Central and Eastern Europe
If you have traveled with me on one of my Journeys before, you probably know that I really like to plan my trips out. Just ask my brother about our Scotland Journey! (Picture a binder with it all laid out) I really like the feeling of knowing where I am going and learning more about the places to see, things to be aware of, nuances, etc. It is definitely my comfort zone. I rarely do spur-of-the-moment travels. They say that getting outside your comfort zone and, at times, being a little scared are good things. It creates all sorts of opportunities for learning and growing. Well, while this Journey was not entirely “spur of the moment”, it was by far the least amount of planning I have ever done. In that same vein, the tale of this Journey is going be told a little differently than previous posts as well. This tale will be told somewhat from a 35,000′ altitude and then there will be many smaller posts related to specific points of interest, anecdotes, and resources. So please sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. As always, if you have any questions, comments or thoughts, please feel free to send me a note. I read all of the comments personally and respond as well. Cheers!
I read a lot of travel related blogs, articles, ads, you name it. There are some amazing deals to be had if you’re willing and able to travel at the last minute. I scored on a first class trip to Central and
Eastern Europe – almost entirely with points. I DO love “Jeans, Boots & First Class”! I paid for my domestic flights and one leg in the EU. It was a brilliant deal and an opportunity to see a part of the world that I have always wanted to see!
This was my chance to try out a different way of traveling. Traveling with only the basic flights and my first place to stay lined out and an idea of what I wanted to do. In all the reading I do from countless sources, I am always coming across quotes or people espousing, “Do something each day that scares you.” Well, there you go. This was it. Have I mentioned that I really like to plan out my travels?? I like the process of researching places to see, to learn some of the basic language phrases and hopefully “sound” halfway decent, understand some of the culture, and in doing so I am much more at ease.
Enter the Journey to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania. My flight from the States was going to put me into Prague and I had an Airbnb reservation lined out there. Beyond that – it was largely unknown. My desire was to see the countryside, visit some vineyards, see lots of castles, take a few long train trips, eat plenty of local food, drink some good beer and wine, and take in a whole new culture.
I did all of that…just not necessarily quite the way I had pictured it in my mind. The Journey had twists and turns, a few bumps in the road, and some revelations to offer up. When you offer yourself up to something new, you have to take the good with the bad. I suppose you have to take the good with the bad just about any time…
My arrival into Prague was late in the afternoon. Picture a beautiful fall day with a bit of crispness in the air. The sun was shining and there was the inevitable feeling I get as I set foot in a new location. That feeling of expectation and excitement!
I didn’t have any local service on my mobile yet to try and see what Uber might have to offer in Prague. The taxi queue was short and so it began. Use a few greetings practiced on the plane, show the driver the address to the apartment and we are off. On the drive I am trying to get a sense of place by taking in everything from billboards, apartment buildings, storefronts, and the people
you see along the way. By the way; there is nothing really familiar for me about the written Czech language to give you a clue of what you’re trying to read. Except a STOP sign is a STOP sign. :o) As I look
closely at the people and the homes, it always strikes me as somewhat surprising (which it really shouldn’t) – It’s all very much the same everywhere. People need a place to live, food to eat, and places to enjoy each other’s company.
When you do get a chance to look behind the façade you get a glimpse of the local lifestyle – what is normal there.
I met my host after entering what seemed more like a warehouse than an apartment complex. But the steps up the four floors to the apartment are like anywhere else. The apartment building was a square sort of affair with an inner courtyard area with some small outbuildings and open space. All of the apartments appeared to face into that open area as well. It didn’t really appear as though many of the apartment buildings had changed much since Communism. The door to the apartment felt like it could withstand a small army. My host was a nice lady from Bosnia, living in Prague, and learning how to Tango. Between my extremely limited Czech and her grasp of English, we were able to cover the ground rules and necessities for the apartment.
It seemed like a good time to take a walk. I like to orient myself on an area and it felt like a good time to see what all the hype was about Czech beer. Having a pint (or two) in a local pub, watering hole, or restaurant is always a great way to get a feel for the people and the sense of a place. I like to watch how people drink and interact. It gives you a chance to figure out what’s typical, acceptable, and watch the discourse. It is also a great way to pick up the local usage of the terms I had practiced and see how well Google Translate does with the menus.
The people of the Czech Republic drink more beer (pivo) per capita than any other country in the world! Why didn’t I know that? Lack of research and the false assumption that it must be the Germans with all the beer festivals I’ve been to. Or at least the Irish??!! The Czech Republic is the birthplace of Pilsner and they also have their own Budweiser Budvar from 1895. Not to be confused with what we all think of in the States. If they export to North America, it has to be sold as Czechvar. You’ve got to love trademark disputes. Why is the beer so popular there? Certainly one aspect has to be the price. I was paying, on average, $1.20USD and a few times, under $1 for a half liter of beer. They charge more for bottled water there!
My “go to” pivo when I was there was Kozel and if they had it, Kozel tmavy (dark). Kozel means goat. So if you see the Goat on a sign outside of a pub you’re most likely going to be able to get Kozel. It was brilliant with a lovely grilled klobasa (sausage) and a basket of their nice brown bread and some mustard to go with it all. Na zdraví!! Cheers – Sláinte! (Pronounced Naz dra vee) I got that phrase down real fast! There is a great deal of tourism in Prague and in the Czech Republic driven solely around beer. Everything from gastronomic excursions, brewery tours, lodging in breweries, monasteries, and the list goes on. It is a big part of their culture.
On The Road Again
My time in Prague was limited by my original Airbnb booking – unless I wanted to spend the majority of my time just in Prague. It is one of the top 15 largest cities in Europe and ranks as the 5th most visited city in Europe. There is a lot to see and do just in Prague! But I wanted to get out and see the rest of the country and get a sense of life in the Czech Republic and not just Prague. I wanted to visit some wineries, take a few long train trips, and see more castles. I needed to get busy on planning out the rest of the Journey and I was starting to feel the pressure of getting that done.
One of my recent Journey’s was a road trip through southern Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California. I really enjoyed seeing the sights and driving the roads and being able to pull over if I wanted to. Doing a road trip in this part of the world had a real allure for me. It was a chance to see the countryside, go where I wanted, at my pace, and get that sense of place outside of some of the big cities. Hmmm, road trip, foreign country, new highways to see, the countryside. Done! A car would probably be good…
I used AutoEurope for my booking. They have a lot of relationships with many of the big name rental companies we all know of and some that are more specific to local regions of Europe. Their bookings included many of the things that I needed that were more cumbersome to book direct. My original intent was to drive south from Prague, through Hungary, and into Romania. Remember that whole not planning thing? Well, that bit me in the ass a little. I had advised AutoEurope that I wanted to drive in multiple countries. They let me know they needed to validate that with the rental car company directly. My time was getting tight to figure out what was next so that I could finalize accommodations and alternate transportation if need be.
Another day passed of not hearing back regarding the rental restrictions. So I was touring around Prague and had a few more samples of the local pivos on offer when I finally decided my road trip would just have to be in CZ. I made my arrangements for a couple more Airbnb’s and then booked a train trip from Prague to Budapest. Yay! My idea was to take a somewhat circular route south from Prague, then west along the Austrian border, then north again to arrive back in Prague to return the car and take the train to Hungary. That is when the car company got back to me advising that is was fine to take the car into Hungary – I would just have to pay the cross border fee of ~$40. Oh and “No, you cannot take the car to Romania and No, you cannot drop the car off in Hungary either.” Too late!
Having not planned out the road trip on the front end, I hadn’t done a proper investigation of what CZ driving regulations were. Things like speed limits, road signage, and tolls or restrictions perhaps? At night, on WiFi athe Airbnb, I was using Google Maps to plot out my route. Have I mentioned that I am crazy enough to try and travel internationally in all sorts of places and not use any mobile service?? So no Google Maps while driving with the turn by turn instructions. Why? More on (moron) that in a later post! Google Maps listed various roads throughout CZ as toll roads. Hmmm, I wonder what that means in CZ vs. the States? Better have some proper change! At a lovely lunch one afternoon outside of the Prague Castle I mentioned this to the nice Czech couple that shared my table. They laughed and said. “There are no toll roads in Czech Republic! They only do that in Poland!” OK – good to know. Naturally, I’m thinking – What other things am I
missing from my reliance on Google Maps, a map of Europe that was more than several years old, and my MapsMe app? Lord only knows…
Picking up the car was a breeze really. Zero challenges with the process, explanations of the car, got an upgrade :o); There you go! Off and running…The road signs had a bit of similarity to signs in Ireland where we lived for a few years. Similar as well to signs in Germany where I’ve cruised the Autobahn and side roads. I don’t think I was quite remembering all the nuances. Ah – so there is my first speed sign on the highway – right, so I can go more than 120 km/h now. (FYI – that’s about 74 mph) That is like I25 in Colorado. OK, but what is the high end limit? Or is it like the Autobahn?
Whatever! I’m cruising along, looking out and enjoying the chance to be out of the city and seeing new sights. Vroom! There goes a Beemer flying by! Then a Merc zooming past me like I’m standing still. I begin to think I obviously don’t know the speed limit – time to go with the flow of traffic, right? There, that seems better. This is a proper freeway kind of deal after all.
My car was moving nice and smooth. It was a Skoda of course. When in Rome, right? (FYI – Skoda is a CZ manufactured car) More Skodas, BMW’s, and Mercs. are blowing past me! What the hell? I find that when I’m not familiar with a new rental car and certainly when I’m not familiar with where the hell I am or where I’m going, I probably have a bit of heightened awareness of things. Trying hard not to screw up I suppose. Out of nowhere – there’s this loud beeping going off! I’m looking at the various indicators on the dash, looking out the windscreen and rearview mirror – WTF? Turns out the car was set with a high speed warning indicator when you reach approximately (and I do mean Approximately) 150 km/h. I turned that off years ago in my Audi back home! Perhaps it was time to back off a bit? Did I just pass that Beemer that had blown past me??
Want to hear what happens next? Stay tuned for Chapter 2