Budapest and Prague
Historic cities witness a cultural rebirth
BY TOBY SALTZMAN
The great cities of Central Europe shine with an elegance burnished
by time. True, you may stumble over grim vestiges of the past in
Prague and Budapest, harsh evidence of the Communist era. But just
strolling through rejuvenated districts amid centuries of splendid
architecture, or sitting in cafés bordering vibrant squares, you
feel exhilarated by a proud sense of cultural rebirth. So different,
yet so similar, both cities exude an historical aura that resonates
a chord in the souls of all visitors. Whether or not your ancestors
ever trod their cobbled streets, fled political strife, or perished
during the Holocaust, you can't help but feel an immersion or mixed
emotions. Take time to drink in the atmosphere of both cities and
you'll taste the joyous rush of the café and culture scene - an
apt antidote to the poignant testimonies to the past.
Prague is pure romance, with layer upon layer of beauty. Lucky the
tourist who sees the "City of a Thousand Spires" rise glorious in
sunshine from a drizzly fog. It is a thrilling ritual to walk the
14th century Karluv Most (Charles Bridge), lined with medieval sculptures,
across the Vltava River from the Old Town to Mala Strana (New Town).
Explore Prague on both sides of the river. In Mala Strana, the baroque
Wallenstein Palace complex houses St. Vitus Cathedral, a marvel
Gothic architecture, its façade sparkling with millions of tiny
ceramic chips. As you absorb the embellished architecture in Celetna
ulice (Old Town Square), you pass romantically entwined couples
lingering at cafes and at the foot of Tower Clock, waiting for the
procession of 12 apostles to exit every hour. For all of Prague's
ancient splendor, don't miss the "new" 20th century areas: the broad
boulevard of edifices leading to Wenceslas Square and the formidable
National Museum. Just across the road is the Prague Opera, one of
Europe's most exquisite concert halls, with gilded interior and
brilliant frescoes. Prague resounds with music from classical to
jazz to live dance and puppet theatre (best is Don Giovanni). Visit
the 19th-century Rudolfinum, home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
and site of the Prague Spring Music Festival. The National Theatre,
home of opera and ballet, is an icon of Czech pride where ceiling
frescoes depict mythology. The Laterna Magika - where Vaclav Havel
directed the 1989 Velvet Revolution that cut the ties of Communism
- features cutting-edge multimedia performances. Prague has seen
a remarkable revival in its Jewish Heritage considering the Nazi
onslaught on Kristallnacht, November 9,1938. The best way to explore
Joseefov (Jewish Town) and the displays of the Jewish Museum (scattered
about a dozen historic synagogues) is to buy an all-inclusive ticket
in the 13th century Old New Synagogue (circa 1270, the oldest Gothic
building in Prague) and follow the free map.
Budapest flanks both banks of the winding Danube River, with flat
Pest on one side joined to hilly Buda on the other with picturesque
bridges. High on the crest of Buda, the Varahegy Castle District
holds court with a series of medieval castles. Here are the Royal
Castle, the Hungarian National Gallery, the 13th century Gothic
Matthias Church, and an exotic clutch of towers linked by a parapet
dubbed "the Fishermen's Bastion" that gives superb views of the
Danube and the ornate Gothic spires of the Parliament in Pest. Much
of Budapest's historic grandeur is inconspicuous, hidden beneath
a crust of communist-era grime. But venture indoors, and you will
find ornamental interiors resplendent with gilt-edged frescoes of
winged angels and mythical souls. Don't miss the Parliament, the
Opera House, the National Museum of Fine Arts and the Hungarian
National Museum, which borders Heroe's Square, a site that is familiar
from television broadcasts. Follow the waterfront from the Parliament
to the Chain Bridge to the Vaci utca, a lively pedestrianized street
lined with shops and cafes. It leads to a lovely square where the
19th Century Gerbaud's is internationally acclaimed for its Hungarian
cake and fragrant tea. Pest's Jewish sites center around the 1859
Moorish-style Dohany utca Synagogue, Europe's largest active synagogue
survived as concentration camp for Jews en route to Auschwitz. Nearby
stand poignant monuments to Raoul Wallenburg (the Swedish diplomat
who saved thousands of Budapest Jews) and Swiss Consul Charles Lutz
(who set up "protected" houses and issued identity papers). A wing
of the synagogue - within the home of Zionist pioneer Theodore Herzl
- houses the Jewish Museum.
IF YOU GO
The weather is best from late spring to early fall. Winters can
Both countries offer accommodations from simple to sublime.
Research websites (http://www.czech.cz;
but book through a reliable travel agent.
Shopping is good for handicrafts, glass and crystal.
Unfortunately, petty criminals run rampant in Central Europe.
So be alert. Wear a concealed money belt.
Leave precious possessions behind.