Czech Republic, Poland & Hungary Travel Skills


My name is Cameron Hewitt
and I’m going to be telling you a little bit
Eastern Europe today. Just to tell you a little bit about
myself, I work here in the office at Rick Steves’ Europe. Mostly
I focus on guidebooks, researching and writing our
various guidebook titles. I’ve also worked as a tour guide, I’ve
actually led the tours that we do to Eastern Europe, and also to Croatia and
Slovenia. And the thing I’m probably the the most proud of, the thing I spent a
lot of my time is, I’m the co-author of Rick’s guidebooks on Eastern Europe,
Budapest, and Croatia, and Slovenia. Co-author, what does that mean? Basically it means that I went over and
did all the work to write the book to begin with, and then Rick came along and
put his touches on it and then we put his name on it because it would sell more
copies that way. No, I’m teasing, Rick and I have a great
collaboration, he really enjoys the fact that I’ve got so much enthusiasm for
this area, and then he comes and checks in every so often. He’s going
to Poland this year, for example, in the fall, just to check in on
things after a few years. Now, by “co-author,”
it also means that I’m responsible, personally, for
updating those guidebooks. So I go over every other year, and I
personally visit every business that we list in our guidebooks on those
destinations. So I go to Budapest, for example, and I go to every
single hotel, restaurant, internet café, tourist office,
museum, train station. I can personally guarantee you that this
is the most lovingly up-to-date guidebook that you’re going to find
on this region. I have a lot of personal contacts with
the folks who run a lot of these businesses, and you’ll be actually
meeting a few of them during the course of the slide show today. Let’s go ahead and get started on our
trip to Eastern Europe. And I just wanted to give you a taste of some of the
things we’re going to be seeing together, before we do that though, I think the
first thing we need to do when traveling to this part of Europe is to have a
little bit of an attitude adjustment. And that’s because I think for a lot of
folks, when you think of Eastern Europe, you still think of the Cold War. And I’m
going to really challenge you to pry open those Cold War blinders, things have
changed dramatically, freedom is deeply entrenched in these
parts of Europe. It’s been 25 years, kids who are 30 years
old–kids–young adults who are 30 years old who live in these countries have no
living memory of communism. So all the Soviet Union, USSR,
Cold War stuff, it’s an important chapter of their
history but it’s a brief chapter, and it’s not the defining chapter. So I’m really going to challenge you
when you think about Eastern Europe to realize these are very
different, diverse, proud countries. For a lot of people who live here, that
communist period that dominates our thinking was just a little bit of a blip
in their historical radar. Yes, of course, they do have this sort of
imposing history embodied by this statue here of Lenin standing in a park. And I
would say, rather than be intimidated or feel confronted by this communist
connection, these days in Eastern Europe, this is
part of the history that’s kind of fun, you can be playful about it. The statues of London are now gathered
in kind of theme parks where you can go out and see what it was like a
generation and a half ago, when these statues were actually out in the streets. The people who live here forgotten
about the communist period, so I hope that you will. too. and accept each
of these countries for what it is. Again, if you have an old, dated, Cold
War-era notion of what Eastern Europe is — it might be rusted factories and this
kind of industrial, gross smog. These days in much of Eastern Europe, the
reality looks a little bit more like this. Beautiful idyllic countryside,
fascinating cities, dynamic, colorful, vibrant, modern cities. Some of the
showpiece cities in all of Europe, Prague of course, the capital of the Czech
Republic, Kraków is the finest town in Poland, wonderful cities
that you probably never heard of or never put
on your mental maps. Gdańsk, up in the northern coast of Poland
is one of my favorite cities in Eastern Europe, very much undiscovered by
American tourists. You’ve got a lot of very epic stately
history embodied, for example, in the Hungarian Parliament Building there in
Budapest. Some of the finest people zones anywhere in Europe, the Charles Bridge in
Prague, and some unique experiences, things that you won’t experience
anywhere else on the continent, such as the delightful thermal baths of Budapest.
Natural wonders, Eastern Europe’s got that too, spectacular mountain valleys. In
general it’s just a really rewarding and engaging place to travel. Although, aside from all of its tangible
attractions and the things I’ll be talking about the slideshow, one of my
favorite things about Eastern Europe, the thing that really keeps me coming back
are the wonderful people that you encounter there. Now I say communism is
old news, and people have gotten beyond all of that, but this is still a
different part of Europe. Tourism is not quite as sort of mainstreaming
and as entrenched as it is in some really
touristy Western European towns, like, let’s say, Salzburg or Venice.
One thing I really like about traveling in Eastern Europe is the locals are
still really flattered by the attention from tourists, and that’s a really easy
place to connect with people. So no matter where you go in Eastern Europe,
you’ll find that there’s somebody who’s really excited that you took that
opportunity to come and see them. They know that they’re kind of the underdogs
of Europe, they’re greatly appreciative about that,
they’re extremely proud about their local culture, and very happy to show it
off for you. Again, it’s so–it’s one of my favorite places in all of Europe for
connecting with the local people. Let’s define our terms here,
Eastern Europe. The first thing I’m going to tell you
is a little bit shocking, this is not Eastern Europe,
it’s Central Europe. People who live in these
countries will insist. You’ll go to Poland or you’ll go to
Hungary, you’ll show ’em your Eastern Europe guidebook and say, “we’re really
enjoying a trip in Eastern Europe,” and they’ll say, “well then why are you in my
country? This is Central Europe.” There’s a couple
of reasons for this. Yes, we call it Eastern Europe here at Rick
Steves’ because we know that’s what most Americans think of when they think of
these countries, but for Europeans, especially people in this area, they
would point out, technically Europe starts at the Iberian
Peninsula on the western tip of this map and ends at the Ural Mountains at the
eastern tip of this map, and by golly, there’s Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, all right there in the very, very center
of Europe, they’re actually little bit west of center. There’s also a kind of a politically
loaded aspect to Eastern Europe. We say Eastern Europe meaning “formerly communist
Europe,” and again, these people would like to forget about that and help you
realize that there’s much more to these places than just that communist period. If
you’re interested in that you’ll find it, there is interesting sights to see there,
but there’s much more than that. So when we talk about Eastern Europe or
Central Europe, we’re mostly referring to these countries, they’re kind of the
westernmost most accessible of the former communist countries of the Soviet
bloc. We’ve got the Czech Republic, by the way
that used to be one country, Czechoslovakia, now it’s two separate
countries, Czech Republic and Slovakia, up to the north there you’ve got Poland,
down south you’ve got Hungary. That will be the focus of this talk. You
can also include in Eastern Europe, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro,
these are parts of the former Yugoslavia, I’ll be covering that in a
second talk, in fact. By the way I wanted to offer a
special welcome to the folks who are watching this online as well, thank you all for being here in person, but there’s
also a large audience streaming this or maybe watching it later on our website,
and those two talks are available as separate talks also on our website. We’re gonna launch right into the first
of our countries, again this this talk is really focused on the three biggies,
Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary. Let’s start with the Czech Republic. It’s
kind of a bowl-shaped country ringed by mountains on all sides and somewhat flat
in the middle. Right there is the capital of Prague in the heart of the Czech
Republic, and then you’ve got some interesting side trips
that I’ll talk about that are a little bit
outside of the capital. My favorite is Český Krumlov, it’s down
in the southern tip right near the Austrian border. For a lot of people who
travel to Eastern Europe, Prague is their first and maybe they’re
only stop, and for very good reason. There are a few more romantic, more
beautiful, more architecturally well-preserved, more interesting, more
engaging cities that you’re going to find than Prague. It’s also very easy to get to. You might
notice on this map, again, we think Prague is Eastern Europe, Prague is
actually west of Vienna for example, it’s–it really sticks out into what we
think of as Western Europe, so it’s very easy to reach to tack on to a trip even
if you’re not delving deep into the East, you can just take a quick hop there.
Let’s talk a little bit about what you would see and do in Prague, there’s
really four towns, historically, that merged to form the city that we today
call Prague. There’s the Old Town which is kind of
right in the bend of the Vltava River, just beyond that, wrapping around it, is the
New Town, across the river you’ve got the Castle Quarter up on the hill, and
down below the Castle Quarter is the Little Quarter, it’s kind of a strange-
it’s called Malá Strana, which means “lesser town,” or
“lower town,” or “little quarter.” It’s translated different ways, it’s
below the castle. Let’s take a quick spin through all four of those four towns of
Prague. The nice thing about Prague
is it’s quite compact, everything you see here
is more or less walkable, although trams and a subway system can
help kind of speed up some of the gaps. We’re going to begin in the New Town,
this is really the heart of today’s modern, urban, vibrant Prague. Wenceslas Square, it’s named for the
9th-century Czech duke of a “good King Wenceslas” of Christmas carol fame,
actually he was a very important Czech figure, he was kind of the cultural
standard bearer of the Czech people. And Wenceslas Square, the square
that’s named for him is probably the least touristy
part of central Prague. Prague, as I’ll talk about later, is pretty
crowded, but here on Wenceslas Square you might actually see more Czechs than
you will tourists. It just buzzes all the time with life, and commerce, and shops,
and this sort of thing. What I’ll say about Prague, Wenceslas
Square, applies really to all of Eastern Europe, which is, the history here
is very recent, and it’s very subtle, and it’s easy to miss. And
for that reason I highly recommend hooking up with
a good local tour guide. Obviously we’ve done our best in our guide
books to take the place of a tour guide, but there’s nothing like having a person
in the flesh explain to you what you’re seeing when you’re walking around a
town like Prague. This is our very good friend Honza Vihan,
he’s actually the co-author of our Prague and Czech Republic book, he’s a
native Czech, he grew up in Prague. It’s really fun to
go walking through the streets of Prague with Honza, and right there near Wenceslas
Square, we go down a little side street and he points out this plaque. And
I just was about to blow right past it, and Honza said, “now wait a minute, take a
look at this.” This plaque has the date November 17, 1989. There’s a
bunch of open hands on top of it. He said, “you know, you wouldn’t know it
from this nondescript plaque, but this was a very important date in Czech history.” This was the day a couple of months–
about a month after the Berlin Wall came down, so there was a sense of
change in the air, young people especially were fed up with
the communist system. It happened to be the day of celebrating
the Czech National Poet which is also the Czech National Students Day, and there
was a big celebration as there always is. After the celebration, a bunch of
frustrated students said, “you know what, let’s go down to Wenceslas Square and
have a little bit of a protest, let’s say we want what happened in Berlin to
happen here.” So these students set off across town
and gradually, as they approached Wenceslas Square, they found themselves
enclosed in this covered passageway, the shopping arcade, and before they knew it
the riot police, the communist riot police, had completely surrounded them.
They were blocking the outside of the pedestrian promenade, they
blocked off each end. The only way for the students
to escape was to run out along, basically, a line of riot cops
were hitting them with batons as they ran through. Pretty terrifying and pretty
upsetting. Well you know what, word got out about
this. The next day, parents and people in the community heard about this and said,
“this is not how we’re going to be treated by our government,” so very slowly the Czech people started to come out
to Wenceslas Square and staged demonstrations. And over the
course of ten days, more and more people came out on Wenceslas Square. You couldn’t even walk across the square,
it was jam-packed, hundreds of thousands of people from all over Czechoslovakia.
They held up their keys and jingled them and said to the regime,
“it is time for you to go.” Vaclav Havel, the beloved philosopher
and playwright who spent time in prison after being
sort of a political protester in the 1960s, emerged from hiding and
arose as sort of the the leader of this new rebellion, this new revolution. After
ten days of protests, the communist Parliament simply voted
itself out of existence. Czechoslovakia was a free country.
It was called the “Velvet Revolution” because
not a shot was fired. Wow, does that give you goosebumps, right? This is amazing, and this is what I love
about Eastern Europe. There’s a very fine line between current
events and history, and it gets blurred here
like nowhere else. And as uplifting and amazing as that
story is, it’s even more amazing when it’s told by Honza, who, as a 12-year-old
kid hanging out with his sister, was one of those young protesters who got
trapped in this very place and beat by the riot police and inspired a nation to
take back their freedom. That’s the essence of Eastern Europe, and
that’s why connecting with people like Honza can really make a trip here
something special. We’re gonna head into
the Old Town which is really the showpiece of Prague, right in the center. This is tourist, sort of, “Grand Central,”
and I sure don’t blame them, it’s just an absolutely delightful place to hang
out and spend time, as you can see it’s gorgeous. As a tour guide leading our
Rick Steves tours I really enjoy the first time that my
groups arrive in Prague, in the evening as the sun is setting I’m taking them to
dinner, and I always make sure that we walk through the Old Town Square. And I
just stop for a moment in the center so people can look around and and gasp at
all the beauty, and invariably someone nudges me excitedly and says to me, “this is better than Disneyland,” and
they’re absolutely right — this is the real deal. It’s like a arc–
sort of a textbook of architectural styles. A lot of the big
cities of Eastern and Central Europe were devastated in WWII, Prague
never was, so it’s remarkably well preserved, and it’s a great place even if
you don’t think you’re interested in architecture, you can’t deny
the beauty of this place. One thing I also enjoy doing
in my guidebooks and as a tour guide is introducing people to the
local patriots and heroes of each of these countries who we’ve never learned
about in American textbooks, because this was part of the Iron Curtain–behind the
Iron Curtain, part of the Soviet Bloc. Well each of these countries has its own
very proud national symbols, this is Jan Hus. Jan Hus was a Czech minister,
priest, and also a university professor. He spoke out against
Catholic Church corruption, he spoke out against the practice of
indulgences, he did a lot of the same things, for example, that Martin Luther
did, except Jan Hus did them a hundred years before Martin Luther, and he was
burned at the stake as a punishment. As you might imagine, he’s still a very
important figure for Czech people today, and it’s fun to get to know these names
that are the names that everyone knows in the Czech Republic, we learn
them for the first time in and it gives us an insight into each of these
cultures. As far as tourist sites go, right there in the Old Town Square you
got the famous astronomical clock, and this is a very complicated medieval
clock that has all these different doors and windows, and at the top of each hour there’s a little show. The doors at the
top open up and the 12 Apostles shuffle past, and the devil turns his hourglass,
and so forth, and I enjoy watching the show but I kind of prefer to turn around
and watch the hordes of people who show up to stare up and have their
mouths hanging open as they watch their little show. Prague is crowded. Of all the places I’m going to talk
about in this talk, Prague is probably the most crowded, the most popular. I would
say the first bit of advice is expect crowds. The second bit of advice is do
your best to avoid crowds, there are some specific tips in our guidebook for
example about which parts of town you want to be in at certain times and which
parts you don’t want to be in at certain times, because the crowds follow
some pretty predictable patterns here. At any time there’s crowds, there’s always a
lot of people trying to catch the tourist dollar, and that can range from
legitimate entrepreneurs like Honza — Honza is a local tour guide you can hire,
and he’s a great investment, you’ll have a great day with him — all the way down to
petty crooks, and pickpockets, and con-artists. In general I think there’s
not a huge risk of pickpocketing and scams in Eastern Europe compared to a lot
of parts of Europe, but Prague is the place where you’re very likely to encounter
it. So just keep your wits about you. If you’re going out for dinner make sure
that you check the bill very carefully, make sure there’s nothing on
your bill that you didn’t buy. When you’re paying for something, think
about when you’re giving them the money how much you want back, and then make
sure you got that much back when they give you your change back. They know that that tourists are
mystified by their currency so they sometimes take advantage of that. And to
foil pickpockets, and let me tell you as a tour guide I’ve had people have their
pockets picked literally in my presence, that’s how crafty these pickpockets are.
You have to wear a money belt, and if you know Rick Steves at all, I’m sure you’re very familiar with this.
It’s a cloth pouch you wear around your waist under your clothes, and that’s
where you keep your passport, your credit cards, any large bills, anything that your
trip can’t go on if you lose it. I keep a little wallet in my pocket, in my
front pocket that I have maybe a day spending cash, but anything of real value
I keep in my money belt. That’s kind of my deep storage. It’s
really important especially in Prague because pickpockets are rampant, and really
throughout Eastern Europe, and honestly no matter where you go in Europe, it’s
it’s just a good ethic to be as a part of your routine. Prague is a very
musical city, back when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire there were a
lot of famous composers like Mozart who had lived, and composed, and performed
here, so there’s lots of great concerts going on all the time. It’s a little hard to choose between
them, so I would say go to a box office, there’s one right on the main square
there, the Old Town Square, there’s a little box office where you
can find out what’s playing tonight, and which venue it’s in, and buy tickets. Otherwise you’ll be approached all the
time by, you know, people in fake Mozart wigs, and they’ll just tell you about the
concert they’re selling, but it’s really good to know what all your
options are there. And there’s also some great street music, like these folks here
as well. In general Prague is a great city after dark, this is one of my
favorite little hideaways, it’s a really fancy hotel called U
Prince it right on Old Town Square, and you can go up and pay a little too much
for a cocktail with a spectacular sunset view over the Old Town Square. Other sightseeing options, in the Old
Town of Prague you’ve got the Jewish quarter, Josefov.
In fact for most of its history, like a lot of Eastern Europe, Prague has a really
strong kind of Jewish component to its history, and like in a lot of cities, Jews
lived in the least desirable territory. It’s the part closest to the bend in the
river which was most easily flooded. Now it’s been turned into a museum, it’s
a combination of several, five or six different synagogues, and they’re all linked together on one
ticket. Each of the synagogue buildings has an interesting, very well described
museum. It’s a great place to get a taste of
this chapter of Czech history. And some moving memorials also, so for example in
this this room that we’re looking at here, the names of each of the Czech Jewish
victims of the Holocaust is written on the wall. And if you’re just quiet for a
moment in this particular building you’ll hear a voice very quietly reading
those names on it on an infinite loop as you visit the museum. There’s also a very evocative cemetery.
Because the Jews were forced to live on such a small plot of land, they had to
actually eventually bury people on top of each other, and then they would kind
of stack up all of the the gravestones on the top level, that’s very powerful to
see that. I alluded to earlier what a great architecture city Prague is, and I would
say again, even if you don’t think you’re interested in architecture, they call it the “golden city of a
hundred spires” because there’s just so much–such a richness of architecture and
buildings. And I’ve had tour members come up to me and they’ve got some free
time, they say, “what should I do with the with this extra hour that I’ve got?” And
I say, “you know, one of my favorite things is just to walk down any random
street and look up, and you’ll very much– very, very likely end up running into
some gorgeous buildings that would be a showpiece building in any other city, but
in Prague they’re just come–commonplace.” It’s really a highlight of the city.
We’re going to cross the bridge now of the Vltava River to head over the other
two towns of Prague. We’ve done the New Town and the Old Town, now we’re gonna
head to the Castle Town and the Lower town or the Lesser Town, and to get
across that river we’re going to take the Charles Bridge, and this is one of
the famous landmarks of Prague and one of the most delightful hundred-meter
strolls that I’ve had anywhere in Europe. It’s a beautiful bridge that’s just
jammed day and night with the buskers, and vendors, and tourists, and occasionally a
few Czech people as well, and it’s lined with the Czech saints in stone, each of
these comes with a story, and it’s it’s always interesting with a local guide
or something to learn about each of the people invited on this bridge. Crossing
the bridge again you’ve got those two towns right on top of each other, the
Castle Town up above, and the Lesser Town below. As you walk across the bridge,
you’ll look down and in part of the Lesser Town is this delightful,
tranquil little Kampa Island. It’s another example of, if you just walk
a couple blocks off that main the square of Kampa Island you’re going
to find some landmarks that you wouldn’t know are landmarks unless you have
someone to explain it to you. Let’s say you’re walking across the
bridge and you see this wall and you say, “oh what a shame, all the
graffiti on that wall, that’s just gross, that’s
just really tacky.” Well if you’re with Katka, who is another
one of our tour guides and we also recommend her in our guidebook,
if you’re with Katka, she’ll will say, “now hold on a minute,
this is the Lennon Wall.” Not the Vladimir Lenin Wall but the
John Lennon Wall. Back in communism, listening to Western music like the
Beatles was really a sign of defiance, it was a sign of uprising against the
government. Young people love the Beatles, so at a
certain point, the young people of Prague started painting murals of John Lennon
on this wall every night under cover of darkness, and then the next day the
authorities would come through and they would whitewash over the wall, and then
the night after that the students would come back and paint more of the John
Lennon graffiti, and so forth and so on. And it became a very important symbol of
freedom during the time of communism. There’s all sorts of fascinating history,
not just at the big sights like Prague Castle, but tucked around little
unassuming corners, and you really have to have a good guidebook or a good tour
guide to make sure you understand them. We’re gonna head up to
Prague Castle which is, by some measures, the
largest castle on Earth. And you know what, I’m going to say this
about Prague, I’ll say it also about Budapest and Kraków, these castle
complexes are huge, you could spend a day or two days seeing all the sights, but
honestly a lot of those sights are lost on somebody who doesn’t have a pretty
strong background in the local history, so I think it’s a better approach to
just kind of highlight one or two things and and see this area in two or
three hours. It’s very crowded, it’s very congested,
see what you want to see and then go off to some other parts of the city that
might even be more interesting. As I said, it’s just jam-packed. I mentioned crowd
beating tips a little bit earlier, it’s funny, on my Eastern Europe tour I
always get my tour members up very early on the day we went
up to Prague Castle. Most days we’d get a, you know,
we’d meet in the lobby at 8:30 or 9:00. In Prague Castle day I’d
always say, “let’s meet it at 8:15.” And they’d say, “8:15?” And I’d say,
“just trust me on this one.” I knew that if you got up at 8:15
and went straight up to the castle, you’d be at the front door of the great
cathedral, St. Vitus Cathedral, right when the door opened you’d be the first group
in, and you have the place to yourself for 10 or 15 minutes. And then as you’re
leaving, you see, coming in through the door you just came in through, now it’s
when all of the big multinational tour groups are coming in and the place just
becomes clogged. So coming 15-20 minutes earlier sometimes can make the
difference between a great experience and really crowded one. So some of the sights up at Prague
Castle, there’s a royal palace where you can go and learn a little bit about this
Czech history. That’s–this here is St. Vitus Cathedral
which is that main church that I was telling you about, it’s the main church
really of the entire country of the Czech people, so it’s where a lot of
their kings and heroes are buried. It’s also got some beautiful decorations.
This is a spectacular stained glass window by a local artist. his name is
Alphonse Mucha. And like I enjoy introducing people to Jan Hus, another
thing I really enjoy is introducing people to artists that they’ve never
heard of. Because Alphonse Mucha had the bad luck to be born in Prague
instead of Paris, he’s not really very well known outside
of his home region, but he’s every bit as talented as a lot of the other Art
Nouveau artists that are much more famous than he is. He’s got this great stained glass window
up at Prague Castle. In the New Town he’s got a fascinating museum dedicated
just to his works, you can see he had this very slinky Art Nouveau style, he
did a lot of theater posters and that sort of thing. And the very exciting news
in Prague, in the last few years for the first time since it was painted, on
display in Prague now is the Slav Epic. This is a huge series of 16 gigantic
canvases by Alphonse Mucha that basically tell the entire story of the
Slavic people, and this is really a must see if you’re an art lover especially,
and even if you’re not, this is something special that’s uniquely
Czech, it’s worth going out of your way for the “Slav
Epic” by Alphonse Mucha. I want to talk a little bit about food,
not just in the Czech Republic but throughout Eastern Europe, I would say Eastern European food has
has kind of a rough reputation. People think it’s very starchy, heavy, a
lot of pork and potatoes, sauerkraut. Which is all pretty much
true, but it’s actually a lot better than it gets credit for, and you’d be
surprised how much variation there is from country to country. I’ll try to
highlight a little bit of that as we go. I think Eastern
European food is delicious, and again, there’s more
variety than you’d expect. Czech food is probably the
heaviest, least imaginative of the countries that
I’ll be talking about, but you know what, it’s filling, it is very
affordable, and it’s often served in a really delightful environment, like this this lively, colorful restaurant. If the
food is not necessarily exceptional in Czech, the thing that is exceptional is
the beer. Along with Belgium, Czech beer is probably the best-
respected anywhere in Europe, and it’s also some of the cheapest. If you go to
Belgium and get a nice bottle of beer it could be $6 or $7,
if you go to a little neighborhood pub in Prague
it might be $1. It’s much, much more affordable, and
there’s lots of different brands to try, I won’t give all the details here but
there’s just sort of a whole universe of extremely high quality beers available
in the Czech Republic. We’re gonna head out of Prague now, we’ve
had a kind of a blitz tour of that city, and we’re gonna get into the countryside.
There’s lots of small towns that are worth considering for a
visit out in the Czech countryside, but if
you had to pick one, I think it would be this one. This is
called Český Krumlov. Český Krumlov. By the way, in a
lot of these languages you have these little characters above and below the
letters. For example, the C with a little hat over it makes it like a CH,
Český, Český Krumlov. Český means Czech, like the country,
Krumlov means “bend in the river,” so this is Czech bend in the river, and sure
enough it’s got a beautiful, colorful castle complex that’s lassoed by an
almost 180-degree bend in the river down below. That river is very
popular for canoers. You can actually tour that castle, go up in that colorful
tower, they’ve got a baroque theater where they still have the equipment to
make special effects the way they did 200 years ago for theater productions,
you can do a tour of that as well. What I really like about Český Krumlov
is that it’s beautiful, it’s not that far from Prague, it’s about three hours
south towards Austria, and most importantly, it’s relatively uncrowded. I
wouldn’t say it’s completely off the beaten path, but it’s certainly less
crowded than Prague, and once you get out of the big city and into the countryside
you’ll find you’ll have these floodlit cobbles all to yourself. There’s, again, much more to say–see in
the Czech Republic, but I’ll mention one more place. This is the eastern half of
the country, Czech Republic is actually two regions, there’s Bohemia, which is the
western part, that’s where Prague is, and there’s Moravia, which is the more
kind of romantic, traditional, old-fashioned eastern half of the
country. This is a place to go and relax, do some
hiking, some skiing, you’ve got beautiful little villages.
It’s also a great place to connect with authentic bits of local culture like
this folk singing show. We’re going to cross our first border now, we’re gonna
head down into Poland. That means we have to go to an ATM,
that’s right, most of these countries that I’m describing today are still on
their traditional currencies. This is confusing to some people. All of
these countries, Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary are part of the European
Union, but just because you’re in the EU doesn’t mean you use the euro currency,
it’s a separate–a separate animal. So each of these still has its different
currency. And as I mentioned earlier, in Prague these are very
different currencies, they have completely
different exchange rates. There’s the Czech koruna, the Hungarian
forint, the Polish złoty, and the exchange rates are totally different.
And it’s really worth it when you cross the border to think carefully and train
yourself to think in the new currency. Figure out a formula that works for you
to remember how to make quick conversions of those prices. But ATMs, of
course, are available everywhere just like they are here or
in Western Europe, and they’re the best way to
to get out currency. I’ll just talk quickly about transportation
options. I find people going to this region are probably either focusing on
one city, they’re just going to Prague or just going to Budapest, or they’re
going to be lacing together a lot of these big cities that are pretty far
apart, and for that reason I find trains are probably the best way to go. The communists left Eastern Europe with
a great network of public transportation, but it’s pretty long in the tooth. So
it’ll get you where you’re going, there’s always a way to connect two points, but
it can be slow. Some of the trains aren’t quite up to
Western snuff, but it’s a good way to get where you need to go. In terms of rental
car, that’s an option I would probably advise
against a big multi-country trip with a rental car that focuses on cities, like
the places I’m talking about, because distances are pretty long and because
once you have a car in a city you have to deal with parking, and keeping it safe,
and it can be kind of an expensive headache in a big city, so I would rather
have trains to take me effortlessly between the big cities. And
then if you do want a car for the Czech countryside for example, you could rent
one strategically for a couple of days just to do a quick loop there. And don’t overlook budget flights.
I often have to go from Kraków to Budapest
or Warsaw to Budapest, that’s a pretty lengthy train trip,
usually it’s a long night train ride, and now I just always
first check if there’s any airlines that have
good deals there. There’s a lot of these
low-cost carriers that are available
throughout Europe, you’ve got Easyjet and Ryanair, and then there’s
some that specialize in Eastern Europe, and even if the name doesn’t quite
inspire confidence like Wizz Air, as pictured here, this is actually a great
airline. It’s Hungarian-based, and I’ve flown Wizz Air several
times, and it’s actually really nice —
new planes, great service. So consider that for your long hops on
your itinerary. By the way, I mentioned these countries are in the
EU, they’re not on the euro but they do have the open
borders agreement called Schengen. So you can drive from
Germany, to Poland, to Slovakia, to Hungary,
to the Czech Republic, to Austria, and you’ll never have to stop
at the border and show your passport. It’s just like Western Europe now, so
it’s very easy to get around. We’re gonna move into our next country
and that is Poland, and boy I could spend this whole time just talking about
Poland, this is a fantastic country, a big, giant country, it’s about as big as Spain,
and about his populous as Italy. It’s one of Europe’s biggest countries. I
only have time for a few highlights so I’m going to focus on the first place
that most people go and should, and that’s Kraków, down in the south. And
then you head up to the middle of the country, Warsaw, that’s the capital.
And then up on the northern
coast coast is Gdańsk. This is this very historic colorful city.
And each of these cities, I think they’re quite different, they’re very
complimentary, and it’s a great way to kind of get a taste of
the country of Poland. We’re going to start in Kraków, and if you had
to pick one place to go in Poland, I would make it Kraków. This is really
the showpiece city of the country, it’s the–it used to be actually the
capital, but about 500 years ago the capital moved north to Warsaw. But
Kraków still remains the university center, it remains the cultural capital,
and for Poles it’s the place they’re most proud of. And it’s a really
beautiful place, very compact, very easy to nav–manage and walk around. The old
town is ringed by a beautiful park that used to be the city wall and the moat and
it was torn down and turned into a park. You can walk from one end of the Old
Town to the other in 10 or 15 minutes, and almost everything you want to see is
in that in that radius. So you don’t have to worry
too much about public transportation. There’s a delightful park
called the Planty. The centerpiece of Kraków, in the
Old Town, and I think for me it’s one of my favorite squares anywhere in Europe,
is the Main Market Square. It’s gigantic, it’s beautiful, it’s the
living room of Kraków, it’s where everyone is out and about all the time.
And it bustles at all hours of the day and night with pigeons, and cotton candy
vendors, and horse carriage rides, and folk music bands, outdoor
cafes, it’s just an absolutely delightful place to spend your time.
And it’s also got important landmarks, of course ,there’s
St. Mary’s Church, one of the main churches in this in the city that has so
many churches, I’ll talk more about that in a moment. In the very center is the
Cloth Hall. This was the traditional market hall, and it still is kind of the
main place to shop for souvenirs or at least the most convenient
place to shop for souvenirs right in the
center of Kraków. Poland is a very inexpensive
country, so your dollar goes a long way here. You can have
a nice drink outside at a genteel cafe overlooking that square for
a lot less than you would in a similar situation in a French city
or an Italian city. Shopping here is also a pretty good value, there’s a lot of
woodworking, there’s some sort of crystal, and
then they have a lot of amber, which is found up on the northern
coast of Poland as well. And then after dark the Old Town of
Kraków and the Main Market Square is just equally enticing as well. I talked about–a little bit generally
about food, specifically I’ll talk about Polish food, and one, I
think, budget tip if you’re looking to save some money
they still have this tradition in Poland that started in
communist times, it’s called a Milk Bar. It’s a little bit
of a misnomer, it sells not just milk but all sorts of Polish
specialties, but it started as a
government-subsidized cafeteria. The idea under communism was to give
people a chance to have a meal out, and even though communism is long gone
people are now used to having these cheap cafeterias, and I can go into a
milk bar in any city in Poland and have a delicious, filling meal of traditional
Polish dishes for five dollars. You know, you have to go to the counter
and point to what you want and bus your dishes afterward, but you
can have, I mean, a really filling dinner at a Milk Bar for five dollars. Just to
give you a sense, there’s one in Kraków for example that specializes
in potato pancakes, it’s one of my favorites. And
Polish food I would say is actually quite different from Czech
food, you have some of the same staples, pork, and potatoes, and cabbage, but there’s more of a northern feel to
the ingredients here. You have a lot of berries, dill, potatoes, beets, so this is borscht, the delicious,
savory beet stew or beet soup that you get all over Poland. Polish food is
similar to what you might think of as Russian food or even Jewish food because
it’s got a similar climate to that territory. Now Poland does have some
good beer and some good wine, but what they’re really proud of is their vodka.
And this is one of the most famous brands of vodka, it’s called
Żubrówka which means “bison.” There are actually bison preserves
in northern Poland, and the story goes that every
bottle of Żubrówka has a blade of grass in it, and the grass comes from the
bison preserves. The story goes that the bison season the grass and the grass
seasons the vodka. This is pretty high test stuff so
there’s no danger of illness, but it’s one of those great little cultural
tidbits. And my Polish friends always like to remind me, “the good thing about
drinking vodka–you do it all in one go because then it only hurts once,” that’s
the Polish secret to downing vodka. Down at the southern tip of Kraków,
you’ve got the Wawel. Wawel is the name of the hill where the castle
and main cathedral of Poland are. I’d say similar advice here to Prague,
it’s a big castle complex, there’s lots of different museums, most of them are more or less lost on
people who don’t have a strong basis in Polish history and culture. But it does
have one of the finest churches in this city that’s just completely loaded with
churches, that’s Wawel Cathedral. It’s the main
church, it’s the Westminster Abbey of Poland, and that is really saying
something. I think–from my opinion, Poland is the
most–I think it’s the most–the most practicing Catholic country in Europe.
There’s a lot of Catholic countries in Europe, but when you go in churches in
Poland you really notice it’s–they’re just jammed with worshippers all the time, and
this is the finest of them all. Wawel was also, in addition to having all
the tombs of the great kings and military heroes of Poland, it was also the home church of Karol
Wojtyla, you know him better as Pope John Paul II, who was
elevated to the papacy in the 1970s in the darkest days of communism and provided a great inspiration to the
Polish people and, really, Slavic people all over Eastern Europe. It was a really
a turning point in communism and a signal that that the ways were about
to change. And if–as you might imagine, Pope John
Paul II is still very much revered in in Poland as well. This is a salt version of Pope John
Paul II, sounds kind of strange but this is one of the more
popular side trips from Kraków. There’s a salt mine just on the outskirts
of downtown called Wieliczka Salt Mine and it’s actually where the miners,
over the course of many centuries, started carving sculptures out
of the salt that they were mining. They even carved an
entire underground chapel. Everything you see here is carved out of
the salt, including these relief panels of the Last Supper. Really amazing. Back–
closer to downtown Kraków, this is just a 15-minute walk from the main square, is a
neighborhood called Kazimierz. Like the Czech Republic, Poland has a very strong
Jewish component to its history, and particularly Kraków, something like 28% of
the people who lived in Kraków were Jewish right up until World War II. And now you
can go and see some synagogues that have been turned into museums, some cemeteries,
and you can learn a little bit about the real Oskar Schindler, made famous of course
by Schindler’s List. Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist who, when Poland was
under German occupation, came and opened a factory here. And I’m sure you know the
story, he managed to spend as much of his money as possible to save as many of his
Jewish workers from the Holocaust as he could. And this is where this actually
happened, it’s also where the movie was filmed. For a while under communism this
neighborhood was kind of decrepit and derelict, and they didn’t really care
much to promote that history, but now it’s really been rejuvenated and
is becoming a major attraction for people interested in Jewish
history and Jewish culture. You can go to synagogues, museums,
cemeteries, they were actually cemeteries that were
destroyed under Nazi tank treads. Nazis would go into Jewish cemeteries and
destroy the headstones, and they’ve now been pieced back together in these
evocative memorials. And it’s become also a very popular destination for Jewish or
Israeli tour groups. And I would say the Jewish sights in
Czech Republic in Prague are a little bit more cohesively presented, that’s a
good place to learn about the history, but here they feel very meaningful
because you have that Schindler’s List connection. And in fact, the Schindler’s
List factory, the factory where the events actually took place and with the
movie were filmed has pretty recently been turned into a state-of-the-art
museum, so if you want to learn more about that, make sure to visit the Oskar
Schindler Factory museum in Kazimierz, the neighborhood of Kraków. Of course the
most tragic and one of the very important chapters of the Jewish story
of Poland took place during the Holocaust, during World War II. And just
an hour and a half outside of Kraków is one of the most notorious–probably
the most notorious Nazi concentration camp called Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is actually two different camps,
Auschwitz and Birkenau. The first part, Auschwitz, which you see here, started
out as just a camp for prisoners–military prisoners and political prisoners. It was a work camp, people were sent
here to be forced to work. These days this part of the camp, Auschwitz, has been
turned into a museum with some really fascinating exhibits that tell you what
it was like to live in these camps, the terrible conditions that people lived
under, very powerful exhibits. There’s a room that’s just a pile of
suitcases and it reminds us that when people first arrived, Jewish victims of
the Holocaust, they were told, “if you write your name on
your suitcase you can reclaim them later.” Well a lot of these folks were sent
directly to the gas chambers and never saw their suitcases again. And when the
camp was liberated they just found warehouses full of
suitcases, you can see some of these very suitcases
here at Auschwitz. Now the second part
of the camp is just a mile and a half away,
it’s called Birkenau. And when Hitler and his cronies
came up with the final solution, which was genocide, which was basically the
massacring of the entire Jewish race, they decided that Auschwitz wasn’t big
enough, so they built Birkenau, which is basically a factory for the mass
production of death. They could hold 100,000
people here at one time, they had four gas chambers and crematoria that were
operating literally 24/7. And this is the famous guard tower of Birkenau, and you might remember the scene from
Schindler’s List or you might have heard this story, but this is
where the Nazi commandant would stand as people
got off the train. He would evaluate each person visually
for just a second, and then he would point one direction, which meant they were to
be sent directly to the gas chamber, or he would point the other direction, which
meant that they would be registered as a prisoner and forced to
work and live at least a little bit longer in
terrible conditions. It’s incredibly powerful to tour these,
all of the barracks were destroyed as the Nazis fled, and also were later
cannibalized so that people could use the wood for other other buildings, but
they’ve reconstructed some of the barracks, you can go in and see the the buildings
where people were kept. It’s an incredibly powerful pilgrimage, I
think, for a lot of people. Some people say, “why would I go to this terrible
place on my vacation?” But I think people who go generally are very glad they did,
and it keeps up the message that is so important to the survivors of the
Holocaust and the people who run places like Auschwitz, and that message is, “never
again,” we want to make sure that this story is documented, and told, and
remembered again and again, because only by that awareness can we prevent this
sort of thing from from taking place in the future. Again very powerful
pilgrimage here in Poland. We’re gonna head up to the capital now
of Poland, Warsaw. And Warsaw has a very complicated story, in fact I have a very
good friend from Poland, and when I first visited her in Warsaw, she’s born there,
she said to me with tears in her eyes, “Warsaw is ugly because its history is so
beautiful.” I might contend that Warsaw is not really an ugly place, especially
since then it’s been fixed up, it’s a really beautiful city now. But I
absolutely agree that its history is beautiful, what she means is, the history
of Warsaw, like the history of Poland, is the story of big mighty empires and
armies constantly passing back and forth through Poland. Poland is a big basically
flat space between Germany and Russia. Can you imagine, over the course of
history, a worse place to be than a big flat country between Germany and Russia. Sure enough, the country has been
devastated again, and again, and again, and Warsaw has taken the brunt of a lot of
that. After WWII, Warsaw was in complete ruins. There was an uprising
here, a very valiant against all odds uprising that Hitler put down, and to
punish the people who did that, he systematically destroyed Warsaw block by
block– this is a modern digital recreation of
what Warsaw like at the war’s end– until basically nothing was left
standing. General Eisenhower toured Warsaw after
World War II, and is said to have remarked it’s the most devastated he had
seen of any city anywhere in the world in all of his his travels and
experiences. Now the positive ending to this story is
Warsaw has been rebuilt. The communists did a pretty good job with it, but over
the last 20-25 years it’s really come into its own, it’s a
really vibrant, energetic place, it’s a capital–a center of business,
it’s a center of politics, it’s got a really kind of a thriving
exciting kind of metabolism these days. And to recreate Warsaw from the rubble, they actually went back to their
archives and used old paintings, so as you walk through the streets of Warsaw
you’ll see a painting on a pedestal across the street from the building that
they use that painting in order to know what it looked like so they can recreate
it perfectly. This is the old town of Warsaw which was
rubble after the war, and as you can see now it’s looking quite pristine. That big
pink building on the right side is the National Palace. You can tour the palace
and learn a little bit about Polish history there. In the centerpiece of the
old town is a very popular statue of a mermaid. A mermaid is a symbol of Warsaw,
very strong, very defiant, she’s holding a sword in one hand. Warsawians and Poles in
general, they want to be welcoming to outsiders
who come in peace, but there’s a real pride about
preserving Polish culture and Polish heritage in spite of all odds. The other interesting
thing about Warsaw is the birthplace of the
composer Frédéric Chopin. Now you might think Chopin is a French
composer, isn’t he? Not quite, his father was French but his mother was
Polish and he was born in Warsaw and grew up in Warsaw. He–it was during a very kind of difficult
political time so he fled and lived in exile in France, and that’s where he
became famous as a composer, but in Chopin’s mind his Polish heritage was
very important to him. He would often say, “to me, my music sounds like the wind
blowing through the leaves of the willow trees in my native land of Poland,” and
that’s that kind of poetry of everyday life that the Poles really gravitate to,
there’s a lot of pride in this country. And the last place I’ll talk about in
Poland, and you know honestly for me it’s one of the most underrated places I
think in Eastern Europe, and that is Gdańsk. This is a
wonderful, vibrant, colorful city on the northern Baltic Sea coast of Poland. You
might know Gdańsk by its German name, Danzig, and you might think this is the
place that I saw on the news in the 1980s when there were all these
protests, and it sure looked like an ugly kind of industrial city, a lot of
shipyards, a lot of smog. Well I’m here to tell you
there is a part of the city that did look that way,
even that’s being fixed up, but the central core of Gdańsk is an
absolutely breathtaking, beautiful place, vibrant, one of the most enjoyable people
areas, bustling people areas, that I’ve seen anywhere in Poland, really anywhere
in Europe. Lots of great landmarks, again, like a lot of cities in Poland this was
destroyed in the war, World War II, but it’s been since rebuilt. And just a
delightful town to go and explore and learn a little bit about the history. It’s
on the northern coast so it was part of that Hanseatic League, which was the
medieval trading League of Northern European cities, so it has a feeling that’s
similar to Amsterdam or maybe Bergen in Norway, these kinds of Northern European
cities, it that has that kind of architecture and spirit. And right there,
still in the middle of town, is the historic canal where all the ships would
come in and unload their goods. I mentioned those protests in the
1980s, and just about a 20-minute walk from the main part of
central Gdańsk, where all the beautiful buildings are, you can actually go to that
shipyard where those strikes took place. In August of 1980 there
was a strike of the shipyard workers against
the communist regime. Lech Wałęsa — by the way, Poles pronounce
it “vah-wen-zah,” we say “wah-less-ah” but in Polish it’s “vah-wen-zah” —
Lech Wałęsa had been fired as a dissident, he was a
shipyard electrician. When he heard that there was a protest
going on, he literally went to the shipyard and jumped over the fence to
become the leader of the protest. And all of these shipyard workers huddled behind
this fence for about two weeks, and they were terrified because 10 years before a
similar protest had been met with terrible violence, they had basically
been gunned down from snipers and many people were killed. So these folks were absolutely terrified
of what might happen, but they stuck to their guns and actually had some success,
it resulted in some concessions by the communist government in 1980. So when you think about the Berlin
Wall fall in 1989, this was the first cracks beginning
to appear, right here in Gdańsk. And you can go
to the actual shipyard, there’s a fantastic state-of-the-art
museum that explains the whole story, see real artifacts. And you can stand at
that fence and imagine what it would be like to be one of the people terrified
behind the fence, or to be one of their family members who came to the other
side of the fence, the only way that they could talk was through this fence which
was under tight patrol by communist soldiers, very, very powerful site. We’re gonna head into Hungary next,
that’s the Hungarian Parliament, but first I wanted to talk a little
bit about the different ways you might travel
to Eastern Europe. Basically you have two choices, you can
take a tour or you can be your own guide, do your own thing. As I mentioned, I’m a
tour guide for our Eastern Europe tour, I’ll tell you about the itinerary in a
minute but I did want to say one thing I love about our Eastern Europe
tour in particular. In my experience, we get a lot of people on that tour who
are very well traveled, they’re very intelligent, they’re very
inquisitive, they’ve been to Germany, or France, or Italy on their own, but they
tell me the first day, “I just wanted a little extra help because this part of
Europe feels a little more mysterious, I feel like there’s this complicated
recent history that I want to understand.” So I just feel like, I love all of our
tour members but the caliber of our tour members on the Eastern
Europe tour is really something special,
and as a tour guide I really appreciate that. But they’re not
all a bunch of serious historians, it’s also a really a fun-loving group and it
can be a really nice way to to meet and and enjoy other people’s company as
you’re learning about these countries that are so
mysterious when we start, but so familiar when we finish. And of course, I’m
sure you know all of the Rick Steves’ tour spiels — we’ve got very small
groups, usually 25, 26, 28 people. One thing that I really live by as a
tour guide and I’m really proud of, we want our tour members to become
temporary Europeans. We’re not there to show them the big sites and the cart ’em
off to a hotel out on the edge of town, we want them to really understand what it’s
like to live in these countries. One of the ways we do that is, for
example, we take people to a school in a small village in rural Hungary, where
they can sit and actually talk with the students and we actually have lunch in
the school cafeteria. I think that’s the kind of thing that
set Rick Steves tours apart, and it’s our dedication to really making sure
people appreciate and understand these cultures. The–sort of the
grand tour of Eastern Europe that we have is a 16-day tour. It starts up in Prague, we head into the
rural Czech republic, and then we cut into Poland for three nights there in
Kraków, we zip through Slovakia to Hungary where we go for a night to Eger and
three nights to Budapest, the capital which I’m about to talk about, and then
sort of for dessert we delve down south and just get a little taste of Croatia and
Slovenia. One night at the waterfalls of Plitvice, two nights on the Adriatic, and
two nights up in the Slovenian Alps. I’ve done this tour as a guide many
times, and I really enjoy it, it’s the best kind of first look, two and
a half week first look at the really best parts
of this part of Europe. If you don’t have that much time we have
some shorter tours, there’s a seven-day Prague and Budapest tour that just
combines those two great cities, and then if you want to kind of skirt around the
western edge of Eastern Europe, we’ve got a tour that starts in Berlin,
goes down to Prague, goes through Český Krumlov, that beautiful Czech
town I showed you, and ends up in Vienna. If you want to kind of hit those big
Habsburg–kind of Germanic Habsburg cities there, just outside of what I
call Eastern Europe. If you do want to go on your own, of course you want to equip
yourself with good information. This is the book that I wrote with Rick
and I update routinely with Rick, the “Rick Steves Eastern Europe” book, and
all of the things I’m talking about in this class, obviously you’ll get all the
details in this book, tips for beating lines, the best accommodations,
best restaurants, and so forth. It’s part of a series of multiple books,
and if you’re doing a more targeted trip be aware we’ve got the eastern Europe book
which is kind of the best of, but you’ve also got a book that’s just Prague and
the Czech Republic, that’s authored by our Czech friend Honza. I’ve written a
book with Rick just on Budapest, I also have a book on Croatia and Slovenia,
so make sure that when you’re looking at which book you want that you get the one
that covers the places you need and maybe doesn’t– you
don’t have to cover everything, maybe there’s
a–if you’re just going to Prague and Budapest maybe pick up the
Prague and the Budapest book rather than the Eastern Europe book. Of course
there’s more information about all of these things tours, and
guidebooks, on our website. And by the way, all of our TV
shows, Rick’s 100 episodes of television are all, in fairly
recent development, they’re all available to stream for
free in their full entirety. You don’t pay a dime, you just go on the
website, click on the TV tab, and you can watch a show on Prague, you can watch a
show on Kraków and Warsaw, you can watch a show on Budapest, the
full-length episodes available, free streaming online, as well as a bunch of
other great travel information articles, pictures, everything you can imagine. We’re gonna head now into the last of
the three countries I’m covering, Hungary. I have a real soft spot for Hungary, as
you can tell I have a soft spot for all of these places, but there’s just
something really lovable about Hungary, it’s kind of offbeat, it’s kind of quirky,
things are a little different there. You’d be surprised how different hungry
feels from Poland or from Czech Republic. For one thing it’s got a warmer climate,
it’s south of the Carpathian Mountains, but part of the reason is these guys, these
are the Magyars, or as they’re called in their native tongue, the “mahd-jahrs.” The Magyars are actually a
tribe of Central Asian nomadic herders who about a thousand years ago, 1,100
years ago, worked their way from the steps of what would today be Central Asia,
like around Mongolia, worked their way all the way across Asia and Europe and
decided just to stay Hungary. And to this day, the
descendants–their descendants are today’s modern
day Hungarians. In fact, the Hungarian language is an
Asian language, it’s not related to any other European language. German is more
closely related to English, and Spanish, and Turkish, and even Sanskrit, than it is
to Hungarian, that’s how different it is. Hungarian also is a little
related to Finnish and Estonian, and those folks
have a similar origin. Let me just give you
an example, if you go to the Czech Republic
and want to say hello, you would say, “dobrý den.” “Dobrý”
means good, “den” means day, “Dobrý den.” In Czech Republic that’s “dobrý den,”
then in Poland you would say “dzień dobry,” “good day.” You kind of reverse it, “day
good,” “dobrý den, dzień dobry.” If you go to Croatia and
Slovenia you say “dobar Dan.” Very similar right?
“Dobar Dan,” “good day.” “Dobrý den, dzień dobry, dobar Dan.”
In Hungary they say, “jó napot kívánok,”
“I wish you a good day.” It has a very strange
cadence, it sounds very foreign, and that’s
because of these folks. So remember, anything that you see
and do in Hungary, there’s this overlay of a very different culture. Now over the
centuries they’ve integrated completely with their neighbors, it’s a fully European culture, but there’s this little
spark that’s something different, and that’s something I find really exciting. We’re going to focus mostly on Budapest,
the great Magyar capital on the banks of the Danube.
Budapest started as two cities, well three cities
actually, Buda, Pest, and Óbuda, Old Buda. And then around
the late 19th century they merged together to form one giant
metropolis, Budapest. Two and a half million
people live there now, about one in every four Hungarians lives
in or near Budapest. it’s a wonderful city, it’s probably my
favorite big city in Eastern Europe. I always say my favorite big city anywhere
in Europe, it’s a tie between Budapest and London, that’s how much I love this place. It’s a fascinating, big, sprawling
metropolis but there’s so much interesting stuff to see and do. You can
see here from this picture you got the hilly part of Buda,
which is on one side of the Danube, that’s where
the historic quarter, it’s the more traditional quarter, that’s
where the castle is. And then you’ve got flat, urban, modern Pest on the other
side of the Danube. Budapest. And I still think of them as two different cities
when I’m traveling. We’re going to first go to Buda which
is on the kind of historic side, this is the area where you have the castle, the Royal Palace, churches, same advice
here as I have for Prague and Kraków, if you love Hungarian history you could
spend days at the castle, but if this is kind of new to you I would
be very selective. I’d check out two or three sights, spend
maybe two or three hours, there’s a lot more interesting stuff on
the Pest side so don’t feel obligated to spend a ton of time up at the castle. One thing you should see is this
beautiful church, the Messiah–the Matthias Church named for great Renaissance King.
This was built in the late 19th century in a way to kind of showcase the
historical styles of Hungary, and the inside is just slathered with beautiful
golden illustrations of Hungarian history. And then right out front is a
statue of István. This was the king who in the year 1000 first Christianized
those nomadic Magyars when he adopted Christianity. That was a real turning
point in Hungarian history. Behind him is this really interesting kind of a
viewpoint terrace called the Fisherman’s Bastion. And these little pointy things
evoke the tents of the nomadic Magyars, so there’s a lot of symbolism here. Now most
of what I just showed you was built in the same year, 1896 by the way, and that’s
a year you’re going to here again, and again. That’s because it
was the 1,000th anniversary of when those Magyars first arrived. They came in
first in 896, and then in 1896 they want to throw a big party to celebrate it so
that’s where a lot of the big, grandiose structures of Budapest came from. Now the reason they built all those
great structures is, by 1896 Budapest was the co-capital with Vienna of the huge
Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was this gigantic empire that basically
encompasses most of what we now think of as Eastern Europe. It
stretched across basically all of these countries
I’m talking about, and then about as many more countries
further east and further south. So in those thousand years, the
Hungarians had gone from being this rough and tumble nomadic tribe to co-
ruling this great European Empire. That’s a point of real pride for the
Hungarians. From the castle you look out across the Danube River, and you see that
flat urban side of Pest that I mentioned, and there’s the Chain Bridge.
This is one of the great landmarks of Budapest, one of the major bridges. You might remember in
the 19– early 1990s after communism was kind
of coming to an end, General Electric had a very popular ad
campaign where they lit up the Chain Bridge with GE light bulbs, it was kind
of the symbolism of capitalism coming to Eastern Europe. And it’s still a major
landmark of the city, you can cross the Chain Bridge or any of the many bridges
crossing the Danube by foot. But I would say this is a place really unique among
all the places I’m describing, this is the place where you really
want to get comfortable with public transportation,
this is a big city. I described it as being kind of like
Paris, it’s not necessarily as grand as Paris, but in terms of its layout Paris
doesn’t really have one city center. Paris has lots of distinct neighborhoods,
and lots of attractions that are spread out over a big area on either side of
the river, and Budapest is similar. So you want to get used to the system, it’s an excellent system, they’ve got a
really slick subway. Anywhere that the subway doesn’t get you can take a public
bus, and also be sure to just enjoy the beautiful the beautiful skyline of
Budapest. I mentioned it’s maybe not quite as
grand as Paris, but there are some who might disagree with me on that. After
dark they light up all of these grand
buildings that were built around 1896, and you can go on a really delightful
twilight Danube River cruise, and there’s a narration that describes
each building as you go by, it’s really a fun, fun trip. On the Pest side of the
river there’s a very famous street called Váci Utca. And this is–my advice here is
don’t spend a lot of time on Váci Utca. If you’ve heard of one street in Budapest
it might have been this one. The reason you heard about it is because
it was very important 20 or 30 years ago, not because it’s worth going to today.
Today it’s just an incredibly touristy mall with a lot of shops, and overpriced
restaurants, and rip-off cafes. But the reason why you might have heard
of it is in the 1970s, in the 1980s, this was the one place in all of Eastern
Europe where you could get Western Goods. During the end of communism here in
Hungary they had a much more liberal system called goulash ha– goulash communism, that was kind of a
nickname for it, and the idea was it was a much–quite a bit relaxed version
of communism, you could actually buy, for example, Nike or Adidas tennis shoes, this
was the one place in the entire Eastern Bloc where you could do that. The first
McDonald’s behind the Iron Curtain is right here on Váci Utca, you can
still go and see it. So there’s a certain irony though,
because when people think of Budapest they go to Váci Utca because they think
that it’s authentic Hungary, when in fact it’s famous for exactly the
opposite reason, it was the one place where you could kind of get away from
communism in Hungary quite a while ago. So I would say skip
Váci Utca and focus instead on some of the more outlying areas. Wonderful
monuments, landmarks, some of the most beautiful buildings really
anywhere in Eastern Europe are here in Budapest, this is the
Hungarian Parliament Building. You can go on a tour, and I really highly
recommend touring at least one of these big grand sites, there’s a parliament
there’s an amazing opera house I’ll show you in a moment. To get inside some of
these you have to go on a tour and it’s really worth it to see sort of when the
the culture here was at its absolute top in that area around 1896. There’s lots of
great monuments in Budapest, it’s got some of the most interesting statues and
memorials of any city I’ve been to. For example here’s a very poignant memorial
just outside the Parliament Building, it’s a guy named Imre Nagy, and if you
know his name it’s because of 1956. 1956 was the year of a very
important uprising against communist rule. If you
know Hungarians here in America, Hungarian-American
immigrants, they very likely came here on or
right after the year 1956. It was a huge uprising that was very
violently put down by the Soviet Army that came in. Imre Nagy was brought in,
he had actually been a communist party leader, and he was kind of brought in as
somebody who they thought could become their kind of new leader. And he
envisioned a system that was a bridge between east and west, he wanted to go
with a little more liberal system than they currently had, you want to get a
little bit away of So–from Soviet influence. That’s why in this in the
sculpture he’s standing on a bridge, he was gonna try to bridge east and west. But as I mentioned, the uprising was put
down violently, and Imre Nagy was given a sham trial and
buried disgracefully face down in an unmarked grave,
which is a grave offense in Hungarian culture. Later
his image was rehabilitated, they actually dug up his grave, found
where he was buried, and gave him a proper burial in the center of Budapest,
and that was one of the things in early 1989 that was a sign that communism was
thawing, because this was a huge thing. And now they’ve got this wonderful
monument where he’s literally standing on this bridge keeping an eye
on the Parliament building from beyond the grave, making sure that the
government doesn’t try to do these things again. Other great 19–sorry 1896
landmarks in Budapest, one would be the Great Market Hall, it’s a
really enjoyable place to go do some souvenir
shopping upstairs or join the locals downstairs shopping for some
produce. Hungarian food is really delightfully spicy, it’s quite different
from–very very different from Hungarian and Polish food. Yeah they use a little bit of pork and
potatoes, but we’re south of the Carpathian Mountains. It has almost more of a Mediterranean
climate, it’s much warmer. That means you get a lot of tomatoes,
peppers, paprika, it’s spicy flavorful food. There’s also a
lot of French influence in Hungarian food, I think it’s–for me it’s certainly
the best cuisine in Eastern Europe and I think it rivals some of the best
cuisines in all of Europe. In the Market Hall you can actually go and
taste the different kinds of paprika. They actually identified two different
types, there’s sweet and there’s hot. So a chef will cook with sweet paprika to
give it that smoky flavor and the color, and then there are shakers of
hot red paprika on the table that you can use to adjust it to your own
preferences. So on a restaurant table in a traditional Hungarian restaurant, you don’t have salt and pepper, you have
salt and paprika. One of the most famous Hungarian dishes is goulash, but as I
mentioned everything in Hungary is a little askew, things are kind of turned
on their head here. When you think of goulash you
probably think of a thick heavy stew, but actually real Hungarian goulash, it came from the term “gulyásleves,”
which is a Hungarian term that means shepherd soup. And it’s actually a pretty
thin broth that has big chunks of potato and meat and is heavily colored in spice
with paprika, bright red color. So if you go to the Czech Republic or
Poland or Germany and order goulash you’ll get a thick stew, but in Hungary, goulash
is something quite different. Again, really delicious, nice, spicy food, I
like spicy food, and that’s hard to come by really in Europe anywhere, not just
Eastern Europe, Europeans don’t have a very spicy palette, but Hungarians are
one major exception. There’s also a really wonderful genteel
coffee culture in Budapest. It’s got this very upscale feel,
they’ve done a great job since communism of restoring some classic old coffee
houses, and it’s just a really cool place to–like in Vienna–to sit and relax with a
good cup of coffee and a gorgeous surrounding, read a newspaper. And
Hungarian nightlife has a unique feature that’s really exciting,
it’s called a ruin pub. This is a trend that’s come about just
in the last 10 years. There’s a neighborhood right downtown in Budapest
where there are a lot of old dilapidated buildings, and basically squatters would
move in, and they would open these ramshackle bars with mismatched
furniture, it feels like the building should be
condemned and in some cases I bet they probably are condemned, but
it’s a really fun, lively kind of a hipster scene, and from what I’ve found
I think it’s a very accessible scene. Rick for example, even
somebody of his age, he says he feels very comfortable there.
It’s– I would say it’s accessible
to people of all ages, young people as
well as hip oldsters. So if you consider yourself a hip
oldster make sure to check out the ruin pub scene in Budapest, I’ve actually
written a pub crawl to help you find the best of these in my guidebook. In general,
Budapest has done an amazing job of cleaning up the city over the last 20–25
years since communism. This used to be a street that was just
choked with cars, and traffic, and smog, and now it’s
just a beautiful showpiece walking street. Jewish history here as well in
Budapest, like the other places. This is the Great Synagogue of
Budapest, the second-biggest synagogue in the world after
one in New York City. The interesting thing about the
synagogue in Budapest is it feels more like a church, and the reason is it was
built by church architects from Vienna, built at a time when the Jewish people
of Budapest wanted to feel integrated with their non-Jewish neighbors, so they
intentionally designed a church that would kind of resemble a church–I’m
sorry a synagogue that would resemble a church, they wanted to kind of fit in a
little bit better. So it’s a really grand building that doesn’t quite feel like a
synagogue, it’s quite strange. Out behind the synagogue you’ve got a very poignant
memorial called The Tree of Life. Each individual leaf of this willow tree is
etched with the name of one of the Hungarian Jewish people who was killed
during the Holocaust. So a lot of powerful sites in this part
of town. We’re gonna head out onto Andrássy út, which is
the main boulevard of Budapest, all the great
stately mansions are here, the beautiful opera house that I
mentioned earlier is here. They said that when this was built the Emperor, Franz
Joseph in Vienna, they asked him for permission, and they said, you
can build–he said, “you can build an opera house as long as it’s not
bigger than the one in Vienna,” so the Hungarian say, “we built one that is twice
as grand even though it’s smaller than the one in Vienna,” and sure enough the
interior is just breathtaking. You can do an opera here or you can take
a tour. It’s also very affordable opera compared to Vienna, people from the and
actually come just a couple hours by train into
Budapest when they want to have an evening of affordable opera. Great
musical heritage here in Hungary, Franz Liszt for example is one of these great
Hungarian composers. Another sight along that Andrássy út is a very interesting
building. It doesn’t look that interesting from the outside, but the history is
pretty fascinating. It’s called the House of Terror, and it so happens that this
one building was used both as the headquarters for the Nazi puppet
government of Hungary during World War II, and also by the secret police of the
communist government after World War II, they call it the double occupation. And
now it’s a very powerful museum that tells the story of this two-stage kind
of out of the frying pan into the fire situation that Hungary faced in the 20th
century. The atrium has a wall of victims, the faces of people who were
lost to this building, and you learn all about the
history, and you get to see some of the com–the communist era
propaganda. For example, this is a beetle that was devastating crops and
they blamed it on the American beetle, “Amerikai Bogár” from “Kolorádó,”
“the Kolorádóbogár is destroying our crops.” It’s a long story, the crops were being
destroyed for reasons that were completely the fault of the
Soviets, but of course they wanted to pin the blame
on somebody else. And this is a monument
to that 1956 uprising I mentioned. The symbol of that uprising
was cutting the Soviet insignia out of the middle
of the Hungarian flag, and there’s the message “Russkies go home,”
“Ruszkik haza.” Out at the edge of town at the
end of Andrássy út you’ve got the Millennium Monument, built of course in
1896, great place to learn a little bit about Hungarian history. Beyond that is the delightful
city park, it’s a great place to lick an ice cream cone, go for a
stroll, play a game of chess. Now these guys are playing their chess
here in the park today, tomorrow they’re gonna pack up their chess board and head
out to the thermal baths. I saved the best for last, if I could
pick one thing to recommend for you folks to do in Hungary it would
be to absolutely do one of Hungary’s thermal baths. There’s something
like 25 of them in Budapest alone. Hungry is basically a thin crust over
a natural reservoir of hot water. Hungarians tell me if you
poke a hole in the ground anywhere in Hungary
you’ll find a hot geyser. And this is why favorite, this is in the city
park of Budapest, it’s called Széchenyi Baths. I know what you’re thinking, it sounds
very intimidating. To answer your first question, yes, if you want to you can keep
your swimsuit on the whole time. It looks a little bit intimidating and
you think, “can I really handle this?” Honestly, I find the thermal baths
basically like my hometown water park except the water is a hundred degrees, I’m surrounded by gorgeous architecture,
and everyone around me is a pot-bellied speedo bat–speedo clad Hungarian. It’s a
cultural experience, and it’s sightseeing, and it’s relaxation all rolled into one. Most of the water is about a hundred
degrees like a hot tub. You’ve got all sorts of whirlpools and jets to massage
away stress. I know it seems intimidating. but I’m
telling you, take the plunge, read the instructions in our guidebook,
make sure you get one of these baths, try to join a game of chess here in the
water. I find it a great way to unwind after a really busy day of sightseeing
here in Budapest. I mentioned Széchenyi Baths, that’s
probably my favorite, but there’s two other great baths one of
them–in Budapest–one of them is called Gellért Baths, this is a bit more of an upscale
option, this is a bit more touristy probably, Széchenyi is a little bit more
local, but very gentile and kind of upscale. The other one is Rudas Baths.
This actually integrates part of a 500-year-old Turkish bathhouse right in
the middle of what’s today a modern bath complex, really evocative. I mentioned
Budapest is rejuvenating and fixing up everything, really all of
Eastern Europe is. This is a great example, I took this picture of Széchenyi
Baths maybe 10 years ago, I went back a few years later and the same building
look like this. All of Eastern Europe, it’s like it’s
getting sort of a Technicolor makeover before our very eyes. Every
time I go back after a year or two years it’s amazing
what’s been improved. I’ll mention one more site that you
wouldn’t want to miss in Hungary and that is–right outside of Budapest
there’s a part called Statue Park. Now you might think, “oh I’m going to go to
Eastern Europe and see all these communist memorials,” and as I mentioned that’s
really old news, and as soon as communism ended in most places they just tore
these down. Some clever entrepreneur in Budapest decided to hoard his and put
them in this park that’s out on the outskirts of town, and now
tourists bus out here to imagine what it would’ve
been like to live under the stirring gazes of, for example, Marx and
Engels or the stoic Soviet soldier. This is the one place where you can find
this communist stuff in Budapest, you have to go out of your way to find it. It’s the hard-working Hungarian worker
greeting the Soviet soldier. You see a lot of this kind of Socialist
Realist propaganda. Socialist Realism was the one sort of auth–the one permitted
form of art work under communism. Socialist because it echoed socialist
ideals, Realism because it showed real people, workers, and soldiers, and that
sort of thing. Hungarians have a great sense of humor
about this dark period like all Eastern Europeans, for example, this is one of the
biggest statues, it’s a Soviet soldier who’s running with
a Soviet flag. Hungarians have a different interpretation, they say this
is a thermal bath attendant running after a customer who forgot his towel. I hope that little local joke gives you
a taste of the personality that you’re going to find, the endearing and enduring
personality of the Eastern Europeans. I want to say thank you very much for
paying attention, and I really hope you get to visit and enjoy Eastern Europe
sometime in the near future. Thanks so much.

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