It’s become a tradition in my family to take an overseas trip together every other year, where all five of us (myself and husband, our daughter – almost 15! – and my parents) trek off to some place we’ve never been for two weeks to explore and spend time together. This time around it was Central Europe, which I began planning before joining the CTTW team. It was a bit of serendipity that, shortly after I began working for Caroline, she came back from Budapest saying, “you MUST stay at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace!” And she was right. From our warm welcome upon arrival to every detail (the water placed bedside at night, the phone charging cords wound tightly and tucked out of the way!) that made our visit special and comfortable, to the wonderful cocktails, it was an ideal place to call home for a few nights.
Budapest is a city that’s easy to love but even more so when you understand its history and culture. The private half-day walking tour we took with Greta from Context Tours was informative, fun, and the perfect introduction to a city we knew too little about. And then, that evening, we passed many beautiful historic buildings as we cruised the Danube on a private wooden boat. There are few things I like more than being greeted by a friendly face and a glass of champagne, so imagine how happy I was to spend an hour watching the sunset over the Danube and the glittering lights of the Parliament building reflecting on the water, all while being served glasses of bubbly from the young man my daughter gushingly referred to later as “really cute”.
We begrudgingly left Gresham Palace behind and took the train (fast, easy, punctual and clean) to Vienna. Wandering a new city by foot is possibly my favorite activity in the whole world, and Vienna really delivered. Not only is it historically interesting and littered with stunning architecture, but the food far surpassed my expectations. Fearing that our choices would be limited to schnitzel and sausages (which we ate with abandon anyway) we were pleasantly surprised that we found healthy options too. Neni in the Naschtmarkt has amazing falafel, and the 1901 Art Nouveau conservatory which is now Palmenhaus restaurant provided a perfect brunch including pristine berries and farm-fresh eggs. Our favorite dinner in Vienna was the few hours we spent in the window booth of the Stephen’s Room at Zum Weisser Rauchfangkehrer, or White Chimney Sweep. Starting with salads (I loved how Austrian salads had pickled, shredded beets and what I can only refer to as “potato salad” layered underneath fresh, dressed lettuces like a salad surprise) and cured trout, we ended up having, among other things, the best schnitzel of the entire trip. The food was great but the staff was better. Our waiter was insanely charming even as he described his love for TGI Fridays and the manager walked us through an impromptu schnapps tasting to round out the night. A restaurant not to be missed.
Last stop on our journey was Prague, a city that seems straight out of a fairy tale. This UNESCO World Heritage site is sprawling and its historic core brings throngs of tourists (and strangely lots of British bachelor parties), but who can blame them when you look around at the Baroque, Gothic and Art Nouveau splendor surrounding you. After seeing the historic sites and elbowing through the tourists, we needed a quieter spot. The Convent of St. Agnes provided the perfect escape. Founded in 1231 by princess, later saint, Agnes of Bohemia, this nearly silent refuge is now home to a medieval art museum, modern art installations, a small café and the shockingly un-touristed grave of King Wenceslas I. The gardens and ancient architecture are the perfect escape from the crowds.
While walking to the convent we stumbled upon one our favorite stops on the whole trip, Speculum Alchemiae, the Museum of Alchemy housed in the 2nd oldest house in Prague (built around 900 AD). Below this is the secret alchemy workshop used by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II in the 16th century, discovered only after the floods of 2002. You can now tour the cellars and see the original furnace used for distillation of ingredients to make elixirs for Rudolph himself.
This part of Europe was just as much a delight for my family as France, Italy, Spain and the UK have been. I can’t wait to return some day and explore even deeper into the region.
Caroline Travels the World…And So Can You.