Monday, January 18, 2016

Six days from Berlin to Vienna (via Dresden and Prague)

Petrin Hill
Early this January we spent six days and five nights visiting four cities in three countries in Central Europe. The budget for the entire trip was roughly £500, including tickets, hotels, attractions, transports, souvenirs, food and coffee. We flew easyjet, and because it was a post-Christmas/New Year period, tickets were as cheap as you can imagine (the entire return flights for both of us were cheaper than lunch for two at Hawksmoor, or a train trip to the North of England).

The itinerary were two nights in Berlin, followed by taking the train to Prague, but with a six hours stop in Dresden, a night in Prague, then the coach the following evening to Vienna (the coach trip takes the same time to get to Vienna as the train, but is significantly cheaper). Then it was two night in Vienna before we flew back to London.
Reichstag dome
Despite our modest budget, we still managed to snag a private room with en-suite shower room at the Generator Hostel in the so-called trendy Mitte district. Right beside a metro station, we are always minutes away from most attractions, including just two stops away from Brandenburg Gate. With only two nights in Berlin, we had to make a lot of it, but with its excellent metro system, we managed to cover a lot more than what we thought was possible, with plenty of spare time to seek out cafes in between sights.

The highlight of the trip was the Reichstag building. We had not prebooked ticket (silly us), so we had to queue outside in sub freezing temperature of -10C to get onto the reservation list for the following day. It was worth it. Anyone who knows me knows I am a fan of Norman Foster's City Hall in Southwark, London. The Reichstag dome, designed by Foster, is the precursor to City Hall. While not at architecturally as impressive as City Hall's sweeping spiral staircase (in my opinion), it is far grander. The contemporary dome is a stark contrast but also sympathetic to the classical architecture of the building.
Topography of Terror
I was no fan of the East Side Gallery, part of a stretch of the Berlin wall that has been dedicated to street art. This was mainly because many of the sections had barriers installed, in order to protect the artwork from being damaged by aspiring street artists, somewhat defeating the whole point of street art. It is probably worth seeing just to tick it out of your to-do list box, and to catch a glimpse of Theirry Noir there, but don't expect much in terms of street art aesthetics.

Another tourist trap I would recommend avoiding, or at least keeping your expectations in check, is Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie is the best known Berlin Wall crossing between the former East and West Berlin and are manned by people who would technically void your passport by stamping on them in exchange for some euros. Thankfully, the Topography of Terror museum is not a long walk away. Here, you will find an indoor and outdoor museum on the site of the Gestapo and SS's headquarter, as well as a well preserved part of the Berlin Wall.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Berlin isn't a cheap city but it isn't expensive either. There were plenty of very good specialty coffee shops and bakeries serving the famous cinnamon buns (Zeit Für Brot). To top it off, we visited a local pub, Ständige Vertretung, for some incredible pork knuckles. We left Berlin in the early morning of the third day in love with this city, vowing to return again.

Dresden is a unique city. Much of the old town was destroyed in a controversial fire bombing during World War II when Germany was already losing. It has since been rebuild, with many buildings returning to its former pre-war glory. We spent six hours in Dresden, which allowed us plenty of time to at least take in the exterior sights of the old town. We discovered a Saxon market called Stallhof, which reminded me a lot of Dragon Quest VIII.
Fürstenzug: Procession of Princes
Prague is located two hours away from Dresden and is a charming small city. We stayed at a dodgy hotel in the new town, which I will not name. The following morning we went to the coach station and left our suitcase at the left luggage before exploring the city. The old town, with its cobbled stones reminded me a lot of York in Britain, though its much better preserved. The astronomical clock was neat, though much smaller than I imagined it would be and thus a disappointment (I can't fault the craftmanship), though the view from the old town hall above it is worth the climb (or the lift ride if you fancy).

We had brunch at the famous Cafe Savoy across the river and while it didn't blew my mind, the setting was nice and certainly much more affordable than say having brunch at the Savoy in London, even comparatively. From there we wondered through a snowed up Petrin Park up to numerous hills on route to Prague Castle, a definite must-do to any self confessed travelers.
Prague old town square
After a couple of hours on site, we walked our way back to the old town via Charles Bridge, admiring the various sculptures. It was a cold January and yet the bridge was heaving with tourists. I can't imagine how it would be like during the peak summer months. Prague has a very mature scene for specialty coffee shops, and the one cafe, Tricafe, we did stop for coffee did not disappoint. In fact we met a couple of Aussies on a month long tour of Europe who loved the coffee here, and we know Aussies are the masters of all things coffee.

The coach journey to Vienna was uneventful, up to the point where we were unceremoniously evicted at an empty coach station next to an empty stadium with not a fast food outlet in sight, our stomach complaining after the four hour journey. Our hotel in Vienna is the Mieninger Hostel (we paid for private room with en-suite), in a very quiet part of inner Vienna. So quiet in fact that when we went out to look for food, the only thing we found after 30 minutes of walking was a dodgy Indian restaurant where the chef was preparing the food with a cigarette in his mouth. Thankfully the hostel has a small kitchenette.
Vienna Staatsoper (State Opera)
In any case, Vienna is just like any cities in Europe, a very well preserved central district surrounded by inner city shabbiness. Breakfast was had at a small takeaway coffee shop (Kaffeekuche) at the subway station (very good coffee and toasted sandwich), and lunch at the Palmhouse restaurant. My partner had a Viennese schnitzel, while I had a pasta and Viennese potato from the lunch menu which turned out so much better than a typical schnitzel and cheaper too. (takeaway tip: when a restaurant in mainland Europe offers a lunch menu - take it) For dinner we had fladen, a kind of pita-like flat bread with fillings inside, in Kolar, a lovely small pub tucked away where only locals knows about (thank you Foursquare, once again!).

With food out of the way, we did the whole typical check the box list thing for Vienna, including a visit to the Staatsoper (State Opera) to watch Beethoven's Fidelio (standing tickets for 4 Euros - be warned that not everyone can do this - a young tourist actually fainted while we were there), Schönbrunn Palace (definitely worth paying to enter the palace), Hofburg Palace, Belvedere, St. Stephen's Cathedral and Hundertwasserhaus (which isn't quite worth going if you are on a short trip, as you can't actually enter the building). We did not do the Spanish Riding School, having been warned of being 'rip-offed'.
Perhaps the best hidden gem for fans of architecture is the Gasometer in the outskirts of the inner city. The Gasometers are four former gas tanks, that has since been converted into commercial and residential use. London is attempting something similar with Battersea Power Station, except that almost everything there are being build for foreign investors who doesn't even know the area - hardly the kind of place you would want to call home. Where as, at the Gasometer, we were surprised to find a whole community inside - a city within a city. School, shops, restaurants and other commercial units resides on the ground level while the residential units circle around facade of the old gas tanks.

This was always going to be a taster trip, and six days is far too short to appreciate everything these cities has to offer. But we still had loads of fun. Berlin is perhaps my favourite city of these four, being closest to London in terms of comfort and being the least touristy. Its history meant that Berlin had an eclectic range of architecture style, with gloomy Soviet style tower blocks next to colourful modernity. Until next time.

For more pictures of Berlin, Dresden, Prague and Vienna.

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