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"
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
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;
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
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
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
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
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.