modern day Hungary for centuries until expelled by Attila the Hun in 451. The last of several barbarian invasions was that of the Magyars who settled down, converted to Christianity and crowned one Stephen their king on Christmas Day 1000AD. Magyar is still the Hungarian word for Hungary.
Hungary’s history is one of waxing and waning fortunes - prosperity and civilisation interrupted by invasions and repression. The Mongol invasions of 1241 - 1242 killed more than a third of Hungary’s population; the Muslim Turkish occupation lasted from 1541 to 1686. Despite this, two of Europe’s earliest universities were founded in Hungary in the 1300s.
The Turks were expelled with aid from the Catholic Hapsburgs of Austria, and Hapsburg domination followed. Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa’s “enlightened despotism” saw a period of cultural flowering, and in 1865 the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was founded with the twin capitals of Vienna and Budapest. Franz Liszt and Bela Bartok are figures of the musical flowering.
Following defeat in World War I, Austria-Hungary was dismembered and Hungary became a republic in 1918. The next year a short lived and brutal Communist regime came to power, soon to be replaced by an equally brutal right-wing government. Later, they brought Hungary into alliance with Nazi Germany. Like most of Eastern Europe, Hungary fell to Soviet dominance with the defeat of Hitler. The 1956 Hungarian Uprising against the Russians was mercilessly crushed. It reverberated across the world to a water polo match at the Melbourne Olympics of the same year.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union saw the introduction of democracy into Hungary in 1990.
The Hungarian language is quite unlike anything you have ever heard before. It is said to bear some similarities to Finnish; neither is descended from the Indo-European family of languages. The currency proved equally challenging. Hungary has the forint, about 180 of which buy an Australian dollar.
Budapest is made up of two cities: hilly Buda with its castle on the Western Bank of the Danube, overlooking the stately buildings and broad boulevards of Pest on the Eastern Bank.
We began on the bank of the Danube looking across the Chain Bridge and up to the Buda Castle beyond. Crossing the Chain Bridge across the Danube, we took the rack railway up to the castle. We visited the magnificent Gothic Matthew’s Church, and enjoyed views back across the Danube and the Chain Bridge to Pest - St Sebastian’s Cathedral and the high Gothic Parliament House. We had lunch with a view, then we rambled the narrow cobblestone streets looking for art and craft bargains.
Back on the Pest side of the river we enjoyed the magnificent architecture and one or two of Budapest’s truly unique coffee houses. Budapest has many fine coffee houses. Unlike Vienna which resisted Turkish invasion, Budapest was occupied by the Turks for more than century. Several quirky Turkish touches continue - the coffee houses and the thermal spa baths! The Islamic architecture and furnishings are unmistakable. We retraced this morning’s rail journey along the Danube and home to Vienna.
Today we all had a quiet day in Vienna. Vienna can be too rich for the blood. It’s a bit like Paris in this. I have found that the best way to cope with this potential for overdose is to sit, sip coffee and watch the crowds on the Ring and in the parks. We managed to get tickets for the Volksoper, (the People’s Opera), not to be confused with the more high-brow Staatsoper (State Opera). “My Fair Lady” was playing. None of us imagined that a play and musical which focuses on the nuances of the English language could possibly be spoken and sung in German. But it was, and it was a hoot.
The magical city of Prague
Our four days in Vienna was over all too soon. Our bags were taken on to Prague, and we transferred to Vienna’s Sudbahnhof Railway Station to take our First Class seats on a EuroCity train across the Czech border and on to magical Prague. EuroCity trains provide international services and generally have a good restaurant and bar on the train. InterCity trains, on the other hand offer rail journeys within a particular country. By the time of our arrival in Prague at 3.01pm we were well nourished and lubricated.
Nothing prepares the first time visitor for the beauty of Prague.
While it is the capital of one of Europe's newest countries, the Czech Republic, Prague is one of Europe's oldest cities. It has been at the crossroads of Europe for well over a thousand years. Good King Wenceslas ruled here over a millennium ago. It was the seat of the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperors before they moved to Vienna. It was here that Jan Hus anticipated Luther's Reformation by a hundred years (and was burnt at the stake by the Pope for his troubles). The great religious wars of the seventeenth century, the Thirty Years War, were precipitated here when some Protestants turfed the Catholic governor out of the window of Prague Castle - the famous Defenestration of Prague. The governor fell 50 feet but survived by falling into a pile of horse manure.
The Thirty Years War ended at the Battle of White Mountain, nearby. The Protestants were finally punished for the indignity they had imposed upon the Catholic governor and Prague became (and remains) a predominantly Catholic city. Prague was then for centuries the capital of Bohemia. It was overrun during the Napoleonic era, brought back into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and at the end of World War I was made capital of the new state of Czechoslovakia, incorporating Bohemia and Moravia.
Hitler incorporated most of Bohemia (Sudetenland) into his Third Reich with the pathetic acquiescence of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938. [This did save Prague from destruction, however, while many other European cities burned.] At the end of World War II Prague was occupied by the Communists for more than 40 years. An uprising against the Russians in 1968 was crushed mercilessly, but in 1989 Communism finally collapsed and Czechoslovakia reverted to democracy. Shortly afterwards the two national and linguistic groups did of their own accord what Hitler had forced on them in 1938, precipitating World War II - divided Bohemia and Moravia. They were now called Slovakia in the East with its capital Bratislava, and the Czech Republic in the West with Prague as its capital.
On arrival in Prague (the Czechs call it Praha), we were transferred to our city centre hotel, the luxury 5 star art deco Hotel Paris. The currency here is the crown, written Kc, about 17 to the Australian dollar. Like the Hungarians, the Czechs seemed willing to forgive us for not being able to speak their language.
Tonight’s dinner was in a Prague institution - Chez Maurice on Hastalska, two blocks away from our hotel. Picture a Parisian bistro at half the price, wooden tables and chairs, soccer scarves hanging on the wall, the buzz of a dozen languages, and lashings of country-style food.
Czech food has strong German influences and Pilsener beer (originally brewed here) is the national drink. The Czech Republic boasts (confesses to) the highest national per capita consumption in the world. Even Germany and Australia lag well behind. Although in fairness to our Northern Territorian tour members, it has to be said that were the Northern Territory a country, its beer consumption would pip the Czech Republic at the bar.
We met at 9am in the hotel foyer for our “Prague Discovery Tour” with a local guide, Waclaw.
Prague is very much like Venice and Florence in two respects: it is so compact that everything is in walking distance, and it is a shopper's and people watcher's paradise. Consequently, we did not have much sightseeing planned.
For this morning's sightseeing programme, we began with a rail journey - tram rails that is - on the Number 22 tram to Prague Castle. Here we visited the Palace and saw the window from which the Defenestration of Prague took place. We visited also St Vitus’ cathedral and its tiny chapel said to be built on the spot of the murder of Good King Wenceslas. The castle provides a panoramic view of Prague. Coming down the hill from the Castle, we crossed the Charles Bridge and were back in the Old Town
The Old Town Square has a building facade from every century from the twelfth to the twentieth. The Churches are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. The Town Hall clock, dating from 1490 performs on the hour with a glockenspiel of dancing figures (they are the 12 apostles).
Nearby Wenceslas Square provides a sweep of Czech history with the Parliament House right at the top. But the highlight of Prague - and we found ourselves repeatedly gravitating back to it during our stay - is the Charles Bridge.
It has stood here since the thirteenth century, linking the Old Town with Prague Castle. We detoured through the Jewish Quarter, one of Europe’s few substantially intact ghettos, on our way back to the hotel.
Wednesday^ Top ^
Today was a free day to enjoy more of Prague and explore its musical heritage.
On almost every street corner, it seemed, someone was selling tickets to a classical concert or a choral performance. Prague’s musical associations are very rich.
In 1789 Mozart conducted the world premiere of “Don Giovanni” from the keyboard, in the Estates Theatre, no more than 500 metres from our hotel. Smetana and Dvorak are the best-known composers native to Prague. In the literature stakes, this is Franz Kafka's home.
There was no performance at the Estates Theatre today, but the State Opera was playing Dvorak’s “Rusulka”. We all know “Song to the Moon” from this opera but none of us had ever seen the opera performed. It was brilliant with much choral work. The intimate but highly decorated State Opera House is a destination in its own right, quite without the added bonus of the superb performance.
Our bags were collected to be taken on to Berlin and we were transferred to the Prague Holesovice station to join our Eurocity train bound for Germany. The first two hours to Dresden is one of the most scenic train tours in Europe, as we journeyed down the gorge of the Vlatava River, then the Elbe River.
Dresden Frauenkirche recently rebuilt after its destruction in 1945
We broke our rail journey to Berlin in one of Europe’s “hidden gems”, Dresden. Welcome to Germany. We were back to speaking German and spending Euros.
Julius Caesar came to Germany before the time of Christ and the English name for the country derives from the Latin “Germania”. Germans themselves call it Deutschland. The collapse of the Roman Empire in the West in the fifth century AD left a power vacuum, soon filled by the Roman Catholic Church, which had become the official religion of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century. The Church came to realize that some sort of political organisation was necessary and on Christmas Day 800AD Charlemagne was created Holy Roman Emperor.
The Holy Roman Empire occupied for over a thousand years (until dismantled by Napoleon) roughly what we call Germany and Austria today. The Holy Roman Empire was a loose confederation of about 300 principally German-speaking dukedoms, states and imperial free cities. A small number of these princes were styled “electors” for, along with a number of archbishops, they elected the Holy Roman Emperor. This was largely a sham: for over 400 years the Holy Roman Emperors all came from one family, the Hapsburgs.
The local princes in the area around Berlin (called Brandenburg, later Brandenburg- Prussia, and still later just Prussia) were the Hohenzollern family. Berlin was their capital. Their influence grew, and during the nineteenth century the 300 odd German states, excluding Austria, were unified under Prussia. The Prussian King was thereafter called the Kaiser (Emperor) and his country was called the German Empire. The name most closely associated with this unification of Germany is that of Kaiser Wilhelm I’s Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck.
After Berlin's recovery from Germany's collapse and defeat in World War I the city experienced some prosperity and not a little notoriety as a libertarian and intellectual centre. That was soon to end - enter Adolf Hitler in 1933. Berlin was left in rubble at the defeat of the Nazis. As the Allies invaded Germany from the West, the Russians invaded from the East. Where they met, Germany would be divided by the Iron Curtain for 44 years. Deep within Communist East Germany, Berlin was also divided. West Berlin was effectively a free/capitalist/democratic island within a Communist sea. In 1948 the Communists denied access to West Berlin from the outside world and 3,000,000 Berliners were kept alive with food flown in by Allied planes - the famous Berlin Airlift.
War scenes from Berlin
West Berlin flourished despite its isolation and increasing numbers of East Germans crossed into West Berlin for a better life. To stop the flow, in 1960 the East German Communists built the infamous Berlin Wall which stood for 29 years. Many Easterners were killed trying to escape to the West. Throughout the Cold War period, Berlin was the world in microcosm - as Berlin was divided between a Communist East and a democratic West, so was Germany, so was Europe, so was the world.
In November 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed, Communism died and the Iron Curtain came down. Berlin became again the capital of a unified Germany.
Dresden, our first stop in Germany, was put on the map of Europe when its Saxon princes became “electors” that is to say, they had the right to sit on the selection panel for the Holy Roman Emperor, in the 13th century. It continued as the seat of the Saxon princes until Germany was unified, under Prussia, by Bismarck in 1870. Especially during Augustus the Strong’s 69 year reign in the 18th century, Dresden was famous throughout Europe as the “Florence of the North” attracting artists and musicians, principally from Italy, to the royal court. As well as being the cultural capital of central Europe, it was also one of its most beautiful cities. Dresden (and nearby Meissen) china are world famous.
Dresden was best known in the 20th century for the fact that it was fire bombed by the Allies in February 1945 when full of refugees escaping the Russian advance in the East. 35,000 people died, more from asphyxiation than from bomb damage. German war historians would later claim a wartime agreement between the Allies and the Nazis that the cultural centres of Dresden in Germany and Oxford and Cambridge in England should not be bombed. English historians would claim no knowledge of such an agreement.
The Dresden Hauptbahnhof is a couple of kilometres out of the city centre, so we taxied in. We took a short walking tour through the historic centre, passing the Procession of Princes mural, a 102metre long depiction of Saxon history made of 24,000 porcelain tiles to the Zwinger, formerly the palace, now a complex of five museums set in buildings and gardens of great artistic beauty. Raphael’s cupid angels are here.
Retracing our route we came to the Frauenkirche. Perhaps the most distinctive of all Protestant Churches in Europe, the bell-shaped Frauenkirche was destroyed in the bombing of February 1945 and left as rubble by the atheistic Communists during their subsequent 44 year rule of East Germany. They said they left it as a memorial to war, but since they were busily closing down Christian churches everywhere else, the story lacks a certain ring of truth. The reconstruction is now complete. The interior decoration is unequalled in any Protestant I have ever seen anywhere in the world. Superlatives fail.
Southern Germany and Austria are predominantly Roman Catholic but here - Dresden, Berlin, Leipzig - we are in Protestant (Lutheran) territory. The local princes’ support for Martin Luther was one of the factors which guaranteed the success of Luther’s revolt against the Pope. The political settlement after the Reformation decreed that German citizens should all embrace the religion of their local prince.
A Cathedral in Berlin
Adjacent to the Frauenkirche is the Terrassenufer, (riverbank terrace) but so much more than just a terrace on the bank of the river. It is a promenade offering a glorious view across the Elbe River to the New Town on the Northern bank.
We were attracted to a restaurant called Ayers Rock with Fosters and XXXX on the drinks list, but settled finally on a restaurant located in an antique shop. Or are they antiques for sale inside a restaurant. In any case, taking sausages, sauerkraut and beer while semi-recumbent on an 18th century chaise-lounge, was a new experience for me.
In the late afternoon we made our way back to the Station to join our onward EuroCity train to Berlin.
Our Berlin hotel is right on the Kufurstendamm, or Ku’damm as the Berliners call it, the main thoroughfare of old West Berlin. It is a few metres from the bomb damaged war memorial Kaiser Wilhelm Church, and only a few hundred metres from Ka De We, arguably the world’s biggest and best department store.
Too impatient to wait for the Round Berlin sightseeing tour tomorrow, a few of us jumped the Number 100 Bus from the Zoo Station near our hotel right through floodlit Berlin.
Although the Wall is gone the distinction is still clear between the stately (and slightly boring) East Berlin with its museums and historic buildings, and the lively old West Berlin with its shops and restaurants.
Scenes from Germany's Berlin
We took the Round Berlin Sightseeing Tour this morning to get ourselves orientated in this sprawling city.
We hopped out at the Brandenburg Gate and saw also the Reichstag building, the German parliament building again since 1990. Back on board, we drove down Unter den Linden - under the lime trees - the grand boulevarde of old Berlin.
Then we crossed the Museuminsel (Museum Island) home to no fewer than five national museums. The nearby Berliner Dom (cathedral) was built between 1747 and 1750 as a church and mausoleum for the Hohenzollern family of Prussian princes. Damaged during World War II, it has been faithfully restored. The Dom's interior is very richly decorated. There is some fine stained glass and a magnificent pipe organ. Some of our number returned for the free organ recital at 3pm.
It’s one of the few churches I know in Europe which charges for admission [Westminster Abbey in London is another]. It cost 3 Euros to visit the Berliner Dom.
Opposite is the Palace of the Republic on the spot where the Communist revolution was declared in 1918 and put in place the events which led to Germany's asking the Allies for an Armistice. The present yucky High Communist concrete and mirrors monstrosity served as the parliament of the Communist East during the years of separation. Why have a Parliament House when you don't let the people vote?
The city sightseeing ended right at our hotel and we walked on to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, preserved in its bomb-damaged state as a war memorial, then we strolled further down the same street to the Ka De We department store. It is an abbreviation (Berliners love abbreviations) for Kaufhaus des Westens. For my money it is the best department store in Europe, if not the world. It leaves Harrods in the shade.
Berlin - Excursion to Leipzig
Saturday^ Top ^
The Thomas Church in Leipzig. Bach was choirmaster here for twenty years
Today’s excursion to Leipzig, presented the only opportunity on this tour to ride on Germany’s flagship high speed train, the Inter City Express - another of the great train tours of Europe and the world. First Class, of course. We were in Leipzig in a little over an hour. Like Dresden, Leipzig was in the kingdom of Saxony for centuries. While Dresden was the capital, Leipzig was the musical and intellectual centre. The University of Leipzig produced both Goethe and Bach - no mean feat! We strolled past the University buildings to St Thomas’ Church. Bach’s grave is in the sanctuary of the St Thomas Church. We didn’t hear him decomposing.
Opposite the University is the beer keller where Goethe set the opening scene of Faust. We decided to have lunch here.
Leipzig has also the Gewandhaus (home of the Leipzig Opera and Orchestra) a modern, unattractive building. Leipzig’s second major church - St Nicholas’ - played a pivotal role in the non-violent opposition to the Communist regime in its twilight days. Its interior architecture and design are truly unique.
Like Dresden and much of Berlin, Leipzig was in the Communist East Germany from 1945 to 1989. This is very obvious from the garish concrete, steel and glass Stalinist architecture everywhere outside the pedestrian city heart of Leipzig.
We met at 2.30pm for our homeward journey, again in our reserved First Class seats on the ICE train. Most went straight home to Berlin, but a few of us broke the journey in Lutherstadt Wittenberg.
Wittenberg is the spiritual home of Lutherans throughout the world and, in fact, of all Protestants. This is where the Augustinian monk Martin Luther challenged the corruption and spiritual tyranny of the mediaeval Roman Catholic Church and set in train a movement which saw the establishment of Protestant Churches throughout much of Northern Europe, and those new world countries like Australia settled by Northern European colonisers.
The very church on whose doors he nailed the “95 theses” still stands, called the Schlosskirche, and we paid a visit. The 95 theses are now cast in bronze on the Church doors. Luther’s grave is inside the Church.
We re-joined the ICE train and were back in Berlin for our Farewell Dinner.
Our tour ended after breakfast this morning and we transferred to Tegel Airport, very close to the city centre, for our flight to London and home. Tegel was the airport used in the Berlin Airlift when thousands of tons of food were flown in every day to feed the Berliners during the Communists’ Berlin Blockade.
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