A travel guide to the Old World's Old World—the countries of Central Europe and Eastern Europe
If you're hankering for that Olde Worlde Europe of your imagination, where donkey-drawn carts jounce down the cobbled streets of a postcard mountain village, and city skylines sport more baroque spires than soulless skyscrapers, forget high-priced Western Europe. You need to head behind the old Iron Curtain, where beer costs 10¢, meals start at $10, and the Cold War allowed most cities to skip nearly 50 years of tourism over-development.
Barter for amber at Krakow's central market before paying respects at Poland's crumbling concentration camps near Auschwitz.
Spend every evening at a different concert in the booming baroque city of Prague(though be warned: popular Prague can be as pricey as Paris)—or see Ljubljana, Slovenia for a taste of Prague before it got trendy.
Changes in in Eastern Europe
The region has spent the past 20 years Westernizing and capitalizing, but don't forget it spent the four previous decades slumbering behind the Iron Curtain. That means much of this half of the continent retains that aura of pre-War Europe, a glimmer of that fabled "old country" from the early 20th century.
A vacation in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and other countries of Eastern Europe is an exercise in contradiction. It's simultaneously a journey back in time, albeit an imperfect one, as well as a strange trip to the glittering edge of Second World modernization.
You get to glimpse how each of these long lost cousin countries vies to be the first to rejoin their wealthier brethren in Western Europe on voting in the EU, paying with the Euro, and reaching other modern measures of success.
This battle to rejoin fully the developed world is as self-evident as the architecture. As they beautify their baroque gems, try to rehabilitate the concrete bastions of communism, and raise glittering post-millennial skyscrapers, the great capitals of Eastern Europe are trying to find a balance between glorifying their remote past, stamping out the remaining inequities of the Eastern Bloc, and forging ahead toward a 21st century Europe.
How well they are succeeding at it is open to debate, and that's part of the excitement of travel here. Most European vacations are to visit a museum of the past. Eastern Europe has that aspect, but it's also a crucible of the present, in all its complicated, corporate, and multinational confusion.
Also, they've got some great beer. And prices are insanely low, with full meals ringing in under $10.
Stay: $66 at the Ibis Bratislava Centrum (www.ibishotel.com), in the center of town by the castle; $104 at Budapest's four-star Carlton Hotel (www.carltonhotel.hu), wedged between the castle and the Danube.
Dine: $5 in Budapest, Hungary; $10-$15 in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Package: $899 for air and 6 nights in Prague (425-487-9632, www.gotoday.com); $1,204 for air, 9 nights—3 each in Prague, Budapest, and Vienna—and transfers (800-247-1142, www.summittours.com).