The Great and Not So Great of Eastern Europe
Trip Start Jan 03, 2004
26Trip End Dec 2004
We started our whirlwind tour in Prague, Czech Republic on July 18. We continued clockwise to Krakow and Zakopane in Poland, across the Tatra Mountains to Budapest, Hungary, and then west to Vienna, Austria. We spent approximately two days at each stop and mostly used our rail pass to get from one place to another. We certainly wouldn't recommend cramming so many places into a two-week tour unless you're really pressed for time and like to spend a lot of time on trains. We considered this more of a reconnaissance mission for our future more in-depth travels. Andy's favorite place was Vienna and Jill just couldn't get enough of Poland (OK, Polish food to be more accurate).
From our travels, here are our great and not-so-great experiences:
Food: We ate our share of meat and potatoes in Eastern Europe, which was a welcome change from the bread and pasta we subsisted on in Italy. Hands down, the food in Poland was the best in terms of taste and price. In Zakopane, we ate delicious grilled meats, pierogies, and salads. Small stalls abound that sell these edibles that look like bread rolls shaped like a barrel. To our surprise after buying two, that they're actually large hunks of smoked cheese. In Polish restaurants, bread comes with a spread made of pork lard, which sounds gross but was actually quite tasty. I'm sure we did irreparable damage to our arteries. Our not-so-great food experience was in Budapest, where we were suckered into a tourist restaurant and were served tiny dishes of goulash and were grossly overcharged for beer.
River & Bridge: Prague has the Vltava, Krakow has the Vistula, Budapest and Vienna have the Danube. The Vltava River through Prague is a highlight of the city, with beautiful architecture lining both sides. Prague's famous Charles Bridge is a pedestrian-only bridge, where you can see Baroque statues, buy art from local artisans, and get stunning views of the city. Unlike its neighboring cities, the heart of Vienna does not lie by the river. The Danube in Vienna has bars and restaurants on one side and non-descript office and apartment buildings on the other.
Museums: Oh! We've seen a lot of museums. The most entertaining museum was the Haus der Musik in Vienna. This museum of music opened in 2000 but is more than a history of composers. Its interactive exhibits taught us how we hear, the nuances of sound and music, and how truly gifted some of Vienna's many masters were. The highlight was being able to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra using an electronic baton before a giant screen. Jill got a standing ovation, Andy was booed off the stage, and neither of us gained an ounce of musical talent. Also in Vienna, we walked through the Hapsburg's Summer Palace and saw the rooms where Mozart played for the Empress at the age of six and where Kennedy met with Kruschev. In Prague, we went to the Museum of Communism started by an American expat. Although small, it did give us insights into life in these countries under communism, which can easily be forgotten walking through these very modern, very commercial cities.
Accommodation: At every train and bus station, there were people who approached us about lodging. Finding lodging this way is like gambling, sometimes you come out ahead and sometimes you don't. In Budapest, we hit the jackpot. Jill was at first nervous about getting into the car of a stranger late at night to be taken to an "apartment." But, the man was true to his word and provided us with a private apartment in the heart of the city for about $40/night. The apartment was tastefully furnished, clean, had cable TV and a kitchen, which came in handy. In Zakopane, we were approached by old Polish ladies who rent out rooms in their homes. They can be brutal. Our not-so-great lodging experience was in Krakow, where we stayed in a student dormitory on the outskirts of town and shared a two-shower, three-toilet bathroom with 12 other backpackers.
Weather: We were happy to escape Italy's heat wave for the cooler weather in Eastern Europe. The weather got too cool when we headed up to Zakopane at the foot of the Tatra Mountains. Rain poured for both days there and the sun never made an appearance. We rode the cable car to the top of a mountain but couldn't see further than a few feet ahead of us. We had hoped to do some hiking, but ended up seeing movies (King Arthur and The Stepford Wives) and eating more Polish food. The rainy weather followed us through Hungary and didn't dissipate until Vienna.
Other Highlights: We visited the famous Gellert Bath House in Budapest to soak in its hot thermal waters in high style. We shopped for crystal in Prague. We learned about Judaism visiting many synagogues in Prague's Old Jewish Quarter. (Its Spanish Synagogue was the most beautiful.) We visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, which operated for 900 years and has underground chapels, lakes and passageways. We toured the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest, which our tour guide says has the second-best acoustics in Europe. And we saw old castles, cathedrals and art.