Hapsburg Empire – final

With Prague, Český Krumlov and Vienna behind us now, we headed for Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia and a city that shares the border with Austria and Hungary, in the morning of December 21.

It was a comfortable two-hour ride by coach, and I was asleep most part of the journey. Occasionally I would wake up to dreamy views of snowy slopes and cottages with smoke spiraling from their chimneys.

Once the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary and an important territory of the Hapsburg empire, Bratislava also boast beautiful architecture, although most of the prominent historical ones are found in the old town.

The way leading to the old town, where we spent the morning, was lined with bald trees and paved with stones.

ImageAlong the way on Hviezdoslavovo Square, I found a statue of Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish fairytale writer who kept my mind alive with his stories when I was a child. So what did he do to earn a spot in Bratislava? Well, when the writer visited the city in 1841, he fell in love with it and said it was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. That must have sat very well with the locals. :)

The old town burst into life at the end of the quiet avenue, filled with people of all ages gathered around stalls selling all sorts of things, from hot wine and grilled meats to handmade fragrant soaps and adorable knitted caps. The things sold here were of a greater variety compared to the Christmas market in Prague’s Old Town Square.

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We were left on our own to walk around and the husband and I made some new friends – specifically Čumil the workman and a paparazzo!ImageImageDone with fun in Bratislava, we continued our journey to Budapest, our final destination in this tour. It was late afternoon when we arrived, and since we did not sign up for the optional river cruise and dinner event, the husband and I took a walk around the hotel for a look-see.

We stayed at the new Hilton Budapest West End, conveniently located within the West End Shopping Mall and walking distance from Andrássy Ut where all the luxury boutiques are. However, we chucked shopping at the back of our minds though, as the husband had a mad craving for Asian food. Fortunately, I spotted a busy Thai restaurant along the road while we were on the coach earlier on. It turned out to be a long walk from the hotel, but it was worth it. We got to see the city and the fried noodles, although not authentic, had wok hei (the smokey essence attained by food being stir-fried on high heat).

Again, we ended our night with local beers at the hotel’s lobby lounge.

The next morning, we paid some heroes a visit. Our local guide took us to Heroes’ Square, or Hősök tere, a sprawling space with statues of people who played a critical role in Hungary’s past.

ImageI would have loved to stand here with a cup of hot coffee in my hands – perfect on a -7°C morning, and just take in the space and splendour. But the group had to hurry off to somewhere else, as is always the case with guided tours.

From Heroes’ Square, we left the Pest side of the Danube river for the hilly Buda area. Once we got to Buda’s Castle District, we made our way on foot to Matthias Church.

ImageThen the gothic Matthias Church loomed into view and took my breath away.

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Visitors are allowed within, but the interior is undergoing restoration, rendering some parts of the church blocked from view. Still, one is able to appreciate the gilded interior.

ImageStepping out, we found ourselves face to face with an impressive terrace – the Fisherman’s Bastion – that overlooks the bottom of Buda and the cityscape of Pest.

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Unfortunately, it was very foggy that morning, and we could hardly see across the Danube. :(

ImageFisherman’s Bastion also offers a different view of Matthias Church, with the statue of St Stephen in the foreground.

ImageThe city tour of Budapest was rather brisk, and the programme ended at the point between Sofitel Budapest Chain Bridge and the Christmas markets.

Instead of looking for food at the Christmas market again (the husband had enough of sausages!), we slipped out of the biting cold and into the warmth of a proper restaurant for a good lunch.

Gerbeaud, established in 1858 and is said to be the most traditional coffee house in Europe. But we didn’t go into the cafe side. Instead, we visited the bistro for lunch.

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We were the only customers in the restaurant when we stepped in, and the silence was a little unnerving, especially when the wait staff wore very serious expressions. But within minutes of settling into our seats, families and couples started to pour in. The husband and I always joke that we  bring good fengshui and customers to businesses. Somehow, queues would form behind us, and restaurants or shops would fill out once we step in. :)

While we pondered the menu, a basket of hot bread and savoury chicken liver pâté were served. The husband loved it until he was told that the spread was made with chicken liver. Hah.

ImageWe warmed our tummies with soup. I was told that Budapest is renowned for its goose and goose liver. As the husband is no fan of the latter, I chose a roasted leg of goose so that he could also pick from my plate, while he ordered a beef steak with potato mille-feuille.

It was a lovely meal, and we ate slowly, sipping our wine, reminiscing the earlier days of the trip and watching the world go by outside.

After lunch, we shopped around the Christmas market for presents, and realised the market in Budapest was by far the best that we had encountered on this trip. There were so many lovely things to buy – paper puppets and cut-out theaters, traditional hand-bound notebooks and diaries, quirky glassware, handmade chocolates and Christmas cookies. Very pretty, but rather pricey too.

When the cold got too much to bear, we stopped for a cup of hot punch. Yummy! These drinks are so addictive, and with the load of sugar in them, they give you such a happy buzz. If I was nimble, I would be leaping off walls.

ImageWith the day dedicated to shopping, we left the Christmas market and sought out Andrássy Ut, where a Gucci boutique stands. And there, I managed to get my Gucci fix. Woohoo!

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We had just over an hour to rest our feet back at the hotel later on, before regrouping with the other tour mates for a farewell dinner in a restaurant on Gellért Hill.

And so, in a blink of an eye, our little introduction to Europe was complete. We left for Singapore, via Dubai, on December 23, already dreaming of our next vacation. :)

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Hapsburg Empire – part 1

 

I can finally strike five cities in Europe off my wanderlust checklist. :) In a whirlwind trip lasting six nights, the husband and I swung into Prague, Vienna and Budapest, with day stops in Český Krumlov and Brastislava. There wasn’t enough time to really absorb the historical wealth these destinations offered as we had gone on an escorted tour, but the trade off is that I didn’t have to tear my hair out in the planning process. It is always good to visit an unfamiliar destination first with a reliable tour company, and if you like what you see, you can plan a future trip dedicated to just one city and take all your time in the world to romance it. So we begun our journey in Prague. It was almost 3pm when we arrived at President Hotel, which sits just across from the Vltava River. We dropped our bags and wasted no time in heading out for a stroll down the river. At 5°C, the weather was perfect! The cobblestone banks of the Vltava River was coated with a layer of ice, making it quite a challenge for me to walk at my usual quick pace. Oh well. I was in no hurry to get anywhere anyway. :) So I slowed down and enjoyed the surroundings.

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The Vltava River eventually led us to the famed Charles Bridge. Constructed in 1357 as a critical causeway linking Prague Castle and the old town, Charles Bridge is just as revered today. Numerous tourists cross this bridge to worship its beauty and make countless photos to show off to friends and family back home. I was one of them. :)

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On the side of Mala Strana, the old town, a majestic watch tower stands, offering strong-limbed visitors a bird’s eye view of the bridge and Prague’s cityscape.

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Pushing past eager crowds, we found our way onto the bridge and was faced with a line of huge stone statues on each side. According to literature, there are 30 statues of saints and patron saints venerated at that time. Today, these statues are mere replicas, and the originals are kept protected in the National Museum.

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We hung around for a while more, then returned to our hotel. A welcome reception was awaiting, and the fancy dinner event was held in Restaurant U Cisaru, established in 1673. The name literally means “At the emperors”, and the restaurant has hosted several political VIPS throughout its history.

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It was drizzling the next morning and so cold, but that didn’t stop us from visiting Prague Castle and St Vitus’ Cathedral.

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I realised that many parts of the castle are actually open to visitors, but I guess due to time constraints, we were only brought to see the interior of St Vitus’ Cathedral. So Prague Castle is going into my to-do list. :) Emerging from the compound of Prague Castle, we found ourselves on the top of a hill, overlooking the sprawling ancient city which was the imperial capital of the Hapsburg empire from 1583 to 1611.

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Clicking heels against the ancient cobblestone slopes around the castle, we found ourselves on a street lined with the prettiest of old shophouses.

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Without the cars that lined this road, I would have thought I had stepped back in time!

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Our local guide, Jere, brought our attention to little icons found above the doors of some shophouses. To help illiterate people of the past to identify locations, icons such as this golden key were used in place of addresses.

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The same was practiced in old Singapore too, with figurines of animals placed on ledges above doors to guide people. Some of these figurines still stand – watch out for them on Boat Quay. From here, we trekked onwards to Charles Bridge, giving us the opportunity to admire the structure in daylight. Remember how I wrote earlier in this post that the original statues on Charles Bridge are now kept in the National Museum? Thank goodness for that. Look what the birds are doing! :)

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Now, say hello to the statue of John of Nepomuk. The poor chap was thrown into the Vltava by Wenceslaus, King of the Romans and King of Bohemia, when he refused to disclose what the queen of Bohemia had confessed. On the bright side, John of Nepomuk was considered a martyr and was made a saint of the country.

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The locals believe that touching it brings good luck, hence the two bright spots at the foot, polished bright by hopeful hands. Moving along, we found ourselves in Prague’s Old Town Square – my favourite place! But before the group was disbanded for some shopping at the Christmas market, we enjoyed a little show in front of the Prague Astronomical Clock, or Prague Orloj.

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This is a medieval astronomical clock that was installed in 1410. At every hour, four figures flanking the clock would do a little mechanical dance, and a golden cock would pop out and crow. These figures represent four things that were despised at the time of the clock’s making: Vanity, represented by a figure admiring himself in a mirror; a miser holding a bag of gold represents greed or usury; Death, a skeleton; and a Turk who dispenses pleasure and entertainment. Then, a trumpeter would work his magic at the highest point of the clock tower. With the city tour now completed, the husband and I were free to explore the Old Town Square on our own. So we made our way to the top of the clock tower. You could take the elevator, or climb all the way up.

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And from way up there, Prague’s Old Town Square looked most enchanting!

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Watching all the action in the Christmas market below made us very hungry, so we made our way down in search of a feast. We stuffed our faces with grilled sausages, a huge bowl of potatoes, bacon and sauerkraut and svajak (hot mulled wine).

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Then we ended the meal with two rings of sweet, roasted bread rolls. Yummy!

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Completely stuffed, and with aching feet, we returned to our hotel for a rest. We must be recharged for some night adventures! By 6pm, our tummies were growling again. So we headed out in search of Hotel U Medvidku Brewery. The name says it all – it is a hotel with a microbrewery and restaurant. It was a long walk from our hotel, and I was about to give up, when the husband hollered the sweet words, “There it is!” Dinner was spectacular. We shared a tasty potato soup with mushrooms, a roasted chicken leg with cream sauce, and a large apple pie, and downed four mugs of beer brewed on site.

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Happiness came with a bill of no more than S$23, which included a fat tip that made the waiter really delighted. Woohoo! Just as we were about to finish our meal, two young Asian girls came over to ask if they could share our table, as the restaurant was packed to the rafters. Of course we said yes, and the four of us struck up a really fun conversation. One of the girls is from Malaysia and is in Prague studying political science, the other is from Shanghai. We got along so darned well that we adjourned elsewhere for drinks. We ended up in Hemingway Bar, a pretty little cocktail bar in a very quiet alley. Really, if you aren’t in the know, you would never have thought that a stylish bar sits behind that inconspicuous wooden door.

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Hemingway Bar specialises in cocktails and there is a mind-boggling variety to choose from. I picked a Pimm’s creation, which was filled with so many fruits and a leafy bunch of mint leaves that I thought it was a health drink!

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Time flies when one’s having fun, and soon we had to go our separate ways.