Or: Winter in Eastern Europe-- A post about my vacation.
It's cold in Eastern Europe in January. Especially if you get there right after it snows. We spent three days in Prague, then took a train to Bratislava for a night, and onto Budapest for two nights, and then back to Prague for two more days before flying back. I'd been to Prague twice before-- in high school, I was in the Jazz Chorus, and somehow the teacher in charge arranged a "tour" for us to sing in Prague and a couple of smaller towns in the Czech Republic. My first time abroad anywhere, and the Czech Republic was only a few years post-Communism, and I was amazed how inexpensive everything was, and how foreign it seemed-- I'm curious to go find my photos in my parents' house to see how it compared. And I was also in Prague for a couple of days when I went to Europe with some friends post-college. But I'd never been to Bratislava or Budapest.
Despite the cold, there was something neat about being in these cities at a time of year when very few other tourists are there. It's much easier to be a tourist when nothing is crowded. You can wander around at your own pace. In museums, certainly. And even on the street. I remember the Charles Bridge in Prague when I visited post-college, and it was mobbed. You were pushed along in a stream of other people, past the vendors selling souvenirs or offering to draw caricatures, and if you stopped to take a picture, people would be trying to squeeze past, you had to make sure you didn't lose your traveling companions, you had to be on high alert for pickpocketers.... It's not like that in January. We were the only people inside the Budapest Holocaust Museum. We were virtually the only people in the Communism Museum in Prague. We saw very, very few other tourists. (And pretty much none at all in Bratislava.) Which made it feel like we were seeing a more "real" picture of what the places are like. Or at least made it much more relaxed and less of an ordeal to be a tourist. (In Prague, we stayed with friends who are living there, which also made it much more fun than the typical tourist experience, in a hotel, having to eat all your meals out, and feeling like you have to be outside sightseeing all day.)
My biggest surprise was Budapest-- how large it is, and, having never really thought about Budapest at all, how modern it is while still being filled with these majestic old buildings around every corner. Prague has a charm to it-- it's relatively small, you can walk everywhere, much of the city retains the look of the old architecture, it does not look like an American city. Budapest, on the other hand, looks like an actual city. Except then you turn the corner and there's a magnificent church from centuries ago, in between the sex shops and the tourist restaurants.
Stopping for a day in Bratislava was completely my fault. In my trip post-college, back in 2000, we stopped for a day in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and it was an unexpected surprise. Beautiful, completely charming city, very few tourists but clearly deserving of more. Felt like an undiscovered gem. Full of green space, pretty castle, good food, nice picture opportunities... and I hoped maybe Bratislava would be the same. It wasn't. Bratislava got the short end of the deal when Czechoslovakia split into two. It's Prague, if Prague fell apart. The old town area was deserted, or at least it seemed deserted. And the newer area of the city didn't have a lot to see. I've never been to Akron, and apologize if anyone reading this is from there, but my mental picture of Akron is about what downtown Bratislava looked like. We killed time in a Tesco supermarket. We were in Bratislava for about 20 hours, spent 9 of them sleeping, and still had time to kill.
We spent a lot of our tourist energies on the Jewish quarters in Prague and Budapest. The synagogue in Budapest is the world's second-largest, and it's quite impressive. The Holocaust Museum, built in 2004, doesn't quite match the one in Berlin (and, I'm told, the one in Washington, DC), but it was worth seeing.
I think I ate more goose liver than I'd ever eaten before-- having charged myself with the task of ordering the foods I'd be least likely to get normally, I couldn't resist the goose liver lunch special in one restaurant, and then our Bed & Breakfast in Budapest offered homemade goose liver pate at breakfast. I had tripe soup in Prague, goulash in Budapest (which, in Hungary, is a soup, not a stew), had a kolache pastry, chicken paprikash, and a piece of sour cherry strudel.
And, finally, some pictures: