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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Eastern Europe

When I think about defining moments in travel history, a few quotes come to mind. In the 19th century, publisher Horace Greeley said, "Go West, young man," and travel to the western U.S. came into vogue. And in June 1987, former President Reagan set a new destination agenda when he stood in Berlin and said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." And so, having already moved "west" as a "young man," I decided it was high time to set out to see what was behind that "wall" for those seventy years of Soviet rule.
Europe extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains in Russia but for me it always ended somewhere between Munich and Vienna. I had my love affairs with France and Italy, Spain and Portugal, but Eastern Europe was "another world," off limits, behind an "Iron curtain," and best suited for swallowing up dictators like Napoleon and Hitler. And then came Reagan's speech and soon a new "travel" revolution.
Eastern Europe, or rather four of its major cities - Moscow, St. Petersburg, Budapest, and Prague - became my holiday destination in early fall 2003. I intend to detail my experiences in each city in upcoming columns but I thought it would be useful to give you an overview of my general impressions of each destination.
Certainly, my trip east was a little late. The "wall" has been down for more than a dozen years. Many of you perhaps have already set out to do business in the new open economies of Eastern Europe or rediscover its history and sights. But I bet most of you were like me, too busy gawking at the wonders of Western Europe to consider travel to the comparatively underdeveloped tourist destinations of Eastern Europe.
I am an independent traveler. I like arranging my own tours, staying in first class hotels, planning which classic tourist highlights to visit, how long to spend in each city and at each sight, and hopefully staying long enough to get a sense of who the natives are and how they live. But having stated my preference, you should know that there are plenty of excellent escorted tours that can save you as much as 50% of the cost of traveling a similar itinerary on your own. Group tours negotiate discount rates on everything from hotels, to museum admissions, to guides. The disadvantage of a group tour - no wanderlust allowed. There are also riverboat cruises that travel through Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, and Poland, along the Rhine, Elbe, Danube, and Oder. And you can cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg along the Moskva, Volga, and Neva Rivers. There are also Baltic cruises on grand ocean liners that take in Scandinavia, and make stops at Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and St. Petersburg, Russia. But water tours can be hampered by seasonal weather and water levels. In late September, when I was in Budapest, the cruise boats had to put off their passengers into hotels and onto buses because the Danube had become too shallow.
To get an overview of each city, we took a 2-3 hour city tour shortly after arriving. Every city has one. And then, we explored. All the cities posed significant language difficulties. But in each, the hotel concierge could provide whatever information needed; menus were often in English; and in simply wondering about town, someone speaking English could always be found rather quickly. English fortunately is the international language. The Russian Cyrillic alphabet took some study to even try to comprehend. But once you figure out that C's are S's, P's are R's, and H's are N's, you can interpret a sign or two. I thought Hungarian was the hardest language. Also called Magyar, the Hungarian language is "Finno-Ugric," with roots, believe it or not, similar to Finnish. You might assess a language's difficulty by this example. In Czech, the word for "restaurant" is "restaurace" - easy enough. In Russian, a restaurant is a "pectopah," which when you change the p's to r's, c's to s's, and h's to n's, spells "restoran." But in Hungarian, the word is "etterem."
Our first destination after about 15 hours in the air and two layovers was Moscow. Moscow's Domodedovo International Airport was old, ugly, and certainly not an exemplary gateway to a capital city. But customs was quick and uncomplicated and baggage arrived intact. On the flight over the Moscow suburbs and the ride into the city, the foremost landmarks are miles and miles of grey, stolid, shoddy high-rise apartment buildings.
The pearl of Moscow is the Kremlin and we stayed at the Metropol Hotel (www.metropol-moscow.ru), which along with the National Hotel, just a few blocks away, are the best hotels situated right next to the Kremlin. Rates start at $300/night and there's a hefty 25% tax on top of that. The Metropol, built at the turn of the 20th century, abuts the Kremlin wall, is across the street from the Bolshoi, and just a short walk from Red Square. My first impression of Moscow was that despite the crowds meandering about the Kremlin, it was amazingly clean. Not only was there no trash on the ground, there were virtually no trash cans to be found. And Moscow's subway, a tourist mecca in itself with museum quality art, was also immaculate. Where are people throwing their trash? Moscow is the Kremlin, Red Square, the magnificent fantasy of St. Basil's Cathedral, the Bolshoi, and of course, Lenin's tomb. And Lenin, the icon of a former empire, is still everywhere. His name or his image in a statue or on a plaque can be found on almost every downtown block. I'm sure many statues of former Soviet heroes are in a landfill somewhere but Lenin is still omnipresent in Moscow.
As a tourist destination, Moscow is still a work in progress. There are not enough first class hotel rooms, still too few restaurant choices, and its great tourist attractions, like the Bolshoi, are sorely in need of renovation. The stage curtain at the Bolshoi Theatre is a faded and worn remnant of the Soviet era with a design of CCCP lettering alternating with the hammer and sickle. Russia was also the priciest country of those I visited in Eastern Europe. I think their plan is to reconstruct the country and its tourist venues by gouging tourists. Locals pay far less to enter Russia's attractions - from museums to palaces, cathedrals to entertainment venues - than do foreigners. For instance, it cost 360 rubles ($12.50) to enter the Hermitage Museum. Russians pay 15 roubles (50 cents). I suppose you can't expect everything to be immediately democratic in the former Soviet Union.
Russian "yellow" cabs have no meters, or no meters worth trusting. Traveling by cab with a Russian acquaintance cost a fourth of what it did when I took the same trip myself. You have to quickly learn, before getting into a cab, to bargain. But with a little preparation - a handwritten note from the concierge in Russian as to where you want to go and a few words: "sto" - one hundred; "pyadyesyat" - fifty; and "dvyestee" - two hundred, you can strike a fair deal. Locals use private taxis called "chastniki" to get around. These are private cars that pick up passengers to make an extra buck. Simply wave two fingers at the ground and one is likely to stop. I tried it once with a Russian friend. I would be wary of doing it alone unless you speak the language. The better hotels also have their own cars for hire but their prices are steep.
I hired several private guides in Russia. One hired through the hotel concierge was excellent but costly, about $30/hour. I hired other Russian guides, just as good, for $10/hour, by searching the internet for guides before leaving the U.S. and inquiring of referrals from friends who had been there before. (I'll list names in my future columns.) You're required to have a guide to tour the Kremlin. And, I wouldn't have ventured into the maze of Moscow's great metro without one.
We took the express train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. It was a five hour trip and cost about $60. I can't say the countryside was dramatic. We passed a lot of small, poor, rural villages. I never felt like Dr. Zhivago traveling to his summer cottage - although I was traveling with Lara. The best part of the trip was that our compartment, excepting us, was all Russian. We received a wonderful overview of current Russian politics and life particularly from an English speaking young woman who worked for a Danish company and spent several days a week commuting from her home, just outside of St. Petersburg, to Moscow. They love Putin; hated Gorbachev.
St. Petersburg is the Paris and Venice of Russia with grand palaces, architectural gems, and canals. Like Moscow, its grandeur is still in need of much renovation. But, having just celebrated its 300th anniversary in May 2003, the city sparkled. Peter the Great founded this city on the Neva River in 1703, designing it to rival the great cities of Europe and become his capital. It remained the capital of Russia until the Soviet revolution moved the capital back to Moscow in 1918. Nevertheless, when it comes to majestic capitals, St. Petersburg fits the bill far better than Moscow. We stayed at the Grand Hotel Europe (www.granhoteleurope.com) in the heart of the city, next to Nevski Prospekt, the main shopping avenue, and just a few blocks from almost every major sight in the city. The hotel, a landmark in its own right, also cost about $300/night. It's an elegant, modern hotel with wonderful service and amenities, and seemed home during our stay to everyone from Mariah Carey and her entourage, to the Governor General of Canada, to Russia's nouveau riche oligarchs with bevies of bodyguards. Although I spent five days in Moscow and four days in St. Petersburg, I would have wanted more time in Peter's capital.
The Hermitage Museum rivals the Louvre in the scope of its collection. We spent an entire day there and it wasn't enough. The Russian Museum opened my eyes to wonderful Russian artists I had never seen before - Surikov, Repin, Levitan, Roerich, Popova, Malevich, who, but for the Cold War, might be as well known in the West as Matisse, Picasso, or Van Gogh.
The Church on Spilled Blood, built on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, is a kaleidoscope of color with multiple onion domes, intricate designs in rare stones, marble, and mosaics, and looks ever more beautiful in the different lights of day and again awash with lights at night.
St. Peter and Paul Fortress is where Peter the Great first began his city. St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, the burial place of the Romanov czars, is inside the fortress as is the Russian mint, just across a cobblestone courtyard from the church. FYI to any "Ocean's Eleven" wannabees, there's not a lot of security at the Russian mint.
The Mariinskiy Theatre rivals the Bolshoi and is home to the Kirov Ballet. There are Venice-like canals to cruise. And just a 40 minute boat ride from the seawall dock in front of the Hermitage, the imperial winter palace, is Peterhof, the czar's Versaille-like summer palace on the Gulf of Finland. Being in St. Petersburg, sipping vodka, tasting caviar on blinis, you can't help but feel a little Russian.
My next stop was Budapest - Hungary's capital. This is a land that for centuries has been tread upon by one conqueror after another. The Danube was the northern border of the ancient Roman Empire and, on the city's outskirts you can see the ruins of the 2nd century A.D. Roman town of Aquincum. Attila the Hun ruled here. In the 9th Century, the Magyars, the first Hungarians, laid claim to the land. Hungary as a nation is said to have begun when the Magyar King Istvan, who accepted Christianity and became St. Stephen, was crowned. In the 15th century, the Turks and their Ottoman empire, conquered the land and ruled for 150 years. Budapest's many Turkish baths are remnants of their occupation. The city is renowned as one of the great spa cities of Europe. The Szechenyi Baths, in a magnificent neo-Baroque building, is the largest bathing complex in Europe. The Gellert Hotel and Baths is the oldest and most famous of luxury hotels in Budapest. And still operating are the Kiraly and Rudas bath houses built by the Turks in the 16th century. In the late 17th century, the Austrian Hapsburg kings defeated the Ottomans and Hungary became part of the Hapsburg Empire. Came the Nazi's in the early 20th century. Came the Russians in the late. Statue Park, also just outside the city, was created in 1991 to gather up communist statues and monuments. There Lenin, Marx, Engels, and Hungarian communists still stand tall. And today, for just about a dozen years, the Hungarians are just ruled by Hungarians.
The city's beauty is defined by how it is set astride the Danube. Beautiful during the day, even more beautiful with its riverside historic buildings lit up at night. On its western shore, are the hills of Buda. There sits the Hapsburg Royal Palace and Matyas church, a gothic cathedral dating from the 14th Century.
Once two cities, Buda and Pest (pronounced Pesht) became one in 1879, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire consolidated under Emperor Franz Joseph and shortly after the Chain Bridge, the first permanent bridge over the Danube, was built. We stayed at the modern and luxuriously furnished Kempinski Hotel Corvinus (www.kempinski-budapest.com) (250 Euros or $286/night but with only 12% tax). The hotel, just across from the British Embassy, facing Elizabeth Square, has views of the great St. Stephen's Cathedral. It is also well located in the center of Budapest and just off Vaci Utca (street), Budapest's most popular shopping avenue. It's a short, pleasant walk from the hotel, over the Chain Bridge, to a funicular on the Buda side that takes you to the Royal Palace and a magnificent view over the Danube and Pest. The Royal Palace, Parliament, and many of the city's historic landmarks were destroyed in World War II. All have been meticulously restored to their former glory. From the Buda Hills you can see Hungary's Parliament. Like London's Parliament on the Thames, this vast Neo-Gothic masterpiece set on the Danube is a symbol of Hungary's democracy.
Worth a day trip was a visit to the Danube Bend, where the river curves northwest toward Vienna. The towns of Esztergom, Visegrad, and Szentendre are just an hours ride north of the city. They can all be reached by boat. But if you want to see them all in one day, you'll need a car trip. Esztergom is the ecclesiastical center of Hungary, where its kings were crowned, and where its great cathedral is the seat of Hungary's archbishop. Visegrad, with ancient castle ruins on a hilltop with grand views of the Danube and the countryside, has been turned into a medieval tourist attraction with costumed entertainers. And Szentendre, an 18th century village, is quaint artist's colony, with narrow streets of galleries and curio shops.
The two things that fostered my joy of Budapest and Hungary were the Danube - don't miss a boat ride on the river - and, the cuisine - paprika is king.
Last stop on my tour of Eastern Europe was Prague, the capital of the new Czech Republic. But before going further, I have to mention that Hungary and Czechoslakia were home to perhaps a million Jews before World War II. Today, there are less than 90,000 remaining in those nations. Ten percent - 600,000 of the 6,000,000 Jews who died in the Nazi holocaust were Hungarian. Both Budapest and Prague have made their former thriving Jewish communities and synagogues major sites on their tourist agenda.
Prague was the easiest "walking" city of those I visited. We stayed at the InterContinental Praha (www.prague.intercontinental.com), superbly located in the Old Town, with rates from about 150 Euro or $175. Prague was one of the few cities in Europe spared wholesale destruction during World War II and so retains the charm and beauty of a Renaissance capital. Its Old Town Square, ringed with colorful and historic buildings dating from the 14th century, has to be one of the greatest public plazas in the world. You can scrutinize the intricacies of its buildings for hours. You can snack on bratwurst from vendors or sit at comfortable cafes and restaurants along the cobble stone square and watch the world pass by - horse drawn carriages, locals enjoying a day out, tourists from around the world gathering every hour in front of the square's famous astronomical clock to watch the procession of the 12 apostles, followed by Death, a skeleton, ringing the hour.
The InterContinental sits at the end of Parizska Street, near the Vltava River. Parizska, or Paris Street, used to be the poor Jewish Quarter. Today, it's home to elegant shops and trendy restaurants. Just a few dozen yards from the hotel's entry, down Parizska, you'll find the historic synagogues of Prague. The Old-New Synagogue built in 1270 is the oldest synagogue in Europe. Behind it is the Pinkas Synagogue, now a memorial to Czech Jews killed in the Holocaust and surrounded by a 500 year old Jewish cemetery with thousands of ancient gravestones tilted and crowded grotesquely in a small area.
The Old Town Square is just three blocks up Parizska Street and just a short distance further on is perhaps Prague's most famous landmark - the Charles Bridge (Karluv Most). The pedestrian-only bridge built in the 14th century is bordered by gothic bridge towers and crowned at each of its more than dozen piers with historic statues. The crossing is an adventure of perusing the wares of local artists, listening to musicians, watching the river traffic on the Vltava, or studying the statuary. Further on, uphill, is the area called Hradcany. Here you'll find the walled Prague Castle and the grand gothic St. Vitus Cathedral.
No trip to Prague is complete without a boat ride down the Vltava to examine the city from its roots.
Each of the cities I visited had its own unique beauty and charm. They are destinations I would visit again. I think I have made you a sketch of my voyage. In the months ahead, I'll paint you a finished picture.