My wife Martha and I spent four weeks recently in Central Europe, focused on Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. We also paid brief visits to Leipzig and Dresden in Germany and to a small city called Debrecen in Hungary. We were tourists of course and can claim no specialized knowledge of these cities or of European countries, but there are certain immediate observations that one can make. Here are a few:
The public transit is great, at least in the cities that we visited, especially Berlin but also the others. In each of these cities there are subways, surface trains and street cars. In every major city we visited we were able to use public transit to get from the airport or train station to our downtown apartment or hotel.
When we flew into Berlin we caught a bus from the airport to a stop for the U-Bahn subway. We took it to a downtown station and there we could easily have transferred to a street car to within a block of the apartment we rented. We choose instead to walk from the station.
The transportation nodes are linked. For example, Hauptbahnhof, a major new station in Berlin, serves the underground U Bahn and surface S Bahn trains, but from that station you can also take trains to other German cities and European countries.
While we were in Berlin, we decided to visit Postdam where King Friedreich the Great and the Hohenzollern dynasty kept an opulent summer palace, now a UNESCO designated site. It’s a 45 minute ride from downtown and we did it all on an S-Bahn train.
Near the end of our European trip we flew back into Berlin from Budapest, landing at the Schonefeld airport. We were able to take a regional express train that made only three stops between the airport and a station near our apartment in the city centre.
The U and S Bahn trains were sometimes quite crowded with passengers but nothing like the crush hour in Toronto which is bad and promises to become much worse.
We did all of our intercity and international travel by train. They are electrified, running quietly and on time. Some of the passenger cars have screens (much as in airplanes) that provide maps and indicate travel speed. At times we were traveling at 160 kilometres per hour on our intercity trips.
The train stations were almost always interesting. They tend to be quite modern because most were destroyed during the Second World War.
There were many people riding bicycles in each of the cities that we visited. Unfortunately, they seldom wore helmets. There were cyclists on the city roads but also on the sidewalks, which are wide and have dividing lines painted on them so that pedestrians and cyclists can share the space. We concluded that pedestrians are safer on sidewalks shared with cyclists than cyclists are on roads shared with motor vehicles.
(I am writing this two days after a 27-year-old Ottawa cyclist was killed after being struck by a car on a busy street – the fourth cyclist to die in Ottawa this year).
All of the cities that we visited were great for walking. They have identifiable older centres (although less so in Berlin, which is more diffuse) and there is no shortage of pedestrian malls. This is especially true of the area around Stephansdom cathedral in central Vienna but also the case in Prague and Budapest.
There are walking tours on offer in each of these cities led by young and knowledgeable local guides. We participated in at least one in each city and found them an excellent way to begin a visit.
A lot of people smoke in Central Europe, especially young people. Most restaurants allow smoking in at least part of their space so it is often not possible to avoid second hand smoke. Some train stations and other public buildings still have those glassed in fish bowls where the smokers congregate in a blue haze.
Some Germans have the peculiar habit of drinking from large bottles of beer on trams, trains or even while walking down the street. On a city train in Berlin, we were seated across from two friendly young women who gave us directions about our stop. One of them was casually swilling beer from a 750 millilitre bottle.
There is some evidence of public intoxication in all of the cities – in parks, city squares and near rivers — but it appeared most evident in Budapest. Anyone visiting a Canadian city would, however, be able to make a similar observation.
Almost everywhere we went, there are city squares and buildings being rebuilt. It is hard to believe that some of this is a hangover from the fighting and bombing that occurred in the Second World War, but it’s true. War is hell.
These squares, churches and museums are being rebuilt with every attempt to have them resemble what had been there prior to the destruction. The heritage mentality is prevalent in Europe.
When visiting galleries one reads frequent explanations about works of art that were either destroyed during the bombing or which were carted off as booty by soldiers, most often the Russians.
They take music seriously in Central Europe. We had booked ahead for one concert in each city – classical music in most cases and opera scores in Budapest. You cannot walk in city squares, particularly in Prague and Vienna, without having people, frequently wearing wigs and Mozart era long coats and tight pants, handing out pamphlets advertising the evening’s concerts.
Similarly, as you walk past churches or enter them, you are informed about evening concerts to occur in those venues.
We prefer classical music but there is a variety of music on offer. An American businessman who we met at a Mozart concert in Prague said that on the previous evening he had heard some incredibly good jazz.
Clearly, we have things to learn from European cities about transportation and culture, and they from us about how to deal with smoking.