Central Europe: Krakow to Budapest

A comparison of four cities in four countries, either side of the old Iron Curtain.
  • All
  • Krakow
  • Bratislava
  • Vienna
  • Budapest
  • Entry 1 of 9
  • Saturday 16th July 2011
  • Krakow

It didn’t take long to fully appreciate that the centre of Krakow really is, if not the most Polish of cities, certainly the most polished. Five hundred years as the royal capital of Poland has bequeathed a pretty stellar medieval merchant Old Town – though modern history has more than partly helped, with Krakow the only major city in the country to survive the Second World War intact.

It was walking into Rynek Główny, the Main Market Square, that really did it and I was amazed at the sheer scale of the place. Anywhere else and the giant Renaissance era Cloth Hall that sits in the middle would dominate its surroundings like a giant amongst midgets, but here in Europe’s largest central plaza of two hundred metres by two hundred metres, it wasn’t much more than a pimple on a pumpkin. There was an extravagant amount of space left over in which to allot various other monuments, a flower market, restaurants with outside dining on each side of the square, a perimeter thoroughfare for horse carriages and the omnipresent stretched golf cart tours that silently whizzed about, and still have room left over for thousands of tourists to stroll through the square concurrently without being caught in a crush.

The food was pretty good too, especially for such a touristy place. Pierogi, traditional Polish dumplings, were advertised on the menu of one restaurant in the market square as something like “similar to Italian ravioli but even more delicious”. That was a claim I had to test out, and though I only tried the venison and duck varieties over two dinners – there were also other meat, potato and cheese fillings – I would choose them over ravioli anytime. Meanwhile, my female travelling companions (my wife and my sister) went ga-ga over a chocolate and dessert shop called Chocofee situated directly across the street from our room.

And that wasn’t the end to all that was glamorous. In a modern fountain near the ring of the former city walls that Plenty Park now occupies, three models paddled around for a photographer in the knee high water, dolled up in dresses that probably deserved a far kinder fate than to be ruined so quickly. Prague gets a big rap as the most beautiful city of the former Eastern Bloc, but I was immediately much, much more impressed with Krakow.

  • Entry 2 of 9
  • Sunday 17th July 2011
  • Auschwitz

The town of Oświęcim and its neighbouring village Brzezinka are by far Krakow’s most popular day trip with visitors, though I think it’s fair to say it will always be their German names that most resonate – Auschwitz and Birkenau. Like Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Treblinka and far too many others, just the mention of Auschwitz is a chilling reminder the world over of the horrors of genocide.

In the museum exhibitions that now occupy the brick barracks of Auschwitz camp I (the ‘labour camp’ close to the middle of town), there were the accumulated piles of possessions found when the camps were liberated in 1945 – suitcases, shoes, eye glasses. There was even human hair, shaved off incoming arrivals, then collected, baled and sent on to mills for manufacturing of cloth.

After a couple of hours there, we moved on to the much larger Auschwitz camp II (the ‘death camp’) a few kilometres away in Birkenau. Here the trains from all over the German occupied countries could pull up right up by the gas chambers, and a second’s once-over by an SS doctor immediately on arrival dictated whether or not the ‘shower’ of Zyklon B came straight away.

Not to mention those poor souls of all ages captured on film late in the war by the Soviet liberators, which was shown to us on the coach while making the journey from Krakow, whose fate was to be the subjects of Nazi medical experiments. Those that survived did so with some sickening deformities.

Of course, people have been attempting to wipe out members of other tribes or ethnic groups from the face of the earth for thousands upon thousands of years before Hitler decided to take a crack at it – and it sure hasn’t stopped in the modern world in the decades following his defeat. But what was really reinforced to me by coming to Auschwitz was how industrially precise this whole Nazi process of extermination was. The concentration camps weren’t just a way to murder millions of Jews, other civilians from occupied countries, prisoners of war and various other groups of ‘undesirables’, it was a whole production line that could be profited from, right down to the gold fillings in their victims’ teeth. Somehow this entirely calculated manufacturing of misery seems worse than random acts of violence.

  • Entry 3 of 9
  • Monday 18th July 2011
  • Krakow

We started our last full day in Krakow by checking out the incredibly impressive Wawel Castle, and then moved slightly out of the Old Town and into the Kazimierz district, the traditional Jewish quarter for six or so centuries before World War II. There was plenty of time to mull over the transition underway here like in much of the former Eastern Europe, with a trendy and offbeat little café providing lunch for us and shelter from a pretty concerted downpour, amongst an area of old synagogues and crumbling and occasionally abandoned apartment buildings.

Once the wet eased, the girls were keen to do some shopping. I stuck it out with them for as long as I could, before I left them to it and crossed the river into the Podgórze district. I wanted to see if I could find any evidence remaining of its wartime location as Krakow’s sealed Jewish ghetto, but it appears that those scars were hurriedly covered (mostly by necessity I assume) during the Communist era post war rebuilding of the decimated suburbs. Though the enamel factory of Oskar Schindler, made famous in the semi-biographical novel by Australian author Thomas Keneally (and of course the film by Steven Spielberg adapted from the book a decade later), is still standing out this way.

Returning to our room in the late afternoon we discovered that our checked-in baggage had finally arrived, two days after we had. Admittedly I had had a tight connection with Air Berlin, and there was no surprise when the bag did not appear on the arrivals carousel in Krakow. But at least, unlike those poor souls arriving by train to Auschwitz seventy years ago, the Germans responsible for our transportation did at least let us keep the possessions we brought to Poland with us.

Changing out of clothes worn for three days straight came as a great relief to me (who says grown men can always happily wallow in their own filth?), and after dinner my sister Carrie and I headed out to a laundromat with some of our more well worn articles. Now I’ve seen laundromats mixed with cafes in a few places before, but Krakow had the first laundromat/bar combo I’ve ever come across. And relaxing with a couple of beers and listening to some great music over the sound system that I didn’t particularly recognise, but enjoyed anyway, made for an unexpectedly fun Monday night out while waiting on my dirty ‘Reg Grundys’ to get a good rinse.

Carrie and I both thought the music was so good that on leaving we asked the girl behind the bar what was being played. To my abject horror, she said it was a Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack. My sense of caveman masculinity can handle feeling disgusting in clothes I’ve worn for three days. It will also allow a declaration that I enjoy watching Gilmore Girls with my wife because of its witty dialogue. But to blindly indulge and happily tap my feet to anything promoted by that soppy bastion of overwrought female-only melodrama that is Grey’s is just going beyond the pale. My manliness was shattered – the only thing worse could have been if the soundtrack was from Glee – and all my sister could do was point the laundry bag at me and laugh so hard I thought she would wet herself. And if that happened that would mean doing more laundry – and listening to more music “as seen on Grey’s Anatomy”.

It was now midnight, and I wandered around Krakow for the last time trying to tell myself it would be OK. But the Royal Route to Wawel Castle was so damn beautiful in the very still and balmy summer darkness and without the daytime crowds, that my final glimpses of this stunning city played out with an unrelenting accompaniment of Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars swirling around my head – just like an amped up, tear-jerking closing scene of a Grey’s Anatomy episode. And if that wasn’t cliché enough, the bittersweet goodbye was then completed with a sudden and almighty thunderstorm.

  • Entry 4 of 9
  • Tuesday 19th July 2011
  • Katowice – Bratislava

My masculinity was restored after sweltering on an overfull PKP regional train from Krakow that rarely seemed to move much faster than jogging pace, and then we had a little bit of time in Katowice to catch our breath before changing to a more modern and comfortable compartment on an inter-city express train.

With my sister into the second half of a two month European jaunt, this particular trip was designed by her as a comparison between the old Western Europe of Vienna and some former Eastern European cities that had been locked behind the Iron Curtain of Communism from the end of War World II until a few years after her birth. Though this whole East-West political divide has crumbled in our generation and the whole region is now broadly classified as Central Europe, I am still fascinated by the visible differences while some still remain. And Katowice, at the centre of a major southern Polish industrial zone, was a striking example of the transition – the railway station and dour city centre of trademark Communist era concrete was undergoing massive tracts of cosmetic surgery, the overwhelming grey steadily giving way to shiny new public developments of glass.

We were headed for the Slovakian capital Bratislava, and as the journey wore on our second train barrelled past countless cheerless hamlets, abandoned factories and tired-looking countryside in the far east of the Czech Republic. We were getting tired too, until we got off at Břeclav over ten minutes late, and then there was a sudden blood rush to the head as we scrambled to find the right platform for our last connection – and there was no other train in sight. But in the end there was nothing to worry about as our next train was running over twenty minutes late, giving Katie and I plenty of time to mull over the downside of living in Switzerland. We’ve become so accustomed to trains running like clockwork that we just can’t handle it when they don’t. I guess that means I can never move back to Sydney – CityRail would make my head explode.

  • Entry 5 of 9
  • Wednesday 20th July 2011
  • Bratislava – Vienna

I had spent an afternoon in the Slovakian capital back in 2006 and had found its own transformation quite compelling then. A lot of money was being poured in to finish some pretty extensive Old Town restorations, while the rest of the surrounding city was classic Eastern Bloc. On arrival the previous evening, the kilometre or so walk from the train station to our hotel along cracked footpaths and past some forbidding administrative buildings appeared to show that not much more had changed. Even our budget hotel was loudly and proudly of the former regime, a landmark 18 storey brutalist concrete tower with interiors unchanged since the Cold War era. It advertised a stay as a retro experience, and even had a Trabant – an East German car that was symbolic of the Soviet controlled countries during the Cold War – on display in the foyer.

Leaden skies that matched the colour of all the concrete threatened to derail our morning’s exploration, though, just as steady rain began to beat down, to the girls’ joy we managed to dash into a café/chocolate shop in the Old Town main square (Hlavné Námestie). And there, after they enjoyed chocolate fondue and I had a really nice pomegranate smoothie, came the first noticeable change since 2006 when it came to pay the bill – Slovakia was part of the Euro currency zone. I found that a little surprising, considering none of Slovakia’s larger (and presumably economically stronger) neighbours including Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary have yet done likewise.

Eventually it seemed like the rain was holding off, so we ventured back outside and continued exploring around the compact old centre. Despite being the principal city in Slovakia and a former capital of Hungary during the Habsburg Empire, to me its absence of ostentatious cathedrals or palaces made Bratislava feel more like a provincial city – and far smaller than its current population of almost half a million would ordinarily imply. And the views over the River Danube remain very mid-twentieth century, with the striking Communist era New Bridge (with its restaurant tower reminiscent of a UFO) and over to the identikit concrete apartment blocks of the southern suburbs.

The most obvious difference I found compared to five years ago was Bratislava Castle, where the exterior had been given a generous lick of white paint. Carrie and I climbed up the steps of the rocky outcrop to get a closer look, and we found further extensive renovations were ongoing both inside the castle and outside in the grounds. Eventually it will bring the castle, which had lay in total ruins for over 140 years after a fire in 1811, back to its baroque heyday as a favourite residence of Queen Marie-Therese of Austria. This presumably will really make it a landmark worth seeing – the Habsburg Empress was never short of splendid choices to bunk down in.

After a late lunch of potato pancakes stuffed with meat and vegetables in an Old Town restaurant recently kitted out under the low, curved brick ceiling of a centuries old cellar, we collected our things and set out for the easy 60km journey by an Austrian regional train to Vienna’s Südbahnhof.

The return to ‘Western’ Europe was immediately apparent. It wasn’t just the noise and hustle of a metropolis in peak hour. It wasn’t just the shinier and more modern cars and general feeling of established prosperity. What really hit me was the diversity of the people on the streets – Asians, Africans and a range of European ethnicities. A multicultural mix I’ve got used to taking for granted in my day to day life, but was suddenly noticeable after the overwhelmingly homogenous populations of Krakow and Bratislava.

Vienna also marked a change to our little touring party of three – we were now four. My mate Hoges had flown in from Australia earlier in the day, and it just happened to be his birthday. So it was off to Schwedenplatz for celebratory breaded schnitzels and beer.

  • Entry 6 of 9
  • Thursday 21th July 2011
  • Vienna

I really love Vienna, but today it wasn’t putting on its best face. What was a drizzle when we first went down into the U-Bahn was a downpour by the time we emerged into the elements at Stephansplatz. Katie and Carrie headed for the shops, while Hoges and I sought shelter somewhere else that didn’t involve browsing the latest fashions.

On a whim we dashed a few blocks to the Imperial Crypt, which proved to be far more then just a dry place to pass the time. And little did we know we’d be intrigued by fashions of a different kind. A hundred and fifty or so caskets house the remains of Austria’s ruling Habsburg dynasty and their descendants, arranged more or less by the year of death in a series of rooms under street level. The first bronze coffins from the early 1600’s were square and plain, though as times became more flamboyant (and the Habsburgs more influential) so too did the caskets. Those from the late 1600’s onwards are adorned with increasing amounts of artistic, macabre flourishes that give the tomb a pirate’s treasure cave kind of feel – bronze skulls wearing imperial crowns, roaring lions, muskets and swords, near naked baby cherubs with chubby bums – culminating in the behemoth 1.7 ton double resting place of Marie-Therese and her husband.

Caskets dating from closer to the 19th century became instantly plainer again, with a move away from bronze to stone, until the very latest descendants to have died – including one as late as 2011 – lay in coffins of wood.

The number of baby and child sized caskets was a stark reminder that being royalty was not enough to avoid high infant mortality rates. Squabble as we might over whether our health systems should be funded by taxes or by premiums to insurance companies, we really are fortunate with our healthcare in the developed world today, with regular pregnant mums and their little squirts standing a better chance of survival than even the most privileged of yesteryear.

After lunch (as neither a mum-to-be nor a kiddie any more, if ever I eat myself to the grave I’m sure it will be death by Wienerschnitzel and apple strudel), the rain held off enough to allow Carrie and Hoges to explore some of the architectural glories around the Hofburg Palace, Burgtheater and Rathaus.

Then a little further on we found ourselves in Sigmund Freud Park. At one edge of the open grassy space was a monument of a marble table and many chairs, which had me wildly guessing what abstract representations these had back to Freud’s ideas on dreams and psychoanalysis and all that other mental stuff. The real significance turned out to be far more rational and nothing at all to do with Freud – there was a chair for each country in the European Union. Though I dare say Freud, if the eccentric old coot was still alive today, could still tie the EU accord back to sex somehow.

Through the afternoon we soaked up the atmosphere (and yet more rain) at the international food and drink stalls in the Rathausplatz, set up as part of the Vienna Film Festival, and stayed on to eat dinner there too. The Israeli food Hoges and I chose certainly made for a big change to the stodgy Germanic and Eastern European fare. That the variety even existed here was yet another reminder we were in Western Europe.

  • Entry 7 of 9
  • Friday 22nd July 2011
  • Vienna

If there is one place that shows Vienna off as one Europe’s great empirical cities, I think it’s Schloss Schönbrunn. And it’s not just the size of the Habsburg’s palace (over 1,400 rooms of Baroque excess), there’s also the expansive public grounds behind it that really makes a statement. I had previously only seen a tiny fraction of the gardens, and so on this my third visit to Vienna (and third to the palace), was really hoping to explore a lot more.

We started out along the most popular route, from the colourful French garden immediately behind the palace down to the giant Neptune fountain. Then it was up the hill to the Gloriette, the royal take on an average backyard shed. Katie then took Hoges and Carrie to race their way through the giant maze, while I set out to escape the crowds and stumbled on the late 18th century reproduction of ancient Roman ruins. The Habsburgs appeared to love their theme park style recreations of idealised fake scenes at least a couple of centuries before Disney, who usually gets the blame for that kind of thing.

Unfortunately I didn’t get much further before, in the time it took for me to look skyward and mutter to myself “gee, it’s gonna belt down”, dark clouds billowed in and it started to absolutely pour. Finding cover was a particular challenge, especially when large groups of teenage Eastern Asian students in colourful costumes, who had been participating in some kind of outdoor musical concert, deserved to take shelter with their violins and other fine instruments more than we did.

At that point we gave up on Vienna and scrambled back to the U-Bahn, collected our things from the hotel and waited at the Westbahnhof for our train to Budapest. I can’t speak for the two first time visitors to Vienna in our little group, but even after three visits now I still left with the nagging belief that I have more to uncover here. And despite the ugly weather, it still remains one of my favourite European cities.

  • Entry 8 of 9
  • Saturday 23rd July 2011
  • Budapest

We had arrived in Budapest late the previous evening and, unlike Vienna, it had been dry and very warm. But our optimism for more agreeable sightseeing weather was dashed this morning by more grey clouds and patchy rain.

Gamely we set out from the Ninth District and walked along the Pest side of the Danube, across the Elizabeth Bridge and up through the Old Town to Buda Castle. A prolonged lunch ensued to wait out more steady rain, and with no end to the wet in sight we assessed our options for remaining dry. And thus we found our silver lining – if the weather hadn’t been so bad I dare say we’d never have ventured down into the depths of the Labyrinth under Buda Castle.

We were a little uncertain of exactly what the Labyrinth was supposed to be about, whether the sculptures of an outsized human head and horses and coke bottle fossils were some kind of serious art exhibition, or alternatively someone’s idea of a Monty Python style telling of an absurd history of the world. We were also bemused at its self proclaimed title as one of the “Seven Underground Wonders of the World” (who gets to vote on that? Worms, moles and wombats?). But what it did allow was public access to a large section of the creepy network of caves that have reputedly been used for military, storage or more nefarious purposes ever since the Middle Ages.

It was full of dark corners for crouching in and jumping out and trying to scare the wits out of each other. The kilometres of tunnels would make for an outstanding place to play laser tag or paintball, with landmarks like the “Renaissance Fountain of Wine” to capture or defend.

And then there was the challenge of following a rope handrail through one particular cavern that was completely dark, where the real challenge became trying to go through it without some party poopers ruining the experience by using their mobile phones as torches/flashlights. Unfortunately it seems like we weren’t the only visitors to escape the rain by coming underground, and our unanimous verdict was that it would have been so much more fun and atmospheric on a quieter (or sunnier) day. When we found out the Labyrinth was open twenty-four hours a day and our ticket was valid until the next morning, we made a mental note to possibly return later to venture down into the caverns without the daytime crowds.

Despite the unwelcome light in the dark labyrinth it still resulted in injuries – in our haste to explore the trail in the dark when the rare chance arose, I smacked into a protruding corner of stone with my forehead just near my right temple. And then, not long later, while attempting to go back to the start after catching up to more idiots shining lights ahead of us, I got a matching bump to the left side of my forehead.

Fortunately by the time we returned outside it had cleared a little (though I was seeing stars), and we took in the river views from the white stone ramparts of Fishermen’s Bastion behind Matthias Church. All of a sudden Budapest was starting to look as stunning as I remembered from a previous visit four years ago, and the outlook slowly continued to look ever more brighter.

Late in the afternoon we were back in Pest, and making our way along Váci utca, a lively pedestrianised commercial street of shopping centres and restaurants. By chance Katie saw a leaflet for a company offering Segway tours, including some at night-time. Segways seem to be the flavour of the month for tourist operators in Europe in the last couple of years, and Katie and Carrie had only recently loved their first Segway experience during a visit to Stockholm the week before. This was the first time any of us had seen night-time as an option, and it didn’t take long for the girls to talk Hoges and I into calling them to see if there was a tour running tonight.

A few phone calls and a hurried dinner later, we lobbed up at the address on the brochure just as it was getting dark to find out the four of us had just scored our very own private tour. The young bloke leading us didn’t seem to mind he had been recalled back to work at short notice, and he also seemed quite happy that we didn’t want his tour guide spiel at any of the landmarks we visited. What we then got was more than we had hoped – in return for wearing a dorky helmet and high visibility fluoro vest, once Hoges and I had acquired our Segway legs we scored nearly three hours of hooning around the river and streets of central Budapest almost at will. We crossed the stunningly illuminated Liberty and Chain Bridges, tackled the slopes and occasional steps of the footpath on Gellért Hill, trawled through the modern fountain of a city square, and sped through the aroma of beer and marijuana and the tinny sounds of dance music emanating from mobile phone speakers of an exuberant Saturday night teenage gathering in a park.

I doubt we could have attracted more attention from startled onlookers if we were running through the city stark naked or doing blockies in a Bugatti Veyron – though the real show-stealer was another tour employee accompanying us dressed in a Superman costume, riding a Segway without handlebars and handing out more flyers of the type Katie had first seen. Katie and Carrie rode their Segways like seasoned pros, while Hoges and I both fell off our Segways a couple of times attempting burn outs (though extra kudos to Hoges for at least getting some tire squeal on his regular mount, as well as quickly getting the hang of Superman’s hands-free model as well).

Around midnight we were back at our hotel and the girls called it a night. Meanwhile, Hoges and I retired around the corner to a tiny and friendly neighbourhood pub where we had also had a couple of beers the night before, and tonight I introduced him to the Hungarian spirit Unicum. At 2:30am the pub closed, and at that time of the morning it seemed like a great idea to return to the Labyrinth. Hoges and I took a cab back across the Danube to the Old Town, whereupon we found the stairway down to the Labyrinth lit up, but the iron gate at street level was locked. There was a second entrance somewhere at the base of the Castle Hill but, without an address or a map, the chances of finding it were slim. We looked around for a while but eventually gave up, hailing another cab to take us back to our digs before we could play juvenile war games. But at least I was saved from the trauma of thumping my head for a third (or fourth) time.

And alas, it seems like that was our last chance of ever going to the Labyrinth. It appears, if the unreliable world of the Interwebs can be trusted, that a week later the local constabulary swooped, and for unknown reasons forcibly shut the place down.

  • Entry 9 of 9
  • Sunday 24th July 2011
  • Budapest

On our last day before flying back to Switzerland we all split up. Katie and Carrie hit the shops (again), Hoges headed out to the Communist Statue Park, while I went down to the nearest Metro station. After getting confused by some signage announcing the station I entered was called Corvin-negyed, whilst others said Ferenc körút, I managed to finally get my bearings and took the typical Communist era underground Blue line for a few stops. Then I transferred to the historic Yellow line, where much shorter tram sized trains ran along the second oldest underground railway in the world.

I crossed through Heroes’ Square with its colossal statues and into City Park, where Vajdahunyad Castle lorded over a large pond filled with exhibits of modern art. Though the castle itself looks like it could have been there for over 500 years (and the steel cables preventing the tower from toppling into the courtyard certainly help to give that impression), it is in fact younger than the Metro line that runs underneath it.

And that’s the thing that is funny about Budapest. It’s been continuously settled since the time of the Celts and the Romans, and the mighty Ottomans had a few centuries to leave their imprint. There are enough landmarks, particularly along the Danube, that define it as the centre of a gloriously prosperous kingdom that compares pretty well with the grandeur of Krakow and Vienna. And yet, great riches and power really only came in the late 1800’s, once a weakening Austria released its grip and allowed relative autonomy under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the previously separate towns of Buda and Pest were unified into one city. Budapest is the Nouveau Riche of the Old World.

Walking back through the Pest inner-city, I had the time to notice street after street of grand facades and little artistic flourishes that have been masked by decades of untouched dust and grime. It’s fortunate that in the aftermath of the Second World War the city has escaped most of the drab concrete Communist makeovers that scar so much of the former Eastern Europe. And I’m glad to have been able to return to Budapest before the European Union has completely sterilised it. Four years ago I remarked that Budapest “felt honest, real and lived-in”. I couldn’t agree with me more.


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