By Lina Zeldovich
The three jewels of the Austro-Hungarian Empire are rich with history, medieval tales, and striking architecture. Yet, no matter where you travel you realize how inevitably intertwined are the local traditions and the Jewish culture. Every city has so much to offer its explorers. Location is key—you want to be in the center where everything is a short walk away, restaurants are aplenty and views are unforgettable. Well, there’s hardly a hotel that can beat the InterContinental’s panoramas in the three European gems. It would’ve been the Hapsburgs’ choice.
Overlooking Vltava River, Prague Intercontinental offers quiet rooms, excellent service and incredible picture-taking from its rooftop restaurant Zlata Praha where executive chef Miroslav Kubec presents his superb molecular gastronomy creations—smoked trout mousse and pigeon breast is only the beginning. Located on the city’s most famous shopping street, Parizska, the hotel is a short walk Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock and the Charles Bridge. It is also right next to Josefov, the Jewish Quarter named after the emperor Josef II, who granted the wandering nation the freedom to engage in commerce and attend state schools.
Wedged between the Old Town Square and the Vltava, this small slice of land is brimming with history. The Jewish presence in Prague dates back to the 10th century; so does the first pogrom, shortly after which Židés gathered within the walled ghetto and eventually gained a self-administration status. Old and new, truths and legends are tightly interwoven here: 20th century buildings elbow historical temples reconstructed after the Communist regime while tales of Golem, the mystical character created by Rabbi Loew to guard the ghetto’s populace, coexist with WWII survival stories.
The walking tour of Josefov includes a museum, a cemetery, and several temples, each of which has a tale to tell. Built in the 13th century, the Old-New Synagogue is not only the oldest working shul in Europe, but also one of Prague’s original Gothic structures. The Klausen Synagogue is executed in the Baroque style and displays drawings of children from the Terezín concentration camp. The Spanish Synagogue owes its name to its striking Alhambra-like Moorish interior. The High Synagogue holds a Jewish Museum shop. The walls of the Pinkas temple display the names of the seventy-seven thousand Jewish Czechoslovak victims of the German occupation. But perhaps the most fascinating is the Maisel, named after Mordechai Maisel, a rich Jewish banker and once mayor of the Josefov. It hosts an extensive collection of Jewish silver, prints, and books, scrupulously gathered and brought to Prague by the very people determined to erase the “chosen nation” off the face of the earth. There was a method to their madness: The Nazis were planning to establish a Museum of Vanished People in what they called Josefstadt. The entire ghetto was to represent an extermination memorial, but instead it became one of the greatest symbols of Holocaust survival.
Czech traditional restaurants serve hearty goulash, sauerkraut soup and an infinite variety of dumplings, so filling most tourists can’t finish the dish. Beer helps, that’s why it is the drink of choice. Many restaurants offer musical nights featuring cello-and-violin quartets or guitar singers. For showy and unconventional entertainment, choose dinner at U Pavouka, where between the servings of sliced sausages, roast ducklings, and numerous Pilsners you’ll get to witness everything from medieval swordsmanship and belly dancing to fire juggling. Up for a uniquely Czech experience? Ask your InterContinental concierge to book an appointment at the Beer Spa where one can bathe in… beer!
An easy train ride from Prague, Vienna is perhaps the most unique fusion of a painstakingly preserved imperial past and modernistic present. The InterContinental Vienna upholds the trend: beautiful antique furniture co-exists with contemporary marble bathrooms while internet-connected rooms offer terrific views of the city park. Situated in a central location, the hotel is near Kaerntner Strasse, famous for its shopping as well Vienna’s best attractions—St. Stephan´s Cathedral and former imperial residence. The snow-white palaces hold Hapsburg’s china and family pictures while the Austrian public stands fiercely socialistic—the Economist Intelligence ranked Vienna (in a tie with Vancouver, Canada) first for quality of life. It is a bustling contemporary metropolis with an honor-based mass transit system (passengers are trusted to pay) where one can expect to run into a passer-by wearing a powdered wig of the Mozart era. The cuisine has undergone a similar revolution: schnitzels and boiled meat happily co-exist with neo-gourmet. Said to be the best restaurant in the capital, Steirereck im Stadtpark serves an array of rare epicurean sensations ranging from warm artichoke salad to Gillardeau oysters to piglet cheeks. It is barely five minutes away from Wien InterContinental, but reservations are a must and hard to get, so speak to your concierge.
Allow plenty of time for the Art Museum, but plan a lunchtime visit to Naschmarkt, a food microcosm where vendors sell everything from fresh produce to meat and from chocolate to condiments. Only on Naschmarkt can you have a vinegar tasting and a lecture on sauerkraut varieties and its cholesterol-reducing properties. The market upholds the Nuevo culinary scene with a great restaurant selection—Indian, Vietnamese, Italian, and innovative fusion such as Kim Kocht where award-winning Sohyi Kim prepares a seared tuna salad with strawberries and mustard greens while you watch. Afterwards, stock up on her home-made canned chutneys, sauces, and dressings.
Coffee occupies a special place in a Viennese heart. A kaffeehause is not just a place to get your morning fix. It is a public-yet-private living room where one can read a newspaper, play chess, discuss the latest social trend or just nurse one’s favorite drink. More than a pastime, it is a way of life where everyone has a favorite: the famous Austrian painters Gustav Klimt and Oscar Kokoschka frequented Café Museum, one of the oldest coffee houses in Vienna, still in operation. In Café Museum, you don’t just order a simple cup of joe. You peruse a two-dozen beverage menu, complete with a list of decadent mouthwatering pastries, leaving to choose between the whipped cream calories or the apple turnover sugar. Go for both, you won’t regret it. The Viennese portions are small: they tease your curiosity, please your palate, and leave you with room for experimenting.
The present Viennese Jewish community is small, but on the brink of the 20th century Vienna was one of the most prominent centers of Jewish culture in Europe. In the 13th century, Emperor Frederick II allowed Jews to have synagogues and hospitals and later designated a special Judenrichter––a judge to arbitrate disputes between Christians and Jews. With the fall of the Hapsburgs the Jewish population grew, until the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938. Within the next two years, over 130,000 Jews fled Vienna leaving behind everything they owned while paying the émigré tax––the price of survival. The remaining 65,000 were deported to concentration camps; barely 2000 lived. Since 1945, the Jewish culture and society have been gradually recovering—nowadays there are eight Ashkenazi and three Sephardic synagogues.
The Wien Opera doesn’t need an introduction, but the city’s wineries that lie within the urban ring are still an undiscovered phenomena. Weinbau Hajszan, a biodynamic family-operated estate offers tastings of local-grown whites and rosé, producing 30,000 to 50,000 bottles a year. The biodynamic concept takes a step further than the organic approach: it aims to establish a balance between man and nature. Does the eco-conscious vino possess a different zing? Like everything in this world, it depends on your tastes––so come savor a few. (Ask your concierge for details.)
InterContinental Budapest boasts the most spectacular location of the three. Towering over the banks of Danube, the hotel offers breathtaking water views and unforgettable panoramas of the innumerable city castles that run an architectural and stylistic gamut. The vistas are stunning by day and mesmerizing at night when every tower and steeple lit up with a golden glow competes with the moonlight dancing on current. A low-key city that the Soviet occupation left a European stepchild, Budapest has undergone a major facelift in the past decade. Gone is the peeling paint and uneven street pavement. The city is clean, lush with green, vibrant and airy; there’s a quiet charm and a relaxing lure to it—even the busy center doesn’t feel crowded. The largest of the Austro-Hungarian trio, Budapest is a city of over two million inhabitants; Vienna counts 1.7 and Prague comes third at 1.2 million.
Budapest has the largest Jewish population in Eastern Europe, but its Jewish chronicle is a complicated saga of history. In the 14th century the wealthy Zsidók participated in the royal ceremonies of King Mattahias, but eventually fell out of favor. They did better under the Ottoman rule and even sided with the Turks during the Austrian conquest, after which barely 500 of them survived. The Hapsburgs had mercurial tolerance for the Jews, alternating between accepting and expelling, until they finally relented on the brink of the 19th century. From that point on until 1930 the Jews enjoyed peace and prosperity, partaking in the development of the capital and the country’s industrial boom. By WWII the community grew to over 200,000 people and boasted 125 temples.
As Hungary initially sided with the Germans, it wasn’t occupied. About 30,000 Jews were sent to labor camps while others were made to wear yellow badges and eventually were forced into a ghetto in 1944. They were supposed to be deported to Germany, but were freed by the Red Army. The slot of land where Budapest InterContinental stands now has its own page in the Jewish-Hungarian history. During WWII it hosted a Portuguese Embassy although in a different, older edifice. The Portuguese “smuggled” the Jews out to the States, providing them with exit visas and sometimes hiding them in the building.
Hungarian cuisine is rich and tasty, so leave your calorie-meters at home. Only in Budapest will you be able to order a 6-sample tasting menu of foie gras—cold, hot and pistachio or fig flavored.
Hungarians love deer and cook a variety of venison dishes including soups and stews. Goulash is another not-to-be missed well-known local specialty. For all of the above complemented with an excellent wine selection, opt for a dinner at Tigris, a classy, stylish yet relaxed restaurant a few blocks away from the hotel.
A Danube river cruise on a warm day is a must. Ask your InterContinental concierge to book a small private boat with Dunarama—you can drive it when the captain deems it safe. For late and loud nocturnal fun, opt for a ruin bar disco night. Budapestians love to dance; there are just as many men on the dancing floor as there are women! For a day of relaxation, visit the city’s thermal baths—Gellert or Szechenyi, whose healing qualities are said to be so indisputable, the Hungarian health plans cover the visits. Also, consider a Kaviczky treatment at Spa InterContinental located right on the premises—a perfect revitalizing therapy before your return flight.
Summer is moving along! Book your trip, pack your camera and dive into the Austro-Hungarian rich past and exciting present.
Lina Zeldovich writes about food, travel and culture, and blogs at