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First Trip Report Ė Prague, Krakow and Budapest plus the less travelled road inbetween Ė A road trip

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Jun 4th, 2007, 07:18 PM
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First Trip Report Ė Prague, Krakow and Budapest plus the less travelled road inbetween Ė A road trip

I havenít done a trip report before as I felt that I would be simply covering ground that has already been well covered by so many others, and with a much better literary style than I could ever possibly achieve. However, I am plunging in for my first go as this trip we did go to some areas that are not so well covered.

First I have to say thanks to all who helped me plan this trip but several Fodorites deserve special mention, being Tower, (I so loved the Grand Hotel at Stary Smokovec), Tomboy and Oddsocks who were invaluable in making my plans.

First, a little bit of information about ourselves. We are both 50ish or more and have travelled in Western Europe extensively but had very little experience with Eastern Europe and have never been to any of these countries before. We enjoy discovering the countryside, mountains and small towns just as much, if not more, than major cities. We donít like big international style hotel chains and generally would take a small pension/boutique hotel with loads of character or a great view over a big place anytime. A quick run-down of places we went to for those who wish to know if this report is going to cover areas they are interested in is, Prague, Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), Cesky Krumlov, Telc, Olomouc, Krakow, Zakopane, Stary Smokovec, Levoca, Eger and finally Budapest.

Car Hire and GPS

We hired a car through Auto Europe and got quite a reasonable rate in the end. The one-way drop off fee was $186USD which wasnít too bad at all. Although there wasnít a great deal of difference between the prices quoted for the daily rental of the car, there was a huge variation in the drop-off fees between the various sites I looked at, so do investigate thoroughly. Where we picked up and dropped off also made quite a difference. We had looked at picking up in Krakow and dropping off in Budapest but the drop off fee was over $600USD! Some firms simply would not allow a Krakow/Budapest rental Ė Iím not sure why. We hired an Opel Astra and found that quite sufficient for our needs. We were able to fit everything into the boot, and we didnít travel all that lightly by any means. The smaller size of the car was certainly appreciated in terms of narrow roads and even in the cities, often with cars parked all over the place it could be very hard to get through sometimes. We had the loan of a BMW 7 Series whilst we were in Prague and, quite frankly, it was terrifying driving something that large. There were a number of times when we only had 2-3 inches manoeuvrability either side of the car.

We also took our Tom-tom navigation system with us and I am completely sold in the use of one. It made for a great deal less stress (though not completely stress-free) and worked very well for the most part. Not needing a road map of each individual town that you are entering in order to find your hotel was great and having it immediately recalculate your route when you find the street you want to turn into is closed for roadwork etc. invaluable. On virtually all occasions it took us right to our hotel or within a 100 metres, so we might need to park and then it took only a minute or two to realise exactly where we needed to go. However, we did learn that it is advisable to have some general road maps for when the GPS fails you. More about that later. As a general rule we found that if a drive was meant to take about 3 hours (both estimated by the Tom Tom or via Michelin) it would be at least another half an hour. The only drives that were substantially on motorways was Telc to Olomouc, Olomouc to Krakow and Eger to Budapest. For the rest we were mainly on smaller roads with very few passing lanes and if you got stuck behind a slow moving truck you were stuck for a long time. At least we were, the locals happily overtook on every blind corner, crest of a hill, etc with complete confidence that everyone would allow them back in before they got hit by the oncoming traffic. However, we were not that brave. Also the Astra had very little oomph so quickly overtaking another vehicle was not really a possibility. Petrol efficiency was good though. Extra tips, it is 0.0 alcohol for driving in all these countries and in Czech Republic and Poland it is compulsory to have your lights on at all times. Also donít drive around a roundabout the wrong way whilst the police are watching!

Flights/Heathrow

Because we were making use of our frequent flyer points, we had to make do with the routing that was available and were forced to transit through Heathrow both ways. We started in Australia, had a hot and steamy three days in Bangkok, and then Heathrow and Prague. Flew on British Airways Economy and canít say we were overly impressed. Our main problem was that the cabin of the plane was quite hot and there were no individual air vents. We have never seen that before on long haul flights or even short haul for that matter. Also decided that we are simply getting too old to travel in Economy any more. Fortunately coming home was Business and was quite good.

Heathrow is an absolute pain to transit, and the new one piece of hand luggage was particularly annoying. It was strictly enforced and there were people all over the place trying to cram all their hand luggage into the one bag. I have no idea what happened to all those people who just simply couldnít do it Ė and they were quite a few. We knew about the rule and so came prepared, but like most people had split up our hand luggage to those things we might actually use on the flight and those we wouldnít so then had to cram it all in together. It wouldnít have seemed as bad, but once you had done that, you literally walked around the corner and then they told us to pull it all apart again in order to for it to go through the next security screen.

Going through customs and immigration at Prague was a breeze Ė about 10 mins for the whole thing. We were approached by a driver at the airport and decided to take a risk and use him. Fortunately he delivered us to our friends place in excellent time and at a cost that was no more than a normal cab fare and acted as a tour guide to boot along the way plus plenty of tips for when we collected our own hire car.

Prague

We spent five days here and had a wonderful time. It really is a glorious city. We stayed with friends so have nothing to say in terms of hotels one might stay in. The river running through the middle looks wonderful and most days we stopped at least once to sit and while away some time at a riverside café. We were there in the second week of May and the weather was very good, sunny and mid 20ís.

Walking around the old city amongst all the cobbled lanes is a delight and likewise sitting at a café in the main square. The number of shops which cater just for tourist was certainly overdone but we did enjoy browsing through a number of them.

We had a number of good meals but generally in the local places that our friends recommended rather than well known ones. We did go to the French Restaurant (Francouzksa Restaurace) at the beautiful Municipal House. It certainly did look impressive with the crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The service was excellent and likewise the meal. Despite its name the food is by no means all french and was had a number of Czech dishes as well. On our first day we had lunch in the cellar restaurant at Zum Golden Brunnen, just literally around the corner from the main square and enjoyed that as well Ė good atmosphere too. We had roast duck several times and it was always well prepared and still lovely and moist. Our friends insisted my DH had to do as the locals and order a pork knuckle at their local pub which is absolutely enormous and came on its own individual spit. It would have fed four people. I tried the Moravian Sparrow (no idea why it is called that) and it was absolutely delicious, another pork dish.

A walk around Petrin to get away from hustle and bustle was lovely one morning Ė felt as though you could have been miles from anywhere. We took the funicular up and then wandered around for a while, over to Stavosky Monastery which was also good. The Jewish area is also an excellent area to explore. Absolutely loved the Spanish Synagogue. Pay attention to the photographic/story exhibition from Terezin, it is very informative and interesting.

The Castle as everyone warned was very crowded but we found it wasnít really a problem at all. Times were allocated for several of the tours which meant that you didnít have to wait in long lines. There was no line to speak of when we bought the tickets but I donít know if we were simply lucky there or not. There were tons of school groups but Golden Lane wasnít too bad at all. However, we did go there early and then backtrack to the other main sights, on the basis that we would beat all the other people who tended to do the same sites in the same order.

We borrowed our friendís car and went out to Karlsteijn one afternoon which was quite pleasant Because of roadworks we approached the town from an unusual direction and had to drive down a long windy road through the forest which I donít think we were actually allowed to do, but it got us there The drive through the forest was beautiful and we knew we had found an authentic Czech pub when the menu was only in Czech and none of the staff spoke any English. Meal was quite reasonable but we had no idea what we were getting until it turned up. I had read several times that the view of the castle is wonderful as you come in but neither of us had seen it at all. After parking the car along the forest track we walked into town and still hadnít seen the castle. My DH asked me was I sure there was a castle here and when I turned around to answer him, I said look behind you. We had walked right underneath it without even noticing! It looked huge high up on the hill above us. It is a fair trudge up the hill to the top but the view is very good once you get there. I know they say you can take a horse and cart to the top but we only saw one going the entire three hours or so we were there. We didnít actually go inside the castle for a tour as it was getting fairly late but thoroughly enjoyed walking around the outside and taking in the view.

We thought the best place to take photographs of the Castle was not from the Charles Bridge, but the next one down. That way you got not only the Castle but the Charles Bridge too if you wished. It also had very few people on it so could really choose your best vantage points for shots and take all the time you wanted. My DH is a keen photographer and he took a number of shots from there, going back two nights in a row.

Our last night in Prague was the day of the Prague Marathon with over 7000 runners. Apparently it now ranks up there in the top 10 marathons for the world. It was a lovely sunny day which was great for the spectators (not for the runners) and there was a wonderful atmosphere. Lots of bands playing and other entertainment. Our friend whom we were staying with us was running (his first marathon in over 25 years) so we lined up just before the finish line to see him finish. By the time we got through the crowds to where the competitors exited, we couldnít find him and after 45 mins decided that he had already gone off with his wife and we would catch up with him later. About an hour later, we got a phone call to say that he had just been released from the first aid tent. Apparently he crossed the finish line, basically fell onto a stretcher and then they carted him off. Fortunately all he needed was some water and a rest and was fine. A lot of people got caught out because the weather was so unseasonably warm. It was low to mid-20ís. Last year it was -2 degrees when they ran the marathon.

For someone who was going to write a brief report, I seemed to have written any awful lot. Will continue with Karlovy Vary and Cesky Krumlov next.

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Jun 4th, 2007, 07:57 PM
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hi shandy,
Please give yourself some credit - you have a great writing style & I'm really enjoying your report so far! You're right - these cities don't get alot of posts on this board. So it's really interesting to read about them. I had never thought about travelling to Prague, but it sounds lovely! Thanks for taking the time to write a report, and keep it coming!
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Jun 4th, 2007, 10:14 PM
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shandy, I have anxiously awaited your return, since the first part of our long trip next year encompasses many of the areas you mention. Thanks for taking the time (and also answering some of my questions), and your writing style is great.

Trip reports always seem to end up longer than one first realizes, but know that your information is greatly appreciated. The longer the better, I say.

Looking forward to more from your trip. How was driving in and out of Prague? I have heard it is not easy.

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Jun 5th, 2007, 12:49 AM
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Lolly, thank you for your kind response. I can't tell you how excited I was that someone had actually taken the trouble to read the report.

Maitaitom, thank to you as well. We actually had very little difficulty in driving in and out of Prague. We did a couple of day trips from our friends place and found ourselves on the major road going out of town quite quickly. Of course, bear in mind, we did have the GPS to help. Likewise, when we picked up the rental car which was actually from Budget at the Intercontinental it was a breeze. Even without a GPS it would have been quite simple. It only took about 2-3 minutes to get onto the main road to Cesky Krumlov. One thing to consider with Prague, Krakow and Budapest is that all three have trams. If you are not used to trams I can imagine it could be quite stressful. Tram drivers everywhere seem to be notorius for beliving they have the right of way even when they don't. Fortunately for us, we come from a city which has trams and thus it didn't phase us. We had no idea what were the road rules in relation to the trams, who had right of way, do you have to stop when they do etc., but we just followed the rules we do at home and didn't seem to upset anyone.

I will add the next chaper tonight.
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Jun 5th, 2007, 03:57 AM
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Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad)

We did this as a day trip from Prague and really enjoyed it. I hadnít planned on going there at all, as all my attention had been focused on travelling in the opposite direction, down to Cesky Krumlov and then over to Krakow. However, the friends we were staying with suggested we use their car and head out there for the day. In fact, until our friends told us, I had no idea that Karlovy Vary was the famous spa town of Carlsbad.

It took us about 1 ĺ hours to get there by car (you can catch the train or bus as well). It is actually quite a big town and when we first arrived we didnít see anything that looked particularly wonderful at all. However, we parked the car and realized that the Information Office at the train station was just around the next block. So decided the obvious course of action was to head down there, get a map of the town and ask where are the sights. Once at the Tourist Office I asked the woman for a map and where should we go. She then told me that we needed to go to another town 15km away. When I asked if we could drive to it she said we needed to take the bus, so off we went to buy a bus ticket downstairs. However, once at the bus ticket counter there seemed to only be buses back to Prague and not to the town she had mentioned. We decided that this was ridiculous and that surely we could drive there as we now knew the name of the town and could put that into the GPS. Once we were finally back at the car, I said that the whole thing didnít make sense. Surely our friends would have told us if we needed to go to another town and our Lonely Planet book made no mention of the sights being elsewhere. After studying the map a bit more (very poor map) we worked out, yes, we were in the right place and the old section of town was only about half km away. Thank goodness we hadnít found a bus to catch. I canít imagine what the woman in the tourist office thought we wanted to go to. I have no doubt she was trying to be helpful.

The old part of town is very pictureresque with the river running through it and lavish buildings either side. It reminded me very much of a miniature St Petersburg which is a city I adore. As it was a Russian town this makes sense. Just wandering around the town in the sun was very pleasant and, for once, we played the tourist and took a horsedrawn ride around the old town. There were a number of high class shops selling furs. I would never buy one myself, but it was still fun to have a look at them. We took the funicular up to the top of the hill but there wasnít a great deal at the top except for some nice looking walking tracks which we didnít have time to investigate. We could easily have spent a night or two at this town. I suspect there is some very classy accommodation to choose from. It was extremely interesting to see the juxtaposition of the beautiful old world hotels with one extremely ugly block type communist era hotel built right in the middle of the town.

On a general note as one drove through the Czech Republic is was amazing seeing the number of huge block apartments built during the communist era Ė hundreds of them in some places They are nowdays looking very much the worse for wear. . You could be driving along a beautiful valley in the countryside, turn a corner and this is what you are confronted by as you enter a town. Donít take this to mean that this was what you got all the time. The vast majority of the countryside is beautiful, but every now and then you were startled when coming across a commercial/industrial town like this.

Cesky Krumlov

It took us 2 Ĺ hours to drive to Cesky Krumlov. I can only imagine the bus would take longer and have read other Fodor reports that is a better option than the train. Consequently, I wouldnít like to try and do it as a day trip from Prague Ė far too much travelling.

If Karlovy Vary was a miniature St Petersburg, then Cesky Krumlov is a miniature Prague with its central square and lots of little cobblestone streets radiating out from it.

We only spent one night here and stayed at Pension Ve Vezi. This is a 12 century tower which is part of the original fortifications. It had a great atmosphere. There could be no doubt you were staying in a tower as every room has a curved wall. The walls must have been about five feet thick and inset with small windows. Our room had one double bed, cupboard and a small table and chair. It was very basic and likewise was the bathroom, but we felt it was worth it to say we had slept there. Marta, the owner, doesnít have much English but she was kind and accommodating. The following morning we woke to the sound of nothing but birds singing, we could have been miles from anywhere. The breakfast the next morning was good. My only complaint was that the bathtowels were extremely small, not much bigger than large handtowels. However the shower was hot and plentiful which makes up for a lot of things. Incidentally the bathroom is shared with one other room, but we didnít nead to share on the night we stayed. Location wise it was very good, just 2-3 minutes walk from the castle and less than 10 minutes from the main square.

Make sure you have a poke around the Hotel Ruze which used to be a Jesuit boarding house. It has lovely views from its balcony over the park. Likewise the views towards the castle from the little park opposite the hotel are also good.

We enjoyed wandering around the castle and whiled away a fair amount of time there. Once again, we stopped at one of the riverside café below the castle for a break. It is also a good spot to really take note of how high the castle is and how it is built into the hillside. You just canít appreciate it from the castle itself.

Thanks to advice from Fodors (sorry, I can no longer remember who told me about it) we visited the beer cellar at the main square and really enjoyed the atmosphere. To reiterate the directions given to me, from the main square you find the sign for the Chinese Restaurant. To the left of the sign you see a small sign for Catacombs. Look for a little door at the back and you will find a spiral staircase heading down into the darkness. Go down carefully, as it is very dark and have a drink or even a meal. When I first found the little door, I thought ďsurely you donít go down thereĒ however, it was well worth it. We had dinner at a place called La Louzi (?). Once again, good atmosphere with shared tables and good local food.

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Jun 5th, 2007, 04:43 AM
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great report! keep it coming.
 
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Jun 5th, 2007, 06:27 AM
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Thank you for taking the time to write this Shandy! Looking forward to the rest! pp
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Jun 5th, 2007, 07:08 AM
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Wow, what a great trip! I'm really enjoying your report - keep it coming!

Meredith
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Jun 5th, 2007, 02:56 PM
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Wonderful report! Thanks so much for posting. I love the Municipal House in Prague, but have not dined there. That must have been a real treat! Anxiously awaiting next installment.
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Jun 6th, 2007, 07:56 AM
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Thanks everyone for our kind comments. If anyone has some specific questions that I might be able to help with, ask away.

A couple of general comments whilst I think about them.

In the main tourist towns, English was spoken quite a bit and we had absolutely no problems at all. In the smaller places this was not necessarily the case. You might have a waiter who has sufficient English to be able to take an order from the menu but if you queried something it was beyond him. There were quite a few places we stopped at where the people we were speaking had no English at all. However, we never found this to be a problem. We think it is all part and parcel of experiencing something new and provides much more interaction with the locals as you both try to communicate what you want.

I am allergic to mushrooms and though I have never bothered in all my previous travels (feeling that I could always work it out) this time I took cards which I had ordered over the internet (selectwisely.com) which simply said does this dish contain mushrooms and that I was allergic to mushrooms. I had one for each language.

As the language is so different and I was rather concerned that I wouldn't notice any mushrooms lurking in some goulash type dishes this worked wonderfully. Even when our waiter had no English whatsoever, I would pull out the card after choosing something off the menu and there was no problem at all. A simple nod yes or no made it all clear. Even when the waiter does have some English it was still well worth it, because sometimes when you think they understand they haven't really got it. On one occasion early in the trip I ended up with mushrooms on top of my veal after being assured in fairly good English that the dish does not have mushrooms. Money well spent in my opinion.

I must say getting my head around these languages is much more difficult then in western Europe. I am conversational in French (just) but have no other languages, but like many others have certainly picked up a number of basic phrases in German, Italian, Spanish etc, but with these languages if I could manage to say "thank you" in each language I was preety happy. I did pick up a couple more phrases in Czech but not in Slovak, Polish or Hungarian. In fact, never did work out even "thank you" in Slovak.

Next instalment to follow.
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Jun 6th, 2007, 07:56 AM
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Telc

Next morning it was up bright and early at Cesky Krumlov. As the last few days had been glorious weather, we thought it would be fun to see if we could go rafting before we left. Our friends from Prague had done it and said it was great fun. We didnít even know if the rafting season had started yet but thought it wouldnít hurt to try. However, our glorious weather had deserted us and it was a rather cold and drizzly day. All thoughts of rafting very quickly disappeared.

Consequently after breakfast it was off to Olomouc via Telc. We drove through some glorious countryside on the way to Telc. Because we were relying totally on the GPS for navigation, and didnít have a broad road map to consult, I donít know if we really got there the most logical way. We had chosen the ďquickest routeĒ but we meandered all over the place, lots of turns and lots of country villages. As I said, rather nice to see (fortunately the rain kept to no more than an occasional drizzle) but it certainly took a while and sometimes we wondered whether we were really heading to Telc or was the GPS making a takeover bid and taking us on a joyride instead. The first time we saw a sign for Telc was about 15 minutes before we got there. It took us 2 hours in total to get there.

We hit Telc just before midday. It has a huge square. The place seemed virtually deserted and we were able to park right in the middle of the square Ė absolutely no problem at all. The Square itself looks rather nice as you gaze around at the various building with the pastel facades, a few quite highly painted.

By the way I never mentioned the elaborately painted façade of the castle at Cesky Krumlov Ė it is really quite something. Also a number of the ordinary buildings were elaborately painted as well, some in a 3D type effect.

As it was about 5 minutes to noon we thought we should go straight up to the castle in case there was a tour leaving at noon. You can only see the castle on a tour. We raced up only to find that the castle is actually closed between noon and 1pm. So we strolled back and spent 20 minutes meandering around down near the river.

Now I donít know if we were in Telc on an off day but there seemed to be basically nothing to do there at all. It was still overcast and drizzly sometime and the place continued to be virtually deserted. We walked around all four sides of the squares and I think there were two shops that looked interesting enough to go in. This was probably my punishment because I had previously commented to DH that both Prague and Cesky Krumlov would benefit by cutting back their tourist shops by half. The shops here, obviously catered for the locals and seemed to mainly consist of poorer type clothes shops and bits of odds and ends. There were no cafes or restaurants (apart from one) which looked as though they make use of the square itself by having outside eating areas. Admittedly it wasnít the day to do so, but our impression was that even on a sunny day there wouldnít be any more. The one obvious restaurant at the far side of the square from the castle was closed. We, in fact, were having a hard time filling in an hour before the next tour. Our lunch consisted of one extremely limp hot dog and a rather pathetic hamburger from a take away shop which seemed to mainly cater for the local school kids. We werenít trying to save money here, we just didnít find anything better.

However, back to the castle at 1pm for our tea which we quite enjoyed. The castle is definitely worth a look if you are there. The tour itself was in Czech (takes 50 mins) but we were given notes in English on each room. They werenít badly done at all, but of course, the guide gives quite a bit more info than the notes contain and thus, generally speaking, we had to wait several more minutes to move onto the next room after we had finished reading the notes and having a look around. A number of the rooms were very good with trompe líoeil, some with superb wood carved ceilings and the African room with dozens of heads of animals is a real eye opener.

So overall, Telc is worth stopping by for a quick look, but I wouldnít be suggesting making a big detour to include it and certainly canít see any point in making it an overnight stop. Perhaps we missed something, but have to agree with Oddsocks, Olomouc has much more to offer.

Trip to Olomouc took another 2 Ĺ hours which was nearly all on motorway. It should have been a very easy drive but it was pouring by then and wasnít particularly fun at all with the trucks zooming past us and splashing the car with water.

Olomouc

This was a good place to stop on our way to Krakow. Made the drive the next day not too long and is quite a nice place in itself. We didnít actually get to see to much of it ourselves as it rained the whole time but I could certainly see the possibilities of this University town.

We stayed at Penzion Na Hrade which is literally just a couple of hundred metres away from the main square, but was not at all noisy. This place is fairly new and as such, is very modern and clean. Our room was a good size (not sure what the others are like because I know we were in the biggest room) well furnished and had all mod cons including internet. The bathroom was a decent size with lovely big fluffy towels. As I had been unable to find any reviews whatsoever on this place before booking I was pleased to see that it lived up to my expectation. Their website is well done and gives you a ton of information. Breakfast the following morning was quite satisfactory and do ask to take a look at their wine cellar. I thought it was extremely good value for money and was a lot cheaper than Hotel Gemo which is the number 1 pick on Tripadvisor. The pension is also closer to the main square than Gemo too. You do have to pay extra for parking at this place as there is, in fact, no parking at the Pension itself. There is enough room to park the car for a short period of time while you load/unload and then the hotel staff take the car to a secure pay garage elsewhere in Oloumouc and bring it back for you when needed. You donít need a car whilst you are in the town so this is no hardship and the car was certainly ready and waiting for us when we wanted to leave.

The town has a large town square Ė actually two squares which are linked Ė and some excellent statues, especially the Holy Trinity Column which has World Heritage listing. The Tourist Office had a number of excellent brochures on what to see and do. Read the one on the building of the Holy Trinity Column which I found very interesting and certainly makes you appreciate it more. A general wander around the Square is pleasant The Church of St Michael (which is about 200 m from the Pension) is well worth a look, lots of overdone gold and glitz but especially to see the painting of a pregnant Virgin Mary Ė there canít be too many of those around! (thanks Oddsocks for the tip). St Wenceslas Cathedral which is about 15 minutes away is also good.

We went to Moravska Restaurace on the main square for dinner. It is terribly kitsch with dried flowers and assorted bric-a-brac everywhere. However it was good fun, staff were very friendly and the meals were enormous.

We also enjoyed our cake and coffee at Café Mahler on the main square as well.

Tomorrow it is head off to Poland.
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Jun 6th, 2007, 08:10 AM
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hi, shandy,

thanks so much for posting ypour report.

this is just the sort of trip I know my DH would love to do - we've managed Prague and Budapest [both between Christmas and New Year in succesive years] so far, but would love to tour as well.

we had dinner in the municipal house too, after a new year concert - that time of year you get half a roast goose rather than duck!I was really hooked.

looking forward to the poland leg - DH's next target in Krakow.

regards, ann
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Jun 6th, 2007, 09:51 AM
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Hi Shandy-Im enjoying your post. I know what you mean about the language. I had prepared a 3 column page of Hungarian/phonetic/English. I read a phrase of Hungarian to an older person (who as such would have been less likely to speak English), in what I thought sounded EXACTLY like the pronunciation heard on websites or language tapes. He wrinkled his brow, paused a moment, and said,"do you speak English?".
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Jun 6th, 2007, 02:32 PM
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Love your story tomboy.
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Jun 7th, 2007, 06:13 AM
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Krakow

The only way we could do this trip was for DH to bring mobile and laptop so he could continue to work. Thus most mornings he would spend a couple of hours working before we headed off and consequently it was a late start from Olomouc to head over to Krakow.

DH suggested we go back to Café Mahler for a relaxing coffee before we undertook the drive. Thus because we couldnít leave the car outside the Pension indefiniely we drove 100 metres around the corner into the square (this is a really big square with a preety substantial building in the middle). We could see some parking spots about 50 metres in front of us and thought, great, lets park there. What we didnít realise that the square is considered a very large roundabout and we were driving the wrong way around it. This would have been fine, apart from the fact that a police car was watching us do it. However they were very nice to us and simply drew little circles with their hands and we drew little circles with ours, turned around the other way and we all went on our merry way. By the time we had circled the square, parked again DH definitely felt in need of that relaxing cup of coffee.

Drive to Krakow is nearly all on motorway. Took us all of five minutes to cross at the border and we were in Poland. It appeared to us that Poland is one huge construction zone as it seemed virtually impossible to drive for more than 5km at a stretch without encountering road works. There were very long stretches where both directions of traffic had to share one side of the motorway. Although it certainly slowed things down, it still kept moving relatively well. We did stop twice at the larger roadside petrol stations to see if they had an ATM so we could get some local money, but neither did and we decided that it could simply wait until we hit Krakow. This was a great idea until we got to the toll booth a few miles out from Krakow and we had no local currency. Had no idea what to do at first but some kind official managed to make it known to us with lots of sign language that one of the booths took credit cards. The signs to show which took a credit card were quite small and certainly not visible until you are quite close and already committed to a particular lane. We had a hair-raising couple of minutes cutting across the constant stream of trucks in order to get to the right booth. Fortunately credit card payment is quite acceptable for a toll that amounted to about $1.50.

Drive to the hotel in Krakow itself proved quite easy fortunately. We stayed at the Pugetow Hotel and we extremely happy with it. It is a small boutique hotel run by the Donimirski Group. I think there are only 6 rooms in total. Ours was on the third and top floor, no elevator but considering how much we had been eating this was probably a plus. The room was almost like a mini-suite with a separate vestibule area which had a large cupboard for all your belongings, the bedroom with a queen sized bed, 2 very comfy lounge chairs and table and a desk area. The room was beautifully painted and all the furnishings were of a high standard. I particularly liked the large circular window on one side and because we were on the top floor there were several skylights which flooded with the room and bathroom with natural light. The bathroom was very modern and clean. Dominika who was the manager was extremely accommodating and very friendly. Breakfast in the downstairs cellar was excellent. It was all cold but offered an excellent range. It was less than a 5 min walk to the main square.

Had good meals at Da Pietro, a cellar restaurant with underground vaults (Italian Ė Rynek Glowny 17) and Pod Andiolami which is also a cellar restarant. The pierogi were excellent, but make for a very filling entrée. We had ordered two different types (meat and cheese) but should have just shared one serve between them. We followed this up with a pork dish for me and goose for DH Ė both also very good. We started talking to the British couple at the next table. The bloke has a beautiful BBC accent and from the amount of holidays they take they certainly have plenty of money, but the bit I really loved was the casual mention of he goes shooting with Winston Churchillís grandson. It sounded so wonderfully upper class British. Service was very slow on the night we were there but they did say they were short staffed that night and we were not in hurry so didnít phase us.

On our final night we had dinner in the Kaziermierz (Jewish) area. We tried several places to find they were fully booked out and ended up at Szara which I am sure must be an offshoot of the one in the main square. It has an international theme with a bit of leaning towards french food and our meal was excellent. I loved the marinated raw salmon I had for an entrée. The staff were very attentive (without being too attentive) and good for a laugh or two.

Enjoyed the castle but it is just as crowded as the one in Prague. Have just realized that it was this Castle which gave allocated tour times when we bought the tickets (not Prague Castle) Tour of the State Rooms was fine but nothing amazing. Did enjoy the Armoury and Treasury and the tour of the Private Apartments which was in English was good. The Cathedral is excellent, but was extremely crowded. DH found is so crowded he just gave up after a few minutes. We had lost each other in the crush by then so I had no idea he had gone back out and continued on. It didnít turn out to be too bad in the end, it was really only the front section of the Cathedral that was so crowded. By the time I finally got outside, DH had been patiently waiting for me for about ĺ hour.

We also enjoyed a tour at the Collegium Maius (the University at which Copernicus studied). The tour was in English and the guide was really quite entertaining. Do make sure you are there on the hour to see clock striking the hour and watch all the moving figures.

We also took a tour out to Wieliczka Salt Mine. We were feeling in a bit of need of pampering and so instead of driving out ourselves, the hotel organised a private driver. I canít remember the cost but it was about the same as if you had booked on one of the bus tours. Marcek (with the unpronounceable last name which, unfortunately for him, means parsley much to his chagrin as a child) was our driver. He was quite young but was a fount of information about conditions in Poland and we really enjoyed our time with him. As to the tour itself I was a bit disappointed. I had really been looking forward and consequently had high expectations. Yes the carvings were good, the cathedral is excellent and it was really interesting, however what I hadnít realized that approx 6000-7000 people visit EVERY day. It is the number 1 tourist attraction in Poland. It was very well organised with tours leaving every few minutes (in 30 assorted languages) but quite a lot of time was simply spent walking from one area to the next and constantly waiting for the tour group before you to move on so you could enter the next area. There were a lot of school tours on our day and the kids, as kids are, were quite noisy and kept having to be hustled along. Watching the primary school kids licking the walls to see how salty they were was rather entertaining though, if somewhat gross as my daughter would say. Out of the two hours scheduled for the tour, probably only 45 minutes were actively spent looking at things, the rest was walking or waiting time. This is not to say that I donít think people should go, we are glad we did, I just donít want others to be a bit more realistic in their expectations than I was and hopefully you will be pleasantly surprised when your tour is nearly as crowded as ours. One of the best parts of the tour was right at the end when, because there was a half hour wait to go up in the main lift, they took our group up in the minerís lift. It was very cramped and you didnít have walls around you, more of a cage contraption. It gave that real touch of authenticity. Pity the poor miners who had finished their shift and looked very hot and dirty who were made to wait while the paying customers got transported first.

The best part of Krakow, however, was simply wandering around the main square, strolling through the markets in the Cloth Hall and stopping at various outdoors cafes to have a coffee or drink and people watch. There was constantly something going on with lots of buskers, the horsedrawn carriages going past etc. It all made for a lovely atmoshphere.
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Jun 7th, 2007, 02:10 PM
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Hi, Shandy,

DH is very keen to go to Krakow, hopefully before it gets too touristy.

Have we left it too late?

thanks for your lovely report,

regards, ann
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Jun 7th, 2007, 03:03 PM
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great report. I'm going to Krakow in August, although I'm a bit concerned about the crowds if it already is that busy before real summer even starts!

We are staying at the Maltanski, another of the Donimirski Group. It looks like they run a nice operation!
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Jun 8th, 2007, 12:14 AM
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Annhig, the salt mine was the only place that we experienced any real troubles with crowds. Now maybe what we experienced was unusual, I don't know. In my research for this trouble I didn't come across anyone talking about long wating times. The fact that the main elevator to transport everyone back up to the surface had a half an hour wait, tends to suggest that things were not going as smoothly as they should. As I mentioned there was a LOT of school groups and perhaps this was the problem. Our friendly driver, told us on the way back that it was final exam time for the senior students and thus schools tend to take the younger kids on excursions in order for the schools to be quiet.

There were also a lot of people at Wawell Hill but, apart from the Cathedral itself, things were so well organised that it just wasn't a problem. It was very pleasant sitting next to the grass of the old ruined section. You didn't have so many people milling around you that you could not enjoy the experience. Incidentally, read up on the connection between the chakra of Hindu (or was it Buddhism?) religion and the castle. Legend has it that one corner of the castle is one of seven sacred sites where there is a special energy force. It was really interesting. I found the story in either a Fodors or Frommers guidebook.

For the rest of Krakow, it didn't seem particularly crowded at all. The main square is so big and the cafes/restaurants so plentiful that it would be hard to fill it us.

Although Krakow is certainly starting to grab people's attention more and more, and justly so, you certainly haven't missed the boat by any means.
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Jun 8th, 2007, 12:16 AM
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Skatedancer, given our experience at the Pugetow I am sure you will have a lovely time at the Maltanski. The Maltanski was actually my first choice but it was booked out, thus the Pugetow.

Have a wonderful trip when you go.
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Jun 8th, 2007, 02:52 AM
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Zakopane

It was next off to Zakopane which is in the Tatra Mountains that straddle the Poland/Slovakia border.

Trip down in the car was excellent. We had been warned by a couple of people to expect it to be dreadful with lots of trucks etc so, following, the law of averages we just zoomed along. It was the only part of the trip which we completed in less time than the GPS estimated, taking only 1 1/2 hrs instead of 2 hours.

We hadnít booked any accommodation here so, after parking car, we went hunting. Our first try was at Hotel Sbala which generally scores quite well on Tripadvisor. We were told there was only one room left in the hotel so we asked to look at it. When we got there is was tiny and so we declined it and decided to try elsewhere. I had very nearly booked a room with them over the internet the night before so was very pleased that I hadnít, because that presumably would have been the room I would have been booking. Hotel itself looked quite nice though.

Our next try was Hotel Litwor and here we scored well. It is right in the heart of Zakopane so everything is close by, but because it is set back from the main street and there was absolutely no trouble with noise. We were given room 303, at an excellent price with walk-in rates. The room itself was a good size with a queen bed and a single plus a desk and plasma TV with in-house movies (extra cost) and internet (extra cost). Furnishings were quite good and the bathroom,was not very big but adequate and quite modern. What made this room though, was that it is one of the very few in the hotel which has had the balcony glassed in. In this balcony area there are two comfy lounge chairs and a small table. I spent quite a bit of time sitting in this area, reading, writing or just looking at the view of the mountains whilst I had a cup of tea. Without this area it basically would have seemed like a reasonable motel room. Of course, this meant that you couldnít go outside onto your balcony but I would see the people from the next room go out to their balcony, stand and look at the view for a couple of minutes (there was nowhere to sit) and then disappear inside again. The rest of the hotel was well done, wellness area in the basement, and a nice restaurant downstairs. Had dinner in the restaurant one night and it was excellent. The staff were friendly and we particularly liked our waiter who seemed to attach himself to us for the three nights we spent there. The breakfast buffet was excellent and they cooked eggs to order as well.

One tip in the bathroom is beware the underfloor heating. On our last night I had done quite a bit of washing and had it hanging all over the bathroom. I turned the underfloor heating on full so it would be nice and warm in there during the night. At about 4am I got up to use the bathroom and couldnít even walk on the floor in my bare feet it was so hot. It was marvellous for drying the clothes though. I actually ended laying the few that hadnít dried out yet flat on the floor and they were dry in no time.

We really enjoyed our time in Zakopane. We had originally intended to spend only two nights there, but were enjoying it so much we stayed a third night.

The town itself if extremely touristy but we thought it was fun. Lots of roadside stalls selling everything conceivable that could interest a tourist. I succumbed and bought a rather nice white leather jacket. Fortunately, now that I am at home, I am still happy with my buy. The jacket would have cost about the third of the price of one I saw in a fairly upscale shop in Krakow. There were dozens of little carts selling what looked like bread rolls which had been baked in a mould so there was a lovely design all over the roll. We decided we had to try one of them, but when we bit into it we discovered it was smoked cheese Ė and not very nice smoked cheese. I think it is probably something you have to grow up on. We saw quite a few kids in prams gnawing away on one of these.

There are lots of restaurants and outdoor cafes, often with live music. Cooking meat on huge skewers was all the go and we went to a couple of restaurants that specialised in this. Even though it was the off season there was plenty happening.

One day we drove over to Lake Morskie Oko (Eye of the Sea) and did the walk there. If you havenít got a car, the town seemed to be very well set up in terms of mini-buses going to all the places you might like to see. The Lake, or entrance to, is about a 30 minute drive from Zakopane itself. You then have the choice of a 2 hour walk (generally uphill) or a horse drawn carriage to the lake itself. We opted for the horse drawn carriage and were glad we had done so. The scenery on the walk itself was nothing to rave about but once you get to the lake it is a different story altogether. It is a fairly large lake which is completey ringed by mountains. There was still snow on the top of the mountains and little waterfalls and one good sized one from the snow melt everywhere. The walk around the lake takes about one hour with no stops, so took us about two hours altogether. There is a café at the lake which offered simple food and drinks before you head back again.

Other walks we really enjoyed were one just at the back of the town called Dolina Strynzka. This is a short walk of only about 40 mins one way, but you can extend this if you want and the Golden Valley Walk (a couple of hours each way) which is about half an hour way by car.

You should also check out the cemetery which is quite delightful at he back of the small wooden church, and generally have a wander to look at the ďZakopaneĒ style of architecture. It really is lovely Ė their own local take on chalet type housing, and a wander along the small river running through the town. The little funicular at the end of the town was quite nice but the other major chairlifts/funiculars werenít operating whilst we were there.

Levoca

Next stop was Slovakia. Border crossing once again proved very easy.

It had been by original intention to spend a night at the Grand Hotel at Stary Smokovec (Slovakian side of the moutains) but because we had stayed an extra night in Zakopane we decided we had better push on the Levoca.

We passed through some lovely countryside but the roads in Slovakia were terrible. Some of the roads we drove along seemed to be not much more than farm tracks. To add to our woes a huge thunderstorm hit, and we were deluged with hailstones that were so big we had to pull over and we really thought we would have hail damage to the car they were so big. Eventually we made it to Levoca but I canít say we were impressed with this town at all. Of all the places we visited, this is the one that underwhelmed us the most.

We also didnít have accommodation booked here but I had the name of the two top hotels on Tripadvisor. Unfortunately both were booked out with tour groups. We then tried the Barbakan. This was only so-so. The room was a decent size but very tired looking, and the bathroom was tiny with cracked tiles. We had a room on the street side and by 7am in the morning the trucks were rumbling past our window. Meal in the restaurant at night wasnít anything much and breakfast in the morning also just average. A group of German businessman had been in just before us and demolished most of it and then didnít bother to replenish the finished plates. I must say the view from the restaurant of the solitary Church high up on the top of the hill is very good though and it had a rather nice large fish pond in the restaurant itself.

We really struggled to find things to do in this town. It has quite a nice main square but hardly any nice little caféís to sit at and soak up the atmosphere. The woman in the tourist office was of no help at all and didnít even have any brochures to give us. I knew from my research that the main church is meant to be very good which could only be seen by tour. The tour times were posted on the door but on the two times we went at the advertised time, no one came. I also knew the Museum in the Town Hall was meant to be nice but it seemed to have disappeared and we couldnít find out anything about it. This is a walled town, but they hadnít done anything to play up that side of it at all. Other places we have been to have built walks around the walls, planted lovely gardens in the original moat etc. This just had concrete and a road with lots of traffic. It also continued to rain off and on which probably contributed to our overall feelings about the place.

It had been my original intention to spend two nights here but decided we would head on the next day.

Spissky Hrad and Stary Smokovec

We woke to glorious sunshine and our choice the next morning was to head over to Bardejov which I had been quite keen to say after tomboyís report or go back to the mountains we had enjoyed so much and stay at the Grand Hotel in Stary Smokovec. DH said lets do the latter and so off we went.

Our first stop was to drive up to the Basilica of the Virgin Mary which was the church we could see sitting high on the hill all by itself. This is a pilgrimage church and on one day of the year, 1000ís turn up to walk up the hill (no mean feat) to attend this church and carry a cross back down. It really is very nice, quite the best thing about the town.

It is only about 15km to Spissky Hrad which is the ruins of a 12C castle. I had been told, that whilst it looks great in the distance, it is not really worth the walk up the hill to actually inspect it. May be it was because we then had low expectations of this place, but we really enjoyed visiting these ruins. It is quite a steep walk up the hill, about 15-20 minutes to get to the top and it was probably only low-mid 20ís temperature wise but it was extremely humid. By the time we made it, all we wanted to do was buy a large bottle of water and just sit and drink it, which in fact is what we did. We spent over an hour exploring the ruins before heading on our way again.

It was only another 30 mins to Stary Smokovec and we are very pleased with Stu Tís advice to stay at the Grand Hotel. This is an old world hotel (the first one built up in these mountains) and is the grand dame. Chandeliers abounded everywhere and it had several different lounge and bar areas. Once again, because it was off season we stayed there very cheaply. Our room was quite large with huge king bed, lounge area and two lots of french windows opening onto separate balconies, all well furnished. Bathroom was extremely clean and very modern and, best of all, had a real bath Ė I do so love to soak in a bath.

There is an excellent wellness area to the hotel, so in the afternoon ventured down. There is a lovely big circular swimming pool with columns all around and it was really nice having a swim, especially as I had it all to myself. From there, you go into a separate area for the jacuzzi, steam and sauna rooms etc. When I got to the door, there was a large notice ďBathers ForbiddenĒ. This took me aback a bit. Now if I was still in the my 20ís when I was trim, taut and teriffic this might have been one thing, but now I was 50 and definitely not trim, taut and terrific. However, you are given a sheet in which you could wrap yourself up in and so thought ďwhen in RomeĒ. Wrapped up in my sheet I made my way to the jacuzzi, made sure no one was in sight, discarded my towel and quickly jumped in. Once you were in there were so many bubbles it didnít matter. Once I had had enough I then had to wait until no one was in sight before getting out again. I tried a couple of the steam and sauna rooms and there was also an area with showers where you alternate between hot and cold showers. However there is no door, and I certainly didnít have the courage to stand there completely naked trying this out so gave it a miss. I decided afterwards that you were probably meant to use the showers whilst still wrapped up in the sheet.

My DH is partial to massages so he decided to have one. When he arrived he was told to strip completely and was given a massage by a woman who looked like she used to be a member of the Russian weightlifting team. When she told him to do something, he jumped to it. It actually turned out to be quite a good relaxing massage, in fact, much nicer than the one he had in Bangkok on the way over by a sweet lithesome thing who half pummelled him to death.

As we only had the one night here we didnít really get a chance to explore. We took the little funicular up the hill and had a bit of a look around, but because DH had the massage booked in for 6pm we couldnít stay too long. We decided we would come back the next morning and explore a bit more because we could head what sounded like a large waterfall in the distance. However, in the morning this wasnít to be because the funicular was totally booked for some tour groups until 10.30am and we really wanted to be well and truly on our way by lunchtime and this didnít give us enough time to explore at the top.

Quite large areas of the surrounding hillsides were quite barren, looking as though they had been clearfelled and were only now starting to regenerate again. We found out that apparently there had been a tornado of all things about two years ago which we had caused a huge amount of damage.

Next report will be Eger and Budapest to finish off our trip.
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