Two weeks floating around in Europe — old Europe (Austria) and new (Hungary and the Czech Republic) — yield these observations . . .
Austria astounds. Salzburg is Mozart (his birthplace), a pub where Charlemagne supposedly quaffed a few, and vast happenings in squares with bands and giant screens showing the latest in the all-Europe soccer tilt. There’s Melk with its stupendous abbey, captivating medieval Durnstein, the Danube winding through the Wachau Valley, and compelling golf courses tucked in the shadows of castles and cliffs.
And unforgettable Vienna with Schonbrunn palace — seat of the 600-year Hapsburg dynasty — and Haydn and the Strausses and still more Mozart.
Budapest reveals the old empire’s second city with royal playgrounds, opera houses, and cathedrals rivaling — in magnificence and antiquity — first-city Vienna’s.
Likewise Prague. It boasts the noble Lobkowitz house and a gilded castle surrounding a fully frescoed cathedral — complete with windowed sarcophagal displays of skeletalized saints. The multi-squared downtown features an elaborate town-hall cuckoo clock, opera houses celebrating Dvorak and Smetana, the bohemian haunts of Kafka and existential nihilists, and a final goulash dinner in a restaurant decked out in excessively flocked red wallpaper where well-packaged ladies may have prepped (and prep) their clients for subsequent activities.
An hour from Prague lies Terezin, a town-sized Nazi transport camp for Jews on the way to extermination elsewhere. It, too, staggers the mind and overwhelms the heart.
Perhaps one way to define old and new Europe is by their recent pasts. Austria endured Hitler but never Stalin. Hungary and the Czech Republic survived both — and so possibly exude a vigor, an energy, a determination to clamber back into the light of liberty. Oppression carries within it, generates within its victims, the insistent message of nevermore.
The people — Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs — were uniformly warm toward Americans, but the latter two more distantly and at arm’s-length, perhaps revealing the lingering effects of terror’s yoke. Prices were out-of-this world. How about, in Prague, a $30 hamburger — albeit with fries? The cost for a gallon of gasoline is generally about twice the $4 cost here. (Stabilize the dollar!)
Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.
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