If I had to pick just one city we visited during our 2 weeks in Eastern and Central Europe that I would want to live in it would probably be Bratislava – a quaint old town with sidewalk cafés and art shops, a booming economy, a cool vibe.
The city of Bratislava has been an important center for a number of different nation-states throughout history – during the medieval Great Moravia, a former capital of the Kingdom of Hungary, a major city in Czechoslovakia, and now the capital of Slovakia.
While in Bratislava, we sampled the local café specialty – hot chocolate. If you’ve never had European hot chocolate before, you’re missing out. There’s no powdered formula to speak of, just melted chocolate mixed with milk and heavy cream.
It was delicious paired with this freshly-baked apple strudel.
Just 35 miles upriver from Bratislava is Vienna, Austria.
The final evening of our trip we attended a classical music concert at Palais Auersperg in Vienna. The concert, given by the Vienna Residence Orchestra, featured the works of Mozart and Strauss. While the music was exceptional, it was extra special because Mozart had actual performed original works in the palace in the late 18th century for Queen Maria Theresia.
Our first stop in Hungary was the city of Pécs, a former European Capital of Culture and one of the most diverse cities in Hungary.
In addition to brilliant architecture, one of the most interesting aspects of the city was thousands of locks that had been publicly placed on designated areas. According to tradition, couples who place a lock together will have their love sealed as long as the lock remains closed.
We then spent several days in Budapest, the largest city on the Danube. (Side note: The hilltop statue in the backdrop of some of these pictures is Budapest’s Liberty Statue. It was erected in 1945 to honor the Soviets for liberating Hungary from Nazi occupation and its inscription originally read, “To the memory of the liberating Soviet heroes [erected by] the grateful Hungarian people [in] 1945.” However, as the Soviets overstayed their welcome until 1989, and as resentment over Communist rule grew, the inscription was changed to now read, “To the memory of those all who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.”
One of the highlights of our time in Budapest was a visit to the House of Terror. The building was the former headquarters of the German-led Nazis and later the Soviet-led Communists during their respective occupations of Hungary. Many view Hungary as the most liberal and resistant of the former Communist countries, and in 1956 Hungarians tried unsuccessfully to overview the Communist regime. The museum also serves as a memorial to the victims who were detained, interrogated, tortured or killed within the building. Although much of the exhibits are in Hungarian only, sometimes images speak louder than words. (Side note: Photography was not allowed inside the museum, so pictures are only of the exterior).
As beautiful as Budapest is during the day, it is even more stunning at night.
A portion of the border between Serbia and Romania is a narrow gorge on the Danube River aptly named the Iron Gates. When travelling upstream, boats must pass through a series of locks associated with Djerdap Dam, which were only built in the 1970s and 1980s. A thick layer of fog when we passed through the first lock at 2 AM added to the eeriness. As we were stuck in the second lock for several hours, we were especially fortunate that an earthquake didn’t hit, as we’d have no place to go.
This rock sculpture was etched between 1994 and 2004. Not an easy feat!
The Mraconia Monastery had to be rebuilt when the dam was constructed because the original 15th century building was now underwater.
In one of the narrowest passages in the gorge, the Carpathian Mountains in Romania are on the left and the Balkan Mountains in Serbia are on the right.
After a day on the river, we docked in Belgrade, Serbia.
We paid a visit to Kalemegdan Fortress, which was built in the 6th century.
The top of the fortress offered some of the best views of the city, at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers.
We only saw a handful of Syrian refugees the entire time we were in Eastern Europe. At a park adjacent to the central bus station in Belgrade, a few trailers had been set-up to welcome refugees on their first stopover from the Middle East.
From Belgrade we drove north to the village of Jarak for a Serbian-style feast. Four generations of the same family live on this farm, and they welcomed us the traditional way, with fresh baked bread dipped in salt…
…and shots of homemade slivovitz (plum brandy), which is over 100 proof. This “rocket fuel” is supposed to stimulate your appetite.
The family had converted part of their home into a restaurant for tourists. Lunch featured tons of fresh veggies grown on the farm, cheese-filled pastries, cassoulet, and goulash. It was delicious!
The family patriarch, who is well into his 80s, made sure everyone had plenty of slivovitz to drink. You could tell that he loved entertaining guests.
After filling our bellies, we wandered around the farm.
The next morning we travelled further north to Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city and a major university and cultural center.
Heading west into Croatia was a rather sobering experience. Here we visited the small city of Vukovar, the site of Europe’s worst siege since World War II. 90% of the city was damaged by the Yugoslav military in the early 1990s during the Croatian War for Independence. While some of the city has been rebuilt, a number of buildings, including this watchtower, have been left bullet-ridden, bombed out, and/or in ruins as a memorial to the past.
According to our guide, the town has over 30% unemployment and many young people have migrated to Ireland for better prospects. Yet she seemed optimistic about the future, and spoke with great pride in her city and country.
Bucharest, like many cities in Eastern Europe, is a mix of old and new. Much of the cities were largely destroyed during decades of war in the 20th century. In some instances, war-torn buildings have been rebuilt, but oftentimes the ruins are left as haunting reminders of the past. The hotel we stayed at on our first night in Romania is the perfect example of this juxtaposition – the ruins of a bombed out theatre served as the entrance, with a modern-day skyscraper built to accommodate hundreds of guests.
While we didn’t have a room with a view, the hotel was located in the heart of the city.
As I learned during my 2 weeks in Eastern Europe, the region is home to the “world’s second largest” of many things. Here’s the People’s Palace, perhaps one of the most beautiful buildings erected by Romania’s Communist dictatorship, which is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon.
Romania is divided into 3 regions – Wallachia in the south, Moldavia in the east, and Transylvania in the north. After recovering from jet lag in Bucharest, we headed north to Transylvania. Along the way, we stopped to visit Peleş Castle, former summer residence of the Romanian royal family.
Our next 2 nights were spent in Braşov, one of the largest cities in Transylvania.
Here’s the view from our hotel room.
The highlight of our visit to Transylvania was a visit to Bran Castle, commonly referred to as Dracula’s Castle.
To be fair, dozens of rulers have lived in this castle since its 14th century construction. Vlad the Impaler and his father Vlad Dracul probably stayed there at some point during the 15th century, although neither of them played a significant role in the history of the castle.
Much of the castle is decorated in early 20th century décor, when Queen Marie lived there.
She loved the castle so much, that for a time her heart was buried within its walls. While her heart now resides in a museum in Bucharest, its original coffin is still at Bran.
Bran Castle, while still owned by the Romanian royal family, now largely serves as a museum – partly to dispel the vampire mythology associated with Vlad the Impaler. While historical accounts do suggest Vlad impaled many of his victims (causing them to bleed out to a slow, painful death), and even nailed helmets to the heads of those who crossed him, most Romanians I talked to consider him to be a national hero. His brutal deeds were largely targeted toward the encroaching occupation of the Ottoman Empire into region, not just senseless, random killings. The real vampire, according to the Romanians, is the 16th century Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory.
At Bran Castle, there’s also a small display of medieval torture instruments. This scale was used to determine if a woman was a witch. The accusers would guess the woman’s weight and add stones and a Bible to one side of the scale to equal their guess. The accused would sit on the opposite side, and if she was found to be lighter than the stones and Bible she was confirmed guilty.
Following our time in Transylvania, we headed south to Giurgiu to board Der Kleine Prince for a 10-day cruise on the Danube River.
Our first stop on the cruise was Vidin, Bulgaria, which we enjoyed exploring on foot.
The visit to Bulgaria culminated in a visit to the 10th century medieval fortress Baba Vidin.