Prague, Vienna and Budapest -- by road instead of river
By ROY HARRIS | Special to The Washington Post | Published: November 21, 2018
It’s no surprise that central European river cruises are booming. Gliding along the Danube or the Elbe through the countryside, perhaps topside with a glass of wine, is a lovely image. But my wife Eileen and I instead chose a "road cruise" from Budapest to Vienna to Prague last September. And we’re glad we did.
Mulling the pros and cons of river and road touring before making our plans, we noted that the per-diem costs are roughly similar for each form of travel, depending on the amenities offered. On a riverboat there’s no unpacking and repacking, and many meals are prepared by galley chefs who become familiar with travelers’ preferences. Boats tend to stop at smaller river towns, too, which aren’t on most land-based itineraries.
For our vacation, though, we had targeted the Hungarian, Austrian and Czech capitals specifically: joined in history, but each with its own particular cultural wonders and political twists. Curious about how leaders of all three nations had moved closer to Russia lately -- a quarter-century after the Soviet Union fell, to end Russia’s stranglehold on both Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia -- we even hoped to gather some understanding of the shifting political winds there.
Slowly churning the Danube between Budapest and Vienna would steal time from our city explorations, we knew, and the thought of a small stateroom didn’t charm us, either. We liked that our Wilton, Connecticut-based tour company, Tauck (which offers both river and road trips) had booked elegant, centrally located hotels for its eight-day "Week in Imperial Europe" tour.
"I don’t think of it as better or worse when I compare road and river touring," says Tauck spokesman Tom Armstrong. "Each has its strong points; each its limitations." Buses can take groups more places, but that promise of effortless one-time packing remains a huge draw for many customers. As for our plan to get a deeper experience of the cities, and a feel for politics there, though, Armstrong agreed that the road trip probably was the right choice.
After flying into Budapest’s Liszt International Airport we headed to the Kempinski Hotel to meet our Tauck tour director Lurdes Cambronero. During our very first group venture -- smack in the middle of the larger, more populous Pest side of the city -- we quickly became fans of the compact, comfortable motor coach that also would serve as our intercity transportation. It took our group of 24 west across the Danube, and up to the 13th-century castle atop the city’s Buda side. At dinner in a nearby restaurant’s private room, the new traveling companions introduced themselves and were led on a walk giving us closer views of the castle, the Royal Palace, and a dramatic lookout post called Fisherman’s Bastion: the three structures that dominate the western skyline from Pest.
Lurdes was joined by a local guide, Vincent. A business student who conducts tours on the side, he mentioned in passing the country’s current flat economy, and his own plans to find work in Germany instead. When I asked what he thought of Hungary’s pro-Russian prime minister, Viktor Orban, Vincent demurred - but offered his view that Budapest’s voters tend to be outnumbered these days by a rural populace that shares Orban’s fear of immigrants, doubts about the European Union and admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Monday’s explorations began at the glorious 1884 opera house, where we got a taste of the city’s deep sense of competition with Vienna. The Austrian capital was the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that ended with World War I, and Budapest its oft-snubbed "second city." Our opera-house guide noted that Emperor Franz Josef had ordered that the new Hungarian hall be built slightly smaller than Vienna’s. Yet proud Hungarians still feel their building outshines Vienna’s. (In a few days we’d have a chance to put that to the test.)
One stop that first day was the enormous Byzantine-Moorish-style Dohany Street Synagogue. Somehow, it had survived the Nazis in World War II, perhaps because its high spire doubled as a radio tower. In its courtyard stood a glittering metallic tree, the centerpiece of a moving Holocaust memorial. Each leaf bore the name of one of the many thousands murdered when the Nazis exterminated entire Hungarian Jewish communities in the 1930s and 1940s. It would not be the last such stark memorial we would see on our tour.
Tauck’s guides also provided a diverse sense of modern-day Budapest, including a Monday late-night visit to some "ruin bars" -- established by local entrepreneurs to transform decrepit prewar buildings into colorful, jazzy watering holes. Tuesday morning it was strudel-making in a bakery shop. Our group’s average age was close to 60, but one younger couple from Wisconsin had brought their son Paul, an enthusiastic 13-year-old who was picked to help roll out a table-long expanse of dough, and, of course, to delight in the sweet finished product.
Tuesday afternoon was a three-hour bus ride to Vienna -- a full day’s trip by boat on the Danube -- and soon we were settling in at the city’s Hotel Imperial. Our first two evenings resonated with Viennese music, a particular draw for Eileen and me. At a small chamber concert held in an ornate hall where Mozart himself had played, the conductor invited young Paul up, to play the triangle during a Strauss polka. His performance was flawless. The next night included a group waltz lesson.
Guided visits to Vienna’s legendary palaces were a mainstay of our 2 1/2 days there. Sch?nbrunn Palace, the gilded home to the Habsburg dynasty, overwhelmed us with its beauty and history -- both imperial and more-recent. (In 1961 President John Kennedy and Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev had a fascinating encounter in its ornate Great Gallery.) And the Belvedere Palace and Museum exposed us to a diverse sampling of works tracing the development of modern Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), including "The Kiss," an iconic piece from his so-called Gold Period.
But Vienna had whetted our taste for another concert. And it was then we learned that a hotel can contribute more than spacious rooms and city-center proximity to a trip. Asking the Imperial’s concierge to try scoring Vienna Opera House seats -- a long shot because Thursday was the sold-out season opener -- we were amazed when he managed to find us two returned tickets. Georges Bizet’s dazzling "Carmen," which we saw from the boxes nearest the stage, made for a once-in-a-lifetime musical experience. (As for a Vienna-Budapest opera-hall comparison, we rated Vienna’s the equal of Budapest’s, but no more glorious.)
On Friday we motored to Prague, a city whose own Vltava River (called the Moldau in German) isn’t directly connected with the Danube or the Elbe. For that reason, even popular cruises on those two larger rivers tend to serve Prague overland, rather than by boat, as a popular "add-on" river-tour option.
Prague, in many ways, seemed the perfect complement to Budapest and Vienna. The Czech capital’s original architecture is quite well preserved, as it was spared nearly all World War II bombing, giving it an unreconstructed antiquity that our two previous stops lacked. Friday evening started with a walk from our base at the Augustine Hotel, a contemporary structure connected to a 13th-century monastery, located in the Lesser Town section of Prague. We crossed the statue-lined 14th-century Charles Bridge into Old Town, home to its medieval Astronomical Clock, with figures of the apostles that parade at the changing the hour. In Old Town we found crowds of young Czechs enjoying restaurants and bars into the late hours.
Similarities with Budapest and Vienna -- cities that also once were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- commanded our attention, too.
The Jewish populations of all three, of course, had been all but wiped or driven out during the Holocaust. And we were riveted when tour guides focused on that subject. In Prague, as in Budapest, a synagogue offered a horrific story. At what’s known as the New Old Synagogue in Old Town’s Jewish Quarter, we learned how the city’s entire Jewish population -- more than 50,000 -- was expelled starting in 1939. Most were first taken to the Theresienstadt work camp outside the city. A death camp generally came next.
Later, our bus took us high above Lesser Town to Prague Castle, where we watched the ceremonial changing of the castle guard. The guard, we learned, also was the personal guard for Czech President Milos Zeman, who maintains his office near the castle.
The city is attracting larger-than-usual tourist crowds this year, as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring uprising -- demonstrations by independent-minded Czechs who were brutally put down by Soviet tanks. (The clash foreshadowed, two decades early, the fall of Russian-led communism in Europe.) We were drawn to Wenceslas Square, the broad public mall where the confrontation occurred. As in Hungary, Czech leaders have drawn much closer to Russia in recent years. Indeed, Zeman alienated many by snubbing the square’s official ceremonies, which he considered offensive to the Russians he admires.
After we returned home to the United States, I contacted two Tauck river-cruise passengers we had met by chance in a Vienna cafe. I was curious whether they’d been as pleased with the two-week riverboat vacation that took them from Amsterdam to Budapest by way of the Rhine, Main and Danube.
Both enjoyed their experiences overall. "It was easy-peasy -- part of the reason we took this trip was so we wouldn’t have to unpack," said Mariwyn Tinsley, a retired school administrator from Bremerton, Wash., and veteran of Tauck river and road tours. "We’ve long since given up needing to see everything." But Fred Meisenheimer, a retired energy-company executive from Dallas, lamented missing some city attractions: Buda Castle, for one. And even when the river-cruise passengers did make the rounds in a city, he said, the buses relied on "too much of what I call a windshield tour."
So, might Eileen and I ever plan to see Europe by river in the future? Maybe someday, we agree -- but for now, the packing and unpacking is fine with us if it means being able to explore our destination cities more thoroughly.
If you go
Tauck’s 2019 eight-day "A Week in Imperial Europe" tours are scheduled from May 5 to Oct. 6. The price per person ranges from $4,890 for a double-occupancy room from July to August, to $5,190 for a double-occupancy room from May through June and September through October. Four "small group departures," averaging 24 travelers, are available from $5,990 per person for double-occupancy. (Airfare not included.) Hotels featured on the tour include Kempinski Hotel Corvinus in Budapest, the Hotel Imperial in Vienna and the Augustine in Prague.