Chasing History - Budapest to Prague

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.

The Chain Bridge and Buda Castle beyond. The castle had many iterations over the centuries, but the current design was built for Austro-Hungarian empress Elisabeth in the 19th century. It was destroyed in WW2 and then rebuilt to look just as it did in Elisabeth's time. The Chain Bridge was also destroyed in the war, and so were all the other bridges. Poor Budapest.

The Chain Bridge and Buda Castle beyond. The castle had many iterations over the centuries, but the current design was built for Austro-Hungarian empress Elisabeth in the 19th century. It was destroyed in WW2 and then rebuilt to look just as it did in Elisabeth's time. The Chain Bridge was also destroyed in the war, and so were all the other bridges. Poor Budapest.

St. Stephen's Basilica in the heart of Pest. No new structures on the Pest side are permitted to be taller than St. Stephen's or the Parliament building (similar to the prohibition on buildings taller than the Washington Monument or Capitol building in D.C.).

St. Stephen's Basilica in the heart of Pest. No new structures on the Pest side are permitted to be taller than St. Stephen's or the Parliament building (similar to the prohibition on buildings taller than the Washington Monument or Capitol building in D.C.).

A classic Budapest vista — the famous Castle Hill Funicular and Chain Bridge beyond. The Funicular, built in the 1800s, slowly carries passengers from the square below up to the top of Castle Hill.

A classic Budapest vista — the famous Castle Hill Funicular and Chain Bridge beyond. The Funicular, built in the 1800s, slowly carries passengers from the square below up to the top of Castle Hill.

Heroes Square features statues honoring famous Hungarians over the last millenium or so. It was also the site of numerous films (most of which weren't actually set in Budapest). But Budapest welcomed the film industry, and it served as a good stand-in for many Eastern European cities and even for Buenos Aires in Evita.

Heroes Square features statues honoring famous Hungarians over the last millenium or so. It was also the site of numerous films (most of which weren't actually set in Budapest). But Budapest welcomed the film industry, and it served as a good stand-in for many Eastern European cities and even for Buenos Aires in Evita.

The Hungarian bath houses in Budapest have many different pools of varying temperatures inside and out. The interior rooms have striking Roman architecture. 

The Hungarian bath houses in Budapest have many different pools of varying temperatures inside and out. The interior rooms have striking Roman architecture. 

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.

Bratislava

Looking across the Danube toward Austria from Bratislava Castle, which dominates the hilltop looming over the city.

Looking across the Danube toward Austria from Bratislava Castle, which dominates the hilltop looming over the city.

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.

The hulking Bratislava Castle dates back to the 10th century, but the hill where it is located has been a key strategic stronghold for thousands of years, from ancient tribes to the Celts and Romans to the Slavs and the Kingdom of Hungary. In 1809, it was bombarded by Napoleon's army, and it suffered severe fire damage three years later, then lay in ruin for more than a century. It was restored after WW2.

The hulking Bratislava Castle dates back to the 10th century, but the hill where it is located has been a key strategic stronghold for thousands of years, from ancient tribes to the Celts and Romans to the Slavs and the Kingdom of Hungary. In 1809, it was bombarded by Napoleon's army, and it suffered severe fire damage three years later, then lay in ruin for more than a century. It was restored after WW2.

View from Bratislava Castle looking over the city.

View from Bratislava Castle looking over the city.

Vienna

This is just one small section of the Habsburg's winter palace, which has numerous enormous wings.

This is just one small section of the Habsburg's winter palace, which has numerous enormous wings.

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).

Strolling through the meticulous gardens at the Schonbrunn, the Habsburgs' summer palace

Strolling through the meticulous gardens at the Schonbrunn, the Habsburgs' summer palace

One of my favorite spots in Vienna—at the top of the gardens looking down at the Schonbrunn and the city

One of my favorite spots in Vienna—at the top of the gardens looking down at the Schonbrunn and the city

The monument that Franz Joseph built for Queen Sisi in one of the winter palace's many gardens

The monument that Franz Joseph built for Queen Sisi in one of the winter palace's many gardens

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.

A statue of Mozart in front of the imperial palace...

A statue of Mozart in front of the imperial palace...

One of the 17 wings of the Habsburgs' inner city palace. That balcony is where Hitler told everybody he was taking over this country, and they were like, "That's cool." Pretty creepy to stand in that spot and think about the historical impact.

One of the 17 wings of the Habsburgs' inner city palace. That balcony is where Hitler told everybody he was taking over this country, and they were like, "That's cool." Pretty creepy to stand in that spot and think about the historical impact.

All you need to know about the fall of the Habsburgs: Archduke Ludwig's palace is now a T.G.I.Friday's. Can't imagine a worse indignity than that. And you thought it was tough being Billy Carter or Roger Clinton — at least their palaces weren't turned into Friday's.

All you need to know about the fall of the Habsburgs: Archduke Ludwig's palace is now a T.G.I.Friday's. Can't imagine a worse indignity than that. And you thought it was tough being Billy Carter or Roger Clinton — at least their palaces weren't turned into Friday's.

... And Mozart sending a text message in front of Vienna's many concert halls.

... And Mozart sending a text message in front of Vienna's many concert halls.

The main shopping district in the heart of Vienna is bustling with life and culture. Love those old Viennese buildings and winding pedestrian-only streets.

The main shopping district in the heart of Vienna is bustling with life and culture. Love those old Viennese buildings and winding pedestrian-only streets.

You could spend two weeks in Vienna just exploring the enormous museums -- like these two, which face each other near the Imperial Palace.

You could spend two weeks in Vienna just exploring the enormous museums -- like these two, which face each other near the Imperial Palace.

Brno & Kutna Hora

That castle up on the hill was a key piece of Brno's defenses. They are very proud of the fact that they withstood a 4-month siege by the Swedes in 1645, toward the end of the 30 Years' War.

That castle up on the hill was a key piece of Brno's defenses. They are very proud of the fact that they withstood a 4-month siege by the Swedes in 1645, toward the end of the 30 Years' War.

Brno's pedestrian shopping promenade felt like a smaller version of what you'd find in Vienna.

Brno's pedestrian shopping promenade felt like a smaller version of what you'd find in Vienna.

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:

For some reason there is a 400-year old replica of a crocodile (using real crocodile skin brought by the Turks during negotiations with the Hapsburgs in the 1600s) hanging from the ceiling underneath Brno's city hall.

For some reason there is a 400-year old replica of a crocodile (using real crocodile skin brought by the Turks during negotiations with the Hapsburgs in the 1600s) hanging from the ceiling underneath Brno's city hall.

And outside City Hall you can find these decorative spires. Local lore has it that the city short-changed the sculptor, so he retaliated by making the middle spire crooked — and placing a curse upon anyone who tried to fix it. So they just left it like that.

And outside City Hall you can find these decorative spires. Local lore has it that the city short-changed the sculptor, so he retaliated by making the middle spire crooked — and placing a curse upon anyone who tried to fix it. So they just left it like that.

Hey look, another balcony where Hitler made a speech (on the left). Queen Elizabeth of England visited the city in 1996 and refused to use the same balcony as Hitler to greet the people, so she stood on the righthand balcony. Good for her.

Hey look, another balcony where Hitler made a speech (on the left). Queen Elizabeth of England visited the city in 1996 and refused to use the same balcony as Hitler to greet the people, so she stood on the righthand balcony. Good for her.

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!

I feel like it would be in bad taste to make a One-Eyed Willie joke, so I won't.

I feel like it would be in bad taste to make a One-Eyed Willie joke, so I won't.

Bones arranged to form the shield of the house that bought this ossuary in the 19th century. Note the bird pecking out the eye of a skull of a Turkish invader in the bottom right quarter.

Bones arranged to form the shield of the house that bought this ossuary in the 19th century. Note the bird pecking out the eye of a skull of a Turkish invader in the bottom right quarter.

Prague

Looking up at Castle Prague from the famous Charles Bridge. That sprawling white structure is the castle; the big cathedral at the top is part of the castle complex too.

Looking up at Castle Prague from the famous Charles Bridge. That sprawling white structure is the castle; the big cathedral at the top is part of the castle complex too.

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.

The Charles Bridge was originally built in the 12th century, making it the oldest stone bridge in Europe. Rebuilt by Charles IV in the 14th century and named after him (he's one of their favorite kings. Of course, it's worth noting that they were ruled by the Habsburgs down in Austria from the mid-1500s all the way until 1918, so it's not like they've had a lot of their own Czech kings to choose from over the last half-millenium). The tower at the end of the bridge was built in the 1200s and marks the entrance to the old city.

The Charles Bridge was originally built in the 12th century, making it the oldest stone bridge in Europe. Rebuilt by Charles IV in the 14th century and named after him (he's one of their favorite kings. Of course, it's worth noting that they were ruled by the Habsburgs down in Austria from the mid-1500s all the way until 1918, so it's not like they've had a lot of their own Czech kings to choose from over the last half-millenium). The tower at the end of the bridge was built in the 1200s and marks the entrance to the old city.

This is one of Prague's most famous landmarks - the top astrological clock dates to 1410. Every hour, the two little blue windows above the clock open up and these little wooden saints march across the open windows on a carousel, and every hour dozens or hundreds of people gather to watch and take photos. I mean, people get really excited about this.

This is one of Prague's most famous landmarks - the top astrological clock dates to 1410. Every hour, the two little blue windows above the clock open up and these little wooden saints march across the open windows on a carousel, and every hour dozens or hundreds of people gather to watch and take photos. I mean, people get really excited about this.

St. Vitus' Cathedral in the Prague Castle complex. This was a pretty ridiculous church stuffed with impressive relics. The church was founded around 930 and the old part of the cathedral was built in 1388, but they didn't actually finish the whole thing as originally envisioned until 1929. Eat your heart out, Big Dig! (I'm getting a lot of mileage out of that joke).

St. Vitus' Cathedral in the Prague Castle complex. This was a pretty ridiculous church stuffed with impressive relics. The church was founded around 930 and the old part of the cathedral was built in 1388, but they didn't actually finish the whole thing as originally envisioned until 1929. Eat your heart out, Big Dig! (I'm getting a lot of mileage out of that joke).

After John Lennon was shot, this artwork spontaneously appeared on a wall in Prague. The communists tried repeatedly to paint over it, but the Lennon Wall kept reappearing. Nowadays, something new is added to it every day. The man in the stocking cap is playing Lennon songs for tips.

After John Lennon was shot, this artwork spontaneously appeared on a wall in Prague. The communists tried repeatedly to paint over it, but the Lennon Wall kept reappearing. Nowadays, something new is added to it every day. The man in the stocking cap is playing Lennon songs for tips.

Remember that Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas? It's about St. Wenceslas, one of the most important figures in Czech history. He was killed by his brother in 929 in a power struggle, and later made into a saint. This room in the St. Vitus cathedral is his tomb. In another even older church next door, you can find the tomb of his grandmother, who strangled herself to death after her daughter-in-law (Wencelsas' mother) sent people to kill her some years earlier. They sound like a lovely family.

Remember that Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas? It's about St. Wenceslas, one of the most important figures in Czech history. He was killed by his brother in 929 in a power struggle, and later made into a saint. This room in the St. Vitus cathedral is his tomb. In another even older church next door, you can find the tomb of his grandmother, who strangled herself to death after her daughter-in-law (Wencelsas' mother) sent people to kill her some years earlier. They sound like a lovely family.

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.

Great view from the ramparts of Castle Prague.

Great view from the ramparts of Castle Prague.

The main square in Prague's old town is dominated by the beautiful baroque church whose towers you see silhouetted at sunset here. It's called St. Nicholas, and it was completed in 1755.

The main square in Prague's old town is dominated by the beautiful baroque church whose towers you see silhouetted at sunset here. It's called St. Nicholas, and it was completed in 1755.

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!