The last couple of weeks flew by (literally) as we traveled across Eastern Europe by trains, buses and cabs, braving the weather, living outside our inadequately packed suitcases (which carried very little warm clothes), hopping from one hotel to another and admiring the plethora of cobbled streets, churches, gardens, rivers and architectural wonders on our way.
For a journey which began with boarding the wrong train from a desolate Munich station on an unusually cold May morning and ended with arguing with the crew on Lufthansa (I would strongly recommend avoiding the Frankurt-Mumbai Lufthansa route for multiple reasons which don’t really deserve a post on), there were a host of experiences in between, some of which left us spellbound, some of which shocked the very core of our beliefs and some of which made us realize how fortunate we are.
So we traveled from Munich to Salzburg to Vienna to Budapest to Prague to Krakow to Berlin, finally boarding our last flight from Frankfurt, covering five countries in a span of two weeks. While we didn’t do justice to each of these countries, especially Hungary (I definitely need to go back there again), I would rather remember this trip for visiting six different cities rather than their respective locations.
Salzburg: For a small city overshadowed by its more glamorous and cosmopolitan cousin, Vienna, it has its own charm, most famous for being the birthplace of the noted musician Mozart. So everywhere you go, you would find something named after him, be it hotels, streets, cafes and of course the elaborately designed Mozart Square which takes your breath away. But the irony lies in the fact that Mozart never really liked Salzburg and spent most of his life traveling around, since he found the city too deficient in terms of arts and culture. The other reason which makes Salzburg so popular is Sound of Music. If you have seen the movie, then you would identify with the landmarks where parts of the movie were shot: for instance, Mirabell Gardens and Mirabell Palace, where Maria and the children sing 'Do-Re-Mi’, Hellbrunn Palace and the beautiful Lake District. While the film is based on a true story, Hollywood being Hollywood changed bits and pieces of it, which were more evident now that we visited the real house of the Von Trapp family, heard the real stories and understood the real characters a little better.
Vienna: To begin with, you can be in Vienna for a week, and still not be able to explore the city the way you would want to. So in the two days that we spent in the city, we probably just got a glimpse of everything that it has to offer, without really savouring it the way we would have liked to. From the grand buildings of the Rathaus [City Hall], the Austrian Parliament, the Natural History Museum, the Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum), and the State Opera House, the treasure trove of paintings and carvings at the Schönbrunn Palace, the leisurely walk by the Wien river while exploring hidden gems like the St. Stephens Cathedral or the Anchor Clock, the tragic history of Mayerling in Vienna Woods to the Austrian delicacies at Rosenberger, it was all too quick, too little and yet too much crammed in too little time.
Budapest: I shouldn’t even be writing about it, since we barely spent a day here, rushing through both Buda and Pest, only stopping for a little while to enjoy the authentic Goulash soup by the Danube river. But Budapest really has much more to offer than the impressive Heroes Square, Fishermen's Bastion with the Mathias Church or the House of Parliament that we saw. After all, it IS the Paris of the East. And like they say, there are two kinds of people in Budapest: one that lives in Buda and the other that WANTS to live in Buda (i.e. the Pestians), but typical tourists as we were, we didn’t manage to see either very well.
Prague: Now this is one city which was definitely one of the major highlights of the trip. I simply loved everything about the city: the old world charm with all its impressive architecture, the St. Vitus Cathedral, the boat ride through the Vltava river, Franz Kafkas’s birthplace right in the middle of a busy street, Ivan Lendl’s presence all over the city and the Astronomical Clock which is as astronomical as the people and their appetites. In our eagerness to devour Czech food, we ordered three dishes, managing to finish only half of all the pork ribs, trout and goose preparations. We also visited the slightly creepy but nevertheless attractive Bone Church in the UNESCO heritage site of Kutna Hora, about an hour away from Prague. We also managed to lose an entire bottle of Black Label, and like seasoned alcoholics, my parents argued over whose fault it was, while I maintained a pious and detached silence, though it was killing me inside.
Krakow: Some time back, if you had asked me to go to Krakow in Poland, I would look at you the same way I would look at Salman Khan. On a cow. But not anymore. Apart from being a popular low-cost nearshoring destination for MNCs, it does have a lot of history too. Like the Wawell Castle, Kazimierz (the Old Jewish town), the Cloth House (Europe’s primitive shopping mall which is still one of the best places to buy souvenirs), St. Mary’s Church and the salt mines. And then you also have the place where Pope John Paul II, the first Polish Pope, used to meet his followers.
But of course, the main reason to go to Krakow is Auschwitz, just about an hour away. Nothing, I repeat nothing you read on the internet or the books or the movies/videos you watch on TV/Youtube can prepare you for the blood-curdling atrocities committed in this place. As I listened to the grave narratives of the tour guide, as I saw the left-overs of the inhuman torture barely seventy years back (the human hair, shoes, clothes, teeth) and the remains of the traumatic conditions (bunk beds, wooden planks, toilets) and as I put the pieces together trying to get a picture of what the victims were going through, I failed hopelessly, numbed by a cold shiver down my spine. Work does NOT set you free, rather it makes you a slave. Auschwitz is NOT a tourist place, rather it’s a solemn reminder of the millions of people who not only lost their lives, but lost it brutally.
Berlin: If I had to describe the city in human terms, it would Cinderella: a city which is different from the picturesque landscapes of its more fortunate cousins, a city repeatedly ravaged in wars, a city which has been through enough struggles, a city which has stood like a wall, in spite of the making and breaking of another. So despite the awful weather (probably as bad as the worst November day), despite the plastic sheets and machines (the city is under a major renovation) and despite the horrible traffic which moves slower than Ravichandran Ashwin, Berlin stole my heart: Checkpoint Charlie, the Reichstag, the remains of the Berlin Wall, Potsdam Platz, Hitler's bunker and of course, the historic Brandenburg Gate, all of which made me laugh and cry at the same time.
It was a trip of conflicting sights and emotions, it was a trip of the ghosts of past blending with the angels of the future, it was a trip which merged hopes and promises with despair and anguish.
It was a trip of a lifetime...