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Trip Report Central Europe: Great sights, Culture, ..........and Sobering History

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Hello, everyone. My husband Bill and I just spent 23 wonderful days in Central Europe from June 7 to June 30, 2009. This felt like a different kind of trip because, thanks to some wonderful guides, we learned a lot about the history from World War II onward, as well as the usual "sightseeing" kinds of things. We had some guides who had grown up under Communism as well as some who had relatives who suffered under the Nazis. Before I get into more details, this was our basic schedule:
2 nights Warsaw
4 nights Krakow
5 nights Budapest
5 nights Vienna
3 nights Cesky Krumlov
4 nights Prague
Thanks to everyone who provided advice and information for this trip. The trip reports of yk, maitaitom, and annhig were particularly useful. I'm hoping that this report in turn can help others.

WARSAW:
We arrived in Warsaw and checked in at our B&B, Castle Inn, which was on the Old Town Square. www.castleinn.pl. (280PLN without breakfast). The room was fine, although not as fancy as the pictures on their website; the location was great. After such a long flight, we decided to spend the afternoon just wandering around the Old Town. We were surprised by the lack of tourists in Warsaw. As we looked around the town square we noticed there was not one souvenir shop in sight. We walked along the Royal Way (the main road leading from the town square) but we didn't expect to see so many churches....all Catholic. It seemed as if there was a church about every two blocks and sometimes across the street from each other. We went inside several, including St. John the Baptist Church which had the tomb of Paderewski and we also went to the Church of the Holy Cross which had a small crypt containing Chopin's heart. On many of the streets in central Warsaw there were large posters containing the pictures from June 2, 1989. It was on that day that the first free elections of the parliament in Poland took place. So the Poles were celebrating the 20th anniversary of democracy. We were walking around Warsaw on a Sunday evening and lots of people were out strolling, attending Mass, or eating in the sidewalk cafes. Along the Royal Way were many statues of Polish political figures and military heroes. There was also a statue of Copernicus with concentric rings on the bricks below his statue, showing the paths of the planets around the sun. The Nazis stole the statue during the war but Poland got it back later. For dinner we went to a little dumpling restaurant on a side street. The dumplings were fine but the red borscht was not what we expected; it turned out to be hot beet juice and nothing else!

The next morning we headed for our walking tour. This would be fhe first of three instances where we had reserved something in Poland and it wasn't about to happen. We called them the "phantom" tours and the "phantom" train, which I will explain later. We had reserved on the internet a combination bus and walking tour through Mazurka Travel and we were to meet them at 9:30AM (localtours@mazurkas.com.pl). About twenty minutes after our meeting time, since they didn't show up, we phoned them. They had no record of our reservation but the tour hadn't yet started and they would come and get us. It turned out to be an excellent tour with Jurek as our guide. The sights in Warsaw are quite spread out so the combination of bus and walking was ideal. We learned from our guide that 80% of Warsaw was destroyed in World War II. When Warsaw was rebuilt, only the Old Town was rebuilt in the "old style". Jurek took us to the area where the Jewish Ghetto used to be. The ghetto was 10% of the city in area but about 1/3 of the population (350,000 Jews) was forced to live there. The walls that the Nazis built around the ghetto are long gone. There is now a large plaza with a monument in place of where the ghetto was. Only one synagogue survived, because that was where the Germans kept their horses. When we returned home, we watched the film "The Pianist" since it tells the story of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw and I read the book of the same name by Wladyslaw Szpilman, the "real" pianist. For those of you who have seen the movie, the book also includes excerpts from the diary of the German officer who saved Szpilman. Our guide, Jurek, told us that about one million non-Jewish Poles were forced to go to Germany to work in factories. His aunt was taken there and the family thought she had died. After liberation, they found she was alive but she decided to immigrate to Australia because Poland had become Communist. We saw some plaques which marked where the Nazis had committed some atrocities; there are about 400 around the city. We passed the highest building in Warsaw, the Palace of Culture and Science built in 1955 by the Soviets. The Poles have nicknamed it "Stalin's P...s". We took the bus to Lazienki Park which was built for Prince Lubomirski in the 17th century. The park is quite pretty and has a large monument of Chopin with the wind blowing about him through the trees. He was born outside of Warsaw and lived in Warsaw for the first twenty years of his life. The park also contained a palace called "Palace on the Water" which became the residence of the last Polish king. Next we went to see the Monument to the Underground Polish Army, in front of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 Museum. We would have liked to have seen inside the museum, but it was closed when we were there. The Warsaw Uprising took place in August and September, 1944; the Soviets took over and stayed for 45 years. We saw the stock exchange building which was formerly the Center of Communism. After the overthrow of Communism, the richest Polish capitalists were former leaders of the Communist party in Poland since they were the ones who had "connections".

After the tour, we went to the roof garden of the Warsaw University library, which has a view of the Vistula RIver; it's one of the largest roof gardens in Europe. Another stroll took us to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and we watched the changing of the guard. In back of the tomb is a beautiful park called the Saxon Garden, complete with summer flowers and a huge fountain. It was now dinnertime and we had reserved Podwalk Kampania Piwna. We were glad we had a reservation because it was very busy. The food was great and the portions very large. Bill had wild musroom soup along with a delicious duck; I had a Polish sausage soup along with a giant-size potato pancake filled with a gravy having lots of chunks of tender beef. To finish the meal, we had malt-flavored vanilla ice cream with fresh strawberries. A nice way to end the day! Tomorrow we leave for Krakow.

Janet

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    HI Janet, what a great start to your trip report. I haven't been to Poland, so I particularly enjoyed your descriptions, insights, and links for tours. Looking forward to the rest!

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    KRAKOW:
    Today we took the "phantom" train to Poland. We had bought first class tickets the day before at a travel agency. Our tickets were for the 11:07 train. When we got to the train station, on the board was an 11:07 train and an 11:15 train. The 11:07 train never showed up! So we boarded the 11:15 train. Because we were on the wrong train, other people were sitting in our seat numbers so we sat down in some vacant seats. When the ticket lady came around, an hour out of Warsaw, she stamped our ticket and never said anything. Whew! The train ride was very comfortable and the scenery outside the window was pretty. Lots of green countryside. We took a taxi from the train station to the place where we were to pick up the apartment keys. It took us awhile to find the building. In Poland, they don't always have address numbers on buildings, plus, the place that we wanted had a different name on the outside. Once we found the place, we discovered that we got our keys there, but our actual apartment was about one mile away! They had failed to tell us this. So we drug our suitcases along the cobblestone streets. Once we got there, we liked the apartment: it was just one long block from the Old Town Square and we were given a good breakfast (with menu) every morning at a restaurant on the Square (another address with no number and a different name). The apartment was large and even had a washing machine. Old Town Apartments, Dietal 75, 63 Euros with breakfast (although website says breakfast is extra)...reserved at Booking.com. We found it on Tripadvisor. After unpacking our suitcases, we walked to the Square which is quite magnificent in size. Unfortunately, they were putting up large staging and framework for a rock concert the entire time we were there; nobody seemed to know who would be performing. After walking around the Square we visited St. Francis Church where Pope John Paul II was an archbishop before becoming Pope. There are beautiful art nouveau stained glass windows inside. For dinner we had an excellent meal at Guliwer. Bill had a vegetable plate with a carrot-pineapple salad and I had wild boar with beets and delicious potatoes. For dessert we had black current sorbet as well as a crepe with chocolate and vanilla ice cream covered with a great chocolate-orange sauce.

    The next morning we were picked up by our private driver/guide, Andrew Durman (www.tour-service.pl - 390 ZL for 6 hours)for a trip to Auschwitz. He was an excellent guide. As he drove us through the countryside, he explained how the farmers lived and we stopped at one point to see their houses. He also talked to us about his experiences of living under Communism. In addition, we got a good introduction to the history of Auschwitz from him. After we got to Auschwitz, he got our tickets and we went on a group tour with another guide. Auschwitz was a very moving experience and the prisoners were treated even more horribly than we had imagined.

    After our visit, Andrew took us to a restaurant (our suggestion) in the countryside where we had a most delicious potato pancake with large mushrooms in gravy, as well as sauerkraut and cabbage salads. He called it "peasant food" but we called it "delicious". At lunch he showed us a copy of the death certificate of his uncle who was killed in Auschwitz at the age of 19. The Nazis kept track of the names and addresses of all the prisoners. Later, people were able to research records to find out what happened to their loved ones. On his uncle's death certificate the Nazis lied and said the doctors tried to save him, but he died of a massive heart attack. After lunch, he drove us back to Krakow, stopping at a beautiful monastery on the way.

    We said goodbye to Andrew and walked around the Planty...the tree-lined path which encircles Old Town and where the town walls used to be. The Poles love ice cream, which they call "lody". We stopped to get a cone. Bill had fig-walnut and strawberry; I had banana and filbert. Yum!

    June 11th, the next day, was a major religious holiday in Poland, "Corpus Christi Day", so all stores were closed. But the tourist office told us there would be a walking tour on that day. When we arrived at the meeting place, where was a sign saying there would be a tour on that day, but the tour leader never showed up. We called it another "phantom tour". Instead, because of the holiday, we watched a large procession of priests, nuns, soldiers, and other citizens, some carrying religious banners, for Corpus Christi Day. The procession had begun with a Mass at Wawel Castle and then proceeded to three other churches, where there were also Masses. The whole city seemed to turn out for the procession and the streets were crammed with onlookers. Poland is a very religious country, all Catholic, and there are many Masses going on each day. At a basilica, looking at the information board on when the Masses would be, we counted 58 Masses in one week. It was difficult to visit inside churches because there almost always seemed to be a Mass going on. After the procession, we walked to Wawel Castle; the grounds are beautiful. We took a tour of the Cathedral which was quite magnificent and then went into the crypts where some kings, queens, and military heroes were buried.

    Next we went to the Jewish district called "Kazimierz" named after the polish king Kazimierz the Great, who encouraged Jews to come to Poland in the 14th century. There are only about 200 Jews living in Krakow today. At the start of World War II, 65,000 Jews lived in Kazimierz. We went to both the Old and New Jewish Cemeteries, the New one extablished after 1800. The New Cemetery is much larger and many of the tombstones desecrated by the Nazis have been restored. In both cemeteries are large walls made up of pieces of tombstones that were destroyed by the Nazis.

    For dinner we ate at a restaurant called Miod Malina, on Grodzka street, and it was absolutely the best meal of our trip. Do not miss it if you go to Krakow. Bill had a cucumber sour cream salad along with Russian-Style Dumplings with potatoes, fried onions, and cheese. I had a wonderful barley soup, stuffed cabbage rolls and a fantastic apple pancake with caramel and vanilla sauces. I still think about that meal!

    The next day after breakfast we visited Jagiellonian University. On the hour, in the courtyard, the clock has mechanical figures which appear. The university itself was founded in 1300. One of the most famous students was Copernicus. We saw an exhibit of old maps of the earth and manuscripts from the 1500's on the solar system. We went on a guided tour of the university museum and saw a piano that Chopin played on, the machinery used to first liquefy oxygen, copies of instruments that were used in Copernicus' time, and globes from Columbus' time, showing they didn't know what was in the New World. On one globe, North America was down near Madagascar!

    After the tour, we went to St. Mary's Cathedral on the main Square to observe the opening at noon of the magnificent altar piece. The church is quite elaborate. In the afternoon, we went to the Czartoryski Museum. Many of the paintings were from relatively unknown Polish artists, but the highlight was "Lady with an Ermine" by Leonardo da Vinci. We liked it even better than the Mona Lisa. This was followed by a wonderful dinner at Pod Aniolami. Bill had Sheep Cheese Salad and Mushroom and Cabbage Dumplings. I had Meat Dumplings with cranberries, roasted potatoes, and red cabbage salad. Late afternoon, we took a taxi to the airport to go to Budapest. On the way, we asked the taxi driver to stop by Schindler's Factory. We walked around the outside. It is being renovated to become a museum. Before the movie "Schindler's List" came out, no one visited the factory. We saw a remaining section of the wall of the Jewish Podgorze Ghetto. Nearby was the area where Jews were gathered to transport them to Auschwitz. The Jews were deceived and were told they were being taken somewhere to live a better life and they were told to each bring one suitcase. As a memorial, on the plaza where the Jews waited, there are many empty chairs made out of steel and cast iron. The scene was very sad. The memorial, called Ghetto Heroes' Square, was inaugurated in 2005. It is located at Plac Bohaterow Getta. Across the street is the Eagle Drugstore where a pharmacist was able to aid many Jews.

    Some randow observations about Poland: We easily got by with English-only; schedules weren't always kept; there was a lack of souvenir shops (a good thing!); there were hardly any bakeries; people were friendly and helpful; the Poles dressed more stylishly than the Hungarians and Czechs; the post office is not dependable (we mailed 10 postcards from inside the post office airmail from Krakow to the US six weeks ago...not one has arrived). But most of all, we loved Poland and wished we had spent more time there. Next time we want to go to Gdansk.....we hear it's lovely.

    BUDAPEST:
    We flew from Krakow to Budapest on LOT Airlines, changing planes in Warsaw. We found we could get our tickets about $50 per person cheaper if we bought them through United Airlines rather than the LOT website. From the Budapest airport we took a taxi to our favorite hotel on the entire trip: the Marriott Hotel Budapest. We had gotten it on Priceline for only $65(US). www.priceline.com. Go to www.biddingfortravel.com to learn how to bid on Priceline. We had asked for an upper floor near the Chain Bridge and they obliged. The hotel was located centrally, right on the Danube River. Our large room had one wall of windows overlooking the Chain Bridge and the Buda Castle on the hill. Both were lit up at night and the view was out-of-this-world.

    The next morning started with breakfast at the Gerloczy Cafe, which as in the film "Munich". Then we went to meet our tour guide, Zsofi, for a city tour. We had arranged the tour through Absolute Tours, (www.absolutetours.com) which is actually owned by an American man formerly from Portland, Oregon. We took two tours with this company and both guides were excellent. The first tour, a general city tour called "Absolute Walk" had only 6 people and our second communist tour called "Hammer and Sickle" had only 3 people (counting us!). You really don't need to reserve ahead of time but we had written Ben, the owner, and he gave us a substantial discount for booking two tours together online. The website doesn't mention the discount but I think it was about 25-30%. Contact Ben at bookings@discoverbudapest.com. Our guide, Zsofi, took us first to Hero's Square where there were statues of military heroes on horseback. There previously were statues of the Hapsburgs there which were removed when they lost power. We passed by a statue of Anonymous; he was a writer but no one ever knew his real name. Next we went to a large city park where there were mineral baths. In the 19th century, the city built pools around the natural hot springs. People linger in the pools and even play chess sometimes in the water. Further on in the tour, we saw the outside of the opera house which was built in 1884. Statues of composers are on the top of the building. In World War II, people hid in the basement of the Opera House when bombing occurred. During the war, 80% of buildings in Budapest were damaged. We next went to St. Stephen's Church, dedicated to the first king, St. Stephen. In a side chapel is his withered hand. Next we passed the beautiful Peacock Gate, which is the art deco gate of the 4 Seasons Hotel (formerly Gresham Palace). Then we walked to the Chain Bridge. It was the first permanent bridge in Budapest, built in 1849. People used to have to travel by boat from Buda to Pest. Germans bombed the bridge during World War II but it was renovated in 1949. At the beginning of the bridge are large lion pillars. Luckily the bridge was still open when we were there in June, 2009. It is now closed for renovation for 2-3 years and only trams can go over it. We walked across the bridge to Buda Castle. The castle area is really beautiful and we went inside the Mathias Church, one of the prettiest ones on our trip. After the tour, we took the metro back to the city park where a wine festival was going on...complete with singers. From there we walked to the Liszt Monument and then back towards our hotel to walk along the Danube and see the "Shoe Monument" which is a holocaust memorial.

    The next morning we took the train to Szentendre. Many people go by boat but we had a Danube boat trip coming up when we went to Vienna, our next destination. Szentendre was supposed to be a pretty artist colony but we were disappointed. It was row upon row of tourist shops. We did go to the marzipan museum and the art gallery containing the works of Margaret Kovacs. From there we took the bus to Skanzen, an open-air folk museum. We liked it a lot. We saw examples of Hungarian architecture from all over the country. They weren't replicas. Each building had been carefully taken apart and moved from its original location. We even saw a large windmill and some Serbian pigs that have red curly hair and curly ears. We took the train back to Budapest and had dinner at the Strudel House, which was quite good.

    The next morning, we went to the Central Market and bought some paprika, both sweet and hot. We decided to eat some Langos, a popular snack food in Hungary. Basically, it's a large circle of fried bread which is slathered with sour cream and toppings of your choice. For us, it was an acquired taste. Next was the Terror Museum, which we didn't care for. It lacked a lot of English explanation and the exhibits were rather sparse. 80% of the audios and writings were not translated from Hungarian. We had a good dinner at Cafe Kor and then on to one of the most memorable parts of our trip...the opera "Aida" performed by the Hungarian State Opera. It was truly magnificent...very theatrical with gorgeous sets, wonderful singers with a very large ensemble, great costumes, and a fantastic orchestra. The building which reminded us of the Opera Garnier in Paris, had amazing acoustics. We bought the tickets two days prior at the box office and secured great front row box seats for 9200HUF per person. It was truly a night to remember.

    The next day we did something completely different and went on the Hammer and Sickle Tour with our guide, Bae, from Absolute Tours. After the fall of Communism, the Hungarian people decided to take the Communist statues which had been placed all around the city to a location about 20 minutes out of city center to form a "Statue Park". It is now called "Memento Park" and Bae took us there by bus. We saw huge statues of Marx and Lenin as well as propaganda statues of workers shaking hands with the Soviets. There was a statue of a soldier with a flag in his hand, encouraging people to join the army. We also saw the Trabant Car, which the Hungarians called the "paper Jaguar". To buy it, you had to wait for a few years and family background was checked to make sure your family wasn't rich. However, bribes were common in order to move up on the purchasers' list. The car was produced in East Germany and exported to countries inside the Communist bloc. Its body was made out of paper, cotton waste, and other recycled materials. Bae told us a lot about living under Communism. After 1945, many young men were forced to work in labor camps in the Soviet Union, including our guide's grandfather; he was there for four years. He had been a farmer before, but when he came back, his farm had been taken over by the government. The Soviets said they had "liberated" Hungary from the Nazis but the Hungarians didn't think of it as such. After 1949, each city had a "Lenin" street, even in the smaller villages. Bea told us of going to summer camp as a child, something like the girl scouts except with Communist propaganda. At the age of 6, they were called "little drummers" and they wore uniforms. At age 10, a red scarf was added to the uniform and they became "pioneers". At camp, they practiced marching and sang Communist songs. The camps were required for all children. What we liked most about this tour was our guide telling us of her personal experiences growing up under Communism. The tour turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

    After the tour, we went to the Dohany Synagogue, which is absolutely gorgous. It is often called the "Great Synagogue". It was built in 1859, although the architects were not Jews. The synagogue has an organ, thus orthodox Jews would not enter. It is huge and seats around 3,000 people. It is the 2nd largest synagogue in the world, after the one in New York City. We went on a tour of the synagogue with an excellent guide. She told us the synagogue survived the war because the Gestapo had their headquarters there; they knew the Allies wouldn't bomb a synagogue. After the Nazis left, the synagogue was operating as a temple again, but it was in poor shape. It was reconstructed in 1990, partly with some money from a foundation that the actor Tony Curtis sponsored. The synagogue has Byzantine architecture on the outside. Our guide told us that before World War II, 23% of the population of Budapest was Jewish; today it is 1%. Now there are about 100,000 Jews in all of Hungary, making it the third largest Jewish population in Europe, after France and England. Our guide told us of some differences between the Polish Jews and the Hungarian Jews before the war. The Hungarian Jews were much more assimilated into society. Some didn't speak Yiddish and some had been baptized into the Christian faith. So they thought they were "safe" from the Nazis and didn't try to escape. The Polish Jews, on the other hand, were more conservative and wanted to keep kosher even in the Jewish ghetto. In the back of the synagogue is a Holocaust Memorial, completed in 1990 and called the "Weeping Willow Tree of Remembrance". It looks like a large willow tree made out of metal and on each small leaf is the name of someone who was killed by the Nazis. The money for the memorial was raised by Tony Curtis. There is another memorial also to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who supplied Jews with Swedish passports.

    After visiting the synagogue, we had a wonderful dinner at Cafe Kor. Bill had Cold Cherry Soup, Stuffed Squash, and Sour Cherry Pie ala Mode. I had Hungarian Mushroom Soup, Cucumber Salad, Chicken Goulash with Noodles, and Plum Dumplings. We walked a short distance to our evening concert, the Danube Folk Ensemble at the Danube Palace, which turned out to be a mediocre performance and we left after intermission.

    VIENNA
    We boarded the train the next day for a 3 hour trip to Vienna. We had bought the tickets three days prior at the Budapest train MAV station downtown, rather than the busy train station. There was no line to wait in and the clerks spoke good English. We got 2nd class tickets at 13 Euros each. The MAV address is 73-75 Andrassy Blvd., closed weekends. It was a pleasant ride. We went through the countryside and even passed wind turbines on the way. The taxi from the Vienna train station took us to the Vienna Marriot where we had a 5 night stay. We had gotten the room on Priceline of $105(US) a night. We had asked for a free upgrade to a room with a view of the gardens, but we didn't get it. The hotel was in a great central location, across from the Stadtpark. We were hungry so we went to a pub nearby, Bettestudent Pub. I had a delicious Weiner Schnitzel with potato salad and Bill had a Greek goat cheese salad. We next walked to the burial crypt of the Hapsburgs: there were lots and lots of them, including Maria Theresa and Franz Joseph. We had tickets that we had ordered online for the Strauss Concert at the Kursalon where Johann Strauss used to conduct his concerts. It was what you would consider a "tourist" concert, but the performers were quite professional and the program was almost two hours. We had ordered the tickets at www.viennaconcerts.com. The concert was called Salonorchester Alt Wien/Vienna Kursalon and the tickets were 56 Euros each for category A. It's general admission within each category so you need to go early. The concert was wonderful with a small 20 piece orchestra, 2 singers, and 2 ballet dancers. We had wanted to get tickets for the Vienna Philharmonic, but it was the end of their season. The Kursalon is located inside the Stadtpark with statues of composers. The Strauss statue is in gold; there are also statues of Schubert and Glinka.

    For our second day in Vienna, we started with a good breakfast at Cafe Schwarzenberg and then went to the wonderful Kunsthistorisches Museum. This was the art of the Hapsburgs and the building itself is amazing. Among the highlights were paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, Cranach, and Brueghel the Elder. Then we went to the Treasury of the Hapsburg Empire. Among the highlights were the crib of Napoleon's son, a unicorn horn (now known to be a narwhale), robes of the Holy Roman Emperors, crowns, lots of jewels from the Hapsburgs, and a dish from the age of Constantine.

    The next day began with an early morning tram ride to the Central Cemetery where some of the famous composers are buried. We saw the graves of Beethoven, Brahms, both Strauss', Schubert, Mahler, and the Mozart statue (he's not buried there). From the cemetery we went to the Upper Belvedere Palace with its art museum. There were two whole rooms of Gustav Klimt, including two of his most famous paintings, "The Kiss" and "Judith I". It was wonderful being surrounded by Klimt. "The Kiss" was much larger than I expected, approximately 6 feet by 6 feet. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take any pictures in the entire museum. After the museum, we had a good lunch of Greek salads at a restaurant across the street called the Art Corner Cafe. The restaurant owner had a little shop next door where he sold Klimt souvenirs for quite a bit less than the gift shop at the Belvedere.

    Next we went to Karlskirche, which is supposed to be the best Baroque church in Vienna. We were disappointed because, after paying a stiff admission fee, there was a lot of scaffolding inside. Our last expedition of the day was to the Kunsthaus Wien Museum, which had the works of Hundertwasser. What a waste of time! The building was plain inside except for the "wavy" floor and it was filled with his painting which, to us, looked amateurish. After seeing the wonderful Gaudi architecture in Barcelona, this was a huge let-down. It seemed as though he was famous only for being weird. They had a list of his crazy sayings such as "Life is based on a spiral". Later on, however, we rode past the incinerator which he designed and we thought it was quite interesting and whimsical. We ended the day with a good dinner at a restaurant named Purstner.

    Our next adventure was a fun day in the Wachau Valley which included a train ride to Melk, visiting the Melk Abbey, and a Danube River cruise to Krems with a stop in Durnstein. From Krems we took the train back to Vienna. We had gotten a combination ticket which included the train, cruise, and abbey visit from the West Bahnhof. In order to get off at Durnstein, we had to change our boat ticket in Melk (no change fee) and board another boat company in Durnstein. The Melk Abbey Church was fantastic. It had more gold in it than we had ever seen in any church. We also saw their library which had 100,000 volumes, including 750 books written before the 1500's. The boat ride on the Danube was beautiful, passing many vineyards, as well as a few castles. We got off the boat at Durnstein and found it to be a cute little village in a gorgeous location. We had an excellent barbecue meal at the Alter Klosterkeller restaurant and sat outside on their terrace beside their vineyard. The food was delicious as was the wine from their vineyard. We boarded the boat after a couple of hours, got off at Krems, then took the train back to Vienna. We had a late dinner at Zu den 3 Hacken, which I highly recommend. The waiter showed us where Schubert used to have a table reserved.

    The next day we had a delicious breakfast at the Central Cafe, one of the oldest and most famous in Vienna. From there we walked to the Hapsburg Palace. We almost skipped the silverware and porcelain collection because we generally don't care for such things, but we actually found it to be quite interesting because it described in detail the lifestyle of the Hapsburgs with all their gaudy excesses. We had never before seen such ostentatious dining decor. We also toured the Hapsburgs apartments. The weather took a bad turn today and it was rainy, windy, and cold. Nonetheless, we went to the Vienna amusement park called the "Prater". Bill has always been a fan of the Orson Welles movie "The Third Man" so he rode the big ferris wheel which was featured in the movie. Then he went on "The Third Man" tour given by Dr. Brigitte Timmermann. www.viennawalks.com. He quite liked the tour as they visited the locations where the film was made as well as learned about the conditions of Vienna after World War II.

    Next morning ws our last morning in Vienna before leaving for Cesky Krumlov. We went to the Austrian National Library which has been called one of the most beautiful historical libraries in the world. It contined 15,000 volumes from Eugene of Savoy, who stopped the Turks at the suburbs of Vienna, as well as 200,000 other books printed from 1500 to 1850. There were wonderful maps in the lighted cases from various time periods. Also, there were many globes from the 1500's on. We had to leave the library sooner than we liked because this was the day of travel to Cesky Krumlov.

    Janet

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    Janet, your descriptions of Budapest and Vienna brought back great memories of my trip in the Spring! I felt like I was walking through those cities right with you.

    I didn't realize Chain Bridge is to be closed for renovation. I sure am glad I was there a few months ago!

    It's amazing that the train trip Budapest -> Vienna is a lot cheaper than going the other direction! And I'm glad you enjoyed Aida. Did the audience clap in unison? I am relieved to see that you didn't enjoy Terror Museum either. I thought it has good potential to be a great museum IF there were more English translations. I felt so lost and confused there.

    I enjoyed your description of Krakow. I need to visit Poland some day.

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    CESKY KRUMLOV:
    We had reserved Shuttle Lobo on the internet to take us from Vienna to Cesky Krumlov. At the price of 1100 CZK per person, we thought they would be professional but it turned out to be a disaster. It was supposed to be a three hour trip but ended up taking five hours because the driver kept getting lost. He later admitted this was only his second time to drive from Vienna to Cesky Krumlov. He didn't have a map on him, either. Fortunately, the other two passengers knew the area somewhat and had a map. Several times the other couple had to tell the driver he was heading in the wrong direction, so we had to turn around and go back. And we felt sorry for them because of what happened when we arrived in Krumlov. Before we were dropped off, the driver stopped by the Shuttle Lobo office in Cesky Krumlov. The other couple unfortunately had reserved Shuttle Lobo to take them to Linz two days later and they had already purchased nonrefundable train tickets leaving from Linz. Someone came out of the Shuttle Lobo office and told them they were cancelling their reservation to Linz because two other people that were supposed to be on the ride cancelled. Never mind that their website has a guaranteed departure with only two people! The Shuttle Lobo man kept telling them "I don't know why you're upset". Shuttle Lobo is heavily advertised at the Cesky Krumlov tourist office. We saw other ads for Sebastian Shuttle but we don't know anything about them. Anyway, we finally arrived at our B&B, Hotel Svambersky Dum, which was a block off the Square. We reserved it at www.svamberskydum.cz for 60 Euros a night with breakfast. It was an average room with an average breakfast but the location was great. There were so many B&B's in Kumlov that it wouldn't have been a problem if we didn't have a reservation. We went to dinner at a recommended place called "Na Louzi", which was awful. The food was greasy, tough, and salty. Whenever we passed it the next couple of days, we called it "Na Lousy". Shuttle Lobo had the only laundromat in town at their Pension Lobo so we did our laundry before going to bed.

    We really loved Cesky Krumlov. It's a beautiful little town with its cobblestone streets, a pretty river running through it, and a castle up on the hill. On our first morning there we went looking for the perfect pair of puppets to take home and we found them. There are many puppet stores in Krumlov so it made it difficult to choose. Then we went to the Puppet Museum which was quite fun. They had around 300 puppets from the National Puppet Theater in Prague. Next, we went to the castle and took two tours. We arrived about 1PM and got tickets at the box office for the 2PM Baroque Theater tour and the 3PM Castle Tour #1 (there are two). The Baroque Theater is one of only two surviving in Europe. They demonstrated how the stage was made to look a lot deeper than it actually was and they showed special effects and how they could have complete changes of scenery in 10 to 20 seconds. The seats were high benches with no backs. When the theater was in use, performances were a minimum of five hours. Today there are shorter performances and just a few per year. There was going to be one just the day after we left. Bad timing! Next we took a general castle tour which was quite interesting. The castle is very large with a series of courtyards and a large garden in back. The Rosenbergs, Bohemia's top noble family, ran the town from the 1300's to the 1600's and their symbol, the rose, can be seen throughout the town. When the Rosenbergs owned the castle, they were the most powerful family in Bohemia except for the King. A lot of the furnishings in the castle are dated from the 1600's and are still in remarkably good condition. They had a huge gold-covered carriage that dated from the 1600's and had been restored to a shiny condition. We had a good dinner that night at Privni Katakomby. To reach the restaurant from the Square, you go down some looooong, dark, winding stairs to a cellar. It's quite atmospheric. Bill had goulash in a bread bowl, salmon, and apple strudle with ice cream. I had steak, some fantastic cheesy potatoes, and garlic bread. Then we walked the town for a few hours. We still had the rain for our first two days here as we had had in Vienna.

    Next morning we took a guided group tour of the town, which we had found at the tourist office. Our excellent guide was Karolina Kortusova, who also does private tours. Her email is info@krumlovtours.com. The town was established in the 13th century by the Lords of the Rose. There were 100,000 serfs at that time. In 1588, the town became home to an important Jesuit college. The Hapsburgs bought the region in 1602, ushering in a more Germanic period. In 1750 the Hapsburgs abolished the Jesuits. Before World War II, 80% of the population was German. After the war, 3 million Germans in the Czech lands were sent to Germany. Emptied of its German citizenry, Cesky Krumlov itself turned into a ghost town and only gypsies from the Balkan states moved in. The Communist regime took over in 1948. No one wanted to live there during the Communist time and the monks were imprisoned for ten years. There was no water treatment and all the houses burned coal so it was a very stinky place. After the fall of Communism, houses were for sale and prices were low. The former Communists were the ones in the community who had connections and became rich, just as it had been in Poland. Our guide told us what it was like growing up under Communism. She said that today there is one good thing that remains in the town that was started by the Communists and that is the music school. Any child can have music and art lessons after school several times a week, if desired, by excellent university trained teachers for a tuition of only $250(US) a year. Next we stopped by St. Vitus Church which was in gothic style and from the year 1438. There used to be frescoes on the walls. Later, the Catholics white-washed the walls and added gold and many other embellishments to have a more Baroque style. After the church, we stopped at the courtyard of the Hotel Ruiz which has a beautiful view of the river from its terrace. Karolina told us there have been some bad floods in the town in the past, the last one being in 2002 when the water went half-way up many of the buildings.

    After the end of the tour, we wandered the streets and came upon an old synagogue which had been converted to a Christian church. For dinner, we went to Laibon, a vegetarian restaurant, which has a terrace along the river. It was now raining really hard and the river was lapping up within a few inches of the deck where we were eating; we ended up going inside. We both had a really delicious mushroom entree, which we really appreciated after all the meat on menus during this trip. The rain, thunder, and lightening continued the rest of the evening.

    PRAGUE:
    We were not looking forward to the three hour bus ride to Prague. We had talked to a lady the day before who had just come by bus from Prague and she said it was cramped, no bathroom, no air conditioning, and terrible in general. Were we ever surprised when a fancy new-looking bus drove up. It was roomy on the inside with large clean windows and they even had a hostess with complimentary newpapers and capuccino, air conditioning, TV screens with sitcoms in various languages....and a bathroom. We had bought our tickets 2 days prior at the tourist office for only 180CZK per person. At the bus stop, we noticed a lot of old buses, so I think we got lucky. The name of our bus company was on our ticket and it was called "Student Agency". I imagine when you buy your tickets, you could ask for that company. Tickets must be purchased ahead of time because our bus was completely sold out. (seats are reserved).

    We arrived at our Hotel Movenpick which was a couple of big steps down from the Marriot and not centrally located. It was about 30 minutes by tram from the Old Town Square and the hotel was stuck in 1960's decor. But it was clean and large (we were given a suite) and the price was cheap, $55(US) a night on Priceline. We didn't like the Old Town Square. It was wall-to-wall people and it was the only place on our whole trip where we didn't feel safe (pickpockets). Also, we didn't think Prague was clean. Once we got out of the main square it was a little better, if you looked up at the pretty buildings. I realize a lot of people love Prague but, for us, it was our least favorite city on the whole trip. We're glad we went though, because it does have some nice things to see. We did have a good dinner our first night there at Kolkovna in the Jewish district.

    The next day began with a guided walking tour of the town. Our guide told us about the Astronomical Clock on the Square, which was made in 1410. And we walked over to the Jan Hus monument in the Square. He tried to reform the Catholic Church but was burned at the stake for his efforts. We next saw Charles University which was the first university in Europe. We also went to the Jewish Quarter and the Charles Bridge, built by Charles IV in 1357. There are 17 bridges over the Vistula River, but the Charles Bridge is the most famous. It was the only bridge over the river until the 19th century. Our guide grew up under the Communists and described what it was like. She said the Western Europe borders were closed and it was difficult to purchase items. For example, people had to wait at least six hours to buy clothes once a month, so people made their clothes at home instead. She told us also that now the average wage in Prague is 700 Euros a month but rent is 400 Euros.

    After the tour, we walked down from the castle to the Wallenstein Gardens. The parliament meets in the palace by the gardens. Next we went to a wonderful little museum, the Alphonse Mucha Museum. He was one of the founders of the Art Nouveau Movement. After our bit of culture we went to the restaurant Privi u Privi. Bill had spaghetti for dinner along with a Czech beer and I had beef with dumplings.

    The next day was Sunday and we started with the Mozart Museum, which actually was right in back of our hotel. This area used to be the countryside near Prague and the museum is housed in the country home of a patron of Mozart; the home is called Villa Berkramka. Mozart visited his friends often there and that is where he composed Don Giovanni. It was quite pretty and the grounds were nice, too. There were not any original Mozart memorabilia on display but it did explain well about Mozart's time in Prague. Next, we went to the Klementium Library. We had a guided tour of the Baroque Hall and the Astronomical Tower. The Hall has 20,000 books, some dating back to the 1500's. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to walk around the library as was allowed at the Austrian State Library and the room was kept very dark to preserve the books. We climbed the tower and had a good view of the city fo Prague. For lunch, we went to Cafe Louvre which was the old stomping grounds of Kafka and Einstein. We walked from there to the Dvorak Museum which is housed in his former home called Villa Amerika. It was a nice 2-story home on two acres of land. Inside was his Bosendorfer Piano, his desk, copies of his memorabilia, and old pictures. We had pizza for dinner since we were tired of so much meat on this trip. Then the rip-off of the day: We paid $125(US) for 2 tickets together for a 45-minute mediocre concert in the Municipal House, Smetana Concert Hall. At the end of the concert, it was so short that we weren't sure if it was only intermission....but that was it. At least we got to see inside the Municipal House, which was quite nice. The problem with the "tourist" concerts is that there are good ones and bad ones. We had mistakenly thought that because it was in the Municipal House and the tickets were expensive, that the concert would be good. Lesson learned. We had wanted to see the Prague Philharmonic but it was the end of their season.

    On our last day in Prague, we had a wonderful private guide who specialized in the Jewish history of Prague. Her name is Renata Blazkova, Phd, and her email is blazer@volny.cz. Her fee was 2200CZK total for 3 1/2 hours. We felt it was money well-spent. She met us at our hotel to take us to the Jewish quarter. We went to several synagogues, most of which are now museums. The Pinkas Synagogue had the names of 80,000 Czech Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. From Prague, they were taken to a holding point in Terezin and were made to believe that they would stay there until the end of the war. So they allowed them to form orchestras and conduct plays to show the Red Cross representatives the "humanitarian" treatment they were receiving. However, most were later shipped to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. There was a display of drawings from some of the children at Terezin and they would draw pictures of their daily life. It was a very moving experience to see this. The prettiest synagogue was the Spanish Synagogue. It was called that because they liked the style of the Moors. We also visited the Jewish cemetery and saw the tombstone of the wealthy man, Maisel, who loaned money to the Hapsburgs during the 30-years War to defeat the Hussites (protestants). But the Jews were still harassed by the Hapsburgs.

    After our tour we went to the Communism Museum. It actually had a lot of good information even though it looks "down-at-the heels". They have a film of the protesters during the final "Velvet Revolution". For dinner we went to a pub and had Czech Potato Soup, fried mushrooms, and delicious dumplings. We went back to the hotel to pack and go home. The ending of a wonderful trip!

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    Hi Janet, I continue to enjoy your report. I had hoped to visit Czech Republic this fall, but due to time constraints, it'll have to wait. Your idea of taking walking tours led by locals is excellent. I should do that more often, because with a good guide, one gets a much better understanding of the place and its people.

    I am a bit surprised you didn't like Prague. I haven't been, but seems like Prague universally gets praise here. My cousin who went to Budapest with me earlier this year, thinks Prague is much nicer than Budapest. I guess I just have to go there myself to find out!

    Thanks again for your detailed trip report. It's amazing how great the bargains you got using Priceline for your hotels. Also, thank you for the links to the various walking tours.

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    Great report. We loved Kraków when we were there last year and Melk Abbey is one of our all-time favorite places we have visited. Next time I am in Vienna I am going to do that "Third Man" tour. I can hear the zither already.

    ((H))

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    Hi, Maitaitom. We had gotten some of our restaurant recommendations from you. Thanks for that. Yes, on the Third Man Tour, they stop at a place where someone plays the movie theme on the zither. They don't go to the Prater, though, so you have to do that on your own.

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    thanks for a wonderful report, jrjcollins! I enjoyed revisiting some of my favorite places. Personally, I too liked Budapest better than Prague.

    Will you be posting any pictures?

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    Hi Janet,
    Did you purchase your CK castle tickets in advance? We are leaving for CR this Sat. After 3 days in Prague, we are renting a car & driving to CK & a few other places. I have not attempted to order the CK castle tickets in advance yet. We would need English speaking tour. I know August will be crowded but not sure if it is more crowded than June. I hate to have our whole trip "pre booked" in advance but also don't want to miss out on CK castle tour.
    Thanks.
    karen

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    No, we didn't buy them in advance. We arrived at 1PM at the box office and got the 2PM tickets for the Baroque Theater and the 3PM tickets for the general Castle Tour #1.
    Janet

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    Oone of the best and most informative trip reports I've read in awhile. Wonderful job!

    Sorry to hear you didn't enjoy the Terror Museum in Budapest. I thought it was terrific. My husband rented an audio guide and I used the English translation papers, located in each room. The papers are there and are quite informative. You just have to look for them.

    I agree with your summation of Szentendre...a nice, little town but overwhelmed with souvenir shops.

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    I went to the Terror Museum with a relative, and another cousin of mine visited it on her own. All 3 of us were disappointed. We found the museum layout confusing, and the English explanation (those papers you mentioned) was too lengthy and verbose. I tried my best to read it all, but after reading 2 pages of single-space explanation (and that's for every room), I just got tired of it. And in some rooms, even reading the English explanation didn't help - we still didn't understand what we were looking at. Most of the videos shown were in Hungarian without English subtitles. I felt the museum was a great idea but it could be so much better (for non-Hungarian speaking tourists) if it were better organized with more succinct translation.

    I know many people raved about the Terror Museum here and elsewhere, but it just didn't do it for me (and my other 2 travel companions).

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    Interesting report bringing back memories of places visited a few years ago. No stop at Czestochowa shrine en route to Krakow? Only one sentence for Auschwitz? Yes, I know you were moved as you stood in the gas chamber as well as viewing collected remains like luggage, eye glasses, etc. We came back for dinner that day (my birthday) in the Kazimierz area of Krakow in Hotel Alef's cafe where Schindler dined with family and also later Spielberg hang out (famous factory not far away).

    Indeed Budapest, Prague, Vienna all have wonderful sights. And you saw a few things we didn't, also didn't get to Cesky Krumlov which many have liked. But we also had some wonderful side trips: concert at Chopin's country house, Zakopane in Tatra Mnts., Dvorak tour to Vysoka u Primari village, Nosalov and a polka party, down the Danube Bend to Szentendre, Holloko UNESCO Heritage site, into Vienna woods to Baden spa. town.

    Ozarksbill walongman@yahoo.com

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    Thanks, Fadoinka, for your kind words. Ozarksbill, it sounds like you went on some really interesting side trips. Did you have a car? We didn't on this trip; maybe next time.

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    I really did enjoy reading your report and revisiting places...and some we hadn't seen. Once again (being a little older) we went with Grand Circle Travel which provides a well informed program director plus local guides along the way...and for the side trips mentioned. You can see earlier comments about Eastern Europe.
    Our PD Agnes was raised in Poland and parents did well under Communism but now are suffering due to no pension. So now many older folks are stressed while many younger ones are successful in various enterprises. Agnes was able to critically analyze past and present...which GCT encourages in also providing lectures along the way. Once there was repression but security; now there has been economic growth but crime in the various former East block countries. You did well getting guides because I am convinced that helps in an understanding. We also had free time to explore as did you.
    ozarksbill@yahoo.com

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    The Polish postal system is alive and well! I had mentioned in my report that after six weeks, postcards we had mailed from Krakow had not yet arrived in the US. Well yesterday, 2 months after they were mailed from inside the Krakow post office, 3 of the postcards arrived. The funny thing was, I had read on a previous post a suggestion not to mail things from Hungary because it would take a month for mail to get to its destination. I guess Poland takes the prize!

    Janet

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    You're right, Janet. Poland does take the prize. My postcards from Hungary took about 3-4 weeks; postcards from Austria took under 1 week. For a while, I was joking with DH that my postcards were probably confiscated by the Hungarian government because there were one or 2 complaints I wrote on the postcard.

    How many more postcards are you missing?

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    Allow me to add a somber note: today marks the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland which led to so much suffering and among much else the complete destruction of Warsaw (hard to believe today standing in Old Town Square). My friend Harvey, then a 10 year old in Frankfort, remembers his father saying, "Now I know where Hitler will put the Jews." Harvey BTW is a Holocaust survivor immigrating to the U.S. thanks to Truman's orders, not speaking a word of English...went on to achieve an education including PhD in journalism Univ. of Missouri and taught journalism. He still corrects my grammar!

    Ozarksbill walongman@yahoo.com

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    Thanks for the update, Ozarksbill. Yes, when I was in Warsaw it was hard to believe all the devastation that went on there. By the way, Newsweek has a list of their "Top ten books about Poland during World War II": www.newsweek.com/id/214584.

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    jrjcollins, thanks for such an detailed account. The devastation of WWII, particularly in Poland, can not be overestimated. I just finished THE THIRD REICH AT WAR by Richard J. Evans which catalogues the slaughter. A fascinating account of the Polish aristocracy’s plight during that period is THE LAST MAZURKA: A Family’s Tale of War, Passion and Loss by Andrew Tarnowski.

    It is appropriate that your observations coincide with the 70th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Representatives of Germany, Poland, and Russia are gathering today to mark that event.

    Thanks again for your report….

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