In October of this year, Marilynn and I visited several eastern Europe cities via a riverboat down the Danube. Beginning in Vienna, the historic capital of the Hapsburg dynasty, we toured Budapest, Bratislava, Pecs, Novi Sad, Belgrade, and Bucharest, as well as some smaller river ports (seven countries overall). Although poverty is still evident, especially in Romania and Bulgaria, the shadow of communism has clearly given way to capitalism within various forms of democratic governments. Every capital city contained a thriving center filled with high-end retailers and restaurants fronting on pedestrian-only streets and squares. Smaller cities also contained pedestrian centers, but with lower-scale shops consistent with the smaller population and local economy.
Of course, these cities retain their charming center-city mid-rise buildings from past centuries to frame the pedestrian retail centers, and they all provide modest-price mass transit to expand the shoppers from homes throughout the city. But, the fact is that residents appear to prefer shopping, dining and strolling in the central core over the big-box discount stores that have penetrated their suburbs. The major question crossing our minds is are these preferences strictly European, or could they be replicated to Americans?
In terms of atmosphere, we found the elegant formality of Vienna buildings to create a less-appealing city center than the other capital cities. The Pest section of Budapest clearly copied Paris uniform building heights to create its charm (the hilly Buda section north of the Danube attracts more affluent residential areas). Bratislava exudes a similar Paris atmosphere with control of historic building heights. In our view, this capital of Slovakia is equal in charm to southern Budapest. Pecs (pronounced “pesh”) is a southern Hungarian city south of the Danube that was an historic major religious center with a vibrant pedestrian area integrated with the religious buildings, featuring an early Eastern-Catholic church replication of Sancta Sophia in Istanbul. Novi Sad, retaining the original royal fortress overlooking the Danube, claims the best city center with a delightful park integrated with surrounding pedestrian retail/office/housing buildings within a short walk of the river. Just fifty miles south, the Serbian capital of Belgrade, is focused on its fortress-now-national-park adjacent to a large central city of retail/office/housing buildings of all heights, but highlighted by a pedestrian square continuing down an L-shape street to a modern parking garage that supplements the busy transit system in bringing residents to the city center—outdoor dining/drinking was filled with patrons on a sunny October weekend. Of all these charming cities, the Romanian capital, Bucharest boasted the most extensive underground subway system, ensuring rapid access to all sectors of the city and suburbs. In contrast, the major roadways to reach the city were in dire need of repair, reflecting the reported poor economy of this country.
All of these cities under former communist rule did exhibit the plain grey high-rise housing complexes common to the past era of Russian rule. But their location entirely in suburban areas did not disrupt the essential center city charm in all of these historic cities. For us, it was an adventure well taken.