Central Europe, 30March-2June2022

Many people followed the photos of my central European trip in April and May 2022. Some asked what overall impressions I had, beyond the comments on individual pictures. I finally pulled them all together, along with some travel suggestions if anyone else wants to visit someday. (It’s very long.) Enjoy!

What a Trip!
by Charley Pearson

Many followed my photos of European travel in the spring of 2022. While the initial shots were of France, such as when I visited the Normandy-American Cemetery and my uncle’s grave, the rest were from central Europe. That is, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Czechia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Croatia, to recap the order I wandered around on Eurail.
Note that residents of these areas refer to this as central Europe. Eastern Europe consists of Ukraine, the Baltic States, Russia, and the Caucasus. Most people in the west aren’t used to this distinction yet, having memories of everything behind the former Iron Curtain being “east.”
If you’ve not seen the photos and short videos, or want to reprise them, they were still on my Facebook page last I checked. Dates in title above, at https://www.facebook.com/WNCAuthor (or there’s a link on my webpage, www.charleypearson.com).

In addition to specific comments accompanying most of the photographs, I had some overall impressions of this area that may be of interest. I should note that my trip, and thus my thoughts, consisted of visiting cities, mostly large and medium in size. Any rural differences would require another trip. In some minimal semblance of order, here they are:

Tidbits and Observations

1) Biggest overall impression was the cleanliness of these countries. A remarkable lack of litter, and not a single bug in even the cheapest hotel rooms I stayed in. Well, a housefly or two in late May, but that’s it. I hear mosquitoes get bad in the summers, and rooms don’t have screens on windows. But the issue is that all these countries appear to have made a concerted effort to achieve this effect. You see people sweeping the streets and sidewalks in the middle of the day. In Prague, a tour guide made the point that the city added trash cans all over the place, sent out cleaning crews in the wee hours every morning, and made laws about picking up after pets, so that tourists would be more likely to visit. And it’s working. Prague is allegedly approaching the second-most-visited city in Europe.

2) The other huge impression is the universal similarity of people everywhere. While clothing styles appeared to have more variety than in the U.S., any given person could be picked up and placed in an American city and they would fit right in. No obvious mannerisms or habits separate people, except as noted in (3) below. Children act the same, regardless of country, playing and screaming and running around. Parents watch, herd them around, and buy ice cream. Can’t think of a better argument for internationalism, rather than the nationalist political sentiment so common these days.

3) The exception? People walk and ride bicycles and electric-powered two-wheeler scooters all over (and in the case of scooters, everywhere; you can rent them from spots on the street, and see people in business clothes riding them). Sidewalks and smaller streets/alleys are fair game for anything. Yet people pass each other with nary a blip, with parties smoothly splitting apart to allow those going the other way to pass between. Locals seem much more aware of their surroundings, less lost-in-their-own-world than in the U.S.A. Rarely do you see the common two-step, where people approaching each other both try to get out of the other’s way, and come to a stop because they’re both compensating in the same direction at once. I never quite got the hang of this European instinct for moving rapidly and smoothly without impeding each other. Maybe locals can spot Americans this way.

4) Personal space is always respected. People generally avoid eye contact on the streets, and may be totally silent in a train compartment until someone departs—then there’s often a smile and a “good-bye.” If a conversation gets started somehow, like if you help someone with a piece of heavy luggage, most people are then glad to chat. Service staff in hotels and restaurants are virtually always friendly, and curious about where you’re from.

5) April is a truly great month to visit Europe. Flowers and trees are in bloom everywhere. Crowds are negligible. A sweatshirt and windbreaker were comfortable, even if many locals were in down jackets. In late May, crowding starts. A German holiday completely packed the hotels in Prague one weekend. The busier the season, the more you’ll have to plan and make reservations in advance, rather than wandering where the mood takes you. Of course, autumn could be as nice as spring. By the way, I got ridiculously lucky on the weather, accidentally timing each visit so there were next to no rain delays for my wanderings; unfortunately, the sporadic rain developed into a drought for many areas in the summer.

6) I’m frequently asked what I liked best, as if a cathedral in Vienna could be compared to Roman ruins in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. But if I force it, I could say my favorite city may have been Budapest. It has such a variety of things to see. An ornate palace on the Buda hill, hot spring baths and a huge covered marketplace on the Pest side of the Danube. Giant parks, a historic temple, and a “terror house” with the history of Communist suppression. But I’d not have wanted to spend all my time there, and missed all the cool things in other cities.

Conversely, my favorite surprise country was Bulgaria. The beach at Varna is thick and wide, much nicer than sand on the Adriatic coast, and there’s a great park running parallel behind it. Ancient and “newer” Roman ruins in Plovdiv are cool, like those on the top of their big hill, where an amphitheater was discovered and excavated in the 1960s, and is in such good shape they added sound and lighting and are using it for concerts today. The capital of Sofia has its own collection of well-preserved ruins (that sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?). They went out of their way to protect things they found when building a new subway, finished in 2012. And rather like Istanbul, where I hear they have laws protecting cats and the city is full of them, slightly feral and slightly friendly, Bulgaria is similar (Varna especially). People put out food for them, and they’re part of the community. Fun.

But don’t forget the historical museum in Bucharest, Romania, or the palace in Split, Croatia. Or the open-air market in the middle of Krakow, Poland, and the salt mine just outside of town. Or the dragons and markets and lakes in Slovenia. Or . . . . You just can’t pin down one thing.

7) Historical preservation can be seen in every country. They have so much in the way of architecture. And central European cities supplement their history with a huge variety of street art. Statues, playful or clever or stunning. A spinning head of Kafka in Prague. Sneaky brass in the ground in Bratislava and Ljubljana. In Plovdiv, Bulgaria, they commissioned graffiti artists to cover the obvious walls where they knew they’d get graffiti sooner or later. Why not pay someone to put up something good? In Sofia, massive pillars to hold up the central city so they didn’t have to hurt the Roman ruins underneath. Museums, renovated fountains, and parks around old monasteries. No matter how much we wander, there is always something new to see.

8) I enjoyed trying local foods, including beers and wines. Often quite good, as well as cheap and convenient. In Polish restaurants, the zurek soup stood out. Never found it anywhere else. In several countries I found schnitzel cordon bleu (a couple of schnitzels with ham and cheese inside); one of my favorites, and an interesting variation from chicken cordon bleu.

9) Sometimes a city or a country will throw out an interesting tidbit you’d never heard before, like the Czech tour guide in Prague who kept insisting Czechs were lazy because they (“we”) have a rich country, full of resources, and everyone wants to be a supervisor. No one wants to be a common laborer, or so she said. The Hapsburg legacy, I asked; she laughed and nodded. So they imported lots of Germans to do construction work in the border areas in the 1930s, providing the Germans an excuse to annex the territory because it was now “so German.” And today they have many Ukranian workers . . . or they did before the spring 2022 Russian invasion, after which many went home to fight, “which is why you don’t see much construction work today.” I tried to argue that being a supervisor wasn’t being lazy, but she waved it off.
Brno, Czechia had a sign reading, “Suburb of Vienna.” Maybe it is.

Backyards all over the place had gardens instead of grass or play areas for kids. This is a relic of communism, I understand, where you could only keep what you grew in that limited area. All food grown on farms had to be given to a central authority, to be measured and parceled out, some right back to the farmers. A hated practice, meant to fairly provide food to workers in the cities, but far too prone to graft and corruption. Interestingly, a few of the most affluent former communist communities have grass and children’s toys in their backyards now, like in Slovenia.

10) There is construction going on all over the place. New or replacement railroad track, church renovations, new or rebuilt subway systems. The only things that seems to suffer from insufficient attention are sidewalks. Maybe they’re boring to repair crews. But this isn’t restricted to central Europe; a friend visiting Belgium at the same time cited the same issue with sidewalks, and those in the U.S. can be disappointing. Tree roots and water issues, don’t’cha know. Big picture? Things are improving all the time, but I’d not use that as an excuse to postpone a vacation to these cool places.

11) Out on the streets, shopping here and there, one issue stood out. Shoplifting is a major concern. In one souvenir store in Budapest, there were few enough customers that a little old lady followed me everywhere. Grocery stores in every country have a security guard at the door, near the check-out, watching customers come and go. In the course of nine weeks I never witnessed any issues, though. (No issues with pickpockets, either, though we’re advised to be careful.)

12) Finally, I had one unusual experience on my trip: I overlapped the early months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Like many outsiders, I was pondering what I might do. With over five million refugees, one person can’t help them all, but I got lucky. I met a family on the train from Bucharest to Varna; a Ukrainian woman and her two small children, hoping to get into the Bulgarian relief system. Google Translate, here we come. I was able to help them with housing and food until they succeeded, then continue to supplement what the system provided so she could buy fruit and other extras, plus art supplies. We still talk regularly via an app called Viber. Pretty neat being able to connect real-time with someone seven time zones away, in a different language. (Alas, Viber seems somewhat less accurate than Google Translate, and you can imagine what spasms translators go through when you mis-type a word, so what comes out the other end is occasionally hilarious.) She sent me two cool pieces of her work. What the future may bring for them, we’ll see.

Also: Travel Thoughts, If You’re Curious About Visiting

13) Getting around in central Europe: Well, Google Maps within foreign cities are accurate these days. While I had plasticized paper maps capable of surviving rain, tracking yourself on a cell phone proved much easier. Note: you may not always have internet when doing this. You can download maps to your phone before leaving your hotel. If you haven’t done this, turn off internet on your phone when you’re out, so there’s no delay using the cell signal to get map updates (and make sure you’ve got an international calling plan with a decent data limit for all that terrain you’re downloading).

Then—wait till you get back to the hotel and remember to turn internet back on before you upload all the pictures you took. Otherwise you’ll go through cell data rates like mice through a silo.

14) Google Translate also proved quite useful. Many times I could use that app to pick the right language and communicate slowly, when I needed help or when someone else needed mine. Free-standing translator devices would be more useful, except so many of them require an internet connection instead of relying on internal memory. The technology is changing so fast, you may want to update yourself on internet and other services before each trip.

15) A green running person is the sign for emergency exits, not regular exits. You can spend a while figuring this out in larger museums that only have one regulated entry/exit point. (Who, me?)

16) “WC” for water closet is now a universal sign for restrooms all over Europe, at least in the cities. Some of the obscure (to outsiders) country-specific symbols noted in older guidebooks don’t seem popular anymore. Only saw one exception, a place with the classic male and female circles.

17) In cities, official taxis from regular companies are usually reported to be a good value. Many cities reportedly have unofficial taxis outside airports and train stations that might have inflated rates. However, most cities also have an extensive network of subways, trams, and/or buses that are inexpensive and handy. In the cities I visited, they were all interconnected in the sense that a ticket could be used for any of them. In Budapest, for example, in the underground access to a subway line you can find a machine to sell tickets, as many as you want, which work on buses or subways. Multi-day or week-long passes are generally over-priced for the amount of travel tourists do. Generally, individual tickets are bought outside the escalators to the trains, and you need to pass the ticket through a validator machine before boarding. Buses have validator boxes when you get on. Always validate, as people are often in place to check when you get off, and the fines are high for cheaters.

Taxis might take plastic. Ticket machines usually do. A little cash is always recommended, just in case. And ask, if things don’t look the way you expect. In Budapest, one of the subway lines on the map wasn’t running due to major construction work, and the replacement buses (which conveniently used the same letter/number designation) could not follow the subway route above ground, so they ran a couple of blocks away. Perfectly convenient once you figure it out.

18) Outside the cities: You could fly or rent a car. There are special passes you need for highways in most countries (taxes being a universal phenomenon). Delays for air travel may reduce any time savings you were hoping for, and it’s hard to ogle the scenery when driving, so I opted for a Eurail pass and really got my money’s worth.

19) Train quality varied between countries. In western Europe, including Austria in this case, split-grade intersections were nearly universal on the rail lines I witnessed, to avoid affecting motor vehicles and allow trains to maintain higher speeds. Tunnels are common, even where the hills were small; keeps trains faster and probably worth it environmentally, as you spend the effort to build the tunnel but then avoid the waste of thousands of trains climbing hills for decades to come.

20) As far as the fun part of rail travel, peering out windows as you sail along, that is unfortunately reduced in parts of western Europe due to construction of sound barriers. Great for the locals, though.

21) Now we come to trains in central Europe. They’re different. The quality of the cars and seats is reminiscent of western Europe fifty years ago. A first-class sleeper is like a second-class in the west. Clean and functional, but not classy like many of the trains in the west. Then again, they’re pretty inexpensive, and can be used by everyone. And west and central are alike in having lots of slower, local routes for commuters. In fact, commuting is so common, and bicycles are so widespread, Czechia even had multi-story parking garages for bicycles outside some stations. And yes, the trains are pretty much all electric.

22) Other differences: Few split-grade intersections, so very much like the U.S. in having crossing bars for roads (few with lights, though). And whereas in western Europe I never saw people walking across tracks in stations—there are always elevated or subterranean crossovers to access tracks—in central Europe it’s not uncommon outside the biggest cities to walk across tracks to access the line you want. Perfectly safe, people pay attention and trains are hard to miss when they’re coming. And like I said, construction everywhere, adding parallel lines or improving existing ones with new track and ties.

23) Many trains, west and east, divide at some point after departure, with cars going to different destinations. The rail services put signs on the sides of each car designating where it’s going. If you pay attention, you’ll get to the right place. This was not explained in the Eurail literature, however. Eurail instead says you need reservations for many routes, even when that’s not true. The benefit, of course, is that the reservation gives you a car number and seat number so you do, in fact, get in the right car, not one that’s splitting off for a different destination.

24) Problem: When you try to get a reservation, it’s not uncommon for the helpful clerk to say you don’t need one, and they won’t sell you one, either because they’re helping you save money or because they’re lazy and don’t want to waste their time. Or there might be people behind you in line who wouldn’t appreciate the delay. So without that reservation, you may get on the wrong train. Or worse, you get to Paris where every single train you take needs a reservation, going or coming. The Eurail ticket box-code on your cell phone, which works fine on the train itself, will not let you through the special security gate by the tracks in the Paris stations. They must have so many cheaters they’ve added this extra barrier, and it only responded to the box-code on the paper reservation slip. Nearly missed a train the first time I had to figure this out. And when I arrived in Paris from Lille (without a reservation, which they’d refused to sell me), I had to hunt around for a guard to let me out. Being white, old, male, and clearly a foreigner, I guess he believed I was honest.

25) Bottom line, if Eurail says you need a reservation, try hard to get one. All trains from Zagreb to Split definitely required one, perhaps because they were packed to the gills. Late in May I was too late to even get a last-minute reservation on some lines. In fact, if your plan is to bounce around with no detailed schedule, deciding where to go each day as I did, the height of tourist season is not for you. April and May worked for me.

26) Border crossings. These can be interesting. Every time you enter or leave the Schengen area of the European Union, you get a passport stamp (as of spring 2022, anyway). Once inside you can rail around and not even see a sign where the exact border is, crossing from one country to another. Non-Schengen Romania is quite strict about passport checks, and non-Schengen Bulgaria and Croatia less so. So when you’re on an all-night train from Budapest to Bucharest, the sleeper car option proved to be of doubtful value. First they wake you for leaving Schengen, then a while later for entering Romania. Often they collect passports from everyone and head off to an office somewhere to check things, before returning to ask questions. “Where are you going?” “Bucharest.” A pause, peers at American passport, sounds suspicious. “Why?” “Tourist.” Raises eyebrow, shakes head, shrugs, stamps passport and returns it.

27) I got that a lot in Romania and Bulgaria, including from waiters and store clerks. They ask where you’re from, and seem astonished an American came all that way just to visit their countries. A shame, really; there’s so much to see.

28) About the lodging: Hotel rooms are often in converted older buildings, and some features are typical. Frequently no top sheet, but a duvet instead, so you may wax hot or cold at night without a middle ground. As you’d expect, air conditioning only in the upscale or newer places.
No longer can you wake up and know you’re in a European hotel room by looking at the paint, like you could fifty years ago. Back then, gloss or semi-gloss was universal, and layer upon layer was added to keep it looking good, so the corners and edges of the rooms were well rounded. Not anymore.

Many newer or updated hotels have a slot at the door for your key card. You have to put your card in to active the electrical outlets. This means you can’t leave your laptop to charge while you’re out of the room, unless you convince them to give you two keys (and housecleaning may run off with that second card, anyway). And if you left your computer on for some reason, the battery will be drained when you return. Good for conservation, and maybe they have that in the U.S. now (I’ve not been to fancy local hotels lately), but inconvenient sometimes.

Electrical outlets are not like what they used to be, in either central or western Europe. They don’t tend to have three holes anymore. The U.S.-to-Europe converter plugs still on sale won’t work. You need the new type adapter than can take U.S. input, or 3-prong older continental Europe input, or 3-prong British input, and provide the 2-prong Europe output you need.
Alleged concerns about toilet paper are overblown. It was fine everywhere. Except it runs out on trains, so taking a small roll for emergencies isn’t a terrible idea.

And finally, hotel bathrooms are often elevated several inches above the rest of the room, because a bathroom in every room is an add-on in all but the newest hotels, and they needed room for drain piping without tearing up the floors. Be careful stumbling in there in the middle of the night. (Hey! Stop laughing at me!)

29) Even for a nearly-last-minute traveler, lining up a hotel a day or two in advance is advisable. Reservations made with an on-line app, such as with a cell phone and one of the services like Booking.com, can save much money over the walk-in rate. And some of the cool, cheap, backwater hotels don’t have desk staff all the time, so reserving/paying in advance and following their arrangements for getting a key are necessary, particularly for late arrivals. In my case, I always had a reservation at least a little while before I boarded the train. Cell service on trains is sometimes fine, but in central Europe it can falter. There’s a huge dead zone between Zagreb and Split.

30) If you decide to plan a trip, reading up on a bit of history or art or politics might be fun. Guidebooks such as those by Rick Steves are also quite handy; I had his “Eastern Europe” book on Kindle, so easy to carry around and reference (he titled it that way since he didn’t think his mostly-American audience would understand the term “central Europe”).

As I said at the beginning, I posted extensive photos and videos of my trip on Facebook, from 30 March to 2 June 2022, if they’re still there. Try https://www.facebook.com/WNCAuthor if you want to check them out. (It will require about three days of scrolling down to get to that old date. I posted a lot of pictures. Ha!)

Overall, a super vacation. Hope you get a chance to visit someday!

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