East Side Story

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was one of the world’s great powers from 1861-1918, the second largest country in Europe. Today, Vienna and Budapest remain as bookends to the Habsburg legacy.

Arriving from the Danube’s tranquil banks in Durnstein, imposing Vienna evokes a formality in us that is hard to resist — Imperial grounds of the Habsburg palaces, well mannered carriage horses draying now affluent Asian tourists, magnificent opera, and cultural influence that extends its reach eastward.

Classic Spring weather invites us to open our windows allowing outdoor café laughter and tipsy bustle of Walfischgasse in the city’s Innere Stadt, just steps from the StatsOpera.

I ask our very proper host, Herr Michael Strafinger at Pension Suzanne, if there is an extra fee for the perfectly temperate sunshine and he pauses, momentarily perplexed by my question. He then “got it,” and uses the humorous reference with a reserved smile several times later during our stay. We are always pleased to add to the Viennese cultural canon.

Ok…how do we approach a “familiar” city, without being redundant, to enjoy the experiences that commanded our return? After an obligatory survey by foot of the Grand Landmarks and heavily trafficked promenades and squares, we settled in to encircle Wien’s essence.

Each night grand Opera was on. The only issue was securing tickets to the mostly sold out attractions. We scored box seats (well, limited visibility box seats) to our prime target, La Boheme, from a Middle Eastern scalper who loved his craft. No problem, he pointed out with a communicable smile. We must sit closer together to crane the stage with merged attention.

The performance itself, set in the majestic Wiener Staatsoper, and enacted with world-class musicians and singers, was stunning. We actually didn’t have to view all the stage’s back-story to swoon at the delicacy of the music, the harmonies, and the complete artistry:

“Hey, I just met you,

And this is crazy,

But here’s my number,

So call me, maybe?”

We would be in Paris in a week or so, and Rodolfo’s garret lingered in our imagination as an undeniable muse.

Other nights we were able to enjoy desired portions of dissimilar operas seated outside the theatre gazing at a vivid digital monitor huddled with appreciative music lovers. We would watch the pixilated presentation for an hour, go enjoy lovely Viennese food in the neighborhood, and return to the outdoor screen for the finale. We could even hear the repeated curtain calls from our room. Bravo!

A waiter at Huth, a favorite local grillhaus remembered us from a previous years’ visits – that, and comforting dishes like fresh water salmon and flawless warm apple strudel, extended the balmy welcome.

Music is everywhere here and discovering an afternoon organ recital of Bach and Handel at baroque St. Paul’s Church, provided a cool, calm retreat from the lively midday pace.

Lunch is an informal affair – we share a steamy cut-up cheese sausage with zesty mustard and a spicy Coke Zero from a street vendor on our secret bench at the Albertine Museum overlooking town center.

Each day we excitedly applied our pledge to “do something different”: morning rambles through the polyglot Naschmarkt beyond the Center Ring to ogle condiments, fish, vegetables, and spices gathered from exotic Eastern Europe; assembling at sunny cafés with locals over coffee and morning pastries; branching out into extended neighborhoods that outline residential life here; discovering one of the massive WW2 air defense fortresses that now houses a children’s Aquarium.

Three days waltzing through this flourishing and refined capital in brilliant springtime left us primed for our excursion via train further East to Budapest.

As if to signal the shift to more proletarian situations, we first had to accept the fact that, given the predictable broken elevator at the “temporary” Vienna train station, we were going to schlep our heavy luggage up the stairs to the platform (stay tuned for more luggage adventures later).

If Vienna, attractively preserved in Imperial splendor, could be compared to the “Upper East Side,” then Budapest serves our case as the “Lower East Side”.

This former twin Capital of the old Empire reserves a special place in our hearts. It is a city striving to overcome considerable disadvantages of its history. Funky, surprising, decrepit, youthful, relaxed, subtly menacing, mysterious, and so effortless to bond with – Budapest is a long lost relative, newly reclaimed.

As a visitor, there are touchstones that quickly reveal the pulse of the city: Hungarian State Opera, public baths, Terror Museum, Jewish district — all accessed by Andrássy út (Boulevard) that traverses Budapest with continental Europe’s oldest metro.

All these once faded treasures are brought to life for us by Albert Marton, who runs the top-rated Kapital Inn, housed in a formerly upper-class apartmant building just off Andrássy. Albert treats every guest with special care and the appropriate amount of guidance to ensure a memorable visit here.

Albert insisted on surprising us at the train station with a warm hug, heroically ushering our bags up six flights to his trendy top-floor flat, and honoring us with gorgeous flowers placed in our room. As if this welcome wasn’t enough, we were soon introduced to Toby, the miniature Bull Terrier, who may qualify as the sweetest, most energetic puppy this side of the Danube.

No mandatory tour of the major sites to get oriented – after our reunion with Albert we headed straight to the Szechenyi baths to soak five weeks of road weariness from our bodies and ease into the luminous warmth that we have always experienced here: instant summer – shorts, flip-flops, breakfast on the terrace enjoying Albert’s delicious cheese omelets, and dining al fresco in the unpretentious restaurants that offer earnest plates of fresh asparagus with hollandaise, fish, pastas, and goulashes.

Touring Italy and Austria, we were able to obtain basic restaurant and bathroom-finding literacy. Not in Hungary. The language is so foreign to our ear – all that is expected is a polite smile and gratitude for the English that most younger people speak.

We scored terrific and inexpensive tickets to the glittery State Opera whose ensemble company produces modest, yet skilled interpretations of the classics. We enjoyed the same production of Madame Butterfly as last year. Repetition did not dull the talent of cast and conductor, or the enthusiasm of the audience who called for bow after gracious bow.

Our most energetic day was spent discovering smart new businesses and youthful hangouts in the historic Jewish Quarter and former Ghetto. Budapest’s population was once 25% Jewish and that heritage is still very palpable. Aside from historic synagogues and century-old architecture, the District is active with hip businesses, funky cafes, “ruin bars” (Haight Ashbury style renewal, for you old hippies), homogenized with Hungarian blue-collar street life.

At the edge of this district, on Andrassy, is the powerful, yet haunting Terror museum, dedicated to the difficult memory of Nazi and Soviet occupations that gutted the soul of Hungary. It is impossible to really know Budapest without factoring the impact that five decades of oppression had on this once thriving and cultured city. Evidence of those dark shadows, as well as the will of youthful renewal, are everywhere.

One last challenge on the “too soon” morning of our departure: we are about to embark on a Euro-bargain flight to Paris via Easy Jet. The catch is that those massive suitcases (previously referenced) are now becoming albatrosses for us. The comic exercise of wearing layers of our thickest clothing, transferring the heaviest “stuff” to our busting backpacks, and Albert standing on a scale holding and weighing the bags for “before and after” comparisons to get under the weight limits, brought us all closer in the relaxed tempo of this most Eastern point of our journey.

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One Response to East Side Story

  1. Meta Mehling says:

    A most amazingly heartfelt and provocative tour. It’s a new beat in atmosphere, emotion, energy and personality and well expressed in your photos and poetic summary.
    Loved the pictures of you all – especially Lisa and you in ballroom attire…Are you ever coming back home?

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