Europe is littered with broken empires. Whole of Scandinavia was once the Swedish Empire, the French Empire at the peak of Napoleon’s power controlled most of Western Europe, the Balkan used to belong to the Ottoman Empire, Russian (and later Soviet) rule has left its mark on Eastern Europe and traces of the Roman Empire are all over the place. Like Atlantis, the ruins of these empires are mostly under the surface, with bits of wreckage sticking out here and there. Sometimes they are in full view, like the Colosseum, at other times the old empires are visible only to those who know where to look, like that mosque in Thessaloniki that now disguises itself as a cinema. Of all the lost empires of Europe, I think that the most imperial is the Austria-Hungarian Empire, who’s leftovers are distributed among no less than 13 countries.
- Why go there?
The legacy of the Austria-Hungarian Empire is the best preserved one. Part of it has to do with the timing – it “lived” quite recently, in the late 19th to early 20th century. This was, of course, the Victorian era, the golden age of Empires, the time of the great balls and fluffy dresses. Another reason for the state of conservation of the Austrian-Hungarian heritage is the relatively peaceful disappearance of the empire. Unlike the Russian Empire, which pretty much exploded, or the British Empire, that imploded, the Austria-Hungarian Empire sort of dissolved, leaving the balls, castles and fluffy dresses intact.
- What’s it best for?
THE destination for classic Europe seekers. Mozart, Kafka, Freud, castles, balls, more castles, operas, carriages, its all here. The image of Austria-Hungarian Empire as the most classical of Empires is confirmed by the Sissi trilogy, movies that came to be synonimous with stiff court life in the capital of a grand Empire.
- When is the best time to go?
Probably during the shoulder season of September-October. The continental climate can make the summer months unbearably hot here. Christmas season is also quite special in these traditional parts.
- How to get around?
Easiest by train. The connections are excellent, distances are mild and the views are spectacular.
- Why is it best to avoid?
If you can’t handle diversity – steer clear. This is a region not united by a single language, religion or cuisine, and I can imagine some people being less enthusiast about a change in language and food in every new town.
- Where to go if you just have one week?
Its a bit hard to choose, but I’d still go for Vienna. In a region famous for its classics, the old imperial capital has the most class. Plus its only a couple of hours away from the other capitals – Budapest, Prague and Bratislava are all within reach for a day tour.