We weren’t planning to go anywhere this summer: Our son and his wife had given birth to twins; our daughter had just returned from 18 months in Asia; we had books to finish … but then dear family friends invited us to their daughter’s wedding in Graz, Austria. How could we decline?
Plotting a cost-conscious whirlwind trip was the challenge. Naturally I delegated that double-pronged dilemma to my husband, a.k.a. the travel planner. He found a flight on points to Vienna, and a first-class Eurail pass to Graz with a side trip to Budapest at a cheaper rate. But, there was a slight hitch, to which most people who have travelled on points can relate. Our flight to Vienna went via a seven-hour layover in Istanbul, about 1,300 kilometres east of our destination. (The return journey was almost as complicated.)
We had always wanted to visit the former capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, the place where East really does meet West, though we’d imagined doing it in seven days, not seven hours. Still, staying home seemed far too staid an alternative to a quick glimpse, so we revived our premarital backpacking escapades in Europe and agreed to sample four cities in 10 days to see which one would beckon us back for a longer visit.
We avoided renting a car and travelled by train, subway, streetcar and on foot – the surest way to learn your way around unfamiliar places, especially if you have a personal tour guide with a trusty sense of direction and a budget mentality. The extensive list of baroque and rococo churches and museums on the itinerary was daunting, but I was mollified by the mid-trip prospect of three nights in Budapest at the Gellért Hotel and spa, overlooking the Danube.
The food on Turkish airlines is surprisingly tasty, and the service first-rate, almost good enough to make you forget the discomfort of a 10-hour overnight flight surrounded by crying babies. On landing, we quickly bought visas (good for 90 days), dumped our carry-on bags in left luggage, and headed for the information desk. “What should we do if we only have a few hours to see Istanbul?” I asked the attendant. “Stay here,” he replied. He had a point because the airport is modern, full of shops and inviting places to curl up for a read, a snack or a snooze. But we are made of sterner stuff.
We grabbed a taxi and raced along the Sea of Marmara (with Asia looming in the distance) and then through crowded lanes and side streets of Sultanahmet, arriving in the ancient centre just as the call to prayer echoed around us. Istanbul has a sprawling metropolitan population of more than 13 million people, but the sights on our itinerary were the anchors of the old city: the magnificent Hagia Sophia, for a 1,000 years the largest Christian church in the world, then a mosque and now a museum; its rival, the serene Blue Mosque, with its six grand minarets and 21,000 decorative tiles; and the Grand Bazaar.
One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, it has nearly 60 covered streets, more than 4,000 shops, and a reputation as “the father and mother of all tourist traps.” A guard was shutting and barring the heavy wooden doors at one end of the market, so we nervously found our way to another exit, bought a chicken shawarma from an outdoor vendor, and hailed a cab for a much slower ride out to the airport for our midnight flight to Vienna, the capital of the former Austro-Hungarian empire.
I felt we had travelled to Hong Kong and back by the time we staggered off the plane to an anonymous but welcoming hotel less than 100 metres from the arrivals lounge. By 10 the next morning we were in Stephansplatz, sipping a Viennese melange coffee and admiring the Stephansdom, a towering Gothic cathedral as unlike Hagia Sofia as Turkish delight is from strudel.
Vienna is a glorious celebration of the Baroque, both over the top and exquisite, such as the Karlskirche, the Schloss Schonbrunn or the Upper and Lower Belvedere with their expansive gardens and spectacular views. The Austrian capital remains a compact repository of cultural treasures from the music of Mozart – period-dressed touts will hound you to buy concert and opera tickets – to the world’s largest collection of Gustav Klimt paintings in The Belvedere, to the Hofburg, the palace where the Hapsburgs presided until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. After Otto von Hapsburg, the last crown prince, died in July at the age of 98, his body was buried, according to family tradition, in Austria and his heart in Hungary.