After a 30-year absence, it may be dangerous to revisit a place filled with special memories. Maybe the buildings will not be as majestic as I remembered, maybe the food not as good, maybe the delicate atmosphere of places cherishing an imperial past while looking toward a hopeful future is gone. Maybe I just won’t like it and all my cherished memories will be destroyed. I thought about all these things in planning a return trip to central Europe.
The world, my world of travel, was different 30 years ago. Then I was a budget traveler, staying in apartments, depending on local contacts made the old-fashioned way by way of preparation—writing letters that took days or weeks to arrive. Now I am traveling in style, on a luxurious river boat cruise, instant communication held in my hand. Has everything else changed?
It has not. The wide majestic boulevards of Budapest are still lined with imposing 19th century buildings—many cleaner and more maintained than 30 years ago when the city was emerging from its Soviet domination. Andrassy street is now full of elegant designer shops, like a Budapest Fifth Avenue. The Opera House is still spectacular, boasting an elaborately painted interior even larger than the Vienna Opera House on which it is modeled. Most importantly for me—the adorable little Muzak Café across from the opera house is still there, its little tables and high ceiling walls reminiscent of an earlier, elegant past. Reminding me of the special feeling I had sitting there with my proper coffee and pastry thirty years ago.
Long considered the most important city along the Danube, the people of Budapest have always been proud and protective of their city. After the horrific destruction of WWII, residents worked to restore the city as it had been. The occasional ugly 1960’s Soviet era building stands out for its inappropriateness to everything else.
What would Budapest be without famous Hungarian goulash and strudel? I’ll leave the discussion of Hungarian vs Czech goulash to a later analysis, only saying everything we ate was delicious. Undoubtedly our impressions were influenced by finding the appropriately named Strudel House on drizzly night after a long day of travel. Dinner started and ended with different strudels, with goulash in between.
The buildings are still magnificent, the food filling and satisfying, but it was our hotel that reminded me of old Budapest and all the wonderful people I met long ago. The Aurea Ana Palace hotel was built to honor the glory of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The ballroom, now the high-ceiling restaurant where we ate, has walls still covered by the coat of arms from members of the Empire. The balcony from where the Emperor and Empress could observe their loyal subjects, is still there, with “1895” in large gold letters. Eating breakfast, I could imagine the room outfitted for a ball of the selected elite.
All the cities I revisited sailing along the Danube brought back similar memories—none tarnished by time. Vienna had more multi-national commerce than I remembered, the streets leading to and from St Stephen’s cathedral lined with today’s high-end recognizable brands. But my old ice cream shop is still there. The outdoor cafes have more tourist standard menus, but you can still stop and sip an afternoon beverage while watching the world stroll by on a sunny afternoon.
And then there is magical Prague. It is a city almost too beautiful to be real. Wide boulevards, splendid Art Deco buildings, winding streets filled with little shops and cafes. Topping it is the glorious Charles Bridge, the symbol of Prague. From its beginning in 1357 the bridge has been a symbol of Prague, its statutes sources of legends. Place your fingers on the five points of the bronze cross on the bridge and make a wish. Have a toast under the bridge with friends, new and old, and know you will want to return. Cross the bridge into the lesser town and get lost in the winding little streets. Getting lost is a convenient excuse for another cappuccino or glass of wine in a sidewalk café.
But be sure and make it to the old town square at the top of the hour to watch the magnificent, multi-storied clock as it creates the show of rotating figures. Forget about your digital watch—this 14th century masterpiece continues to keep perfect time without modern enhancements.
No trip to Prague is complete without Wenceslas square. The historic square has witnessed all of history, from the old empires to the Nazi invasion to the Soviet occupation and now to major reconstruction. The crowning glory at the top, fronted by a statue of the beloved King Wencenslas, is the extensive National Museum with more history, archeology, and art that can be seen in one day. A necessary break must be why they added the lovely café.
Above all, Prague is a city that exudes music. Dvorak and Smetana are favorite sons. Mozart loved the city and composed here his famous opera, Don Giovanni. There is Mozart Hall, Smetana Hall, Dvorak Hall, and many other venues where you can hear the old masters, and some new ones. Concerts in Prague are some of my most cherished memories from years ago. That meant the perfect way to end this return trip was dinner in the elegant restaurant adjacent to the Art Nouveau Municipal House, watching patrons dressed for the evening performance in Smetana Hall. I wanted to join them, but it was time to pack and get ready to leave my beloved Prague. Hopefully not for the last time. I still want to visit that little shop behind the Powder Tower in case those Bohemian crystal vases are still available, and to catch another performance in this city that will always be special to me.
Donna Zabel, owner of DreamMaker Destinations, has been helping travelers turn their travel dreams into travel reality for over 20 years. Having explored all seven continents and over 135 countries, she enjoys sharing her travel tales and encourages everyone to find their own story to tell.