Around, behind the Iron Curtain

Tim and Jan Wood

The trip plans started to gel after my wife Jan and I discussed what

areas in the world we would care to visit before the rapidly evolving

countries changed forever. We decided on the Czech Republic and

Hungary because they were going to become part of the European Union

at the end of April, with the accompanying currency of the Euro. We

felt that this was an opportunity to explore the historic areas of

the former Ottoman Empire, while experiencing the purchasing power of

the dollar against the Czech Koruna and the Hungarian Forint.

Before leaving the U.S., I purchased about $100 each of Korunas,

Forints and Euros from Thomas Cook Foreign Exchange in South Coast

Plaza. We have always followed this little exercise prior to

traveling to a foreign destination. It saves time and trouble until

one can conveniently get to a preferred ATM, American Express office

or a bank. We also booked our rental car online from Budget Auto

Europe and reserved our arrival and departure hotels while leaving

the rest to chance, since we were driving.

We purchased several reference books to take along containing

history, hotels, restaurants and attractions. While Fodor's "Eastern

& Central Europe" was helpful with the hotels and restaurants, Rick

Steve's "Best of Eastern Europe" cut to the chase and was a real

time-saver on attractions.

We left on April 5 and arrived the morning of April 6 via Air

France while pre-arranging to have the hotel schedule a taxi to pick

us up at the Prague airport. The driver's taxi was a Scoda Octavia.

The Russian car looked a whole lot better than the old ones from

Communist times, and it was comfy to boot!

Fortunately, we had the necessary Korunas to pay for our ride,

thanks to Thomas Cook.

We were not able to book the first night in our preferred hotel,

so we opted for the Red Lion II for one night, located in the

Mala'Strana. Unable to check into our hotel until noon, we walked to

the Charles Bridge (Karluv Most), and then took a nap to combat the

jet lag between California and Prague. Gathering some energy, we

walked to the embassy area and stumbled upon one of our researched

restaurants, the Blue Duckling. It was very good and very pretty, and

of course we both had the duck. The "vin ordinaire" of the country

was high in quality and a pleasant surprise.

The following days in Prague, we were able to rise fairly early

and take advantage of the typical breakfast offered by most European

hotels, "buffet" style -- juice, coffee, meats, cheese, cereal, jams

and jellies, rolls and a cooked dish of eggs with bacon. Thank

goodness we scheduled a lot of walking time!

Not far from our hotel were the Prague Vitas Gothic Cathedral

(started with the Hapsburgs in 1344 and finished in 1929). The Good

Prince Wenceslas is buried here (think Christmas carols).

We continued and toured the Old Royal Palace, the Basilica of St.

George Convent and then down to the "Golden Lane." Kafka lived here,

and the street also includes houses with medieval weapons and

costumes of the times. We checked into our next hotel, the Residence

Hotel Trinidad, also in the Mala'Strana area, probably one of the

most convenient locations that we could have chosen.

We familiarized ourselves with the Stare Me'stske, or "Old Square"

area of the city, before walking to our next meal ... dinner at a

charming Lebanese restaurant, Georges Chlata at Pasha. It was very

good, George was friendly, and the restaurant was close to our hotel.

After all the walking, we were ready for the public transportation

to save our legs and explore beyond the tourist areas. Using the

subway and trolley system, we traveled to see American architect

Frank Gehry's "Fred and Ginger" building that houses the famous Pearl

of Prague restaurant overlooking the Vltava River. On another

evening, we attended a concert at the wonderful, art deco-inspired

Municipal Music Center.

Four days later, we picked up our rental car, an Opel stick-shift

station wagon, and drove north to pay our respects at the Jewish

concentration camp of Terezin, and then headed west to our next

destination town of Karlovy Vary. This very Victorian-looking spa

town has been favored for centuries by the Germans as well as the

Czechs. One is supposed to drink the sulfur-smelling spa water for

health reasons ... we decided not to drink the water for health

reasons.

We checked into the elegant Hotel Pupp, overlooking the River

Tepla that divided the town, and had dinner in the dining room before

visiting the casino. We were delighted to find access to e-mail at

the hotel, gleefully sending off messages to relatives and friends.

The following day was Easter Sunday, which was our single hottest

driving day. Our destination was the walled town of Cesky Krumlov in

the south of the Czech Republic. On the way, we passed through Plzen,

famous for its beer

Arriving in Cesky Krumlov in the late afternoon, we were able to

book a hotel through the Tourist Information office in the main

square, checked in and searched for Easter dinner. Traveling during

holidays when places are closed is always a challenge solved by

finding a Chinese restaurant, and so we did. It was in a historic

building, but the whole town was historic, founded in 1302. The town

was so charming that we decided to stay two days, exploring Krumlov

Castle, among other things.

Since the Czech Republic is known for its Bohemian Crystal, Jan

made several purchases that went into the trunk of our car before we

drove to Vienna, the next stop before continuing to Hungary.

We always seem to enter a city during peak traffic times, and it

wasn't any different with Vienna. Winding our way through the maze of

one-way streets, we managed to find a well-situated hotel near the

opera and the main walking street, Karntnerstrasser. The Hotel Kaiser

also had a handy parking garage, and since the public transportation

in Vienna is so good, we decided to leave the car for the three days

of our visit.

Taking the subway and trolleys once again, we visited the Imperial

Apartments, Schonbrunn Palace, the Albertina Museum, the Opera House

and the wonderful Kunsthistorisches Picture Gallery. Later, while

walking toward the Danube River, trying to find a restaurant to have

dinner, we discovered the ancient Griechen Beisl Restaurant and Pub.

We were able to get in and were seated in a special historic room

decorated with hundreds of autographs on the walls and ceilings,

including Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss and even Johnny Cash. Seated

next to a couple from Berlin but born in Graz, we discussed politics,

cameras, travel and the wonderful food being served.

Retrieving our car and continuing our trip on a divided freeway,

we missed the turnoff to Slovakia and passed through the Hungarian

border toward our next destination, Budapest. Again, our advance

purchase of currency allowed me to gas up at my own leisurely pace.

We decided to detour north to an area that we had read about, known

as the "Danube Bend." The area featured the three major tourist towns

of Esztergom (the first capital of Hungary), Visegrad and Szentendre.

Of the three Mediterranean towns, Szentendre is the most charming,

with narrow alleyways and streets to explore. We also stopped at the

Hungarian Open-air Folk Museum displaying examples of traditional

architecture from all over Hungary.

Continuing our journey toward Budapest, we entered the city from

the Buda side ... naturally during traffic hour, and fortunately

could see our hotel, the Sofitel across the Danube on the Pest side.

We were given a beautiful room overlooking the Danube and Castle

Hill.

The following days took us frequently to both the Pest and Buda

sides of the river, visiting the Buda Palace on Castle Hill, the

Gellert Hotel and Baths and to the Great Market. Our restaurant

selections came from reading and recommendations of friends. Of noted

interest was the Golden Kaviar, located on the Buda side, down the

street from St. Matthias Church. It was a beautiful Russian

restaurant that excelled in food and service. Another was Baraka, a

contemporary continental restaurant with a chef from New York. The

food, wine and service were superb. We chatted with two Americans,

living in Budapest and working for the U.S. Treasury Department,

whose job was to trace money-laundering schemes.

Our two friends recommended Gundels Restaurant for another

evening. Gundels was established in 1894 in an art deco mansion and

required men to wear coats to dinner while listening to the

restaurant's string quartet. Since Tim was not planning to go to this

particular restaurant on this particular evening, he had to wear a

"loaner" jacket. The building was interesting, but the Hungarian fare

was not.

The next day was departure day. We had an interesting cabby who

worked his trade under both communism and capitalism. He mentioned

that in some way, communism was better because there was always

something to eat, but he expected the wages to improve when the

currency goes to Euros.

While checking in at the Air France counter, we were given the bad

news and the good news. Air France could not make our connection in

Paris, so we would have to stay overnight at their expense. The

Sofitel Hotel was at the DeGaulle airport, but it didn't keep us from

taking transportation into Paris, where we used the subway to reach

the Left Bank Latin Quarter and had dinner in a delightful French

bistro to top off our trip.

The following morning brought the added benefit of a nonstop

return flight to Los Angeles.

* TIM AND JAN WOOD are residents of Newport Beach.

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