What a Trip: History lessons in Vienna, Budapest and Prague


Mary Ellen McMillen and her daughter visited Prague’s Old Town Square. (Photo from Mary Ellen McMillen )
November 14, 2013

Our readers share tales of their rambles around the world.

Who: Mary Ellen McMillen of Washington (author of this account) and her daughter, Frances M. McMillen of Alexandria.

Where, when, why: Vienna, Budapest and Prague, Oct. 12-24. I had never been to Central Europe. My daugher had visited Prague 14 years ago. We wanted to explore the “unknown” on the occasion of my 80th birthday: a new era!

Highlights and high points: The beauty of each of these cities initially overawed us. Our first reaction was wonder, touched with regret and not a little fear: Why had we overlooked these cities for so long, and could we, in the time that we had, even begin to appreciate them? Our first decision was to conquer ourselves: to do what we could manage and be grateful.

Vienna and Budapest were heavily bombed in World War II, and their rebuilding is itself a monument to their civic pride. Vienna is an amalgam of many ages and architectural styles crowding against one another. Among the must-sees are St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Opera, the Hofburg Palace and the Belvedere Palace. The Nazi commander in Vienna ordered St. Stephen’s Cathedral to be destroyed as the German army withdrew in 1945, but his orders were fortunately disobeyed. The Schönbrunn Palace, the site of President Kennedy’s meeting with Khrushchev in 1961, ignited my memories of Jacqueline Kennedy taking Europe by storm.

Budapest and Prague also blend many ages, and both cities have a fairy-tale-like aura. In Budapest, visiting Heroes’ Square, a monument to the great figures of Hungarian history, I thought of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination — a moment in Central European history that I did know about. I also knew the history behind the drawings by children at the Terezin concentration camp that are displayed at the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Cultural connection or disconnect: We experienced no disappointments. The staffs of the hotels where we stayed were uniformly courteous and helpful. One nitpick: Vienna could supply some directional signs for its historic venues. Which way do we go? And if there was a misfire, it was in thinking that Central European food is heavy. It is not. The portions are large — as in the United States! — but there are always fresh vegetables along with potatoes and veal and venison.

Biggest laugh or cry: The Cadogan guidebook on Vienna, Prague and Budapest describes the “wily” cabbies in Prague. With that warning, why didn’t I e-mail our hotel and ask what the ballpark fare would be from the train station to the hotel? We arrived in Prague on a rainy evening after a seven-hour train ride, and there was only one cabbie at the taxi stand. When he presented his price, we didn’t know whether it was a fair one. Yes, we got ripped off. Be prepared and know your math and currency exchange!

My biggest laugh: At the thermal bath at our hotel in Budapest, I worried about what I looked like in a bathing suit, until I saw the other — unfazed — “elders” there!

How unexpected: I didn’t know what to expect, and all unexpected I found a magical world. In fact, the word “magical” is how my daughter and I would describe our trip. In both Budapest and Prague, a man kissed my hand. See, the past is still present.

Fondest memento or memory: When we entered our hotel room in Vienna, there was a lovely bouquet of roses, baby’s breath and berries on the desk. Frances had arranged for their delivery for my birthday on Oct. 15. The flowers were from her two brothers and her. Tears? Oh, yes. On the 15th we dined high above Vienna, on the 18th floor of the Sofitel Hotel. All Vienna sparkled below.

I did bring back much-appreciated new knowledge of people and places. My academic background is history, so this trip was also humbling. So much I had skimmed by in years past! An example of the squandering of youth?

To tell us about your own trip, go to www.washingtonpost.com/travel and fill out the What a Trip form with your fondest memories, finest moments and favorite photos.

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