Reigniting wanderlust with 21 days spent exploring Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, and more.
This is an excerpt from Lifestyle Asia’s March 2023 Issue.
When pandemic concerns became less pressing in 2022, I booked myself a trip to Central Europe in autumn. I had never been to that part of the world before. COVID had a way of upending my motivations for travel. Before, I would go to the familiar places to relax, return to fave haunts, simply relish idleness within friendly surroundings. This time I just did not want to get away. I wanted fresh, meaningful experiences, with a serotonin hit of excitement—including fear, distress, and suffering.
Travel comes with all that. They shake up complacencies fostered by living in Makati the comfortable. The visceral thrill of lugging heavy luggage filled with winter wear, from station to station; repelling scamming taxis; not understanding a language filled with Ys and Zs; getting lost and walking thousands of steps a day; hearing incessant coughing in a tram with mask-less commuters; put our mortality in focus, and tell us we’re alive, and we must make each day count.
In 21 days, we covered seven places in five countries. That was more than usual. I ditched my pre-pandemic travel mantra of ‘remaining in one place long enough to get bored in’ and thought life was short and the abundant sights in Central Europe couldn’t wait.
Three weeks wouldn’t make me an expert on those five countries. Yet, if you must re-tool your bucket lists, take heed – those were the most exhilarating 21 days of my life. Here are my top picks for exploring Europe beyond the Eiffel.
BERLIN’S COOLEST NEIGHBOURHOOD
Perhaps no other city in Central Europe has as many faces as Berlin. Its districts are characteristically shaped by socio-economics, industry, politics and history. Berlin is all at once rigid, socialist, Bohemian, punk, techno, touristy, artsy, cosmopolitan, green, wholesome. It’s as varied as its beer brands.
After the obligatory selfies at Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, head out to Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Berlin’s coolest neighbourhood. Grit and counterculture at its most colourful, with its trendy cafés, Turkish streetfood, antique shops, flea markets, the Jewish Museum, the Landwehrkanal promenade. The best part was the sourdough toast with avocado and eggs at Distrikt Café. Berliners love their avocado.
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CITY IN THE WORLD: PRAGUE
Not my words, but Time Out’s. I concurred all the more upon seeing the Charles Bridge and the river glowing in the gentle autumn light at sunrise. That’s the most magical time to take in the beauty of the city, just before the crowds gather at the bridge. Everything, everywhere, every square inch is structurally dazzling. The Czech man and woman, too.
A place becomes more inviting when its people are lovely. Prague is one. The Czechs are relaxed, open-minded and seem to smile more than their neighbors in the West. Could it be the beer in the morning, all-day? Or, they’ve learned to take it easy after a long history of blood and strife on their cobblestoned plazas? Oh, those cobblestones evoke strength, permanence and gravitas. The soul of Prague fills you with every step.
TEREZÍN, THE LONELIEST PLACE ON EARTH
In Prague, we planned our itinerary around popular and YouTube-recommended destinations. Then we threw in dark tourism. We visited a Gestapo Camp in Terezín, a 2.5-hour bus ride from Prague.
It wasn’t fascination with the macabre that brought us there. It had more to do with an interest in being connected to a moment in history, dramatized one too often on film. Even without a stirring John Williams soundtrack, it was heartbreaking. The guided tour was nuanced carefully managed sans theatrics, lest it be faulted as a commodification of shame and suffering. Besides, remembrance of man’s follies would always be better than omission or revision.
WALTZING BETWEEN THE PAST AND PRESENT IN VIENNA
A city with a strong and stylish café culture would always rank high on my list – especially if the cafés let you linger with your espresso longer than necessary. In Vienna, it’s necessary to be indulgent.
The capital of the sprawling Hapsburg Empire of centuries past remains glorious and looking every bit like the most important center of Europe, as it once was. It appears standoffish: the web of tall arches and Gothic columns of Café Central; the gilded, chandelier-lit shops and theatres; monument-dense boulevards; stately horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping in the First District; the golden embellishments of Klimt; even the schnitzel that fills your plate. Nothing seems low-key. To me that was important after the tears in Terezín.
Vienna is not all pomp and splendor. Cheerful and expressive energy fills the air at Stephansplatz. It’s a huge square where you’d find the grand St. Stephen’s Cathedral and neo-classical buildings housing retail and restos. It’s just lovely to walk around the platz, shop, have an espresso, eat more sausages. I especially like it at rush hour—elegantly dressed Viennese hang out there after work. They say it’s even more amazing in December when Christmas stalls are set up. Naschmarkt is another fave. 1.5 kilometers of restos, spices, fruits, hams, cheeses, booze and more.
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Photos by Julia Solonina, Pedro Bariak, Sandro Gonzalez, and Jacek Dylag