Medieval Europe has been translated, in a manner of speaking, into some of the most enchanting contemporary holiday destinations. Yet, none of them, I feel, are as charming and engaging as the countries that make up the ‘European Quartet’ — Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, also known as the V4 nations, each of them uniquely alluring, the turbulence of their troubled past behind them. Indeed, I think their shared history and heritage, and that magnificent landscape of cultural delights and natural beauty, have created one astonishingly diverse and borderless holiday destination with less than a couple of hours of travel time between them. Curiously, the ‘quartet’ aren’t lost in a time warp — they are every bit as modern as Paris or London. I found so many pre-conceived notions slipping into oblivion as I travelled from Krakow to Prague, from Bratislava to Lake Balotone, as will you.
The flight to Frankfurt is uneventful, but as we fly into Krakow, one of Poland’s largest and oldest cities and its capital from 1038 to 1596, there’s a buzz in the air — or maybe it’s only me thrilling to the idea of collecting new memories! Stepping out of Hotel Pod Roza on the historical Florianska Street, I find boutiques, pubs, clubs, restaurants and hotels lining this segment of the medieval Royal Route, past the main market square, to Wawel Castle. The beautiful old St Florian’s Church at the northern end of the square turns out to be a perfect landmark when I get lost in a maze of streets during my wanderings. The Pod Aniolami restaurant on Grodzka Street is organising a demo on the preparation of the traditional Polish favourite pierogi — dumplings served plain, with butter, sour cream, potatoes and cheese, or minced meat. I tuck into one and think of momos.
A visit to Schindler’s Factory Museum, on the right bank of the Wisla, is a grim reminder of Krakow’s years under the Nazis. I’m glad to get out for the trip to Kazimierz, Krakow’s historical Jewish district. My tension vanishes under the cloudless blue sky as a cheery afternoon sun picks out the radical changes in this quarter, which has had Jewish settlers since the 15th century. Buggy rides run past old Jewish residences and synagogues. An uplifting line-up of open-air cafés keeps the main square lively. In the evening, tables fill up fast and four string quartets begin playing.
The next morning, we coach it to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a Unesco site. A tiny lift descends to different levels leading to chambers and pits interlinked by serpentine, well-illuminated passages carved out of ancient slabs of salt. Try licking one of the walls like I did…yes, that’s salt! The deepest of the nine levels in the mine is 1,075ft underground. It’s eerie but awesome as we descend from 210ft to 445ft into the bowels of the earth. The showpiece here is the Chapel of St Kinga or Kaplica SwKingi, its glittering chandeliers and humongous altarpiece all carved from salt. Concerts, and even mass, are often hosted here.
Bright and early next morning, we leave Krakow for Prague, the glittering capital of the Czech Republic, stopping for the Unesco-notified Auschwitz and Birkenau Nazi concentration camps. I get the chills touring them. Shockingly, some visitors actually grin inanely for photographs beside the gas chambers. The tour ends at the site where the commandant of the camps, Rudolf Hoess, was tried and hanged for major war crimes. An affirmation of life is important after such a grim experience and, strangely enough, I found myself standing next to a man talking to a couple about the camp at Birkenau, where parts of Schindler’s List were shot. It turned out that he was one of the survivors: he was a boy of 14 when he was imprisoned, and lived to tell the tale.
Olomouc, en route to Prague, is a tranquil, medieval university town. Our guide, Štefan Blaho, took us on a walking tour of this picturesque township, the spiritual and historical centre of Moravia. Olomouc’s pubs, cobbled streets and squares are punctuated with Baroque fountains and sidewalk cafes. Here’s the beautiful St Wenceslas Cathedral, the Unesco site of the Holy Trinity Column, and the Upper Square palaces. At the Archbishop’s Palace, we’re distracted by the glitter of the church jewels. Unwittingly I’m roped in to catch the town views from the lofty St Wenceslas Cathedral Towers. The views, I agreed, were superb, but it’s 147 steps — each way.
The morning train brings us to Prague, ‘city of a hundred towers and spires’. From my room at the Intercontinental Prague, overlooking the Vltava River and Prague Castle, I catch inviting visuals of the famous shopping boulevard and art nouveau houses. The Mucha Museum, dedicated to Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha, famed for his poster works of the legendary dancer Isadora Duncan, showcases works related to his time in Paris (1887-1904). Years ago, while travelling in Europe, I’d picked up mounted prints of two of his iconic posters on Isadora, so it was lovely to get acquainted with the originals. We then went to the Moser Sales and Art Gallery, filled with drool-worthy Czech crystalware in myriad colours. Even if you can’t afford a crystal swivel stick here, you have to see the stunning Czech Glass Masters exhibition.
Prague’s Old Town Square, with its red-roofed houses and vast café-lined space, dates back to the 12th century and is steeped in delightful atmospherics. History lurks around every corner. From the top of the Old Town Hall Tower, I soaked up the sunset and a sea of red roofs sliding into the horizon. If you must shop, head for ParíÃ‚?ská Street — its stores are chock-filled with branded consumables. I quietly put my wallet away after almost swooning from the prices.
Prague’s iconic Charles Bridge is not only its oldest, it’s also hugely popular with just-marrieds for photo-ops. The stunning Gothic gate from the Old Town end begs to be photographed before we head down to John Lennon’s Wall. I scramble for a pen, and then for space on the wall, to add my name to the hundreds protesting the repressive political mores of the 1980s.
The funicular brings me atop Petrín Hill, formerly home to the vineyards of King Charles. The views are breathtaking but what’s more fun are those goofy moments in the Mirror Maze. There isn’t much time to explore the massive Prague Castle, which is milling with tourists — so it’s the Pilsner Urquell Gallery for us. Czech beer is legendary and it’s a riot as we learn to draw the lager without spilling the foam on the counter.
On the agenda now is a Segway tour of the Old Quarter. Having never tried a Segway in my life, I’m trying to make myself inconspicuous. A burly Australian instructor, who’s manhandling one of them, edges a monster towards me and says beguilingly, “Don’t worry darling, you’ll be fine. I’m right here.” What a hoot it turns out to be! It was great just letting go of my inhibitions and getting it right, without falling or mowing people down with a runaway Segway!
An early lunch at Prague’s most popular Indian restaurant is scheduled before catching the train for Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Located in the Old Town, the Indian Jewel makes a pretty good effort to recreate authentic favourites. Anticipating more European fare in the coming days, we tuck in with gusto, demolishing kaali dal, chicken tikkas, tandoori rotis and chaat masala onion rings post haste.
The train slips into the biggest city and capital of Slovakia — Bratislava. Since 1960, it used to be the capital of the federal state of Slovakia within Czechoslovakia; from 1993, it has been the capital of the independent nation of Slovakia. The Bratislava hlavná stanica (train station) receives a high number of international trains. Vienna is just an hour away, Prague is a four-hour ride away; Budapest 2.5-hours, and Warsaw, Berlin, Belgrade and Kiev are all less than 10-11 hours.
Morning finds us at Bratislava’s 12th century Red Stone Castle, now a museum showcasing the trappings of nobility and architectural history from the late 15th to early 20th centuries. Its 24 chambers are filled with artifacts — 1,729 items,to be exact. The star attraction, of course, is the astonishing 4,412-sq-m carpet, which could well cover the floor of a two-room apartment.
Bratislava’s laid-back Old Town is spread over two squares: the tongue-twisting Hlavne Namestie (the main square) and Hviezdoslavovo Namestie (Hviezdoslav Square). In this charming setting are Primates Palace, where the mayor of Bratislava resides, the adjoining Old Town Hall on Primaciálne Square 3, and the lovely St Martin’s Cathedral. You can explore the string of bars and cafés lining Panska, Michalska and Sedlarska streets adjoining the Old Town
The afternoon sun is warm on our backs as we drive on to Balatonfüred in Hungary. A stop at this lakeside retreat near Budapest is hugely recommended. We greet Rabindranath Tagore at the Tagore Passage fronting Lake Balaton, the great freshwater lake with its feeding ducks and pretty boats. The Tagore statue stands under the linden tree he planted when visiting the area in 1926. Saplings planted by several Indian political biggies mark the tree-lined boulevard. At the souvenir shops by the lakefront, I pick up Hungarian paprika and Czech honey wine. The Balatone area is wine country and we’re to dine at the splendid Szent Donat cellar restaurant at Csopak village.
En route to Budapest we stop at Herend, the porcelain-manufacturing town famed for hand-painted and gilded luxury artifacts and crockery. Watching the artists at work will just blow you away. The souvenir shop is a real treat but impossibly expensive.
At Budapest, I can’t believe I’m ensconced at the InterContinental Budapest Hotel. The great picture windows of my room open up on grandstand views of the Danube. The hotel is on the Pest side of the Danube and from where I stand, I get clear views of the Chain Bridge and of Buda, the Castle Hill and the Royal Palace.
Lunch is at the famous Gerlóczy, where bumping into Jeremy Irons, who’s shooting in Budapest for the next season of The Borgias, is a definite possibility. Our next stop is another Budapest gourmet legend — the Gerbeaud Café, with amazing confectionary. Coffee and cake it is, before we wander past the musicians in the square for our downtown tour.
From the Chain Bridge, we cross over to the Buda side and the Castle District. It’s a stiff haul up to Buda Castle, but the views are worth it. At the Halászbástya restaurant, flutes of champagne and cool jazz welcome the evening star. The skies are a rosy glow, as are my cheeks from the excitement and the spirits. Dinner is at the Pierrot, where streams of celebs, from Anthony Hopkins to Salman Rushdie, have dined.
We sign off the night with a thrilling post-dinner cruise down the Danube. It’s balmy, breezy, exciting — the beautifully lit Parliament, palaces, hotels and restaurants lining the banks a mere blur now — but soon we’re roaring into the face of a rainbow-hued laser show, which sweeps over the riverside line-up of heritage buildings. Shaken and stirred with not a Bond in sight, we get on to the jetty at last…oh, what a night.
I overslept the next morning, but rushed to the Budapest Parliament, a gilded marvel and a must-do. Budapest’s Lázár Equestrian Park is another dazzling experience: Hungary’s windswept steppes are evoked by the whip-cracking cassock-like horsemen and their equestrian feats. A traditional Hungarian lunch in a vast hall filled with the buzz of tour groups from all over the world wraps up the show. The night flight to Delhi is uneventful but my great hoard of memories is just a thought away.
Krakow is connected to India via several one-stop flights for approx. Rs 65,000 (round trip, economy; Aeroflot flies via Moscow for about Rs 20,000 less). Travel through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary by train and coach. Take a coach transfer from Krakow to Ostrava in the Czech Republic, a train from Ostrava to Prague, and another train to Bratislava in Slovakia, and finally to Budapest by coach.
The countries in the European quartet are covered by the Schengen visa. Apply to the embassy of the country where you will be staying longest, and if the number of days of stay is equally divided, apply to your first point of entry. The Polish embassy charges a fee of Rs 5,100 for Schengen applications.
- € 1 = Rs 85 (used in Slovakia)
- 1 Polish zloty = Rs 21
- 1 Hungarian forint = Rs 0.28
- 1 Czech koruna = Rs 3.12
Where to stay
- Krakow Stay at the Pod Roza (from Rs 7,200; podroza.hotel.com.pl), just north of the main square in Old Town; the rooms are nicely furnished and comfy. The Atrium (from Rs 4,000; hotelatriumkrakow.com) has compact but clean rooms. Hotel Fortuna (from Rs 4,500; hotel-fortuna.com.pl) makes up with character what it lacks in spiffiness. Bonerowski Palace (from Rs 9,000; palacbonerowski.com), located on the main square, aspires to be five star.
- Prague Hotel Salvator (from Rs 3,500; salvator.cz) is close to the city centre and malls. The Ramada Prague City Centre (from Rs 5,200; hotelramadapraguecity.cz) is a short walk from the Old Town. Look no further than the Mandarin Oriental (Rs 24,000; mandarinoriental.com) for luxury, if you can afford it.
- Budapest Try the InterContinental (from Rs 8,700 ; budapest.intercontinental.com) for its location, views, service, rooms and breakfast. You might also like Ibis Centrum (Rs 3,200; ibis.com), a budget hotel in a quiet street not far from the city centre; it has friendly and helpful staff. The Nemzeti Budapest (from Rs 5,500; accorhotels.com) is part of Accor’s MGallery Collection and really quite nice. The historic Four Seasons Budapest Gresham Palace (from Rs 19,000; fourseasons.com) offers stunning interiors and impeccable service in rooms overlooking the Danube.
What to shop for
Prague’s main shopping area runs down Wenceslas Square, along Na Príkope and then debouches into the Republic Square. Check out the stores spilling over with art, crystal and souvenirs around the Old Town Square and in the Lesser Town. ParíÃ‚?ská is lined with luxury boutique shops. Pick up folk art like embroidered pillowcases, pottery and porcelain at Budapest. Handpainted Herend and Zsolnay porcelain are treasures. The Great Market Hall is the city’s oldest and largest indoor market — it’s at the end of the famous pedestrian shopping hub of Váciutca (on the Pest side of the Liberty Bridge); this is a good place to buy paprika, Czech honey wines, and cheeses.