DISCOVERING EASTERN EUROPE
May 2, 2009
OK, time to start thinking about our next adventure. I have to admit that the last one was really, really, really... different. Life changing? Well, probably not, but ... I suspect that our next trip will feel luxurious compared to the last! It has taken several months to fully recover, but with summer around the corner, Teresa and I have been revisiting our list of places we'd like to see. Katie tells us that Krakow is the "new" Prague, but since we haven't seen either, I guess we'll have to start with the old Prague first!
The reality is that I have never spent any time in Eastern Europe at all! I wonder why that is?
I remember when I first traveled to Europe in 1977. Eastern Europe was truly off-limits. The Cold War was at its zenith and the nearest you could get to experiencing it without the benefit of a secret police escort was to head to the Berlin Wall, and perhaps talk your way into East Germany for the day! I didn't bother to go to Berlin back then because it didn't seem that things would be changing anytime soon. The President of East Germany proclaimed that the wall would be standing "for a hundred years", so I figured I'd get to see it later. It simply made more sense to visit those places that were both accessible and still (relatively) undiscovered.
I think the mid-1970's was probably the tail end of the European experience that Arthur Frommer first described in his classic 1960's travel handbook, Europe on $5 a day. In 1977, Europe had not yet caught up to the U.S. economically, and the Second World War was not yet a distant memory. I recall that when I drove along the backroads of Spain in my battered VW bus, the Guardia Civil was ubiquitous, and all the coins still bore General Franco's likeness, as he had only been dead for little more than a year. The country was an economic backwater! When I returned to Spain three years ago, it was like seeing an entirely different country, with no evidence of the horrors of the Franco dictatorship. Likewise with Greece, which in 1977 was basically a third world country still recovering from brutal military rule. The European Union was in its infancy and consisted of only a handful of countries, while the Soviet Union menaced the entirety of Europe while occupying the Eastern bloc of countries including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and many others!
All in all, it just wasn't real inviting!
I remember sitting transfixed in front of the television in November of 1989. With the networks broadcasting live from Berlin, we watched as hordes of deliriously happy East Germans clambered over the wall in a frantic dash for freedom. I think it was one of the most astonishing events I have ever seen!
Anyway, 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, and its time I set aside my dated notions of what Eastern Europe used to be. Since checking it out is long overdue, we've decided our next journey will be an introductory tour of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, with a stop in Vienna, Austria for good measure.
After spending several hours scouring all the travel search engines for bargains, I came across a discounted round-trip fare from San Francisco to Prague, on Delta Airlines, for only US $829.00. I'll be joined by Teresa and Katie and we will be departing on July 7th. Teresa and I will return on July 29th, and Katie will then meet up with her Scottish friend Emily and continue the adventure for another four weeks.
We'll use Prague as our base for seeing the Czech Republic during the first week, then move on to Vienna, Budapest and Krakow, making a loop that will end back in Prague.
Counting the Days!
June 9, 2009
Four weeks to go!
I've spent the past several weeks putting together an itinerary for our introductory tour of Eastern Europe. Although we've set aside three weeks, I have no doubt that we will only touch the surface on this go-round.
I've always conceptualized travel as iterative, that is, you go once to get a feel for a place, then you go back over and over again, honing in on those regions that you've taken a liking to, and with each visit, delving deeper into the culture and geography of a specific locale.
For travel during the peak tourist season, i.e., July and August, I'm usually compulsive about arranging accommodations in advance. After a long day I like to know that there's a room and bed waiting for me somewhere. If you don't have anything booked, you're forced to quit your sightseeing early in the day as most decent and reasonably-priced places start to fill up by late afternoon.
My first step after booking flights is to get my hands on as many copies of Lonely Planet, Arthur Frommer and Rick Steves' guide books as possible, and to absorb as much information as I can about our destinations. I'll then jot down a tentative daily itinerary using a photocopied page from the calendar. As I read about each place and get a better idea for what sights I'd like to see, I'll modify the itinerary, figuring in the travel time between destinations.
My preferred mode of transport is rail because I like to be able to relax and enjoy the sights along the way. But sometimes you need to rent a car to really get off the beaten path. Unfortunately, if you're the designated driver and all the signage is foreign, you really need to pay more attention to your driving than to the local sights! Since I expect that we'll mainly be following the crowd on this trip, we'll likely stick with rail.
Once I've decided where I'd like to be each night, I'll start scouring the Internet for interesting and reasonably-priced accommodations. Although there are many good websites, I've come to prefer those that post customer reviews. You can get a pretty good sense of what to expect, especially if there are a lot of postings, and some sites even aggregate customers' ratings into a single digit score. I have found that two of the most reliable sites for this purpose are TripAdvisor (http://www.tripadvisor.com/) and Booking.com (http://www.booking.com/).
TripAdvisor is an excellent choice for choosing accommodations because the site provides customer-based reviews and ratings for all of its listed accommodations, including hotels, pensions, B & B's, etc. in a given city or region. Technically, it's not a booking engine, because after you make your selection, you are linked to other websites to make your reservations.
Booking.com is a self-contained reservation system that offers mainly European accommodations, but its listings are more than comprehensive with detailed descriptions and location maps, and each listing has dozens if not hundreds of reviews.
So having pored over our options this past few weeks, I've selected an assortment of accommodations that I hope will be both comfortable and interesting. In several instances I contacted the individual owners by e-mail, a practice that Rick Steves encourages.
By the way, since Teresa, Katie and I have all met Rick Steves during our travels, we tend to be biased toward his advice, both for sightseeing and for accommodations. [Embarrassing sidebar: When Katie met him in Germany two years ago, she told him that we'd had all of our stuff ripped off in France, her father (me) having ignored his explicit advice not to leave anything in one's rental car. I still feel like a fool!]
Last Minute Thoughts!
July 5, 2009
Our flight leaves from SFO at 6:15 AM Tuesday morning, so we'll be driving to San Francisco Monday evening and staying overnight at a nearby hotel. If we drove directly to the airport from home we'd have to leave by 2:30 AM, not a pleasant prospect, and any unanticipated delay could cause us to miss our flight!
Usually I'll book a one-way rental car and drop it off at the airport, but for unknown reasons, prices have skyrocketed, i.e., $150 one-way. So we're taking our own car and leaving it at one of the many private parking lots near the airport. We were able to get a rate of $45 per week by booking on-line at http://www.longtermparking.com/.
We're flying on Delta Airlines from SFO to JFK, then on to Prague, arriving at 7:45 AM. I've prearranged a pick-up at the airport to take us to our hotel, although I expect we'll have to wait until later in the morning to actually get checked in -- I've found this to be a problem with early arrivals -- after flying all night all you really want when you get there is to lay down for a few hours of sleep, but most hotels don't have rooms available that early.
All our accommodations for this trip have been booked in advance -- as I've mentioned previously, unless you're prepared to sleep on a park bench, reservations are essential during the peak travel season.
We'll be staying at the Atlantic Hotel (http://www.hotel-atlantic.cz/en/) in Prague for the first six nights. Although I booked it through Expedia, I actually researched it through TripAdvisor and Booking.com, and it seems to be a highly rated budget hotel. But you never really know what you're getting until you get there. It's not uncommon for hotels to create elaborate but self-serving websites that exaggerate the quality of the accommodations. That's why I like to read as many customer reviews as I can find. If they repeatedly mention tiny cramped rooms and worn-out furniture, it's highly likely that's what you'll get.
I'm going to keep my copy of Rick Steves Prague & the Czech Republic handy on the airplane -- its going to be a long ride, and looking it over en route will afford me a better sense of what to expect when we arrive.
Lastly, lots of "experts" claim that traveler's cheques are obsolete because cash machines are ubiquitous. But as I discovered two years ago in Vietnam, technology is only great when it works, and there's nothing much worse than getting stuck in a strange place with no money! So, just in case, I'm taking along $500 in American Express Traveler's Cheques along with my ATM card.
We made it!
July 8, 2009
We made it to Prague with all our bags -- only a minor delay due to thunderstorms. With all the free wine and beer, it seemed like our flight became a giant block party, at least until the captain dimmed the lights. At dinner this evening, we drank large steins of Pilsner Urquell beer and had a hearty Czech dinner of beef goulash with bacon dumplings, and roasted pork cubes with whole cabbage, potato and bread dumplings. (Teresa asked me to mention this!) Very tasty. We are jet-lagged and are looking forward to some rest. Stay tuned!
First full day
July 9, 2009
Prague feels very European but also is very touristy, i.e., trams, cobblestone streets, small shops....
We signed up for an all day walking tour starting at 11 AM at the Clock Tower -- it seems to be the main meeting point in old Prague. Walked through the Jewish Quarter, Castle Quarter and Old Town -- just an overview. Our guide was a real oddball -- he was very programmed with lots of factoids and wouldn't even tell us his name. He didn't give much of a historical perspective. Had lunch with more beer, ham and dumplings -- I think it's a staple here! We traversed the Charles Bridge which is a major historic site, although frankly there's not much to see as it's under reconstruction. The walking tour ended with a boat tour on the river which was a highlight of the day -- the driver was far more informative, explaining much more local history. He showed us where a giant statue of Stalin had been located -- it was blown up in 1989!
The weather is very changeable -- cloudy, sunny, rainy, windy, then repeated every half hour or so!
After resting at the hotel, we headed back out to the concert hall and took in an hour long performance by the local chamber orchestra -- Vivaldi is popular here -- very pleasant. Tomorrow we'll sightsee on our own.
This isn't India!
July 10, 2009
We headed out to Prague Castle after an excellent buffet breakfast at our hotel -- a variety of cheeses and cold cuts, crepes, yogurt, fruit, cereal, bacon, hardboiled eggs, wieners, etc. The Atlantic Hotel has greatly exceeded our expectations -- I would highly recommend it!
It was a two mile mostly uphill walk to the castle. There's a tram but we needed to burn off some calories! (We got a discount on the audioguide by showing our Rick Steves guide.) It's a huge castle with an impressive exterior, but the interior with its cavernous hall, is actually spartan. Interesting, but nothing to write home about -- same for St. Vitus Cathedral -- I guess I'm a bit jaded with some of this stuff!
We had a late lunch at the nearby Klasterine Pivovan (Monastery Brewery, recommended by R. Steves). It was good, but not outstanding -- I think some of these places that get mentioned in tour books eventually take the referral business for granted (although Teresa said the beer cheese with toast was quite good.)
Later in the evening we took in the Ghost Tour -- it was included as part of the tour we'd taken yesterday. The guide provided some interesting ghost stories, but it's hard to create suspense when English is not your first language!
The highlight of the day was a late dinner at U Vejvodu at Jilska 4 in the Old Town -- the place was packed and humming at 11 PM, offering huge steins of beer for 30 crowns ($1.50), and authentic Czech food for minimal prices. I had a towering platter of smoked pork spareribs for only $11. The food was great and we didn't get back to the hotel until after midnight!
July 11, 2009
We took a side trip today to Kutna Hora, about an hour by train. The town has several tourist attractions including the Museum of Silver, St. Barbara's Cathedral, and the Sedlec Bone Church.
It seems like every European town has an obligatory cathedral which is invariably touted as the grandest and most ornate -- but after you've seen a few of these churches, they all start to look the same! After seeing this church, to coin a phrase from Faith Hill, "That don't impress me none!"
(In fact, just as an aside, it occurs to me that European civilization really didn't accomplish much for the better part of a thousand years thanks to the preoccupation with building giant churches everywhere! That, and the constant fighting with each other!)
But I digress. The Museum of Silver offered a cool tour into the abandoned mine tunnels which was much creepier than the Ghost Tour! You had to traverse the tunnels while hunched over, as they weren't much more than five feet high, and some of the passageways were so narrow I had to turn sideways to squeeze through! It was damp and dark -- pitch black with our flashlights off! Luckily they gave us helmets since I cracked my head on the overhead rocks several times.
The eyepopper of the day, however, was the Sedlec Bone Church (Ossuary), which is morbidly decorated with thousands of bones from long-departed victims of war and plagues -- their souls must be exceedingly restless knowing their earthly remains will spend eternity piled ceiling-high as church decorations! There was even a ghastly-appearing monstrous (in more ways than one) chandelier hanging from the ceiling constructed of thousand of skulls, femurs and pelvic bones.
I suppose this all got started when some bored monk began looking for a way to kill some time and the whole thing kind of snowballed! Bottom line -- it's really, really weird -- but definitely a must see!
A Sobering Day
July 12, 2009
There was a TV miniseries about 20 years ago based on the novel The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk. In it, a young woman, played by Ali McGraw in the first part and Jane Seymour in the second, and her father, a professor doing research, become trapped in Italy after the war begins in 1939. Being Jews, they are eventually rounded up by the Nazis and taken to the town of Terezin, outside Prague, which is set up as a model relocation center.
The town, originally built in honor of the Hapsburg Empress Marie Teresa as a walled fortress town, is evacuated of its 7000 residents who are replaced by 40,000 plus forcibly relocated Jews. The Nazis then use it for propaganda purposes, appointing a self governing Council of Elders to run this model Jewish Ghetto.
The daughter survives but eventually the father is sent to the gas chambers and is killed. Probably the most moving scene towards the end is when his ashes are unceremoniously dumped in the river along with the ashes of thousands of other victims. Virtually all of Terezin's residents were eventually shipped off to death camps to be replaced by other victims from elsewhere.
I'd never heard of Terezin prior to this miniseries and had always been interested in seeing this town which is now a memorial to the dead. Although it's quite a large town, probably the equivalent of several dozen city blocks, it's still shocking to realize how many people were crammed in here. We watched a documentary at the museum which featured segments of a German propaganda film featuring happy residents enjoying a soccer match.
Although the Holocaust is not the only genocide in history, the true horror is the institutionalized and highly organized nature of the mass murders which occurred. The Nazis were fastidious in their record keeping, noting the names and dates of birth of every person sent to their death. Despite everything I've read and know about this place, nothing could prepare me for the reality of seeing the city hall, town square, local church, and other suggestions of a normal town turned into a living hell.
Before leaving we visited the cemetery and crematorium as well as the site along the tranquil river where the ashes of so many victims were dumped.
The Jewish Museum of Prague
July 13, 2009
As if the Nazis hadn't been thorough enough in wiping out Czechoslovakia's 118,000 Jews, the Communist regime from 1948 to 1989 continued the anti-Semitic propaganda, so that even the handful of Jews who survived were unable to re-establish any semblance of community life. Only a handful remain as most eventually emigrated to the US and Israel. All that is left are the remnants of their culture, preserved in six synagogues, five of which constitute the Jewish museum.
These synagogues are packed with artifacts that remain after hundreds of years of a thriving Jewish community in Prague. The Jewish cemetery, the only one allowed in Prague, is packed with headstones where bodies were buried on top of each other often only separated by a foot or so of soil, so that the whole cemetery has formed a small hill.
The Pinkas synagogue is the most moving because it has the names of all the Czech Jews who perished under the Nazis listed alphabetically and by place or origin as well as birth date. I counted at least 20 people named Rosenzweig, my grandfather's surname, although he originally came to America from Lithuania.
Apparently Czechoslovakia was one of the few post-war countries to support the creation of Israel, and the Spanish synagogue has a display narrative which describes the efforts of Jewish survivors of the Nazis to emigrate to Palestine.
Later in the evening, we wandered though parts of Prague's New Town, including Wenceslas Square, the site of the 1968 Soviet invasion and later, in 1989, the demonstrations that eventually led to the fall of Communism. It's truly mind-boggling, as you walk the streets, to realize how much history has occurred here, and how protracted and difficult the fight for freedom has been.
We spent the fading hours of daylight at a small open-air beer garden along the river's edge adjacent to the Charles Bridge and across from Prague Castle. We watched the sunset while listening to an American West Coast musician play old-time American favorites.
By the way, if you'd like to read more, check out Katie's blog: http://katiestravelsabroad.blogspot.com/
July 14, 2009
We spent the better part of the day getting to Cesky Krumlov. We had planned to catch the 9:45 AM bus, but when we got to the station we were told there were no more seats available. Ditto with the 11 AM bus. So we trudged over to the train station about a mile away and bought tickets to Cesky Budojevice at 11:15 with plans to catch the local bus from there to Cesky Krumlov. It was all quite exasperating but we finally made it there at 3:30 PM.
After an early dinner we strolled though the town, a remarkably quaint and well-preserved nineteenth century village, with cobblestone streets and a town square, all adjacent to a fast-flowing river and an enormous castle. We spent the rest of the evening drinking the local beer and planning our day for tomorrow. Top of our list: the Eggenberg Brewery tour at 11 AM.
Beer and more beer!
July 15, 2009
Our itinerary for today was ambitious. Brewery tour at 11, castle tour at 1:30, whitewater rafting through the town at 4. We had a lengthy discussion regarding the wisdom of exploring a brewery and sampling its wares before noon, but the lure of the beer won out.
It was actually an excellent tour. The brewery has been in operation for more than 500 years and brews both traditional yeast beer in modest quantities as well as mass production beer. The brewing rooms were underground where it was a balmy 20 degrees F. and we took turns drinking beer straight from a huge tank - delicious!
The castle tour at 1:30 was entertaining although I don't really remember all that much of it since I had a mild hangover by 2 PM! Fortunately we had all sobered up considerably for our rafting trip at 4 although we were insightful enough to hire an experienced river guide!
We'd met an Australian couple, Neil and Wendy, who were staying at our pension, and Neil joined us on the rafting expedition. His daughter had been here and told him about the rafting and he'd always wanted to try it! Plus, he helped defray the cost. (Ha ha! That's Scott for you -- Teresa.) We discovered that the river was running much higher and faster than normal, and our leisurely float turned into some serious white water rafting! By the time we pulled out we were completely drenched, so the late afternoon cloudburst could do us no further damage.
After drying off we were famished from our big adventure and ordered a giant meat plate at a nearby restaurant - I'm not exaggerating when I say that we got a giant platter stacked with grilled beef, pork and turkey steaks together with piles of French fries, baked potatoes and potato croquettes, as well as sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions. Washed down with half liter mugs of beer and we were about ready to explode!
July 16, 2009
We chose to take a private shuttle (minivan) to Vienna rather than the train which would have involved at least three changes. The cost was similar and the trip at least two hours less. When we checked into the pension we'd booked at about 1:30 PM, the manager grimly handed us an urgent e-mail message from Christopher to call home due to a family emergency!
We rushed off to try to find an Internet café, and Teresa frantically ran into a nearby restaurant for directions, explaining that we had an emergency. The surprised owner was sitting with his laptop at a table and immediately offered to let her use it, so she logged in to find a slew of urgent messages from home. It was then that we realized we hadn't checked our e-mails for at least 48 hours!
We learned that Brandon had crashed his bicycle while out on the bike trail Sunday evening and had been taken by ambulance to the hospital with a head injury and a broken collar bone. He'd had an emergency CT scan but apparently had only suffered a concussion. He'd contacted our friends Bob and Katy who had rushed over to be with him, and in the morning when they brought him home, Uncle Daniel (of "missing runner" fame) came over to look after him.
When Teresa finally found a telephone and called Brandon, he answered himself even though it was only 5 AM back home. It had been two days and although he was a bit better he admitted he was still in a lot of pain and could not easily get around. He also told her he'd had a second CT scan since Daniel and Christopher had thought he was getting worse and had taken him back to the doctor. Although a teary Teresa offered to come home, Brandon insisted it wasn't necessary.
Somewhat reassured, and very relieved, we spent the next few hours wandering around the historic center of Vienna, trying to get oriented. Later, as it was getting dark, we made our way to Am Hof square not far from St. Stephen‘s Cathedral, and found a nice little outdoor restaurant with an excellent selection of authentic Viennese dishes. Teresa and Katie especially enjoyed the pork and sauerkraut platter.
Today had been the hottest yet, with the daytime temperature over 90 degrees, and as it was still very warm and our pension had no air conditioning, we opened our fourth floor windows to the street to try to let in a little breeze. At 3 AM we were abruptly awakened by the sound of a nearby fire alarm, and after a quick check Teresa determined it wasn't coming from our building. Even after the police arrived, however, the alarm continued blaring for the next ninety minutes, and I finally resorted to digging out a package of earplugs I had packed. Needless to say this made for a long night, and the sun was coming up when we finally got back to sleep!
July 17, 2009
I haven't decided what to make of Vienna. I'd had an image in my mind based on a photo I'd seen in my sixth grade Social Studies textbook, and I must still have expected to see well-dressed Viennese strolling along the tree-lined banks of the Danube River.
But we discovered quickly that the Vienna depicted at the turn of the last century is not the Vienna of today! The Danube actually flows several miles away from the city, apparently having been diverted to prevent flooding (I think).
We spent the early part of the day at the Hofburg, the former palace and residence of the Hapsburg royal family until the collapse of the Austrian empire at the end of the First World War. We toured the Imperial apartments including the living quarters of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth, as well as the massive collection of silver and porcelain used by the royal family. We also toured the "Sissy" exhibit which tells the compelling story of Empress Elisabeth - she was the nineteenth century version of Princess Diana, and also died tragically after a difficult life in the public eye.
Later in the day we toured Vienna's famed Opera House and were surprised to learn that much of it had been destroyed during the Second World War and had been later rebuilt.
Afterward we stopped for an ice cream break at Zanoni & Zanoni, a popular local emporium that was packed with both locals and tourists. They had the most magnificent selection of ice cream concoctions I've ever seen, including the caramel sundae I ordered which included hazel nut and coffee ice cream with chocolate and caramel sauce topped with whipped cream !
After relaxing in our room for a few hours, we headed back out and called home once again to check on Brandon's progress - he sounded like he was still having a lot of discomfort.
We strolled over to a nearby canal, a branch of the Danube which I suppose is what passes for the local river these days. Although there was a walkway along the canal and a few low-end restaurants, there was a lot of graffiti and the overall impression was that of neglect, which I found somewhat disturbing. So we headed back into the city center near where we'd eaten last night and enjoyed another late evening dinner outdoors.
A boring day!
July 18, 2009
We awakened this morning to a torrential rainstorm -- what an abrupt change -- last night we were suffocating in ninety degree heat! To avoid the rain we took the U-Bahn (subway) to Schonbrunn to see the Hapsburg summer palace. Although it was only half a mile from the station we looked like drowned rats by the time we arrived. We signed up for the "Grand Tour" which included forty rooms and an audio guide, but it felt like a rip-off since so much of the tour was the same stuff we'd heard at the Hofburg. The grounds were vast and reminded me of Versailles, and I would have liked to wander around but the rain never let up.
I had wanted to head over to the heurigen, the wine gardens, to sample some local vintages as well as some schnitzel or sausage, but this also proved impossible due to the weather -- every outdoor venue was abandoned, even the ice cream emporium!
We settled instead on a quick visit to a nearby kebob & pita stand for a quick bite then returned to the room where Teresa decided to take hers apart "to get rid of the tomatoes" -- but she ended up making a huge mess and got grease all over the tablecloth. Fearful of a reprimand by the owner, she and Katie tried to hide it by rearranging the tablecloth and placing the telephone over the grease stains. (We'd already figured the guy's a control freak about keeping the place tidy -- there were notices posted all over the place listing everything that was not allowed. (In fact, it reminded Katie of Professor Umbridge from Harry Potter.)
Feeling trapped by the weather we made a dash to St. Stephen's Cathedral to see the interior -- frankly I wasn't impressed -- I guess these places are just too large to maintain properly.
Hoping for better and experiencing museum fatigue, we signed up for an excursion tomorrow into the countryside.
A pleasant excursion!
July 19, 2009
Over breakfast, we'd met two women, Robin and Brenda from Connecticut, who joined us today for our day trip into the countryside. We traveled by bus along the Danube River for about an hour, passing by the Vienna Woods and several small towns with adjacent orchards full of apricot trees laden with fruit. Eventually we pulled over by a dock where we waited about thirty minutes for our boat tour.
The scenery was a dramatic change -- a vast panorama of verdant hills topped with an assortment of ancient fortresses, churches and castles with the fast-flowing river wending its way through valley vineyards and orchards.
The riverboat carried us past some spectacular scenery for nearly two hours. Because of the heavy rains the river was flowing exceptionally fast and the water level was only slightly below the adjacent villages -- our guide explained that frequent flooding was a serious problem here with flooding as recently as last month.
While on board we availed ourselves of the local specialties, apricot liqueur and apricot schnapps.
We stopped for a light lunch before entering the Abbey at Melk, then we were escorted through the museum, chapel and library while our guide explained the history of the monastery and the efforts to rehabilitate it in recent years. The restoration was truly amazing -- most aspects of the abbey looked like they were built yesterday despite being more than 500 years old. A small display case explained that the abbot had sold the abbey's original Gutenberg bible to fund the restoration.
On returning to Vienna, we spent the evening wandering through the Stadtpark (city park), a pleasant but uninspiring patch of greenery with a duck pond and assorted statues -- no comparison to, say, Central Park in New York!
Later, back at the pension, we spent the rest of the evening visiting with Robin and Brenda who described their home on two acres in rural Connecticut, and we exchanged e-mail addresses before bidding them farewell.
En route to Budapest
July 20, 2009
We were packed and just about ready to leave for the train station on our way to Budapest, when the toilet in our room decided to back up and began spilling water everywhere! We frantically threw towels down as water flowed onto the parquet floor and carpet. Yikes! The owner was going to have a cow -- and we hadn't even put anything weird down the toilet!
After we did our best to clean up the mess we went to check out -- luckily he had gone out and left his son in charge. Whew! No scolding! We'd been walking on eggshells with this guy from day one, and frankly I'd had my fill of it! Note: Should you ever find yourself in Vienna, DO NOT stay at the Pension Schweitzer Solderer -- the owner is a real jerk! (Before we left we also discovered that he had a computer with a high speed Internet connection that he could easily have offered to us to contact home when we'd first arrived!)
The train ride to Budapest was uneventful and we arrived at our hotel, the Peregrinus, adjacent to the Vaci Utca, the main pedestrian drag, at 4 PM.
After getting checked-in, we made our way down to the street and got settled in at a small nearby cafe where we met two young German men (late 20's, 30'ish), Andy and Andres, with whom we drank more than a dozen large steins of beer over the course of the next four hours while exchanging views on world politics and history!
Budapest -- the "new" Old Europe
July 21, 2009
The location of our hotel on the Vaci Utca adjacent to the Great Market Hall and the Liberty Bridge is ideal. Vaci Utca runs several kilometers parallel to the Danube River and is abuzz with outdoor cafes, shops and strolling violinists.
After wandering the entire length of this walkway we entered the Great Market Hall, built in 1896 as a central marketplace. It's an enormous building that resembles a cathedral from the exterior but is more like a huge railroad station inside, framed with huge ceiling-high girders that make it resemble an erector set, similar to the construction of the Eiffel tower. Its been in use pretty much continuously since 1896 and is packed with a vast assortment of food stalls, vegetable and fruit stands and bakeries, together with fresh meat and fish vendors.
We enjoyed a light lunch of pork chops and potatoes at a cafeteria style restaurant on the second floor. We then made our way to the nearby Hungarian National Museum where we had hoped to see the ostensibly free exhibit on the communist era, however we decided not to bother when they wanted to charge the standard museum fee.
Instead, we made our way over to the centrally located Elisabeth Bridge, crossed over the river, and followed the adjacent walkway in the direction of the Chain Bridge, one of Budapest's major landmarks. From there we climbed the terraced steps to the top of Castle Hill which provided a panoramic view of the river and the city. The Royal Palace is at the top, however it's only a reconstruction of the original palace which was destroyed during the war.
We strolled throughout the Castle Hill area for a few hours, bypassing various museums, past several landmarks including the Matthias Church, Fishermen's Bastion, and St. Istvan's statue, along quaint cobblestone streets.
One odd site was located within the Hilton Hotel which is built over the medieval ruins of a thirteenth century Dominican church. You can only see these ruins by actually entering the hotel and proceeding into the lower interior infrastructure.
We eventually made our way down to the embankment of the river then followed the pedestrian walkway , crossing the Liberty Bridge to get to our hotel.
Although it was after 7 PM, the temperature had become oppressive with no breeze so we spent the next hour cooling off in our air conditioned room. With the sun setting, we finally headed back out for a late dinner along Raday Utca where we found more than a dozen (packed) outdoor restaurants over a stretch of several city blocks.
Taking the waters
July 22, 2009
In light of the considerable distance we covered yesterday, it seemed appropriate to take a more leisurely approach today, especially with the mercury expected to top 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Using the metro, we made our way to the city park for a relaxing afternoon "taking in" the thermal baths. Apparently the city is located over a geothermal spring which supposedly is endowed with "medicinal" properties. The public baths, which were constructed in 1896 for the millennial celebration, consist of hot pools, mineral baths, steam baths and whirlpools, in addition to several outdoor pools as well as indoor pools.
We soaked for several hours, moving from one temperature controlled pool to another. (According to the signs, the pools ranged from 18 C to 38 C.)
We'd had our fill by late afternoon, so waterlogged and sunburnt we headed back to the Great Market Hall where we had an early dinner of cabbage rolls and sauerkraut which, I assume, is the Hungarian version of a "light" meal.
After resting in our hotel room for an hour, we headed by foot to the Danube Palace where we took in a spectacular presentation of folk music and dancing by the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble.
A day at the mall
July 23, 2009
Teresa and Katie wanted to get in some shopping today so we took a break from sightseeing, strolling the length of the Vaci Utca, then beyond it into the commercial heart of the city. Eventually we found ourselves at a western-style mall, the Westend City Center.
There were two levels of shops which seemed to be variations of your typical mall chain stores. However I only recognized a few storefronts and could not see any sign of a major department store that would normally anchor a mall. Overall, the decor was unimpressive and somewhat dated, although I'm not sure when the mall was built -- obviously some time after 1989.
Since we had hiked quite some distance and it had become hot once again, we hopped on the metro for a quick trip back to our hotel, stopping at the Great Market Hall for a late lunch of goulash soup and stuffed peppers.
After cooling off at the hotel, we again made our way back to the Danube Palace which was our meeting point for a sunset cruise down the Danube River. As we sipped champagne on the top deck of the riverboat, we took in the grand views of the city on either sides of the river: Pest on the east bank and Buda on the west bank
Clearly we've barely touched the surface of this grand city, but tomorrow it's on to Krakow!
En route to Krakow
July 24, 2009
After an early start, we got to the train station in time for our 9:28 AM departure. We were scheduled to arrive in Breclav at 12:54 PM, with a three hour layover until the 4 PM train to Krakow, so we figured we'd have a leisurely late afternoon lunch during the interim.
About 11 AM, our train came to a complete halt. We waited patiently for nearly an hour without explanation then finally resumed our journey in fits and starts for the next four hours.
Eventually we were told by other passengers that the tracks were blocked by fallen trees due to a severe storm the night before, and in fact we saw evidence of repair crews removing tree limbs and debris from the tracks and also repairing overhead power lines.
We finally got into Breclav at 3:30 PM, nearly three hours late. So much for our leisurely lunch! We had to settle for buying a handful of snack items from the station convenience store before boarding our connection to Krakow.
When we finally got into Krakow it was after 10 PM and dark, so we grabbed a taxi for the ten minute ride to our hotel.
The Salt Mine
July 25, 2009
There was steady rain falling as we headed over to Market Square, the center of the Old Town Krakow. When we arrived it was pretty quiet -- clearly the weather had put a damper on most activities. We checked out the Cloth Hall, a relatively small covered central market filled mostly with souvenir shops, then dropped into St. Mary's Church, also in the square (for a quick look), and then the Town Hall Tower.
Since the weather was clearly not conducive to strolling and showed no signs of clearing, we decided to pay a visit to Krakow's "famous" Wieliczka salt mine, the source of the town's wealth for the past several hundred years, and fully operational until recent years.
After a thirty minute bus ride, we were dropped off at the entrance to the mine where we signed up for a tour of two to three hours (we were told).
We proceeded into the mine by traipsing down at least twenty flights of wooden steps before we finally entered a claustrophobic but well-worn mine shaft where the guide began the tour by explaining the mine's history. It was actually quite intriguing because the continuous excavations over hundreds of years have created a virtual underground town beneath the surface, including at least two small (man-made) lakes, an interior cathedral decorated with icons carved from the surrounding salt, a cavernous ballroom (available for wedding receptions) and (of course) a cafeteria-style restaurant. It all felt very weird knowing we were thousands of feet below the surface -- sort of Disney-esque yet still authentic.
We emerged like moles several hours later via a narrow mineshaft elevator that held only nine people per compartment, but had three compartments stacked one on top of the other -- it was open air and very creepy. (Teresa shrieked when we jerkily began our ascent to the surface!)
The rain had subsided although there was still a cold wind, but when we returned to the market square a large stage (which had been empty earlier in the day) now featured some sort of music festival, including singers, folk dancers, musicians, and later in the evening, a rock band. We found a table under a nearby umbrella and settled in for the next few hours, drinking beer until it eventually got too cold (and dark) to remain.
We then retreated to a nearby restaurant with an open wood-burning stove and enjoyed an authentic Polish meal including borscht, perogies and various mystery meats. After all the beer, especially as cold as we were, I think anything would have tasted delicious!
July 26, 2009
Today is the day we'd set aside to see the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.
We had debated this day at length. Since we had already been to the Terezin camp outside of Prague (as well as Dachau several years ago), we had considered passing on it. But the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex is the most notorious of the Nazi death camps where nearly 1.1 million people perished at the hands of the Nazis, and we simply felt we needed to see it.
The truth is, this was the most chilling display of evil I have ever seen. I will never forget the mountains of shoes, the human hair stacked up to the ceiling, and the enormous pile of hairbrushes and toothbrushes, all of which completely filled several large rooms and which represented only a fraction of what the Nazis collected from their victims after murdering them.
Oddly enough, the other sight that I won't soon forget was the several large groups of Israeli schoolchildren most of whom were wrapped in Israeli flags, singing songs in Hebrew as they toured the place. I simply wasn't sure what to make of this. Was it akin to whistling in a cemetery? Or were they parading their survival (and triumph) over the Nazis deadly plan to wipe out the entire Jewish race? I just don't know.
Viewing the site of what was likely the most heinous crime in human history, it is hard to put into words what one feels in such a place. And it also begs the question, how is it that so many were compliant in this horror story? It is undoubtedly a permanent stain on the history of the human race.
Beer and perogies
July 27, 2009
Today is our last sightseeing day. Tomorrow we take the train back to Prague and the following morning we fly home. Having only one day left is something of a dilemma. On the one hand, I feel like I should pack in as many sights as possible, eat as much food as possible, and drink as much beer as possible. On the other hand -- well, there is no other hand -- we just need to do it all!
We started out exploring Kazimierz, which is all that remains of the Jewish quarter in Krakow. We strolled through Szeroken square, a small space in the heart of this district that is lined with restaurants specializing in Jewish cuisine and has a number of bookstores selling Jewish memorabilia. We visited two very old synagogues on the square, the Remu'l Synagogue (built in 1553) adjacent to the old Jewish cemetery, and the Stara (Old) Synagogue -- both are now museums since there are very few Jews left in Krakow. These empty synagogues left me with a sense of sadness and a greater appreciation of the tragedy Poland experienced with the loss of their Jewish community -- before the war, this had represented the single greatest concentration of Jewish culture in all of Europe.
In the afternoon we strolled over to the Wawel Castle grounds. This was once the site of a fortress but what remains is a reconstructed cathedral and castle complex that overlooks the Vistula River and offers great views of the city.
We walked along the Planty, a park that surrounds the Old Town -- it was a medieval wall and moat until the park replaced these about one hundred years ago. We also came across a fascinating outdoor exhibit which chronologically described Pope John Paul II's travels during his papacy -- it included detailed maps that plotted his many journeys around the globe.
We relaxed in Krakow's market square afterward and drank beer for the remainder of the afternoon, then finally headed back to Kazimierz for our final authentic meal of Polish stew and perogies!
I ate a knee!
July 28, 2009
We departed Krakow by train at 9:30 AM and after making a quick connection in Katowice, eventually made it back to Prague just after 6 PM. We returned to the Atlantic Hotel where we'd stayed two and a half weeks ago (-- had it really been that long?) -- then headed out for one last evening on the town.
We made our way to the Charles Bridge stopping at several shops along the way and picked up a few items to take home, then headed back to the same restaurant where we'd eaten our first night -- U Vejvodu.
Once again we had a terrific meal which was enhanced by copious amounts of Pilsner Urquell.
I'd seen several patrons consuming an odd-looking dish -- some sort of meat suspended on a rotating skewer above the serving platter. So we inquired and were told that it was a "pork knee." I was fascinated by this so I ordered it, and lo and behold -- it was, in fact, an actual knee -- I knew because after I'd stripped and eaten all the meat, what was left were the knee bones: the tibia and fibula.
Back at the hotel, I arranged for an airport shuttle pick-up for 7:30 AM, then we packed our bags. We were feeling a bit sad knowing that we'd be leaving Katie behind in the morning and starting the long journey home.
The long journey home --
July 29, 2009
We bade farewell to Katie, who will continue to post her progress on her blog: http://katiestravelsabroad.blogspot.com/. Our shuttle arrived promptly, and without any complications we soon found ourselves jetbound for New York.
While we waited at JFK for our connecting flight, we watched as dark storm clouds gradually moved our way. Hopefully we'd get out of here before the weather caused problems.
We boarded our flight on schedule then taxied out to the runway. After waiting on the tarmac for thirty minutes, the captain announced that our take-off would be delayed while a "weather system" passed through.
Two and a half hours later, still sitting out on the tarmac, we waited patiently while torrential rains pounded us and thunder crashed all around. When we finally took off three and a half hours late, there was a round of spontaneous applause.
It was nearly 1 AM in San Francisco when we finally made it back to where we'd left our car. Soon we'd be home! But no -- the car battery was dead. Fortunately the parking security officer had a portable battery starter -- this must happen a lot! Still, it was nearly 4 AM when we finally heaved our tired butts into bed!
Where we stayed --
August 12, 2009
Several readers have asked where we stayed on our Eastern European tour. Those places we would recommend are listed here.
I think you'll likely get the best prices if you make your hotel reservations through Expedia.com or Booking.com rather than directly through the hotel.
Hotel Columbus Krakow, Poland
Hotel Peregrinus Budapest, Hungary
Hotel Atlantic, Prague, Czech Republic
Pension Adalbert, Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic