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    by mkataoka Fodor's Editor | Posted on Nov 28, 16 at 01:31 PM
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Trip Report CAPITALIZING ON THE CAPITALS: Central Europe

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TRIP BACKGROUND:

Our trip to the Alps’ region in August-September of 2014 spurred our interest in visiting some countries in Central Europe this year. Last year, beginning in scenic Berchtesgarten, Bavaria, where Hitler had his second seat of command planning all the terror of the Nazis, we learned so much more about the insidiousness of that regime. In traveling through the Salzkamergut, the lake region south of Salzburg, we visited Bad Ischl where Franz Josef and his wife Elizabeth, “Sisi”, of the famous Hapsburg Empire, spent their summers in a sumptuous villa, and where he signed the edict of war which began World War I.

As we moved through the dramatic Dolomites of Italy, expecting to hear Italian, we began to witness more about the reach of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its vestiges reflected in the German language, customs, architecture, and cuisine which remain so long after the break-up of the “empire” following World War I. We saw traces of that mighty Empire extending into Switzerland, where several mountain roads had been constructed by the Austrians. From previous travels to France, Spain, Italy, etc., we had learned that the tentacles of the Hapsburg Empire reached far and wide. Learning more about these time periods, plus the extent of the Nazi regime and the Soviet domination, and the effects on the countries we would visit, motivated us to travel to Central Europe. Traveling through all the gorgeous beauty of the Alps stimulated a lot of historical questions.
We began this TR intending it to be brief, but as we got into it, we found that there were too many experiences for brevity. The report serves as a memory of our trip, and we hope that some others will find it of interest.

We normally plan our own travel, as we like the freedom and independence it provides. If we’re visiting more than one area, we prefer driving. Train transportation is not our thing, unless it’s just for a short excursion or a day trip. Compared to our trip of 2014 where had a rental car and were traveling through dramatic scenery, we knew that this trip to Central Europe wasn’t so much for natural beauty, as for a traveling history lesson, with exploration of beautiful cities, and learning about their backgrounds and cultures. Our intention was to visit the capitals and just get a flavor for the countries.

As we began to work on plans, we soon realized that this involved more complexities (and time) than we realized. One big obstacle was language: Hungarian, Polish, Czech . . . very different and having no relation to other languages. A rental car would present several difficulties: among them reading road signs, driving/parking in big cities. While in our local AAA office for something totally unrelated, one employee asked if we had any travel plans on the horizon, and when we mentioned Central Europe, suggested that they had a tour which covered most of what we wanted.

We are not “tour people". We discussed what we thought might be the pros and cons, and decided that, for this trip, it might be worth giving a try to a tour. We chose to travel with “Insight Vacations”, recommended by AAA. The trip would begin in Vienna, a city which we have visited only briefly in the past, and travel to Budapest, Hungary, Cracow & Warsaw, Poland, Berlin, Germany, and Prague and Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic.

At the conclusion of our report, we’ll detail the experiences of the tour. But for now, we’ll just say that, in general, we felt that it was a good decision for visiting this area of Europe. Maybe we just lucked out, but the tour director was excellent, the “coach” driver was terrific, the coach itself was very comfortable, the hotels were good and well-located, and we felt fortunate to have a generally compatible group of people. We did not feel constrained to always stick with the group, and were able to enjoy time on our own in each location.

So here we go sharing 2 ½ weeks of our travel. We hope that some will come along for the adventure.


TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY, September 1- 2, 2015
Travel Travails; Evening in Vienna, Austria

Our travel plans seemed good in that we could leave our home at noon on the 1st of September, allowing us to arrive 3 hours early for international travel: a direct flight from Cincinnati to Paris. Our only concern was the short time to make connections in Paris (CDG); however, the travel agent had already booked the tickets, and it would have been costly to change. So we decided to deal with it. We found out as much as we could about CDG Terminals, even having maps and directions. Fodorites were very helpful. Our luggage would be checked straight through to Vienna, so we focused on making our carry-on stuff very compact so we could get through CDG as quickly as possible.

We booked Premium Economy seats for the 8 1/2 hour flight, hoping that these provide more leg room, and be closer to the front of the plane for de-boarding. We tried to sleep, but were able only to rest, at best. Overall, it was an uneventful flight.

We touched down a few minutes early, but that is not the end of the story. Paris airport is HUGE, and it took 15 minutes+ just to taxi to the gate. It was now September 2nd and we were in the Paris Airport. (Unfortunately, we didn't have time to stay in one of our fav cities!)

Our worry did work to the negative side as our flight into Charles De Gaulle Airport allowed only 55 minutes from arrival at Terminal 2E (M Hall, which is the farthest walk), go through immigration, and make it to Terminal 2F for our flight to Vienna. After de-planing, the issue was to make the long walk as fast as possible to immigration, only to join a long line waiting to go through passport control for the entry into the EU country, part of the “Schengen Area”. We rushed, but there was no avoiding that line at Immigration. Our appeal to a supervisor was of no avail, as she said many people in the line had close connections. After finally passing immigration, we walked as fast as we could to Terminal F, without mowing people down, missing our connection by a hair.

Utterly disappointed, we learned that we needed to find our way to desk 25A to get our tickets changed for a later flight. The Air France agent was very friendly. However, the next flight out to Vienna, at 10 AM, was full, so the earliest flight we could get was 1:30! So a long wait!

The terminals in CDG have long halls between them and the gates within the terminals are lined with tons of shops, mostly high-end, making the stretch between gates very long. (Note the repetition of "long" when describing CDG). There are few areas for a casual bite to eat. We found a Chez Paul and purchased several croissants and a couple of coffees. Finding seats was a challenge, but we were invited by a friendly guy Peter to join him. A highlight of the day was talking with Peter, a Swede, who was returning home after working in Central Africa. Over breakfast, we enjoyed a great discussion.

Struggling through our documents, we needed to find the phone number to call, in order to notify our transport in Vienna that we’d be arriving on a later flight. With Peter’s help, and phone, we contacted the AAA office to arrange a later pick-up. Lots of other people missed their connections. Some expressed palpable anger. We became resigned to missing our first day in Vienna by our later arrival. And a 5+ hour wait in CDG!

Finally, it was time to board; however, it was announced that the flight to Vienna had a 45 minute delay. So more waiting. Boarding involved a trek down multiple steps and onto a bus of people squeezed sardine-like, being driven around the expanse of CDG terminals, and then finally climbing stairs to board the Airbus 320 with 3x3 seating. We were seated in different locations for the 2 hour flight.

The flight time passed more quickly for Margie as she had a delightful seatmate: a girl who lived in Vienna, had just graduated high school, and who spoke impeccable English. “Good teachers”, she said. She shared a lot of info about her city, and other details about life in Austria. She was excited about beginning her studies at the University which she happily explained were free.

Upon arrival at baggage in Vienna, we discovered that one of our two bags was missing; unfortunately Margie’s! Then more time was wasted as we waited in line at the lost baggage to submit a claim. That task accomplished, we searched, to no avail, for that transport with our name on a sign. What to do?

Plan B: A stop at the Info desk quickly got Tom interested in catching a CAT (City Austria Train) for 12 euros each to get to Stadt, the square near our hotel. Margie grudgingly went along, remembering that to catch trains often requires going down stairs several levels and walking long halls. Amazing that Tom hoisted his 50 lb. luggage up and down the stairs of the station, and up the steps in the train, considering the fatiguing day! The train ride into the city didn’t allow for much viewing of the surroundings, as it was part in tunnels and part with concrete walls on each side of the track. But, considering that we were arriving at the main rush hour in a big city, the train did get us to our destination within 15 minutes.

After exiting the train, more walking, walking, down halls and up more stairs to reach the first floor level. We crossed through a mall and onto a square. Then it was, thankfully, only another two blocks or so to our Hilton Hotel. Finally, we arrived!!! But without Margie’s luggage!

The Hilton lobby was very welcoming. Check-in was easy. We graciously accepted the offer of a toothbrush from the receptionist, although we had such, and that was the least of our concerns. Fortunately, Margie had two days’ worth of shirts; however, most of our needed supplies were in her bag. Oh well! “Make the best of it”, we thought. It was a nice hotel, and, after getting settled in our room, we headed out to dinner. Unfortunately, it had begun to rain. Of course, the umbrellas and rain jackets were in Margie’s luggage! So we popped into the little shop next door and picked up a rain poncho for Margie.

There were many little sidewalk cafes around the Hilton, but they quickly closed as the rain continued. A restaurant which appealed to us was an Italian place. Vapiano, about two blocks away. A unique concept: all fresh pasta of your choice, including the sauces, made-to-order as you watched, pizza of all kinds, salads, drinks, desserts. We shared a small mista salad and bolognese sauce with fusilli and a couple “vom Fass” (draught) beers. Vapiano’s also had a unique concept for paying. Upon entering, you were given a plastic “credit card”, and as you approached each station, you just placed that card on an electronic strip and an employee entered the charge. The total charges on the card were then submitted to the cashier for payment as you exited
.
Vapiano’s was very crowded, but Margie spotted a little table as two ladies were leaving. Sitting next to us were a very friendly local lady, Gaby, and her daughter, who kept us alive via discussions over her yearly Greek Islands’ vacation and her New York visit. Her daughter will attend the university (free) next year hoping to be a primary education teacher. Gaby seemed eager to offer information about Vienna, and highly recommended Stadtwirt Restaurant, a local place a few blocks away, for good wiener schnitzel. Gaby even gave us her cell phone number in case we wanted help in Vienna. She and her daughter were among the first of the many friendly, helpful people we would meet. We knew we would visit Gaby’s restaurant recommendation tomorrow evening.

The rain had slowed to a drizzle as we walked the couple blocks back to the Hilton and turned in about 10 pm. The bed felt great after that travel day filled with frustrations, but ending happily with our experience in Vapiano’s.

We had purposely planned two extra nights in Vienna, hoping to take a daytrip to the Wachau Valley before joining the tour. But the travel delay and lost luggage would cause us to change those plans.



THURSDAY, Sept. 3, 2015 VIENNA EXPLORATION DAY

We set the alarm for 6:30 to practice for group tour endurance. The included breakfast buffet, in the main Hilton dining room, was a fabulous spread, including an omelette station and outstanding pastries, fruits, etc., etc., everything that one might want. Today was to be our full-day trip to the Wachau Valley with a visit to the monastery at Melk, perched high above the Danube, and a cruise on a section of the Danube, thought by many to be one of the most beautiful areas of that river. However, not having the previous day to explore Vienna as we had planned, and having anxiety about Margie’s missing luggage, we decided to stay in Vienna city proper. Awakening to cloudy skies further helped us forego our plans for a day-trip to the Wachau Valley, although the clouds lifted and it turned out to be a beautiful day.

We decided to get an overview of central Vienna on the Hop On, Hop Off bus, which included an English language audio guide. Today we were going for “easy”. We could purchase tickets in our hotel, and the boarding spot was right across the street. Margie could forget about her lost luggage, in hopes that, by the end of the day, it would arrive at the hotel.

Our day focused on the “Ringstrasse”, the 190 foot wide boulevard, arcing three miles around the city’s core, lined with many trees and grand buildings. In the 1860’s, the Hapsburg Emperor, Franz Josef, had the city’s medieval wall, which surrounded the inner city, torn down, and had it replaced with this boulevard. The bus proved to be a convenient way to delve right into the exploration of Vienna, one of Europe’s grandest cities of the past, as well as a vibrant city today.

We enjoyed seeing so many of the beautiful buildings, and exited at several points, one being just across the Danube Canal (Donaukanal), constructed to prevent flooding from the Danube River. There were many cafes and kiosks in this area, but we chose to take a popular walking street, Rottenturm Strasse, up to the massive St. Stephen Cathedral. The street was lined with coffee shops and stores; the walk took us quite some time.

Stephansdom, as the cathedral is called, is Austria’s finest Gothic cathedral. Austria’s population is said to be over 90% Roman Catholic, and St. Stephen Cathedral is the national church. It’s one of Vienna’s most prominent landmarks, with its spire dominating the city. The original construction of the cathedral dates back to 1147, and was Romanesque in style. Over the years, it has had several renovations, with Gothic additions. After having suffered severe damage from World War II, it has had ongoing repair.

The cathedral has so many impressive features, both inside and out. And there is so much history connected with it. Mozart was married there, and his funeral was there also, as was Emperor Franz Josef’s. We spent a good hour taking in the features of the interior; so much interesting detail that it would take hours to appreciate. Among many features, we were particularly struck by the many altars, and the ornate Gothic pulpit. carved from three blocks of sandstone, with a spiral staircase winding up to the lectern. The sides of the staircase have carvings of four church fathers, form the
support structure for the stairs.

St. Stephen Cathedral, surrounded by a huge square, dominate the city center. We found a quaint lunch spot facing Stephansdom at Café D’Europa. What do you eat for lunch in Austria? Bernerwirstel, plus “vom Fass”. Lots of “people watching” as this area seems to be a hub for visitors.
Having enjoyed the interior of the cathedral, while having lunch we could enjoy the exterior, which was equally stunning. We especially admired the colorful mosaic tiles on the roof, arranged in intricate patterns. Interesting that part of the design is an eagle, supposedly the symbol of the Hapsburgs.

We did some window shopping in the many stores surrounding the cathedral area, and in keeping with Austrian tradition, later made a stop for cappuccinos at a coffee house: Gutenberg Café.
From Stephansdom, we headed to the neo-Renaissance Opera House, which attracts music lovers from around the world.

As Paris had attracted many artists, Vienna was a hub for composers: among them, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, Vivaldi, and of course, Strauss. As we would witness in our ongoing travels, many buildings of architectural beauty, such as opera houses, museums, houses of Parliament, etc., were destroyed or heavily damaged by bombings in World War II, and have since been re-built. Such was also the case with the Vienna Opera House. Admiring the exterior beauty of the Opera House, we could only imagine the beauty of the interior with its sumptuous halls and grand staircase. Unfortunately, we were not able to catch a tour and had to satisfy ourselves with pictures.

Feeling ready for an afternoon break, we headed to the famous Hotel Sacher, famous for their Sacher Torte. We were fortunate to get an outside table, and enjoy that most popular dessert while viewing another side of the Opera House. Sacher Torte, a tasty chocolate cake, with a layer of fruit, and chocolate icing, topped with whipped cream and a chocolate wafer, (truly decadent!,) originated at this old but prestigious Hotel Sacher. Coupled with cappuccinos, this stop was perfect. Following this, we did visit the first floor of the beautiful hotel.

Our first day in Vienna included a lot of imbibing of the atmosphere of this wonderful city, a needed relief from the hectic rush and frustration of yesterday. We had eyed the Hofsburg Palace Complex as one area for exploration tomorrow.

After a bit more meandering, we headed back to our hotel, arriving about 6. And a big relief! Margie’s luggage had been found and was safely in our room! This made her day! To think of spending hours the following day doing extensive shopping was not our idea of enjoying Vienna. And it would have been nearly impossible to replace all the various and sundry items needed for travel. So we were happy campers! After a little freshening up, we were ready for dinner.

Following the recommendation of Gaby, whom we had met last evening in Vapiano’s, we walked the few blocks to Stadtwirt Restaurant and had a tasty meal of wiener schnitzel. The veal was tender, the potatoes were great, as was the beer and wine. And how could we not end the meal with apfel strudel and cappuccino? The owner knew Gaby and treated us well, with a big discount for eating at her recommended spot. The atmosphere of the restaurant was very pleasant. It seemed like the diners were mostly locals. We were back at our hotel about 10 pm. Good day!


FRIDAY, September 4, 2015 2nd Day in VIENNA

Up at 6:40 and down to the dining room for a repeat omelette breakfast. Today it is crowded with lots of travelers.

This is our last chance to enjoy Vienna before meeting up with the tour at 5:30. We wanted to explore a little of the “outer ring”, so we used our remaining time with the HO-HO bus for that venture. The travel time was about an hour, but a convenient way to venture farther to the outskirts of the city.

We saw the United Nations’ building having 4000 employees here in Vienna. We passed their large amusement park with a gambling casino, concert venue, typical rides and a Ferris wheel, etc. We were told that it preceded Las Vegas. Who knows? These were part of Vienna’s largest park, Prater. A large part of it included grassy areas along the Danube Canal where many citizens enjoy biking, jogging, picnicking etc.

We crossed the real Danube River, with a fee boats moored along the shore and several smaller ships cruising. Near the river was the very large Art Nouveau St. Francis of Assisi Basilica, built between 1898 and 1910, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the reign of Franz Josef I. We were told that it is the parish of the English speaking Vienna community. It is just one of many, many churches in Vienna.

Although the outer ring doesn’t contain the number of architecturally beautiful structures of the so-called “inner ring”, it was interesting to witness the city in its full context. We enjoyed seeing the Danube River, 1777 miles long, which extends from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea, and borders ten European countries. We were interested in the color of this mighty river, so romanticized by Johann Strauss, and witness for ourselves that the color isn’t blue, but a brownish-green, like our rivers in the US Midwest. But Strauss’ music is wonderful, and we do love “The Blue Danube” waltz!

Having satisfied our curiosity regarding the outskirts of Vienna, we returned to the Palace Museum Square where the central focus was a huge monument to Maria Theresa, the most important Hapsburg figure in the 1700’s Empire. She not only had 16 children, but married her children into other royal families to expand the Empire. Among other achievements, she instituted many building projects, promoted financial and educational reforms, and greatly increased the strength of the military: all of which helped extend the reach of the Hapsburgs. Very interesting to note that Maria Theresa didn’t have a real title. It was her husband Francis I who had the titles, but Maria Theresa executed the real powers of his positions. Nothing new about the idea of a competent woman leader!!!

In the Museum Square Area surrounding the Maria Theresa monument, are two very impressive museums which we would like to have visited, but we had to pace ourselves. We definitely wanted to tour the Hofsburg Palace, the main home of the Hapsburgs. So we headed in that direction, across the busy Burgring Strasse, and were amazed as we entered the grand archway to view the sprawling, lavish complex of buildings of the Hofsburg Palace.

We paid the 12 euros to walk up the magnificent Emperor Staircase leading to the 19 lavish state and private rooms of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elizabeth, gorgeously appointed with lots of gold, crystal chandeliers, etc. One could witnesss not only the stately splendor of the Hapsburg monarchy, but get a glimpse into the personal lives of the occupants.

We found it fascinating was to learn more about Franz Josef’s wife, Elizabeth,“Sisi”, the controversial queen, who was from a Bavarian royal family. Apparently, in her childhood, her family had a great love for the outdoors, and she experienced happy times. Living in the palace, she suffered great loneliness and depression. A 19th century Princess Diana? In some ways.

One of the first rooms was devoted to pictures and information about Sisi’s early life. Sisi spent hours a day having her prized long hair fixed, and had exercise equipment to maintain her slim shape. She had a love for learning, especially Greek mythology. She read and wrote poetry. Included in the tour were dresses and jewels worn by Sisi, as well as writings and artwork of hers.

Sisi had fostered a love for Hungary and its people, living there for months at a time, and was responsible for encouraging the extension of the Hapsburg Empire into that country, creating the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was especially interesting to us as we would be heading into Budapest tomorrow. In order to escape palace life, Sisi loved to travel, often incognito. While on a short trip to Geneva from Montreux, her life ended tragically as she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist who discovered her identity.

The visit provided interesting insight into the life of Franz Josef, who had had a stern upbringing. He kept a busy schedule, rising very early, often eating breakfast at this desk. He reserved certain times for receiving citizens and hearing their concerns, but always stood so as to move the people quickly. His days were spent with many meetings with representatives throughout the empire.

While this visit to the Hofsburg Palace was extremely interesting, after an hour and half of standing and listening to audiotape explanations, we were feeling hungry. Lunch was at nearby café consisting of another sausage, but with a fancy name and presentation, but the vom Fass beer was great. We had an enjoyable conversation with a Canadian couple from Toronto who were visiting their daughter and son-in-law, both musicians, living in Vienna.

Since this was the day that our tour was to begin, we had to be aware of time as we were to meet the group about 5:30. We walked around palace grounds for a bit more, interested in all the tents and bandstand being erected for a festival. We returned to the Hilton Hotel area by about 4:00, wanting to walk through the lovely Stadtpark, one of Vienna’s major parks, located directly across the street from our hotel.

Stadtpark is a world of gardens with many paved walks lined with benches, containing memorials to musicians throughout. A focal point at one end is a small lake with a fountain. Near it, we visited the impressive monument to Johann Strauss. Located on the outskirts of the park was the lovely Kursalon Palace, in which Strauss performed, and which has since entertained audiences with concerts and waltzes. We had enjoyed a concert there on a former visit several years back.

Following our walk in the park, we returned to the Hilton and freshened up for the 5:30 meeting of the tour group in the hotel lobby. We met Erin, our tour director, who gave initial tour information. We would have 38 people with 40 seats on the bus. Our luggage would be picked up outside our room each morning and transported to the coach, etc., etc.

We expected the initial meeting to be drinks and appetizers in the hotel lobby. Instead, we boarded the Insight Vacations coach, and traveled to the Café Restaurant Angarten, an updated hunting lodge, located in a large woods formerly used by the royalty for hunting. We had passed this woods as we did our excursion into the inner city. The lodge restaurant was quite nice. Food and drinks were good: chicken schnitzel, potatoes, soup, beer, wine, apfel strudel etc. Since this was our initial meeting with the group, we felt a bit uneasy. We enjoyed talking with Nick, a young tour director who was preparing to lead a tour. He had a lot of knowledge about the lead up to World War 1 which we enjoyed hearing.

Back to the Hilton about 8:30. Early rising tomorrow. Lots of packing after 3 days in Vienna. We have to be ready for a long day. On the agenda is a visit to the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer home of the Hapsburgs, followed by lunch in central Vienna and a little more time to enjoy the city. Then we’re off to Budapest, Hungary.

As we turned in for the night, we discussed the fact that we never intended to spend so much time in Vienna. However, we agreed that it is a beautiful city with much to enjoy, and we’re glad that we took the opportunity to explore some of it.

102 Replies | Jump to bottom Add a Reply
  • Report Abuse

    Just a couple of notes.

    Glad you enjoyed your tour but it really isn't necessary in thee countries.

    While it is true that Hungarian is a unique language, Czech is slavic language related to Russian and other languages in that part of the world.

    BUT the key point is that English is very widely spoken in all of the cities that you talked about. We have been to all of them, a couple several times, and never had any trouble not being fluent in the local languages - although we did learn the basic polite phrases. English is very widely spoken throughout Germany and Austria - towns of all sizes - and you can find someone to speak English in every place we visited in both Czech Republic and Hungary.

  • Report Abuse

    It's always interesting to read impressions of my adopted city; looking forward to the rest of the report.

    nytraveler, not to split hairs too much, but the Czech language is more closely related to the western slavic languages of Poland and Slovakia; eastern Slavic languages include Ukrainian and Russian, to which the Czech language is less so related. The Hungarian language is only unique in that it is not Indo-European (like other Central European languages); it is related to the Finnish language, as is the language of Estonia, all of them being Uralic. After four years of traveling around Central Europe, it is the language we still struggle with for basic phrases.

    Having traveled through some rather small villages in Austria, CZ, and Hungary, I don't think I would say that it's possible to find someone who speaks English, either. We have found ourselves out in Tirol and Vorarlberg, and even closer to Vienna, having to muddle through in our American-German-with-Viennese accent. On occasion I'll go shopping in CZ at a Tesco just across the border, and I've yet to encounter a sales clerk or customer service person who speaks English, but many who speak German.

  • Report Abuse

    Having been to all the places on your tour, I'm excited to follow along with you and get your perspective. Also interested to hear about your thoughts on Insight. We are looking to take a tour next year and Insight is one of the companies we are looking at.

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    NYtraveler, thanks for your response. Re: a tour "really isn't necessary in these countries", our concern with the languages was one of safety; inability to read road signs,etc. And we had a couple of other reasons for deciding to go with the tour.

    We'll be visiting your great city in early December! Looking forward to it!


    Fourfortravel, glad to have you along on our journey. It's nice to get feedback from someone who lives/travels in these areas.

    Bettyk, throughout our TR we'll have comments about Insight. Overall, we were very pleased. Thanks for your interest.

    Passported and GinnyJo, it's always motivating to know that others are interested in our travel experiences, and are reading our TR. We're now finishing up Budapest and should post that part soon.

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    I really like how you write, will definitely follow along to a part of Europe I haven't visited yet. And I am going to dig up your report on your trip from last year, as I have randomly become obsessed with the idea of visiting the Salzkammergut on some kind of Munich to Vienna trip.

    Looking forward to Budapest and Cracow especially!

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    Tom, I am enjoying your TR immensely! I finally went to Prague (somewhat disappointing) and Budapest, which I loved, two years ago so looking forward to hearing more about your travels.

    My daughter and her husband are going to Vienna for their (belated) honeymoon and are really looking forward to it. They wanted something different in terms of a honeymoon destination and they both love history.

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    Great TR, and also enjoy your style of writing.
    Will probably read your next installments in Vienna, where I'll be going to tomorrow. But hopefully with less hassle than your trip as it will be only a 1hr non-stop flight for me :-)

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    Great stuff...makes us want to get back to Vienna , which we just have not seen enough of on our two brief trips there. Speaking of Sisi, Tracy was so interested in the story she bought a book about her when we returned home. Looking forward to more.

    ((H))

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    Maitaitom, glad to see that you caught our TR. Interesting that Tracy was curious about Sisi also. Should get Budapest finished tomorrow. We'll watch for "Madrid"!

    Inspiredexplorer, we had generally very good weather for our trip in 2014 except for the Salzkammergut. Hope you have better luck in that beautiful area.

    Cowboy1968, glad you're following along. Have a great time in Vienna. Regarding our travel experiences, last year your advice on the Munich trains helped us have smooth travels. Thanks again.

    LouisaH, thanks for your interest!

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    Adelaidean, we met a few really nice folks from your city on our trip. And. . .whatever we said about our "travel travails", we know that we have nothing to complain about when considering the long hours and connections you Aussies have to endure.

    Thanks for following along!

  • Report Abuse

    Loving your detailed and well written report.
    I remember reading of your trip to Croatia and throughly enjoying that report.
    I didn't see it if you've mentioned it yet so apologies in advance, but might you be posting a link to pictures ?

    Saving the report up for times with a mug of coffee or a pot of tea.. so I can read uninterrupted.

    Thanks Tom.

  • Report Abuse

    SATURDAY, September 5, 2015

    Morning: Vienna; Schonnbrunn Palace

    Afternoon: Travel to Budapest, the “Pearl of the Danube”

    Up at 5:45; luggage outside the door by 6:45. Breakfast is crowded, no time to wait for an omelette, but plenty of other choices.

    Prompt 7:45 departure for Schonbrunn Palace, the first of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites we would visit on this trip. Our group was among the first arrivals. We were immediately met by a local tour guide, Claudia, and followed her lead through the extensive courtyard, up the stairs into the palace, and through the entrance area, with no wait. Our tour guide Erin presented the tickets for our group.


    Today we would delve into a bit more of the lives of the Hapsburgs. Emperor Franz Josef, who began his rule at age 18, stayed in power until age 86. He would spend the last years of his life without his beloved Sisi, due to her untimely and tragic death. One could spend many months studying these figures and the history which surrounds them.

    Schonnbrunn Palace, with its 1400 rooms, was the summer home of the Hapsburgs. It is said to rival Versailles.

    We toured only a portion of the opulent royal apartments, filled with the gold and glitz that one might expect: elaborate furnishings, chandeliers, china and crystal in the dining room, etc. We spent about an hour with the guide, who proved to be an invaluable resource for explaining and answering questions.

    Following the inside tour, we had about forty-five minutes on our own to enjoy the beautiful gardens, still highlighted with summer flowers. At home, just prior to leaving for this trip, we had viewed a concert on Public TV, which was conducted in the Schonbrunn Palace Gardens. It was interesting to actually be there and see that it looked the same. It felt like “déjà vu all over again” as Yogi would say.

    Following our Schonbrunn Palace visit, we returned to the Vienna city center. During the drive, Claudia described the important sights and areas as we passed them. We felt that our previous two days in Vienna made this ride much more meaningful.

    The coach dropped us off at Albertina Plaza, by the art museum of the same name. We decided to take the 20+ minute walk up the popular pedestrian street, Kartner Strasse, which is like an outdoor shopping mall. This would lead up to St. Stephen Square for one last look.

    Hundreds of travelers, just like us, were milling around, window shopping, people watching, and drinking coffee at outdoor cafes. How many pictures must be taken? And those selfies… ugh! We enjoyed the time “on our own” from about 11 to 1:30, sipping cappuccinos overlooking St. Stephens, and taking a very leisurely walk back toward the area of our meeting point.

    As we were heading in that direction, it began to sprinkle, so our thoughts of having lunch at an outdoor café vanished. Instead, we enjoyed a tasty meal at Rosenberg’s, a multi-level cafeteria with long counters of every type of food imaginable, and Gosser Beer.

    At Rosenberg’s we met a worker, Matthew, a Canadian married to an Austrian girl. They now live in Vienna. Both of their grandfathers were Austrians who had somehow managed to get to Canada to escape the ravages of war. We enjoyed our conversation with Matthew, and wished that we had had more time to continue, as his Canadian background and experiences helped us to better understand Vienna and Austria through his eyes.

    After a filling and delicious lunch, we walked to the outdoor Museum against War and Fascism which commemorates the terrible years of 1938-1945 when Austria was under the Nazi rule. The stones from the monument are from an infamous quarry at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, not far from Vienna, where 100,000 prisoners died. A part of the monument represents the Jewish people who were murdered. 1/3rd of the 200,000 Jewish Viennese residents died in Nazi concentration camps.

    The sight of this memorial, in the midst of this vibrant city, is a testament to the determination of the citizens to re-build, without forgetting the torturous past. And it’s only the beginning of a story of destruction and revitalization which we expected to experience as we traveled on to other countries which suffered under the Nazi and Soviet regimes.

    As we departed Vienna, we felt sure that we would remember it as one of the major cultural cities of Europe, with an abundance of museums, churches, galleries, palaces, concert halls, and etc., many housed in architecturally outstanding buildings. In addition, Vienna has an abundance of parks, sporting arenas, restaurants and coffee houses. One regret was that we didn’t get to experience any of their “heurigens”. . . those popular wine-tasting establishments. We left Vienna with wonderful memories and ideas of what to explore if our travel plans ever include a return to this area.

    When the time came to board the coach for Budapest, it was comforting to see that all of the group were punctual. For us, it was relaxing to leave the busy city without any concern for negotiating traffic or listening to the Garmin, or map reading. We just sat back, looked out the window and took in all the activity, confident in Tom our driver. With a good name like "Tom" how could one not be confident?

    The scenery along the route to Budapest was not remarkable, as most of the terrain was flat. We had read that this area was known for some wine production. Our pre-trip reading also told us that we were traveling toward a beautiful city.

    After an hour+, while still in Austria, we stopped for a restroom break. Immediately, memories of “pay restrooms” in Europe returned, always presenting the concern of having coins in the correct currency. (usually 1/2 euro). We hope our American businesses do not emulate this practice! McDonald’s seemed to be one of the few exceptions, and we would always look forward to finding a good ol’ Mickey D’s.

    We were now only about 20 minutes from the Hungarian border. We had no problem crossing, and as we entered Hungary, Erin played the Hungarian national anthem.

    Because of the recent large numbers of refugees from Syria who wanted to pass through Hungary and Austria, with the intention of reaching Germany, Austria had closed its border crossing the previous night. All traffic heading in the opposite direction to us, that is, northwest, was not allowed to enter into Austria from Hungary. Miles of traffic were stopped. Many people were out of their cars along the roadside. People were camping out: no food, no water, and no toilet facilities. A real humanitarian crisis seemed to be looming! This would only get worse and be a cause for worldwide concern. While traveling, we didn’t watch TV, but got our news from our phones. However, the tour director Erin kept us informed. Family and friends were e-mailing us to inquire whether this situation was affecting us. We assured them that it was not.

    As we approached nearer to Budapest, the scenery did begin to get hillier. Erin introduced a few words in Hungarian. Although we had practiced a bit at home, the only two we remembered to use while there were “Jo’ Reggelt” for “Good Morning” and “Koszonom” for “Thank You”.

    Some trivia and facts we had read before our trip:

    Hungary is poorer than its neighbor, Austria. Even though it became a member of the European Union in 2004, it does not have a strong enough financial base to take part in the euro currency at this time. Their currency is the forint…thousands of them make one seem rich because about 3000 forints equal one Euro. Unemployment is about10%.

    The fundamentals of the Hungarian language date back to the late 9th century. Its roots have some resemblance to Finnish, but over the years, it has been influenced by many cultures which have lived in the region. Some linguists describe the Hungarian language as “phenomenally unique”. We found it difficult to read and pronounce, although we knew from prior reading that many Hungarians, especially those in the tourist industry, speak English. Other than Hungary itself, the language is spoken only in a few pockets, mostly in Eastern Europe.

    A synopsis of Hungarian history is difficult to come by. The country has had so many take-overs, and so many wars, that its history is extremely complicated. The World Wars caused great suffering and took an unimaginable toll on its people. The reign of the Hapsburgs, uniting Austria and Hungary as co-equal powers, was an intricate and most complicated feat. The Austro-Hungarian Empire lasted for 50 years, ending with World War I.

    We knew that Budapest was really a combination of two cities: Buda and Pest, (which sounds like “Pesht”) and that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But until arriving, we didn’t learn that the Buda side, perched on the hill on one side of the Danube River, (once its own city), is more expensive, and is considered to have more status than the city of Pest, which is across the river, and is mostly flat. But Pest is where most of the action is: hotels, restaurants, many main attractions, entertainment, etc. We also learned that there are 8 million residents in Hungary, 2 million of whom live in Budapest.


    Now back from that digression:

    As we neared Budapest, Tom, our coach driver, deftly negotiated the entry into the city and pulled right up to the front of the Sofitel, making it look easy! We were happy to be in Budapest, and staying at the Sofitel for the next two nights. The hotel was very nice, living up to the Sofitel reputation. And an extra bonus was having a view from our room. The location of the Sofitel was excellent, right beside the Danube Promenade and the famous Chain Bridge. (In Hungarian “Szechenyi”!) The yellow tram, line 2, frequently passed as its path ran parallel to the Danube, and the Buda hills provided a beautiful backdrop.

    After getting settled in our hotel, we couldn’t resist a stroll along the Danube River Promenade, taking in the beautiful buildings across the river in Buda. We were free for a couple of hours to hang out in the city. Departure time for a Danube River Dinner and Cruise was 7:45.

    Initially, we were going to book a cruise on our own, having read what a stunning stretch of the Danube this was, especially at night, when all the bridges and buildings were beautifully illuminated. However, we decided to go with the tour group, as by now we had gotten to know a few of the couples. The docks were a good 10 minutes ride down from our hotel, and the embankments were fairly dark. Traffic and parking were challenging along the dock area, but again, our driver maneuvered the coach with ease. There were several river cruise boats lined up, and the walk to the correct boat was made easy by just following the leader.

    Upon entering the boat, we were shown to a dining room with a large Hungarian buffet table in the center and window tables for all. The tables were set with white table cloths, crystal and china. Wine was included with the meal. The buffet was a good spread: salads, cabbage rolls,(a Hungarian specialty), steak, pork, chicken, dumplings, etc., etc. Many choices! Wine a-plenty! Great desserts!

    We shared a table with an Aussie couple, Robin and Bryan, whom we had met and liked a lot. They lived between Brisbane and Cairns, and we told them that we probably might have spotted their house on our flight from Sydney to Cairns!!! We enjoyed a stimulating discussion over dinner. How refreshing to enter into the world of a likable couple who grew up and live at the other end of our world, but who share common values. What a perk that traveling offers!

    Following dinner, we spent the remainder of the evening on the upper deck enjoying the bright lights of the city and taking multiple photos. The five main bridges, along with the architecturally outstanding buildings lining each side, were a sight to behold. One of those bridges, painted white, was dedicated to Empress Elizabeth. We think that the Viking River Cruises’ TV ads feature the section of the Danube with the Parliament on the Pest side and the Royal Castle on the Buda side.

    Following that great intro to beautiful Budapest, we returned to the Sofitel around 10 pm. The evening was so delightful that we walked along the water, enjoying the lights and people watching until around 11. Then “Good night!”

    SUNDAY, Sept. 6, 2015 Budapest Exploration

    Rising at 6:30, we had time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the attractive mezzanine restaurant. Afterward, we walked around the area of the Chain Bridge and explored more side streets, taking in the facades of many buildings. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day, and taking in the river activity along the Danube, and the hills of Buda, was a great way to begin.

    Today we would have a local guide, Anita, who would lead us on a walking tour of some of the highlights of Budapest, beginning in Pest. We began with the beautiful Andrassy Ut Street), lined with trees and many elegant shops, bistros, and high-end hotels. There is a monument to Franz Liszt, the famous German composer with a Hungarian name, who spent his last five years in Budapest.

    Andrassy Ut leads to Heroes’ Square and to the great park with fountains and lakes. We were especially impressed with Heroes Square, the largest and most symbolic square in Budapest, which contains the Millenium Monument erected in 1896, in celebration of the country’s 1000 year existence. At the top of a 118 foot-tall pillar is the Archangel Gabriel, with a crown in his outstretched hand. According to their legend, the angel appeared to Stephen in a dream and offered him the crown of Hungary. Statues of famous Hungarian leaders flank the colonnades of the monument. We appreciated Anita’s commentary. On each side of the wide square are several museums.

    Hungary’s outstanding Parliament is the second largest in Europe, and is perfectly situated just above the road that runs along the embankment of the river. It is a real focal point in Budapest.

    Another impressive site is the world’s second largest synagogue. Before World War II, 25% of Budapest was Jewish, However, Hungary lost nearly 600,000 Jews to the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazi Puppet Government, called the Arrow Cross. Efforts were made by many, including Catholic priests who secured false documents for Jews, but most Jews could not escape the vicious brutality and death from the Nazis.

    We saw the House of Terror, the former headquarters of the diabolical Nazis, followed by the Communists, showing some of the torture and terror inflicted on the Hungarians. There were other sites or monuments conveying the unspeakable atrocities committed on the people of Hungary. Anita, who was very young during the days of Communism, told us a few stories. But, on this beautiful day, we did not feel up to visiting these depressing places. It was disturbing enough to hear about them!

    Budapest has the world’s largest-known thermal cave system, comprising more than 170, and its bathhouses, which in themselves are architecturally interesting buildings, are very popular. Szechenyi is a popular bath near the Pest city center. Health is a big thing in Budapest, and the baths are considered very important for keeping/restoring it.

    After a few hours in Pest, we moved on to Castle Hill in Buda, perched high above the Danube. Chain Bridge, near our hotel, is a popular pedestrian bridge, and after crossing it, one can take the long climb up the hill to Buda. Or, there is a funicular which can be accessed. But, in our case, we had the convenience of the tour coach nearby, so we stayed with Anita, the guide, and took the easy ride across the Danube and three-quarters of the way up the Buda hill.

    After ascending the remainder of the hill, we enjoyed the main attractions in Buda: the Royal Palace, reconstructed on Castle Hill, the site of the coronation of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elizabeth, and housing a couple of museums; the multiple-spired Matthias Church, a landmark neo-Gothic church; and Fisherman’s Bastion, a neo-Romanesque rampart with seven towers which offers beautiful views over the Danube to Pest. In the Middle Ages, the fish market was just below Fishermens’ Bastion; hence its name. The gorgeous views of the city from the hilltop confirms why Budapest is often called “The Pearl of the Danube”.

    Because it was Sunday, many sites were closed. Masses were being held at Matthias Church, whose official name is “Church of Our Lady”. The only way to gain entry was to have time to stay for an entire Mass and we did not have that advantage. However, the exterior, especially with its outstanding tiled-roof, was amazing, and we spent some time enjoying that.

    While strolling around Buda, we had to weave in and out among the crowds. We managed to check out some of many little shops and cafes. One highlight was the purchase of three small prints from an impressive teen-ager who said that his father was the artist. For us, these will be treasured reminders of Budapest. (Only 10 euros each.) We were happy that he accepted euros, and even gave change in euros, as we hadn’t had enough time to exchange our money to forints, the Hungarian currency.

    While in Buda, which is considered the upscale residential area, we could observe remains of the Soviet domination. Gunshot holes were especially evident in one building. Apparently, the Soviets covered the decorative facades of many of the homes with concrete. Only later, when it was removed, did people discover the beautiful fronts of these buildings.

    When descending the hill from Buda, we passed the Hospital in the Rock, an underground hospital constructed in one of the many caves under Budapest. This secret hospital was used by the Hungarians during World War II and the Nazi invasion, and then in 1956 when the Soviets took over. During the Cold War, it was kept as a nuclear bomb shelter. Wow! What history we were witnessing!

    After our return to Pest, our first thought was lunch! It had been a long but fascinating exploration of Budapest. We walked along the little street leading to St. Stephen Church, another major landmark, and found a delightful restaurant for an authentic Hungarian lunch at Aurum Bistro. From our table, we had a straight-on view of St. Stephen Church and the square.

    Our meal began with Hungarian goulash “soup”. Their goulash is different from the German and Austrian goulash which was more akin to a stew. The Hungarian goulash soup is filled with beef chunks, potatoes, and vegetables which is served with cut-up bread for dipping and some spice (no doubt containing paprika) to flavor the otherwise flat taste. The spice was good, but we learned quickly that “more is not better” as we made ours too spicy hot. Water was appreciated! Following the goulash, we split a pork “brasso”, like a tenderloin, served with more potatoes. They know how to prepare those small round roasted potatoes! Gasso beer hit the spot. The wait staff was very friendly and knew English very well. They seemed happy that we could say “Kosonom”.

    Onward toward St. Stephen Church, dedicated to the man who in about 1000 AD, founded Hungary and was canonized by Pope Sylvester. The capacity of this cathedral is about 8500. The outstanding dome, along with the amount of beautiful marble throughout the interior, were, to us, the outstanding characteristics. As with many other significant buildings which we have seen, and would continue to see, St. Stephen Cathedral suffered major damage, including the collapse of the dome, and was re-built several times. It’s interesting to note that Franz Josef’s consecration Mass was in St. Stephen. The story is told that during the ceremony, he was observed looking up in fear that the dome might again collapse.

    The coffee shops and cafes surrounding the beautiful square in front of St. Stephen seemed to be the perfect spot for cappuccinos. We spotted California Coffee, a self-serve shop, with comfortable outdoor seating. We relaxed, and enjoyed the picture-perfect day staring at the façade of St. Stephen Church and watching all the people in the square.

    For our return to the Sofitel, we took a circuitous route, checking out a few other small side streets, passing a large outdoor market, and ending at the Chain Bridge where pedestrians and bike riders abounded. The weather was just too beautiful to forego a couple more pictures of the mighty Danube River and the beautiful attractions on the hills of Buda. The view of the St. Matthias church complex, the government building close to it, the imposing Royal Castle, and Fishermen’s’ Bastion would seem difficult to surpass.

    For the evening, we would have dinner at Gundel’s, a very well-known restaurant in Pest. After freshening up, we boarded the coach at 7:45 and were off to dinner at this storied establishment. Upon arrival at Gundel's, the welcoming landscaping, with its subtle landscaping, and the attractive interior, seemed to support the description of the restaurant. A restaurant originated on the site of Gundel’s in 1894, with the Gundel family taking over in 1910. We learned that many famous, and maybe infamous, people had eaten at Gundel’s. There were photos on the wall of Putin, Henry Kissinger, King Carlos of Greece, Queen Elizabeth II, and Pope John Paul II, who had not eaten there, but had celebrated a Mass in nearby Heroes Square.

    Upon entering Gundel's, we were immediately seated, as Erin had reservations for our small group. Following wine, our meal began with asparagus soup. Our chosen entrees were fish for Tom and paprika chicken for Margie, each served with their favorite boiled potatoes with butter, and a vegetable. For dessert, we had the Hungarian specialty crepe, “palacsinta”, which was filled with walnuts, raisins, and a touch of rum topped with chocolate syrup. Orchestra music entertained during dinner. When the violinist approached our table inviting us to make a request, we asked him if they knew “New York, New York”, and the musicians immediately obliged. That livened up the evening! It made the whole experience more enjoyable, and a fitting finale to our Budapest visit.

    We were back at the Sofitel by 10:15, and hated to think about leaving this beautiful city, with so much more left unexplored. Again, the weather was so delightful that we couldn’t resist a stroll on the Danube Promenade. This would be our last chance to enjoy the illuminated view of all the grand buildings and bridges. But since tomorrow is an 8:30 departure for the drive through Slovakia to Krakow, Poland, we needed to get packed. So it was “Good Night” to the Danube River and the Chain Bridge.

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    Love it! Budapest is one of our favorite European cities, and it's at the top of our re-visit list. Thanks for letting me re-live it a bit with your fabulous descriptions!

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    So glad that you had a good time in Budapest. It is my favourite city in Central Europe, so much so that I've visited 4 times and can't wait to go back again. A beautiful city, accessible and inexpensive to enjoy. The people and food are wonderful and it is steeped in culture and history.

    I'm very familiar with the places you visited and the area around the Sofitel, as well as all the beautiful bridges. There are many interesting areas easy to explore on foot. I usually stay at the Gellert Hotel which is on the hill, beside the citadel and in front of the Freedom Bridge (next one over from the Elisabet Bridge) which leads to the food market and hall and the pedestrian shopping area.

    Thanks again for a great report. Looking forward to more.

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    Budapest is on our short list, so your report is vey interesting. Hope you liked Krakow...is everyone there still under 30, tall and good looking? (:
    Looking forward to more!

    ((H))

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    Ginny Jo, we, too, have added Budapest to our list for a re-visit. Thanks for your continued interest in our TR.

    Adelaidean, thanks for hanging in there with our long report. We experienced so much that it's difficult to condense. While in Krakow, we enjoyed a delightful meal with a couple from Adelaide. They're coming up in our next city visit.


    Mathieu, Thanks so much for your positive comments on our TR. While in Budapest, we saw Gellert Hill with the prominent monument overlooking the Freedom Bridge, but didn't have time to explore it. Next time!

    Regarding your comments above about the TR to Croatia: we think you may have us (Screenname: "tomarkot", Tom and Margie, confused with screenname; "maitaitom", Tom and Tracy. If that's so, we feel very complimented, because we think that maitaitom has some of the best and most entertaining TR's on Fodor's. We're sure that Tom & Tracy work as a team, as do we. Maitaitom's reports have great writing and wonderful pics, all integrated. We're not that tech-savy nor do we have maitaitom's great sense of humor.

    If you're interested in Spain, Maitaitom has a wonderful ongoing TR of their trip.

    Mathieu, thanks again for continuing to follow along on our journey in Central Europe.

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    Enjoying your report, especially the interesting people you keep meeting! However, it sounds like you thought you had a choice between driving yourselves and taking a big group tour. Not so! The choice was really: driving, taking public transport, taking a small to medium group tour, or taking a big group tour. I have visited most of Central and Eastern Europe (I think I'm just missing Belarus, Kosovo and Azerbaijan) and I have done it entirely by public transport plus a couple of flights. The only languages I speak are English, American and some French - German (or Russian) would have been more useful. I did learn the Cyrillic alphabet, but that's pretty easy.

    I have never considered taking an Insight tour, and after learning that you had to get up at 5:45, and only had two nights in Budapest, I certainly won't consider using them in the future! If I wanted a tour for Europe I'd probably use Rick Steves, who puts 24-28 people on a 50 seat bus. Or for a smaller group you might look at Adventures Abroad or Odyssey.

    Whoever booked you a 55 minute international transfer at CDG should be fired! With a non-EU passport I wouldn't consider less than two hours and would probably want more.

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    Nice report and glad that everything worked out with Margie's luggage. FYI, Vapiano's is a German chain. And they have several restaurants in the U.S. -- the closest one to Cincinnati is in Chicago.

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    WeisserTee, thanks for your response to our TR. Yes, finding my luggage was a great relief. Also, glad you pointed out all the Vapiano locations. We like to visit Chicago and DC, so we'll look them up.


    Thursdaysd, glad you're following along.

    We learned a good lesson from that flight itinerary: we'll return to our normal pattern of booking our own flights.

    Our purpose on this trip was to get a taste of the cities we visited, and the tour accomplished that. We may return to some cities on our own in future travels.

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    Maitaitom, thanks for your comments on our ongoing TR. When in Krakow, we didn't notice an overwhelming number of young people. Maybe the universities were on break!

    Hope to finish our Krakow portion today.

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    Kathie, really appreciate your response as we know that you are an avid traveler. We especially value your input. Thanks for following along.

    We're working on Krakow. It is taking longer than we thought, but we should have it posted tomorrow.

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    MONDAY, September 7, 2015 TRAVEL TO KRAKOW, POLAND
    through SLOVAKIA

    This was an early start day: 8:30. We had breakfast on the main floor level of the Sofitel restaurant. No omelette station…but still a very good breakfast spread. And a last look outside at our wonderful location.

    As we left the beautiful city of Budapest with the mighty Danube River running through the heart of it, lined on either side with architecturally gorgeous buildings, it was difficult to get a grip on its difficult history. It’s unspeakable to think that so much of it was destroyed at the end of WW II, and fathom the horrific ethnic cleansing by the Nazis of a half million Jews, in Budapest alone. This diabolical regime started in the rural areas and moved into the city with their holocaust. Following the Nazis was the communist dictatorial domination for years after the failure of the1956 rebellion. It wasn’t until 1990 (after the ’89 fall of Berlin Wall and collapse of Soviet Union) that the city could begin to rebuild. To rid Budapest of any reminders of that painful past, the city removed all the communist statues and plaques.

    The above observations were greatly overshadowed by the wonderful experiences we had in Budapest. Beautiful setting, great restaurants, all in all, a city that bears re-visiting as there is so much more to experience. Budapest will be a hard act to follow!

    Leaving Budapest, the weather looked beautiful. Of the entire trip, this day promised to be the most scenic, as we would be traveling through the Tatra Mountains, partly in Slovakia and extending into southern Poland. We were prepared for a long day, but the scenery would make it enjoyable. It was about two hours to the border of Slovakia. Although the roads were good, the terrain was mostly flat and not remarkable.

    Entering Slovakia, the TD Erin played the country’s national anthem. Slovakia would be a “pass-through” country on our route to Krakow; however, never having been there, we wanted to know a little about it. We learned that it is the geographic center of Europe, and is completely land-locked, being bordered on the west by Austria and the Czech Republic, on the south by Hungary, on the east by Ukraine, and on the north by Poland. For people living in the countries close to the Slovakian border, and for the Slovakians themselves, the country seemed like a nature-lover’s paradise.

    The High Tatra Mountains, which Slovakia shares with Poland, are rugged, having distinct peaks somewhat akin to the Alps, however at a lower elevation. Their highest peak is 8711 ft. They’re heavily frequented by skiers as well as mountain climbers. Many major winter sporting competitions are held there.

    The Low Tatras, which are on our route, are known for extensive forests containing pine and spruce, wide pasture lands, lakes, and waterfalls. There are large deposits of limestone and granite, many species of vegetation, and wild animals such as bears and wolves. The area is great for hiking, and is also used for skiing. It reminded us of the Appalachian Mountains in the US whose highest peak of 6684 ft. is in North Carolina.

    The hourly wage in Slovakia is low, so many Slovakians cross the border into Austria to work. Their capital, Bratislava, is only about 50 miles from Vienna, making those cities the closest capitals to each other. There are many Hungarians living in Slovakia, as it, too, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

    Even though the weather on this travel day had started out sunny, as we began to see the mountains rising in the distance, it was deteriorating. It became cloudy and a drizzling rain began. As we gained altitude, visibility became less and less. We passed little clusters of homes along the road, mostly simple wooden structures, with very tiny yards. Some had a car parked right up against the house.

    We made one rest stop en route, and broke for lunch a while later in the little ski resort town of Donovaly. (Don’t think Aspen or Squaw Valley!). This resort was very, very small. Of course, being September, the area seemed deserted. The TD had called ahead for assurance that the restaurant was open.

    The menu of this little ski place was an “order by number.” The suggestion was for their garlic soup, but given the other menu options, Margie chose chicken soup (less spicy); Tom had sauerkraut soup; we split a #336 skewer of pork and beef which was served hanging on a wrought iron stand. And, of course, we had their good beer. The food was outstanding; 22 euro.

    By the time we left the restaurant, the rain had stopped. However, it was still quite overcast, and with limited visibility, the drive seemed longer. Fortunately, the Insight coaches have Wi-Fi, which turned out to be more dependable than the hotels. We sent e-mails and began to catch up on trip notes which, for us, is a bit of teamwork. We each carry a notebook, plus we write notes on our Surface. When we return home, all this is collated and written in our report, usually by Margie, with Tom doing proofing. With the view of the mountains obscured, we got a good start on our records.

    The rain was off and on as we drove route E77, encountering several slowdowns due to road construction. We did catch some glimpses of the mountains. Slovakia is known to contain a large amount of castles. On this trip we would pass only one, the Hrad Castle, near the Polish border. However, it was shrouded in clouds as we passed, making a stop less than worthwhile.

    In spite of losing time from road construction, and traffic tie-ups, Tom our driver masterfully negotiated Krakow’s rush-hour traffic and we arrived at our Sheraton Hotel in Krakow about 5:15.

    We were welcomed by a huge arrangement of fresh flowers in the center of the lobby, and were glad to see that the Sheraton was located with a view to the Wawel Castle Hill and the Vistula (Wisla) River across the street.

    Dinner was scheduled for our whole group in the hotel. Today we had meals spread out over three countries: breakfast in Hungary, lunch in Slovakia, and dinner in Poland in the Sheraton Hotel Dining Room. Although it was nice to think of having dinner right in the hotel after the long travel day, we were wondering how a dinner with the tour group would work out. In a back room? Poor food? However, we were pleasantly surprised that it was in the main Sheraton dining room.

    The meal turned out to be a delightful experience as we shared a table with Val and Mario, a fun couple from Adelaide, Australia. Our meal began with drinks, wine or beer. All four of us thought the entree of filet mignon of pork was excellent. And we were happy to have made the acquaintance of Val and Mario. In addition to being nice people, Mario had a great sense of humor and Val played right off of it.

    Since the Sheraton had that great location at the southern end of the Old Town, a stroll outdoors seemed the perfect way to walk off our meals. We had to get our bearings, realizing that we were now in Krakow, the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. After a short while outside, it was back to the hotel, get settled, and “Good night.”

    TUESDAY, September 8, 2015 KRAKOW EXPLORATION DAY

    We took a pass on the salt mine tour, which some of the group elected to do, and instead decided to enjoy exploring a bit of the area of Krakow around our hotel. Being right across from the Vistula River walkway, we took advantage of the beautiful morning to enjoy it, along with the early joggers and bikers. The Wawal Castle Hill, which we would visit later on, was part of the scenery. A restaurant right along the shore, hadn’t yet opened. But the swans and ducks were delightful, and the sun helped take the chill out of the air.

    In Vienna, we learned that Franz Josef had ordered the removal of the old protective walls of the city and had the area designed as the Ringstrasse, a boulevard arcing around the city with beautiful trees and buildings. Here in Krakow, it was also Franz Josef who called for the old medieval wall to be torn down. In its place, a ring of parkland, called the “Planty”, was developed to encircle the Old Town. The promenade area along the river is a part of it. Along the Planty are many little parks and gardens.

    We strolled for a couple of blocks along the river, and then headed up to a side street lined with stores, where we stopped in a bakery. Its long counters of colorful pastries looked so tempting, but after our large breakfasts, we resisted. The clerks spoke no English, except that they knew “cappuccinos.” We said “dziekuje”, one of the few Polish words we knew, and sat at their window counter enjoying our drinks and people-watching. There was activity around as the shops were just beginning to open and the trams were filled with passengers. Sometimes it’s nice just to get a feel for life among the residents in a city.

    It was soon time to head back to the Sheraton. At 10:45 we would meet a local guide, Marta, for a walking tour of Krakow. (Pronounced Krock-oof by the residents)

    Prior to our trip, we had read that Poland’s population is about 40 million. Its economy is doing well. Over the years, since the liberation from the Soviets, Krakow has grown and flourished. Although its Old Town is a focal point for tourists, and will be for us, the city fans out around it and has all the amenities of a modern town. Besides the government buildings, it has many museums, restaurants, banks, universities, concert venues, and sporting facilities. Poland joined the European Union in 2004 but retains its own currency, the koruna.

    Since our focus in Krakow will be the Old Town, what better way to have extended our morning exercise than to head up the hilly street from the Sheraton Hotel and then make the steep climb to the Wawel Castle Hill? This outstanding site, of great cultural and historical significance to Poland, is a fortified outcrop overlooking the Vistula River, with a commanding a view of the whole town of Krakow. Wawel (Vah-vehl) Hill contains a palace, chapels, with crypts of Polish leaders, highly decorated apartments, colonnaded courtyards, and small museums.

    Guided by Marta, our first stop when reaching the top of the hill was the Royal Wawel Castle, which dates back to the 1300’s. For centuries, it was the seat of Polish royalty. Important decisions determining the country and its people were made here. Within the castle is a Renaissance cloister containing Flemish tapestries, significant paintings, and bejeweled crowns and swords precious to the history of Poland. The Castle now functions as an art museum.

    When the Nazis invaded, they took over the Wawel Castle, making it the 3rd Administration of the Third Reich, headquarters of their created Krakow district. The beautifully decorated apartments with the arched outdoor verandas, backed by muraled walls, became the living quarters for the Nazi leaders. Some areas of the castle, less decorative, housed Nazi military. From here they planned and directed some of the most atrocious and cruel measures against the Polish citizens and the Jews in Krakow. We knew that we would be learning more of this somber history as our trip proceeded.

    On the Wawel Hill, along with the Castle, is the Wawel Cathedral which, we were told, continues to be a functioning church. Compared with all the cathedrals and churches we’ve seen, the Royal Cathedral seemed less impressive. However, it contains the tombs of many Polish kings and national heroes, and is therefore significant to Krakow and all of Poland. Even after the capital was moved to Warsaw, most kings were still crowned and buried at Wawel Cathedral. One of the earlier Polish queens was of the Hapsburg family and is buried in Wawel Cathedral. Since viewing tombs and memorials is not our thing, we were happy to bypass this opportunity of an interior visit.

    A special religious monument atop the hill is dedicated to Pope John Paul II, whom the Polish revere as their native son and the one who was most influential in freeing them from the communist rule. As we continued our exploration of Krakow, we would see more evidence of the esteem which they had for him as their former Archbishop and as Pope John Paul II, recently canonized a saint by Pope Francis.

    The Wawel Castle is the southern terminus of the Royal Road, which began in the Old Town (Stare Miasto). This route was followed for coronation processions, parades, escorting foreign envoys and special guests to royalty receptions, etc. As we descended from the Wawel Castle Hill, we followed this route to the Old Town, passing some of the prominent landmarks of Krakow. Marta’s commentary was very helpful in learning about many of the buildings. We wended our way from the Royal Road to the popular Florianska Street and finally into the Main Square (Rynek Glowny), which is the center of Krakow.

    We learned a couple of interesting, if insignificant, facts along the way, one of which is that many of the homes had an animal relief atop the doorway. Marta explained that there were no numbers on the houses, but that people would refer to their home location by the animal form displayed above it.

    We passed the Archbishop's Residence, used by Pope John Paul II when he was Archbishop of Krakow, and later when he visited the city. He worked ten years before the collapse of the Soviet Union alongside of Lech Walesa in Gdansk who was organizing labor across Poland. He celebrated Mass inside the square at Krakow and urged the people to continue to struggle. Ten years later Lech Walesa was elected the head of Poland.

    When the Polish people heard that Pope John Paul was near death, news accounts reported that thousands gathered outside this residence. When his death was announced, the people in the crowd fell to their knees in silence.

    During the occupation of the Nazis, and the domination of the Soviets, the citizens were not permitted to be in the square. They were told, “A rested worker is a good worker”. As we later learned, ability to work and serve the government was a criteria of the Nazis to determine life or death for individuals.

    Mostly in response to questions, Marta described some of the unspeakable conditions which her family had endured under the Nazis, and things she remembers from her childhood living under the Soviet oppression. Among them, living with three families confined to one little apartment, having one kitchen and one small bathroom. There was always fear of the police. Food was very sparse. She began to say more, but got tears in her eyes. It was emotional!

    The group then moved on to the Old Town Square, which along with the Wawel Castle and the Kasimierz District, was included as the first of its kind on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

    The Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), is the largest medieval square in all of Europe. Being in the center of Old Town, it is the heart of Krakow, and is normally full of activity. Today was no exception: musicians, kiosks peddling souvenirs, people milling about. An Indian group of singers and dancers, complete with colorful costumes, had a group gathered around them.

    The most striking building in the Square is St. Mary’s Church which dominates the Krakow skyline. The original building was destroyed by the first Tatar invasion in 1241, and since then it has been rebuilt several times, but always on the same foundation. It appears, at first glance, to have double steeples. In reality, one steeple is taller and is actually a municipal watchtower.

    This watchtower has a small window on top where a bugler, an off-duty fireman, plays a bugle call (hejnal) each hour, stopping mid-tune. This tradition is to commemorate a bugler, who, according to a Polish legend, sustained a fatal blow with an arrow as he was warning the people of Krakow of the oncoming attack by the Tatars. The belief is that he saved the city. Each hour, many people in the square fix their gaze on that little window and wait for the bugler.

    Marta guided us through the gorgeous inside of St. Mary’s, explaining so many features which we probably would not have noticed on our own. For us, one highlight of St. Mary’s is the exquisite, three-part Gothic wood-carved altarpiece. It was completed over a twelve year period by a famous Polish woodcarver. It is most impressive not only for the beautiful artistry, combining two types of wood, oak for the structural parts and linden trunks for the figures, but for the fact that the altar doors open and close, and reveal scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary on the reverse sides.

    Among other impressive features is a striking blue-starred ceiling which reminded us of Van Gogh’s “Starry, Starry Night”. And under the organ loft is a crowned eagle, the symbol of Poland.

    After our visit to St. Mary Church, we expressed our thanks and farewell to Marta, knowing that we would see her the following day. The information she shares makes the history come alive!

    The Old Town Square is brimming with restaurants, cafes, pubs, and shops. Before doing any more exploration, our goal was to find a spot for lunch. Several hours of walking on hills and cobblestones, and standing, spelled a need for rest and food. Selection of a place was the biggest decision.

    Atmosphere won out over menu. We spotted a nice sidewalk restaurant, Steropolske, where the maitre’d found us a table near the front, good for people watching. Along the sides of the square was a long line of beautifully-decorated horse carriages, ready for passengers.

    Tom’s choice of their traditional soup, consisting of white sausage, potatoes, and some other unknown ingredients, was excellent. Margie again chose chicken soup, which satisfied her. Together was their good bread and a cold beer, we enjoyed the lunch with a view as we leisurely sipped cappuccinos.

    Fanning out from the Main Square are many small streets, lined with a variety of shops, cafes, and restaurants. Following our leisurely lunch, we spent some time exploring these areas. One could find shops selling anything from nice clothing to sportswear and even tattoos.

    It was now getting to be late afternoon. We were aware of the Kasimierz District, which over the years had become one of the most populated Jewish areas. And we knew something about how the Nazi had systematically removed so many of its members, committing horrible atrocities against the Jews and others. But given our time frame, and the fact that we would be visiting Auschwitz the following day, and dealing with so many harrowing facts, we decided to by-pass Kasirmierz. It would have been a good 20-30 minute walk each way, giving us too little time to explore it.

    We returned to the Main Square and headed for the Cloth Hall, a long building which runs along one side of the square. The Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) was so called because in medieval times the cloth merchants would come through Krakow and sell their goods in this building. No business was allowed to be conducted in the open square. The first floor of the Cloth Hall is lined on both sides by small shops with local merchants selling a variety of things, from amber jewelry to Russian nesting dolls, to woodworks, etc. and also souvenirs.

    We succumbed and purchased a few things. We knew that amber was a special stone in Poland, coming from the shores of the Black Sea by Gdansk, so Tom insisted on buying Margie an amber pendant. No resistance there! And Tom, true to form, bought a t-shirt and souvenir bottle opener. The fun of the experience was the conversation with the two delightful young girls who were working at the amber jewelry booth. They both spoke very good English and seemed to enjoy the encounter. One interesting note was their reaction when we asked about their I.D. cards, saying that they would never go anywhere without them. They were surprised when we said that if we’re not driving, especially Margie, we often don’t carry our licenses, our IDs.

    After our Cloth Hall visit, we exited through the attractive colonnade which runs the length of the Hall. We were off to explore a bit more of the square. To the left of the Cloth Hall, is a 200 ft.Tower, the only remaining part of the Town Hall from the 14th century, built when Krakow was the capital of Poland. The tower looked impressive, but contains only a stairway to the top displaying a small exhibit of Krakow history along the way. We read that the view from the top isn’t that impressive, so we gave that a pass.

    Near the south end of the Main Square is the very small St. Adalbert Church, dating back to the 11th century. It is named after a man who wss martyred on the Baltic Coast near Gdansk. It contains only four pews, but has great acoustics. We wished that we had visited the church earlier as we found out only too late that we had missed a Chamber Music concert.

    Tempted by a nice table along the square, we decided that it was time for another cappuccino, followed by a second visit to St. Mary’s Church.

    Krakow is well-known as a university town, the oldest and most famous being the Jagiellonian University. This prestigious center of learning was begun by King Kasimierz in 1300, because of his conviction that to flourish, the city needed educated citizens. Through the years, with changes of leadership, country partitioning, economic downturns, etc. the university has struggled. The Nazis tried to destroy it, executing almost 200 professors. The Soviets suppressed learning at all levels. Through all of the trials and tribulations, Jagiellonian University (UJ) today has colleges in every conceivable field, each with a beautiful campus. It claims among its famous graduates Copernicus and Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II. We were disappointed that we did not have time to explore it.

    It had been a long day, and we thought about heading back to the hotel, but not before having a small dinner. The girls in the Cloth Hall helped us locate a restaurant whose name we had written in English, and fortunately it turned out to be very near. It was one of their famous “cellar restaurants” named POD SLONCEM RESTAURACJA. It’s an odd feeling going down the several steep flights of stone stairs and finally entering a warm, welcoming eatery. We thought we’d try pierogi; after all, it’s part of the cuisine of Poland. Never realizing how filling a pierogi with meat would be, we ordered one serving to share. In addition, Margie ordered a dinner salad and Tom had soup. We left half of the pierogi on the platter, explaining to the waitress that they were tasty, but just too filling!

    It was now almost dark and high time to head home because we had to rise early in the morning as we would visit Auschwitz and Czestokowa en route to Warsaw. The walk back to the hotel was at least 20 minutes; it was now raining lightly. Too dark to see a map! We walked through the little streets, and struggled to find the correct turn at the castle to arrive at the Sheraton. Luckily a nice cab driver pointed us in the right direction.

    We arrived back about 8:30, and needed to pack in order to be ready for a 7:15 departure. Erin arranged to have the hotel breakfast begin at 6:15. It was always more pressuring on an early departure day!

    On our last evening, we were aware that we had only scratched the surface of Krakow. We focused our time on the Old Town, realizing that, in that area alone, we had missed museums. In addition to the Old Town, there’s the remainder of the city which has developed over the years. In light of the bombings suffered by so many other cities, it's very fortunate that Krakow escaped this fate!

    We really liked Krakow and would hope for a return visit.

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    I was looking forward to your Krakow impressions; the city is one of my favorites in Central Europe. You really did only scratch the surface! We have decided to spend Christmas there this year; being of Polish descent, I'm excited for all of the festivities.

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    We have also recently returned from beautiful Krakow. A highlight for us was seeing da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine" , on display at Wawel Castle, a separate ticket. I hope you got to see this masterpiece too. We have visited Vienna, Prague and Budapest in the past, but enjoyed Krakow even more.
    It looks like tour didn't include a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I recommend that you include it on your next visit. Tragic but part of our world history and the guides treat it with respect, as a visit to a cemetery to pay your respects to those who perished.
    Thanks for your informative report!

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    Ginny Jo and Adelaidean, thanks for your continued interest!

    Fourfortravel, you're right, we did only scratch the surface of Krakow, as with so many cities, even in the US. Since you live in "the vicinity", Christmas in Krakow sounds a perfect place. A far cry from Krakow, but we plan to enjoy the great holiday festivities in NYC.

    HappyTrvlr, following Krakow, we did visit Auschwitz-Birenau, a very emotionally draining experience. It's the most difficult part of our trip to write about.
    Thanks for following along.

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    Addendum to Krakow: We forgot to add that stones from the Wawel Castle are imbedded in the façade of the Chicago Tribune Building in honor of the Polish population there. They're
    surrounded by fragments from many important sites from around the world, including the Berlin Wall which we'll visit later in our trip.

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    Maitaitom, we're glad that we went to Warsaw. But as far as realistic opportunities for a future visit, it is much farther north than any other destinations on our radar. We really liked Krakow, and could see that in our future plans.

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    Kathie, yes, Krakow is a wonderful city, and it's difficult to imagine how anyone would not find it to be so.

    Thanks for following along with us! We're working on our next installment; albeit the most difficult, as part of it includes our visit to Auschwitz. But then we traveled on to explore Warsaw! Stay tuned.

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    Wednesday, September 9, 2015 Auschwitz visit
    Czestochowa: shrine
    Warsaw


    7 AM departure. Wow! Can be tiring and anxiety provoking to be on a tour. Amazing how many people were at breakfast ahead of us as we thought we were a few minutes ahead of schedule.

    On this morning we experienced very mixed emotions as we would be visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration and Extermination Camp. This is a place which we dreaded visiting, but thought that we must.

    One purpose of our trip to Central Europe was to gain more insight into the history of the countries we visited, especially the impact of the Nazis and subsequent Soviet domination. Though we have watched documentaries and visited museums, and last year visited Berchtesgarten in Germany, we wanted to get a more complete understanding of this most notorious period of history. We know local people who themselves or their families were impacted by the Nazis as well as the Communists.

    Although Poland has been a Catholic country for many years, and remains heavily Catholic today, the country has had a long history with the Jews, much of it very positive for both. Poland and the Jews became acquainted in about the 10th century when Jewish merchants stopped by as they traveled on trade routes to Kiev. Traders were required to spend a couple of nights in Krakow selling their goods.

    The first permanent Jewish community was established in 1085. Poland welcomed the Jews, and appreciated their craftsmen. Their skills contributed to the needs of the people by providing such services as fur-making, tanning, and tailoring, shoemaking, etc., while creating income for them. They helped to form a middle class in a country of wealthy landlords and poorer peasants.

    Over the years, the Jewish population grew. Poland offered the Jews freedom of worship, trade, and travel. Around 1330, King Kasimierz the Great was especially welcoming to them. Over the next century, there was a huge migration from other countries such as Spain and Austria. By the middle of the 16th century, ¾ of all Jews lived in Poland. It was considered to be the spiritual center of Judaism.

    The relationship with the Polish government seemed to be one of mutual gain: the Jews could live in an accepting environment and the country could benefit from their industriousness, craftsmanship, and knowledge of commerce. In the 16th through 18th centuries the Jews began to be recognized for their interest in learning. They became journalists, teachers, lawyers, and doctors. Someone described the Jews as “a virtual galaxy of intellectual figures.”

    But anti-semitism had been raising its ugly head in many areas of the world over a long period of years. It rose to a fever pitch when Hitler came into power. Before the Nazi invasion, Poland contained 80% of the Jewish population. We learned so many of the horrible details about the unspeakable cruelty and killing of Jewish people, as well as Polish citizens, as we moved along in our trip.

    Not only was Hitler’s plan to eradicate the Jews, but his plan also included no place for the Christian Churches. Since the Catholic Church has been a leading force in Polish nationalism, and against foreign domination, the Nazis targeted clergy, monks, and nuns in their terror campaign with mass executions. Many other Poles, mostly Catholics, were shot.

    The drive from Krakow to Auschwitz was about 75 minutes, during which we passed the Polish countryside with the typical small farm houses. We could see the infamous railroad tracks which were only a part of the hundreds of miles of networked tracks around the whole area which served the Nazis in their goal of total extermination of the Jews and any others whom they considered “undesirable”, such as the infirm, mentally ill, Gypsies, religious leaders, and “intelligentsia”.

    During the drive, Marta, our guide, shared a lot of information about the situation in Poland from the late 30’s through the end of the War. We had no idea of the large number of camps spread all over German-dominated land, described as “Labor Camps” such as Dachau, to “Labor-Concentration Camps” such as Auschwitz, to totally “Extermination Camps” such as Treblinka. Auschwitz-Berkenau was the largest and most notorious.

    The territory of Poland became a virtual prison-island, with several hundred complexes of state organized terror. In these camps, it is estimated that nearly 6 million people died, either by extermination, firing squad, starvation, illness, and other means of torture. Among them it is estimated that there were between 2.7 to 2.9 million Jews, 2.77 ethnic Poles, and the others among Hitler’s “undesirables”.

    Auschwitz is a sobering experience! Marta made it even more impactful as she is native Polish and lived under the Communist “liberation”/oppression. Her parents lived under the Nazis.

    The end of WWI created the Versailles Treaty which greatly reduced the size and power of Germany. This fact enraged Hitler! He intended to realize a plan of territorial expansion and massive settlement of German colonists, giving explicit permission to his commanders to kill all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language.

    This plan was carried out very systematically: different dates for killing Polish nobles, clergy, and Jews; then intelligentsia, finally all Poles. There are so many harrowing stories about how the Polish and Jewish were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, never to return. Rewards were offered to Germans who would turn people in. If anyone hid a Jew or Pole, the threat was death to the whole family.

    The world economy in the early 30’s was poor and jobs were scarce. The Jews were not active in agriculture, etc. but were more business-oriented. They bore the brunt of Hitler’s wrath for the poor economy and hence fueled his goal of ethnic cleansing. The Nazis promoted hatred of the Jews. They indoctrinated the German public with the falsehoods that all evil came from the Jews. Even children’s textbooks promoted these vicious lies.

    This process of gradually ridding the country of Jews was a well-calculated and gradual process, begun in the early 30’s. They pulled the Jews out of rural areas and overcrowded them in the ghetto, taking over their business and assigning them to hard, manual work. When moving them to a “camp”, they tricked (i.e. lied to) the Jews to manipulate them into the camps by promising them a better opportunity. They were instructed to bring their valuables with them, and each one had one suitcase which they were told to label. It was all a farce. The new location was Auschwitz!

    Auschwitz was out “in the sticks” as we would say, but very strategically located on a rail line and within the vicinity of a river. As we pulled up the long driveway which led to the barracks, the expanse of the so-called camp was striking. As we entered the main building we were met by a guide specific for Auschwitz. Our group for the tour consisted of 16 people.

    As we entered the compound, that infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” couldn’t be missed. It was the same lie that was used at Dachau, the first concentration camp, originally established for political prisoners. Work and production was the only value of people. If you were younger or weaker, you were slated for extermination.

    Auschwitz had been an army barracks prior to the concentration camp. When it became a camp, the living conditions became harsh. Bunks, three high, with several people squeezed in each bed; heat turned to minimum with thread bare covers; clothes turning to rags as they were never washed. Food very minimal. The sanitary conditions were horrible; disease was rampant.

    “Arbeit macht Frei”…if you could work, you had value to the Nazis, if not you were put to death.

    Other disturbing cruel tactics were the separation of families, the immediate orders to execute children deemed too young to work, the so-called hospital where painful and disgusting experiments were performed on a variety of individual, including babies, with the aim of developing that perfect race.

    Prisoners were often starved to death, made to stand in a small damp cell until they dropped and eventually died, hanged, and shot by firing squads.

    To learn that the people were stripped of all humanity; even their hair was cut and used to make cloth, was revolting. And, of course, those valuables which they were told to bring were all confiscated. Even gold teeth were removed.

    Men determined to be able-bodied were housed together, given very meager (and gross) nourishment, e.g. soup with rotten vegetables, sawdust mixed in with rations. They were expected to do very heavy labor from dawn to dark. For those deemed not to be working hard enough there were beatings and floggings, and other torture tactics.

    The men were given colored, striped prison garb: yellow for Jews, green for criminals (who were required to do a lot of the unsavory work that the soldiers disliked, as in executing people), pink for homosexuals. Many lived but a few weeks under the conditions. Then a new influx would be brought in.

    Living in such squalid and insufferable conditions, a promise of a shower was made to groups. They were told to remove their clothes, and remember their numbered hook, in order not to arouse suspicion of where they were actually going. They were then escorted to the “shower”, the gas chamber, where a capsule was lowered and 20 minutes later they were all dead by strangulation. Bodies were piled up and burned; this most odious labor being done by other prisoners.

    The number of people killed is uncertain, as only the workers were registered and thus known. Three hundred clergy (many Franciscans) were put to death in Auschwitz; the numbers they quote are broken down by countries and are staggering!

    In the later years of this murderous camp, prisoners were tattooed with a number. That number is visible today on some people who were fortunate enough to be freed.

    The administrator of all this diabolical treatment of fellow human beings at Auschwitz was Rudolph Hess. He was constantly trying to find better and cheaper ways to exterminate as many people as possible. And to camouflage what was going on there, a sweet scent was added to the gaseous mix.

    Another fact totally inconceivable to us: his wife and five children lived in a villa right next this camp where the mass murders took place!!! Following the war and a trial, Rudolph Hess was later hanged at Auschwitz, suffering the same fate of many men whom he had caused to be hanged. Before his death, he poisoned his wife and children.

    An experience which hit close to home for us was seeing the small cell #18 where Maximillian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, was starved to death. A threat was held over the prisoners that if any tried to escape, ten others would be killed as punishment. Maximilian volunteered to take another man’s place and died of starvation in a tiny dank cement cell. Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by Pope John Paul II. A new parish in our area in Cincinnati is named in his honor. With such a long name, people refer to it as just “St. Max’s.”

    As we left Auschwitz, it was with the hope of “Never again!”

    Following that very disturbing tour, it was a relief to board the coach and have a couple of hours or so to ponder the overwhelming experience while en route to Czestowschowa. There we would visit the Jasna Gora Monastery, Poland’s greatest place of pilgrimage. There was almost silence on the coach as we made our way to Czestochowa, about an hour’s drive. We combined the stop with a short lunch.

    In Czestochowa is the most famous shrine to the Virgin Mary in Poland. It contains the most important icon of Mary in Europe, and is widely credited with many miracles. In 1994, it was listed as one of Poland’s official national Historic Monuments.

    The icon is a painting on wood of Mary with her hands pointing to the Christ Child, and is widely known as the “Black Madonna of Czestochowa” because of the dark-skin on their faces. Its origins are debated. Legend has it that it was painted by St. Luke, one of the Gospel writers, on a cedar table top from the house of the Holy Family. There are a couple of stories surrounding its travels. But art historians agree that the original painting was a Byzantine icon, with an estimated date of around the 6th or 9th century. They also agree that Prince Wladyslaw brought it to the Monastery in the 14th century. The “Black Madonna” icon is credited with miraculously saving the area from a Swedish invasion. Many people claim to have been cured through their pilgrimage to the shrine.

    The monastery, Jasna Gora, was built by the Pauline Fathers who lived in the area, to safeguard the icon. It is kept in the monastery church, which is quite beautiful, and “unveiled” three times each day. We were in the chapel during one of these ceremonies, at which there were hundreds of people. There was standing room only. It began with quite an impressive trumpet call, a selection by a chamber music group, and an organ piece. This musical introduction was followed by a homily and prayers by the priest, after which the picture, which is about 4 ft. in height, was revealed above the altar. Since the service was all in Polish, we did not understand the words of the ceremony, but from the prayerful atmosphere in the church, the devotion of the people was well understood.

    Having learned so much of the ongoing trials and tribulations which the Polish people had endured for so many years: wars, partitions of their land, the Nazi atrocities, the bombing of so many cities, the years under Communism, etc.,our thoughts were that perhaps it was their faith that enabled them to endure.

    Following Czestochowa, it was another three hours of travel, including a restroom/coffee stop, to reach Warsaw for a two-night stay. No matter the means of transportation, whether by car, train, or coach, the scenery was flat and fairly uneventful, providing more time to reflect on the visit to Auschwitz. The stop at Czestochowa helped take off some of the edge, but the experience would linger on. How such horrendous actions could happen in a civilized society, when our parents/grandparents were alive, is incomprehensible!

    After that long drive, we entered Warsaw, a very large city, during the busy work traffic. But again, Tom our driver handled it like the pro that he is. Erin told us that we would stop for dinner en route to the hotel. Along with the meal, there would be a demonstration of pierogi-making. This demo and meal was a bit outside of town in what appeared in a kind of lodge. Of all of our trip so far, this is the only stop that we might not have chosen.

    We met Olga, who would be doing the demo and would be our Warsaw guide. Olga asked for volunteers for the pierogi-making, and while they labored, several of us just relaxed with a glass of wine, watching from a distance. Since pierogi-making is labor intensive, Olga admitted that many Polish make them in larger quantities and freeze them. (Costco sells them frozen; that’s more our style!)

    The main meal course, including pierogis, was probably the least appealing of the trip, but the beer and wine were fine. And the dessert was tasty.

    We were happy to arrive at the Sheraton Hotel by about 8 PM. Warsaw’s Sheraton was even nicer than the one in Krakow! It was located in the area of many Embassies, so there were ample nice restaurants nearby. However, we were very close to a main artery which was lined with many restaurants and shops. We were glad to have two nights in this nice hotel, as we were worn out from the long day, and welcomed the sleep. We would save our exploration of Warsaw until the following day.

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    Very great report: loved your impressions of Krakow, which is very much on my list. And your context of your disturbing but important visit Auschwitz was very well done. It's probably not a place I would ever visit so I was grateful to get a portrait from your report.

    Excited for Warsaw and Berlin, especially Berlin since I could have gone earlier this month but elected to visit Bruges and Brussels instead.

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    Inspiredexplorer, thanks for your comments on our TR! Although Auschwitz was definitely an emotional low point, overall we had great experiences on our trip. Krakow was among places we really liked.

    Hope you enjoyed Bruges and Brussels!

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    Great report. I've been to Dachau and Mauthausen-Gusen, so I know how you feel after visiting. Very sobering to say the least. That's why we opted for salt mines in Krakow instead of Auschwitz on our visit. Looking forward to the rest of the TR.

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    This is an excellent report, tomarkot. Impressive detail and clearly, moving experiences. I just saw an Anthony Bourdain show on Budapest and it looks lovely! I have never been anywhere in Eastern Europe but hope to see some of what you have described someday.

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    Maitaitom, thanks for your feedback. In light of your experiences, we can see why you chose the Salt Mine Tour. Auschwitz was a one-off for us.

    We especially liked Budapest and Krakow, and could see ourselves visiting those again. And the cities we visited going forward had their stimulating experiences and lighter moments! Stay tuned.



    Denisea, so good to hear from you. Thanks for following along! Wish we could have caught that Anthony Bourdain show on Budapest. It is a great city!

    One of the weirdest things on our trip was flying through Paris, but not visiting a city that we all love! But time constraints! We'll, no doubt, return before long.

    We've really enjoyed following your wonderful trip to the AC! We have a couple of ideas for our next European trip. France, Spain, and Italy keep calling to us.

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    Flip around on CNN and maybe you will catch it...better late than never. They showed New York Cafe and it looks so gorgeous and ornate...beautiful! My AC trip report is a mere sentence compared to this report!! I am surprised that you didn't bolt for the doors at CDG and into Paris....must be very strange to be there and not go into Paris.

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    NOTE: Earlier in our TR, we noted that we had missed the beauty of the Tatra Mtns. while en route from Budapest to Poland, because of inclement weather. This past week-end more than made up for it as we experienced the brilliant colors in the Smoky Mtns. of Tennessee and North Carolina.

    So. . .now we're back to our TR.

    THURSDAY, SEPT. 10, 2015 WARSAW,POLAND EXPLORATION

    Pt. 1 Overview of Warsaw; Historical background;
    Lazienski Park; Old Town

    Warsaw’s Sheraton was even nicer than the one in Krakow! It was very conveniently located in the area of many Embassies, the contemporary US Embassy being one of the more attractive. There were ample nice restaurants nearby. And it was just a few steps to the famous street, Nowy Swiat.

    We felt energized for the day from that plentiful hotel breakfast spread. At 8:15, we joined Olga, our Warsaw guide, and were off to tour Warsaw, of which we had only scant knowledge.

    We knew that it was home to such renowned people as Copernicus the astronomer, Marie Curie, a pioneer in radioactivity, Chopin the pianist, Roman Polanski, the film director, plus many others. But we were to learn so much about this important city.

    Our morning with Olga began with a coach overview tour of Warsaw, the largest city in Poland, as well as its capital. It was much more expansive than we realized! And decidedly modern and clean. It was very helpful to enhance and expand what we knew about Warsaw’s background with Olga’s insights.

    Warsaw stands along both sides of the same Vistula River which flows through Krakow, and empties into the Baltic Sea in the north. Its greater metropolitan population is almost 2.7 million, making it the 9th most populous capital city in the EU. Today Warsaw is considered an “Alpha” global city, a significant cultural, political, and economic hub, as well as a major international tourist destination.

    Like Budapest and Krakow, Warsaw experienced the harrowing violence against its people by the Nazis, as well as the follow-up Soviet domination. Additionally, 85% of the buildings in Warsaw were bombed at the end of WWII. No wonder that the city was described as a “pile of rubble”.

    Considering the widespread destruction Warsaw suffered, the re-building we witnessed all around was amazing. Warsaw’s economy has been growing rapidly. Industries such as metal processing, steel and electronic manufacturing, and food processing, to name but a few, along with tourism, are contributors to this growth.

    Warsaw has become a significant center of research and development, and has a highly developed media industry. We learned that Warsaw, together with the cities Frankfurt, London, Paris and Rotterdam, has the highest number of skyscrapers in Europe. As we toured, we noticed the interesting architecture of the buildings; many very contemporary.

    Warsaw boasts two opera houses, and multiple theatres, museums, libraries, restaurants, entertainment venues, a large sports’ stadium, and many educational institutions, including the Polish Academy of Sciences and the University of Warsaw.

    It has large, ultra-modern shopping malls. We learned that in 2012, the city was ranked as the 32nd most livable city in the world. Of course, we don’t know the criteria for the rankings, but even to be mentioned seems quite remarkable. Its suburbs are sprawling.

    Warsaw’s history, which began in 1313, had seen an almost constant barrage of outsider attacks, take-overs by neighboring countries, partitions, wars, etc. Its topography is so flat that countries such as Russia and Prussia, and later Germany, have just barreled across it with ease. Over the years, Warsaw has had only short periods of independence from foreign rule. In the early 19th century, even Napoleon declared Warsaw a puppet state of the First French Empire.

    In 1939, the German invasion included the massacre of the Jewish, as well as the Polish population, with untold numbers of deportations to concentration/death camps. All of these atrocities led to an uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. Though the Jewish people fought fiercely, they were ultimately crushed by the Russians.

    In 1944, as the Red Army was approaching the city, the famous Warsaw Uprising was undertaken by the Polish. This fight for freedom also resulted in defeat and major losses. Thousands were killed in their attempts against the Soviets.
    Several memorials and monuments throughout the city are dedicated to those gave their lives for freedom.

    Warsaw gained the title of “Phoenix City” because it rose out of destruction and survived so many wars, conflicts, and invasions throughout its long history. Due to the devastation of the city by the Nazis, contrary to the end-of-war settlement terms, 8 out of 10 buildings were destroyed. Warsaw required massive, painstaking rebuilding. Although most of the city has been rebuilt, there are areas where vestiges of destruction are evident.

    At the end of WWII, Soviet troops entered the ruins of Warsaw, and “liberated” the Poles from German occupation. The Soviets eyed Warsaw as an important “satellite” city for them, and began a “Bricks for Warsaw” building campaign. Many of the historic streets and buildings, and, we were surprised to learn, churches, were restored to their original form.

    The citizens would soon learn that for them “liberation” following WWII meant something different than to the Communist regime; that is, the Soviets demanded total control and submission to the state.

    Although life for the citizens was very constricted and restricted, the Soviets continued the reconstruction of the buildings. Large prefabricated housing projects were erected, along with other typical Eastern bloc (ugly!) buildings, a far cry from the former elegant styles reflecting gothic, baroque, or renaissance architecture. Some of these Soviet style buildings still exist.

    The crowning glory of the Soviet reconstruction was building an impressive structure known as the Palace of Culture and Science. It was touted as a gift from the Soviet Union and was dedicated to Stalin. Designed by a Soviet architect, it was modeled partially on a building in Moscow. However,its height was required to be less than the grand model in Russia, so as not to compete with the capital. In the afternoon, we toured some of the interior of this massive building, and learned more about its use after Communism.

    The heavily Catholic population of Poland, estimated at 98%, pushed back against Communism. The strong influence of the former Archbishop of Krakow, later Pope John Paul II, along with that of Lech Walesa, who initiated the labor union protests in the shipyards of Gdansk, encouraged the people to persevere in their cause of freedom.

    A pivotal point was a “pilgrimage to Poland” by the Pope, during which he held open-air Masses in Warsaw, as well as in Krakow. At those Masses, attended by thousands, he encouraged the people to “Stay strong.” The Pope supported Lech Walesa in the early 80’s when he led labor strikes against Communism. The movement he began, called the “Solidarity Movement”, spread and received the support of millions of citizens.

    The Communists feared this widespread growth of Solidarity as a serious threat. In reaction, they began to move small military units into towns and villages, under the guise of helping with food distribution. They pretended to be helpers to the people, but their purpose was to gather intelligence. University professors, among other professionals, were asked to declare their allegiance to the government or to Solidarity. The “wrong” answers brought imprisonment.

    Late in the night, between December 12 and 13, 1981, tanks moved into the cities, and roadblocks were set up on bridges and intersections. Tens of thousands of Solidarity supporters were dragged from their beds, arrested and jailed. Some were killed. Martial Law was declared. Posters announcing it were everywhere. Solidarity was banned, although it continued to exist underground.

    Olga described her experience as a child of waking up on that December morning in 1981 when, to everyone’s shock, the TV, radio, and phone did not work. Schools were closed. Parents sent their children to the church to find out what was going on. Unfortunately, they quickly learned the grim news that Martial Law had been declared! Great fear spread among the people at the increased military presence, and anxiety that many of their already limited freedoms would be removed.

    Olga’s emotions became more intense as she described how this Martial Law declaration occurred just before Christmas. Even though her family had little money, their plans to celebrate the holidays with their relatives in a nearby town, were forbidden. Additionally, prices for staple goods rose. Poles became desperately poor.

    Passports needed for travel outside the country were held at the police stations. The people needed to apply each time for permission to travel outside Poland. Often there was a 2-3 month wait for approval.

    The news of the imposition of Martial Law by the Soviets unleashed international outrage and protests. A famous picture of a tank located near an important building in Warsaw was secretly smuggled out and the world was shocked.

    For three years the Polish Communist leader, Jaruzelski, and his regime were shunned by the West. This caused their already failing economy to further decline. The Soviets were heavily spending on the military and policing, causing more great hardship on the people. They froze production of civilian goods. This period of Martial Law lasted until July,1983.

    It was with all this as a backdrop that Mikhail Gorbachev was faced with the facts of a failed Communist system. He laid the foundation for a recognition of Solidarity leading to a gradual move toward elections. A few years later, Lech Walesa was elected President of Poland. The countries of Hungary and Czechloslovakia soon followed Poland in conducting elections.

    The Soviet Union’s gradual collapse was between 1989-1991, but its official date is December 31, 1991. One historian described that the transition to democracy took 10 years in Poland, 10 months in Hungary, 10 weeks in East Germany, and 10 days in Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

    What Olga had conveyed to us from her own life experience as we toured the city helped us gain more insight into Warsaw’s tumultuous past, and made our visit to the present day Warsaw more meaningful. The thriving city we witnessed was an amazing contrast with what we learned of its past. We were impressed by its modern growth and development, experiencing that it is truly is a “Phoenix City.”

    We learned that about 25% of Warsaw is comprised of grand parks or royal gardens. We felt fortunate to have a beautiful sunny day to visit the largest of them, the famous Lazienski Park. It is located in the wealthy, kings-of-past living area. Walking only a short distance from the busy road into the park, the sounds of traffic are muffled.

    In the center of this beautiful city park is a huge statue of Chopin, fronted by a large pond, complete with shooting water spouts, and surrounded by a rose garden. The park is well-groomed, with nice pathways and beautiful flower gardens. At one end, a castle overlooks a lovely lake. Olga teasingly told us that the park had “royal” grass; very green and attractive, with signs all around amounting to, “Stay Off!” We had ample time to walk around the park and take in the outstanding gardens.

    Did we mention “traffic”? Being such a large city, it was interesting to learn that only recently was a motorway built, the fastest way from cities east to get west, as to Berlin. However, there is no circle freeway, so all traffic goes through the heart of downtown Warsaw. No wonder that we stopped for an earlier dinner the previous evening before plowing through the worst of it! Plans are in the works to complete motorway around the city by 2019.

    Continuing on our exploratory venture, we eventually reached the Old Town, which had been rebuilt from rubble following the Nazi bombings. We did some walking/touring of the area. Fortunately, paintings depicting panoramic city views of baroque Warsaw, done by a Venetian painter named Bernardo Belotto, were preserved. These were the main documents which showed the original Old Town, from which they could reconstruct it. It is amazing to see what an unbelievable job was done in restoring it. In 1980, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    We first enjoyed a leisurely walk around Castle Square and saw the beautiful Royal Castle. In the center of the square is a tall columnar monument to King Sigismund III. We learned that he was an important figure for the Warsawians, as it was he who moved his court and the capital from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596.

    In the reconstructed Castle Square is also a Cathedral, the large open Market Square, palaces, churches, and mansions all displaying a richness of color and architectural detail. Restaurants and cafes surround the Castle Square. There are homes with intricate woodwork and colorful facades. Stone masons were completing a cobblestone area. And something we thought unique: some granite benches surrounding the Castle Square with recordings of Chopin’s music imbedded in them, activated by just pressing a button. An instant concert!

    After enjoying the Castle Square, we walked down a small connecting side alley to the Old Town Square, with its rebuilt Barbicon Tower, and the defensive wall. The Old Town Square is also surrounded by many small shops and eateries, with colorful umbrellas adding to the atmosphere. Erin the TD treated all of us to one of their famous jelly-filled donuts. (Tasty, but definitely heavy! The calorie count goes up again!)

    Returning to Castle Square by way of another little alley, we passed something unusual: a pharmacy whose “sign” was cut-outs of white pills suspended like a mobile; no wording. All along the way were little shops selling their wares.

    It was that time again: lunch! The only decision was the choice of one of the many little sidewalk cafés. Not all were open as yet. We settled on a restaurant with a nice patio. We chose a three-meat soup, which was quite good, especially after the waitress told us that the mushroom and Polish noodle soup, which was our original choice, was “not so good” and wrinkled up her nose.

    At lunch, we experienced a strange incident: a homeless guy came by on the walkway. Our table was on the end, by a wrought iron railing partition. A man approached us, we assumed to beg for money. But he was apparently so hungry that when he saw Margie’s remaining soup, he grabbed the bowl and finished the rest of the soup…Wow! Talk about desperate! And a bit disconcerting for us! He quickly left before we could offer to buy him any more food.

    Following lunch, we made our way to a coffee shop. Two cappuccinos, and we were ready to meet Olga for a continuing tour of Warsaw.

    Stay tuned for Pt. II

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    Excellent. I don't know much about Warsaw, so that was vey interesting. I like green spaces in a city, and it looks like with the parks and gardens (Tracy alert...must go), Warsaw fits that bill. Looking forward to more.

    ((H))

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    Adelaidean, Tom and I appreciate having you along in our travels.

    Maitaitom, thanks for your nice comments. We think Warsaw appreciates its short window of nice weather to enjoy their colorful gardens. Their winters are apparently bitterly cold.

    Kathie, appreciate your continued following along with our trip. We're wondering if your trip (is it to Burma?) is coming up soon? If so, have a great time!

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    To our readers: I apologize for the delay in completing Warsaw. Life happens! So on we go. We hope you continue along with us. Thanks!

    WARSAW
    Pt. 2 Palace of Culture and Education; Jewish Ghetto;
    Life Under Communism
    Evening on the Town

    Sipping those cappuccinos on Castle Square allowed us one last enjoyment of this beautifully rebuilt area. The atmosphere was enlivened by a trumpeter, where quite a crowd had gathered around him. We could have chosen to stay around the Old Town longer, and explore more of Warsaw on our own, but having Olga as a guide was so worthwhile that we decided to hang with her.

    We continued our tour of the city. En route to the Palace of Culture and Science, we saw the Jewish Ghetto. It includes a fragment of the Ghetto wall, where the Nazis had crammed 1 million Jews, before many suffered the horrific fates which befell those in other cities. We saw remnants of the Jewish Cemetery, with an estimated 150,000 tombstones, the largest collection of its kind in Europe.

    In Ghetto Heroes Square there is large memorial dedicated to all the Jewish people who perished. It was touching to see that there are flowers laid at the base of the memorial.

    Spread throughout the city of Warsaw are many monuments commemorating those who gave their lives fighting in defense of their country. Specific monuments were focused on groups such as pilots or heroes of certain battles. The Monument of the Warsaw Uprising, a bronze tableau, is described as one of the most important monuments in Warsaw. One side is a relief of a group of insurgents and the other shows the persecution suffered at the hands of the Nazi German oppressors. In the midst of a vibrantly developing city, with a hint of European style, the citizens pay tribute to those who made this present-day life possible.

    After viewing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we moved on to the tallest building in Warsaw, the Palace of Culture and Science, which has come to be an international symbol of Warsaw. In recent years, it has been floodlit at night. In 2010, LED lights were installed highlighting the building with various colors, changed throughout the year.

    Having been built by the Soviets, originally known as the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science, there was talk of destroying it after the fall of Communism. It was later decided that the city would remove Stalin’s name, plus all signs, pictures, and any reminders of the Soviets. The city would modify it, and change its usage.

    Olga remembers her childhood experience being in the crowd for the “celebration” when the building was first completed. It was a “pull out all the stops” affair. All the people had to attend the opening and appear happy with it. Schools were closed, and the students were required to attend, lest their parents suffer the consequences. All were expected to exude happiness at the dedication.

    The interior of the Palace of Culture and Science is beautiful, with monumental walls headed with decorative reliefs copied from Renaissance houses of Krakow, exquisite lighting fixtures and other architectural details. In 1967, he Rolling Stones made history there by being the first major rock group to perform behind the Iron Curtain.

    After Communism, the building underwent interior renovation, and now serves as an exhibition center, an office complex, and contains such things as an Omnimax cinema, four theatres, two museums, a large swimming pool, and an auditorium holding 3000 people. Additionally, two floors contain an accredited university.

    We took the elevator to the 30th floor observation deck. Olga pointed out the main buildings in Warsaw in all directions. From this high vantage point, one could view the skyscapers and other large buildings in the city, which are symbols of a modern and capitalistic Warsaw.

    International companies, including financial institutions, could be seen throughout the downtown. Warsaw’s national sporting stadium, prominent on the east bank of the Vistula River, had been constructed for the European 2012 “football” (soccer) championships. Its colors, red and white, made it very promiment among the other buildings.

    Being a clear day, it was interesting to see how flat the city and its surrounding areas are. To give a hint to its size, 13 bridges span the Vistula in Warsaw. It appeared that, looking north, with high powered binoculars, it would be possible to see all the way to Gdansk on the Baltic Coast. Nothing seemed to obstruct the view. But undoubtedly, that would not be possible, because 150 miles would be out of range!

    Following this visit to the Palace of Culture and Science, our time with Olga focused on life under the Communists. We had learned a lot on our morning tour, but this afternoon we focused more on the daily lives of the people.

    We visited the Life Under Communism Museum, which displayed living quarters and memorabilia from the Communist era. Part of the museum was a set-up as a typical very small living space in which the Communists “allowed” a family to live…sparsely furnished and equipped with old stuff like the US had in the late 40’s and early 50’s. However, they had this in the 70’s. Some had a TV, but had access to only two government-run stations that ran from 4 to 11 PM.

    In order to secure such an apartment, the people had to apply, stating the number of members in the family. There was often a long wait, and then they were assigned an apartment. Getting a party-line phone also involved a long wait.

    There were usually long lines in stores. Sometimes the government passed out “coupons” to buy special products, but they often weren’t available in the stores. They could buy soap, shampoo, chocolate, etc. but it was really poor quality. Coca Cola was banned, labeled as an “imperialistic drink”. Olga said that the drink they substituted tasted awful.

    We saw an old drink vending machine, with a metal cup anchored by a chain attached to it. Olga explained that these machines were located on a few streets. People could insert a coin, and a drink, not at all tasty, would dispense into the metal cup. All drank from the same cup! (Yuck!)

    The stock in stores was usually very low. . .many empty shelves. However, when the Communists had a celebration, like May Day, or another big event where there would be foreign visitors, the shops were full of merchandise as part of their “show”. It was a sham! Again, all the citizens were expected to be there for government-sponsored events.

    Olga explained that people didn’t smile in public lest it be interpreted that they were making fun of the Soviets or a building or whatever. The children were frequently cautioned about this. We noted that the Soviet statues and pictures showed no expression. So too, the residents under repression.

    Under Communism, everyone was required to have a job, even if it meant standing around all day in a factory doing nothing. We had heard this from guides in other cities. The meager salaries of all occupations were the same, so a doctor would be paid the same as a laborer. There were no incentives to work harder or to improve.

    Everything was centralized by the Communists. They attempted to control all aspects of peoples’ lives. There was great fear among the people that if they would protest, or make efforts at freedom, the Soviets would crush them as they had done in ’56 in Hungary and ’68 in Prague.

    When Communism finally fell in 1989, it was a sudden shock, as it happened so abruptly. Though life under this system curtailed personal freedoms, it offered security. The government proudly touted that their 100% employment. According to Olga, “the people pretended to work even though there was nothing to do.” In that sense, it was a secure, if very basic life, though lacking in motivation to improve one’s lot.

    The factories were totally inefficient and went bankrupt. Workers had minimal skills. People had no responsibility for their lives…just follow the leader and don’t ask questions! Someone else made decisions for them. Olga commented, “It was easier to change the system than to change the way people think!”

    Some of the older people felt that the Communist system was better as they all had security from “employment”, even though they maintained a very meager existence. The system did provide for free education and free medical care, which were about the only benefits for them. Post-Communism, without the security of the system, and with no training and no skills, they weren’t able to get jobs. The younger people were able to find employment, so they fared much better.

    Olga said that the younger generation, including her daughters, do not know Communism; only what they may have learned from their families. And, she said, with a knowing grin, that they usually are not interested in hearing about it! Life today in modern, bustling Warsaw is far different for them.

    By our choice, we had focused a lot on the history of Warsaw, as we’ve been interested in learning more first-hand about the indescribably horrendous evils suffered under the Nazis and the Communists. And, we were constantly amazed at the resiliency of a people who have not only survived, but now thrive, in a country which is financially and culturally western. It’s understandable why they want to be known as Central Europe, rather than Eastern Europe!

    Having had a stimulating, if tiring day, enjoying the beauty of the city in such places as Lazienski Park and the Old Town, as well as the places of historical significance, we happily returned to the Sheraton. We were glad that we had chosen to stick with Olga, as our exploration was made so much more meaningful by her. However, we appreciated having time to catch our breath, and freshen up for the evening.

    Our last evening was an enjoyable memory of Warsaw. We headed out to dinner on the famous Nowy Swiat Street; (literally "New Town"). From our hotel, it was just a short block to connect with the main street which blends into the Royal Route, partially called Nowy Swiat. Earlier in the day we had traveled down this 2 km. tree-lined route which passes architecturally beautiful buildings, the University of Warsaw, and eventually leads to the Castle and the Old Town Square.

    To reach the lively area of Noway Swiat from our hotel, the “happening” center of the downtown, it was necessary for us to cross the main busy thoroughfare. Named Aleja Jerozolimskie. (in English, “Jerusalem Avenue”), it had apparently changed names many times over the years, depending upon which power was in control. Trams run back and forth almost constantly. It carries heavy traffic traveling east to west, making crossing the roundabout a bit of a challenge.

    A unique marker for visitors like us in finding their way is a giant palm tree in the center of the busy roundabout. Apparently, in 2002 when a local artist visited Jerusalem, she was struck by the many palm trees and thought that one should stand in Warsaw. . . temporarily, of course. Palm trees and Warsaw winters would not get along! A vocal faction wanted to keep a palm tree at the location permanently, so a fake tree now graces the busy intersection all year, brightly lit at night. And, we must say, it was very helpful in negotiating our way back to our hotel in the dark!

    We walked quite a distance along Nowy Swiat, lined with designer shops and boutiques, cafes, and restaurants and plenty of nightlife. Colorful flowerboxes lined both sides. Music was wafting through the air. For a weekday evening, there were large numbers of people enjoying the outdoors.

    After milling around for a while, we set out to find the restaurant recommendation of the hotel concierge: Dawne Smaki. We thought that we’d like to have Polish cuisine, since this would be our last night in Poland. It turned out to be an excellent recommendation. Though the restaurant had a very attractive interior, since it was we chose to sit outdoors and imbibe the festive atmosphere on the pleasantly warm evening.

    After relaxing with pre-dinner drinks, Margie ordered their pork special (looked like a wiener schnitzel) and Tom had the half-duck, both served with their traditional potatoes For a vegetable, the waitress encouraged us to try beet root, an item we had seen on several other Polish menus. We were curious as to what beet root was. In actuality, it was just what we call pickled red beets. And we did enjoy them.

    After the waitress removed our plates, she talked us into sharing a dessert. Finally, when bringing the check she also presented us with a complimentary small glass of cherry vodka which, she explained, would help to settle the stomach. We’ll say it did, but it was something we probably won’t repeat. But the overall experience of dining there was perfect for our finale dinner in Warsaw!

    Next door to our restaurant was a legendary place, Café Blikle, which had survived two world wars, and the challenges of Communism. Famous for its donuts, served earlier in the day, in the evening they offered only cake and coffee. We had intentions of having dessert there, but our filling meal at Dawni Swanke changed those plans.

    We had enjoyed a very leisurely dinner, being entertained with all the activity on both sides of the street. Had we not been aware of our need of packing, and an early rising, we could have strolled down some of the little side streets off Nowy Swiat where the restaurants, and especially bars, including little jazz clubs, extend. But better judgment prevailed. Instead, we took a slow stroll back to our hotel. The lighted palm tree was a great landmark for directions!

    Arriving back at the Sheraton, we made a determined effort to pack and get some rest. That meant shutting off the stimulating experiences of Warsaw, still swirling in our heads. In the morning we would be departing for Berlin. Reminiscing about our time in Warsaw would provide an enjoyable pastime as we began our traveling day to Berlin.

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    Great installment as usual. Love all the history interspersed throughout. I forgot about the Polish "cherry vodka." I loved it and Tracy said it tasted like cough syrup, which was good, since she gave it to me.

    Looking forward to Berlin, another spot on our bucket list.

    ((H))

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    Tomarkot, love your commitment to remind us of the history and the detail you are providing. Would it be wrong to say that cherry vodka was the first bottle of alcohol I ever bought (not a giveaway at all that I was not a legal purchaser, is it?)? Yep, cough syrup is an accurate description. Ah, memories!

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    Great instalment Tom.
    My parents were required to learn Russian at school in post war East Germany, so when my father escaped and eventually landed in Australia, he could speak German and Russian, not so handy :)
    Of course, in those days you got allocated a job in a factory not needing to read English, a Health and Safety protocol, job description, or the like.

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    Thanks to all who continue to hang in there with this long TR!

    Hmm!!! Maitai, Denisea, and HappyTrvlr, quite an interest in that cherry vodka! I prefer my Smirnoff in a cosmo! But, who knows, the next cold might be an excuse for Tom and me to resort to that cherry-flavored version!

    Adelaidean, I'm sure your parents could tell you stories! As we ventured on to Berlin, we learned more about how the German people suffered under these cruel regimes. We're getting our notes from Berlin together now, and hope to get on with our TR soon.

    Louisa H, glad to have you aboard!

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    GinnyJo, thanks for your nice comment! It's heartening to see that some folks are still following our TR.

    Normally, we do not focus so much on history in our travels. But this area held special interest for us.

    We hope to have Berlin posted soon.

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    Hi Friends, I've been trying to post our first segment on Berlin for two hours. No luck! Neither the PREVIEW nor the SUBMIT command would work on the Europe forum, nor on the Help forum. I'll keep trying. This message will be a test! If this posts, just want to let any readers know that we are pressing on with our TR. We'll keep trying. Stay tuned! Thanks!

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    FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2015

    Travel Across Poland To Germany; Warsaw Reminiscenses;

    1st Evening In Berlin:
    Potsdamer Platz; Brandenburg Gate

    We awakened on that Friday, very aware of it being 9-11! About 13 out of 38 of us were Americans, with a number of Canadians and Aussies also. They were all very much in harmony with our remembrance of that day.

    Our departure was early (7:45) for what would be the longest travel day of our trip: the ride to Berlin; 350 mi. Setting out from the Sheraton Warsaw, we made a few turns and then it was, as we say, almost “a straight shot to Berlin” on the motorway.

    Aware that we were as were crossing the Vistula River for the last time and getting our last looks at the outskirts of Warsaw, we took notes about some of our impressions.

    We were overwhelmed with Warsaw’s size! It’s a huge, sprawling city. It’s definitely a city that has emerged victorious from a troubled past and is recognized as a modern capital on the move. There continues to be construction and re-construction, as evidenced by the cranes which protrude among the buildings.

    Their many museums and musical/entertainment venues would certainly rate high on our list to explore. There are attractions such as the Chopin Museum, the Copernicus Science Center, and the National Museum, to name but a few.

    Warsaw certainly doesn’t want for restaurants, from traditional Polish to many international cuisines. And nightlife abounds! The Warsawians seem to have festivals scheduled throughout the year, including “Jazz Days”, Festival of Contemporary Music, and summer concerts in Lazienski Park. And, of course, their Christmas Villages in the winter.

    Warsaw’s standard of living appears to be comfortable for most people. There are still remnants of the Soviet-style block homes in some districts. However, many of the younger folks are moving to new burgeoning districts. There are communities of ex-pats and international schools for English, France, and German.

    Our initial, and all too short, visit revealed a city which offers its residents all the services, including medical care, educational and cultural advantages, employment opportunities and all types of recreation and entertainment that one would expect in a major European city, such as it has become.

    Since our visit was in mid-September, we were able to enjoy the massive floral displays all over the city. The Warsawians really emphasize their parks, of which there are many, and flowers grace just about every street.

    The one factor that would dampen our interest in living there are the bone chilling winter months, and many grey days, punctuated by darkness which falls by 3:30 PM! However, the city responds by having an abundance of lighting and outdoor celebrations. As someone said, “Anything that’s vertical is lit up”. Christmas, with all its festivities, including Christmas Villages, is a large seasonal celebration.

    Overall, our visit to Warsaw was very enjoyable, and eye-opening. The people were very warm and friendly. Despite the Nazi’s aim of destroying Poland’s identity as a nation, followed by the Soviet’s domination, and the loss of thousands of its citizens, the country has not only survived, but is thriving.

    Warsaw’s location is out of the way of our near-future travel destinations, but someday if/when we visit Russia, we would look forward to a return. And it will definitely be in their warmer months!

    As we began to feel “recalled out” about our visit to Warsaw, we made our first welcome restroom/cappuccino stop at a McD’s. This stop provided a chance to switch mental gears from Warsaw to Germany, and specifically Berlin. We dug out some of our trip prep notes for review.

    The travel from Warsaw to Berlin, whether by train, car, or coach, would be uneventful. It is much like driving across the farmlands of Kansas or Nebraska. A good chance to catch up on reading, or in our case, view the movie, MONUMENTS MEN, featuring George Clooney, a local boy from our Cincinnati area.

    Heading into Germany, where Hitler began his infamous Nazi Party, this movie seemed to be a perfect fit for our travel. Since seeing the movie a few years back, we had learned more details about the background, and were happy to see it again. Ir provided some welcome entertainment to pass the time on the less than scenic drive. The recent movie: WOMAN IN GOLD, fits in perfectly with the theme of the Nazi art heists.

    As we’re writing this TR, we noticed in the current issue of the NEW YORKER, a short review of the book: HITLER'S ART THIEF, published in 2012. The book focuses on the fourteen hundred art works more recently discovered in a Munich apartment. Apparently, the curator of a museum, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was just one of many of Hitler’s appointed men assigned to hide art which had been looted from museums and private collections. The battle to return stolen art to its rightful owners continues today. This book will be added our reading list.

    When we originally saw the film, we had no idea of the size and scope of the Nazi plunder which apparently extended from 1933 to the end of WWII. This massive theft was an organized, systematic looting, planned by the Nazi party, with agents in charge of various countries. In Poland alone, it was said that the value of the art stolen was 20 billion dollars!

    Of course, Hitler kept much of it for himself; and pieces were given to his officers as rewards. But the volume of art stolen was so large that storage areas began to be a problem. So later, salt mines and caves were used, with the awareness that the humidity and temperature would be appropriate for preserving the art.

    The mammoth project of retrieving the thousands of stolen art pieces, and trying to return them to their rightful owners, began immediately following the war. Museums around the world have been discovering, over the years, that they had, either with full knowledge, or unknowingly, purchased some of these stolen works. Cases against them are still being brought today. It is estimated that well over 100,000 pieces are still not returned to their rightful owners.

    Before our first viewing of the film, we had not been aware that, in addition to paintings, the lootings included gold, silver, currency, precious books, and as we saw dramatized in MONUMENTS MEN, religious treasures.

    After viewing about ½ of the film, we made a lunch stop in Poland in a cafeteria along the motorway. It was our last chance to exchange our remaining Polish zlotys for euros. Note on currency: We found that euros were normally widely accepted, even in Hungary and Poland, although we tried to have enough local currency. But extra korunas from Hungary and Polish zlotys are only good to bring home as souvenirs!

    Fortified with a surprisingly tasty lunch, we looked forward to viewing the remainder of MONUMENTS MEN.

    We crossed the Oder River which has been the boundary between Poland and Germany since 1990. The territory around this area had been very contentious, formerly belonging to Germany, and many people had lost their lives with the wars that took place fighting over this region. This border was finally determined following a treaty signed by the two countries.

    After continuing the drive for a while longer, we made our first stop in Germany: a McD’s. Those McCafes are great for coffee and a clean, “free” restroom!

    With the MONUMENTS MEN still fresh in our minds, we learned an interesting fact relating to Berlin, which we was our destination. In 2010, as work began on an extension of an underground line through the historic center of Berlin to the Brandenburg Gate, a number of sculptures were unearthed in the cellar of a private house.

    As we traveled the last segment toward Berlin, we re-oriented our thinking to a recall of a few facts which we had read. Geographically, Berlin is in Central Europe, and as the crow flies, it’s closer to Warsaw then it is to Paris. And it’s closer to Prague than to other prominent German cities like Frankfurt or Munich. In some ways, that makes Berlin a destination city!

    Berlin is both the old and the new capital of Germany, with Bonn being made the capital for a time following WWII. The Berlin Wall that went up in August, 1961 marked the division of the city into east and west for three decades.

    Berlin had been the center of two dictatorships in the 20th century: the Nazis and the Communists. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 provided the opportunity for Berlin to regain its status as the proper capital of Germany.

    Our visit to Berlin brought us back to the roots of Hitler and the Nazi Party. We had learned of the unspeakably devastating impact of the Nazis in Vienna, Budapest, Krakow, and Warsaw. In Berlin, we would learn more of the instant and far-reaching consequences of Hitler and the Nazi Party on all of Germany.

    We knew that present-day Berlin is a huge city, and that we would be focusing on its historic center. As a big foodie capital, we would not take advantage of its culinary delights. The interiors of its many museums would have to be relegated to a future visit. And we’d not enjoy its ever-popular nightlife. However, for this trip, we were satisfied to be getting an introduction to Berlin's unique, history-filled, city center.

    Arriving in the busy city of Berlin about 4:30, with Tom’s adroit skill of negotiating the city traffic, we pulled right up to the Berlin Marriott, our home for the next two nights. Within a half-hour, we were settled into our hotel room, and had a quick freshening up for the evening. In the hall near our room was a large sketch of President John Kennedy, with his famous words, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

    We were happy to learn that our hotel in Berlin was in a very convenient location, at the Potsdamer Platz. In the 1920’s and 30’s, this had been the busiest and one of the liveliest squares in Berlin, having many cafes, bars, and cinemas, and even an ultra-luxury hotel. In 1924, it merited the distinction of having the first traffic light system in Europe, as it was such a busy traffic junction.

    Following the war, Potsdamer Platz was located between the American, British, and Soviet sectors, and had become a no-man’s land. What was left was completely flattened by the Soviets during their construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

    After the fall of the Wall, the decision was made to rebuild the whole area. Begun in 1994, for a number of years it was known to be the largest construction site in Europe. Renowned architects from around the world were brought in to complete the project which necessitated their starting from “Square One”.

    Infrastructure such as streets and subway tunnels needed to be developed. Within two blocks of our hotel is the Hauptbahnhof, newly opened in 2006. This giant structure of glass and steel serves as the station for most short and long-haul trains.

    What was once bisected by the Berlin Wall is now a showcase of outstanding contemporary architecture. The square, along with several adjacent blocks, was transformed into three high-rise complexes, containing office towers, a shopping arcade, residential spaces, an Imax Theatre, a Film Museum, and a giant LEGOLAND.

    The most famous complex, the Sony Center, is across from our Marriott Hotel. Completed in 2000, it is Sony’s European headquarters. It contains offices and apartments, but, in addition, bars and restaurants.

    We stopped by the Concierge desk, and were happy to learn from the attendant that from our hotel, we could walk to many of the famous historic sites in Berlin. We looked forward to spending our evening around the area of the Brandenburg Gate, and received a nice recommendation for a local restaurant nearby the Gate. Enroute, we would pass the Holocaust Memorial and the large Tiergarten Park, which we could see from our room #350.

    The Brandenburg Gate, originally built in 1791, is situated at the end of the grand boulevard Unter den Linden, so named because it was lined with linden trees. It was originally constructed as a route for King Wilhelm I, about whom we would learn more, to travel from the city center to his hunting ground in Tiergarten.

    It is said that no other structure embodies the history of Berlin, even of Germany, as well as the Brandenburg Gate. It has witnessed triumphs, hosted grand state celebrations, been shot at and repaired, and survived wars. But it has remained a symbol of Germany, both divided and reunified. It was originally part of a wall surrounding Berlin, being the main entrance into the city.

    Atop the gate is a bronze four-horse chariot driven by the winged goddess of peace, symbolizing victory. This crowning piece has been a source of contention and has passed back and forth between victor and vanquished. It has been in Paris, then Germany again, then Russia, and presently where it now stands.

    As we approached the square to the rear of the gate, we felt its impact. Walking through the tall arched gate to the front side, we entered the large, open cobblestone plaza called Parisier Platz. Surrounding it were architecturally attractive buildings, some contemporary.

    On one side is the US Embassy fronted by a green lawn and flowers, while opposite it on the square is the French Embassy. It, too, had an attractive landscaped frontage. On the far end of the square is the luxurious Hotel Adlon, of Michael Jackson fame, when the media taped him holding his baby over the balcony in response to the crowd.

    There were seemingly hundreds of people milling around the plaza, with one group gathered around a musician and a few gathered with protest signs. But, somehow, our view of the Brandenburg Gate was unhindered by people in the square.

    We shot some pics as the sun was getting lower in the sky, casting a beautiful light on the gate. After lingering a while longer in the square, taking advantage of one of the benches by the US Embassy, we were ready for dinner.

    To follow the recommendation of the hotel concierge, we again walked through the gate and turned right. Only a short walk down the street was the Kundenbeleg Palais Gastronomie; at least, that was the name on “die Rechnung”. Our typical German dinner (31 euros) consisted of 2 pilsners of .5 Hopfingerbrau and an order of currywurst with pomme frites for each. Because of the German atmosphere, and the good beer, we ranked this as a repeat restaurant! It seemed like the diners were mostly locals, but if not, they seemed to be German-speaking. The waiter did present us with an English menu and was very attentive. Although German food is more favored by Tom than by Margie, we both like to focus on the local cuisine when we travel.

    After that delightful meal, we enjoyed a leisurely walk back to the hotel, this time enhanced by the lighting of the buildings. Standing out from all the rest was the Reichstag dome.

    Another long, but satisfying day! We were ready to turn in, glad that we had two nights at this Marriott. In the morning we would meet a local guide and do more exploration of Berlin.

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    Maitaitom, yes, we really enjoyed the area around the Brandenburg Gate! Thanks for your remarks. It helps to know that we still have a few readers hanging in there with us.

    Passported, great screen name! Thanks for your interest in our travels.

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    Bon_voyage, you're the second reader of the past couple of days with the great screenname!

    Thanks for following along. After our Berlin visit, we'll be writing about Prague.

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    Thanks for your interesting report!

    BTW,

    'Only a short walk down the street was the Kundenbeleg Palais Gastronomie':

    the name of the pub is 'Palais Gastronomie', 'Kundenbeleg' is customer's receipt.

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    SlaO19, thanks for your nice comment on our report!

    And additional thanks for providing us with an early morning howl as we both got such a kick out of learning the meaning "Kundenbeleg". We naively thought that it was part of the restaurant name. Shows our knowledge of German, or rather, lack thereof! But we had a good laugh over it.


    Adelaidean, glad you're still hanging in there. Every so often I (Margie) think about your plans for the Dolomites, and wonder if they're still in the hopper.

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    We are booked Tom....
    July it is.

    It is such a long trip from Australia (25 hrs for us), we really envy travellers who can get to Europe in 10 hours.
    So I have to travel vicariously through other people's TR's :)

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    Hope July weather is just perfect for you to enjoy the beautiful Dolomites!

    I have empathy for all of you Aussies and Kiwis who have such long travels. Our own trip to OZ and NZ a couple of years back gave us a real feel for what you experience!

    Thanks for your continued reading of our report. It encourages us to press on.

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    You have shared indeed a lengthy and comprehensive report. What you describe mirrors our own travel through Central Europe, starting in Warsaw and ending in Vienna via Krakow, Budapest, Prague. (And later Berlin, too). I realize now that it was ten years ago! Like you we were with a tour group and then also on our own here and there. Many Fodorites plan their own trips but we have appreciated planning by experts (Grand Circle nine times and others, Road Scholar 41 times). And we did have pleasurable side trips on our own.

    It happened that our tour guide Agnes had grown up in Warsaw and talked at length about past and present in the nations. Interesting that you alluded to Communism providing secure employment but restricting freedom. For the most part those countries we visited are better off today enjoying freedom to travel, engage in business ventures, more good and prosperity. But as Agnes reminded us there is more crime and drugs, retirees, and many farmers struggling with no subsidies.

    Her own parents did well under Communism, her father was an auto dealer who joined the Communist party though thought it nonsense, her mother was in tourism and believed in Communism but did not join. But like other older people life for them today is harder.

    "Auschwitz is a sobering experience!" you say You can't help being moved by the stark barracks with cases containing piles of shoes, suit cases, eyeglasses of prisoners. It was moving to stand in the "shower" room and then walk to the furnaces. It was for me also moving to stand looking down the tracks into Birkenkau added because Nazis couldn't keep up with the killings! A Jewish camp survivor friend and former German remembered his father in saying when the Nazis invaded Poland, "Now they know where to put the Jews" Glad you went into some detail. Yes, it wasn't just Jews killed like you said.

    Our trip had many delightful extrahighlights, including a boat trip down the Danube, professor lecturing in Krakow on Poland's future, up into the Tatra mountains to Zakopane, Chopin concert in the country, folk dancing in Holloko village, a king's feast in Szentendre, Vienna opera.

    This brief report may have been my earliest on a Fodor forum: www.fodors.com/community/europe/back-from-central-europe.cfm---2.cfm

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    Ozarksbill, thanks for your interest in our TR.

    This horrific attack in Paris occurred just as we were beginning to write about the cruel effects of the Nazis on the people of Germany! Today our hearts are with the people of France!

    As indicated at the beginning of our TR, we are not usually "tour people". This was a one-off for us, and did work out to give us an overview of the cities visited. We were interested in some of the history, and it did provide the opportunity to learn valuable information first-hand from guides who were raised in the various countries.

    Normally our travel is more relaxed and fun-filled. As we plan future trips, probably on our own, we'd like to incorporate more extended stays in some of the places we visited.

    Thanks, again, for your interest!

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    SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2015

    Pt. 1 BERLIN EXPLORATIONE-Historic Sights with Local Guide

    Although the typical German breakfast might normally consist of cold cuts and cheese, the spread at the Marriott was fit for gala event. After that tasty beginning, we were ready to meet our guide, Katrin at 9 AM for our day of discovery. We looked forward to learning more about the German culture and history as we delved into the capital city Berlin.

    The day consisted of a combo of coach/walking sightseeing which provided us with an overview of this sprawling city. We had the advantage of Katrin’s informative commentary as we visited all the important sights around Berlin. As we went along, she filled in with sketchy facts and details about the history of the German people. Since she had grown up in Berlin, her personal observations were really interesting.

    Initially, the inhabitants of Germany were of Scandinavian descent. Romans made their way into the area and remained until the fall of the empire when they retreated. Charlemagne, a Catholic monarch of the Holy Roman Empire was dominant…King Conrad followed from 900 to 1100.

    In 1517, Martin Luther became the leader of the German Reformation. He protested against the Catholic Church by affixing his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenburg, Germany, SW of Berlin. Luther gained the support of German princes which helped him gain followers. Hence Protestantism arose in what had been a heavily Catholic country, influenced by the powerful Hapsburgs. Luther’s views were considered heretical, and he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

    The 30 years’ war followed. It began as a “religious war” (which sounds like an oxymoron to us) and it soon became political. From 1680 to 1748, absolutism, that is, a monarchy having absolute power, and nationalism grew.

    Napoleon conquered part of the area of Prussia. Then, victory in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) brought the southern German states into the Prussian led federation. In 1871 Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor. Otto von Bismarck was named First Chancellor of the Empire. This is the beginning of Germany as the country we know today. Wow! 1871 Germany is the country we know today.

    In 1882, Wilhelm I formed the Triple Alliance with Austro-Hungary and Italy.

    Germany is made up of sixteen states. Five of these were formerly part of East Berlin. The country is about the size of Texas but has four times its population, with 83 million residents. Germany is the most developed and economically strong country of the EU. They pay more into the EU and thus have a larger “say” in what happens.

    Germans pay 50% income taxes but receive free education, medicine, highways, etc. They have one month of paid holidays. Germany’s high GDP is due, in large part, to auto makers: VW, Porsche, BMW, and Audi. Tourism is important to the German economy.

    The autobahn, built by Hitler in the ‘30’s, has a 130 kilometer (a little over 80 mph) speed limit. It was completed in 1941, with Polish prisoners of war doing the labor at the end.

    Germany is famous for many well-known names: among them, Birkenstock shoes and Bayer Pharma, formula I driver Michael Schumacher, Katerina Witt, David Hasselhoff of Baywatch fame, and Marlena Dietrich, an actress of the mid-1940’s.

    Lunch is the German’s main meal, with food like pork knuckles, schnitzel, wurst, and currywurst being popular. Dinner is a lesser meal.

    Germans are an active people having lots of sports clubs. Football (soccer) is big and they have won the world cup a couple of times.

    As we toured the city, although we knew we had no time to visit the interiors of the museums, seeing the layout and the exterior architecture of the impressive structures was well worth it. And witnessing the crowds lined up at several of the museums, we were convinced that for a future visit, we would definitely check into a Museum Pass!

    Some of the key sites we visited were:

    THE GOVERNMENT QUARTER: Political Heart of Germany
    The Reichstag: In close proximity to the Brandenburg Gate, it serves as a reference point for all the ups and downs of German history.

    This building has seen the creation of a parliamentary democracy, the seizure of power by the Nazis, desperate fighting in the final days of WWII in 1945, the blockade of Berlin in 1948, and the pain of the division of Germany followed by the euphoria of its reunification after the Fall of the Wall in 1989.

    An interesting historical note is that at the end of WWII, as the Soviets were declaring victory, and heavy bombing had been levied by them, their servicemen climbed to the top of the Reichstag and planted the Red Flag.

    From the heavy damage suffered, the Reichstag has emerged as another important landmark in Berlin. The most noteworthy feature of the reconstructed Reichstag is its impressive glass cupola which is open daily for visitors to ascend and enjoy a sweeping view of Berlin, include the Spree River which runs right through the heart of the historic center.

    Another unique feature of the view from the glass dome is an inside view of the Parliament, even while it is in session. The lines to gain admittance to the Reichstag dome are normally long, and were such at the time of our visit.

    The nighttime lighting, which we had witnessed last evening, only increases the Reichstag’s prominence as a significant landmark in Berlin.

    Federal Chancellery and Parliamentary Buildings: very contemporary designs. Within these buildings of government, which include the Reichstag described above, lie the center of executive power in the German government.
    Together, these buildings form part of the so-called “federal ribbon”, a unique concept in siting and design for which the creators won the 1993 competition for the project from among 835 submissions. The buildings stretch 1.5 km. east to west and cross the Spree River twice, symbolizing the two halves of the city back together.

    As we traveled around the center of Berlin, we observed many buildings of interest.
    Hamburger Bahnhof: This building is the oldest in Berlin, originally completed in 1847. As its name suggests, it was used for transportation to and from Hamburg. In 1906, it served as a museum of transportation and construction. It received extensive renovation in 1996, and is now known as the Museum of Contemporary Art.
    The Nikolai Quarter: Most buildings dating from the Middle Ages have been destroyed. Hardly any remnants are left. One exception is the Nikolaikirche, originally built in 13th century, with renovations and the addition of double spires at the end of the 19th century. Though most of it was destroyed in the war, the main part of the structure survived destruction. For the 750th anniversary of Berlin in 1987, both halves of the divided city contributed to the work of rebuilding.
    Surprisingly, the East German regime undertook the rebuilding of the entire “Nikolaiviertel” or quarter around the church. This re-building was intended to revive the charm of former days with its winding streets, small houses, and medieval atmosphere. Its significance lies in the fact that this area is the very cradle of Berlin. There are varying opinions as to the effectiveness of its goal.
    The Marienkirche: built around 1270. Originally, it was at the center of a densely built-up area until 1945 when East German planners razed the houses. Following the style of Socialist town planning, they created a huge open space with a Neptune Fountain in the center.
    The TV Tower: One of the proudest achievements of the Communist-controlled German Democratic Republic government. A Soviet designer had the idea for this 365 metre tower which, in 1969, ranked as Europe’s second tallest building. After the fall of the Wall, 3 more metres were added. This TV Tower is a landmark in Berlin’s skyline, compared by some to the Eiffel Tower’s prominence in Paris. The top level includes a revolving restaurant.
    Schauspielhaus or Konzerthaus: Leonard Bernstein celebrated the fall of the Wall with a concert here in 1989. A ceremony was held on the square in front on August 31, 1994, signaling the formal withdrawal of all Russian troops from Germany.
    This hall, along with the surrounding area, is the venue for the award ceremony for the Goldene Kamera, a prestigious TV and film honor. For this occasion, the surrounding area, called the Gendarmenmarkt, becomes a red-carpeted catwalk for the stars. In the summer, the area is used for open air concerts, galas, and other big events.
    Deutscher Dom: houses an exhibition on the development of parliamentary democracy. For us, the exterior would hold more interest.

    MUSEUM ISLAND was an ensemble of five museums on an island in the Spree River. In 1999, all were declared a “UNESCO World Heritage Sites.” With our exploration of Berlin, we expected only to get an appreciation of the architecture of all these museums, and learn a bit about their focus. Doing justice to interior visits definitely warrants a return visit for a several day period. And, considering the long lines we witnessed, advanced planning and a pass would be a must!
    Bodemuseum: Contains one of the world’s most significant Egyptian collections, ranging from a huge sphinx of a ruler from 1490 BC, to a Burial Cult room where coffins, mummies, and grave objects are displayed, a papyrus collections, and early Christian and Byzantine Art. Clearly, this museum alone would consume the better part of a day!
    Pergamonmuseum: This museum is well-known for housing the famous Pergamon Altar, built between 164-156 B. C, and discovered in 1878 in Turkey. However, the Pergamonmuseum is really three museums: the Antiquities collection , of which the Pergamon Altar is a part, the Museum of the Near East, and the Museum of Islamic Art. Another impressive museum for future exploration!
    Neues Museum: Contains the famous Queen Nefertiti bust. It’s closed for renovation until 2018-2019. Since our overview of Berlin includes enjoyment only of the exteriors of these buildings, we’ll plan our return longer visit when this museum is re-opened.
    By coincidence, we have plans to visit the Neue Museum in New York City in early December! However, there is a similarity in name only. The NYC museum focuses on Austrian and German art. The “Woman in Gold” painting is on display there. Also there is a special exhibit: ”Berlin”. How timely!
    Altes Museum: Originally constructed between 1823 and 1830 to house the art collection of the Prussian royal family, making it accessible to the public. Following the war damage, it was restored in 2010-2011.
    It, too, has an impressive dome modeled on the Pantheon.



    Another structure of significance on Museum Island:
    Berlin Dom: This huge, main Lutheran cathedral is a museum in its own right. It, too, received massive destruction in the war, and remained a ruined shell until 1993. In the re-building, the cathedral was conceived as “Protestantism’s main church-the counterpart of St. Peter’s in Rome”. Someone described the interior as “gilt to the hilt”. It is so massive that when we were taking photos, we had to move a far distance across the street.

    Moving on from Museum Island, we visited a few other of Berlin’s overwhelming number of attractions. Including a few outstanding structures on Unter Den Linden, known as the “noblest boulevard in Berlin”. Frederick the Great (1712-1786) had a large influence on the development, resulting in a magnificent group of buildings, among them the following:
    The State Opera House (staatsoper): It was begun in 1741, a year after Frederick the Great ascended the throne. It has a seating capacity of 2000. Following the war, it was restructured and is now one of Berlin’s three big opera houses. Having three opera houses gives a hint to Berlin’s size, and the city’s appreciation of the arts.
    St. Hedwig’s Cathedral – This Catholic Cathedral is much under-stated compared to the huge Berlin Dom. At the time of its construction in 1747, while Germany was still part of Prussia, there was much resistance to building a Catholic house of worship in staunchly Protestant Prussia, and in such a prominent place. It resulted in a concession by Frederick to the Catholic population of Silesia which he had only recently conquered.
    The Pantheon in Rome was a model for the dome, as well as its colonnaded portico and triangular impediment. Apparently, the interior is known for its sparseness of decorations.
    In the crypt is a memorial to those killed by the Nazis. The Dean of the cathedral supported the Jewish people and died in 1943 as he was being taken to a concentration camp.

    Humboldt University: This is the oldest of several large universities in Berlin. It is a sprawling city campus with a number of colleges. Originally established between 1748 and 1753 as a palace for Frederick the Great’s brother, the building was used after 1810 as the newly founded Friedrich Wilhelm University. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was greatly extended and today houses many departments.
    One thing we found of special interest was the fact that on May 10, 1933, by order of the Nazis, the students were required to publicly burn all works from the extensive library determined to be “un-German”, so many famous works were destroyed.
    We moved on to Tiergarten Park, the largest of Berlin’s many parks. Located in the center of the city, it covers a square mile. It was originally a forest, and over many years was developed with trees, shrubs, and plants of many varieties; also walking paths, lakes, etc. Unfortunately, the trees were cut down during the war to provide firewood for the freezing people.
    Tiergarten Park contains the world famous Berlin Zoological Garden, begun in 1844. Before WWII it was known to contain 1500 species of animals, with a total count of 20,500 animals. In 1938, all Jewish board members were replaced in order to “Aryanize the institution”. Most of the animals suffered and died horrible deaths, from bombing and starvation, with only 90 animals remaining at the end of the war.
    Today Tiergarten is again filled with tree species from all over the world, even some contributed by Queen Elizabeth. The park has great paths, lakes, and the Lion’s Bridge. The Berlin Zoo, together with its Aquarium, has again taken its place as the most outstanding zoo in Europe.
    We have a wonderful Cincinnati Zoo close to our home, and normally do not choose to visit zoos while traveling to other cities. But the outstanding Berlin Zoo would be an exception.!
    Also in Tiergarten Park are many memorials to different groups of people who died in war. One outstanding memorial is that dedicated to the Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin. Interesting to note that it was constructed from marble taken from Hitler’s Chancellery.
    In Tiergarten Park, we saw Schloss Bellevue, the stately presidential mansion which has been the official residence since 1994. The sprawling white buildings are constructed in a “U” fronted by a large, green lawn.
    It felt a bit like looking at the White House in DC, but not having tickets to enter.
    We saw the very modern Museum of World Cultures, designed by a U.S. architect. It was selected from an entry into an architectural competition in 1957. It is an eye-catcher with its curved roof. It currently serves as the Exhibition on World Cultures.
    In the center of Tiergarten Park is the prominent Victory Column, celebrating the
    Near the area of Potsdamer Platz and our hotel:
    Holocaust Museum:
    Taking 17 years of discussion, planning and construction, this Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was officially dedicated on May 10, 2005. Since the Holocaust Museum is very close to our hotel, we would later visit it.
    Hitler’s Bunker:
    As Berlin was burning and Soviet tanks were advancing, Hitler and his long-time female companion committed suicide on April 30, 1945. We had read that Hitler’s Bunker is difficult to locate. We learned that it’s near to Potsdamer Platz. But it’s well camoflouged next to some non-descript apartments with a parking lot built over it. According to our guide, the Geman citizens wanted to pre-empt any attempts at making this a shrine. The country’s dark history is revealed only by an informational panel with a diagram of the vast bunker network.
    It was at this point that we would learn more details to help us understand how Hitler’s atrocities could be committed without the knowledge or protests of the German people.
    The Nazis had been working on their insidious plans, in subtle and guarded ways, for a number of years. One of the goals was to keep their ultimate plans as quiet as possible, working surreptiously, to consolidate power and win over the German people.
    Jews were being eliminated from professions, like doctors and teachers. Jewish businesses were being closed. The Nuremburg laws of 1935 prohibited intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews.
    Great emphasis was placed on the indoctrination of youth. Athletic training with rewards for excellence was very important. In order to provide a parallel program of physical development and training for students, to compete with Hitler’s movement, the Catholic Schools began their own athletic programs. However, it wasn’t long before the Nazis closed all religious schools.
    Membership in the Nazi Youth Organization became a requirement. Parents had no choice but to have their children participate. Hitler wanted the youth to excel in the 1936 Olympics which were held in Berlin.
    Teachers preaching the “Nazi” doctrine were employed to replace the regular academic teachers in all the schools, some of whom were Jewish. A German man noted that the quality of the academics declined substantially during that time, as the emphasis was on Nazi philosophy indoctrination. Heavy emphasis was placed on the concept of a superior Aryan race.
    “You are a member of the master race” was inculcated. Hatred of the Jews was fostered, through textbooks in schools, and posters displayed in public. The Jews were portrayed as the cause of all Germany’s economic problems.
    Resentment was stirred up throughout Germany as the Nazi’s capitalized on the outcome Treaty of Versailles following WWI. Through it, Germany was cast as the sole aggressor, lost territory to France; namely, Alsace-Loraine area, and had to pay huge reparations. The people were understandably war-weary, having endured, among other things, the loss of so many of their sons and husbands. And their economy was declining, along with that of many parts of the world. Many Germans were suffering.
    Hitler promoted himself as the builder of a New Europe. His public-relations manager would control outlets such as newspaper and radio, dictating what news to print or suppress, how to write the headlines, etc. This control was particularly useful when deportations and exterminations began.
    Hitler’s well-publicized rallies, where he was known to whip the citizens into a frenzy, gained him support. He was able to get “religious” backing by having some of his followers unite the Protestant churches to form the Protestant Reich Church, called the German Evangelical Church. This church was known to promote and support the doctrine of a superior race. Clergy who spoke out in disagreement were arrested.
    And Hitler was known to quote from a book written by Martin Luther back in 1543, titled THE JEWS AND THEIR LIES, an attempt to assure the people of the righteousness of the Nazi Party. (We trust that Martin Luther later retracted those words, and think that he would “turn over in his grave” to know that Hitler, 400 years later, would use quotes from his book to validate his diabolical ends).
    Hitler appointed henchmen, who were judged to have good public speaking skills, in all areas of Germany. Their assigned task was to enthrall and excite crowds. The focus was on anti-Semitic propaganda which was promulgated as a major deterrent in the Nazi goal of restructuring German society. The loyalties of individuals to a class or religion would be replaced by a new national awareness and dedication to a new national community.
    All of the above tactics were employed over a period of years in order to gain the vote of the people. But Hitler never trusted the German people, and therefore there was an extensive network of surveillance developed-down to each town. Party members were always lurking, often imbedded in families. Children were encouraged to report on parents who expressed anything negative about the government. People were known to be executed for making a bad joke about Hitler.
    One wonders how the German people would not have been aware of the targeting of Jewish people, of their businesses, of their removal from neighborhood. How could they not have known about the concentration camps? As with other tactics, the Nazi were very cunning, using the euphemism of “re-location”. Although many of the citizens became suspicious, as long as there was no violence, there was no outward protest. And the people were afraid to ask!
    All that changed on the night of November 9-10, 1938, “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”. Joseph Goebbels, of noted infamy, and several other top party leaders, encouraged the violent destruction of Jewish businesses. Until the Jewish shops were attacked, the violence against them was “off camera”. But with Kristallnacht, a collective unease permeated the people. They sensed that it was the beginning of war; that peace was finished. The anti-Semitic propaganda of Hitler’s Nazis had begun to take hold among many of the people.
    The German Army was successful in conquering many neighboring countries, and a feeling of national pride was promoted. However, the moment Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, a change was palpable. Doubts about Hitler being their savior were vanishing.
    Following the involvement of the Soviet Union, Pearl Harbor happened. The Soviets were in cahoots with the Japanese, and Hitler knew the power and potential of the United States.
    When the Allies started bombing Germany, the people forgot about the Jews. They themselves were suffering; some starving. Goebbels had announced total war. There was a pervasive feeling among the German people that everyone was against them: the Communists, the Slavs, and the Jews.
    And what about the Jews? There were some rumors in circulation about what may have happened to them. The real truth didn’t get out to most of the people. Or if it had, it would have been dangerous, even fatal, to say it. Stories are told about pastors who preached about the atrocities against the Jews, and they were soon arrested and hauled off to a concentration camp. And there were many other heroes who risked a lot to save Jews.
    Earlier in our report, we detailed the horrors of the Nazi regime in Hungary and Poland, and the above information, learned from the guide and from reading, provided some insight into the effect of Hitler and the Nazi Party on the German people.
    By this point in our exploration of Berlin, we were more than ready for a cappuccino/pastry break.

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    FRIENDS, we regret the lack of spacing on our Pt. 1 of BERLIN above. As I was editing, I must have accidentally hit SUBMIT. Apologies, as it is difficult to read, and I didn't have a chance to delete extraneous details.



    Pt. 2 BERLIN WALL/ CHECKPOINT CHARLIE
    LATE AFTERNOON/EVENING, BERLIN FINALE

    After that welcome cappuccino break, we switched gears and traveled to the Eastside Gallery, learning more about the Berlin Wall, pieces of which we had seen around the entrance to the Hauptbahnhof, just up the street from our hotel.

    Among all the fabulous museums, parks, concert halls, and other sites of Berlin, apparently one of the biggest attractions is the former border control guard post named “Checkpoint Charlie”. This was the point where two superpowers stood implacably toe to toe for over 40 years. It was one crossing which marked the dividing line between East Germany, awarded to the Soviets, and West Germany, under the wing of the Americans and the British.

    This spot marked a near boiling point for war as American tanks lined up in position on the western side, while the Soviets called up armored vehicles on their side. The stand-off lasted for three days until October 28, 1961 when Khrushchev and President Kennedy defused the tension by telephone.

    The Soviets had become increasingly angered that so many of its people were leaving their Eastern side in search of a better life in the West. Many people saw their Western counterparts living in a free society, with opportunities to better themselves. They saw their access to better products, as the East Berliners had access to only Soviet, inferior, goods. They wanted what they saw in West Berlin!

    In order to prevent more defections from the East, the Soviets, without warning, erected the Berlin Wall during the night of August 13, 1961, while most of the people were asleep. The first wall was constructed in succeeding stages of barbed wire and fences, then large blocks, and concrete elements.

    In June of the following year, a second Wall was added as an extra barrier to prevent any escape to the West. Around 1965, a 3rd generation of Wall was replaced by a 4th, consisting of concrete slabs between steel girders and concrete posts. The wall was capped with round pipe to prevent would-be escapees from getting a good grip.

    Along the Wall’s east side ran a ‘death strip’, an area controlled by guards. 302 watch towers and 2 bunkers were built along the 155 km. (approx.. 96 mi.) long border. There were floodlights all throughout, and guard dogs. As a further escalation, the face of the second wall was painted white. The guards were given the order to shoot at escapees. And, further, if any guard observed another not shooting to kill, he was trained to kill his fellow guard. The Brandenburg Gate stood between these two walls.

    There are many heart-wrenching stories about the Wall’s effect on peoples’ lives. Stories like the engaged girl who traveled to East Berlin to work, staying with relatives, and could no longer return to her fiancé or her parents at home in the West. Or the East German parents whose dying newborn son had been taken to a hospital in the West for care. After applying for a pass to visit their son, only the mother was permitted a few hours. The father was kept in the East. After that visit, they didn’t see their until he was a young adult. He didn’t know them. These were just two examples of the effects on peoples’ lives.

    Just like the Gestapo of the Nazis, the Soviets had their armies of Stasis or Secret Police. Our guide in Poland, plus our guide in Berlin, told us of the fear of the Stasis. Homes were “bugged”. They felt as if there movements were all watched.

    In order to communicate, family members and friends often wrote notes. Anyone suspected of either planning to escape, helping someone else to do so, or saying something negative against the government was taken away. People were encouraged to report others, even within their own families.

    Our guide in Berlin, Katrin, described her fear as a young girl when they tried to visit her grandparents who were in East Berlin. They would apply for a border permit to travel East, and it would sometimes take weeks for approval. Lining up at the checkpoint would take hours. Her father had to remove many parts of the car: the seats, the trunk, the hood, to the satisfaction of the guards that they were not bringing in goods from the West, nor hiding anyone from the East upon their return to the West.

    Several U.S. bands traveled to East Berlin to perform for the young people. Among them was Bruce Springsteen and his E-Street Band who drew a crowd of 300,000 on July 19, 1988, sixteen months before the fall.

    The people lived under the Soviet Regime until the Fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989. The Communist economy had been collapsing, and in May, 1989 Soviet President Gorbachev had allowed the border between Hungary and Austria to be opened. This allowed East Germans access to the West by way of Hungary. Protests by more and more people were putting pressure on the East German government.

    Finally, on November 9, 1989, travel restrictions were lifted. Word spread quickly, and crowds of people gathered at the border gates, pressuring the guards. The gates were opened and the people flooded into West Berlin. It was the “Fall of the Wall”.

    Although most of the Wall has been dismantled, the actual route of it has been replaced by a double row of cobblestones. In fact, the cobblestone path runs through our Marriott Hotel property, and we followed part of it as we walked to the Brandenburg Gate.

    We visited the Museum of Checkpoint Charlie, begun in 1962 by a human rights activist. From its beginning in two and half rooms, it has evolved into a two-story fairly spacious exhibition. In it are objects used to escape over, under, and through the Berlin Wall, and stories of escapees who risked their lives to win their freedom. Cars were shown with “dummies” in all kinds of contorted positions, in different sections of small cars, to illustrate the extent to which people went to gain freedom.

    The museum also focuses on keeping alive the memory of those who died in their attempts. It aims to be not only a testament to the past, but an evolving reminder of the present and the challenges facing us today to stand up for human rights and freedom.

    Next to the Museum is a large sports/concert venue, the Mercedes Center. Toward the front of its sprawling lawn is a large colorfully-painted bear, the symbol of Berlin. Our guide, Katrin, expressed that seeing that lawn makes her sad, because it is the burial ground of hundreds killed.

    The most famous section of the wall that is still standing is the 1316 meter long East Side Gallery. In 1990, artists were invited to paint this part of the wall. It is now one large open-air graffiti art gallery detailing aspects of the wall’s history.

    Since the wall was so long, pieces of it have been on display in countries around the world. We viewed one such piece in the Newseum in Washington DC and in the Ronald Reagon Presidential Library in California. A piece of the wall is imbedded in the façade of the Chicago Tribune Building.

    Much of East Berlin was in a very run-down condition. Under the re-construction, near the area of Checkpoint Charlie is the newly developed Quartier, the “Q” as it is called. It was one of Berlin’s biggest construction projects in the 1990’s. The “Q” is a series of buildings with facades of block and cube forms. The buildings in the “Q” house some of the most exclusive fashion boutiques. One building is devoted to the Berlin branch of the French Galeries Lafayette.

    Our heads were saturated with all the information learned from our discoveries around Berlin, and we had focused on a relatively small area of this magnificent city. But, by now, we were ready to get back to our home base, re-group, have a late lunch, and plan the remainder of our day.

    We talked a longer time with Katrina at the end of the tour, and have incorporated details she shared in our notes above.

    At this point, we intended to have a repeat dinner at the Palais Gastronomie, where the menu was German. So for a light lunch we went for a little Indian cuisine. The Amrits Restaurant, near our hotel, had an inviting outdoor patio. We ordered the Shish Kebab to share. Served with a fairly ample salad, it was tasty, but more than we had planned on eating, especially in view of our plans for dinner.

    We walked around the area, enjoying the bustling activity around the Potsdamer Platz. It was difficult to comprehend that this area was a virtual wasteland with the Berlin Wall running right through it. The impressive Sony Building was not to be missed. That would have been an option for lunch, but we liked the idea of enjoying the outdoors on what was a beautiful day.

    Never ones to pass up a HaagenDazs, especially at an outdoor setting, we had just placed our order for cappuccino and ice cream when a couple from our group that we especially liked,Val and Mario, passed by and joined us. We enjoyed some good conversation and laughs, as we enjoyed Mario’s great sense of humor.

    Re-energized, we headed in the direction of the Brandenburg Gate, via the Holocaust Memorial and Tiergarten Park.

    The idea for the Holocaust Memorial was first proposed in 1986, intended to be Germany’s central memorial to the victims of genocide by the Nazi regime. It took until 1999 for plans to be approved. The design finally chosen, that of U.S. architect Peter Eisenman, was controversial. Occupying almost five acres of space, just a short distance from Hitler’s bunker, the memorial is made up of 2,711 concrete slabs that have no names or dates. The slabs undulate in a wave-like pattern, as the memorial is unevenly sloped throughout. Each is a five-sided monolith, varying from ankle height to some that tower over the heads of people. It was intended to be evocative of groundlessness, instability, and disorientation.

    There is no set pattern or plan to the memorial. Each individual determines his or her own path, and leaves with individual reactions. We did experience, among other feelings, the uneasiness of getting lost and being separated. Since the memorial is open on a city block, it can be visited anytime during the day or night.

    After our busy day of touring and learning, we appreciated some relaxation in the large Tiergarten Park. The feeling is similar to what one experiences walking from the busy streets of Manhattan into Central Park. We had seen many monuments earlier in the day. Our relaxing stroll in Tiergarten included passing only one monument, that of Goethe, the German poet.

    Following our “time-out” in Tiergarten, we left by the exit closest to the Brandenburg Gate. We took more pics of the Gate and had an interesting stop in the Tourist Info Center where we spoke with a young woman employee who had lived in East Berlin as a young girl. She described having better living conditions than we had heard from others.

    After hearing so many stories about the fear under which people lived because of the SS police, we were kind of taken aback when the young woman told us that her dad had been an SS Stasis. She said that her parents believed in the system and liked it because of the security. Because of her father’s position, they had a little easier life. After the reunification of Germany, her dad could not find a job (given he had been a Stazi), but had to take a “hard job” driving an ambulance.

    The one lighter topic which we discussed was the popularity of “apelmann”, the red and green little men which served as traffic signals in East Berlin. After the fall of the Wall, there was a public outcry for keeping the “apelmann” signals. T-shirts from the Apelmann store, which was near our hotel, became a status symbol among the guys in the group, displayed at breakfast. Since the store had closed before we returned, Tom missed out on that purchase. So we put that on our list to keep our eyes open for another chance at purchasing “apelmann”.

    Other souvenirs of Berlin which were seen all over were colorfully painted bears of all sizes.

    Strolling back to the hotel, we decided to end the evening with a drink in the Marriott Bar, the Catwalk. We enjoyed the nice window seat, just watching the world go by.

    As we were returning to our room, we ran into Robyn and Bryan, an Aussie couple whom we liked. They were on their way to meet Hola in the Executive Lounge. Hola, who was a lot of fun, was traveling on her own. Through her business travel, she had become a Premier Marriott member. They invited us to party with them. Nice group, nice camaraderie. A fun finale to our stay in Berlin!

    11:15 seemed to come quickly! Guten Nacht! Morning comes early!

    Tomorrow we’re off to PRAGUE!

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    Adelaidean, I'm sure your Dad could tell amazing stories!!! He was fortunate to have escaped.

    Thanks for hanging in there with us on our journey. Central Europe doesn't seem to evoke too much Fodorite interest.

    It's a busy time for us, but we're attempting to post PRAGUE soon. At long last, we're approaching the homestretch of our report!

    We appreciate your continued interest!

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    SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 2015

    Onward to PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC; via DRESDEN

    1st Evening in PRAGUE

    At 8:45 we were off to Prague via Dresden, Germany. Leaving the magnificent city of Berlin, we felt confident that a return visit of several days would be high on our list.

    The drive to Dresden was approximately 31/2 hours. Dresden is another city that suffered during the Nazi destruction with the untold loss of life. It was essentially bombed out, mostly by the Allies, toward the end of WWII. As part of the war settlement, Dresden was under Soviet occupation for 45 years. Only after the reunification of Germany was the city able to rebuild.

    From the utter destruction of its beautiful baroque city center, located right on the banks of the Elbe River, Dresden has accomplished the great work of rebuilding its city to its former glory. We were very impressed with Dresden, a city which we probably might never have visited on our own.

    We spent some time enjoying the “AltStadt”, the center of old town. Some of the oldest baroque buildings are located here. One of the most impressive is the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), considered to be the most beautiful Protestant church in Germany. The rebuilding, using stones salvaged from the original church, was finally completed in 2005.

    The Opera House “Semperoper” is outstanding. The Catholic Cathedral is considered to be the outstanding landmark because of its tall arch. Its crypt contains 49 tombs of royalty and their families.

    The most outstanding work of art is the “Princes Procession, a large mounted mural on a wall of the Royal Palace Complex. This outstanding work, 315 ft. in length, is constructed of more than 23,000 pieces of Meissen porcelain. It is located facing a very narrow street, so it would easy to miss. The bombing, which almost completely destroyed Dresden, amazingly left this precious work unharmed.

    We enjoyed quite a while walking around the square. In the center there was a monument to Martin Luther, and a musician playing John Lennon’s “Imagine”. He apologized for his “poor English”, but we responded with a compliment on how well he did. The song is a favorite in several cities we visited.

    In the “AltStadt” are a few pedestrian lanes with shops and cafes lining each side. We were on a mission to find an “Ampelmann” t-shirt for Tom, so that he could join in the running “competition” among a few guys. It seems that these little characters on traffic lights are a “claim to fame” for the former East Berliners. We did complete the mission, and Tom became the proud owner of a t-shirt to wear to breakfast in Prague!

    Dresden has a beautiful location on both sides of the Elbe River. The “Neustadt” across the river looked like an appealing place to explore. We learned that, during the years of Soviet rule, it fell into great disrepair. But renovations have restored it.

    Walking along the beautiful river promenade was delightful. Several boats were either docked or enjoying cruises on this glorious, sunshiny day.

    The outdoor porch of one of the little restaurants caught our eye. A nice atmosphere for our lunch of a wurst, mashed potatoes, and sauerkraut, and of course, beer. Our seat allowed us to view the pedestrian mall leading down to the river.

    The city of Dresden was a pleasant surprise! The location on the Elbe River is ideal. The city offers many cultural and educational amenities, lovely parks and gardens, as well as every form of entertainment. And, a real bonus, is its fairly temperate climate, which is strongly affected by its sheltered position in the Elbe Valley.

    We were glad that we made a long lunch stop in Dresden. In that short time, we got a real flavor of the city, and it’s another place that deserves a several day visit.
    Following that satisfying mini-experience of Dresden, within a couple more hours of driving we arrived Prague, Czech Republic, close to 5 PM.

    Our hotel, the Art Nouveau Palace Hotel, was conveniently located within a couple of blocks from the famous “Wencelaus Square”. It was our first hotel located in an older building. Observing the beautiful lobby and reception areas gave us an expectation that our room would be nice as well. And what a room! A large, corner location with three windows and quite a nice bathroom! All marble with beautiful accouterments.

    The tour had an early meal scheduled at the hotel, and it turned out to be a good one. The restaurant was lovely, with a pianist entertaining. Our table of six included a couple from Toronto and another from Melborne, Australia. We learned about the Canadian health care system from Dan, an accountant for the system. We learned that Harold from Melbourne was an artist, planning to spend two weeks in Paris with a Parisian artist, following this Central Europe trip. He and his wife Meinina were very engaging.

    Following dinner, we joined a night tour of Prague which culminated in a boat ride on the Vltava River. We met Carl, the local tour guide, who began our exploration on the castle hill, providing gorgeous views over the “city of spires” as it is known. The view of the Charles Bridge, an important landmark of the city, was outstanding from this high vista point.

    We then walked down the hill and through the streets of the Lesser Town “Mala Strana”, one of the oldest areas of Prague. Located on the west bank of the river, it lies on the slopes just below the Prague Castle. During the middle ages this was a predominantly German settlement.

    “Mala Strana” has several churches, the most prominent being St. Nicholas. The area has many boutiques, shops, restaurants and traditional Czech pubs. We heard sounds of music and laughter originating from a couple of the places.

    We played “Follow the Leader” with Carl, our guide, as we walked quite a distance on the several hundred year old lantern-lit, cobblestone streets. The churches and palaces give the “Mala Strana” its charm. During our walk, which involved climbing up and down numerous sets of steps, Carl filled us in on a few details about Prague.

    The city has a population of 1.3 million. Fortunately, it shared the same good fortune as Krakow, Poland in that it was spared from WWII bombing. The residents are rightfully proud of the architectural beauty of their buildings, mostly of baroque style.

    Following WWII, and until 1989, then Czechloslavakia was a Communist state under Soviet control. Today it is a member of the European Union, but still retains its own currency, the korunas.

    The Czechs have historically been at a crossroads of ancestries, religions, and political control. They’ve been between Slavic and Germanic worlds, between Catholicism and Protestantism, between the Cold War and the West. The origin of the name of Prague, “Praha” means “threshold”. Very prescient in light of its unfolding history.

    The inner city of Prague is under a UNESCO agreement, which means they get money, but have to restore the city to its original design. People who choose to live in the central area have to accept regulations regarding any modifications made to their apartments. They readily admit the pros and cons associated with their choice.


    Many foreign students live in Prague. And it’s the recipient of large numbers of foreign tourists. The reason seems obvious. A beautiful city, all the amenities one would like. It has many universities, cultural and shopping opportunities, entertainment venues, and an abundance of cafes, bars, and restaurants offering international cuisines. The city is known to be fairly inexpensive and has many great beers!

    Of the European countries, the Czech Republic is the least religious. Carl described the influence of Jan Huss, a Protestant reformer, who pre-dated Luther by a couple hundred years. Catholicism declined; Protestantism grew. Fast forward to the 1930’s. Religions were attacked by the Nazis. And further efforts at routing out religion were exerted by the Communists. All religious schools had been closed and were replaced by government control. Over the years, the young people who had been raised in an atheistic environment espoused no religious beliefs. Carl said that more recently there has been somewhat of a revived interest in religion.

    After spending some time in the “Mala Strana”, we climbed the rather steep stone steps to the most popular of its twelve bridges, the Charles Bridge. It had started misting, making the steps slippery, and a bit of a challenge in the dark, with low lighting.

    Having read about the crowds who are frequently gathered on the Bridge, we felt lucky to have some time to enjoy the 30 statues mounted on the balustrades, equally spaced on each side of the bridge. The statues were mostly of saints, with a couple of the Virgin Mary. One of the most outstanding was one of Mary and Mary Magdalene mourning the death of Christ.

    The most talked about statue was the one of St. John of Nepomuk, a Jesuit priest who was the confessor of the queen. Apparently, Wencelaus IV had him thrown from the bridge to his death in 1393 for refusing to divulge the Queen's confessions! The tradition in modern times is to touch the bronze plaque by this statue in order to bring good fortune and assurance that the visitor will return to Prague. We hope it works for us! We thought it was much like tossing a coin into the Trevi Fountain assuring a return to Rome.

    After descending from the Charles Bridge, we walked quite a stretch to the dock to await a boat for an hour cruise. As we boarded, the mist had turned into a drizzle. We were happy to imbibe a glass of wine as we began our ride.

    Having had a spectacular Danube boat cruise at night in Budapest, where everything was fabulously illuminated, the lighting of the buildings and bridges in Prague was more subdued. But, nonetheless, it was a pleasant introduction to a beautiful city.

    We arrived back at the Art Nouveau Palace Hotel by 10:30, feeling spent but contented.

    We really enjoyed our extended lunch stop in Dresden, a charming city which merits a return visit of several days. And our evening tour in Prague had given us a great intro to this outstanding city.

    We looked forward to a good sleep in our beautiful room, where we would surely awake refreshed, have a nice breakfast, and be ready for a 3 hour walking tour to further appreciate the sights and beauty of this city.

    MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 2015

    PRAGUE by DAY

    Breakfast in the hotel’s lovely dining room energized us for our exploratory walk with Carl, whom we had met the previous evening. We began on Castle Hill with the massive castle complex, said to be the largest in Europe. We saw the huge, 1000 year old St. Vitus Cathedral, which still serves as a parish. We marveled at its gorgeous interior, like several art museums in one location. The Castle Hill complex is the home of several notable building: the Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, notable for its red-façade, and the Golden Lane, famous for its multi-colored houses.

    Guards stood at the palace and at the presidential building. To us, the most interesting experience on Castle Hill was watching the changing of the guard. From our position, we could see the group of them march through the courtyard, and were within a few feet of the two sentries who assumed their place.

    Also very impressive was taking in the same views over the city which we had witnessed the previous evening. The “hundreds” of spires of Prague were very prominent in the daylight.

    Carl pointed out some interesting details about the buildings around Castle Hill. After a short while, he eventually led us down the hill by way of the picturesque Nerudova Street. We passed several beautiful gardens as we descended, most having been constructed for one or the other royalty of the past. Near the bottom of the hill, Tom couldn’t resist a little stand selling fried potato slices on a stick.

    When we left the hotel earlier, the skies indicated a pleasant day. So we did not carry umbrellas. However, to our dismay, a rain shower suddenly surprised us as we made our way to the Josef neighborhood, the former Jewish area. We were ducking under store awnings trying to stay dry.

    We had hoped to learn more about the rich heritage as well as the sufferings of Prague’s Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Approximately 250,000 Jews were eliminated out of Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately for us, it was the Jewish feast of Rash Hashanah and the cemetery and synagogue were closed, so we could view only the outsides of them.

    We continued our walk to the center of the colorful “Stare Mesto”, the Old Town. It became the capital of the Holy Roman Empire when Charles IV transformed Prague into a medieval architectural city. The famous bridge is named after Charles IV. We were glad that we had spent time on the bridge the previous evening, in view of the rainy day.

    In the Old Town Square, Carl pointed out the history of more buildings, many made from sandstone. Some of the more noted ones were the Our Lady Before Tyn church with its tall spires, a second St. Nicholas Church, the former Kinski Palace, now the National Museum, and the former City Hall with its tall tower and famous Astronomical Clock. The moving figures of the twelve apostles still attract crowds who eagerly await its hourly performance.

    When our walking tour with Carl ended, we were ready for lunch! The Old Town Square is lined with restaurants and food kiosks. We were able to secure a prominent seat in an outside restaurant with large umbrellas. These were important as the drizzling rain continued. At this point, there was nothing like warm goulash soup and a ham Panini to share to take our minds off the rain. We had a straight-on view of the Clock and the activity in the square, so we were in no hurry to move. Cappuccinos fit the situation perfectly.

    We intended to exchange some euros for korunas, but found that we could do quite well using credit cards. A few of the smaller shops had no issue with accepting and giving change in euros. Perhaps that’s because they’re closer to Austria, or that they have so many foreign visitors?

    We had become mesmerized with all the gorgeous crystal around. To escape the rain, we walked through many of the indoor shops. And Tom succumbed, with a bit of nudging from Margie, to purchase a crystal bud vase. And, to his delight, Tom found two nifty t-shirts for mementos of Prague. Great for yard and home projects!

    The rain subsided for a while, so we used the opportunity to walk some of the little back streets surrounding the square. On one street there were many tents with a variety of wares for sale. We did purchase three watercolors of key sights in Prague: the Charles Bridge, the Castle, and St. Vitus Cathedral. The sales lady was very friendly and carefully wrapped them for us.

    Returning to the Main Square, we strolled back to the area of the Astronomical Clock, to take our place with all the onlookers. We met a delightful couple from New Jersey. We exchanged photos, and learned that the lady was on the medical faculty at Rutgers, a school whose team is a football rival with our local university. It was a fun encounter!

    We ambled over to the center of the square where there is a prominent monument to Jan Huss, the famous Protestant reformer. There was an inviting concrete bench circling the monument, so we made use of it to take in the activity on the square. From our seat, we had a good look at the towers of the famous Our Lady of Tyn Church and the National Gallery. The enjoyment of our bench seat didn’t last long as the rain returned, this time with a little more intensity. What to do?

    Convenient to our location was a “tourist tram”, a kind of truck cab pulling two trailers of sightseers. It drove at max speed of about 20 MPH. The hour-long, narrated sightseeing tour rode bumpety-bump on many of the rough cobblestoned back streets. It tugged up the long hill to the palace area, taking small back streets. This route was different from the one that we had earlier explored, and it was interesting to see the variety of small inns, shops, and restaurants nestled on the sides of these small streets. Following Castle Hill, we crossed a bridge and rode around the two main areas of central Prague, including the Jewish section.

    At the end of that tour, it was still rainy. The photos of the Charles Bridge which we shot through the rain show the bridge shrouded in water droplets. We were happy that we had made use of the last rainy hour to learn a little more of Prague.

    As we walked back around the Square, trying to use the awning overhangs of the kiosks, our resistance was at low ebb as saw a lady making fresh crepes at her stand. We just had to have one! Strawberry chocolate crepes were too good to pass up.

    And soon after, we saw a pig being rotisserie-roasted. The sandwiches from that booth would have been tempting, had we not just had that crepe.

    When the rain finally let up, we enjoyed the entertainment of a musician performing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” We learned that there is a memorial to John Lennon in Prague, begun in 1980, the year of his death. He was a hero to the pacifist youth. Interesting to know that this tribute to John was begun during the Communist rule, and white-washed several times by the Soviet police, only to be re-painted by admirers. Apparently over the years the wall has a lot of other non-Lennon graffiti added.

    After enjoying the music in the square, we headed to the New Town, “Nove Mesto”. The only European Christmas Market we’ve experienced was in Paris, but the main street leading to Wenceslaus Square appeared to look like one. It was September, but many handcrafts, like nesting dolls, jewelry, and Christmas ornaments, were for sale in the large square of tents. No gluhwein, though! Unfortunately, the one Christmas ornament that we purchased, and thought was carefully packed, broke in transit.

    We continued on our way, intending to look for the Museum of Communism. It wasn’t the easiest to find, as it was described as being next to, of all places, a McDonald’s. We found a McDonald’s, but the wrong one. But with a little re-calculation, and the help of a store employee, we were able to find it.

    We were glad that we made the effort to find this Museum of Communism. It presents a vivid account of its effects, focusing on Czechloslavakia, in general, and Prague, in particular. The exhibits represent the Communist government’s controls on daily life, politics, history, sports, economics, education, and the arts (namely, “Socialist Realism”). It gave us insight into the insidious nature and goals of the Communist Party, as it permeated the media, the army, the secret police, censorship, Stalinist “show trials”, and political labor camps. The museum displayed many artifacts and pictures which detailed the 45 years of Soviet dominance of the Czechs.

    After that sobering visit, we continued making our way up the lively street toward Wenceslaus Square, bustling with shops, bars, and restaurants. Following the lead of the concierge at our hotel for a typically Czech restaurant, we were happy to finally find the place he recommended. (Unfortunately, we don’t recall the name!) Great find for a finale meal in Prague! Pilsner Uquell beer with spicy goulash for Tom and the milder soup and salad for Margie. Both were excellent.

    Following our meal, we spent a few minutes enjoying the large monument of Wenceslaus Square with the government capital building behind. This was the famous square where approximately 500,000 Czech citizens gathered in 1989 demanding freedom from Soviet domination! The Czech people had gotten wind of how the Communist regime had loosened its hold in Poland, under the leadership of Lech Walesa, and the fall of the Berlin. Wenceslaus Square was the sight of the so-called Velvet Revolution, where there was a peaceful ending from Soviet rule.

    Leaving the Square, our several block walk home seemed long, no doubt due to our long, tiring day. Upon arriving at our Art Nouveau Palace Hotel about 10:30 PM, we met Dan and Margaret from our group, who were outside the hotel enjoying a breath of fresh air.

    In spite of the rain which did impede a few of our plans, we had a fulfilling day in this fascinating city! As with most evenings, we looked forward to enjoying our comfortable room for a refreshing night’s sleep.

    Before turning in, we had pack and be ready for an early departure. Early mornings aren’t our favorite things, but we often discussed that we can catch up on sleep when we return home.


    LOOKING FORWARD TO CESKY KRUMLOV!

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    Tom, thank you for persevering! Trip reports, especially one with as much rich detail as yours, really are a labor of love. A couple of questions: Could you provide a compare and contrast of Prague and Kraków? In what area of Prague would you choose to stay?

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    We were in Berlin and Kraków in September and Prague and Budapest several years earlier. I have enjoyed your report, remembering those cities. Like you, we plan to return for more time in some of them. The history of each place that you visited is so helpful. Thank you for the extra work you put into this report.

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    bon_yoyage, thanks for your nice comments on our TR. If you check back on the section of Krakow, and then read over Prague. . .we detailed just about all of our experiences. They're both very nice cities, and it depends on what your interests are. They both offer plenty of opportunities to satisfy a variety of interests. Also, it may be helpful to read the TR's of others.

    As far as what area of Prague to stay in, we liked the Hotel Art Nouveau close to the main street leading to Wencelaus Square. If we had to pick a different area, it might be the "Stare Mesto", the Old Town. But we've done no research on lodging in this area. Again, the TR's of others might help.

    Good luck in your planning!


    HappyTrvlr, thanks for reading and glad you appreciated some of the history we included. This amount of detail is not something we usually focus on when we travel, but we were very interested in this area because many of the effects of the Nazis and the Soviets on these places is so relatively recent. We've heard local friends talk about the effects on their families.

    We were very positively impressed with places we visited, and will, no doubt, include a several day return visit in our future travel plans.

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    Thanks, Tom! I'm well into the trip report reading process and was just curious about your personal impressions. There seem to be many elements common to both cities, but different people prefer one to the other for various reasons. In general, when I consider how my interests and priorities line up in relation to others' preferences, it helps rule places in or out. If I were to stay in Prague, I'm leaning toward Stare Mesto but haven't completely ruled out Mala Strana.

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    For any readers interested in the "typically Czech Restaurant" we mentioned, it's Cafe' Svateho Vaclava. It's located on the main street fairly close to the Wencelaus Monument; on the left hand side as you face the monument

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    Wonderful and well done report. One correction however regarding Museum Island for anyone heading there.. The Neues Museum is open so visitors can see the beautiful "Nefertiti" as we did in September. It is The Pergamom Museum which is under massive feconstruction with little of it open. We need to return when Pergamon is fully open.

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    The most talked about statue was the one of St. John of Nepomuk....The tradition in modern times is to touch the bronze plaque by this statue in order to bring good fortune..."

    That's the damn guy who killed our cat... well, I rubbed his statue and asked for good health for our cat, and the cat died before we got home. I've never forgiven old John. On he other hand, life is always good with an Urquell Pilsner. Looking forward to CK, too! Great report.

    ((H))

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    HappyTrvlr, thanks for plodding through that section of Berlin. As we noted, we were still in the "Edit" phase when it posted. And we're glad you caught the error of which museum was closed for renovation.


    Maitaitom, glad to have you back on board. And yes, we did enjoy that Urquell Pilsner!

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    TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2015
    CESKY KRUMLOV: via CESKY BUDEJOVICE

    After only about five hours of sleep, we were packed, “breakfasted”, and ready for our 8 AM departure from Prague, a wonderful city. Our destination for the day was the charming little medieval town of Cesky Krumlov.

    En route, we made a stop in Cesky Budejovice to tour one of the largest breweries in Europe, the Budejovicky Budvar Brewery. After all, the Czech Republic is noted for its outstanding beers!

    During the one hour tour, the entire brewing process is carefully explained, from water purification to ingredients to fermentation and alcohol content to bottling and distribution. The automation of the huge operation is amazing. We live in a "beer" town and over the years there have been several major breweries in or around our city. But none so large as this one.

    Our early morning taste was excellent as it was as fresh as we will ever have. (Since no preservatives have been added, this sample would go bad in 3 days!). According to the brewery tour guide, the American Budweiser companies are able to sell their product for less because they substitute rye for grain. It is seen by them as inferior to their Czech beer.

    The Czech Budweiser and Anheiser Busch in the US went head to head for the copyright. The Czech Budweiser is sold in the US under the name Czechvar.

    Tom, especially, really enjoyed the tour, and as a memento, bought a Budvar golf shirt.

    We traveled on to the lovely town of Cesky Krumlov, located on the horseshoe bend of the Vltava River. This small town is dominated by an impressive castle, and enhanced by its riverside setting.

    The town fell into disrepair under the Soviets; the river became polluted. In the 1990’s major renovation was begun, and Cesky Krumlov has been restored to its original charm. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    Our Hotel Ruze was a former Jesuit University. Built in the 16th century, its extensive renovations have preserved its magnificent Renaissance style. Our rooms were not available on arrival, so we stored our carry-on luggage, and took the short walk over to the old square.

    We milled around the town square, checking out the shops and little restaurants, of which there are many for this small town. Most of the buildings date from the 14th through 17th centuries. We had almost two hours before meeting for a tour of the castle.

    Meanwhile, we meandered down the one main cobblestoned street and found a quaint little restaurant alongside the river, with a view to the castle hill. We sat for a long while as we ordered beer, and meals of pork steak with green beans and bacon…excellent. We enjoyed the peaceful view along the river.

    The tour to the castle was to meet at the “bear pen” where a family of bears is kept in a dry moat. From that point, the climb to the castle would begin.

    According to legend, a member of the Rosenberg royal family who ruled Cesky Krumlov for many years, married into the Italian Orsini family. Since the name was a derivation from the Latin “ursa”, they adopted the bear as a shield bearer on their coat of arms. And from that, the keeping of live bears has originated and over the years has become a tourist attraction.

    We made a half-hearted attempt to meet up with the tour group, but we were feeling kind of “castled-out” and needing some refreshing natural beauty. Feeling content to save our view of bears until we visit the mountains on our return home, we decided to enjoy a stroll along the river instead.

    During our walk, we passed the huge two-story arched bridge which marks another entrance to castle hill. Cesky Krumlov’s charming cobblestoned square is surrounded by several other cobblestoned lanes, most of which are steep hills. Along these little streets are a variety of shops and cafes with painted facades and frescoes.

    We walked some of the hilly back lanes for a while, and soon grew weary of the challenge of the crowds which had invaded this very small town. What better thing to do than have a late afternoon ice cream and cappuccino at another one of the little cafes along the river! To reach it, we walked down a small side-street, and entered what seemed to be a huge hollowed out rock entrance.

    After emerging on the other end of the “cave”, we met the owner, a very engaging guy who had lived in the US until his visa expired. He has an American girlfriend. We enjoyed talking with him about familiar places which we both liked, one of which is Breckenridge, Colorado for skiing. The conversation made our ice cream stop along the river more memorable. In contrast to our rainy weather in Prague, the day in Cesky Krumlov was delightful. We found it difficult to move on from our cozy spot on the river’s edge.

    We returned to the Hotel Ruze about 5 PM, needing to freshen up for our complimentary evening meal. Out of a few restaurant choices, we chose the Konice Restaurant. We met some of the group in the lobby for drinks about 6:30, and walked the few paces for our 7:00 dinner.

    Fortunately, out of the twelve or so people who went to the Konice Restaurant, we were able to sit with Harold and Menina from Melborne, Australia. Harold is the artist whom we had formerly met, and we learned that Menina, his wife, is from Goa Island which had been a Portugese possession until India took it over in recent times.

    We had fun discussing all sort of topics, with some good laughs mixed in the conversation, and picked up some ideas to expand our art interests on our next visit to Paris. We enjoyed our menu selections at the Kovice Restaurant. The walk back and forth was short and very pleasant, due to the perfect weather.

    We appreciated having this rather laid back day after a string of days with activity from AM to PM. Cesky Krumlov was a perfect little city to enjoy as we were winding down from our 21/2 weeks of exploration of wonderful cities.

    Next chapter: LAST NIGHT IN VIENNA

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    Adelaidean, thanks for hanging in there with us. We have only the "finale" to post.

    BTW, I saw on another post a link to "Flicker" photos that you had posted of Berchtesgaden, Salzburg, etc. They were beautiful. And those two sons of yours look like great kids.
    You will all, no doubt, enjoy the Dolomites.



    Maitaitom, glad you followed along with us. This TR has really been strung out!

    Although we love our vin rouge, the "pivo" was so good that it became our daily habit.

    Hope to get our final day completed!!! Next, NY, NY!! And then, "CA, here we come!"

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    FINAL DAYS:

    WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2015

    RETURN TO VIENNA

    CELEBRATION DINNER AND CONCERT

    This was our last day to enjoy those great hotel breakfasts! We were off from Cesky Krumlov, destination Vienna, at 8 AM, but not before enjoying a few minutes taking in some morning views of this beautiful medieval town. Our visit to Cesky Krumlov was short, but this quaint city was a great one night stop on our return route to Vienna.

    The drive from Cesky Krumlov to Vienna was one of the most scenic of the trip. There are hills surrounding Cesky Krumlov, and as we got closer to Vienna, the terrain became hillier. Mountains could be seen in the distance. We passed near the town of Linz. After one coffee stop, we arrived in Vienna around noon.

    With our early arrival, the rooms in the hotel were not available. Having spent a few days here prior to our tour, this area felt quite familiar to us. We used the time to visit the little shop next door, whose owner we had befriended on our previous several day stay. Tom bought that Vienna t-shirt that he had wanted two weeks earlier. Since it was a pleasant day, we chose to enjoy our last Vienna lunch at one of the sidewalk cafes in the pedestrian plaza near the Hilton.

    We intended to use our free time to pack for our very early morning departure, take care of our airline check-in, and perhaps have a little time for final enjoyment of Vienna. We had known that there was a “Celebration Dinner and Concert” scheduled, but we had no idea that it was a gala affair at a palace. So that would mean dressing up, and arriving back at the hotel fairly late.

    We did not anticipate the difficulty we would have in trying to print boarding passes. Austrian Air was our first carrier from Vienna to Paris. Andreas, the concierge we had met and liked a couple of weeks ago, wasn’t working. After quite a few unsuccessful attempts on our own, the concierge on duty suggested that we go up a floor to the business office

    The employees in the business office were also unsuccessful. But a helpful girl who worked in the office told us of her personal experience of inability to do online check-in with Austrian Air. She suggested that we go to the airport very early to get boarding passes. Ugh!!! So we moved up our departure from the hotel from 4:30 to 4:00 AM. We confirmed from the concierge that we could request a taxi from the desk staff 5 minutes before we wanted to depart, even at 4AM!

    Dealing with this airline check-in issue consumed quite a bit of time. So we headed back to our room, packed as much as possible, and dressed for the evening’s affair. We were ready for the 6:30 departure for the Palais Auersperg, built between 1706-1710, the location of the dinner and concert.

    We enjoyed our one last trip through Vienna, by now being familiar with a lot of the sites. Having consumed so much time fooling around with Austrian Airline check-in, we were happy to get this last chance to take in the sights of this beautiful city, truly one of Europe’s grandest.

    The entrance to Palais Auersperg was quite impressive, with glistening chandeliers, plush red carpeting, and beautiful paintings on the walls.

    Although the palace has changed ownership over the years, supposedly, the room in which we had dinner was the location where Mozart first entertained Maria Theresa. It, too, was beautifully appointed, with paintings of Maria Theresa and other Hapsburgs on the walls.

    Unfortunately, the kitchen had some kind of power issue, and our meals were delayed. But, again, we had a good group at our table, including Bryan who was celebrating a birthday. Between the birthday toasting and the conversation, we didn’t notice the delay. It did cause somewhat of a rush to finish dessert/coffee in order to arrive on time for the concert which was in a hall within the same palace.

    The concert was wonderful, partially featuring Strauss waltzes, with dancers performing. The music was provided by an eight piece orchestra and was extremely beautiful. A fitting finale to a fulfilling trip!

    We returned to the hotel by about 11:00 PM. Since this was the last event of the tour, and we would be leaving at 4 AM, we would not be around in the morning to bid farewells. We tried to talk to as many people as possible, but felt a bit constrained as we knew that we had last minute packing to do for our 3 AM wake up. Returning to our room after about twenty minutes or so of good-byes, we set two alarms and requested a hotel wake-up call.


    THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2015

    FAREWELL, EUROPE!

    TRANSITION FROM FANTASY TO REALITY

    Just as promised, there was a taxi waiting outside the hotel. At 4 AM there was barely a car on the road. When we arrived at the airport, it seemed that the employees were just arriving at their posts.

    We were relieved to have a friendly, helpful Austrian Airlines desk attendant who assigned us seats and issued our boarding passes. Relieved to have that accomplished, we had time to enjoy a very leisurely breakfast.

    The flight to Paris was fine. But on arrival at CDG, we rushed and just about made our non-stop flight from Paris to Cincinnati. Once on board, we felt a great relief!

    The timing was amazing! From the time our flight left Vienna, flew two+ hours, left Paris 10:40 AM. . .flew 8 hours, gaining 6 hours with the time change, we were in our Cincinnati home by 3 PM. A total of only 16 hours!!!

    We stopped en route from the airport to home to pick up our mail. As we pulled up our driveway, it was good to see that our lawn was green, the flowers were still healthy, and everything was just as we left it. We were very grateful and happy to be home! But our heads were spinning with the quick transition from the magic of Vienna to the realities of everyday life.

    We believe that travel (and maybe life) is shaped by our choices, attitudes, and, in general, deriving meaning and fulfillment out of our experiences. We very much enjoyed this travel experience as we learned so much about new places, history, architecture, etc., and unexpected benefits were derived from the relationships and sharing with people on the tour. Many of them were a lot more experienced international travelers than ourselves, and it was interesting to share ideas. Overall, we felt that this was an enriching experience for us.

    Having said all of the above, we still value our independent travel, and will, no doubt, plan most of our future trips on our own. However, for some particular locations or goals, we would be open to a tour such as we experienced.

    We know that this TR has been extraordinarily long, and we thank all those who expressed their interest in our trip! As with other travels, we appreciate all the insights we gained from other Fodorites. Our sincere thanks to all!

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    Adelaidean, thanks for hanging in there with us over these weeks. Hopefully, any future TRs won't be so long; however, this Central Europe trip was special. And packed with a lot of "heavy" experiences.

    On a much lighter note: we're headed to New York City for a weekend of holiday festivities and fun.

    Hope your upcoming holidays are happy ones.

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    Bdokeefe, thanks for your interest and kind comments on our TR. It turned out to be much longer than intended, but, for us, it's a great journal of our trip. And, would you believe, we have a few friends and family who are interested in reading it?

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