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Charming central Europe

October 28, 2013 Destination Global, Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59Central European countries of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary are part of a single civilization sharing cultural and intellectual values and common roots in diverse religious traditions.  Tour of this quartet is an intriguing discovery of the lesser known European region.

The region was well developed, evolved in art, culture and architecture and was progressive during the medieval times. Their richness attracted other empires to invade and occupy. It was at the centre of the battle ground during World War II that devastated human life and faith. Recent return to democracy has brought a new hope and efforts for progress back on track.

We began our tour from Krakow, the cultural capital of Poland.

Krakow

Krakow, the capital of Malopolska region of Poland is a medieval marvel that is fast developing into a modern city since its return to democracy.

Rynek Glowny (Market Square)

Early morning sunrays on the main market building shone its magnificence amidst the sprawling city centre that makes it the biggest medieval square in Europe. A street vendor at the corner sold pretzels and bagels from his glass showcase to a few early risers walking to their work.

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The prominent building situated by the market’s northwest corner is the soaring Gothic St. Mary’s Basilica with two uneven tall towers. Climbing the tallest tower offers the bird’s eye-view of Krakow. The guard up there plays the Cracovian hymn ‘heynal’ every hour. Sukiennice cloth hall is the medieval now brimming with souvenir shops. A new underground museum depicts the story of the ancient square using modern technology. Ironically, the square was named Adolf Hitler Platz in September 1940 to celebrate the first anniversary of Nazis occupation of Poland and was changed back after the war ended.

Wowel castle and old town

Past the traditionally dressed royal guard, it’s a majestic walk up the hill to the Wawel Castle overlooking the Krakow Old Town.  Wawel has a Gothic cathedral, royal graves, and the royal castle with beautiful renaissance style arcaded courtyard. Old town and Wowel were on the first list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites when the prestigious list was launched in 1978.

In the same year, Krakow’s archbishop, Karol Wojtyla, was elevated to the papacy as John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

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Kazimierz

District of Kazimierz consists of the former Jewish town that was a major Jewish cultural and religious center for many centuries. The renaissance Old Synagogue was completely devastated and ransacked during World War II. The synagogue is now converted into a Jewish Museum.  There is a memorial for the 65,000 Jews killed by the Nazis and an active synagogue at the other corner of the square. Buzzing Jewish restaurants and their side cafes are a result of the Polish government’s handing back of properties to Jewish claimants a few years ago.

Czech Republic

A train from Krakow took us to Voloumac, the historic education city of Czech Republic. Voloumac has been capital city of culturally rich Moravia in the past. It has the ancient university, the philharmonic, numerous museums, theatres and clubs that attract youth from UK and Germany for weekends

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The city’s historical centre has a 32 meter high column of the Holy Trinity- a UNESCO monument, many Baroque fountains and a medieval astronomical clock in the façade of the Town Hall. We dared the 140 steep wood stairs of the Town Hall for an aerial view of the quiet town. Vintage car and bike owners had lined up for a show-ride at the square.

Prague

Another train journey of four hours through natural landscapes reached us to Prague, the beautiful capital city of Czech Republic. Spared during World War II, Prague is among the old continent’s best preserved historic capitals- an array of medieval spires, stately cupolas, ornate facades and inspired modernism. The city spread on both sides of Vlatava river banks is connected by graceful bridges and has a backdrop of verdant hills. It is certainly one of the most beautiful cities and a photographers dream. Whiling away an hour or two on Charles Bridge is a cherished memory.

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Easy to discover

Prague’s compact size makes it easy to navigate on foot. Most monuments are within sight of each other and simply walking around is an absorbing experience thanks to the wealth of architectural detail and lovely vistas at every step. Prague has treasures of nearly all major architectural style. Art nouveau, Cubism and Functionalism punctuates its majestic Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles.

Other than the touristy old Town Hall and its astronomical clock with the apostles’ parade at the strike of every hour, Municipal House is a splendid Art Nouveau edifice. Walking under the Mihika Powder Tower next to it gives a rear sense of being part of the medieval era.

Lesser town

An evening Segway tour from the lesser town tower is an exciting experience. Pre-orientation to handling of the simple mechanism drives away anxiety of first timers. It’s amazing that motorists stop and allow you to cross the roads first.

Prague castle, the largest ancient castle in the world, was the traditional seat of Czech rulers during the 9th century. It’s now is the official seat of the President of the republic. There are many important historical buildings in the castle precincts that are open for visitors. St. Vitus cathedral, founded by Emperor Charles IV as a coronation church during the 14th century has splendid interiors. Walk through the golden lane for a peek into the miniature residences offering an ethnic shopping experience. These were formerly havens for alchemists and charlatans.

Slovakia

Slovakia’s small terrain has fascinating monuments, natural wonders and a rich history from 2000 years. Bratislava, one of the youngest (1993) capitals of the world is spread along the base of Male Karpaty (small Carpathian mountain range) and sits aside the longest river in Europe- Danube (Dunaj in Slovak).

Wandering through traffic-free Stare Mesto (Old town) of Bratislava extends a feeling of intimacy for these centuries-old streets, squares and buildings that are mostly designed by Austrian architects. Battery operated small red carriages ply tourists around the historic town. First Skoda auto from 1964 is parked near the fountain. The cast iron sofas at the square are ideal for a few minutes respite to absorb the local environs. The Old Town Hall, originally a Romanesque house of the 13th century is a popular backdrop for photos.

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Mission Impossible was shot at the Primatial Palace, the office of the Mayor of Bratislava. The palace has a classical style facade and the roof is adorned with figurative statues and vases.  There is a coat of and an iron model of a heavy hat crowning the buildingThe palace has a rare collection of elaborate 17th century English tapestries and the Hall of Mirrors used to host concerts.

Walk across the small, neat stalls under the trees selling souvenirs and through the house where Mozart once lived. His first concert happened in Bratislava. St Martin’s Cathedral is a Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Bratislava and is supposed to have served as the coronation church for Hungarian kings and their consorts. It has four chapels inside and the portal of the southern antechamber representing an old example of Renaissance architecture.

Buying a ticket and climbing up the spiral staircase to the top of the cathedral’s 85-metre-tall neo-Gothic tower is worth all the effort for witnessing some rare and glittering objects. The cathedral museum houses a 300-kg gilded replica of the Hungarian royal crown, arch bishop’s costumes and many precious jewels.

As you walk out, the corner of the Cathedral offers a good view of the SNP Bridge, a uniquely designed steel bridge suspended from a single pylon across the Danube.

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The climb up through narrow residential streets to the centuries old castle on the hill above offers a peek into the local lifestyle. The castle is also a good vantage point to view as far as Hungary, Austria and the Danube valley.

In Bratislava, we’re only 60 kms away from Austrian capital Vienna. We’re heading away, along the Carpathian range to arrive at Lake Balaton in Hungary.

Hungary

“Nowhere I saw such a beautiful harmony of the sky and the water than that I had the privilege to enjoy on the shore of Balatonfured filling my soul with rapture” said Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1926. He was treated in Hungary at the cardiac hospital by the Lake Balaton.  The promenade is now named after him. The 200 square mile lake’s position at the foot of basalt cliffs of extinct volcanoes gives its water a special quality. We tasted the strong carbonated water from the tap near the hospital. Not sure if it was this healing water, the same pleasant view of the huge lake and the blue sky or the organic dinner and local sweet wine at the winery on the mountain above the lake that had relieved us of our aches from the weeklong, packed tour but, we’re refreshed to explore Budapest the next morning! 

Budapest 

Budapest is the pearl of Danube, with monumental bridges linking the residential Buda and the buzzing centre of Pest. The entire capital of Hungary has some of the wonderful architecture in Europe.

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Yellow trams rattling around the grand boulevards, facades bearing witness to past revolutions, cobblestone streets, grand turn of the century apartment blocks make the perfect settings for a film. No wonder Hollywood loves Budapest, as guide Andrez told us, for shooting its movies since the city can be portrayed as any city in Europe, at a relatively lower cost of production. Latest sequel of Die Hard was being shot during our visit and we learnt that the crew had been stationed there since two months.

Our hopes of an encounter with Die Hard John Mclane-Bruce Willis at the city’s famous Gerbeaud Café didn’t materialize. We tossed the thought for the delicious signature cake and the hot cappuccino at the historic café. Chocolate butter sponge cake was flavoured with apricot palinka and candied apricots, was layered with chocolate cream and covered with a frosting of dark chocolate.

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It’s a pleasant evening walk around the World Heritage listed Castle District on the Buda side. Fisherman’s Bastion and Romanesque Mathias church are a delight to watch from different viewpoints.

An after dinner cruise on Danube river is the best way to identify all of the city’s monuments through their glowing lights. Parliament building is an expensive and expansive monument of Budapest. Magnificent dome hall has the royal crown guarded by two personnel.

Godollo Palace

At half hour drive by car from Budapest is Godollo, the town of parks, statues and monuments. The baroque palace is said to be the second biggest surfaced palace after Versailles in France. King Francis Josef and his queen Sissi of Austrian Hungarian Monarchy lived in the palace during the golden age of Hungarian Imperialism in 19th century. It’s pity to note that the palace was abused by German and Soviet soldiers who lived here during the war.

The palace is now a baroque museum housing antique remains and exhibitions.  An elaborate painting of Francis Joseph during the coronation at Mathias Church is supposed to have taken five years for the artist. There are many interesting tapestries, paintings and exquisite porcelain fireplaces at the palace.

Written by: Madhura & Anand Katti

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