Cruising: Capital view of history

By Catherine Masters

Catherine Masters cruises the Danube, taking in central Europe's stunning cities.

Visitors on tourist boats on the River Danube, in Bratislava, are treated to historic sights and sites. Photo / Thinkstock
Visitors on tourist boats on the River Danube, in Bratislava, are treated to historic sights and sites. Photo / Thinkstock

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague, known as the city of golden spires, is magical but my advice is to take an early morning stroll because by 9am the streets heave with tourists.

When the streets are empty and the air is cool you can pass unhindered down cute alleys to find another staggering building or delightful bridge over the Vltava River.

There's the famous astronomical clock, where the apostles pass by windows that open on the hour, or the vast castle complex where tourists throng the Changing of the Guard.

When crowds are thin, climb the steps to the Metronome on the far side of the Vltava where a statue of Lenin once stood. It was so big that when Communism ended it had to be dynamited before Lenin fell into the river.

Vienna, Austria

This most splendid city is so well-dressed even the dogs are stylish. We saw one poodle in a gold jumpsuit. After travelling the Ringstrasse, formerly the city walls within which the most important buildings are found, linger at an outdoor cafe over coffee and cake.

Perhaps then brave imposing St Stephen's Cathedral. Frederick III, the first Habsburg emperor, is buried here. He made the Habsburgs one of the world's most powerful dynasties and began marrying off children to strategic families to gain much territory, including Hungary and parts of Poland.

Where you see modern buildings in Vienna it means an old one was destroyed in World War II. The Kohlmarkt, the most expensive shopping street (it means cabbage market but the cabbages are gone) ends at the Hofburg imperial palace. Have more coffee and cake at wondrous Demel, said to be Vienna's best cafe.

Bratislava, Slovakia

Formerly Czechoslovakia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are now "happily divorced" and are enemies only in ice hockey, said our guide. Only 5.4 million people live in Slovakia, 450,000 of them in Bratislava, the capital.

St Martin's Cathedral in the old town is well worth a look. Maria Theresa, the only Habsburg female monarch, was crowned in it and Mozart's wife, Constanze, remarried here. Not to be missed is the glass floor over an old cemetery where you see human skulls lying about.

Another must-see is Bratislava Castle, where archaeologists still work. The castle was first mentioned in 907. Just below it is the much duller Parliament building. Our guide said once it was compulsory to vote - for the Communists - but now there are 44 parties to choose from, including a beer party and a wine party.

Budapest, Hungary

A city of two halves, old and new, one hilly, one flat, with the Danube between them. On Gellert Hill, in Buda, is the Liberty Statue. This, a woman with an olive branch, was put up by the Communists and is the only statue not torn down after Communism ended in 1989. A few Lenin statues survive and can be seen in Memento Park, an open air museum.

Hungary's history of invasion and loss is recounted at Heroes' Square, on plush Andrassy Ave, where statues of the country's founders stand, beginning with the 10th century Stephen I. The story goes he dreamed an angel told him to go to Rome to get a crown, so he sent a delegation to fulfil this wish. Hungary has a history of brutality and sadness amid the splendour. Most recently, it was a communist dictatorship from 1949 to 1989.

A drive through the Jewish quarter takes in the world's second largest synagogue, but after the Nazi occupation of World War II this was a ghetto.

CHECKLIST

Avalon Waterways has 26-plus Europe itineraries. The Capitals of Central Europe cruise is a 10-day trip from Prague to Budapest.

Catherine Masters was hosted by Avalon Waterways.

- NZ Herald

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