Destination Worldview Suzanne Wright Contemplating the Collective Psyches of Prague, Budapest, and Berlin

Contemplating the Collective Psyches of Three Cities: Prague, Budapest, and Berlin
by Suzanne Wright

Winter. In the northern hemisphere it is often a season of insularity and a time for looking inward. For travel writers it is also a time for observing people, national traits, and the moods of cities — from a slight distance.

During a recent winter trip to Europe, I visited three European capitals: Prague, Budapest, and Berlin. All three cities share some commonalities — historically, geographically, and culturally — but in each I found the national temperament to be quite different. It got me thinking.

We know that landscape, history, politics, and climate influence culture but what other factors also contribute to the development of collective personalities — especially of cities? This was a question I found myself discussing with my travel companion, Barbara, a psychologist,while I visited three of the most fascinating cities in Europe. What surprised me the most was the role that time seemed to play in each city’s outlook.

I found Prague to be living primarily in the present — perhaps the most healthy of perspectives depending on your personal frame of reference. (I can imagine a New Age adherent being quite happy here.) Simply walking over the Charles Bridge, you feel the pulse of “today,” even though statues commemorate century-old events. Budapest, on the other hand, seemed more oriented towards the past, as I discovered whether I was talking to a taxi driver or to a tour guide about the glories of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. And then there was Berlin, assertively focused on the future with monuments to past atrocities encased in sleek, futuristic facades.


Prague is one of those cities that seem to inspire universal adulation. In fact, I have never heard a single traveler disparage it. After my visit there, I understand why. More than any city I’ve visited in recent memory, Prague does a marvelous job of creating a sense of balance that gives the city a contemporary feel while successfully integrating its complex history. Without a doubt, its citizens have a healthy sense of their history and a prudent approach to their future. Historical Prague is something you visit with respect in order to understand what Prague is today. To paraphrase Ram Dass, Prague excels at “being here now.”

While in Prague, a friend and I stayed at the Intercontinental Prague overlooking the River Vltava, the key point of reference for finding your way around the city. The hotel's club floor, with its sweeping views, served as a kind of mini global living room. There we met a chatty Czech mother and daughter, a Jewish family from New York City on a religious heritage tour, and assorted other travelers alone, in pairs, or in small groups.

Our comfortable room had a spectacular river view and a cheeky but somewhat incongruous red rubber duckie in honor of the approaching Christmas holidays. On the hotel’s top floor, we dined in the Vlata Paha or “Golden Prague” restaurant, a world-class establishment. The elegant servers presented us with the delicious, award-winning haute cuisine for which it is renowned. With the professional aplomb of those used to international guests, they also graciously and quickly adjusted the multi-course menu for my friend’s vegetarian requirements.

As we ate, we admired the view, noting especially the many church spires — more than 100 — which rose above the snow-dusted red tile rooftops. Ironically, the people of Prague are still not very religious almost two decades after the fall of the communist regime. And yet, as we would learn the next day, they know the value of history in the international travel and tourism market.

The following day was Christmas Eve, and we were taken on a vigorous walking tour of Old Prague by flame-haired Ilona Zahradnikova. Extremely compact, Prague is very pedestrian-friendly. It is also a city that carefully preserves its historic sites, and in so doing emphasizes the juxtaposition of the past with the present.

For example, a couple of blocks from our hotel was the Old Jewish Cemetery in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter. This poignant section of Prague was created in the 15th century when Jews were forbidden to bury their dead outside their own district. Space was scarce, so bodies were buried on top of each other — some 12 deep. Over the centuries, lopsided tombstones have formed crowded groupings that resemble broken or crooked teeth. Like many such sites, the cemetery stands as a reminder that human rights and social inclusion are critical social issues today.

As we continued on towards the Old Town Square, the sound of horses hooves on cobblestones (carriages carrying tourists) followed us. At Old Town Square, with its world famous astronomical clock, we watched the brief hourly appearance of the 12 Apostles, another present-past moment.

Prague’s tourism board calls it the city of mystery and secrets, but the people are neither; instead they are very open and kind. Dagmar, a sweet-faced, almost childlike lady in her 70s, was tending the cloakroom at the Museum of Decoration. She took me to a window overlooking the adjoining Old Jewish Cemetery and gently encouraged me to snap pictures, while chatting to me about her past. Later a young male docent pulled strings on one cuckoo clock after another to make them come to life. His gentle, playful gesture seemed to emphasize that time has not stood still in Prague.

The Charles Bridge, a glorious pedestrian-only pathway across the Vltava, is Prague’s most recognizable and popular attraction. Here monuments came alive as Ilona told their stories. History was here and now. From 1683 to 1928, 30 sculptures of saints were installed one after another on the bridge piers. On this bridge which joins two sides of the city (as well as the past and the present), throngs of people made the bridge come alive. It was as enchanting as a promenade on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

We worked our way up to Prague Castle, passing a marker of the water level during the devastating floods of 2002. The Castle district, formerly the residence of the princes and kings of Bohemia, is monumental in size and style. Built in the 9th century, it is today a 111-acre complex of ecclesiastical buildings, fortifications, and residential and office buildings. Here we found many architectural styles from many time periods; the blend emphasized that Prague had come a long way to the present.

After parting with Ilona, we returned to the hotel to freshen up for dinner. We had reservations at Kampa Fish on the island of Kampa. A newish restaurant with fusion food and Russian owners, it has very a very modern ambiance. The flashy interiors are sleek in their silver, white, and black. A tuxedoed piano player played new and old standards.

Christmas dawned as the first sunny sky in a trip of gray days. I started with a gift to myself; an acupressure massage by the gifted Mirek, followed by a leisurely breakfast. In winter the rhythm in Prague seemed less “ambitious,” and so did we. We strolled past No. 22, where Franz Kafka once lived, a tiny, blue one-room house. We then took a Venetian-style boat ride for a different view of the eye-popping architecture of this city in the heart of Europe. And then we walked down river to the so-called “dancing building,” the two Frank Gehry-designed towers that appear to be waltzing. It is sometimes referred to as the “Fred and Ginger building,” after the legendary dancing duo.

The Gehry building may be Prague at its most modern, an arresting contrast to an old-world city. Like everything in Prague, the building's fanciful motion and playfulness, stillness and seriousness, explains why this city is always here and now.

If You Go

For general information on Prague, visit or For hotel reservations, visit or call 1-888-IC HOTELS. To schedule a walking tour with Ilona Zahradnikova, email her at


A tipsy angel appeared at the train station in Prague just as we were headed to Budapest. It was early morning and very cold. Encumbered by our heavy suitcases and somewhat disoriented, we were surprised when a man in a tattered scarf appeared and offered his assistance. “Prague is okay?” he asked with a shy smile. “Yes, yes it was.”

But now we were off to Budapest. The sunrise as seen through streaky windows was orange and magenta and violet. The landscape was stark, winter bleak. The seven-hour trip was broken only by the occasional stop and the passport checks that occur as stern-faced bureaucrats came onboard in Slovakia and again in Hungary. We were headed into Eastern Europe even though Hungary considers itself Central Europe; a detail that several waiters, taxi drivers and tour guides pointed out. (Opinion throughout the world can vary on this matter, which can also provoke prickly debate).

All we knew about Hungary and Budapest before our arrival was that the Gabor sisters, Zsa Zsa and Eva, were from there, and that there are more hydrothermal and mineral springs in this country than anywhere else in the world. The people of Budapest have played second fiddle to the more savvy travel marketers in Prague and bristle at the mention of the charms of that smaller city, rather the way a younger sibling feels when compared to an older sibling who has excelled in some way. And, nearly to a person, the Hungarians we met in Budapest seemed wistful for for a glorious era they no longer enjoyed.

“When we were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire…” began one middle-aged man as he launched into a history lesson of wars and territory won and lost. Another man showed us a map of the former sprawling kingdom, punctuated with “tsk, tsk” sounds of the losses the country suffered in its land mass. As one who lives in Atlanta , I can compare this rear-view mirror viewpoint to Southerners in the U.S. who still make references to the Civil War in casual conversation. In Budapest I sensed a people who felt bruised.

And yet Budapest is unabashedly one of the most beautifully laid out cities in world. Located on the Danube River, Buda and Pest were separate towns until 1873, one on each bank, Buda in the hills; Pest flat as a pancake. During our visit snow covered most of the city, but nonetheless we headed to Heroes Square to see the grand monument of historic figures which commemorates the 1000th anniversary of the Magyar conquest. Magyars are the principal ethnic group in Hungary and Heroes Square is a massive expanse of pavement book ended by the Palace of the Arts on one side and the Museum of Fine Arts on the other. It is an impressive open space dominated by a column topped with the Archangel Gabriel and equestrian statues of the seven Magyar chiefs who conquered the territory.

Another grand space is the Central Market Hall, a colorful, indoor, neo-Gothic mall selling lacework, produce, baked goods, meats, souvenirs and liquor. Here, we chatted with locals as we shopped for snacks to take back to our hotel, the Intercontinental. Located on the Pest side of the city, the rooms feature commanding views of the Danube and the Chain Bridge. It’s also close to the pedestrian shopping area, the Vaci Atca. At Lexus, an exclusive department store in a glorious art nouveau building, I purchase da furry and stylish hat with ear flaps: very czarist, very warm, very chic, very Hungarian retro.

The snow got heavier as the afternoon stretched on, so we ducked into Central Kavehaz, a coffeehouse with floor-to-ceiling windows and, blessedly, a non-smoking section. We had had a late lunch of chicken with paprika and red wine, capped with a sour cherry strudel. Two smartly dressed older women chatted us up, clucking with approval on our choice for our evening dinner. Outside, the snow began turning to slush; inside, we whiled away a couple of hours, toasty and satisfied. This is the anti-Starbucks, and a terrific place to people watch.

We dressed up in our finest for dinner at Gundel, one of the most memorable meals I’ve had in Europe — in the world, in fact. Our taxi deposited us at the door and we were whisked in. Ronald Lauder, son of cosmetics maven Estee Lauder, has restored the restaurant to its former sumptuous grandeur after years of neglect. It is impeccable: not a tattered napkin nor a scratched chair nor marred wallpaper in sight. The art collection is dazzling. The restaurant proclaims past glories.

The food and service were impeccable, the pacing perfect. We behaved like flushed 15 year olds, coquettishly flirting with the elderly musicians who play with great tenderness and rakishly returned our smiles. From the many menus (including an elegant vegetarian option my friend enjoyed), we selected a seven-course menu of new and traditional Hungarian dishes with wine pairings. I chose ham and roe rolled in paper-thin deer, foie gras terrine with tokai, venison soup, catfish, beefsteak with cranberries and the famed crêpe à la Gundel with chocolate sauce and orange ice cream. It was a ravishing evening.

Before we retired, we noticed the Chain Bridge all lit up, a mesmerizing view we could see from bed, a magical end to a wonderful day. The next day, we headed to the famed Gellert Baths, the oldest of the city’s public baths. The springs that supply the Gellert with its healing water have been flowing for nearly 2000 years, but we found the space rather dingy. Still, it is a must-see and a place where you will literally rub shoulders with locals. In conversation, we were told that the inventor of the Rubik’s cube is from Budapest, but that he was swindled out of his rightful millions by unscrupulous entrepreneurs who reproduced the colorful block without proper licensing. “He was a bad, bad businessman,” says a taxi driver.

Through the hotel windows we gazed at the garish spectacle of the Parliament, which dominates the riverside. The building is, as one guide book says, “an expression of the country’s robust self-confidence at the beginning of 20th century.” Once the largest parliament building in the world, it was meant to echo the structures of London, but the neo-Gothic edifice is a bit of an architectural folly. Still, although it is clunky, we loved it for its pomp and circumstance.

A more aesthetically pleasing structure is the impressive synagogue, which is the second largest in the world after Temple Emmanuel in New York City. Located in the historic Jewish Quarter, Ludwig Förster’s Byzantine-Moorish design — with its impressive onion-shaped towers — was restored after the damage done to it by the Nazis. While too large to heat in the winter for services, it is open all year. An inverted menorah, a weeping willow, in the courtyard is the poignant Shoah Memorial. Each of the willow leaves commemorates the name of a family murdered by the Nazis.

Our final dinner in Budapest was at Kiralty (“king”) restaurant, which features gypsy music and dance in a charming setting. I had the best salad of our trip, beef steak with bull’s blood (red wine), and a plum tart with cinnamon ice cream. Afterwards, we met up with Gregory, a 20-year-old who looks a lot like actor Josh Harnett. He brought a friend. The four of us sipped beers and talked late into the night about our jobs, our dreams, and our loves.

Gregory was unabashed in his love of Americans and America, though he has never been to the U.S.. Before we left, he quietly slipped me a small teddy bear, a token to remember him by.

If You Go

Log onto, and for general information about the country and the city. For reservations at the Intercontinental, call 1-888-IC-HOTELS or visit


Berlin is full-speed ahead — into the future. But that’s not to say that this world-class city has forgotten its complex and often painful past. It’s just that the biggest city in Germany — both in terms of population and cultural diversity — is decidedly avant-garde. Nine times bigger than Paris in terms of its physical size, Berlin can be as difficult to navigate conceptually as it is to traverse physically.

I hadn’t been in Germany since I was nine when my father was in the U.S. Navy; we lived on a base in Bremerhaven, in northwest Germany. Now I found myself in the reunified Berlin, in northeast Germany, arriving at the tail end of the holiday season. The wooden kiosks were still hammered into place at the Gendenmarket, one of the best Christmas markets in the city.

Fortified by gluwein (mulled red wine) and bundled against the brisk weather, I wander past stalls selling such varied items as rose-flavored sugar and wooden toys. In an offbeat section of the market, a flamboyant woman named Fee, who lives part of the year in India, has “channeled” her feminist vision into chunky rings, necklaces, and bracelets. Her craftwork is very idiosyncratic and unconventional. I buy a two-finger ring as much for its conversational value as its for unusual beauty.

The well-reviewed Vau restaurant, located nearby, is a startlingly expensive; entrees are 30 Euros and up; desserts as much as 13 Euros. The restaurant is on the cutting-edge in terms of its culinary vision: scallops with lentils and pumpkin, John Dory with capers and lime and mashed white beans, pear cake. It’s so post-modern there’s not even music to soften the minimalist interiors. There’s no Weiner schnitzel or sauerkraut on this menu; no “Come to the Cabaret”ambiance.

Kadewe, the biggest store in Europe, is frantic on New Year’s Eve. I notice lots of gay male couples especially, their shopping bags piled at their feet, holding forth in animated conversation at table after table in the bustling food halls. This is not lederhosen and dirndls.

Construction in Berlin is also booming. Cranes dominate the skyline on both the east and west sides of the city. The energy of the city is palatable — and very exciting.

I attend an exhilarating performance by the Berlin Philharmonic. Sir Simon Rattle, a conductor with Art Garfunkel-like hair, fills the hall with life and vibrancy. The music reaches out and grabs you.

At lively Potsdammer Platz, the Berlin equivalent of Times Square, another kind of bracing experience is underway. On this crisp wintry evening, children shriek as they hurtle down a snowy hill near the Underground on toboggans. There is no holding back.

Berliners, however, also honor their painful past. Visitors flock to Checkpoint Charlie, the legendary border crossing and museum where once two separate worlds were kept at arm's length. Today, however, Russian and American soldiers pose symbolically for photographs.

At the futuristic Jewish Museum, 2000 years of German-Jewish history is graphically and dramatically displayed. I am especially moved by the immense “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”; row upon row of concrete slabs that make you feel the weight of history here. And in this new creative Berlin, this memorial manages to be both brutal and beautiful.

I am staying at the Intercontinental Berlin, an registered architectural landmark in the heart of Berlin near the Kurfürstendamm, the latter a major shopping thoroughfare. The hotel is also home to the one-Michelin star Hugo's Restaurant. Unfortunately, it is booked solid during my visit. The hotel is the essence of contemporary, with heated marble floors and sleek furnishings in the guest rooms.

For my final experience of Berlin, a city that now dares to be very different, I dine at Dunkel. In this restaurant, customers eat in pitch blackness while being served by blind staffers. The metaphor is provocative and challenging. After selecting a meat, poultry or vegetarian menu, I am guided to my table by my waitress; my hand on her shoulder. The first 10 minutes in darkness are disconcerting and anxiety-producing — which is the point — but also a statement about how we take for granted the most common human activities, like eating. During the next 20 minutes, I gradually become more comfortable as my other senses help me compensate for my temporary sightlessness. Although the food seems secondary, the experience does change one's perspective; a nearby diner is told that she had just eaten — and enjoyed — eggplant. The lack of visual cues allowed her to try something new.

Berlin was thrust into darkness at one point in its history, but now it is a city rushing forward into a dazzling new light.

If You Go

Berlin is especially festive during the holidays. Visit for details on the month-long celebration. For general information on the city, visit For reservations at the Intercontinental Berlin, visit or call 1-888-424-4343. Restaurant Dunkel accepts online reservations at