Everyone knows that Vienna, like London and Paris, is an expensive city, but at least London and Paris are cheap to get to. So on a recent trip to meet up with family for a vacation in Vienna, I decided to fly to Budapest instead. Getting to Budapest, plus staying in a rented apartment for five days, plus the round-trip train ticket to Vienna, was about the same price as flying direct to Vienna.
It was also, I realized, a chance to compare the two great capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Coincidentally, 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. It’s an unfortunate fate to be remembered more for your death than for anything you did in life, but sometimes it works out that way. The shooting of Archduke Ferdinand kickstarted World War I and, consequently, the end of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire itself.
It’s my opinion that history is more easily digested on a full stomach, so my first destination in Budapest was the bustling Great Market Hall. Built at the end of the 19th Century, it’s a massive brick building by the banks of the Danube River, with a giant atrium supported by beautiful, classic, iron framework. It’s the kind of food market you imagine when you think of European food markets.
After wandering around the stalls hawking sausages, piles of goose legs, and small, red beaches of paprika, I ate at a snack bar upstairs. I had a small barrel of beer accompanied with meat-stuffed cabbage rolls. Add to that, a langos (a hunk of cheesy fried bread as big as a serving platter), and a pickled pepper so hot my eyes bulged out like Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining.
Feeling like I’d somehow just swallowed a bowling ball, I walked around the city (albeit slowly), admiring the architecture. From Gothic to Baroque to Renaissance to Classical, Budapest has it all. It was getting dark by the time I reached the famous Chain Bridge. (As iconic to Budapest as the Brooklyn Bridge is to New York.) I crossed over to the Buda side and caught a bus to Buda Castle. In a bar built into the newly restored ramparts, I was just in time to enjoy the view at twilight. From this commanding location, the lights of the stunning Hungarian Parliament building cast shimmering reflections onto the Danube, which by the way, is blue only at dusk. The rest of the time it’s a more of a greeny brown.
The next day I toured an exhibit of Robert Capa’s photographs at the National Museum. Capa, like another of the 20th Century’s great photographers, André Kertész, was born in Budapest. But neither of them stayed for long. World War I devastated the country. By 1920 Hungary had lost 71 percent of its territory and 66 percent of its population. And the rest of the Century was even worse–first came the Nazi’s then came the Soviets. Capa and Kertész, both Jewish, fled the country and headed for Paris, though many years apart. It’s in keeping with the feeling you get when walking around Budapest–that the 20th Century just passed Budapest by. Many of the grand 19th Century buildings, built during the economic boom brought by industrialization, are still in need of repair and cleaning, and some are boarded up and seemingly abandoned.
But ever since joining the European Union in 2004, Hungary has been looking to the future. Budapest has an energy to it, as if the citizens are eager to make up for lost time. Nowhere is it more evident than the 7th district, the historic Jewish quarter. Once seedy and neglected, the area around the Dohány Street Synagogue (the world’s second largest), is burgeoning with cool cafés, restaurants, wine bars and shops.
Even in this atmosphere, with all its bohemian-chic vibe, a bar called Szimpla Kert stands out. It’s one of the first so-called ‘ruin pubs’ of Budapest. Located in a large building that you might otherwise think was derelict (hence the nickname), it’s a warren of rooms and passages filled with eclectic pop art lit in psychedelic colours. Imagine Salvador Dalí unleashed in a junkyard and you get the idea.
Vienna could hardly be more different. Inside the Ringstrasse, the road that encircles the old part of the city, Vienna is a collection of buildings that together form a triumphant monument to grandness, nobility and tradition. When you see the magnificent city hall, the regal museums of natural and art history at Maria-Theresien-Platz, or the imperial Hofburg Palace, to name just a few, you could swear you’re hearing a piano concerto in your head. Budapest is also impressive but the difference is this: while some people call Budapest the Paris of the East, Paris should think it a compliment to be called the Vienna of the West.
With wide sidewalks and long, centrally located pedestrian streets, Vienna is probably the best capital city in Europe for exploring on foot. The old city is so impeccably preserved you can be forgiven for thinking, ‘Hey wait. Didn’t they have a war here?’ And then you see the very occasional glass-and-steel monstrosity amid the beautiful stone buildings–inevitably home to a Zara or an H&M–and you think, okay, right. That must be where one of the bombs fell. But plenty of the existing old buildings, such as St. Stephens’s Cathedral and the stately National Opera were bombed. It’s just that they were put back together pretty much the way they were.
I toured the Opera, strolled past the masterpieces in the Albertina Gallery, wandered the gardens of Belvedere Palace, admired the denizens of the Butterfly House, peered into the pungent stables of the Spanish Riding School. But Vienna has so many things to see and do that any traveller’s checklist inevitably ends up in the red.
I didn’t try the original Sachertorte, either, but that was by choice. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a chocolate cake, with a layer of apricot jam and chocolate icing. Whipped cream on the side. It’s a cherished tourist experience, and when people find out that you went to Vienna and didn’t have it, they look at you with a mixture of disdain and pity. As if Mozart had come back to life and was offering a free concert and instead you decided to see a peepshow. But I didn’t feel like waiting in line to pay exorbitant prices for a piece of chocolate cake so dry you need dollops of cream to get it down. But I recognize that I may be the only person alive that feels this way.
I did, however, visit a few of Vienna’s legendary cafés. My favourite was Café Sperl. Yes, the coffee was very good, though in a tip-of-the-hat to tradition, pricey. I didn’t discuss philosophy or politics, as so many of Vienna’s famous café-goers have done over the years, but thanks to the setting I felt ready to do so if the circumstances required it. Café Sperl is elegant and dignified, like Vienna itself. And you can feel free to linger over a coffee in a historic room with high ceilings, chandeliers, and comfortable wood-paneled booths accented with the patina of time.
And when you look at it that way, Vienna isn’t very expensive at all.