Eastern Europe includes countries which were, until fairly recently, possessions of the USSR and, for all intents and purposes, off the tourist map. Since the fall of Communism and the break-up of the USSR, however, these countries have joined the rest of Europe and attracted millions of visitors. As a matter of fact, these countries have become even more popular since they were off-limits for so long. They are being rediscovered and some still remain "hidden gems". Join me as we travel through the northernmost of these countries – Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Look for the photo album which will follow.
1. Prague, Czech Republic
Prague is, without question, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Spared the bombings that destroyed much of Europe’s great cities, it is well-preserved and recently awakened, liberated, from behind the Iron Curtain. Because of its new-found popularity, it is very crowded throughout the year.
Prague is bisected by the Vlatava River, so can be conveniently separated into several days of tourism, without much overlap. The famous Charles Bridge provides the connection between the Castle District to the west and the Old Town to the east. There are plenty of must-see sights in both areas to warrant at least a day in each, depending on the available time.
The western part of the city, known as the Castle District (Hradcany) contains Prague most visited attraction, Prague Castle (Prazsky Hrad), which is, in reality, a complex of buildings surrounded by walls. Important stops in the castle complex are St Vitus Cathedral, a 14th century Gothic structure which is notable for its stained glass windows and the tomb of Saint (King) Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech Republic, the Basilica of St George, which is even older (12th century), and Golden Lane (Zlata Ulika) which is a narrow alley lined with tiny homes (tradesmen’s quarters) which are built into the castle walls. An obligatory stop along the lane is at the Kafka House (#22), where the author lived and wrote. After a visit to the castle, walk down the hill toward the river to sample the Mala Strana (Lesser Town), a jumble of narrow streets and interesting shops, restaurants and other buildings. Possible stops include the Wallenstein Palace, and various churches, such as, St Nicholas and St Thomas.
Leading eastward from Mala Strana is the Charles Bridge (Karlovy Most) which is one of the major gathering places in Prague. The bridge is always crowded with tourists, locals, street vendors and street musicians (watch your wallets and pocketbooks). It is noteworthy because of the numerous sculptures along its span.
On the eastern side of the bridge is the Stare Mesto (Old Town) with its centerpiece, the Old Town Square (Starometske nam). It is one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe with its pastel-colored palaces, striking churches, numerous outdoor cafes, and busy pedestrians. Particularly enchanting is the Old Town Hall with its Astronomical Clock, which entertains visitors with its workings every hour on the hour. Note also the large statue of Jan Hus, a religious reformer, the Baroque St Nicholas Church, and, perhaps most striking of all, at least from the outside, the Gothic Tyn Church with its twin steeples which towers over most of the other buildings.
The remainder of the Old Town has many narrow streets, occasional, darling little squares, and many shops and restaurants.
Another area to explore is New Town (Nove Mesto), with the historically and socially important Wenceslas Square. It was here that the Czech Republic threw off the mantle of Communism and began its entry into the world of modern Europe. This broad square is more a divided thoroughfare with myriad shops and restaurants and is great for people-watching. The National Museum dominates one end of the square. Note the many Art Nouveau buildings.
An Art Nouveau gem, the Municipal House, is located between Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square, next to the Powder Tower. Its facade is beautiful and the interior is also striking. Guided tours are offered only a few times during the day, so check early and plan accordingly.
Still another section of the Old Town is the Jewish Quarter where the Old-New Synagogue and the Jewish cemetery are the major attractions.
The most popular excursion from Prague is to Karlstejn Castle, only about 30 kilometers (18 miles) southwest of the city. The castle occupies a commanding location, on a ridge above town and is a good example of a classic Eastern European castle.
2. Budapest, Hungary
Budapest, Hungary is another former Iron Curtain location which has recently emerged onto the tourist scene. Budapest, like Prague, is split into two sections: Buda, in the hills on the west side of the Danube, and Pest, the relatively flat area on the east side of the river. Again, the two areas of the city are connected by bridges, the most famous of which is called the Chain Bridge, marked by enormous Lion sculptures.
The more interesting section for tourists is the Castle District (in the hills of Buda). The funicular from the foot of Castle Hill is rather expensive, but worth it to avoid the steep climb (walking back down is not difficult). Buda Castle, which sits ominously above the river is interesting and has beautiful grounds with many flowers and statues. Castle Square and the region around it are great to explore on foot. Check the crafts and vendors in the area just across the square from the castle (there are many Hungarian crafts at reasonable prices). Beyond this area is the Fisherman’s Bastion, which abuts St Matthias’ Church and the equestrian statue of St Stephen. The Fisherman’s Bastion is an elevated walkway with conical towers (there is a charge to walk the walls), which affords a beautiful, panoramic view of the Danube, the city of Pest, and the countryside beyond. There is also a great view from here of the Hungarian Parliament complex.
Wander the charming streets of the Castle District before descending the hill to Pest. Take a detour at the river, turning northward to get a closer view of Parliament, with its neo-gothic silhouette and its exquisite stonework. On the eastern side of the river, walk along the Vaci Utca, a pedestrian shopping area, which is always crowded with people.
Stop for a beer and a treat just off Castle square at the Cafe Sisi, on Tarnok Utca. Try the imported German beer, Aldersbacher, and have one of the best desserts in the world, known as Somlo Dumpling (a light, spongy cake with brandy-soaked cherries and walnuts, covered with a rich, dark chocolate sauce)– to die for!!
3. Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Cesky Krumlov is certainly one of the loveliest villages in all of Europe. It is located in southern Czech Republic, at a bend in the Vlatava River. It is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. This town is perfect for strolling because it is so compact, although there are some hills and steep sections to negotiate, especially on the Castle side of the river. Spend some time at the Castle and the Chateau which occupy a ridge to the north of the Old Town center. Then simply stroll the tiny, narrow streets and squares of the village, stopping occasionally to peruse the inventory of a shop or to nibble on a snack or meal at a restaurant or cafe.
Looking down from the Castle to the town center makes a great picture
An interesting excursion from the town is the city of Cesky Budejovice, about 25 kilometers (14 miles) to the north. This Medieval city is perfect for walking. Some notable sights include the Main Square (Nam Premysla Otakara II), which boasts the Samsanova Fountain, a Baroque Town Hall, the Cathedral of St Nicholas, and the imposing Black Tower. Also check out the Dominican Monastery.
4. Krakow, Poland
Krakow is the premier tourist destination in Poland. It is a large city but its Old Town is charming and extremely pleasant to walk. The Wawel dominates the upper part of the Old Town. It is really composed of two buildings, Wawel Castle and the Cathedral. Walking downhill via one of several narrow streets, one finally arrives at the Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), a huge (the largest Medieval square in all of Europe) and delightful mix of shops, restaurants with outdoor dining, pubs, mimes, street musicians, etc. The atmosphere is extremely festive with thousands of people enjoying the area. At one end of the square is St Mary’s Church. From its bell tower, in the 13th century, a trumpeter was warning the townspeople with his horn that the enemy Tatars were approaching, when he was struck and killed by an arrow. Each hour, this scene is reenacted with the trumpeter beginning his warning and never completing it.
The interior of St Mary’s Church is positively stunning. Ceilings and columns are painted a dark shade of red or maroon while many of the baroque accoutrements are black with gold trim, creating a striking appearance. The main altarpiece is exquisite (considered the finest Gothic sculpture in Poland). Unfortunately, picture-taking is prohibited.
In the center of the square is the 16th century Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) which is now lined with myriad small shops selling assorted crafts. On the opposite side of the square from St Mary’s is the Town Hall tower which visitors may climb for a bird’s eye view of the square.
The most important excursion from the city is to Auschwitz, German for Oswiecim, which was the location of the Nazi’s largest and most-infamous concentration camp. It was here that genocide reached its pinnacle. Nearly two million people of various ethnic groups were exterminated here. The exhibition which involves a tour of the barracks, gas chambers and crematorium is a somber reminder of one of the nadirs of human history. A guidebook is provided to visitors, which is sufficient for exploring the camp. A film which documents the liberation of the survivors by the Russians is shown frequently during the day.
A shuttle bus operates during most of the year to ferry visitors to nearby Birkenau, which was where most of the actual exterminations took place. Plan on an extremely somber experience and a depressing day, but a visit here is necessary to truly appreciate the holocaust.
5. Bratislava, Slovakia
Bratislava, Slovakia, is an relatively undiscovered gem of Eastern Europe. Only 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Vienna, it is a world away in culture. The town center is a charming, small, compact area with an adorable town square. In the center of the square, vendors display their local crafts and trinkets. The Town Hall, with its cute, yellow tower, plays music every hour.
Around the corner from the town hall, in its own small square, is the Primate Palace, where Napoleon and Franz I, the Austrian Emperor, once signed a peace treaty (1805). There are tapestries on display as well as a Hall of Mirrors (which pales compared to Versailles’). In the courtyard is St George’s Fountain.
The entire Old Town is pedestrian-only, so it is a pleasure to walk the narrow streets. Check out Michalska Street, anchored at one end by Michael’s Tower, which is attached to a gate through the Medieval walls of the city.
The obligatory Bratislava Castle is a considerable climb (hundreds of stairs) from the Old Town.
In the Primate Palace are some of the most beautiful and modern rest rooms in Europe (worth the price of admission to the palace!)
Just off the town square, opposite the Franciscan Church, is a charming little restaurant, Vinaren Velky frantiskani, which serves delicious local specialties at great prices. Try the Cesnakova polievka (Garlic Soup) and the Bryndzove Halusky, dumplings baked with sheep’s milk cheese and bits of bacon. Entering the restaurant is reminiscent of entering a cave, since it is downstairs with low ceilings — very attractive.
6. Warsaw, Poland
Warsaw is the capital and largest city in Poland. It has a history which dates to the Middle Ages and includes much war and destruction. World War II, however, was its most devastating time, when almost three-quarters of a million residents were killed or exterminated. The city itself was virtually destroyed. However, Warsaw has been painstakingly rebuilt and its Old Town (Stare Miasto) is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy) is probably the best place to begin an exploration of the Old Town. The Royal Castle has been rebuilt and now is a museum — be sure to see the King’s Apartments. Nearby is Old Town Square (Rynek Starego Miasta). Not far away is New Town Square. The streets of both New Town and Old Town are delightful to stroll.
A great walk in Warsaw involves following the Royal Way, the route from the Royal Castle to the Lazienki Palace, the summer palace of the rulers of Poland. Along the way, visit several churches, such as St Anne’s and the Church of the Holy Cross, which contains the heart of Chopin, as well as a number of museums and palaces. The end of the route is Lazienki Park which encloses the Palace.
7. Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic
Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, is the largest and oldest of the Czech Republic’s many spas. It was an extremely popular location for the rich and famous of the 19th and 20th centuries. Because of its popularity, the town has a decidedly Victorian elegance and is certainly pleasant to stroll. Be sure to sample the medicinal waters from the Vridlo (Sprundel Spring), across from the House of the Three Moors. Also take the Diana Funicular Railway, if operating, to the Diana Tower for great views of the town and the surrounding area.
Karlovy Vary is also the origin of world-renowned Bohemian crystal. There are many shops in town which sell authentic examples.
8. Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, is a village which had its boom in the 14th century when its silver mines were the source of most of the currency of Europe. When the boom ended in the 16th century, people left and the town was fairly undisturbed until it emerged again as a tourist destination, very recently. It was given World Heritage Site status in 1996. The Old Town is charming. Be sure to check out the Cathedral of St Barbara, the Church of Our Lady, and the former Royal Mint, now a museum.
9. Telc, Czech Republic
Telc is one of the gems of Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic. Prague and the other locations listed for the country are in Bohemia, the western part. Telc is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is just waiting to be discovered by tourists. A devastating fire in 1530 destroyed many of the Gothic buildings, so they were rebuilt in the Renaissance style.
Old Town Square is charmingly lined with numerous mansions, the most important of which is the Water Chateau (at the northwest end), and several churches, St Jacob’s and the Church of the Holy Spirit, as well as several fountains and a plague memorial, the Marian Column, in the center.
Several nearby ponds provide excellent photo opportunities as well as places to relax and savor the moment.
Travel approximately 140 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of the city to find the adorable Czech town of Olomouc. Wander its charming town square with its elaborate fountains, the Baroque Holy Trinity Column, and beautiful buildings and the narrow streets of the historic center for a pleasant treat without the hordes of tourists that usually are found in this type of venue.
10. Eger, Hungary
Eger, Hungary, is located in the more mountainous northern part of the country. The charming town is replete with buildings designed in the Copf style, a sort of Hungarian version of Baroque. Particular places to stop for the tourist include the Lyceum, with its Observatory providing great views of the city, Eger Cathedral, presiding over the city on a prominent hill, Dobo Istvan Ter, a market place which has become the main city square, and, of course, Eger Castle, which commands the lofty northeastern side of the town. While in the castle complex, check out the underground casemates, dug from the rock of the mountain.
This area is famous for its strong, red wine, so visitors are encouraged to sample it. The best place for tasting is the area known as the Valley of the Beautiful Women (Szepasszony-volgy), just southwest of the city center.
To the southeast, relax in the Archbishop’s Garden, which also contains some of the thermal baths for which the area was renowned.