This is another in a series of travelogues to share our experiences with friends.
On June 2, 2005 Patricia and I along with our friends, Dick and Sally Deniston and Don and Mary Ann Sadon met in Budapest, Hungary to join a group sponsored by Brendan Tours aboard the “Amadeus Symphony” for a Danube tour. After 2 days in Budapest, (not enough time for this beautiful city), we boarded and sailed north through Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany, where we transferred to the Danube-Main Canal for transit to Nurenberg, then disembarked and boarded motor coaches for the 4 hour drive to Prague in the Czech Republic.
FREE AT LAST, FREE AT LAST, LORD ALMIGHTY, WE’RE FREE AT LAST: Bavaria, the portion of Germany we visited, was part of West Germany after World War II and Austria gained its independence from Russia in 1955, but the others were all behind the Iron Curtain until 1988 when the Communist Empire began to crumble.
The three former Soviet Block countries we visited, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, are all new democracies eager to join the world of capitalism. They have unique but similar histories. All were part of the Hapsburg’s Austro-Hungarian Empire until the First World War. Each had a taste of independence between the big wars, fell to Hitler’s Germany during the 1930s only to be “liberated” by the Russians in 1945.
HUNGARY: Our first tour guide in Hungary said, “We’ve been liberated many times, our problem is that our ‘Liberators’ never go home.” Hungary was the Roman province of Polinia prior to the coming of Barbarian tribes that invaded Europe and chased the Romans out.
The Magyar tribes, according to tradition, came to Budapest in the 9 th Century. The recognized founder of the country is St. Stephen, a Magyar king, who turned Hungary into a Christian country in 1000 AD.
Budapest is actually two cities. “Buda” is the hilly northwestern side of the Danube where defenders gathered to fend off the “hoards” charging across the vast plain on the other side. There are several legends about the name, one being that it’s named for the brother of Attila the Hun. More likely the name’s from a similar word in the Slavic language meaning, “water.”
“ Pest” (pronounced “Pesht”) is the flat Southeastern side. Here the Romans, Huns, Magyars and Turks, among many others, pitched their camps before attempting to storm the Buda heights. Only Napoleon, of all the generals who tried, is supposed to have succeeded in that effort.
When the Hapsburgs drove the Turks out of the area, Hungary became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During the First World War, the Hungarians sided with the Germans and, partly in retaliation, were broken apart when that war was concluded. Czechoslovakia and most of Yugoslavia were created as a result. Our tour guide told us, “We lost two-thirds of our territory after the First World War.” The Czechs don’t see it that way.
Unfortunately, freedom didn’t last long. In the 1930s Hitler and the Germans ravaged and possessed the entire area. When World War II was finished, the Germans were replaced by the Russians and each of the formerly free nations became Soviet satellites.
In 1956 the Hungarians revolted against the Communists. There was fighting in the streets of Budapest stopped only by Russian tanks rolling down the main boulevard. In the United States the Eisenhower administration had encouraged the revolt, but, refused to help the Hungarians when fighting actually broke out. Hungarian “Freedom Fighters” are revered today as martyrs.
While they didn’t overthrow the Communists, they did succeed in replacing the hard-line dictator with a more moderate regime. This resulted in a semblance of religious liberty so that the Hungarians, who are 80% Catholic, were allowed to worship while other Soviet Satellites were not. There was also a sizeable Jewish community in Budapest before the war; the 2 nd largest Temple in the world is located here. But, Hungarian Jews were marched off to Concentration Camps by the Nazis and a relatively small number live in Budapest today.
When the Communists took over, all private homes were confiscated and all city-dwelling Hungarians were forced to live in apartments with paper-thin walls and bedrooms so small a double bed wouldn’t fit. These apartment houses, standing as high as 12 stories had no elevators, but did have central heating. The heat was turned on for the whole building in November and not turned off until May. If there was a warm snap, the only way to cool your unit was to open your window because you couldn’t turn down the heat.
These ugly apartment houses are found in every country in the former Communist Block. One of our Hungarian tour guides called them “Stalin Baroque.”
In 1989, when the Communists were overthrown, the apartment complexes in Budapest were converted into condominiums and the units sold to the tenants at 1/10 th of “Market Value.” You’ll be told 97% of Hungarians “own their home” today. Yet, these condos are so hard to sell that they’re often handed down “to the kids” so Mom and Dad can escape to the suburbs.
SEEING THE SITES IN BUDAPEST: Budapest at night is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, particularly if you’re viewing it from the Pest side of the Danube. The magnificent buildings built on the heights across the river, including the Parliament Building, the Assencion Church and the old Castle are all brilliantly lit at night, as is the oldest bridge across the river, the Chain Bridge. You simply must stroll along the river, select a riverfront café to relax, buy an after dinner drink or an espresso or gelato and just enjoy the scenery.
We stayed in Le Sofitel Hotel on the Pest side of the river. There are a number of shopping streets and squares nearby crammed with tourists from all over the European Union, Japan and the U.S.A.
Budapest is one of the most popular tourist destinations at the moment because prices are decidedly reasonable and all visitors are made to feel welcome.
If you take a City Tour you will visit “Hero’s Square” an open square, larger than a football field, featuring magnificent huge statues of historic leaders. You’ll also be taken down the Grand Boulevard where Hungarian Freedom Fighters challenged Russian tanks.
When the Russians took over they added a Red Russian Star to the center of the traditional Hungarian Flag. The Freedom Fighters in 1956 cut these stars out of the center of the flags and flew them to show their contempt for Communist domination. These were called “Freedom Flags” and you’ll see them flying proudly in Budapest today.
Another popular attraction is the “Public Market” a two story warehouse with a large selection of goods. The first floor is devoted to food stuffs while the second floor has typical tourist goods for serious shoppers who particularly prize Hungarian Lace.
EATING IN BUDAPEST: Paprika is the national spice of Hungary and you’ll find it in most every dish. Traditional Hungarian Goulash comes in two forms, Goulash Soup (a starter on many menus) and the entrée Goulash which is a very tasty hearty stew. We all thought it was wonderful either way.
Other local favorites include “Chicken Paprikash” and goose liver, usually served in slices like liverwurst.
Unlike the rest of the countries we visited this trip, we found the beer in Hungary unremarkable. The local special wine is a Tokay, a desert wine not to my taste. We drank a good local red wine, the name of which I couldn’t pronounce if my life depended on it. They produce a lot of apricots in Hungary and are proud of their Apricot Schnapps which will deck you if you gulp it. It’s the Hungarian equivalent of “White Lightnin.”
The most famous restaurant in Budapest is “Gundel,” a very large eatery opened during the reign of the Emperor Franz Josef before the turn of the 20 th Century. It’s so famous it is one of the few restaurants listed in the recent book “1,000 places to see before you die.” While it had a terrific Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra serenading each table and the food was quite good, the service was so slow as to make it uncomfortable. The price was also high by Hungarian standards. We’re glad we went, the entertainment was fabulous, but, it wasn’t our favorite place.
Our favorite was “Nosztalgia” a small restaurant a couple of blocks from our Hotel. The Atmosphere was authentic, the Hungarian “Band” was terrific and the food and service were excellent. And, it’s only a short walk to the river for a stroll along the bank.
OUR HUNGARIAN COWBOY ADVENTURE: Nothing but the churches are open on Sunday so we took a bus trip to a ranch outside Budapest to see a “Horse Show.”
It was also a great chance to see the beautiful Hungarian country side.
It turned out to be an interesting adventure. Hungarians are proud to tell you that the Magyars arrived in Hungary in the 10 th Century on horseback and that Hungarian “Cowboys” preceded America’s by about 900 years. We were treated to some really daredevil horsemanship you’ll never see at the “Portuguese Bend Horse Show.”
DO YOU SPEAK HUNGARIAN? If not, plan to be mystified by the language. It doesn’t sound like any of the surrounding languages and, the only European language remotely akin to it is Finnish. You’ll understand a few written words, such as “Restaurace” for restaurant, but you won’t understand anything spoken between Hungarians. Lucky for us, nearly all of the Hungarians we met with spoke enough English to get by and restaurants all have menus in English.
Posted signs are impossible. For example, at the bottom of your visa slip is the following helpful statement “Koszonjuk, Hogy igenybe a K&H Bank, Szolgaltatasat!” I get the K&H Bank part, but I have absolutely no idea what I am authorizing them to do and why the exclamation point?
There are two quite numerous businesses with signs typically in English. These are “Sex Shops” and “Casinos.”
THE AMADEUS SYMPHONY: This is the nicest River ship we’ve been on. Although our experience is limited, several other folks told us the same thing.
Wary were we when introduced to the shy 25 year old chef, but, it turned out the food was better than many cruise ships we’ve been on, not quite up to Crystal or Oceania standards, but much better than Princess or Holland America. Breakfast and lunch are buffets with an excellent variety and dinners offer several entrée choices. The soups and deserts were outstanding and most meals included plenty of local dishes.
There is a spacious lounge and bar, a tiny gift shop, a doctor, who in eastern European fashion, also gives massages, as well as an excellent inexpensive laundry service so you can reduce the quantity of clothes you pack.
On our last river ship passengers spoke a mix of languages, but, the Amadeus Symphony is aimed at English speakers. All aboard were American, Canadian or Australian. The ship’s crew and staff were all eastern European and all spoke passable English. It made for a very friendly atmosphere.
While the staterooms are larger than our last river ship, they’re tiny by Ocean liner standards. There’s a television with CNN International’s anti-American slant to the news and a movie channel. But, if two people want to sit, one will have to sit on the bed.
Because you are in port every day, the lack of “things to do” on the ship isn’t critical. They do bring entertainment on board a couple of evenings during the 7 day cruise, but, most of the time you’re going to curl up with a good book, if you have one.
We recommend the ship and would be happy to take another tour on the Amadeus Symphony, but, not for longer than 7 days or so at a stretch.
SLOVAKIA: The first stop on our Danube River Cruise was Bratislava, Slovakia. Czechoslovakia was created after the First World War by melding two very distinct and different cultures. So, when they were finally free to do so, in 1992, the country split into two parts. They refer to it as “The Velvet Revolution” to signify the popularity of the move on all sides. Slovakia has about half the population of its former partner; the Czech Republic and the people are predominantly Catholic Slavs.
Our stop in Bratislava was brief, just a few hours, but it was hard not to fall in love with the place. They are absolutely thrilled to be “free”. Our tour guide said, “Under Communism every thing was free, except the people.”
One thing we found amusing. In Hungary locals complained about having been occupied by the Turks for 400 years. In Slovakia, they complained about having been occupied by the Hungarians for 400 years.
The Slovakians are big fans of George and Laura Bush. President Bush insisted that his last meeting with Russian President Putin be held in Bratislava. It was a great chance for the Slovakians to show off for the world media and they made the most of it. Photos posted on bulletin boards and taped to windows seem to favor shots of Laura more often than “W.” She was obviously a big hit.
While Slovakian unemployment stands at about 15%, that’s not sky high by European standards and things are improving. They certainly take care of their tourists.
We took the usual city tour which took us to their local Castle, rebuilt after the war. The Castles in each of these cities is situated on the highest point so its nearly always the best place to take photos. Hard to miss on the Bratislava skyline were the rows upon rows of “Stalin Baroque” apartment houses they’d been forced to occupy during 50 years of Communism.
After seeing the castle we were turned loose in the very quaint “ Old Town.” St. Michael’s Church is the focal point of the area and there are many outdoor cafes where guys can have a beer while the women shop. Slovakian beer was a remarkable improvement over Hungarian, well worth a second mug.
That evening, after returning to the ship, a group of five young Slovakian women musicians who called themselves “The Aphrodites” came aboard to give a concert.
Instruments included a flute, piano and strings. They were obviously classically trained, but played mostly pop and show tunes. They kicked off their set with a swell rendition of “ New York, New York,” after which their spokeswoman, the flutist, told us they’re still waiting for someone to write “ Bratislava, Bratislava.” The oldest of these musicians was no more than 22 or 23, but, they were easily the highlight of the entertainment presented during our week on the ship.
VIENNA: Our second stop on the Danube just a few miles up the river from Bratislava was Vienna (“Wein” to the locals), capital of Austria, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Two-thirds of the city is green, mostly public parkland.
Founded by the Romans in 40 BC, Vienna remained part of the Roman Empire to its end. After various Barbarian tribes had their way with the place Charlemagne made the city part of the Holy Roman Empire during the 8 th Century. The Hapsburgs emerged in 1281 and remained in power until 1918 – the longest reign of any ruling family in history. How did they do it? The Austrians called it “Wedding Politics.”
The Hapsburgs had many offspring and worked diligently to marry all of them off to other Royal Houses. Perhaps the most powerful Hapsburg was the Empress Marie Therese who reigned in the mid-18 th Century. When Napoleon captured Vienna he married Marie Therese’s daughter hoping to merge his line with the Hapsburgs. Unfortunately for him their only son died in childhood.
At one time the Hapsburg Empire extended from Austria to Spain and the Netherlands. Marie Antoinette of French Revolution fame was Marie Therese’s daughter and the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria was her grandson. Other Hapsburgs included Maximillian, Emperor of Mexico and the ill-fated Arch Duke Ferdinand whose assassination is credited with starting the War to end all Wars and ending the reign of the Hapsburgs.
One of our tour guides told us that the Hapsburgs reigned for so long they began to show the effects of inbreeding, developing an elongated lower jaw. The last few generations were reportedly quite ugly. However, the painters who did the later Hapsburg portraits were instructed to minimize this flaw on pain of death.
We were in Vienna for a full day and night giving us time to take the standard tour and still have time to spend on our own in the “Old Town” area. We toured the Imperial Palace and saw where the famous Lipizaner Stallions train and perform. We strolled from the palace to St. Stephen’s Cathedral visiting the many shopping opportunities in between.
For lunch we lucked out. Rain was threatening and we looked for a place close to the Cathedral. On the 10 th floor of the Hotel Royal just around the corner from the St. Stephen’s is the “Settimo Cielo, Ristorante Firenze” ( Florence style Restaurant). I ordered “Linguini fruti de mare” and was surprised to find, in addition to the clams and shrimp, a whole broiled lobster tail on my linguini. Everyone had a special experience and the employees were typically gracious Italians. We recommend it when you’re in Vienna.
From the Restaurant we had a great view of the cathedral and two large banners covering the scaffolding, which adorns nearly every old building in Austria. One banner featured a bank’s logo and urged the public to contribute to the church’s restoration fund. The second banner bore a similar message from an insurance company. The guide told us that each company had contributed a million Euros to the project for the privilege of having their names on the banners. I was pleased to see good old American “Cause Related Marketing” has reached Vienna.
That evening we attended a Strauss and Mozart concert in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. There turned out to be about 1,500 people in the audience, all tourists representing seemingly every nationality in the world. The concert was performed by the Vienna Hofburg Orchestra, a full 30 piece orchestra with 4 soloists singing arias by Mozart and Strauss. The instrumental numbers included waltzes, polkas (some very humorous) and marches. I loved it, but wondered if the musicians get bored doing the same program over and over several times a week. After the concert we were treated to a tour of Vienna by night – beautiful and impressive.
Another of the “1,000 places to see before you die” is Vienna’s Hotel Sacher where one is supposed to sit on the terrace and have tea along with a world famous “Sacher Torte” We had the “Sacher Torte,” (it’s mostly chocolate) but not at the hotel, so I guess we can’t cross that one off our list. We definitely needed a lot more time in Vienna
DURNSTEIN AND MELK: Next morning we stopped in the quaint village of Durnstein for a short visit. Durnstein’s castle was the place of captivity of Richard the Lion Hearted on his way back from a Crusade. Patricia and I elected to skip the tour of Durnstein, but we were able to see much of the town from the ship.
One of the great advantages of river cruising is that the river is always a focal point of the town. That means there is always plenty to look at from the ship. Contrast that to ocean cruising where you’re usually forced to take an extended bus ride because the port where you dock is seldom at the center of town.
In early afternoon we stopped in Melk site of one of the most beautiful fully restored Benedictine Monasteries you will ever see. Melk is a town of about 6,000 people exactly 2,000 kilometers northwest of the mouth of the Danube in the Black Sea.
How do I know it’s exactly 2,000 kilometers?
Along the riverbank every 100 meters you’ll see a small sign with a number from 1 to 9 followed by a kilometer marker stating your exact distance from the Black Sea. Melk is right at the 2,000 marker.
The Monastery at Melk was first built in the 12 th Century. The current structure was built in the mid-18 th Century and was reconstructed to accommodate a visit by the Empress Marie Therese because the Abbey is about a day’s carriage ride from Vienna. Should the whim overcome Her Highness, a sumptuous apartment remained staffed and waiting for her during her entire reign. As it happened she actually occupied the place twice. “Conspicuous consumption,” indeed, (to quote one of my old economics books).
We tourists of the 21 st Century are certainly the beneficiaries, however, because the Abbey is a beautiful example of Baroque architecture, the gilded style so common to French architecture and furniture of the period. The Church, decorated in Baroque style, is breathtaking.
Today, the Abbey has been completely restored to its 18 th Century grandeur, thanks in great measure to a grant from the Austrian Government. In Austria they don’t carry “Separation of Church and State” to the ridiculous extremes we do in the U.S. Because the Abbey at Melk is a historic building and a great tourist attraction bringing in much needed Euros to the community, the government underwrote the cost of restoration. Compare that to the outcry from the A.C.L.U. when a suggestion was made that the State should help restore California’s Missions.
There is a Catholic school in the Melk Abbey attended by about 100 children. Benedictine Monks and lay teachers provide academic and religious instruction. Nearby is a public school. As another example of Austrian Government/Church partnership, the government pays one half the salaries of private school teachers including church schools. Therefore, tuition levels are low attracting more students and reducing the burden on the public school where the state has to pay 100 percent of the salaries. Makes good fiscal sense to me and it provides the ultimate in “School Choice” for parents.
We were also fortunate at Melk to have as a tour guide a young American woman from Vermont, married to an Austrian Businessman. She was a real treat. One of the most challenging things for me, being “hearing impaired,” (Patricia would say, “Deaf as a post”), is understanding tour guides with very thick accents.
SALZBERG: Salzberg is not on the Danube. In order to visit the place we got off the ship in the little town of Linz, Austria, boarded motor coaches and drove about 2 hours. Leaving Salzberg we took another bus in the opposite direction to Pasau, Germany to meet the ship, which had gone up river in our absence.
On the way to Salzberg we stopped at the little town of Montsee which has an Abbey built in 700 AD, a beautiful lake and about 3,000 people. And, as our breathless guide informed us, it’s the home of the church where the wedding scene from “the Sound of Music” was filmed.
When we finally arrived in Salzberg we were surrounded by even more sites made famous in that very old, but still popular movie. Here Mozart lived when not on the road, but, it's Maria and the Von Trapp family who dominate your tour of Salzberg. “Pop Culture” has indeed captured the world.
We toured the public gardens and crossed the bridge over the Salt River on foot. There is, by the way, no salt in the Salt River. When finally our tour was over we were left for a few hours in the center of “ Old Town” just as it started to seriously rain.
We stumbled upon a great place for lunch, the “Zipfer Bierhaus” established in 1858. We ordered sausages with sauerkraut, (what else), and drank that wonderful Austrian Beer. We were the only tourists in the place and the waiter had to dust off the English language menus.
After lunch it was still raining and our little travel umbrellas were of little use, so we went to the oldest café in Salzberg, Café Tomaselli established in 1705, to have strudel and coffee and wait for our tour buses – not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon.
The trip through the Austrian countryside past the German border to Pasau in Bavaria was very special. We saw Austrian farm houses which combine house and barn into a single structure so they don’t have to go out into the cold of winter to milk the cows. It must present an interesting challenge to the manufacturers of Austrian Air Fresheners.
We saw deer in the forest next to the road and all the while cars whizzed past us on the Autobahn, there being no speed limit for autos. Trucks and busses must stay in the right lane not exceeding 100 KM per hour (about 65 MPH).
On this long ride, our tour guide told us many interesting things about Austria. For example, all businesses in Austria (except small shops) close at Noon on Saturday and don’t reopen until 8 AM on Monday. It has nothing to do with honoring religious custom; it has to do with the strength of the Austrian workers union. Yes, only one union for all workers – government employees included – that dictates work hours. Banks are open from 10 AM to Noon, close for an hour and a half for lunch, reopen at 1:30 and close at 3 PM, five days a week. Talk about “Bankers Hours.
Unemployment in Austria is about 12% but no one is alarmed, partly because of the generous unemployment benefits. If you become unemployed the government will pay 80% of your last wages for 6 months and then 60% for another 6 months. While unemployed workers are supposed to look for work, few actually take a job during their one-year period of maximum benefits.
GERMANY: In Pasau we rejoined the ship and proceeded overnight to our next stop, Regensberg.
REGENSBERG: Third largest city in Bavaria, Regensberg is a lovely place with an “old town” quite close to the river. We arrived in early morning and had to leave at 11 AM, so there wasn’t much time to shop. I did manage to find an open children’s clothing store to acquire an authentic pair of Lederhosen for my yet unborn grandson. (My daughter Julie delivered Andrew Scott Whitmer 2 weeks after we returned from the trip).
Also in Regensberg is one of the most famous sausage factories in all of Bavaria, located right at the foot of the old stone bridge, which crosses the Danube adjacent to Old Town. The factory has a retail outlet that sells sausages and sauerkraut from a small green wooden building. Customers sit outside on benches and the place was packed at 10 AM. We ordered Sausage, took rolls from a basket on the table and added honey mustard to make about the best hot dog we’d ever eaten. One tip about eating in Eastern Europe. When you see a basket of bread or “nibbles” on the table, they are being offered for sale. Don’t assume they’re free. If you eat them they’ll be added to your bill.
THE MAIN/DANUBE CANAL: Once you get north of Regensberg on the Danube River you soon run out of River because it narrows approaching its headwaters. A side trip on a smaller boat takes you up the “Danube Gorge” to see another abbey if you like. We elected to stay on the ship.
A Canal was recently completed connecting the Main River (pronounced “Mine”) with the Danube. This canal is a marvel of modern engineering because you can now literally sail from the North Sea to the Black Sea on the rivers of Europe. When you’re in the canal an expert comes on board to tell you about its development.
One interesting fact I remember: It takes a half an hour for a ship in a lock to be raised to the next level of the canal and then another half-hour for a ship going the other way to be lowered in the locks. This means that you are always ahead of the ship behind you by an hour, giving you a sense you’re alone, even when the canal is operating at capacity.
The Canal crosses the European Continental Divide and brings you to Nurenberg.
NURENBERG: The second largest city in Bavaria, Nurenberg is famous as the site of those Nazi rallies at the beginning of Hitler’s reign when a million or more gathered for a gigantic photo op. At the end of the war, the War Crimes Tribunal was held here. We had only a few hours here, but enough time to take a City Tour and see these depressing historic sites. An alternate tour offered a visit to a Concentration Camp, what a “bummer” that must have been.
Nearly everything in Nurenberg has been restored because 80% of the city was destroyed by bombing during the war. There is a nice shopping area and we found a terrific Bierhaus to sample a really terrific local beer before returning to the ship for the night.
The following morning we boarded coaches to drive the 4 hours to Prague. At the border of Bavaria and Bohemia we were finally asked to show our passports. One can now move from one E. U. country to another without having to go through “immigration” but, the Czech Republic is only a provisional member so sometimes stops visitors at the border.
THE CZECH REPUBLIC: The last three days of our vacation were spent in Prague in the Czech Province of Bohemia. Nowhere has Capitalism been embraced with more gusto than in Prague. There’s a scaffold on every street corner and a crane in nearly every block. The economy is simply booming here and unemployment is in single digits, far below the European Union rate. Twenty thousand Americans are living in the Czech Republic and they’re investing there, too.
The Czech Republic is the only place we visited not nominally Catholic. Our guide told us that 50% of Czechs are “Atheists”. She meant they have no religion. The Czechs had their own “Reformation” a hundred years before Martin Luther, a rebellion against the perceived abuses of the Catholic Church. But, that isn’t the major reason for their secular society, for more than 40 years the Communists forbid the practice of religion. Only 27% of Czechs are Catholic today.
There was also a fairly large Jewish population in Prague before WWII. The City boasts several historic Temples including a “ Spanish Temple” founded by Jews driven from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Only about 1/3 of Prague’s 80,000 Jews escaped the country before it was over-run by the Nazis in 1938. When the war was over only 72 Jews survived the holocaust to return to Prague.
Prague was never bombed during the war because the Germans fully expected Czechoslovakia to be a part of Germany after the war, so they never bombed it and neither did the Americans. The Czech government is busy restoring historic structures and polishing off the grime left by 50 years of Communism.
Our hotel in Prague was the Hilton. After adjusting to a room that was about a day’s march away from the elevator, we found the service to be excellent.
EATING IN PRAGUE: A restaurant mentioned in the guide books as having the best “river view” is “Kampa Park,” located at the foot of the Charles Bridge built in 1350 (The bridge, not the restaurant). The river in Prague is not the Danube; of course, it’s the Vlatava. We discovered that although the promised view was somewhat obstructed by construction, the food and service were excellent, even though the menu was limited.
Another night our Concierge recommended the “U Petrske’ Veze” a charming café a few blocks from the hotel. The menu included several wild game dishes, but I had the excellent Lamb with Czech Dumplings. Czechs love boiled eggs so don’t be surprised if one shows up in your soup or sliced up on your sandwich.
Another restaurant we’d recommend was “Prvni Novomestsky Restauracni” near Wenceslas Square, the center of town. In addition to fine food, they have a brewery on site to liven your meal.
On our last night we were craving Italian Food and went with our new friends the Fitzpatricks from Boston to a really terrific Italian place called simply “Kogo” in Slovansky Dum Na Prikope shopping center. Our waiter astounded us by taking 10 orders including appetizer, pasta and main course without ever writing down a thing. All meals were correct and delicious.
Frank Fitzpatrick said, “This would be a great Italian meal in Italy. Hell, it would be a great Italian meal in the North End of Boston.” He should know.
THE CITY TOUR: Your tour of the city will include a visit to the Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral adjacent. Also on the property is the office of the President of the Republic. The view is spectacular from the Castle District – not to be missed.
In the Cathedral our tour guide told us a heartwarming story. It seems there was a Catholic Sister named Agnes who performed miraculous feats. For several hundred years local Catholics tried to convince Rome to make Agnes a Saint. The belief was that if the Pope ever made Agnes a Saint the Czech people would gain their freedom. Finally in 1989 the Pope declared Agnes a Saint and two months later the Communist Government collapsed. So, the Czechs revere St. Agnes as the Patron Saint of their Freedom.
Old Town Square is the center of the Old Town where shopping will be found along with many, many historic buildings to explore. Another “must do” is to walk across the “ Charles Bridge,” preferably at night, to see the lights of the town.
More than 5 million tourists a year are now visiting the Czech Republic and spending their Dollars, Euros, Yen and Pounds. Our guide said, “The English tourists come for the cheap beer.” Cheap and good, I might add.
DID WE EVER GET A BAD MEAL? Yes, indeed. After crossing the Charles Bridge on foot we selected a restaurant because it had a large deck for outdoor dining. I made the mistake of ordering “American.” I ordered a Caesar Salad; it turned out to have no resemblance whatever to any Caesar Salad I’d ever seen. Two ways to avoid this: Stick with restaurants recommended by your concierge and don’t expect American Food in Eastern Europe, except for a Big Mac at McDonalds, of course.
During our outdoor restaurant experience, we saw a table with about 14 college age young people, 8 girls and 6 boys. I couldn’t hear them talk, but, I told Patricia I was sure the girls had to be Americans and the boys Europeans. It turned out I was right. How did I know? The girls all had perfectly straight teeth while the boys didn’t. Orthodontia is a strictly American passion.
LEARNING TO COMMUNICATE IN EASTERN EUROPE: Whenever we’ve gone to Western Europe we’ve managed to understand menus and signs etc. because the Western European languages are rooted in Latin as English is, plus my High School Spanish helped me in Spain, Italy and even France. But, in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic: “Forget About it” Lucky for us, most of the people had enough English to communicate with us. Reading signs however, was almost impossible. Also the spoken languages don’t appear to have any relationship whatever to the words when written. I remember asking how to pronounce certain words and being just as baffled after receiving an explanation as before.
So, it’s always a good idea when you venture out in a cab to take a printed version of the name and address of your destination as well as your return to show your driver. You’ll never be able to make him understand if you try to pronounce it.
On the other hand in Austria and Germany, you’ll see a lot of familiar looking words. Take the Laundry list from the ship for example it helpfully named the garments in both German and English as follows:
Doesn’t “Taschentuch” look like the sound you make when you sneeze? What a great word. Also note the influence of American slang (Jeans and T-shirts).
There were some other German words that interested me that I jotted down to look up later such as:“Einfarht” and “Antik Schmuck.” I’m sure they don’t mean what I thought they might mean.
One final thing about the German language: They do have these terribly long words, some times longer than one line of type can hold. One of these, at least 20 letters long, described the location of our ship in one port and we had to carry the ship’s daily newsletter to show our cab driver so we’d be able to get back to the dock. I think this happens because Germans add their adjectives on to nouns to make one long word. One I recognized was
MONEY MATTERS: Here are some tips for traveling in Eastern Europe. While most of old Europe has adopted the Euro, countries keep their own currency until they are accepted as full members of the E.U. So, in Hungary you have the “Forint” which is worth about 200 to the dollar; In Slovakia a Slovakian “Krone” worth about 30 to 1; and in the Czech Republic the Czech “Krone” worth about 25 to the dollar. It can be confusing. Also you get killed on exchange rates so that if you converted dollars to Forint on arriving in Hungary, then to Krone in Slovakia, then to Euros in Austria and Germany, then to Krone in the Czech Republic and finally back to Dollars you would end up with about half of what you started with.
Travelers Checks used to be the currency of choice, but, no more. A bank might charge you a service fee of $5 for cashing a single Travelers Check. The only place you can cash a travelers check without a fee is the American Express Office, and then only if you have A.E. travelers checks.
So, the ATM and your credit (or debit) cards are the way to handle money while traveling these days. You will get the best exchange rate when using your credit card. Most larger stores, restaurants and hotels take Visa, Mastercard and American Express, but, smaller merchants often want cash. Some will accept dollars or, more likely, Euros but, not all, so you’re going to need to carry some local currency.
SOLVING MONEY PROBLEMS: Here are a few tips for traveling in Europe.
1. When selecting an ATM, check to see if your card has a symbol matching one of the symbols on the machine. If so, you will probably have a smooth transaction. Sometimes after you’ve entered all your data a machine will give your card back with no money and no explanation. When this happened to me, I worried my account might get charged anyway. Not to worry, if you get your card back from a machine, just find another ATM. It only means the transaction didn’t go through.
2. Don’t get cash in a country you’re only in for a few hours, unless there is something you want to buy and they won’t take a Credit Card. Then, take only the amount you need from an ATM. If you leave a country with currency and coin in your pocket it will cost you “an arm and a leg” to convert it back. The alternative is of course, give it to your grandchildren as a start on their coin collections.
3. If you’re staying in a hotel, clean out your pockets of the local coin and currency and apply it against your hotel bill when you check out. Then it will reduce your charge to your credit card and you recapture the exchange rate.
4. ATMs in Europe often have no letters on their keyboards. If you’re spoiled by American machines that have the same numbers and letters as your telephone, you may have created a pin that’s a word not a number. If that’s the case be sure you make a note of the PIN in numbers to carry with you.
5. European ATMs will often give you the fewest bills it will take to fill your order. So if you ask for $100 Euros, you may get a hundred Euro bill, worth over $120, and then have difficulty changing it. If you ask for 90 Euros, it will give you nine 10-Euro bills.
6. Remember your Bank is going to charge you for each ATM withdrawal you make (Wells Fargo charges $5.) So it doesn’t pay to use it for small amounts.
7. Tipping can be a problem, particularly if you’re going to be in several countries with different currencies. It’s hard to remember the value of coins and you end up over or under tipping. I always carry a supply of American ones and fives to use for hotel tips – Bellboys, Doormen, and Room Service Waiters, for example. That way I always know what I’m tipping and the recipients won’t have any trouble exchanging it for local currency.
I learned my lesson many years ago. I handed a coin with a lot of zeros on it to a Turkish cab driver, only to have him inspect it, spit on it and hurl it to the ground at my feet all the while screaming at me at the top of his lungs.
WATCHING TELEVISION IN EUROPE: In this, my ninth trip to Europe, I finally found out how to use those darn European Television Remotes. Like the American remote there is a large button on top, which appears to be the “Power” button. However it’s really only a half a power button because it’s only used to turn the Television off. To turn the set on, you simply press the channel selector.
SHOULD YOU WORRY ABOUT BEING A CRIME VICTIM: The only crime to worry about in Eastern Europe is having your pocket picked or your purse snatched.
Gypsies have a little scam involving children. A group of Gypsy kids will come up to you and engage you in conversation. Before you know it your wallet is gone. In another scam, a Gypsy woman carrying a baby will walk up to a female tourist and hand her the baby. After the tourist protests and gives the baby back she discovers her wallet is missing from her purse.
We have seen groups of Gypsies in France, Italy and Spain but we saw none in Hungary or the Czech Republic.
While drive-by shootings, muggings, rape and armed robbery might happen to a tourist in the USA. It’s unheard of in Eastern Europe.
IS THE DANUBE REALLY BLUE? Absolutely not! It’s the same color as every other major river in the world, brown in some places and gray in others. When Johan Strauss’s Waltz “the Blue Danube,” was written it wasn’t blue then either. So where did the name come from?
We heard a number of possible answers. One tour guide told us that “blue” is a term used in Germany to describe a person who has had too much to drink. So, it could have been a drinking song, originally. Another told us there’s a legend that Strauss named it for all the blue uniformed French soldiers who ended up dead in the water when the Austrians overcame Napoleon’s rule. Finally, one guide pointed out that if you go to the very source of the Danube you will find a pool of blue water.
More likely, Strauss thought “blue” was more romantic and poetic than brown. Or, perhaps the Chamber of Commerce thought “blue” would bring in more tourists.
Thanks for sticking with me to the end of this, my longest travelogue. I hope you enjoyed it, or at least picked up a helpful tip for your next trip.