To travel between Prague and Vienna, two of Central Europe’s great capital cities, is also to travel in time. In Prague it is difficult to ignore a sense of bygone grandeur, of turn-of-the-century decadence. Half an afternoon in Vienna and you’ll find nothing odd about riding in a horse and carriage. In between, the Czech Republic is in hot pursuit of the 21st century after decades of Soviet Occupation. Austria, by contrast, is the definition of laid back. The traces of Habsburg opulence are everywhere you look, as unmistakable as the din of glassware over a beer garden.
Every journey needs a starting point, and ours begins in Prague. Its windy medieval streets stand uniquely unscathed by the devastation of the Second World War, but all too familiar with Cold War tanks. The national heroes are to be found on coffee shop bookshelves. Beleaguered intellectuals, anti-regime agitators, poets and writers that sought solace in the absurd. The architecture is a potpourri of medieval gems, Art Nouveu masterpieces and the odd piece of brutalist Soviet concrete intervention. Our interest piqued, we head into the countryside. But not before stopping for a pivo, the Czech national beverage, not our first.
Don’t Just Take His Word For It
Lewis no doubt has a way with words, but in a corner of Europe where resplendence is the rule, not the exception, these two capitals need to be seen to be believed. Click below for a detailed itinerary that will get you in deep and up close.
Classic European fairy tales, the ones with evil looking houses on chicken legs, were born in these majestic, brooding forests. A network of tree-lined roads, highways of the ancient Skoda, connect countless hamlets, each with its own carp pond, minuscule train station and statue of a forgotten martyr invaded by lichen. In the evenings street lights spend pools of yellow light. Frenetic Gypsy music drifting from a tavern reminds us that the devil laughs last. Maybe Kafka wasn’t only making things up.
Eventually we arrive in Austria and with it into the 19th century. A 19th century with perfectly asphalted bicycle paths. The term here is Kulturlandschaft. Implied is a landscape that for thousands of years has been carefully modelled by human hand. The facades of houses are hand painted and adorned with decorative woodwork. In vineyards, stone terraces clamber up valley walls defying both gravity and notions of sensible economic yield. Giant fronds of geraniums cut through the landscape like brushstrokes of bright colour and church bells are made to toll at the drop of a Hut. The inhabitants are bon vivant. A prolonged breakfast, wine with lunch, a detour to whichever Heuriger is serving the best Grüner Veltliner. After a few days in the Wachau, we’ll have our own opinions on the latter.
Vienna requires little introduction. Imperial heart of the Habsburg Empire, refined and grand, but also and to this day, a European crossroads. Perhaps the world’s classiest border city. In Vienna we’ll pass below the balcony from which Empress Sissi observed royal life at the Hofburg. I suggest we raise an acknowledging hand, and while carefully avoiding the evidence of the many horse-drawn carriages, make our way to the Hotel Sacher, where a piece of Sacher Torte and a Vienna coffee await. Sacher Torte; deeply chocolaty with a hint of apricot and a veneer of icing. A tale of two cities—and as many cakes.
About the Author
Veteran B&R Guide Lewis Evans can ask for a coffee in five European languages. And while this often results in him being served a crusty cheese sandwich, he’s terrific at pretending that’s what he ordered.