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A couple takes pictures as they visit the Byzantine monument of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul May 25, 2011. (MURAD SEZER/MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)
A couple takes pictures as they visit the Byzantine monument of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul May 25, 2011. (MURAD SEZER/MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)

4 cities in 10 days: Why a whirlwind European tour is worth it Add to ...

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.)

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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.

My first taste of schnitzel, in a cheap and cheerful café off the Vaci Utca, Budapest’s pedestrian promenade, tugged at my heartstrings, reminding me of the strip of Hungarian restaurants that had once been a fixture of Bloor Street near Honest Ed’s in Toronto, a testament to the thousands of Hungarians who arrived as refugees after the 1956 uprising against the Soviets. The Hungarians have an even more complicated history than the Austrians in the bloody aftermath of the First World War.

Budapest, for all its busy cafés and its bustling Central Market, often wears the ravages of that tumultuous history in façades that are pockmarked by bullet holes and bomb-damaged interiors that were reconstructed according to Stalinist design protocols. The city remains wonderfully picturesque – especially along the Danube, which divides high and mighty Buda (with the Royal Palace and the Gothic spire of Matyas Church) from the livelier and more commercial Pest. Like Vienna, Budapest is compact, laced with efficient trams and an underground network that rightly claims to be the oldest in continental Europe.

A strategic station stop is Hosok tere, or Heroes Square, the site of the Magyar millennium celebrations in 1896, and the quarter that displays the final glories of the Hapsburgs in wide avenues lined with mansions, now hosting several foreign embassies, cafés and monuments. We spent the morning visiting the neo-classical Museum of Fine Arts, which has an impressive collection of international art including Greek and Roman treasures, and paintings by Rembrandt, Murillo and Monet. Then, we ambled down Andrassy Street stopping at the Franz Liszt Museum, where one could hear recitals through the walls from the connected music academy, and took a late lunch at the recently restored Central Kavehaz, which stands on the site of a café dating from the 1880s.

Then we headed to the Great Synagogue – Europe’s largest – near the Astoria Metro station and the unhappy location where Hungarian Jews were marshalled late in the war for deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The courtyard is a haunting memorial to the 600,000 Jews killed by the Nazis (including many who were buried in a mass grave on the site) and to the heroes who risked their lives to save as many Jews as they could.

Unlike Vienna, which was occupied by the Western powers from 1945 until 1955, Budapest was part of the greater Soviet world until June, 1991. The Terror Museum, situated rather incongruously on elegant Andrassy Street, occupies the same building that formerly housed the vicious Nazi-era Arrow Cross Party and later the AVO, the Hungarian Communist secret police. The location adds a chilling emphasis to the photographs, videos and execution chamber from that dark era and the brutal reprisals after the 1956 uprising.

Emotionally and physically drained, we headed back to the Gellért, with its art nouveau façade for a soak in the baths. Construction on the massive pile, built atop medicinal thermal waters first discovered in the 13th century, began in 1913 with the hotel finally opening in 1918 – a classic example of bad timing.

There was another calamity late in the Second World War, when a bomb – the locals blame the Americans – crashed through the hotel’s dome, leaving the exterior walls standing and destroying everything inside except the underground spa. The baths, which are divided into men’s and women’s sections, are labyrinthine. One male guest told me he hadn’t dared to return after getting lost in there eight years earlier.

The spa services are a bizarre mixture of European and Soviet style – pedicures don’t include nail polish – and the massages could do with an incursion of robust Turkish techniques. I was expecting my muscles to be roughhoused into submission, but instead received such a gentle kneading that I felt a butterfly was traipsing over my body. From Budapest we took trains back to Vienna and from there to Graz for a wedding weekend sans museums, and a reunion with friends. Graz, an ancient university town, escaped heavy bombing in the war and consequently boasts one of the best-preserved city centres in Europe. We ate ice cream and pastries, strolled through squares and alleyways, and shared in a joyous occasion where our only duty was to show up and enjoy ourselves.

The trip had been hurried – sometimes like TV’s The Amazing Race – but we had sampled the delights and shortcomings of places we had always wanted to visit. As for which location merited a return trip, the answer, as we knew all along, was obvious: They all did.

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