This column was published in the Rapid City Journal on June 14, 2009
Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna
Three capitols, three currencies, three languages, three days. Don’t try this by yourself unless you’re a multilingual math whiz with a lead foot. Each city deserves a much longer visit, but in our attempt to recreate “The Grand Tour” itineraries of Byron, Boswell, Twain and others, we realized we had to step up the pace. So, here’s a quick rundown of three grand destinations.
Budapest, one of the loveliest and liveliest of East (or Central – we’ve argued about this for hours) European cities is my new favorite. Divided by the graceful Danube, Buda and Pest try to outdo each other in architecture and culture – with Pest being the more modern of the two. Scenes not to be missed are: St. Stephen’s Basilica with his 1000 year old clenched and mummified hand; Heroes Square with its severe stone tributes to mounted conquerors that will inspire you to behave for years to come; the lush and exotic Turkish Baths where you can play a game of floating chess while coming clean and the funicular to Buda castle – a ride that’s about as long and exciting as a trip up a stepladder. Eat at BOB for the best veal paprikash on the planet. And take the river cruise.
You’d have to go out of your way to miss Bratislava if you’re traveling from Budapest to Vienna and my advice is: don’t. An afternoon in this welcoming, accessible capitol feels like time spent with a dear and funny friend. Around town on a Saturday, young dance troupes and musicians from Poland, Russia and all regions of the Slovak Republic perform on a makeshift stage in front of the American Embassy. Spontaneous a capella song breaks out in front of a jumping tavern by handsome young men lifting steins of beer (the professionalism of the singers makes me suspect the University men’s chorus). Newly married couples stroll the winding lanes and pose for pictures surrounded by little girls with plaited hair and matching ribbons. Playful sculptures and street performers make leisurely Saturday crowds pause and laugh. We were charmed and a little infatuated. We will see Bratislava again.
Lastly, enchanting Vienna. Full disclosure: we’ve spent time in Vienna in the past, so please don’t think we’re shirking our Austro-Hungarian responsibilities. This trip, we finally score tickets to see the Vienna Boys Choir on its home turf. The King’s Chapel is small and sold out; the crowds are early and aggressive. Eagerly clutching our 5 Euro tickets (if you’re rolling in dough, you can spend up to 60 Euros) we ascend to the 2nd floor gallery, having been warned that we won’t be able to see the choir, but we would hear them (and could watch them on a large video screen). Interestingly, no matter how much you pay, (or plead), you won’t see the Vienna Boys Choir at all until Mass is over. First of all, the choir is larded with men (whose big, resonant voices nearly drown out the angelic sopranos), and second, they sing in the back of the chapel on a balcony SO elevated that oxygen masks drop from the ceiling in the event of emergency. You would have to be a contortionist with a spyglass to see them. After Mass, the boys do descend from their aerie and sing one short burst of a song at the altar, but that’s it. (We still couldn’t see them, but other tourists gave NFL-worthy performances of pushing reserved seat holders aside for a glimpse.) Other highlights: the Imperial Palace and Ecclesiastical Treasures (those Hapsburgs were upscale pack rats), the Parliament building, the Opera, the Strauss memorial and the Sacher Torte, served at the Hotel Sacher since 1832. I’m no food critic, but even 177-year-old torte shouldn’t be that dry. Ask for extra whipped cream. Next week: Krakow!
Note: The Vienna Boys Choir sings at the 9:15 AM Mass nearly every Sunday at the King’s Chapel in the Imperial Palace. Reservations are recommended. Be prepared – the service is celebrated in German and Latin and lasts over 2 hours. The boys are available for photos in the courtyard, so everyone ultimately gets to see them. Afterward, rush to the nearest Wurstlstand and buy a Leberkase sandwich