Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Don't Call Them Eastern Europe

North Americans commonly misuse the term "Eastern Europe" to distinguish from the western European countries that are more ubiquitous with their romantic idea of Europe. Thus, Central Europe gets less attention from would-be travellers infatuated with glorious cultures such as French and Italian. Nevertheless, this region is characterized by a vibrant culture driven by remarkably creative and energetic youth. There is lots to see and do, and all within the confines of a cheap and safe environment.
Vltava River, Praha
The three headed beast of Budapest, Wien and Praha power the engine of Central Europe (well, I'm not actually sure where Central Europe proper is or if there is even an actual defined border for this region). I have a bad habit of calling cities by their local names. So to clarify: Wien, the capital of Austria and home of the wiener, is Vienna. Praha, the capital of Czech Republic, is Prague. Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is actually Budape┼čt with a "sh" sound.

Herein is a quick and dirty comparison of my time and impression of each of the cities. I am therefore obligated to give you the standard black-and-white warning message that "the views and opinions expressed here are solely based on my experience and are not stated as facts, nor are they intended to cause offence to the subject parties" and so forth and so forth...

In other words, don't sue me, don't hate me. After all, I'm only writing because you want to read me.

Architecture
Budapest, Wien and Praha are holdovers from the Habsburg Empire of the middle of the second millennium and, thus, share similar architectural styles. Winding streets in the city centres are arranged with colourful buildings of 7 or 8 stories, made of massive interlocking stone blocks that seem to jump out at you. One gets a majestic feeling walking around these cities.

Praha is definitely the prettiest city of the three. In fact, it has maybe the best mix of urban development, topography and green spaces I have seen anywhere in Europe. Its cathedrals stand tall and gothic dark, flanked by buildings with eclectic designs and adornments. Its picturesque river, the Vltava, splits the old city, Staremesto, from the hilly castle side, with grand vistas of the entire city.
Graben pedestrian street, Wien
Wien stuns through sheer grandness and scale. Viewing cathedrals and government buildings require physical exercise - many repetitions of neck craning and jaw dropping. But its open spaces provide the correct viewing angles as they are impressively large and inspire a royal feeling of happy-bliss. At street level, the sidewalks are clean and orderly, a byproduct of German efficiency.

Budapest has a beautiful city centre, characterized by a castle on a hill, overlooking a steady river and an old city. But the city still bears many scars from its communist days. These scars are bandaged within the city centre, but are clearly visible if you enter the suburbs, still blanketed by dull concrete housing. The lack of restoration of the suburbs of Budapest is reflected in Hungary's weak economy.
Duna, or Danube River, Budapest
Culture
Tourists on whirlwind Eurotrips might lump these cities into one category, which is understandable considering their geography, population and cultural similarities such as food. But I think Budapest, Wien and Praha are wonderfully unique. Its the same principle in which people may mistake Calgary and Edmonton for being the same kind of city, or Toronto and Montreal.

Budapest has an unbelievably youthful vibe. It feels as if all the old people decided to move out and let the youth take over. On the streets, in the shops and metros, young people are everywhere, walking with style and a sense of determination, as if they are busy conquering the world. Their spirit and energy has imbued a creative atmosphere that can be seen in its trendy shops and in its trademark nightlife attraction, the ruin bars, which have a rough and edgy feel, and are covered wall-to-wall with eclectic and retro objects.

Wien is the only of the three cities that escaped the Soviet influence of communism and therefore has enjoyed economic prosperity since WWII. Its wealth combined with German efficiency is evident walking around the city. Despite this, Wien has a young and creative energy that has helped to propel it into the rarefied air of one of the most desirable cities in the world to live and work, with one of the highest quality of life ratings. There are many wonderful coffee shops to gather and philosophize, cinemas to enjoy films, and museums to get your think-on.
Charles Bridge, Praha - busker with marionette
Praha is developing a reputation for being the Amsterdam of the east. In Praha, you can party cheap and party hard. I've heard anecdotally that you can get easy access to any drug you desire, and that there is a fairly casual approach to dating. It's easy to see why people party so much here - Czech beers and liquors are some of the best in Europe. Kozel is one of my favourite beers and I believe it is sold internationally. And the Czech national liquor Becherovka is 38% alcohol, but goes down super sweet and smooth.

My Experience
Unfortunately I had to rush through this leg of my journey. I could easily have spent much more time in each of these three cities. As usual, my personal accounts of these cities have nothing to do with the museums and cool buildings, but are defined by the people I met.
First time playing sports in a looong time. I really missed it
In Praha, I had the privilege of staying with someone who could lay claim to being "the most interesting man in the world." This ex-video engineer for the Rolling Stones, ex-army officer, now turned English teacher held a concert on his birthday in which he performed with his rock band. The day after, we participated in indoor beach volleyball, an event which he also organized. My friend could also lay claim to the title of "the messiest man in the world." Though his flat was a sight for sore eyes, it reminded me that his priorities lay in his passions: languages, music and people. I cleaned his dishes for his birthday! I also met up with a friend whom I met a several months earlier, and we had a great chat over our exciting working experiences since our first meeting.
Opera in Wien
In Wien, I stayed with a great Couchsurfing host. He inspired me to find homestays in Buddhist monasteries. Ironically, due to the uninspiring weather, I was able to find some really hip coffee shops to take shelter. Later on, squished in the standing room section of the opera, which is the thing to see in Vienna, I found one of those random encounters which I preached so much about. I made friends with a Latvian English teacher, and afterwards we chatted over McDonald's 1 euro burgers, then the next day over pay-as-you-wish Indian food.
Market in Budapest
Budapest was one of the few cities I visited a second time; also one of the few places I kept meeting really memorable people. I stayed at two different hostels and with two different Couchsurfers, each a fun and positive experience. But I actually did stuff too. By night I frequented ruin bars and, by day, ate at the train station styled market and sauntered up and down the Duna (Danube) River. I even splurged in one of the many secondhand shops. I also went caving, an awesomely fun adventure, and visited the famous hot baths, filled with people of all ages and minimal clothing, to escape the cold weather.

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Despite the harsh realities about Budapest, it is a really awesome city. I had an amazing time and will take away some of my best memories of my trip from here. Wien, while it is very posh and proper, especially compared with the casual "no rules" mentality of Praha and Budapest, also has something for everyone. And Praha is simply the place to be to go wild and live life to the max, but also provides enough space for quiet and contemplation.

However this, my dear readers, does not mean I am recommending Budapest to you. One lesson that has continuously repeated itself during my trip is that every place in the world is unique. So I guess what I'm saying is... go to all three!

One end of the Charles Bridge, Praha

6 comments:

  1. Great entry, Andrew. I have all 3 of these places on my bucket list and hope to knock them all off in one shot at some point.

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  2. LOVE YOUR BLOG...nothing more I can say. It's honest and refreshing :)

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  3. Thanks guys! I actually put quite a bit of effort into it, so the feedback is really helpful.

    Kevin, whenever you're ready to plan that trip, I can answer any questions you might have.

    Oh, and DO NOT try hitchhiking in Hungary. It's illegal. I got picked up by the cops and fined 70 euros for my misdemeanour. But I won't pay =)

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  4. My friends got picked up by the police and they took them to the next city... no fine. I guess hitchhiking really is about luck.

    In Budapest i doubt the number of sex shops and sex shop ads didn't strike you, they never fail to surprise me -the latest one, in one of the biggest squares proudly yelling in purple that X Sex Shop, now also in the heart of the city! But perhaps you didn't want ot stain its reputation.

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  5. I think your friends got a nice deal there!

    I seriously didn't notice any sex shops or ads... I know it's a very "open" city though. A friend of mine there says she gets men yelling dirty pickup lines at her across the street so that everyone can hear.

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  6. Your stories bring back fond memories of when I studied in Praha and when I was homeless in Budapest (for a night, with Alyna and Sara). We took refuge from the pouring rain in a Turkish coffee shop where the three of us shared two pieces of baklava and hot water. *Sigh. Wishing you well...

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