A big thanks to Aaron Fitt for contributing and writing about his recent multi-day tour from Budapest to Prague, with a lot in between. Aaron is an editor and writer for D1Baseball. Prior to that he was a writer for Baseball America. Aaron has covered college baseball for over 10 years, contributed to countless media outlets, and is considered to be one of the premier college baseball writers in the country. Aaron currently lives in Durham, North Carolina with his wife Virginia and two dogs, Trixie and Cali. You can follow or get in touch with Aaron on Twitter @aaronfitt.
By Aaron Fitt
I like to think of myself as a fairly seasoned traveler. I've been to all 48 contiguous U.S. states, all around the Caribbean and Canada; I've been to Japan and the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon. But until this fall, I'd never been to Europe — it was a gaping hole in my traveler's credentials. There are so many places I want to visit in Europe that I really didn't know where to begin, but I've always been fascinated by the Danube River region in Central Europe, so my wife Virginia and I decided to go there for our first European vacation together.
We flew into Budapest and met up with our private tour guide for the week, Helena. We found it very helpful to hire someone to drive us from city to city, facilitate our hotel accommodations and local tour guides, recommend dinner spots and help us navigate the foreign cultures. Helena was a joy to spend the week with but also did a good job giving us some alone time to explore and relax by ourselves, and we highly recommend her and Movis Private Tours, who handled all of the details for us. It just puts your mind at ease to travel knowing that you are in good hands with a trustworthy guide.
We were both immediately struck by how beautiful Budapest is. It straddles the Danube River, with the old city of Pest on one side, and the former city of Buda built up on the hills across the river. The more urban Pest side is dominated by the incredible Parliament building — truly one of the most iconic structures in the world. See for yourself:
After a nice dinner of traditional paprikash, we strolled through the heart of Pest and across the famous Chain Bridge, the most famous of the many bridges that connect the city's two halves. The next day, we explored the city with Helena and our local guide, who told us all about the fascinating history of Budapest. As an American, I'm used to seeing "old" buildings that were constructed in the 1600s or 1700s. But everything is so much older in Europe, and you feel like you're walking back in time as you explore those venerable cities. We saw the great St. Stephen's Basilica (named after the Hungarian king in 1000 AD who brought Christianity to the locals), the Hungarian Statue of Liberty, the royal palace and St. Matyas' cathedral up on Castle Hill in the Buda hills, Heroes Square and a bunch of other sites. We had a great lunch high on Castle Hill overlooking the Danube. This area has a very rich history full of invasions and expulsions - first the Romans, then the Mongolians, then the Turks (who stayed for like 120 years until the Austrians teamed up with the Hungarians to drive them out in 1740, starting the Austro-Hungarian Empire), then of course the Nazis and the Russians. It's a shame how little respect all the various invaders had for the local sites, but also interesting to learn about the Turks cutting off all the heads of the Christian saints in the churches, and the allies blowing up various old landmarks that the Nazis were using as headquarters, and then the Russians coming in and building monuments to the Russian liberators. Anyway, now the Hungarians finally rule themselves (since 1989!), and that's pretty cool.
It rained in the morning on our last day in Budapest so we went to the grand market for shopping and lunch, had coffee and dessert in the elegant and renowned Cafe Gerbeaud, and spent the afternoon at one of the thermal bath houses (which is like taking a bunch of baths with lots of strangers in various water temperatures - an interesting cultural experience for sure, but we definitely left feeling very relaxed... Massages helped with that). Finished with a little evening cruise on the Danube.
We left Budapest and headed northwest. After 90 minutes or so, we crossed into Slovakia and ran into our old friend the Danube once again when we reached the Slovakian capital city of Bratislava. On the other side of the river is Austria — which was on the other side of the Iron Curtain during the cold war. Many Slovakians attempted to reach the West by crossing the river and the electrified walls that once stood beyond it. Today, of course, all of these countries are members of the European Union, and it's easy to pass between them.
Unlike Budapest, Bratislava's oldest section avoided bombing during the wars and is amazingly preserved. Beautiful red-roofed structures with a variety of archeological styles because they were built over the course of many centuries (the oldest buildings there were constructed in the 13th century, including a couple of impressive cathedrals). Another city with fascinating history - we learned from our local guide all about the early adoption of Christianity in the 9th century, the Habsburg era (during which many Habsburg monarchs were crowned in Bratislava), the communist era and all kinds of other factoids.
After spending the day of our seventh anniversary in Bratislava, we continued onto Vienna, where we arrived in time for an elegant dinner. Vienna is truly one of the great cities of the world, and it is just overflowing with sophistication and grandeur. We spent the entire next day exploring Vienna, and we found it to be an enchanting city. We learned a lot about the Habsburgs, who ruled Austria for some 600 years until the end of WWI. We learned that the Habsburgs liked really, really big houses (we visited their ridiculous sprawling palace in the inner city and their summer palace, the Schonbrunn, only a few Metro stops away).
We learned that Elisabeth (their beloved queen Sisi, wife of Franz Joseph, emperor for 68 years in the 19th and 20th centuries) was a ridiculously narcissistic and not particularly likable lady who didn't love her husband even though he adored her, so that was sad. And then she was killed by an Italian anarchist and Franz Joseph was devastated, for some reason.
We learned a lot about the only Hapsburg empress, Maria Teresia, who seemed like a very impressive monarch back in the 1700s. We stood in a room in the Summer Palace where Mozart performed for Maria Teresia at age 6, and we stood in a courtyard looking at a balcony where Hitler stood and announced the annexation of Austria. It's hard not to feel awed by the weight of history when you walk around the great cities of Europe, and Vienna is surely one of the greatest. Street after street of stunning white palaces and spires and domes - it's something special to behold.
Brno & Kutna Hora
After leaving Vienna, we spent the day in two charming medieval cities in the Czech Republic: Brno (the 2nd-largest city in the nation, located in the eastern part of the country called Moravia) and Kutna Hora (a former mining town in the western part of the country, known as Bohemia). Brno felt a little bit like a mini-Vienna, with outdoor pedestrian-only promenades lined with ornate old buildings and plenty of shopping, and a rich history in the arts (Mozart stayed there a while and performed at age 12; as we arrived in the city, the Brno philharmonic was rehearsing for an outdoor concert in the middle of a town square, so it was fun to listen for a while). Our local guide told us a number of quirky stories about Brno's unique history, such as:
We left Brno and headed northeast to Kutna Hora, a Unesco World Heritage site with some amazing old churches. Kutna Hora was an important silver mining town until the 1600s or so. That big cathedral on the right was built in the 1320s, but it only has one bell tower instead of the customary 2 because they literally undermined it looking for silver and they were afraid it could not support a 2nd tower.
I was also blown away by St. Barbara's Cathedral, the spectacular church in the photo below. A lot of movies are filmed there - in fact, we watched as a scene from a Chinese movie was filmed in front of it. (There are lots of giant Gothic churches in China, apparently...). But I will say this: us Bostonians can't complain about the Big Dig being a boondoggle anymore. Construction on this church began in 1388 and didn't finish until the early 20th century.
But the most fascinating part of our visit to Kutna Hora was the Sedloc Ossuary, which is unlike anything I've ever seen or even imagined. Basically during the Black Death in the 15th century, people were dying so fast that they didn't have time to give everyone a proper burial, so the bones piled up in this cavern underneath a small chapel. Over the next 300 to 400 years, the bones of 40,000 to 70,000 people were collected here, and arranged into a series of pyramids and macabre decorative arrangements. The idea is to remind the living that all of the dead were once in our position, and we will all wind up in their position. Hooray for mortality!
Prague — where do you even begin? I was blown away by this city. For starters, it's just stunningly beautiful. That moment when you walk out onto the Charles Bridge for the first time and look up at Castle Prague (the largest castle in the world)... it's impossible to do it justice. And the feeling of awe only grows as you learn about the history here, with still-standing structures and important world events dating back to the 900s. Also, there is fantastic dining and shopping all along these narrow cobblestone streets where you could probably get lost for days. The only drawback was that the volume of tourists was higher than in Budapest and Vienna, but I can see why so many people come here - it is a magical city.
This is a photo of me very convincingly defenestrating Virginia at the actual Window of Defenestration. For those of you who forget your history, some Czech nobles rebelled against the Habsburg empire in the 1600s - the conflict started when the Czechs threw three Habsburg administrators out of this window (ie, defenestrated them). That led to the 30 Years' War, which was no good for anyone. Thanks a lot, you ungrateful Czechs! By the way, they weren't even very good at defenestration - all three defenestratees actually survived the fall (and it's a pretty damn significant fall). There was some talk that their survival was something of a miracle, and frankly I think it's a lot more miraculous than some of the other purported miracles we've heard about.
Well, that does it for our European vacation. We enjoyed all of the cities we visited immensely; with a gun to my head, I'd probably call Prague my favorite, but every one of them is well worth a visit. And if you go, make sure you hire guides, because learning the local history from a knowledgeable expert truly enhances the experience. It turns out learning is fun! Our grammar school teachers had it right all along.
Thanks for reading, and happy traveling!