Last week, my parents, my aunt, and I returned from 2 weeks in Europe. It was a trip originally scheduled for August 2020, and in all honesty, we didn’t truly believe this trip would happen until we got on the plane to Budapest. We traveled with Viking (for the second time) and sailed the Danube from Budapest to Regensburg, with an extension in Prague. It was an amazing trip, and I could go on for days with the pictures and the stories. But maybe a few highlights are all you really need?
Traveling during Covid
On the one hand, it is incredibly stressful to fly internationally during Covid. The paperwork has to be exactly right (our pre-flight PCR test didn’t have the right letters after the test type, which resulted in panic, a call to our doctor, and a nice visit with the lady at the Hilton reception desk to print out updated versions of our test.) Lufthansa handed us specific masks to wear on the way over.
On the other hand, actually being in Europe felt incredibly safe–or at least safer than Texas. We tested every day on the boat, and Viking made significant upgrades to the ventilation system. Hungary had an 85% vaccination rate. Austria and Germany required showing your vaccination cards before being handed a menu and also specified the type of mask. Indoor masking was just about universal. It was glorious!
The Lingering Impact of Communism
Often, before a trip like this, I read up on the area we’re visiting, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. But I didn’t do it this time, since it was just hard to believe the trip would actually happen. So, as we explored Hungary and later the Czech Republic, I spent a lot of time trying to remember college history classes from 20 years ago. During our trip 3 years ago, we didn’t visit any former Communist countries, so I hadn’t really though about what a difference that would make on this trip. Hungary and the Czech Republic were both just a wee bit grubbier–and much cheaper. It seemed that neither had fared as well during the pandemic as Germany and Austria–a lot more boarded up businesses.
It was also interesting to hear from our local guides some of their personal stories about living during Communist Rule–as well as the gradual shift away. We didn’t make it to the two main Communism museums in the cities we visited (House of Terror in Budapest and the Communism Museum in Prague), but if I ever get back to that part of the world, it’s something I’d like to explore further.
We just happened to be in Budapest on Hungary’s birthday–the day over 1000 years ago that the nation was formed. Unfortunately, this meant a few things we wanted to do were closed (the big market) and other things were very, very crowded (Buda Castle).
We got over these mild inconveniences, because we knew fireworks were coming. On the Danube. And we would have the best seats of anyone, since we were on the rooftop deck of our boat.
I wish someone had translated, as I know I would have gotten a great history lesson–and you could tell the fireworks were telling a story, as the colors shifted through the show. There aren’t words to describe how spectacular it was. I think we all teared up, even though there wasn’t a drop of Hungarian blood in us. And now, whenever we see fireworks, we’ll be those really annoying people who say “These aren’t as good as the fireworks I saw over the Danube.”
The Hapsburg Empire
If we had had a nickel for every time the Hapsburgs were mentioned, we could have paid for our trip. Every beautiful cathedral or palace or museum was built by the Hapsburgs. I was particularly taken with Maria Theresia, the only female ruler, who reigned for 40 years and had 16 children. And then proceeded to strategically marry them off, including Marie Antoinette (that one didn’t go as well!). And then there was Empress Sissi, who was apparently the Princess Diana of her day, all the way down to being tragically killed. My biggest question: where is the Masterpiece and/or Netflix series about this royal family?
Preservation and Restoration
It didn’t seem to matter which country we were in–scaffolding was everywhere! Though there was plenty of new construction, there was also an incredible amount of restoration and recreation. At Buda Castle, they had already successfully rebuilt many key structures that were destroyed during World War II–and they were still going! There were signs along the construction fencing showing historic photos of what was there, the aftermath of WWII bombings, and the current plans to rebuild. This became a recurring theme, and I couldn’t help but think about the extraordinary amount of money this represented, as well as how unlikely something like this would be in the US.
In Regensburg, I was lucky enough to have a private tour, so I asked my guide about the amount of preservation work happening. At first she apologized “It’s always like this–you didn’t come at the wrong time.” I quickly assured her that scaffolding made me very happy! She said it was a mixture of government funding, as well as church funding–no real mention of private donors by her. And that there was a huge market for stone masons and the like.
However, when we visited Kunta Hora, a small town in the Czech Republic, we learned that Phillip Morris had spent a lot of money restoring various parts of the town, including a chapel, silver mine, and some parts of the Medieval center. However, they weren’t allowed any major signage, just small plaques that were strategically scattered. It was very strange to encounter an American tobacco company in the Czech countryside.
Coming soon–part two, in which I’ll talk a bit about some of the museums we visited.