Hi from Rick: Szia, travel partners...
|Eastern Europe: 30 years ago meeting the locals came with a hammer and sickle.|
The Hungarian language sounds as scary as the marauding horsemen who first delivered it, sweeping in from Asia during the Dark Ages. But one key word is easy. Conveniently, "szia" is pronounced "see ya." It means ciao hello or goodbye in Hungary.
I'm freshly back from finishing our new guidebook on Eastern Europe. The change there is breathtaking. Finally, competition and the free market are yielding some great hotel values. Communism has become kitsch you'll find stern Stalin-style statues dotting amusement parks and decorating theme restaurants. And a new generation of young English-speaking guides is eager to bring each city and village vividly to life for travelers.
Next May, ten new countries (mostly former Warsaw Pact nations) will join the European Union. As my Slavic friends exult, their membership will shift the geographical center of Europe from Brussels to Prague. So, in 2004, Eastern Europe becomes Central Europe as it had been for centuries until the "Iron Curtain" slammed shut after WWII.
Locals understand that they will have to embrace new European rules, and this may encroach on traditional ways. For instance, the EU's hygiene standards dictate that cooked food can't be served more than two hours old. My Czech friend complained, "This will make many of our best dishes illegal." Czech specialties, often simmered, taste better the next day. While locals are concerned about giving up too much control to Brussels, they know there's really no compromise...and Czech chefs will have to adapt.
For travelers, the rise of Eastern Europe means we all get a second chance to re-live the good old days of European tourism full of color, surprise and challenge. While ATMs churn out stress-free euros from Barcelona to Berlin, when you cross a border in the East you'll still trade your stodinki for zloties. Exploring towns that spent decades in a communist cocoon, you'll encounter weathered locals, intellectual priests, rickety dirt-cheap trolleys, mysterious symbols for the men's and ladies' room, and new food adventures from menus where the price doesn't matter.
|You'll find stern Stalin-style statues dotting amusement parks.|
While in Western Europe, hallucinogenic absinthe is illegal and mead (or honey wine) is served only in touristy castle banquets, both are basic brews in Bohemia. Scruffy children spin crude wooden tops, babushkas bake doughnut-like breads, and Gypsies dance with their bears on street corners. Two weeks ago in Poland, I crossed paths with one of our tour groups. They griped, "You should have told us to bring more film!" That's my kind of tour complaint.
Despite the Old World romance, the efficiency is New World, with an English-speaking younger generation and Internet cafes on nearly every corner. And the prices can't be beat: you can gulp the best beer in Europe for $.50 a mug, munch a hearty plate of pierogi (Polish-style ravioli) for a buck, and enjoy classical music in palatial settings for $10.
Our new Best of Eastern Europe guidebook will appear in February. But the rest of my 2004 guidebooks are already arriving. To jumpstart your next trip, check out all the new editions at our online Travel Store. And for all my latest travel tips, see our October Travel News.