CENTRAL & EASTERN EUROPE, 2001

Grand European

Berlin and Warszawa will be mostly a repeat from the Russia trip last year but I do want to see Warszawa again. Wien will be mostly a repeat of the Austria/Switzerland trip of 1999. Good tour director, Paul Fletcher (English, now living in Australia), but a bunch of musical illiterates on the tour so that many of the options I wanted to do were cancelled due to lack of interest - not enough people sign up. As a general statement, the ladies wanted to shop and shop and … and most of the men wanted to "sample" the beers (particularly the 4 retired Catholic priests from Louisville, Kentucky). The driver, Felice, is Italian and doesn't speak much English, but he's really good in handling that bus in tight places. Total distance: 4036 km.

Day 1, Friday, August 3 Houston to ..
Wake up early and lots to do, so up at 4:15. Usual last minute errands and house chores. Call taxi at 12:45. Off and away at 1. Only worry is Tropical Storm Barry in the eastern Gulf of Mexico (which fortunately stays in the eastern Gulf). What will it do around Houston. Overnight flight from Houston airport - the usual late afternoon departure. I end up taking the 441/440 flight combination several times through the years.

LUFTHANSA #441Houston - Frankfurt4:35PM - 9:35 AM

Not so great meals, and the plane is extremely warm. A/C problems on board?? (D)

Day 2, Saturday, August 4 Arrive Frankfurt
Arrive Frankfurt, Germany. Arrive on time, and met with no problem by the tour director, however … the airport is "closed" due to demonstrations by rioters protesting deportations. We are transferred to our hotel. The local police are letting in ONLY people who can show a valid ticket for a flight. Fortunately the tour director got in before the airport terminal was "closed" but he can't get from one terminal to another to meet other arriving passengers. This evening enjoy a "Welcome Reception" with our Tour Director followed by an included dinner on our own. Dorint Hotel Frankfurt Niederrad. The room is NOT air conditioned nor does it have circulating ventilation, nor can the window be opened more than a couple of inches. Since I got no sleep on the plane (as normal) and no sleep tonight, it's really bad. I've been looking at two other Grand European tours which start in Frankfurt, but after this, NO WAY will I take those tours…at least if they use this hotel. Awful way to start a trip. (B,D)

Day 3, Sunday, August 5 Frankfurt to Berlin
Up at 5:30, scheduled departure 7:15, but Karl (84 years old, legally blind, and hard of hearing) takes a fall while getting on the bus. He requires immediate medical help - much more than is on hand, so is taken to the hospital by taxi. We follow on the bus, then sit and wait and wait and wait and … for 3 1/2 hours. After a whole bunch of stitches (back of his head) and some minor (?) surgery on his elbow, he finally rejoins us (though he does leave the tour a couple of days later). Today we enjoy a rushed (was to have been 'pleasant') drive through the lush green heart of Germany to the former capital of Saxony, DRESDEN, located on the Elbe River. Badly damaged by Allied bombing during World War II, the city has been restored to its Baroque splendor. Our sightseeing tour includes the Semper Opera with a visit to Zwinger Palace with its Meissen Porcelain Collection….except that since we're running so extremely late, the local tour is cut short and we just do a bit of inside sightseeing and a couple of blocks outside.. We continue on to a relaxing 3-night stay in BERLIN, always a vibrant city where we experience the excitement as East Berlin opens its doors to the west. We arrive about 9:15 after driving through a heavy rain just before we get here. Berlin Hotel. We didn't see Dresden last year; it's one reason I chose this trip rather than the "Globus" one … and I still haven't seen it. After a very late, warmed over dinner (10:15), it's off to bed. At least it's air conditioned, so finally, after over 60 hours, I can get some sleep. However the damage has been done: I'm so exhausted that my system defenses are down and it's easy for me to get sick very soon. (BB,D)

Day 4, Monday, August 6 In Berlin
Up at 5:30; tour starts at 8:30. Not much new after last year's tour. Our included sightseeing tour views the Brandenburg Gate, the State Opera House, the colorful shopping and entertainment district of Kurfurstendamm, and the Reichstag Building - restored after destruction by the historic fire of 1933.

(Optional) Friedrichstadpalast & Dinner: Proudly again the Capital of a United Germany, the city is slowly regaining its crown as a glittering nightlife hub. The Friedrichstadtpalast is one of the most talked about shows in Europe and its innovative and energetic revues rival Paris and Las Vegas. An enormous stage is covered by color, dance and costume and its huge cast of entertainers provide an unforgettable night out in the city of "Cabaret". Dinner included. ('New'; not in last year's trip.) Unfortunately, the Friedrichstadpalast is closed (between shows??) so we do a brief visit to the Reichstag instead. (*&#$(*#$(!!!. At least the dinner is good - it's in a converted subway station and the trains are quite noisy as they pass by. Back to the hotel about 11. (BB,OD)

Day 5, Tuesday, August 7 In Berlin
Up at 5:30. Options only today: (Opt) Berlin: Tour starts at 8. "The Path to Freedom". Berlin's liberation after World War Two came from the east and in the battle, many Russian soldiers were killed and the mighty monument to their heroism was erected in Treptow Park. After this stop we will hear about the construction of the Wall, see the Berlin Airlift Memorial at Templehof airport which kept West Berlin supplied with food during the blockade. Then we view the famous balcony of Schonberg Town Hall where John F. Kennedy made his moving Cold War speech "Ich bin ein Berliner." We conclude with a visit to the Allied forces Museum, former US headquarters in Berlin which now houses an incredible array of reminders of the post war struggle which finally gave Berlin the freedom it enjoys today. (A little of this is 'new'.) This turns out to be a nice tour.

(Optional) Potsdam and Dinner. CANCELLED. (I went to Potsdam etc. last year on the Russia trip. I skip this option. So the afternoon is free and dinner on my own. It could be a good deal depending on where the hotel is located.) Just as well I hadn't planned on this - not enough people sign up so it's cancelled. (not the only option to be cancelled!) (BB)

The hotel is convenient to some interesting parts of Berlin, so I do a bunch of walking in the afternoon, followed by a (street vendor) supper. To bed "early" since it's a LONG day tomorrow. Unfortunately, those 60 hours without sleep have caught up with me - sinus?? Cold?? Not good.

Day 6, Wednesday, August 8 Berlin to Warszawa
Up at 5:15. Karl leaves us this morning. Off at 7:30. After crossing the German border via Frankfurt-an-der-Oder (quick crossing this time - only about 1 hour despite other busses ahead of us) we enter Poland (same route as last year since it's the only route but at least we see countryside instead of Autobahn). On our way to a delightful 2-night stay in WARSZAWA, we see vistas of rural life in the fertile central plains and stop at the historic port city of POZNAN with its classic Gothic church and City Hall. This is also our lunch stop - old town square is nice and good local food. Tonight: Hotel Jann III Sobieski, Warszawa. I'm looking forward to Warszawa - we didn't get enough time here last year. Sinus/cold getting worse. (BB,D)

Day 7, Thursday, August 9 In Warszawa
Up at 5:30, off at 8. Today our sightseeing includes Old and New Warszawa, particularly its Old Town, meticulously reconstructed from Canaletto's painting following the wartime destruction. Our local guide explains the often tragic history of this city as we tour the notorious Warszawa Ghetto. A special visit is made to the Historical Museum to see a film depicting Warszawa before and after World War II. The afternoon is at leisure to browse through treasures in the National Museum or stroll among the outdoor art exhibits in the Old Quarters.

(Optional) Vilanov Palace. CANCELLED. The beautiful baroque palace was the summer residence of King Jan Sobieski III. It was built in the late 17th century and is as splendid as Versailles. We visit the collections of royal furniture, portraits and china as we wander through its palatial rooms. (Since after Russia I'm 'tired' of all the 'guilded palaces', I skip this and visit the Old Quarters!!).

Again the tour is cancelled, but no big loss for me. Instead, stay down in the Old Town instead of going back to the hotel. Definitely more interesting.

(Optional) After dinner, Chopin's Warsaw. CANCELLED. We enjoy a Chopin piano recital in lovely surroundings of one of Warsaw's impressive historical palaces. Champagne will be served in the interval. (Did this last year; it's worth repeating.) Unfortunately, cancelled. )(#*$)*($)(!!!! ... and the cold is worse. Taking medications, but not much help. (BB,D)

Day 8, Friday, August 10 Warszawa to Krakow
Up at 5:30, off at 7:30.. This starts the really 'new' part of the trip. We travel south - the land changes from flat (coastal) to rolling plains to low hills this morning to Czestochowa, the site of the magnificent 14th century Paulite monastery at Jasna Gora, which twice withstood the onslaught of formidable Swedish forces during the religious wars of the 17th century. Since that time, its Black Madonna is revered as the "Queen of Poland" and has become the country's national symbol. There's a light rain, and the place is absolutely jammed with tourists and pilgrims (they get about 5 million a year!). It's coming up on a major Catholic holiday (if that's the word). In the afternoon we visit what is left of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp (most of what's there is reconstruction), a chilling reminder of the Holocaust. The first stop is at Birkenau (Auschwitz II - the main extermination camp) then on to Oswiecim (Auschwitz I, the original camp which was mostly an SS barracks) which still has some of the original structures. Then on to a relaxing 2-night stay in KRAKOW, former capital of Poland. Hotel Sofitel Cracow. The room is nice, but the bed is a cot pad on a warped plywood frame. If there's a pillow inside that pillow case, it's got me fooled. I roll up the duvet to make a pillow. At least the room is air conditioned (all the hotels are after that first night). Beautiful view of the Vistula River and castle from my room window. My cold is still a problem. (BB,D)

Day 9, Saturday, August 11 In Krakow
Up at 5:45. Tours start at 8:30. Krakow's medieval walls, buildings and churches are all viewed on this morning's sightseeing tour. The main attractions are the cathedral and castle situated on Wawel Hill, echoing Poland's royal heritage. The afternoon is at leisure to explore this beautiful city or take the optional tour. We have a great guide, Isabella, who is with us for all three parts of the visit here. On our lunch break, she even goes with me to a local Apothek to get some medicine for the cold.

(Optional) Wieliczka Salt Mines. A short drive from Krakow are the 800 year old Wieliczka Salt Mines. Our local guide will take us through the chambers filled with salt sculptures recalling famous fairy tales. A chapel depicting the Last Supper and other biblical scenes plus glittering chandeliers of pure crystal salt will astound us. The sculptures are really fantastic. There are 9 levels (the lowest about 1000' down), 200 miles of tunnels, and about 2000 chambers. We only see about 1/10 of the mine, but what we do see is really interesting. Fortunately we get to use (get crammed into the small) lifts rather than having to use the stairs/ladders. (BB,OD)

(Optional) Polish Folklore and Dinner: Enjoy this evening a dinner of delicious Polish specialties complemented by wine and Polish vodka. We see colorful costumes and hear traditional Polish melodies in the exciting folklore show. The show is good with excellent semi-professional performers. The dinner - would you believe we are served more than we can eat?? Back to the hotel about 11.

Day 10, Sunday, August 12 . Krakow to Budapest
Up at 5:30, Off at 7:30 for a long day. Leaving Krakow, we cross into the heart of the mountains and densely wooded eastern region of Slovakia (Slovak Republic - not Slovenia), with a quick border crossing, (no major stops scheduled, just a lunch stop; #$(#*$)(@#*!!) where the brown bear still roam free. After our second border crossing and the longest border crossing of the trip (about 2:15 stuck on a hot bus - since Hungary and the Slovak Republic aren't getting along right now), we finally arrive for a leisurely 2-night stay in BUDAPEST where we enjoy an included Hungarian goulash dinner tonight with traditional Gypsy music (nearby restaurant - excellent meal, good music). Hotel Mercure Korona. (BB,D)

Day 11, Monday, August 13 In Budapest
Up at 5:45, off at 8:30. The main sights of the twin cities of Buda and Pesht included in our morning sightseeing tour are views of Gellert Hill, the Royal Palace, and a visit to the 13th century Church of Matthias. The rest of the day is free for shopping or a cruise on the beautiful "Blue Danube." This evening discover Eastern Europe's liveliest nightlife. (Where???)

Another optional trip cancelled, so instead, use the hotel as a base and walk in various directions, The last direction walk finds me in one of the pedestrian shopping streets (not the main one) and things start to get 'interesting.' First I feel a slight touch on my back (wallet) pocket, and take a couple of quick steps to get away. This might have been my imagination, but the next ones aren't. Second is an attempted snatch-and-run on my camera (I'm using a compact 35mm on this trip instead of the bigger cameras) but the strap which looks like a string is stronger than it looks. Since the camera happened to be closed, there are no projections on it to hold on to, so the perp is foiled - fortunately. Third incident: a definite attempt at my wallet (but I have it in the pocket turned sideways so its both further down, and also being wider that way, it's much harder to get out). I'm in the process of taking another photo, but can bring my right arm/elbow down and back very quickly. Hopefully I at least broke the nose of the perp who lets out quite a howl and takes off running. A bit later, while sitting in a park area drinking a Coca-Cola Light, I'm propositioned by two attractive ladies - $50US for either, $75 for both. Sorry - no sale. This all makes for a very interesting / memorable afternoon. About the same time, two young ladies on the tour (one 15 going on 30, the other 21 going on 12 according to their grandfather's description) are pestered/pursued by some elderly man who wishes to ...

(Optional) Danube Cruise and Dinner: Enjoy a cruise down the Danube accompanied by a local expert. From the river we see Margaret's Island, the House of Parliament, Castle Hill with Fisherman's Bastion, the Royal Palace, Citadel, and the University. Dinner is served on board. Nice but a bit of a disappointment. Back to the hotel about 10:30.

The cold is better, but the infection seems to be spreading to my right ear/eye.

Day 12, Tuesday, August 14 Budapesht to Wien (Vienna)
Up at 5:30, off at 8:15. Today we journey west through the region of Transdanubia before stopping at TOK at a typical Puszta horse farm to see the horsemen in their traditional costumes. Greated here with the traditional bread and Brandy. Wonderful demonstrations, and we also get a carriage/wagon ride. Later for our lunch stop, we visit the town of Gyor which was founded by the Romans and has retained much of its medieval flavor (this should be good! --- and IS) Then it's across the Austria border to a relaxing 2-night stay in WIEN, the "City of Dreams." Hotel De France. I ask to see the hotel doctor. After the typical US experience of waiting and waiting to see my regular doctor, it's quite a 'treat' here: from the time the receptionist calls the doctor, he arrives and checks on the infection, then (he) goes to an apothek to get the medicines, and get back to deliver it is only 45 minutes. Talk about great medical service. (BB)

From a street vendor, Viennese pastry for 'dinner' - not hungry but have to have food to take the medicines.

(Optional) Mozart and Strauss Concert. CANCELLED. What better way to spend our first evening in Vienna than enjoying the beautiful music of Austria's greatest composers performed in a classic setting. Operas, operettas, waltzes, polkas, ballet and singers feature in this 2-part performance. First Mozart in historical Baroque costumes, then Johann Strauss in historical Biedermeier costumes. We end the evening with a scenic drive through Vienna. (I hope they do better than Globus did two years ago when we only got about 20 minutes are were so far in the back we couldn't see any of the dancers!!) Unfortunately this option which I had really been looking forward to, is cancelled. Only 5 people signed up. (*#$&(#*&(!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Day 13, Wednesday, August 15 In Wien
Up at 5:30. Off at 8. Our sightseeing today reveals reflections of both imperial and contemporary Wien. We view Prince Eugene's Belvedere Palace, Emperor Franz Josef's Hofburg Palace, the Cathedral of St Stephen and the State Opera. Then a special included visit to Schoenbrunn Palace (oh no, not again!) with its magnificently preserved staterooms and exquisite gardens. SP is nice for first time visitors, but boring for me.

(Optional) NOT OFFERED. A special continuation of the regular sightseeing to give us a more in depth look at the treasure of the legacy left by the Hapsburg dynasty. Two guided visits are included - first to see the glittering crown jewels (again) - crowns, great diamonds, and priceless precious stones. The family's power grew through the 19th century when the magnificent Opera House was built - a living testimony to the greatness of the Empire. A tour shows us its traditions and demonstrates how music is a part of Austrian life today. Tour director said past experience showed him that many people didn't really care for this option.

I take the afternoon 'off' and see friends here.

(Optional) Heurigen Dinner and Kahlenberg: (repeat of two years ago, but it was a great dinner then). The evening begins with a short drive through the pretty surroundings of Vienna to the wooded hill of Kahlenberg, Vienna's own "Mountain." (would have been a nice view except for the haze and smoke - it's a church high holiday today and lots of people are in the park areas surrounding the Kahlenberg - so lots of picnic fires.) There we have a magnificent view of the city and the Danube as far as the Hungarian plains (maybe on a clear day, but not tonight). We then head for the characteristic Viennese wine village of Grinzing to enjoy the atmosphere of a traditional "Heurigen" dinner. The young wines of this area are served in the charming taverns which line the streets and musicians will entertain us while we enjoy local specialties at our restaurant which has been frequented by the Viennese for centuries. It turns out we have better music than last year; but the dinner is not as good. It's also so extremely hot that many of us give up part way through the meal and go outside to cool off in the (only) 82F outside. This is one of the not-so-good options this time. Too bad it wasn't one that was cancelled instead of the Mozart. (BB,OD)

Day 14, Thursday, August 16 Wien to Praha (Prague)
Up at 5:30; off at 8. Across the Czech border (we're just 'waved on through'), we travel into Moravia to the medieval city of Brno, Napoleon's headquarters during the "battle of the three emperors" at Austerlitz. Since we had an extremely fast border crossing, we get into Brno really early. It's supposed to be our lunch stop, but it's way too early for that so we 'sit and wait' wandering around the town. It's nice with a huge central square, but not all that much to see for 2 1/2 hours. It's the first town with NO mass of souvenir shops, etc. The only thing to do is people-watch. Later, we continue on through the rich and historic countryside of Bohemia to the golden city of PRAHA for a pleasant 3-night stay, again getting in very early. Hotel: Movenpick Prague. The hotel is almost brand new, and it's packed. Consequently we 'luck out' and get the top-floor 'superior rooms.' Mine is a condo-type - two floors. The lower floor is sitting room, two desks, tv, half-bath. Upstairs is queen-size bed, full bath, another tv, large closets. WOW! Dinner is in the hotel. Excellent. (BB,D)

(Optional) Evening of folklore. An evening of color and music this evening as we go to one of the lively theatres where folklore is kept alive and proudly displayed by an enthusiastic team of entertainers. Dance and song performed in traditional costumes. A drink in included. This is the "Cesky soubor pisni a tancu", the "Best of Czech Folklore". It turns out to be the highlight of the trip for me. Really fabulous show. Super wow! Back to the hotel about 10:30 … just in time for a power failure and the lights go off (briefly) and the a/c is off for about 1 1/2 hours. I was beginning to get worried thinking about that awful first night in Frankfurt.

Day 15, Friday, August 17 In Praha
Up at 5:45, off at 8:30. This morning's sightseeing tour of beautiful Praha features visits to 1000 year old Hradcany Castle - the former residence of Bohemian kings - the Cathedral of St Vitus and the scenic old town. This town is fantastic. I had (and still do) like Warszawa and Budapest, but Praha is my favorite larger city.

(Optional) Praha by night including cruise. The beauty of this lovely city unfolds as we see it in its glory from our private boat on the Vlatava. We view the domes and spires of Praha from a new perspective then we enjoy a special Czech dinner at a characteristic city restaurant. Wine or the famous Czech beer is included. The Danube cruise was better since it was at 'night' and this is in the afternoon; dinner is on an island in a converted 17th century stables (no traces of horse odor). It's a decent but not fantastic dinner. Back to the hotel about 10. Still fighting the cold. (BB,D)

Day 16, Saturday, August 18 In Praha
Rain and lightning overnight. Up at 5:45, off at 8. (Opt) Castle and Countryside: A half day excursion out of the city to see some of the nearby countryside and to visit a charming Czech estate castle, Nelahozeves. The Renaissance castle houses an impressive collection of art masterpieces and our guide will show us through the castle rooms. We will also see the birthplace of composer Dvorak and some original manuscripts. Returning to Praha, we have time to learn about Czech traditions and daily life. Nice trip. Rest of the day at leisure to explore one of the most enchanting cities of Europe. Take time to admire the fairy-tale architecture of the city that was once the medieval seat of the Holy Roman Empire. Unfortunately the hotel is not convenient to doing much sightseeing. I do go back down town (tram/train) for a while, but back to the hotel fairly early.

(Optional) City of Art and Music. NOT OFFERED. We begin our tour with a backstage visit to the Estates theatre, where the world premiere of Don Giovanni took place, personally conducted by Mozart. Mozart spent many of his most creative years in the city. The tour continues to visit Alfons Mucha museum, famous for its collection of art noveau treasures. We conclude with a coffee break with pastry at the Municipal House concert hall.

The cold is better and I get a bit of decent sleep tonight. (BB,D)

Day 17, Sunday, August 19 Praha to Rhineland (Frankfurt)
Up at 5:45, off at 8. It's a long drive in mixed rain, sometimes heavy. We head west again this morning through the Czech Republic to Pilzn (Pilsen) but don't stop (sad for the beer drinkers), the world capital of beer since the Middle Ages. Then into Germany (customs/police strip-searching a couple of cars in front of us looking for contraband, mostly tobacco which is much cheaper in the Czech Republic) to visit the charming medieval walled village of Rothenburg. This turns out to be my favorite small town on the whole tour. It's really fantastic. Later we enjoy the final night of our tour with a farewell dinner. Dorint Hotel, Mainz. Much better than the other Dorint hotel we stayed at the first night. No evening events planned. I even manage about 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep, even sleeping through a major rain storm. (BB,D)

Day 18, Monday, August 20 Homeward bound
Up at 5:15. I'm on the first shuttle to the airport at 7 even though the plane doesn't leave until 10:40
LUFTHANSA 440Frankfurt - Houston10:40 AM - 2:40 PM

Another 11 hour flight. The A/C works this time, and it's more decent meals. I'm feeling better about Lufthansa now than after the flight over. Arrive home about 4PM and "never" wanting to see another airplane (seat) again for a LONG time, at least until October.


AIRLINES:
1Latehansa 441Houston - Frankfurt4:35 PM - 9:35 AM10:00
2Latehansa 440Frankfurt - Houston10:40 AM - 2:40 PM 11:00

COMMENTS:
This trip didn't turn out quite as I had hoped due to:
1) the abbreviated visit to Dresden
2) most of the music options getting cancelled
3) going without sleep at the first hotel resulting in getting sick.

If it hadn't been for all that, it would have been another great trip. High points turned out to be Prague, Czech Republic and Rothenburg, Germany. We had a very good tour director and mostly superb local guides. For the most part, meals were excellent. Hotels, particularly the beds, were often another matter.

High points:
1) Czech folklore music and dance - fantastic
2) Rothenburg - wish we had had an overnight here with lots more free time
3) Prague - three nights here wasn't enough
4) Budapest - even with the 'interesting 20 minutes'

Disappointments:
1) Missing the music events
2) No scheduled visit to Bratislava, Slovak Republic
3) Dresden abbreviated visit

Both Globus and Grand European have trips to most of these main cities; I'll probably schedule one of them in the next few years … after some other things already on the schedule. Whatever Germany trip I take in the future will almost have to include Rothenburg - I definitely want a repeat visit there. After the way this tour started, I won't take any of the Grand European tours that start in Frankfurt and stay in that un-air-conditioned hotel (two had been on my 'possibles' list). No way. All those hours without sleep turned out to be a real disaster - one which, hopefully, can be avoided in the future.

HOTELS:
Dornt Hotel Frankfurt Niederrad, Frankfurt --3 dog-biscuit rating -- rank 108
Berlin Hotel, Berlin -- 4 star hotel --rank 2
Jann III Sobieski, Warsaw -- nice, bad beds --rank 7
Sofitel Cracow, Krakow, Poland -- more bed problems. 3.5 * -- rank 6
Mercure Korona, Budapest, Hungary -- decent, 3.5 * -- rank 5
Hotel De France, Vienna, Austria -- OK, 4 star -- rank 4
Movenpick Prague, Prague, Czech Republic -- 5 star -- rank 1
Dorint Hotel, Mainz, Germany -- good, 4 star -- rank 3