You can’t go wrong if your travel plans include these three Eastern European capital cities – Prague, Vienna and Budapest.
THE thought of going on a bicycle ride through a hilly forest seemed daunting, which was likely why half the group that originally signed up for it opted out and instead chose to go shopping or sightseeing.
Despite the challenge it posed to our legs and balancing abilities, those who opted for the two-hour ride were rewarded with breathtaking views of the gorgeous Blanský Les Forest in Ceský Krumlov, a charming town located about three hours’ drive from Prague. The 17km ride wound around part of the tranquil Blanský Les Forest, past the scenic countryside, before ending in the middle of Ceský Krumlov’s town square.
Besides being led by an experienced guide, what made the ride memorable was the fact that we were joined by John Boulding, president and CEO of Insight Vacations – the company that hosted the media trip to Prague, Vienna and Budapest, the capital cities of the Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary, respectively. Boulding was very patient in guiding and encouraging those of us who were less confident in manoeuvring on the bicycle or navigating the undulating countryside terrain.
His kind gesture, along with the care extended by our knowledgeable tour director Neira Milkovic, who even took us on a night-time stroll around Ceský Krumlov when all the other tourists had long since left, made the trip all the more memorable.
The old town of Ceský Krumlov – a Unesco World Heritage Site with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque style buildings – has been likened as “Sleeping Beauty reawakened”, as it was cut off from trade routes during Europe’s Thirty Years’ War and left “to sleep” for some 300 years before it was rediscovered.
For more than six centuries, the town’s fortunes were linked to those of the aristocratic families residing in the castle and Lords of Krumlov – the Rosenbergs, the Eggenbergs and the Schwarzenbergs – until after World War II.
Ceský Krumlov Castle, which dominates the town’s landscape with its cliff-top location, is part-medieval fortress and part-château. It features an aqueduct-style bridge that also served as storage space and servants’ quarters, a picture gallery and one of the oldest private theatres in Europe.
Castle guide Milan Antoš said the castle’s Baroque Theatre ranks among the most completely preserved Baroque theatres in Europe, with its original auditorium, orchestra pit, stage, machinery, props and costumes still in existence. While our group was privileged enough to be given a tour of the castle’s key features, we were informed that the Baroque Theatre is open for only selected performances yearly to preserve its condition.
Milkovic said there are over 2,000 castles, keeps and castle ruins in the Czech Republic, making it one of the places in the world with the highest density of castles.
Those who love the whole romantic notion of castles and fairytale princesses would be simply ecstatic about this point in the tour!
We spent the night at Hotel Ruže, a former 16th century Jesuit College featuring Renaissance architecture and period decor. It even has medieval-themed bedrooms and bathrooms, though equipped with modern functions and facilities, fortunately.
But no rattling and clanking and ghostly medieval spectres, so one can rest easy.
Prague, where our tour began, is a popular filming location that has been featured in well-known movies like XXX and Mission Impossible (with key scenes taking place at the iconic Charles Bridge), Amadeus (featuring Prague Castle), Casino Royale (including a scene filmed at Prague National Museum), and The Bourne Identity.
Our tour of the “city of a hundred spires” included the 1,000-year-old Prague Castle, Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square; we enjoyed the town’s sights and charms, and could even visualise the movie scenes shot there. Movie buffs would swoon.
The Astronomical Clock, mounted on the wall of Prague’s Old Town City Hall in the Old Town Square, is a technological wonder that appears to have been built ahead of its time in 1410. The clock not only tells the time of the day, but also the months and seasons of the year, signs of the zodiac, and the position of the Sun and Moon in the sky. Several elements were added later on during repairs, including a little show featuring the 12 Apostles and figures of a Turk, Miser, Vanity and Death that animate on the hour.
During our group’s stop in Vienna, we stayed at the Hilton Vienna, which faces the famous Stadtpark – the city’s first public park.
That was how I found myself taking a night-time stroll to look for the gilded gold statue of Johann Strauss II – one of the most photographed monuments in Vienna. It was not easy to find the iconic piece, as scattered throughout the park are statues of other famous Viennese artists, writers and composers, including Franz Schubert, Anton Bruckner and Hans Canon. It was a musical treasure hunt of sorts with no X’s to mark the spot!
Vienna lived up to its reputation as the “city of classical music”, as evidenced when our group was treated to a private show by the Vienna Residence Orchestra at Palais Auersperg, Vienna.
It was amazing to be able to listen to a top-notch orchestra performing music by composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Strauss, including Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro and Don Giovanni operas, and Strauss’ The Blue Danube and Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka. Some of the numbers were accompanied by opera singing or ballet dancing, which made the performances all the more enthralling.
Mutig, mutig! (Applause, applause!)
Tour director Milkovic shared that the Radetzky March is traditionally played last at a Viennese concert to signify the end of the show. Guess no need for the Fat Lady to sing here.
Our group later sailed into Budapest, with a dinner cruise along the Danube River. The dinner cruise was a one-of-a-kind experience as we sailed along the meandering river, passing below beautifully lit bridges and glittering Budapest landmarks like the Hungarian Parliament and Buda Royal Palace.
The buffet dinner spread included Hungarian sausages, Toltott Kaposzta (Stuffed Cabbage Rolls) and dishes peppered with paprika, the national spice of Hungary.
The Hungarian Parliament, which sits by the bank of the Danube River, is a must-see for visitors. The seat of the National Assembly of Hungary draws admiration for its impressive neo-Gothic architecture, towers and pinnacles, and imposing size.
Tours for the public, preferably with bookings done ahead to ensure entry, include the main staircase and Domed Hall, where the country’s most valuable objects are displayed – the Holy Crown of Hungary, the symbol of Hungary’s former royal rulers, as well as a sceptre and sword.
Some 1,000 people were involved in the construction that commenced in 1885 and finished in 1904, during which 40 million bricks, half a million precious stones and 40kg of gold were used. We were informed by our guide that the construction cost – 38 million gold crowns – for the parliament building would have been enough to build and equip a Hungarian village of 40,000 people!
The number 96 features prominently in the 18,000sqm building, such as the 96m high dome and 96 steps on its main staircase, as it refers to the nation’s millennium, 1896, and the conquest of the later Kingdom of Hungary in AD 896.
Foodies would be delighted to know that sampling local cuisine was also part of the itinerary.
During the sit-down dinner in Vienna, our group was split into smaller parties, with each party taken to a restaurant favoured by the locals for their authentic Viennese fare and ambiance. I had the national dish of Austria – the Wiener Schnitzel, which is traditionally made from veal, though also available in pork. It was a large portion, and I simply could not finish it although it was tasty.
The Central Market Hall in Budapest is a foodie’s heaven. for in addition to fresh produce and meats, the market also offers various types of Hungarian salami, spicy paprika and Tokaji wine. There’s even a food hall, where we went to enjoy freshly prepared lángos, a snack made up of deep-fried flat bread filled with either sweet or savoury toppings.
You guessed it – we didn’t go hungry in Hungary!
Despite it being a road trip, it was a comfortable journey – thanks to our business-class coach which had plenty of leg room. Amazingly, it also had a good WiFi connection, which allowed everyone to post or tweet about their adventures on the go. And believe me, there is a lot to post.
Insight Vacations offers itineraries such as ‘Easy Pace Budapest, Vienna and Prague’ and ‘The Bohemian’ for Eastern Europe destinations. For enquiries and bookings, visit www.insightvacations.com or contact Corporate Information Travel (03-2091 9966 / email@example.com).