Contrasting the historical sights of Prague and Budapest

This article appears on page 6 of the November 2009 issue.
View of Budapest’s Chain Bridge, the first permanent link between Buda and Pest.

by Bill & Betty Reed, Denton, Texas

My wife, Betty, enjoys reading travel books and is the brains behind our adventures. So far, she has done very well.

Betty is a school nurse and is, therefore, limited not only in the number of days she can take off but in when she can take them. For 2009 we decided that a trip to Prague and Budapest would fit nicely into our week off for spring break.

Beginning in Prague

Prague is a beautiful city, and several times during our visit we had to tell ourselves we were not on some medieval movie set but in a living city that had been there for well over a thousand years. The streets were the same ones carts were pushed down and goods were sold on when the world was only lit by fire — no streetlights, no lit shop windows, no flashing neon lights to tell you their goods were better than those at the shop next door, just fire.

Hurdy-gurdy street musician in Prague.

As I walked down the streets, I tried to put myself in the position of the countless numbers of people who had gone before. I wondered what life was like there a thousand years ago when somebody placed the corner stones of the buildings that were sheltering me from the cold wind and light rain.

One of the problems of going to Prague in the middle of March is it is cold, really cold by Texas standards. The temperature was around 40°F, with a strong wind and rain lightly falling intermittently throughout the day. The official tourist season does not start until the first of April, and the locals we talked to said June through September was the best time to visit, weatherwise.

For us, March was good. Certainly there were tourists, but I could only imagine how many there must be in June.

Our travel books seemed to dwell on the danger of pickpockets and other people intending to take advantage of visitors one way or another — “Don’t ride the 119 bus into Prague because of the pickpockets.” We rode the bus — not a hint of any problems. “Watch yourself in a crowd.” Well, that goes for just about any big city you’re in. We were in crowds and had no problem.

Exploring the city

We took a river tour and were the only passengers on the boat. To me, it was worth the cold wind in my face and having fingers a little stiffened when I reached for the zipper of my coat.

Because there were not many tourists, we didn’t have to wait to get into any of the points of interest we wanted to see. These points are all the ones better written about in guidebooks, so I will not go into them here. It would be a recitation of this cathedral, that exhibit — a history lesson of the area — but I don’t think that is what you want to hear. It certainly is not what I want to tell you about.

Prague’s Old Town Square at night.

I want to talk about the magic of being in a city that was there when much of the population still thought the world was flat. The New World did not exist, and the sun revolved around us guided by some unseen hand.

It was a world with little effective medicine, mind-numbing work and women who would likely be buried in the shrouds they were married in as a result of the dangers of childbirth. It was a world completely apart from the one in which we live now.

Today I turn on my computer and am slightly annoyed that I don’t have access to the entire world of the Internet in a matter of two or three seconds; this time, it took at least 10 to connect. Then I think of the man sitting at a wooden table with a hammer and chisel slowly working a stone for a cathedral that would not be finished for five more generations. Workers’ families would be born, grow up, have kids of their own and die, and the cathedral and its stones would not yet be finished, and I’m worrying about eight lost seconds.

Sitting on a bench in Prague, I was not thinking about my lost eight seconds but of the thousands of hours that went into fashioning the stones at which I was gazing, about how much I appreciated their work for its beauty as much as how it served as a testament to their tenacity.

We also visited Prague’s Jewish Quarter, where the tale of man’s inhumanity to man was written in plain text. One thing I took away from this trip is that conflict seems to be constant. Peace, it seems, was as elusive then as it is now.

A few recommendations

We stayed at the Elysee Hotel on Wenceslaus Square. It was a nice, clean hotel and its location is central enough for just about everything you will want to see on a 2- to 3-day visit by foot. I would recommend it.

St. Vitus Cathedral as seen from atop one of the towers on Prague’s Charles Bridge.

A somewhat touristy place to eat, Hotel U Prince, is located across from the bell tower in the square. Go to the sixth floor at dusk and watch the lights of the city turn on. The castle is beautiful from that vantage point. We did not pay more (or less) for our food there than elsewhere (about $40 for two) and the view was free.

On the way to the castle, itself, we stopped at a store that specializes in products made in the Czech Republic. It was evident by how enthusiastically the man who ran the place explained how the toys were made and what they represented that he was proud of his country and the products he was selling. He showed us which ones were handmade and which ones (very similar) were made in factories.

We bought the handmade ones, where the brush strokes were not as straight and the faces had different expressions. We paid a little more but not enough to make a difference.

I realize that those who grew up speaking the Czech language are comfortable with it, but for me it was virtually impossible to read or pronounce. However, every time I tried, the response from those who really knew the language was always a smile and a nod of the head. They seemed to appreciate my attempts, and I certainly appreciated their understanding of my inabilities.

Rick Steves recommended going to the castle on one day and the Jewish Quarter the next if you have only two days in Prague. This is what we did, and I have to agree that it was a good choice. With the time left over, we visited churches in town and just wandered around looking in the shops.

Even if you just spend your time wandering its streets, Prague is a good place to visit.

On to Budapest

The morning of our third day in Prague, we boarded a train to Budapest. We chose the first-class reserved seats ($10 extra) and were happy we did. The car was only half full and right next to the dining car.

Interior of St. Vitus Cathedral.

The food was good and as expensive as one would expect on the rails. Even so, it was nice to sit there, eat our meal and look at the countryside slip by.

It was after dark when we arrived in Budapest and we thought that might make getting to our hotel difficult. It did not. The Hotel Astoria, conveniently located about 30 feet from the Astoria exit on the Metro, was very nice, and the next morning’s breakfast was good. I would recommend this hotel.

Budapest is a more modern city than Prague. The wide streets are jammed with traffic, emergency sirens are heard fairly frequently (almost never in Prague) and the popular sites are farther apart. Despite the distance, for the most part, they are still within walking distance.

Unlike in Prague, which suffered only minimal damage, many of the buildings in Budapest were destroyed during WWII. Although it has been rebuilt, it does not have the charm of Prague and the main attractions are generally only a few hundred years old as opposed to many hundreds of years old.

In both cities, it was the architecture that I found most impressive, and Budapest’s main city hall and government offices, high on a hill across the Danube, are both remarkable.

Probably the greatest standout is St. Stephen’s Basilica. The church is impressive on the outside but will take your breath away as soon as you pass through its doors. The gilded cherubs, chandeliers, statues, stained-glass windows, ceiling and even the floor are beautiful. I am not a religious person, but this church did lift my soul. It is truly a beautiful place.

Sobering exhibits

Betty getting ready to hold this large bird of prey — Buda Castle area.

Our next stop was the House of Terror Museum (Andrássy ut 60), a place probably everyone should see. If we are ever to change anything (or prevent it in the future), we need to know what happened in the past.

I had no idea that the Hungarian people had been through so much and so recently. I remember some of what happened having made the headlines in the paper we got as kids, but I didn’t fully comprehend what was actually happening overseas to people like you and me. I think I understand a little better now. As we left the exhibits and walked back toward our hotel, I looked at the faces of the old men we passed a little differently than before.

Budapest was cold, if not colder than Prague. It snowed on us during both days of our visit, and a fierce wind drove the cold through our jackets and the layers underneath to, finally, our very bones. The snow, however, was better to walk in than the rain, so we did not complain (well, maybe a little).

Shopping street

On the last day, as we headed back to our hotel, we took a second trip down Váci Utca, the main shopping street — not to be confused with Váci Ut; these are different places. (Utca means street and ut means avenue.) If you go knowing this one detail, it may save you a lot of walking.

Prague’s Old Town Square was a nice place to walk through, and we returned there several times during our stay in the city.

Váci Utca is full of shops, restaurants and bars, with the shops on one end and the bars at the other. At the shop end, there were 30 to 40 little wooden stalls set up selling, for the most part, items tourists would want. The rest were selling food. We bought a little of both.

For a treat, we bought a pastry thing which consisted of a chocolate filling rolled up into something that looked like a big Cuban cigar. We each ate one, then decided we needed to try what was essentially a thin roll of dough cooked over a bed of charcoal and rolled in cinnamon and sugar. It was about 1½ feet long and fed both of us for the next three blocks.

Wrapping up

On our third day in Budapest, we arranged, through the hotel, for a taxi to the airport. We were charged a flat fee of 5,500 forint (about $30) for the trip. We’d recommend booking through your hotel because even the natives say the taxi drivers are, as they called them, “sharks.”

After two days, we were ready to leave. Budapest is a pretty city but, for us, it did not have attractions equal to those of Prague. However, it was certainly worth seeing.

We booked our trip through (Bothell, WA; 800/227-3235). Our trip cost $3,802 for the two of us, including round-trip air from Dallas.