A TAUCK TOUR TO CENTRAL EUROPE
September 4-17, 2013
I really wanted to take a Danube cruise for my September vacation, especially one that included Budapest and Prague. I started a web search in June and discovered there were no cabins available at that time on six different river boats. Then I looked at Tauck’s web page and found they had space available for a motor coach tour of the cities I wanted with the addition of Warsaw, Krakow, and Vienna. I have traveled with Tauck twice before with great satisfaction, so I signed on.
I found a business class airfare with LOT, the Polish airline, JFK to Warsaw returning from Prague for 2000 dollars less than the competition. And surprise, LOT is the first European airline to offer the Dreamliner. Compared to previous overnight flights to Europe, this was a dream. I never had so much space in business class and couldn’t even reach the seat in front of me. (Someone who flew LOT in premium economy for 400 dollars more than coach was more than pleased with her comfort also). After an excellent gourmet dinner and first-rate scotch and wine, I reclined completely into my flat bed and got some sleep before arriving in Warsaw.
Although I arrived a day ahead of the group to recover a bit from the jetlag before the tour started, Tauck sent a car for me and whisked me to the Hotel Bristol, located on a great street for outdoor cafés and boutiques. After a nap and shower I explored the Saxon Gardens near the hotel and walked Nowy Swiat St. past the University of Warsaw and selected a typical restaurant for pierogis stuffed with duck.
Restaurant prices are far lower than in Western Europe. Poland took longer to recover from World War II since the Soviet occupation was exploitative and the U.S. did not extend Marshall Plan funds to the Soviet bloc. Hence the economies of that bloc are just beginning to prosper. These countries prefer the term Central Europe (remember the Central Powers in World War I) and think of Eastern Europe as Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia (Belarus).
Our tour began with a reception and dinner the evening of September 4, 2013. Although this tour normally draws around 35 travelers, we were only 19, yet nothing was cut from the elaborate itinerary. Our tour director/escort was Zsófia Bartlett from Budapest, well versed in the history and culture of the region. We had excellent local guides in all cities. All hotels were deluxe with elaborate buffet breakfasts and many amenities. We were on our own for only a few lunches and dinners. Tauck even paid for our internet costs which would have been around 25 dollars daily to independent travelers.
After lunch on our own (more pierogis with different fillings) and a good Polish beer, we had time to rest before a 3:00 pm coach to the Szuster Palace, now the home of the Warsaw Music Society, where we were treated to a private Chopin concert by a superb pianist, Iwona Klimaszewska,with a sparkling wine at intermission. Dinner was included in the hotel. Tauck allows for a la carte dining with any three choices from the menu. I skipped dessert in lieu of two appetizers, fish soup and fois gras, before my lamb chops. Then I had to pack for an early next-day departure for Kraków, the local spelling, Crakow in the West.
We stopped just outside the walls of Krakow for lunch at Restaurant Jarema, famous for its widely publicized chef. Perhaps ordering a la carte might have been fine dining but the group meal was mediocre. The location was fine, and just down the street is the church where Pope John Paul II was vicar for many years. We were met outside the restaurant by our local guide who escorted us through the arch in the city wall down a pleasant shopping street to the main square. She guided us through St. Mary’s ornate church, and past other public buildings and the Archbishop’s Palace where John Paul resided as Cardinal before being called to Rome, and from whose balcony he addressed the students of Krakow sparking resistence to Soviet domination. From there it was a short walk through a park to the Sheraton Hotel facing the River Vistula (Wisla in Polish). My spacious suite had a spectacular 180 degree view of the river. Our group dinner in the hotel’s lavish dining room allowed me to overindulge in two starters of fois gras prior to a superb baked duck with red cabbage.
Our second day in Krakow we had a choice of a Jewish heritage tour or the Cathedral and Wawel Castle. I chose the latter. The castle is not all that impressive but we had the great luck to coincide with a visiting exhibit of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, which has toured other world museums but belongs to Poland. It is one of only four female portraits by the great master.
We were on our own for lunch and guide Martha recommended a charming outdoor restaurant where I could get grilled Polish sausage just a few blocks from the hotel. Then a short rest before our 1:45 pm coach trip to Auschwitz, a 90 minute drive from Krakow. There we toured the museum with its ghastly remembrances of Nazi cruelty, and nearby Birkenau, an expansion of Auschwitz created to speed up the killings of over 4 million victims of the holocaust. (Not all were Jews; other victims were Gypsies, resistence fighters, Catholic priests, and others). Having read so much and seen so many gruesome films I was not sure I wanted to take this excursion. The museum didn’t move me all that much until I saw the hundreds of thousands of children’s shoes. If you have never been to a holocaust museum, check out the gruesome photo gallery on the official website: http://en.auschwitz.org
Returning somberly to Krakow from the death camps, we stopped for dinner at Bida, a country restaurant, for a typical Polish meal. Then to the hotel to pack for our early departure the next day to Budapest.
Sunday Sept. 8 found us winding through the mountains of Slovakia en route to Hungary. After two hours we had a nice comfort stop. Since no one carried coins our escort paid for the toilets and bought us a beverage. Then on to a country inn, Banka Bystrica, for a lunch of goulash before arriving at our beautiful hotel Kempinski in Budapest before 5 pm. My suite was enormous and beautifully decorated but the twin beds (I had asked for a king) appeared to have been made for children, at least 25 percent smaller than a U.S. twin bed. I couldn’t get an internet signal in the room until a kindly staff member brought up a personal modem. The group gathered again at 7 pm for coach transfer to an exclusive yacht for a buffet dinner with wine on the Danube with two folkloric musicians. The public buildings lit up at night provided a spectacular setting for our cruise and many of us felt this was the highlight of the tour.
Monday morning we set off at 8:30 am for our half-day sightseeing tour of Pest (there were too many early departures for many of us who need to check the plumbing after breakfast). At the Opera we posed for a group photo prior to a tour of the stunning building. After the one-hour tour we were surprised by a delightful soloist who sang a folk song with a lute, then performed operatic numbers including the Torreador from Carmen. We visited St. Stephens Church and other public buildings and finished before lunch on our own. A block from the Kempinski is Café Gerbeaud, a charming restaurant and coffee house in an ancient palace where one can order light meals or pastry. The afternoon included an optional tour of the Jewish Quarter or free time to shop. A superb dinner was included in the hotel, again with a choice of any three plates.
Tuesday morning we visited the elaborate Parliament building, more beautiful when lit at night, where lots of construction of a new esplanade made for an ugly entrance. The former parking lot was moved underground and the new plaza will make a more beautiful entry to the building when it is completed. From there we crossed the bridge from Pest to Buda where we toured the capital district including the Church of St. Margaret with its beautiful stained-glass windows. Zsófia even paid for our toilet stop. Lunch at another “famous” restaurant Speiz, was only our second mediocre meal, perhaps because I chose fish in a landlocked country. Our afternoon and dinner were at leisure. Zsófia had recommended restaurant Gundel, but I could not find anyone else anxious to splurge in one of the best restaurants in the city so I went alone. I felt like I had been transported back to 1890. The setting was spectacular and the delightful five piece orchestra was priceless. I was in heaven when I saw half a page with 9 different kinds of fois gras from which I ordered a four plate sampler prior to my steak and an incredible fruit crepe covered with chocolate flamed at the table. This was one of the better dining experiences of my life.
I certainly understand why my friends had raved about Budapest, my favorite city on this itinerary, but on Wednesday September 11 we departed for Vienna, again passingthrough Slovakia with a stop for a guided tour of Bratislava, another charming ancient city. Lunch was included at Carnevalle, one of our better group meals. The main course was lamb shank served like osso bucco.
Then on to Vienna where we arrived at 4 pm at the Hotel Bristol, adjacent to the opera house. While a four-star hotel in the Starwood group, rooms and facilities were really dated and I would not recommend it but for the great location. The internet signal in the room was seldom strong enough to check e-mail and the business center was tiny with just two computers. In the evening a nice couple invited me to join them for dinner in the hotel restaurant.
Thursday featured a city tour by coach and a stop at Schonbrunn, the Hapsburg summer palace. We began there in the Café where we had an exclusive strudel making demonstration by a skilled pastry chef who convinced me I didn’t have the equipment nor the patience and I would be better to buy it at my local bakery. Following the demonstration we enjoyed a wonderful lunch of Wienerschnitzel followed by apple strudel with whipped cream, a heavy meal when the palace tour followed. I did that tour three years ago and I swear there were 100 buses in the parking area and such swarms of noisy groups that I left disgusted. This time there were fewer groups and all our excursions included ear phones or “whispers,” so the experience was considerably better this time.
The remainder of the day was at leisure which allowed for rest, more museums, or shopping. I had not bonded with many people and hated to ask anyone if I could join them for dinner, so I went to dinner alone. The concierge could not get me a reservation at Steirereck, reputedly the best in the city, so I walked to another recommended restaurant, Zum Weissen Rauchfangkehrer, the White Chimney-Sweep. Expecting something elegant I was let down by the hunting-lodge décor and had a meal as disappointing as my ability to pronounce the name of the place.
Friday September 13 started off with an architecture tour. Alas there was a constant drizzle and a chill wind making the walk unattractive. The Hofburg palace area was beautiful and I dropped out there since I had been to Vienna once before and did not care to join the group’s visit to St. Stephen’s Church. Besides, one of the palaces contained the ethnographic museum and another the royal treasury with hundreds of years of Hapsburg jewelry, costumes, porcelain , and gold and silver ornaments. The Ethnographic museum was a real disappointment with few interesting displays, but I had chosen it because it houses the quetzal-plume and gold headdress of Aztec emperor Moctezuma; Mexico has been demanding its return. Charles I of Spain who presided over the early years of the conquest of Mexico was Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, and a Hapsburg, so many treasures of the new world ended up in European museums. I was delighted to see the panache and wished photographs had not been forbidden. The Treasury Museum was more sensational and I’m glad I took the guide’s advice to rent the speakers which explained most of the precious items in the collection. I especially liked the Hapsburg crown of gold and jewels, and an enormous 21 karat emerald ornament from Colombia.
Lunch and the afternoon were at leisure but at 6 pm we gathered in the hotel basement for a champagne/wine reception followed by an excellent served dinner. At 8:30 our coach took us to the Palais Auersperg for a private concert, half Mozart and half Johann Straus with a champagne intermission. Again it was thrilling to have an exclusive event for just 19 of us, and the talented 12 piece orchestra provided great accompaniment to two ballet dancers and two opera singers. The group’s hearty applause made it clear how privileged we felt to experience this exclusive event.
The morning rain cleared up as we drove toward Prague on Saturday Sept. 14. Zsófia let me take the microphone to explain how a Hapsburg prince Maximilian, brother of Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, came to be emperor of Mexico from 1863-1867. I had told the story to 80 Road Scholar groups in Mexico. Only a few in the group actually visited the royal crypt where Maximilian is buried. The story of his misadventures with his wife, Empress Charlotte of Belgium (Carlota in Mexico) is well told by Joan Haslip in The Crown of Mexico.
We arrived at the Hotel Kempinsky in Prague in time for a delightful luncheon buffet during which Zsófia passed out our room keys. This was the most deluxe and beautiful of the hotels on our itinerary and, for a change, the internet connection in the suite was great. At 3 pm we gathered in the lobby for a guided walking orientation tour of old town Prague as far as the Charles Bridge.
A block from the hotel, just before the entry arch to the old town, sits the majestic art-nouveau Municipal Building which we toured the next day. But the building offers three choices for meals: a delightful café for light meals, a beer hall famous for its duck, and an elegant continental restaurant which I chose for dinner. Almost everyone else went to the beer hall where they reported a choral tourist group from Germany added to the overly-noisy venue. It would have been a disaster for my hearing problem, so I was glad I chose the glamorous French restaurant Francouzska. I felt like royalty consuming an amuse bouche gazpacho and the five course tasting menu: carpaccio of smoked salmon, fois gras, lobster bisque, a roast of Iberian pork, and a sampler of four small desserts I didn’t need. The cost was about half of what I would have paid for a similar meal in Manhattan.
Sunday September 15 at 8:30 (too early again) we embarked on a guided architectural walking tour with an option for a Jewish heritage route. It was a thrill to visit the State Theater, also called the Mozart Theater since Mozart performed and conducted there. The building was built for him and he wrote his opera Don Giovanni specifically for the theater and conducted its premier there in 1787, two years before he died. As we exited the main theater and entered the refreshment salon we were treated to another surprise as a classical quartette played selections from Don Giovanni and the Marriage of Figaro. Before leaving, our theater guide pointed to a portrait of a former director who also wrote the Czech national anthem, which she sang for us beautifully a capella. Her pride in her country and her theater was very touching.
We went on to the Municipal Building where we toured the stunning Smetana Hall and the beautiful art-nouvou men’s and women’s salons. Then we were treated to a beverage in the café where our tour ended. The cafés in central Europe are often in ancient palaces with stunning chandeliers and a cappuccino is as inexpensive as at Starbucks where youngsters drink coffee from paper cups to be “hip.”
After my cappuccino, I rushed to the box office to buy a ticket for the 6 pm concert (orchestra seat 48 dollars on my visa card). It was scheduled to last 90 minutes so I wouldn’t miss our 7:30 dinner in the hotel Grill. I felt a bit cheated since the orchestra had only 12 musicians who played for only an hour without intermission. But it was a treat to hear beautiful music of Mozart, Smetana, Sibelius, Dvorak, Vivaldi and Grieg in such a stunning setting.
For our dinner in the hotel, I hadn’t specified with whom I would be dining and found all the other participants had paired off without room for me so this time I sat alone, not by choice. Tauck could do a better job of caring for singles. There were always large tables with seats for everyone at group meals. But when we had dinner included but on our own, to ask “at what time do you want to eat and with whom” is difficult to answer if you haven’t bonded with anyone, and couples tend to pair off. In the 150 tour groups I escorted, no one ever had to eat alone except by choice. I recommend reserving tables for 8 with two different times and offering the choice. Of course many tour companies do not include so many meals and singles often end up dining alone more often.
Our last day, Monday Sept. 16, we started out early again and arrived at Hradcany district in a light rain. The government buildings reeked of antiquity and we saw streets that Mozart walked in the movie Amadeus. The church had beautiful stained glass but the explanation of every saint was a bit much. We saw the room in the palace where the famous defenestration at Prague took place in 1618 starting the Thirty Years War. Whether the Catholic officials thrown out the palace window by aggrieved Protestants were saved by angels or by a pile of horse manure you can decide for yourself after reading about it online. Next we visited the Strahov Monastery Library, arguably the most beautiful building in the city. The oldest book dates from the 800s. Our afternoon was at leisure for lunch and packing for our next-morning departures.
I had an unwelcome 5:45 am wake-up call for my transfer to the airport with three other participants, each of us with a large box breakfast supplied by the Kempinski dining room. My LOT flights took me from Prague to Warsaw, then Warsaw to JFK, again on the delightful Dreamliner, a deluxe way to end a sensational tour. There is a reason Tauck doesn’t have to pay for advertising since its overly-spoiled clients pass the word and keep its hundreds of World Discovery tours well attended. I highly recommend this tour and I will certainly travel with Tauck again.
(More photos below)