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 2

We departed Prague in the morning on December 18, bound for the ancient town of Český Krumlov.

I was very much looking forward to Český Krumlov, as countless travelogues had described it as a quiet medieval town filled with architecture in Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles. You know how much I hate being in the big cities, so Český Krumlov sounded like the perfect place for me to be.

ImageČeský Krumlov is tiny – only 22.16 square kilometres. The photograph below captures its town square.

ImageDespite its size, I think Český Krumlov is big on charm and oh so fun to explore. Cobblestone walkways run through the city like veins, bringing visitors to doorsteps of quaint hotels, cosy cafes, quiet local restaurants and curious little shops selling unique handicraft and touristy souvenirs.

ImageThe city is renowned for its castle – the Český Krumlov Castle – which is home to a large rococo garden with a fountain and a baroque-style theatre, among other things. There are tours of its interior at specific times each day, but they were not included in my tour. Shucks. So we merely marveled at the architecture from the foot of the rock on which it was built.

ImageThen we went on to explore more of the city. We eventually settled down for lunch and beers at a little restaurant tucked inside a pretty building.

ImageWe ordered a grilled trout, which was served in its entirety. Hmm, aren’t Europeans squeamish about having their meat whole and looking like an animal, with bones and heads intact? Or maybe it was the Americans.

Anyway, the husband is clueless about eating fish this way (that pampered child!), which is perfect because I love sucking on bones! :)

And oh boy, it was delicious! The crunchy grilled veg were a delightful contrast to the tender white meat.

ImageOne must have the local staple at least once, so I ordered a beef goulash which came with heavy bread dumplings. It was no nonsense, comfort food. I could live here!

ImageWith our tummies satiated, we checked in with the rest of the tour mates, and continued our road trip to Wien, Republik Österreich!

It was a lovely ride to the Austrian border, through winding roads and wide-open fields. But I couldn’t help but feel a tad frustrated when we passed lands covered in a dreamy carpet of snow. Why wouldn’t the sky just snow on us? I wanna see fresh falling snow on my hair and shoulders! :(

Anyway.

The sun had set by the time we arrived at Hilton Vienna, and we have just enough time for dinner in the hotel before leaving for a concert at the Kursalon Wien.

Yup. You don’t visit the city of music without getting a taste of its musical legacy. So we allowed ourselves to be serenaded by Strauss and Mozart, with a spot of ballet to perk up the classical event.

ImageThe small orchestra, if I may call it that, played some really lively pieces from the two musical geniuses, such as Strauss’ Champagne Galop and Voices of Spring and Mozart’s Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro. It got the husband and me tapping our thighs and grinning away. Strangely, several tour mates dozed off. Wow. They must be pretty wealthy to be spending 49 euros (S$79) per person to sleep in a concert.

There was this funny chap who would doze off the second the music started, but would be the first to leap from his seat and clap most heartily when the piece ended, as if he was the number one fan. :)

After the two-hour concert, the husband and I knocked back some beers in the lobby lounge before calling it a night.

Our introduction to Vienna’s history started early the next morning. First stop, Schönbrunn Palace, a 1,441-room massive structure that was once the imperial summer palace of the Hapsburgs. A few of the rooms are open to the public, so are the gardens.

ImagePhotography is prohibited inside the palace (I was most offended by the guards inside who kept barking at us – hello, we can read English!), so I have only shots of the sprawling garden, which was quite bare in winter. Never mind. It was still lovely to walk through.

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It was 0°C that morning – too cold for a tropical person like me! Strangely though, the cold made the vision above even more enthralling.

After touring the imperial summer palace, we swung over to the imperial winter palace, the Hofburg Palace. Prince Eugene of Savoy stands guard in front.

ImageToday, the Hofburg Palace is home to an exhibition of the imperial treasures.

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Magnificent! Just like those illustrations in my favourite fairy tales. But I cannot imagine how heavy these things must be!

After seeing how the Hapsburgs lived, we proceeded to see how they are faring in death.

The Kaisergruft, also known as the Imperial Crypt and the Kapuzinergruft, is where the bodies of the Hapsburg royalties lie.

The crypt is small and packed with elaborately made coffins, and lighting is a tad low. But it is in no way frightful. I find it hard to imagine that bodies lie within such beautiful albeit morbid caskets.

ImageThis massive coffin (below) houses both Empress Maria Theresa and her husband, Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. It is the only double coffin in the Kaisergruft. The cover alone weighs 1,700kg.

ImageOur local guide explained that the empress was very much in love with her husband, and so they were the only ones interred together. Back home, I consulted online sources. Wiki said that her love for the emperor was “strong and possessive”, while most other sources said she was very fond of him and was very affectionate. Alas, it seems that he didn’t care as much for her and had maintained a mistress till he took his last breath.

Kaisergruft was our final stop in the day tour, and we had the rest of the day to ourselves. It was past 1pm by then, and our cold tummies were rumbling. Within sight was a sausage stand, and there we each enjoyed a schlong of a wurst and a cup of melange. :)

Brushing off the last crumbs from our faces and clothes, we ambled off in search of more to see. Soon, we spotted the lovely green dome of St. Peter’s Church in the distance, a stark contrast to the maze of malls and shops around it. Ignoring all the glittery window displays, we made a beeline for the historical house of worship.

ImageThe interior of St. Peter’s Church took our breath away. I could post a thousand photos here, but they will never be enough to convey the wonders within.

ImageImageIt was our immense luck that a choir was practicing when we stepped in. Their voices were so heavenly, and we sat in the church entranced for a long time.

Later in the night, we went in search of Hotel Sacher which won fame the world over for its Sacher-torte chocolate cake. It wasn’t the rich, creamy sort of chocolate cake, but I like it this way and thought it was orgasmic, especially when eaten with loads of fresh cream. *bliss*

ImageSacher Cafe also boasts a beautiful interior, complete with red fabric chairs and booth seats, elegant chandeliers and gilded wall panels.

So do I like Vienna? The city is lovely, and the many historical architecture are breath-taking. But after a day of walking around, every grand building looks almost the same, and the magic is gone too soon, with the exception of St. Peter’s Church of course.

In general, Vienna is busy like any other modern, commercial cities in the world, and the people walk with as much as haste as I have to back home. I felt hardly relaxed.

I also found it distasteful that poor service was offered in places you would expect polished treatment for the money you are spending. I doubt I’d return to this city any time soon. Hmm, unless I come to miss the Sacher-torte.

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.