The Austro-Hungarian Empire

February 28, 2010 · Posted in Travel · Comments Off on The Austro-Hungarian Empire 

A few weekends back I traveled to three new countries in the continuing quest to see 100 countries and all 7 continents.  My stops were Bratislava in Slovakia, Budapest in Hungary, and Vienna in Austria.  People see the itinerary and ask “Why would you go to Bratislava?”  Because it’s cheap to fly into, that’s why.

But let’s start there.  Bratislava.  Say it a few times.  Let it pounce off your tongue like it’s going to attack someone.  If I heard someone say “I am Ivan, am from country Slovakia, from city called Bratislava” in an obviously heavy and fake accent, I’d turn and run the other way.  It’s a scary place, this former Soviet bloc country.  Very dark and foreboding…everything is leftover from the Soviet occupation.  I mean, when I left the airport I even drove past….

…an IKEA.

And a Nike store, and McDonalds, Marks & Spencer, and a host of other Western stores anyone would immediately recognize.  My hostel didn’t have room numbers.  It had cute pictures of animals.  Mine was a ladybug.  (Not an animal as we’d recognize it but still an insect and most people find them cute.)  I’ve felt more scared walking to the Dunkin Donuts near my house at Clark and Division to buy coffee on a Sunday morning.

Now it should be noted that the movie “Hostel” does actually take place in Bratislava.  Seeing as how I was staying there on my own, my exchange friends were worried I was going to get raped, murdered, or worse.  I think it’s a pretty universal truth that there’s no raping or murdering going on when there are ladybugs adoring the walls.  So I was safe.

The town itself was very pretty, if a bit cold.  It was winter, after all.  I wandered around through streets I didn’t know, saw buildings I didn’t recognize, past churches I didn’t go into, up to a castle I know nothing about.  This is what happens when you are slightly unprepared for your trip.  My pre-dinner walk ended in a cafe with some locals singing opera at the top of their lungs.

Dinner was good…kebab of meats and veggies…most of which were wrapped in bacon, which is the proper way to do anything.  Washed it all down with some local beer, and headed to an early bed.   A few pictures below…

Next up was Budapest.  Budapest is in Hungary, famous for paprika, having the highest concentration of geniuses per capita, an inordinate number of Nobel Prize winners, and consistently losing wars to the Romans, Ottomans, Habsburgs….etc.  It’s actually two separate towns that merged a while back.  Buda, which means “where the castle is” and Pest, which means “where the rest of the city is.”  I also think there’s some stuff about killing vampires in its history somewhere…but I’m currently too lazy to back that up.  Overall it’s a very interesting mix of Austrian/German/Turkish/Soviet influence, blending both east and west cultures in a very different way than Istanbul.

One thing is exactly the same.  That scam that happened to me in Istanbul?  Apparently it’s very very common in Budapest.  Didn’t let myself get suckered into paying 200 Euro for one drink this time, however.

The first day was spent wandering around the Pest side, starting with the street Vaci Utca and the market at the end of said street.

After the market I visited St. Stephen’s basilica, the Hungarian Parliament building, and wandered around the city center some more.  I was starting to get a bit cold so I popped in to a little cafe to have some mulled wine, a specialty you can find just about everywhere in Budapest.  Definitely one of my favorite parts.  The best meal of my trip was this night, at a restaurant serving pretty traditional Hungarian foods called the Bagolyvár.  It was the sister restaurant (and less expensive at that) to Gundel, which everyone was recommending.  The meal started off with a plate of traditional cheese lightly grilled, served over a walnut and fruit ragout.  I moved on to a traditional Hungarian soup, which, while pretty standard from a beef soup point of view in terms of ingredients, had an amazing paprika and cinnamon flavor to the broth that made it really stand out.  My main course was a beautifully reddish veal stew, again flavored with a heavy dose of paprika.  I rounded it off with a chocolate cake, and slowly rolled myself home through downtown Budapest.

Cheeses with walnut and fruit ragout

Veal stew


The following day, my last day in Budapest, it sleeted basically the entire day.  I was able to see the castle, the history museum, and a few other things, but mostly I was concerned with catching an earlier train to Vienna.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Vienna, but this was my favorite of the trip.  First of all, you have the Habsburgs building all sorts of empire-like things (palaces, etc) here so that’s pretty cool.  Add to that some delicious encased meats, great beers, and you’ve got the makings of a world class city.

When I arrived, I walked into what I thought was my hostel, but was actually a different branch of the Wombat hostel I was staying in.  It looked very cool, there was music playing, I could hear the sounds of a bar somewhere in the vicinity, and it was all brightly colored.  As I walked out to find the actual place I was staying, there was a giant sign on one of the doors that just said “SEX” in giant letters.  Below that word it said “Please use other door.”  Yeah…I’m gonna like Vienna.

I trudge through the snow a few more blocks and end up at my hostel.  It’s almost 9:00 pm at this point and I’m pretty tired by this point.  I head to my room where….everyone is already asleep.  This was a common occurrence throughout this trip – people asleep at 9:00 at night and waking up at ungodly hours of the morning.  I’m not talking 10:00 a.m. – I’m talking 5:00 a.m.  Who does that?  I guarantee you, no tourist sites are open at 5:00 a.m.  This is Europe, after all.

Not being able to do anything in my room, I leave my bag in my locker and head down to the bar.  At check-in, Wombat gives you a free beer.  Not a bad deal.  So I grab a meal and a couple of beers, ready to call it an early night.  Two American girls sit down next to me, and we start talking.  Turns out, they’re Univ of Michigan students, studying in Prague for the next few months.  Of course they are.  Wolverines are everywhere, because we’re awesome.  (Or maybe because we have a large school and a huge alumni base, but I think it’s because we are awesome.)  They’re rooming with some Scotts on vacation after graduating from law school, and before long the bartender starts handing out free shots.  When I ask him what it is, he responds “It’s an Austrian herbal thing, don’t worry.”  Right – that’s how you wake up in a prison in Bucharest, not wearing any shoes and smelling like you’ve been on a farm all day long.

Thankfully, we woke up in our hostel in Vienna, not in Romania on accident.  The five of us headed out to see Vienna a bit, despite blistering cold.  First up was the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer retreat of the Habsburg dynasty.  Very cool, but photography is not allowed inside so…that’s why we have Google images.

Next up was the Naschmarkt, a local farmer’s market that has grown up to include restaurants, kebab stands, spice vendors, and a large number of now permanent buildings selling all sorts of edible wares.

On the urging of my dad, I stopped for a Turkish kebab – 3 Euro for a sandwich that will rival anything you find at Katz’s deli or Manny’s in Chicago.  Huge, piping hot, stuffed with all sort of delicious condiment and vegetable…you have to sample if you’re here.

After a few more sites, a few stops for beers, wine, coffee, etc, I spotted something I’d been looking forward to finding in Vienna.

In Chicago, there is a cafe called Julius Meinl and it is the first of its kind in the US.  JM is a Viennese coffee company selling some of the finest coffees you can obtain in commercial form.  Obviously picking and roasting the beans yourself would be better, but if you’re doing that you probably have no time to read my blog, so please don’t start picking your own beans.  The furniture inside is imported from Vienna and the cafe itself exudes a legitimate European atmosphere.

When I saw the giant letters spelling out Julius Meinl at the end of a square, I had to stop in.  I figured I would end up paying roughly $18 for a cappuccino but I didn’t care.  I needed to go to the source.

As the picture shows above, with your cappuccino you receive a trio of sugars, a small glass of water, and a small bit of silky dark chocolate.  And it didn’t cost an arm and a leg.  Much more than a cafe, however, the store itself is a complete gourmet food store.  Much like Peck in Milan or EATaly in Torino, it had a high-end restaurant on the top floor, a large wine section, and more chocolate than even the most committed chocoholic can stand.

Satiated from kebabs, chocolates, coffee, spiced wine, we wandered back to our hostel in time for happy hour at the bar.  Which, you know where this is going by now, lasted at least 4 or 5 hours.

The next day was mine to see Vienna for a few hours before heading back to Milan…and the beginning of Fashion Week.  It’s a rough life over here…