Nothing can be more unpresuming than this little volume. It contains the account of some desultory visits by a party of young people to scenes which are now so familiar to our countrymen, that few facts relating to them can be expected to have escaped the many more experienced and exact observers, who have sent their journals to the press–The Shelleys,History of a Six Weeks Tour
The Grand Tour has its roots in the 1600s, when wealthy young Englishmen recently graduated from Oxbridge would travel though Europe to get a cultural education in classical antiquity and the Renaissance. It also attracted artists and writers who sought to learn from the Old Masters in both arts and letters. With the invention of the steam engine in 1825, the practice extended to the middle class and by the end of the century it was even common for young women to make the trek. The traditional itinerary varied a bit depending on which countries were in style, but one always began in England and ended in Rome. Of course, I am neither rich nor a gentle(wo)man but even still, I figured I could use a little cultural polish. I had been to England, sure, but before this trip I hadn’t traveled much in Europe aside from a weekend in Belgium. The great thing about traveling the world is that you can finally see what everyone has been talking about through your own lens. Some wonders will disappoint, while others will move you in unexpected ways, but in the end it is an experience that belongs solely to you.
My personal journey began in London and then it was on to Paris followed by Munich where I was joined by two of my cousins for a train ride through the rest of Europe. Over the course of 21 days we travelled from Munich to Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Dubrovnik, and Rome. We each bought a Eurail Global pass, which is good for 10 days of travel within two months and includes 24 countries. It is also expensive and if you are over 26 you have to buy a first class ticket. We bought this ticket because of the flexibility, but if you have a set itinery it is worth your time to price out the individual tickets to see if you’ll actually save money.
Something else to consider: not all trains are equal. Our train from Vienna to Budapest was lovely–wide leather seats, complimentary wifi, snacks, etc–however, this was also our shortest journey by a lot (2 1/2 hours). The rest of the trains we took weren’t anything special and often not that much different from second class. However, on most trains (except Italy) a first class ticket gaurantees you a seat on the train even if you don’t have a reservation. So, again, this ticket gave us maximum flexibility. It was one less thing for us to worry about while on the road.
A first class ticket also meant we could hang out in this schmancy lounge for a couple hours in Vienna and have as many lattes and glass-bottled orange juices as we wanted. Additionally, all Eurail pass carriers get discounts on various activities and some times even free public transportation in certain cities, like Munich and Vienna. In Rome we were even able to use one of our travel days on the express train to the airport, so I suppose it really was worth it in the end.
As for the actual traveling, yes it’s nice to take the train, but only when you are literally in the act of travel–that is, sitting in your seat enjoying a glass of wine (the wine is necessary). Otherwise, it still involves all the other bits that make travel a nightmare. Yet, because you don’t have to go through security it has retained more of an air of romance than, say, the airplane. Because of our itinerary there were times when we were traveling all day (and night) so even though our journey was roughly three weeks, it still felt like we were whizzing through countries at an impossibly fast clip. It was just a taste, really.
So, in keeping with that here are some moments from the first part of the Grand Tour:
Munich, or more specifically Oktoberfest, was a sea of beer, lederhosen, and dirndls. Seriously, this is not an exaggeration. Everyone wears them. Luckily, they sell them at the train station so you can pick one up if you want to fit in. I wore my dirndl again when I got home for Halloween, so I think I got my money’s worth.
We went to Oktoberfest twice during our four days in Munich. During our first visit we got there at 10:30 am on a weekday but by that time all of the tents were full. The outside tables were mostly empty though so we sat down and ordered a round of ‘Lemonade’, which is beer mixed with Sprite. It’s pretty gross but you can have a couple and not get completely hammered. An hour later even the outside was packed but we made some German friends and learned from them that in order to make it inside, you have to get there very early and wait in line. Reserving a table inside can cost thousands of dollars but it is free to sit there during the day.
A day later we forced ourselves to get up at 6 am to try to get inside. We reached the fairgrounds close to 7:30 but by then every tent already had a huge line. Even still, we managed to make it into the Augustiner-Festhalle tent, which looked like a set from “A Very Hobbit Christmas”. I later learned that this tent is known for being the friendliest. Indeed it was, though I suppose everyone gets a little friendly after a few liters of beer.
I booked a lovely apartment in the suburb of Gilching through Airbnb. It was about 30 minutes from the Oktoberfest grounds but proved to be a peaceful oasis away from the crowds.
Between all the singing, cheering, drinking, and pork products I felt like I needed a vacation after Oktoberfest. I’m glad I went, but I’m not sure I ever need to go again.
In Prague we stayed in an apartment about five minutes walking distance from the main square, which is an architectural delight in a city full of them. We walked to the top of the Old Town Hall, which also houses the famous Astronomical Clock, to take in this marvelous view.
A trip to Prague wouldn’t be complete without a stroll (or five) across the Charles bridge, which features artists, vendors, musicians, and street performers along with 30 statues of saints and patron saints.
We also learned about the history of the city during a visit to Prague Castle, situated on a hill above the city. It was the home of the kings of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Emperors. Good King Wencesclas, the subject of everyone’s favorite Christmas carol, and Maria Therese, the grandmother of Europe, both lived there (during different centuries, of course).
In keeping with my earlier tradition in London and Paris, we took a sunset river cruise along the Vitava. I may have been with family, but not gonna lie. It was pretty romantic.
After we got our fill of Old Bohemia we were off to Vienna, ‘the wedding cake of Europe’, named for its many beautiful white buildings.
It is also known as the City of Music because prodigies like Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Strauss (among many others) all lived and worked here. Indeed, you can hear music everywhere. One of the highlights was walking through St. Stephen’s Cathedral while an orchestra and choir performed Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem, one of my all-time favorites.
We stayed in a pension, a step between a hostel and a hotel, on a lovely street in the city center. There weren’t very many cars about and most people seemed to be either on foot or on bikes, which gave the streets a more relaxing feel. Not much of the same kind of hustle and bustle you get in other cities.
Vienna is famous for its cafes and our trip to the beautiful Cafe Centralwas a highlight. We were waited on by the most formal/bordering on snooty manchild I have ever seen. He was tall and skinny with the face of a 14-year-old, yet he was the most graceful and impeccable waiter I’ve ever had.
While there I had this chocolate raspberry deliciousness and a cappuccino which, at that point in my life, was the best I had ever had. But that was before Italy.
You can’t go to Vienna and not visit one of the Hapsburg palaces. We chose Schonbrunn, the summer residence, because the palace and gardens are a UNESCO World Heritage site. There’s also a labyrinth:
Labyrinths sound cool until you’re wandering around one on a cold, rainy fall day with the beginnings of a fever. Then they are definitely NOT COOL.
We also made the trek to Beethoven’s grave in the city’s Central Cemetery and finally found it after looking for an hour. Fellow composers Brahms, Schubert, and Strauss are also buried in the area known as Composer’s Corner.
My dedication to food markets has been well documented on this blog, so it should come as no surprise that we spent an afternoon wandering around the Naschmarkt, the city’s most popular market.
I was expecting Vienna to be pricey but really, nothing seemed that expensive after London. It’s not cheap, for sure, but everything seemed to be pretty reasonable. Prague, however, was not as cheap as I was expecting. My cousin Katie had been there seven years earlier and said that the place was definitely more expensive than she remembered, and a bit more upmarket too. Again, it’s still cheap for Europe and in terms of value, it’s high since the city is beautiful and remarkably well-preserved. I’m not sure if I’ll ever return to any of these places unless it’s in combination with some other destination. As part of the Grand Tour, certainly. I’m glad I went and enjoyed my time there but I can’t really see myself getting on a plane and spending a week in just Prague or Vienna any time soon. Not when there’s still so many other places to explore.
Part Two will pick up in Budapest!