Prior to last week, the only experience that I had with Eastern Europe was traveling to the Czech Republic and Turkey. It seems as though most of the major touristy sites are further west, and I've spent most of my traveling days in France, Germany, Benelux, and Italia. So we decided about a year ago that we wanted to focus more of our time behind the former Iron Curtain, which brought us to Berlin and Prague last year, and, with this last trip, Hungary and Slovakia. We also slipped Vienna into this trip, and were surprised to learn that it is actually further east than Prague.
I think it's important to point out that many of the countries that Americans would consider Eastern Europe, do not self identify as such. They call themselves Central Europe, which is certainly fair. I think there's a resistance in many of these places to want to be identified as Eastern, knowing that Russia is what most people associate with that part of the world.
However, while there are vestiges of the damages done by the Communist reign from 1945 to the early 90s in both Bratislava, Slovakia and Budapest, Hungary, we were incredibly charmed by both, and it has inspired my personal mission to encourage as many people as possible to visit Budapest, in particular. It is truly an hidden gem--and wildly affordable.
>After a long driving day, we arrived at our temporary apartment in Vienna, about a five minute walk from St. Stephen's Cathedral. It had taken about 10 hours to get there, but with all of the stuff we have to cart around with us when we travel, it's typically just easier to drive places when possible. We also almost always stay in apartments so that we have a kitchen, and a separate room to put the girls in at night so Colby and I don't have to go to bed at 7 pm as well! We can almost always find a two bedroom apartment with a full kitchen and bathroom for around the price of a mid-range hotel room. It's a really great way to travel when you've got kids--though I do miss housekeeping and room service!
So, we kicked off our Vienna sightseeing with a visit to St. Stephen's Cathedral followed up with the Rick Steves self-guided city walks. I loooooove traveling with Uncle Rick, and his walks are always really interesting and informative. After a stop at a Starbucks where I spilled a Grande mocha all over Annabelle and her preciousssss blankie, we decided to head back to the apartment so the girls could take a nap. Later that night we hit a yummy sushi restaurant where we discovered that Charlotte can't get enough duck and fried spring rolls, then visited the Haus der Musik. It was a really cool, interactive museum that focused on sound, music and the famous classic musicians that spent time in Vienna, including good old Wolfgang M. of course.
Day two consisted of a fairly stressful visit to the Vienna Opera House (we couldn't use the strollers, Annabelle DID NOT want to be carried, and I spent the last part of the tour back in the lobby letting her play on the stairs--another kid traveling tip, gotta be flexible!) and then a tour of the Hofburg Imperial Apartments, which also included a fascinating exhibit on the intriguing and enigmatic "Sisi", Empress Elizabeth of Austria. The part of the Opera tour that I did get to enjoy included a sneak peak at the debutantes practicing their dancing for the big Viennese Opera Ball and the tear down and set up of the theater to put in a dance floor. We wrapped up a day with a walk around the Volksgarten, which gave us a lovely view of Vienna's imposing, pointy-spired Rathaus.
On day three, we made the one hour drive to Bratislava, Slovakia. It's a fairly small city, so a few hours was all we needed, but we enjoyed our time there, once again, guided by Rick Steves. There is a long history of war and oppression in Slovakia from Napoleon to the Nazis and the Soviets, but through it all, they managed to maintain and lovingly restore a very charming historic district and in a bid to draw in more tourists, installed a number of quirky statues throughout the downtown.
We enjoyed wandering the city and walking along the Danube, and had a delicious lunch of Slovakian cuisine--the highlight was the carmelised pear with sheep's cheese... my mouth is watering! Even Hans Christian Andersen evidently enjoyed a visit to the town, as memorialized with a statue in his honor. We didn't make it up to the castle, but it did make for an imposing fortress up on the hill, overlooking the city.
The next morning, we packed our wagon and set off for Budapest... more on that next time!