Dresden, Prague, Krakow and Budapest - August 19 through September 3, 2017

September 8th 2017
Published: September 8th 2017
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On August 19, we say goodbye to Berlin and drive to Dresden about 1 ½ hours away. It's summer and German roads are being worked on. We find out later it's not just German roads, but Czech, Polish and Hungarian roads as well. Why summer? Because their winters are so damn cold and there is often snow on the ground . So, along the way our drive lanes are sized down to 2.2 meters and let me tell you, this can be pretty nerve racking when you are traveling at 60k and inches away from a great big truck.

All the towns we visit have fabulous public transport systems that revolve around the use of trams. So when driving in the city you are sharing the road with them, although they do have the right of way. Once we are settled in the city we use public transport and leave the car in the parking lot. Also, all these towns and cities we have visited in Eastern Europe are remarkably White European. Along the way, the weather goes from warm to 31c.

Dresden – Was totally destroyed by the Allies during WWII and 30,000 inhabitants of the city were blown up or perished in the resulting firestorms. Today, the city has been rebuilt and, like Berlin, you wouldn't know that the historical monuments were rebuilt after WWII. We have a hotel booked for one night about 3 km from the center. And, as with many of the cities we visit there is a fair on for the weekend we are in town. Music, statues, stalls and lots of people; I wonder how much beer is consumed at one of these events.

Prague - An amazing Old-Town from the 13th century with narrow streets and dominated by a large castle; historically Prague was an important trade center between Eastern and Western Europe. Today, the crowds are overwhelming. There are tourists everywhere, and from everywhere, and we are just two of them. Prague's beautiful squares are lined with tourist restaurants and the narrow streets with shops, selling cheap souvenirs. I find it hard not to compare the city to Disneyland! In my view four days is plenty of time for Prague. People we have spoken too over the years loved the city, but I'm sure they visited before it became a tourist hell!

The highlights for us are as follows:

• Charles Bridge – Original construction started in the 1300's and it must have been well built, because there's wall to wall tourists of every nationality on the oldest bridge in Prague. Religious statues adorn the bridge and artists trying to make a tourist dollar sit to the sides of the bridge busily sketching caricatures.

• Evening Boat tour and dinner – A great way to see the city at night, however there are locks along the way and too much time is spent looking at the lock walls. Dinner is average, but we have some good company and good conversation to pass the time.

• Six hour walking tour – This one is a winner, our guide is knowledgeable and we start the tour at Prague Castle, the highest point in the city, and work our way down. Churches are everywhere, although our guide informs us that most of the Czech people are not religious. Still, we visit a lot of churches. This tour also included a boat trip and a lunch in one of the oldest restaurants in Prague.

• Tour of the Jewish Quarter - Interesting and after purchasing our ticket it mostly allowed us in to the various Synagogues and the Jewish cemetery. The birthplace of Kafka, the Jewish quarter dated back to the 13th century; however it was largely demolished in the 19th century and the streets remodeled. Of course the Nazis deported most of the Jews to concentration camps in Eastern Europe, all a part of the Final Solution.

• Mucha museum - A museum dedicated to the life and work of Alphonse Mucha, a Czech art nouveau painter and graphic artist born around 1860. I had never heard of him, however Caroline educated me about his work, and I must say I enjoyed the museum.

• Classical Concert - The masters greatest hits in Smetana Hall. I had purchased tickets that morning for the one hour concert, but somewhere on our way to the event, I lost them. Thankfully, the person in the ticket office remembered us and allowed us in. The ceiling of the concert hall was painted by The Czech Republic's favorite son and artist, Mucha. Anyway, promptly at 8.00pm six musicians took to the stage and played music by Bach, Dvorak, Mozart and others, the acoustics were brilliant. Another winner!

As in Germany, Czech menus have lots of pork dishes on them, and the food is quite heavy. After a long day walking we tried two restaurants close to our hotel, Carlton. A Mexican establishment, “Burrito Loco”, was a quick food place that served the best burrito outside of Los Angeles. Our next find was equally as good and a Chinese Restaurant “Nebaska Vune” where we had a fantastic Chinese meal. Both of these were within .5km of the Hotel Carlton.

Before I forget, Prague seems to be where all bands from the sixties and early seventies have their last stand. I saw posters for Nazereth and better still the Pretty Things; I had seen the Pretty Things in Blackpool in 1966, so it shows how old these guys must be. Anyway, it looks as though they still have an outlet for their music in Prague.....

Krakow – We loved Krakow! Our hotel, The Polonia, was on the edge of the Old Town, however the street in front of it was dug up to put in new tram lines, so it took us a long time to find to the hotel because of roadworks and one way systems. The Square was amazing and food at the various restaurants was of good quality with cheap beer; how much better can it be? A Polish restaurant in a secondary square served up really good food at great prices and deserves a mention, “Morskie Oko”.

• Walking Tour of the City – Our first free walking tour and it was really good. As Caroline says it was a Polish “Anecdotal History” lesson. The tour had about 40 people all following his yellow umbrella and the whole tour was “tip based”, give what you can afford and what you think its worth. It was so good, we came back in the evening for the Ghosties, Murderers and Ghoulies tour of Krakow.

• Auschwitz – Man's inhumanity to man, this was a very moving experience for me. To be honest I found it emotionally difficult and I had tears in my eyes....

• Salt Mines – A tour through the salt mines. Salt was wealth, and the inhabitants around Krakow first started mining in the 13th century. Our tour takes us deep underground into large caverns filled with carved statues of saints, popes, kings etc. Yes, there's even an underground church! It's all very interesting, but very commercial.

Budapest – A city in Hungary and until late 1800's it was in fact 2 cities, Buda and Pest, with Buda taking the high ground. Our house swap in what was formally Pest was a one bedroom apartment, cosy, and close to the city center. We have the swap for 7 nights however after 3 nights decide that 6 days is more than enough to spend in Budapest. This city is not built on Rock n' Roll, but on the river Danube, and believe me its not blue. Most of the young people speak English, however I don't see many smiling faces; it's just another big city and for an Eastern European city it's expensive.

The city is famous for its spa's and thermal baths, those wacky Romans used to come here on their vacations. In recent times, it was the the site of one of the major battles in WWII as the Hungarians were a part of the Axis of Evil. Anyway, the city was largely destroyed when the Soviets surrounded it in 1944. And, in 1956 the Soviets cruelly put down a rebellion where hundreds of Hungarians were killed and wounded. Today, the city has been rebuilt and is low rise, no skyscrapers, part of the provision of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's an attractive city with 7 bridges linking Buda to Pest.

• Big Bus Tour – We purchased a big bus tour of Budapest that had two routes and then spend two full days exploring the highlights the city has to offer. Worth mentioning are the castle on the Pest side which dates back to the 1200's, however because of wars it has been rebuilt numerous times. Today, the castle is home to museums and government offices. We're over museums, and as Hungarian art is not one of our “must see's “ we bypass this and spend time walking around the castle enjoying the architecture and views over the city.

• Central Market – A brightly decorated covered building from 1896 that houses meat markets, vegetable sellers, fishmongers and vintners for the local population and, of course, the inevitable tourist stalls. Floor one is tourist trinkets that we can live without, however there are food stalls selling Hungarian Cuisine. The food is good, but the prices are expensive and not street food prices. We do get to eat off paper plates and stand around tables. Walking around looking at the fresh produce stalls is well worth the trip, but the prices in the tourist stalls are the same as you would see in a souvenir shop.

• Dinner Show at Matyas Pince – A Gypsy band plays and two folk dancers slap and twirl. We felt we should have at least one cultural experience whilst in Budapest. It's a tourist restaurant and the main gypsy violin player approaches our table and gives us unwanted attention. He then slopes off after we put two euros on the table for his music, muttering about cheap New Zealanders and leaving the two euros behind. I really hate having my pocket picked when I am paying hefty prices for dinner and drinks and then I'm expected to put my hand in my pocket to help pay the house band. The price of a glass of wine ranged between 12 and 20 Euro, and the food was overpriced. Although it was a largely negative experience the waiters were friendly and attentive, but not attentive enough to notice our dried-out main courses. Not to be recommended!

I'm glad we did this tour of old Soviet Bloc cities, it has been interesting. Would I come back? The answer is no, been there done that and I didn't buy the t-shirt. It's time to move on to Vienna.....

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