Monday, March 27, 2017

How to Visit Eastern Europe in 2 Weeks



This trip was rainy, full of history and hearty food, and introduced us to one of my favorite countries (Slovenia).

Now depending on how you view Europe, this area might be called Eastern or Central. For the sake of this post, I'm referring it to Eastern Europe so go with me. Here's what we learned along the way from Slovenia to Prague. Our detailed itinerary is at the bottom of this post.


Bring rain gear. 


This is not a drill. It rained nearly every day we were on our trip and it was at the end of May/beginning of June. Bring a raincoat and boots. Consider yourself warned.



Be smart about your currency. 


This itinerary covers 5 different countries with 5 different currencies. You have the Euro, Croatian Kuna, Hungarian Forint, Polish Zloty, Czech Koruna.  The exchange rates vary severely so either get used to some division/multiplication or use a currency conversion app/calculator. It was trickier on this trip to spend all of our cash before we left each country, so keep an eye on that.

Currency exchange. DO NOT exchange your money at the airport or the currency exchange booths (there are many at each border). The exchange rate is poor or they tack on fees which is how they make money. Get money from the ATM for a better rate. It is almost always better even if you have a small ATM fee.

Transportation


Train travel is typically the best way to get between each country/city especially if you plan to stick to the big cities. Don't underestimate how long it takes to to get between each country. Trains tend to be slower overall in Eastern Europe compared to Western Europe. Overnight trains are the best way to save time while traveling.

Booking Train Tickets: we found it difficult and not possible to book our trains ahead of time unless with a travel agent so we booked when we arrived in each city. Overnight trains can fill up, especially in high season so book right when you arrive in the city you want to leave from. If you book more than 3 days ahead of time, you can get a significant discount in places like Poland.

If you venture into the country, be prepared for limited public transportation or consider renting a car. We rented a car through Sixt (and used Ebates to get 4% cash back) to visit Slovenia and Croatia. We crossed the border without issue, navigated and read the street signs easily, and the roads were just fine. But it didn't make sense to rent a car for the rest of our trip. Keep in mind that if you return a rental car to a different location/country you will pay a significant drop-off fee. Ours was about 100 Euros extra.

Some car rental companies will not all their rental cars to be taken into the Czech Republic (car theft is apparently a big problem).


Eat heartily


Food tends to be heartier in this region (think meats, potatoes, gravy, mushroom soup) which warmed our bones during the cool weather. Here are some of our favorite things you can try:
  • Slovenia:  Bled Cake or kremna rezina a heavenly cream cake best when eaten on the shores of Lake bled. Anything/everything with truffle butter or truffle oil!
  • Croatia: pasta/seafood near the coast. Anything/everything with truffle butter!
  • Hungary: anything with the national spice of paprika such as chicken paprikas, Hungarian goulash. Extra points if it is smoked paprika. Dessert from the famous Ruszwurm, beautiful ice cream from Gelarto Rosa. Kürtoskalács which is a cylindrical pastry rolled in cinnamon sugar. 
  • Poland: Pierogi (stuffed Polish dumplings) served savory or sweet. 
For better tasting food and better prices, look for a place full of locals. Typically these are not the establishments with people beckoning (more like harassing) you to dine there. If you look around and you are surrounded by tourists, you have likely chosen incorrectly. A better experience likely awaits you just off the main thoroughfare.



Bits and Bobs:




Itinerary

There is so much to see in Eastern Europe and I still have a laaaarge wishlist of places to visit if I get the chance to come back. My biggest regret was not visiting Vienna. Maybe I would have shaved off a day in Budapest and Krakow for Vienna, but that seems a bit rushed. Vienna, I will come for you!


Day 1: Ljubljana, Slovenia
Arrive in the morning
Sights in Old Town
Sleep in Ljubljana at apartment found here.

Day 2: Ljubjana, Slovenia
Castle Hill, Galleria Emporium, Skyscraper
Pick up rental car and drove to Lake Bled.
Sleep in Lake Bled at Hotel Kompas

Day 3: Lake Bled, Slovenia
Bike ride around Lake Bled
Vintgar Gorge
Hike Ojstrica
Sleep in Lake Bled at Hotel Kompas

Day 4: Julian Alps, Slovenia
Drive through Julian Alps, Soča River, Kobarid
Sleep in Nova Gortia at Guest Accommodation Primula

Day 5: Southern Slovenia
Predjama Castle & Postojna Caves
Drive to Rovinj
Bike ride around Rovinj, farmer's market
Sleep in Rovinj at Casale Bed and Breakfast

Day 6: Rovinj, Croatia
Explore Rovinj via bike. Bell tower of Church of St Eupehmia
Eat lots of gelato
Drive to Plitvice (about 3.5 hours)
Sleep just outside of Plitvice at Villa Plitvicka Sedra

Day 7: Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
Explore the beautiful Plitvice Lakes National Park
Drive to Zagreb- 2 hours. Drop off rental car
Sleep in Zagreb found on Airbnb

Day 8: Zagreb, Croatia
Explore Croatia: St Mark's Square, Museum of Broken Relationships, Stone Gate, Market
Lunch at Mundoaka
Train to Budapest (direct train is not direct. Must get off at the border and take a bus)
Sleep in Budapest found on Airbnb

Day 9: Budapest, Hungary
Explore Pest: Great Market Hall, Parliament Building grounds, shopping on Vaci Utca
Heroe's Square and nearby sights.
Szechenyi Baths
Sleep in Budapest

Day 10: Budapest, Hungary
Church in the a.m.
Tour of Parliament Building
Explore Buda and Castle Hill
Opera House
Sleep in Budapest

Day 11: Budapest, Hungary
Momento Park
St. Istvan's Basilica and neighboring area
Planned on visiting Jewish sights but they were closed
Overnight train to Krakow, Poland

Day 12: Poland, Krakow
Day trip to Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Sleep in Poland found via Airbnb

Day 13: Poland, Krakow
Explore Old Town and Market Square
Shopping
Sleep in Poland

Day 14: Poland, Krakow
Explore Wawel Hill and nearby castle and cathedral
Hang out and eat near Market Square
Overnight train to Prague

Day 15: Prague, Czech Republic
Explore Old Town, Charles Bridge
Sleep in Prague Old Town found via Airbnb

Day 16: Prague, Czech Republic
Day trip to Konopiště Castle
Riverside sights: Dancing House, boat ride
Black Light Theater
Sleep in Prague

Day 17: Prague, Czech Republic
Jewish Quarter
Strahov Monastery, library of dreams
Prague Castle, Cathedral
Astronomical Clock and tower
Sleep in Prague

Day 18: Fly home. :(


Thoughts:

This itinerary is a lot of city. And to be frank, I got sick of the city about 10 days in. If you tend to tire over big cities, consider adding in day trips to add a little green to your trip. Most of our Slovenian and Croatian stops counterbalanced the big cities. By the time we got to Poland, however, I yearned for some green.

If you truly only have two weeks, I would shorten Budapest and Poland to two days each or skip Croatia. I love Croatia but it is harder to reach than the other cities as you must have a car to reach Rovinj and Plitvice National Park so that would be a natural place to skip.

Hope this helps! We traveled in May/June 2015. If you have any questions, shoot me an email at stephaniefbenson@gmail.com.

Happy trails.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Prague: Day 3

Day 3

We spent the early morning wandering through Jewish Quarter which is one of the most beautiful parts of Prague.


We then caught the tram to the top of Prague's Castle Quarter. One of the most stunning sights was the Strahov Monastery's library.


I mean, look at those books! To take pictures you have to pay extra and you get a little "photographer" sticker to wear. Worth it so I can swoon over this library.

Just below the Monastery is the Monastery Garden which has the best views of Prague. Don't miss it!

From there we visited Prague Castle for the changing of the guard, entered St. Vitus Cathedral (the line is forever long but moves quick enough) and toured the underrated and under-visited Lobkowicz Palace. William Lobkowicz narrates the earnest audioguide. The collection has beautiful paintings, originals of Mozart's orchestrations.

The streets near the castle are bustling. Street performers, food vendors and these impressive illusionists. If only the shady massage people would channel their energy into something cool like this.


The convenience of staying near Old Town Square is that we ended each day wandering through it. We focused on the crowds of the Astronomical Clock on Town Hall.


As the crowds gather on the hour, the clock whirls around telling time in many different ways: Bohemian Time and Modern Time (with Roman numerals), sunrise and sunset, moon phases.

On the top of the hour, Death tips the hour glass and then the 12 Apostles march on through the open windows. It's quite the crowd pleaser. Hold onto your bags! We were warned it is prime pick pocket territory.

Gathering crowds below the Astronomical Clock.
The second best view in town (after the Monastery Garden) is from the top of the Astronomical Clock. We skipped the interior of the church and went straight for the view.

Oh how I wish this was my balcony!


And with dreamy views like this, we ended the night at the symphony for Prague's Spring Music Festival.


Prague is dreamy. Now excuse me while I dream of stuffing my face with one of these.

Practicalities:
  • Transportation: use the tram to get to the top of Castle Hill. It's a bit of an uphill walk and the tram is cheap.
  • Get a load of that view. Best views, IMHO, are from the Monastery Garden and the top of the Astronomical Clock. 
  • Crowds: Beware of thick crowds below the Astronomical Clock. 
  • Accommodation: most of our activities centered around Old Town so it was worth it to pay a little extra to stay close and not have to pay for a tram/metro ride in. We liked our place here
  • Eating: avoid eating on the big squares if you want good quality that is affordable.  
  • Travel Planning: Rick Steves for life. Other helpful sites included: 

Traveled May 2015.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Konopiště Castle: Day Trip from Prague

Day 2


I needed a big city break. A break from people and buildings. So we hopped on a train to visit Konopiště Castle, an hour train ride away from Prague. Buy your tickets at the train station, but be prepared for lines. We had to sprint to catch our train.

Konopiště Castle was Archduke Franz Ferdinand's (whose assassination triggered the start of World War I later). More info on the Archduke here


The inside is full of early 1900 furniture and his impressive, often terrifying taxidermy collection. He was really, really into hunting. Each of his killings were logged to the tune of 300,000+, many of which are seen inside of the castle. Lions and tigers and bears, etc. 

To view his ahem, collection, join a tour which is cheaper if you take it in Czech with an English audioguide. No pictures allowed. But if you book the wedding package you get an opportunity for that gem above. 


Archduke Ferdinand loved roses and his garden is a mosaic maze of rose bushes with roaming peacocks. We pulled up a seat, pulled out a box of chocolates we had been saving from Poland and enjoyed. 


After our fill of taxidermy, we hopped our train back to Prague and the weather was perfect enough for a ride on the river.

But first, the Dancing House.

We wandered down the riverbank to the boat rentals near the National Theater.


With Charles Bridge in the background, I found a message in a bottle! In Czech. Left for someone as ridiculous and easily excitable like me.

An evening stroll through the Old Town Square to our apartment and then bed.

Practicalities:

  • Money: Czech Republic used Czech Koruna. Get your monies at the ATM. In terms of sights, many are free. If given the chance, always pay extra to climb up for a view. 
  • Transportation: We used the train station just west of town to ride to the Castle. It was a little confusing getting from the train station to the castle. Just follow the other tourists. There is not much in terms of the town (all restaurants and shops were closed).
  • Accommodation: most of our activities centered around Old Town so it was worth it to pay a little extra to stay close and not have to pay for a tram/metro ride in. We liked our place here


Traveled May 2015.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Prague: Day One



Is there anything so romantic as Prague? Land of charm, soft orange rooftops, Art Nouvea buildings and beer that is cheaper than water. Prague is what I imagined and dreamed it would be. Much of city avoided bombing so it is rich and beautiful. So, let's Czech it out.

We had 3 days in Prague.
Day One: Old Town
Day Two: day trip to Konopiště Castle
Day Three: Castle Hill


Day One


We popped into Prague early when no one was awake. We dropped off our bags at our apartment in Old Town (Staré Město), fought the urge to sleep (overnight trains ≠ good rest) and started at the very beginning (a very good place to start). Enough parentheses for you? :)

Old Town Square is flanked by Church of St. Nicholas, Tyn Church and Old Town Hall. It has served as a market square since the 11th Century and if you get there early enough, you beat the tour groups on Segway.



As Prague continued to wake up we made our way through Old Town Square to Wenceslas Square which is a long, Art Nouveau style street with a strip of grass down the middle of it. At one end is the National Museum and a statue of King Wenceslas (from the Christmas carol) who ruled in the 10th century.



While you could see a typical equestrian statue out in the square, you can see an even more exciting Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse in the Lucerna Gallery. Because he is just that bad ass.
Nice to know that grumpy cat translates
After some retail therapy in forms of traditional shopping along Wenceslas Square and at the open-air Havelska Market, we wandered through the massive crowds and randos hawking Thai massages to the famed Charles Bridge.

There is a bridge tower (pictured left) and you can climb to the top of the tower for great views of the bridge. We  paid 75 Koruna for the pleasure. Even though it is crowded, it is worth the visit. The statue below is of the famed St. John of Nepomuk. Look for the rubbings on the bottom of the statue. Good luck?


We wandered back to Old Town Square and made two mistakes. First, we had dinner at one of the restaurants on the square where water was the equivalent of $8 and the food was less than mediocre. But the view was sure nice.

The second mistake was buying tickets to a second-rate Black Light Theater performance. Already seeming a little sketchy, the popular Black Light Theater company was sold out. We bought tickets for another one and it was, weird. Now don't get me wrong. I don't mind different or experimental, but it wasn't for me. If you can, I have heard that Ta Fantastika is the best one.

And with that, success for day one in Prague.


Practicalities:

  • Money: Czech Republic used Czech Koruna. Get your monies at the ATM. In terms of sights, many are free. If given the chance, always pay extra to climb up for a view. 
  • Transportation: the train station is on the east part of town. You can either to the metro or the tram. But Prague is incredibly walk-able so we mostly walked. 
  • Accommodation: most of our activities centered around Old Town so it was worth it to pay a little extra to stay close and not have to pay for a tram/metro ride in. We liked our place here
  • Crowds: Prague is a popular place. If you want to avoid crowds try to get to popular outdoor locations early (before 8 or 9 a.m.)
  • Eating: avoid eating on the big squares if you want good quality that is affordable.  


Traveled May 2015.