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Travel to Vienna and Prague: Of Opera, opulence and the old town square

Visiting the two European cities one after the other gives you the best of all perspectives of Europe

brunch Updated: Oct 20, 2018 10:15 IST
Surbhee Grover and Vijay Balasubramanian
Surbhee Grover and Vijay Balasubramanian
Hindustan Times
Be inspired by the astounding Charles bridge in Prague(iStock)

As the shadows begin to lengthen, signifying the arrival of autumn, we look to escape New York. Our pick this time was Prague and Vienna, driven first by the fact that each of these cities is a choice destination in itself, and secondly, by their proximity to one another. Vienna, the imperial heart of the Habsburg Empire, is flecked with palaces and is a bastion of etiquette and classical music. Prague survived WWII relatively unscathed and dazzles visitors with its cobblestoned streets, whiff of cold war intrigue and sizzling nightlife. The two represent a kaleidoscope of contrasts.

More than meat and potatoes

We noticed the word ‘Sturm’ outside every beisl (bistro) in Vienna. It is a wine made from the season’s first grape harvest, with supposedly low alcohol content. Sturm is German for ‘storm’, an appropriate name given the cloudiness of this unfiltered wine. But it may also have something to do with the sanguinity one feels after a cupful – after the sturm comes the calm.

No trip to Vienna would be complete without consuming at least one Wiener schnitzel. At Gasthaus Pschl, beaten veal smothered in breadcrumbs, pan-fried to a crispy perfection, was served in a creamy sauce. When choosing a national dish, the Austrians demonstrated a certain risk-averseness – fried meat, potatoes and some cream.

Vienna, the imperial heart of the Habsburg Empire, is flecked with palaces and is a bastion of etiquette and classical music

In Prague, the food is a veritable mishmash of the best of Central Europe. The Germans contributed sauerkraut (pickled cabbage), Austria gave them schnitzel (fried meat) and Hungary introduced guláš (stew) – all of which are ubiquitous in Czech cuisine today.

Walking cobblestoned Dlouhá one night, we sighted a house-party that had spilled out onto the pavement. The guests held mugs of foaming beer and were waving mini baguettes as they conversed animatedly. We stepped inside to find an industrial-age inspired bar, Lokál (‘local’ in English. The Czechs tend to take branding ceremonies as a rather functional exercise) and ordered beer and the homemade sausage platter.

The restaurant Švejk served as the venue for our goulash fix. We were unaware of the literary significance of the illustrations on the walls until we learned that they were inspired by The Good Soldier Švejk – the most translated work in Czech literature.

Empress Maria Theresa, the only female ruler of the Habsburg dynasty and mother of Marie Antoinette ( Surbhee Grover )

For our last dinner in Prague, we headed to V Kolkovne. Located in a restored government stamp printing press, this gastropub had now made its mark on the local dining scene.

A final culinary highlight was Trdelník – a flaky marvel of dough wrapped around a wooden stick, roasted over an open flame, and sprinkled with cinnamon, sugar and almonds.

Steampunk to Swing

The nightlife in both cities is a study in contrasts. We spent our first evening in Vienna at the Naschmarkt (‘Night’ market). The name is misleading, as a majority of the market was shut at 7.30pm. We did find a lively atmosphere and DJ at BG4 Lokanta where we started our vacation with Melange (Viennese cappuccino) and an Aperol Spritz. On the Sunday we spent in Vienna, we visited Café Leopold. Once a week, the café becomes a packed swing dance club and as the sun sets, the hiss of the espresso machine is replaced by a DJ’s beats.

View of the Church of Our Lady before Týn in Old Town Square ( Surbhee Grover )

While our evenings in Vienna were more sedate, those in Prague were unabashedly about the city’s fiery nightlife. A fortuitous detour brought us to a door hidden behind crowds eager to cross its threshold. We hadn’t really paid much attention to steampunk, a science fiction subgenre incorporating steam-powered machinery and Victorian-era aesthetics, but the bar of that name we stepped into certainly was revelatory. Steampunk’s décor was a mix of dark colours, exposed brick, old-fashioned streetlights and objet d’art made of machine parts. The staff was in on the theme with the waitresses dressed in corsets, eyes dowsed in kohl and lips painted scarlet. It was as if all of Prague’s essence and conflict was captured right in this bar.

Our final night in Prague involved hopping from Black Angel’s Bar in Hotel U Prince, located across the astronomical clock to L’Fleur. Black Angel’s had an old-world speakeasy cabaret feel with clouds of cigar smoke and a tuxedoed piano player justifying the comparison. As we headed towards L’Fleur, there was a sense of déjà vu. L’Fleur Bar shared a wall with Steampunk. Two cocktails later, we learned that they also shared the same investor!

Take in the view across the Vltava River that bisects Prague and is the Czech Republic’s longest river ( Surbhee Grover )

Castles that inspire fairytales

Gazing at the majestic Vienna Opera House, it is hard to imagine that most 17th century Viennese viewed the original building as unremarkable. Surely they were a tough crowd to please. We walked the short distance to the Opera House, where we saw Chowanschtschina – a dark piece on the Moscow Uprising of 1682. The storyline was somewhat lost on us, but the music and powerful performances left us breathless.

Prague has served as the setting for memorable blockbusters like Casino Royale and Mission: Impossible

A walk along Vienna’s Ring Road will reward you with a slew of masterpieces including the Vienna State Opera, Rathaus, Parliament, Vienna University and Palace of Justice. Climb the stairs of the Greek inspired Parliament and pose for a selfie by the Pallas Athena fountain, then stroll to the landscaped Stadtpark and grab an ice-cream cone as you admire the flora and gaze at your reflection in the river Wienfluss.

The opulence of the Schönbrunn Palace bears testimony to the prosperity of the House of Habsburg. Initially a plain old mansion until the mid-1700s when Empress Maria Theresa drove the expansion of the existing structure, even for her family of 16 children (which included infamous French queen Marie Antoinette), the 1,400 rooms seem slightly excessive. If you cannot bear to tear yourself away from the Imperial Apartments, fortunately for you, there are some things money (€1,400 to be precise) can buy.

Old Town Square in Prague is dotted with cafés, always bustling with magicians and locals ( Surbhee Grover )

Prague is another city with an abundance of grand castles, palaces and thoroughfares that seem to have inspired, or been inspired, by many a fable. Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, the astronomical clock and the Jewish Quarter are all worth an extended visit.

The overall effect of these iconic sights is at once as dark and intriguing as it is charming. No wonder the city has served as the setting for memorable blockbusters like Casino Royale and Mission: Impossible.

The end of a vacation is particularly melancholic, especially when you’ve had so many wonderful experiences. But once you’ve recounted your favourite things, as Julie Andrews wistfully reminds us, “...then I don’t feel so bad”.

From HT Brunch, October 14, 2018

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First Published: Oct 13, 2018 23:10 IST