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The Lonely Longhorn Travel Guide: The Austro-Hungarian Empire

The crystalline azure waters of the Danube River churned in dense mahogany-mint swirls near our Budapest tour boat. The Blue Danube. Ha! Too bad Johann Strauss never sought musical inspiration in Texas where he might have penned another lilting aqueous-themed waltz from the banks of Clear Lake or the city limits of Sweetwater. Dubious water color notwithstanding, the venerable city of Budapest, Hungary is a fabulously lovely dame in an aging kind of way. Beneath the graffiti, peeling plaster, and uneven paint is a glorious old architecture that begs to be ogled. The designers and craftsmen plying their trade in Budapest in the 1890’s took a back seat to no one.

"1890’s?!? But I was born in nineteen sheventeen, dahling!"

The view from the rolling hills on the Buda side of the city, across the river, around the attractive Parliament House and then on to the plains of Pest is compelling. Budapest is actually pronounced "Budapesht" in Hungarian. Easier to say it correctly while weaving along the sidewalks on Sixth Street several hours after the game.

Budapest was the second city on DrJHorn Family Summer 2009 Tour. Vienna, the first, was an ideal starting point. Clean, efficient, and fairly easy to navigate. However, I have to say it is not a place to linger longer than required. In my opinion, Vienna has a few drawbacks that set it firmly behind neighboring cities like Budapest and Prague:

1. Vienna is nowhere near the Alps. It is on a relatively featureless plain skirted by low hills to the north. Immediately head west to the more alluring Austrian towns of Salzburg and Innsbruck if you are looking for the bracing Alpine environs, the lederhosen-clad oompah bands, and the ubiquitous Sound of Music tours.
2. The Hofburg complex - the seat of the Hapsburg dynasty - and the sprawling Schonbrunn summer palace in Vienna are certainly worth visiting. But the self-important size and majesty of these structures stand in sharp contrast to the practical reality. Austria has not been an imperial power for many decades; it is a small, perpetually neutral entity with precious little impact beyond its own borders. If you have ever been to Kyle Field or Reed Arena, you understand.
3. Vienna is fairly bland. Colorless. See 1) above.

Sigmund says: "Colorless? My hometown is colorless? Perhaps you are repressing childhood memories of a Fred Akers offensive game plan. Lie down and let’s talk about it."

Of course, Vienna’s exceptional musical tradition speaks for itself. We very much enjoyed a performance by the renowned Vienna Boys’ Choir during our visit. And clearly, the city flaunted star composers back in the 1790’s the way east Texas flaunted running backs in the 1970’s (do be careful to get the digits of those eras in the correct order lest you mistakenly envision Barry Switzer giving a soul shake to Johannes Brahms while promising him a free harpsichord if he agrees to come play in Norman).

If you were to crunch the stats of all of the Viennese composers in the BCS (Brilliant Composer Series) computers, it might rank them: 1) Mozart, 2) Beethoven, 3) Haydn, 4) Schubert, and 5) Strauss (son over father).

Rankings 2) to 5) are arguable, but Mozart is the clear #1. It is humorous to observe the various cities across Eastern Europe stake their individual claims to Mozart and his works. Our tour guide in the perfectly forgettable city of Bratislava in the understandably overlooked country of Slovakia proudly touted that Mozart once spent two months in that city. No mention that he actually enjoyed it, mind you, but Amadeus apparently didn’t heap scorn on the place, either. The tourists need to know that.

Vacaville, California is adopting a similar approach with Scipio Tex ("Did you know he composed his Texas Tech State of the Union when his Miata broke down here? Yes, it was repaired in this very shop!"). Beethoven was supremely talented but was also a foul-smelling, barely housebroken lout. He was forced to move house around, what, 70 times? Each move is actually chronicled in the Musikhaus museum in Vienna (do visit that excellent museum if you travel there). Mozart’s fingers would glide over the piano keys while Beethoven regularly broke the piano strings. So, yes, on your next standardized test, the correct answer should read -> Mozart : Scipio :: Beethoven : Close to Jumping.

Sigmund says: "Perhaps your word choice of ‘colorless’ is latent guilt from your review of photographs of the 1969 Texas national champion team. Lie down and let’s talk about it."

Prague, Czech Republic, the final city on the tour, was definitely the highlight. Mystical, medieval,…the city of a thousand spires. True, Prague has become overhyped, overexposed and overvisited in recent years (is Tebow a Czech name?), but the reasons are legit. Prague was largely undamaged by World War II and suffered far less neglect than Budapest during the Iron Curtain years. Architecturally, if you know your Gothic from your Renaissance and your Baroque from your Rococo, Prague is the perfect place to explore for days on end. The shopfront facades, cobblestone streets, archways, town squares, and ancient clock tower are remarkably well preserved. Only some ungainly telecommunications towers on hills near the city offend the tourist in his perceived right to witness antiquity perfectly preserved for perpetuity.

The famous Charles Bridge in Prague. Perhaps named after Jamaal? Great style and a definite crowd favorite. Not a great interview, though.

Suitable souvenir shopping abounds in both Hungary and the Czech Republic. Crystal, linens, carvings, and other items are plentiful. Our best purchase was probably a toy crossbow in the picturesque Hungarian town of Szentendre for my 8-year-old son. After plodding for hours on the death march (to a kid) of crown jewels, old musical scores, and stained glass windows, he was thrilled to find this trusty weapon and carried it with him everywhere. It was used regularly against the imaginary Turks scaling the imaginary walls around us. Except occasionally he declared that the imaginary Turks were imaginary Samurais. Kudos to him for valor on the battlefield and an early understanding of conflicts involving the Occident and the Orient. More precise details can come later.

I did make a sobering realization before this trip while we were still at home in Singapore. As usual, the kids asked me what kind of food to expect on our travels. I told them not to be concerned as the national dish in Austria is weinerschnitzel, which, I noted, tastes a lot like chicken-fried steak. I got three blank looks. Finally, my 15-year-old daughter says, "I don’t get it. Is that a chicken dish or is it steak?" Aaarrggh!!! I am truly the Lonely Longhorn, even on my home turf.

Sigmund says, "Aha. The root of all problems of the Super-ego and the Id: not receiving the necessary Texas-related experiences as a child. Have them come in and lie down, and let’s talk about it."

"What? All this Austria talk and no mention of Emperor Franz Joseph? Ruled for 68 years. And still excelled as a run stuffer at Florida Atlantic."