By the ninth day of our recent swing through parts Europe, on the third leg of the trip, I began to hit the wall. This happened in Munich. We had arrived there the night before, following a six-hour train ride from Prague. Before Prague, we visited Vienna. In total we would spend 12 days on the road, during one of the hottest, driest, busiest summers in recent memory.
This kind of travel, in these kinds of cities, creates a certain amount of sensory overload, full of sights, sounds, food, people, traffic, heat, sweat, queues, shops, restaurants, bars, beers…
What I needed was to sit down some place quiet and turn my brain and body off for a little while. That turned out to be quite the challenge. You don’t find a lot of quiet places in bustling European cities during the summer – especially when it’s the first summer in three years that the masses could travel free and easy without a laundry list of COVID-19 restrictions.
Every city we hit thrummed with the energy of a Broadway musical housed inside a Vegas casino, the streets crammed with folks either laughing or shouting or singing or smoking or all of the above, all at the same time. Most of the cafes were packed, as were the plazas, as were the bars and stores. Meanwhile, the temps edged toward 100 degrees Fahrenheit, at least in Vienna, and the sun splashed down in great torrents of searing solar radiation.
It was all very exciting – and draining. It was nice to see people out and about again, traveling the world after a couple years of pandemic-induced hibernation. But after a week-and-a-half of this excitement, I was ready to go catatonic for a while.
Luckily, fortune smiled on the weary in Munich.
We happened upon a nice, Zen-lite spot following a tour of the Residenzmuseum, aka the Munich Residence, a sprawling palace that served as the seat of government and residence of the Bavarian dukes, electors, and kings from 1508 to 1918.
Located behind the museum is the Hofgarten (Court Garden), a lovely and serene park filled with trees, flowers, and manicured lawns. I spotted a shaded atrium and led our family straight to it, where we found seats. Soon after, a pair of Gen Z musicians showed up – a violinist and pianist. They commenced to break into song, juggling classical melodies with classical takes on pop standards (I recognized two: Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”).
The duo played for an hour or so, entrancing the crowd that came and went, collecting tips, and providing a much-needed respite from the hurley-burley of travel. The music, sweet and melodic, provided just the right tonic. There is something very calming about planting yourself on your ass for an hour in a quiet park while somebody else plays music into your ear.
To the musicians, whoever and wherever you are…..
We had planned to take this trip in 2020, but COVID wiped out those plans. So, we booked the trip again this year (rather, my wife did, being the expert travel planner on this side of the pond). We flew from London to Vienna, where we spent four nights. Next, we took a train to Prague, where we spent three nights, then took a train to Munich for four more nights before jetting back to London.
We’ve made several of these excursions since moving to London in early 2018. Our first year here we did a Paris/Strasbourg/Zurich/Milan trip. A couple years later we hit Marrakesh and Lisbon, followed by Edinburgh/Glasgow. Peppered among these trips were visits to Brussels, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Belfast, Copenhagen, and various English burgs.
One thing we have discovered while traveling around Europe is that just about every city is a framed postcard taken straight off a Hollywood movie set and sprinkled with magical charm dust. The urban beauty in this part of the world seems endless and boundless – gorgeous architecture and plazas, cobblestone streets and walkways, green spaces, little side alleys with impossibly cute shops and cafes.
If you’ve never been in this part of the world, do come.
Herewith my quick takes on the three cities we just visited.
In terms of sheer grandeur, it’s hard to beat Vienna. The place practically oozes opulence and splendor. We stayed at Le Méridien in the center city, not far from the Wiener Staatsoper, the famous opera house built in the 1860s. The hotel was also located near a couple of smallish parks. That’s a big plus for folks like myself who can while away the time just sitting on a park bench in a foreign land, soaking up the vibe.
One of the parks was located near the Butterfly House, which is where you’ll find lots and lots of exotic butterflies – hence the name, “Butterfly House.” Our daughters especially like these kinds of places. They enjoyed this one, too, for about five minutes, before the combination of the sweltering heat outside and the intense humidity inside nearly turned us all into human sponges.
We also hit the Museum of Natural History, where we saw lots of dead and stuffed animals, insects, and sea creatures from all around the world, so that was kind of cool.
I’m not much of a tourist guy, even though I like to travel. This means I forget the names of all the famous landmarks I pass about 7 seconds after I pass them. I will say that Vienna has more than its share of dazzling and historic palaces, cathedrals, museums, etc.
We visited the nearby Albertina Museum, a refreshingly relaxed and welcoming place that had an excellent collection of works from French impressionists (Monet, Degas, Cezanne) as well as Picasso, Warhol, and various other artistic big shots. It was nice to visit a museum where you don’t worry that the hired help will scold you any second for breaking one of their 3,800 rules.
Much of our time was spent just kicking around the center city, darting in and out of shops and eateries. Vienna is a very walkable city, and walk we did, for miles at a time, in what I believe were record high temperatures. I don’t think we took transit once during our five days and four nights there.
It’s a good thing we did all that walking, too, because I commenced a torrid love affair with Vienna’s calorie-packed food during our stay. My favorites were wiener schnitzel (a breaded and fried veal, pork or chicken cutlet), beef goulash with gravy, and sausages full of fat and flavor. For those who don’t consume meat, Vienna also has plenty of vegan options. We did hit some salad and sushi spots just to balance out all the other stuff.
I became a fan of Austrian pilsner, which is light and refreshing.
I got to enjoy both pilsner and wiener schnitzel during a 90-minute cruise our family took down the Danube and one of its connecting canals. We sat downstairs, right by the window and away from the crowd. I would recommend doing this if you find yourself in Vienna.
Vienna, like many European cities, tends to close early, at least compared to cities in the United States, where you can usually find 24-hour diners and plenty of late-night drinking or coffee/dessert establishments. Around 10 p.m. just about all the shops and cafes in Vienna are closed, even the dessert spots. I always found this odd over on this side of the world.
Also: Vienna is expensive as all f**k, so be sure to pack lots of euros.
Also: You’ll have no problem getting by with English here. Everyone speaks it.
After our visit to Vienna, it was time to board the train and head to…
Is this the most stunning city in the world? I don’t know, not having visited most of the world. But it might be the most stunning city I’ve ever seen in terms of architecture and views. Every time you turn around, some magnificent building or hillside vista is staring back at you. Prague has long been on my bucket list, and it’s worth the visit just for the views alone.
Again, we stayed in a center-city hotel, the Grand Hotel Bohemia, so we could be close to the action. And action, my friends, there was plenty of.
Prague might or might not be the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely on the short list of the busiest and most crowded. I assume much of this has to do with the tourist trade, which is huge in Prague. The streets and businesses were packed full of happy humans spending Czech koruna (no Euros here).
Prague is another walkable city, and the best way to get around is on your feet. It’s much more of a party town than Vienna, chock full of bars, revelers, bohemians, and whatever they’re calling hipsters these days. There’s a major beer and cannabis culture, affordable hostels, and some fairly cheap eating options, so young people tend to make pilgrimages here from all over. One bar organized nightly pub crawls for whoever wanted to join.
Prague also offers many family options, including a game arcade our daughters whiled away a few hours in. It’s much cheaper than Vienna, with lots of shops where you can find items for half of what you would elsewhere. My wife found a couple of very nice garnet rings that cost way less than they probably should.
One day we hiked it over to the Vltava River, where you can sit in relative quiet for a few minutes, and where the views simply spin your head around. I’m sure people in Europe take these views for granted. They probably do in other cities as well, whether it’s Cape Town, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Kyoto, or some other place that makes those lists of Most Beautiful Cities in the World. But for us folks from the States, where many of the cities look just like the last one and the next one, it’s pretty damn amazing.
Prague’s food is similar to that of Vienna (and Munich) in that you can find delicious wiener schnitzel, sausages, and goulash. But – surprise! – we also found a good Mexican restaurant there, which I immediately demanded we eat in (it was right by the game arcade, too. So: win-win for the fam).
Like Vienna, you’ll have no problem getting by with English in Prague.
After three nights in Prague, it was time to hop the train to….
We arrived here on our eighth day of the trip, when my aging self had begun to show its aging self. What I mainly wanted to do was sit at the hotel bar for the next four days, so I compromised by planting myself there for a couple hours in the early evenings.
We stayed at the Platzl Hotel in Old Town, a good spot to see some of the local attractions. Chief among them is the Rathaus-Glockenspiel, a tourist attraction clock in Marienplatz, the heart of Old Munchen.
I would say that, on the whole, Munich is a little less interesting than either Vienna or Prague, and by that, I mean a lot less interesting. The architecture and streetscapes are humdrum in comparison – nothing to be ashamed of, considering that almost everywhere is humdrum in comparison. I guess there’s nothing much about Munich that stands out for me. There’s shopping aplenty, and some open-air markets where you can buy food and souvenirs.
I stopped at one of the souvenir kiosks and bought a souvenir refrigerator magnet – it’s a thing of mine, I have dozens of them from different cities we’ve visited, don’t judge – and the nice woman there berated me for not speaking German or Bavarian or whatever.
What happened is, I handed her a 50-euro note because that was what the ATM gives you. She didn’t like that and said, “This a problem.”
So I said I’m sorry, I could go somewhere else if need be.
And she responded with something along the lines of: “Beepity boppity boo boo what? I don’t understand English slang! Over here we speak German, Bavarian! Where you are from speak how you like, but here speak our language!”
Keep in mind: I’m in a tourist district, buying a souvenir refrigerator magnet at a souvenir kiosk where probably 95% of her business comes from folks who don’t live in German-speaking countries. And she is upset because Ich spreche kein Deutsch.
Anyway, she called to mind some of the assholes back in the States who berate immigrants for not speaking better English, so in that sense she reminded me of home. Danke, fraulein!
On the bright side, we did eat some good food in Munich – more wiener schnitzel! –and saw an interesting exhibit on the tragic 1972 Munich Olympics.
Oh, and we had that hour of music and peace in the park, where the violin and piano serenaded my tired soul.
That’s maybe the one memory of Munich I will carry to my grave. Score one for the quieter things in life….
Note: These are photos we took on our travels, more or less to capture certain moods rather than to display the beauty of the cities. For those, do a Google search