and bobsled runs in Austria!!
Pros : The
most entertaining museums
August 02, 2004
Did we really see four countries and five cities in 14 days?
Before it all becomes a blur, here's our Eastern Europe travelogue!
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
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.