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Report: Two Foodies and a Vegetarian in the Czech Republic, Slovakia & Hungary

Report: Two Foodies and a Vegetarian in the Czech Republic, Slovakia & Hungary

Old Jun 12th, 2008, 02:19 PM
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Report: Two Foodies and a Vegetarian in the Czech Republic, Slovakia & Hungary

We returned from our trip to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary earlier this week. My trip notes aren’t organized yet, but I figured if I started this, I’ll be motivated to continue. I’ll start with some general comments, then add specific notes on our day-to-day experiences.

First off, the travelers were my darling husband (due to ingestion of large quantities of beer, “pivo” in Czech and Slovak, and the resultant need for a bathroom, he was known as “Pivo Boy”), my darling son, who turned 13 while on the trip (due to a need to never go to the bathroom, he’s known as “the Camel”), and me. (Darling daughter stayed at home, having spoiling time with both sets of grandparents.) We live in the western U.S., in a small (culturally deprived) city in a fabulous location by the Rockies. We like fine food, history, art, architecture and castles, the older the better. After several culinarily-focused trips, we decided it was time to focus on things other than food. We’ve traveled quite a bit in Italy and France, both cities and rural areas, and less so in most other Western European countries (the Camel has been to London, France & Spain).

We like to drive, and like seeing rural areas, in addition to the cities. So our itinerary began in Prague (4 nights), then 2 nights in Telc (Czech Republic); 2 nights in Olomouc (Czech Republic); 2 nights in Levoca (Slovakia); 2 nights in Eger (Hungary); 1 nights in Szentendre (Hungary); and 4 nights in Budapest. This schedule worked out pretty well; it was more driving that I expected (mostly due to detours and getting lost), but we knew beforehand that the itinerary was a bit heavy on the driving.

In general: We would all say that this was a good, but not our greatest, trip. And not just because we’re foodies! They were all interesting places to visit, and we’re glad we went, and saw and experienced, but don’t have a real need or desire to go back to them vs. visiting all the places in the world that we haven’t yet seen. And though I try to deny it, food, to me, is such an important part of traveling, that I focus on it even when I try not to (though we did have some good dining experiences on this trip). I’m not a negative person, really! I’m just trying to provide an honest, but of course, subjective, review, of what we saw and did on our trip.

Highlights for me: Prague, all of the castles, and Eger (Hungary). And the violin concert we attended in the Municipal House (Obecni Dum) in Prague, and the opera we saw in the Budapest Opera House.

Generally, Prague: A beautiful little city! It reminded us all of Paris, except quieter and cleaner. It also reminded us a bit of Salzberg. The buildings were painted in many different pastel colors, and were from a variety of time periods. Even though it was very touristy, we loved sitting at a café on Old Town Square, and the Charles Bridge was great (especially in the early morning). But unlike Paris, there is enough to do for one visit (of varying length, depending on day trips to the surrounding area), whereas for me, I could return to Paris for months and still have more I wanted to see and experience. Also, this is the one place, per warnings, where people routinely tried to rip us off. We were forewarned, and had decided prior to the trip that as long as a bill for something seemed reasonable to us, we would be ok with that. And once we called the waiter on the scam, they always fixed it. And those British stag party groups – give me a break!

Generally, the Czech Republic: We enjoyed our time in the countryside, and overall, saw few other tourists, and maybe only a couple of them were American (we liked that). The castles (and we visited a lot) were great, and all had something different about them. There was almost always someone who spoke English. The buildings throughout the countryside were also painted in those lovely pastels; we joked that somebody had a huge surplus of pastel yellow, pink, orange, blue and our favorite, which we named “hospital green” (rather the color of hospital scrubs).
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Old Jun 12th, 2008, 02:32 PM
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Generally, Slovakia: It is quite pretty, though a notch below Italy or Austria, in my opinion. But this is a poor country; routinely, you’d see a number of crumbling, abandoned buildings side-by-side with restored buildings that looked pretty good (including our hotel), often those pastel colors. You could see the inflow of (EU) money in places like road construction. Please, visit, so they have more tourist income! Also, here we saw, sad to say, a number of ghetto communities where Romas lived in horrible living conditions. There are numerous reasons for their plight, and not enough is being done about the situation. People spoke a lot of German where we were (there are large populations of Germans, or German-descended people in eastern Slovakia, so that may have contributed).

Generally, Hungary: Also pretty, but not necessarily beautiful, again, IMO. To the east, the men all had that stereotypical Hungarian look, mustache and all. To the west, less so. To my surprise, fewer people in Hungary spoke English, even in Budapest. German was much less common, as well. Economically, doing much better than Slovakia. Hungary doesn’t have the cultural tradition of those pretty pastel buildings that we saw in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Generally, Budapest: In terms of beauty, I’d say Prague wins over Budapest. But Budapest is quite a sight to see too, and the Camel preferred it because it was “more of a real city.” It’s a big city, so has more going on than the smaller Prague; any bigger city would. People were definitely more sophisticated, especially the 20s and 30s, in terms of dress and activities (restaurants). People our age (40s) were either not so much into that sort of scene, having been raised during the Soviet era, or more likely, as home raising their children and taking them to their kids’ events, just like parents of that age are doing in the U.S. Hungary, due to huge amount of Western debt that helped it do much better than its Soviet bloc counterparts in the 1970s and 1980s, is now suffering the backlash from that, and we could see that in Budapest. Like areas in the other two countries (but less so in Prague), you could be on a prosperous street in a good area, and still have crumbling buildings side-by-side with well-maintained ones.

The whole post-Soviet thing: This was one aspect of this area that I was very interested in. The most real aspects for people in these countries, which are the continuation of communist (socialist) policies and/or economics and leaders from that era, aren’t noticeable to visitors. Prague seems to be the most “fixed up” in terms of city services and building restoration. Outside the cities, especially in Slovakia, the Soviet policy of building huge industrial complexes in the countryside was extremely evident. Some are still in operation; some are derelict. I think, in the countryside, we saw more smokestacks from these complexes than we did church steeples. (Church steeples – I loved them – they came in all shapes!)

Driving: Road quality was actually quite good. Signage was not so good. We have driven in a lot of European countries, and in quite rural places in Italy and France, and have never had the problems we had in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This is true even though Pivo Boy is a good navigator, and we had our newly-purchased GPS system, a TomTom. Also, there were a lot of detours for road work, and a number of times, we were within kilometers of our destination, only to be sent two villages over because a road was closed. Caveat here was that we went to a bunch of castles that were located way off in the countryside.

GPS Systems: We grew to love Tomi (who sometimes when by the name Richard or Bonnie, depending on which voice we had turned on). Tomi was not always a good navigator, though. Rather than sending us on an easier route, Tomi would sometimes choose the most direct route, which might involve sending us down a road no wider than a driveway. Tomi would get very confused by all the detours, and sometimes didn’t have the most recently-built roads on her maps. And randomly, she would lose her place in the universe, and show the car as being in a field, or a pond, or tell us to turn around immediately. Once we figured this out, we just stopped listening sometimes. She was best at cities, where she was very helpful (except for the time she directed us to drive down a stairway).
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Old Jun 12th, 2008, 02:33 PM
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Hey - welcome back! Isn't Prague remarkable? I like it so much better than Paris.

How did you like Telc?

As one foodie to another I am anticipating food details with bated breath...
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Old Jun 12th, 2008, 04:18 PM
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ttt - one day [soon according to DH] we WILL get to this part of europe. so I'm looking forward very much to reading about your trip.

regards, ann
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Old Jun 12th, 2008, 07:01 PM
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Telc - what a cute little town; I just looked at our photos, and I love all the colors of the buildings. It took us a while to find the historic center of town, though, and the newer parts are pretty drab.

Funny about the food, it was ho-hum when we were there. But I'm already looking up recipes for some of the local dishes we had, so I can make them at home. I think I liked it more than I realized!
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Old Jun 13th, 2008, 03:55 PM
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As fellow foodies, I'm wondering if you did Allegro in Prague, the first in Eastern Europe to win Michelin 3 stars. Our one time experience was that it isn't yet deserved. On the other hand, we loved Kampa Park!!! In Budapest, we loved Dio. Interestingly, we would go back to Budapest (I have notions of renting a long term stay in an apartment there in retirement, not all that far away)before Prague. We did not have the greatest weather in Prague which may influence our experience (March)...but the crowds and the rip-off thing are turn-offs for us.
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Old Jun 13th, 2008, 04:02 PM
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Peg, what did you have at Allegro? I was interested to hear of the 3 stars in Prague. Sometimes I have found that starred restaurants are not necessarily better than others. Details, please!
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Old Jun 13th, 2008, 04:19 PM
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Lexma, I almost skipped this as when I saw "foodies" in the title, I thought it would just be about restaurants, and, not being a foodie, tend to skip those details. However, I found a delightful report, full of interesting observations and some humor.

I am looking forward to more of your adventures with Pivo Boy and Camel and Tommy's directions. Thanks!
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Old Jun 13th, 2008, 04:54 PM
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Hmm, I guess I should have thought about that title. It was more of a trip of foodies who were trying to take a trip and NOT focus on the food!

Re Allegro, no, we didn't go there. I believe it only received one Michelin star, not three. Might it be the first restaurant in Central or Eastern Europe to receive any Michelin stars? Kampa Park didn't have many vegetarian selections, but we did go to its companion restaurant, Hergetova Cihelna. And in Budapest, we didn't go to Dio, either, though we ate at Klassz and Baraka.

To continue:

Hotels: Overall, the quality was quite good. Every hotel had been booked in advance, by me, and based on tripadvisor reviews (where there were any) and pictures from the hotel websites. The best hotels were in Olomouc and Levoca, interestingly enough. The furniture was always clean and sturdy, sometimes quite new, though not always the most up-to-date. Usually the bathrooms were up-to-date – we guess that those items are most likely to have been updated recently. We stayed at 3-* places. And every hotel had an item I’ve been missing on my travels ever since our last trip to Austria – featherbeds (you might call them duvets)! Oh, there’s nothing better! (My son is a convert.)

Other Tourists: Outside of Prague and Budapest, VERY few Americans, and only a smattering of other English-speaking folks (we liked that). Lots of Germans, some Asians (mostly tour groups), quite a few Czech tour groups.

Food: I plan to post a report on either Chowhound about our dining experiences. As you may surmise, good food is not so much a focus of life in these countries. We did have some decent food, both local dishes and international. Pivo Boy and I don’t eat a lot of meat; the Camel is vegetarian. We didn’t incur any issues due to this. Most places offered meatless dishes, even in the countryside, and especially in Slovakia. I assume one reason is that meat is expensive, so poorer, or peasant, cuisine will include meatless dishes.

Mineral Water: Yes, mineral water. A Slovak friend had tipped us to the fact that mineral water is a big thing in this part of the world, and that every area has its local favorites. My son, especially loved it, the fizzier the better (often, you had 3 choices: still, gently sparkling, and sparkling). It was fun to try the different varieties, except for the one variety that had a large percentage of sulphur. Of course, that water smelled like rotten eggs. The water almost always came in smaller bottles (enough for one person), and was usually about the same price as the sodas.

Beer, wine, liquor, etc.: It was amazing to me the endless amount of liquors and mixed drinks that seemed to be on every single menu, pages and pages of them. None of us are much interested in those, so didn’t try any (not even slivovitz). The wine quality was, to me, bad to just fine. To Pivo Boy, wine lover extraordinare, it was ok, on the few occasions he had some – mostly in Hungary. Pivo Boy also prefers dark beer, which he was usually able to find, including local varieties (mostly in the Czech Republic and Slovakia). The Camel, 13 but looks a little older, was often offered wine (but refused it) when we ordered a bottle. One time, when he ordered Mattoni sparkling water, the waiter thought he asked for a Martini, and didn’t bat an eye at the thought of serving a young teenager a Martini. The Camel was horrified, but has finally managed to see the humor of the situation.

On to the real “report.” I’m not precisely going to do a day-by-day thing, because it would probably end up with lots of “then we.., “then we…”

We flew British Air because the savings over the next-best flights with only one connection was about $1,000 total, hard to pass up.

Flying BA meant that we got to experience one of Prague’s “attractions” during the flight – we shared the cabin with a group of British gentlemen (hm) already celebrating a bachelor’s party. The groom was the really drunk guy dressed in the Robin (as in Batman and) costume. The flight attendant made him take of the mask for landing.

Our other “reward” of flying BA was that, yes, our luggage spent more time at Heathrow than we did. It was delivered to our hotel, though, by midnight on the day of our arrival. Per warnings about Prague cabbies, our hotel had arranged for a pickup for us. He had waited, even though we were the last people out of the terminal, due to the luggage; the price was 700Czk.
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Old Jun 17th, 2008, 12:42 PM
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I've been enjoying your trip report. I'll be travelling to Vienna, Bratislava, and Prague next Monday. I can't wait. My brother works in Bratislava, so we'll visit with him, and maybe take a day trip to Budapest. Then we go off on our own to Prague for 3 nights. I'm curious about where you went to eat. I can be somewhat of a foodie, but I'm worried about gaining weight on this trip. I'm not looking forward to the heavy foods and meats. Any recommendations for light vegetarian fare? Anything that was definitely worth the calories that we should try? Did I mention that we love chocolate? Looking forward to your report. Anjali
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Old Jun 17th, 2008, 12:44 PM
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By the way, we also will be flying British airways, but because of all the terminal issues, I've decided to carry-on. After reading your report, I feel even better about that. Although this fluid limit is killing me!
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Old Jun 17th, 2008, 02:41 PM
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Hi anjali,

though we were in prague about 4 years ago now, the memory of those dumplingss still lingers! and they love their meat.

however, i can thoroughly recommend the restaurant attached to the opera house - the food was very modern and light, and some veggie choices, as i recall.

my copy of the lonley planet guide to prague claims that most restaurants have at least one veggie choice and that there are an increasing no. of veggie restaurants - eg country life [two branches, one each in nove mesto and stare mesto], and cafe FX, [quite a way out in nove mesto, near the metro station IP pavlova].

hope this helps,

regards, ann
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Old Jun 18th, 2008, 06:12 AM
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Thanks Ann! We will have to put dumplings on our list to try. We will keep an eye out for those restaurants as well. Anjali
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Old Jun 18th, 2008, 10:28 AM
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Hi anjali,

we found two sorts of dumplings - the usual doughy ones, and bread ones. when served together with potatoes and bread, they amount to a lot of carbohydrate on a plate.

regards, ann
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Old Jun 18th, 2008, 11:03 AM
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After the fall of the Soviet system, the Czech Republic Republic opted for a western attitude in its political orientation; while Slovakia styled their govt. after the Soviet concepts. It is easy to see the difference in the 2 countries.
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Old Jun 18th, 2008, 12:13 PM
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After numerous trips to Spain, Italy and France we are going to Prague, Bucharest and a river cruise in the fall. I can totally relate to your comments about food. I feel like we have seen all the museums, cathedrals, gardens, castles, walled cities, etc, that we need to in our lifetimes BUT we can't get the cafe / dining experiences that we love in those countries here in the US. So we return to France, Italy or Spain. But now we are going to try Eastern Europe - so please include a few brief foodie comments in your trip report (don't save it all for Chowhound). Hopefully we will have a great trip but I plan to visit Italy in 2009!
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Old Jun 19th, 2008, 08:24 AM
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Wow - thanks for all the comments. Got a bit caught up in work this week, but I'll try to post more info, and some info on the food / dining experiences.

All in all, in the cities (as I looked over the restaurants we ate at), we ate a combination of local food and other, mostly Italian, but Indian one night in Prague. In the cities, we often had pizza for lunch, as it's somewhat faster, even in a sit-down restaurant, and we really enjoy eating outside when the weather's nice (which it mostly was). In the countryside, we also didn't have any real problems finding lighter dishes - Pivo Boy often ordered fish, and found it quite good. I usually ordered some local dish, which tended to be heavier. We went to a cafe at least once a day, but usually more often than that!

On the dumplings, I was looking forward to them, both bread and potato, but found them, on the whole, NOT worth eating. The bread ones were like heavy bread; the potato ones were like bad gnocchi. I did not order them at every meal, so I hardly had a representative sampling, but they were a disappointment. Interestingly, I saw these items much more often on the menus in Prague; once we were in the countryside, I didn't see them as much (if I had, I probably would have ordered them more). The pierogi-like dishes, called pirohy in Slovakia, were quite good, and both me and the Camel had them several times (with either potatoes, potatoes and cheese, or my favorite, poppyseeds).
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Old Jun 20th, 2008, 12:23 PM
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Oh boy dumplings.

My experience, as someone who grew up eating dumplings, is that most of the dumplings you get in restaurants are terrible. They're heavy and dry. Dumplings have to be served fresh as they go stale quickly and most restaurants don't bother.

You really have to go to a local hostinec somewhere off the beaten path, and perhaps let them know you will be having dinner and you want dumplings, so they're fresh for you.

That being said, dumplings are, in essence, boiled bread, so it's no surprise they taste like boiled bread....
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