In July this year, I did a tour of Eastern Europe that took me through countries filled with fascinating history, rich cultures, fairytale-esque architecture and delicious food. I thought I would focus on the latter in an attempt to provide a “taste” of what this part of the world has to offer visitors, served against a backdrop of the delightful cities of Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.
The trip started in Vienna, Austria, where our welcome dinner at a traditional Viennese restaurant comprised a starter of vegetable soup, a main course of chicken schnitzel and apple strudel for dessert. A schnitzel is a thin and tenderised piece of meat, usually pork, veal or chicken, that is covered in breadcrumbs and fried. Apple strudel is a baked dessert that consists of apple pieces wrapped in a light pastry and dusted with powdered sugar. I will admit, this was not my favourite since I am not a fan of fruit in my desserts (raisins also fall into that category) but, as they say, when in Rome – or in this case, Vienna. As soon as we were seated, a basket of freshly-baked bread was provided, reminding me that in Europe bread is not a four-letter word like it has become in so many countries. Instead, it is an integral part of a dining experience to be broken, buttered and enjoyed with friends over a hearty meal. Just one of the many features of European meals that I love.
The following day we stopped in the medieval town of Český Krumlov, located along the meandering Vltava River in the Czech Republic. Because of the short time allocated for this stop, our desire to walk to the castle at the top of the hill overlooking the town took priority over our desire for food. Therefore, a simple but tasty sandwich had to suffice. It was then a fairly short drive through the Bohemian countryside to the capital city of Prague. Our hotel was conveniently located a short walk from historic Wenceslas Square, lined with several street stands offering an array of appetising (and extra large) sausages. These are an integral part of Eastern Europe cuisine and the klobása, a grilled sausage served on a roll (rohlík), which I had, did not disappoint. While exploring the Old Town Square en route to observe the mechanical wonders of the Astronomical Clock’s glockenspiel, I spotted spirals of dough that appeared to be baking on a rotisserie, and then sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. I discovered that these are traditional Slavic treats called trdelnik and, while they are essentially roasted dough, they are surprisingly light and extremely delicious.
After saying “sbohem” to the Czech Republic, we headed to our stop in Poland, namely Krakow, where we enjoyed a hearty Polish dinner in the Jewish Quarter of the city. I opted for a celery and potato cream soup for a starter, a leg of duck confit served with cherry sauce and potato wedges for the main course, and a lemon and raspberry sorbet for dessert (a refreshing choice, considering the intense heat of the day that continued into the early evening). The following day, after a walking tour of Krakow, which stretched from Wawel Hill to Jagiellonian University to Old Town, I had certainly worked up an appetite. I grabbed an obwarzanek krakowski (a Polish bagel-pretzel hybrid) from one of the many colourful carts lining the cobbled streets of the city; a perfect on-the-go snack for locals and tourists alike. I then settled down for some decadent chocolate cake and a refreshing lemonade in the Old Town square (the largest in Europe), with a perfect view of St Mary’s Church and its iconic trumpeter.
The sixth day took us through the beautiful Tatra Mountains of Slovakia to Budapest, Hungary. This magical city provided the backdrop for the highlight of the tour: a cruise and buffet dinner on the Danube River. The cruise commenced as the sun was setting, casting a warm glow on the breathtaking buildings of Budapest, including its Parliament and Fisherman’s Bastion. On board, we enjoyed a buffet of traditional and contemporary dishes, including a hearty Hungarian goulash, plenty of desserts to satisfy any sweet tooth and a selection of Hungarian wines to toast an unforgettable evening. As darkness enveloped the city, its lights provided even more wondrous sights and perfect photographs.
The following morning started with a sightseeing tour of the city. It extended from Buda’s medieval Castle District to Heroes’ Square in Pest, ending (conveniently) around lunch time at the impressive Central Market Hall, with rows and rows of stalls offering shoppers a plethora of cured meats, cheeses, fresh fruit and vegetables, paprika, pastries and my personal favourite: pogácsa, which are reminiscent of mini cheese scones or biscuits. These bite-sized pieces of savoury heaven seemed to jump into my mouth one after the other. Our stay in Budapest concluded with dinner at one of the many sidewalk cafes in Pest: chicken pieces in a rich paprika sauce accompanied by spätzle (thin noodles with a dumpling consistency) and washed down with…more Hungarian wine! Our local guide knew what she was talking about when she advised: “you’ll never be hungry in Hungary”
It was then time to return to the Imperial City of Vienna, where a tour of Schönbrunn Palace preceded our farewell dinner, enjoyed under chandeliers and surrounded by gilded mirrors at the Palais Auersberg. I selected tafelspitz (boiled fillet of beef) as my main meal and the city’s iconic Sachertorte for dessert. The Sachertorte, first served in its current form at the city’s Hotel Sacher, is a layered chocolate gateau, with apricot jam between layers and covered with a coating of chocolate icing. This dinner, fit for royalty, was followed by a performance by the Viennese Resident Orchestra. Although the tour had officially come to an end, I was grateful that I still had three extra nights in Austria to explore its capital.
The bustling shopping district of Neubaugasse offered many appealing options for on-the-go meals. Pizzas sprinkled with corn caught my eye and, despite my initial reservations, my salami and corn pizza proved to be rather delicious. After a lot of walking around the interior and gardens of the incredible Belvedere, home to Klimt’s “The Kiss”, the Naschmarkt was the perfect destination to appease an empty stomach. This extensive market has more than 100 food stalls and restaurants with culinary offerings from all over the world. It is somewhat overwhelming to all the senses and an attraction for any food-lover visiting Vienna. I tried a börek, whose origin dates back to the Ottoman Empire. Popular in Turkey and the Balkans, this triangular, flaky pastry is filled with spinach and feta, but it is also available with beef. Sadly, I was too full to sample any of the amazing pastries and cakes that lined the market. For my final dinner in the city, which I enjoyed at a beer garden in Stadtpark, I ordered a southern European dish called ćevapčići (grilled spicy minced meat in the shape of small sausages), with thickly cut fritten (fries) served with mustard and ajvar (a relish derived from red bell peppers).
At the start of the trip, our tour director had told us that since we were in foreign countries, foreign calories did not count – and, therefore, we should enjoy all the indulgences that Eastern Europe has to offer, guilt-free. I’m not convinced that his dietary advice was very accurate, but I’m sure glad I followed it. “Prost” to a fantastic and flavourful trip!