|A snow-laden Charles Bridge in Prague (courtesy, Czech Tourism)|
Central Europe is known for its affordability even during tourist season (you can get across the Tatras Mountains for less than the price of a Parisian croissant), but imagine the open doors during low season....
Catch the red-eye from the States to Prague (specials can run as low as $400 for selected dates in October through February). Before you depart the tarmac, keep in mind Frank Kafka's comment: "Prague never lets you go... this dear little mother has sharp claws." A traveler could spend a hearty two weeks in Czech's capital, but when you've given yourself the same amount of time to see a good chunk of central Europe, departing is especially painful. Assuage any disappointment by taking full advantage of the time you have here: drink in all you can of the artistic and architectural grandeur (not to mention the absinth and pilsners). The ninth-century Prague Castle, presiding over the Vltava River, is the city's premiere site. Other must-see spots include Golden Lane, the row of 16th-century houses behind the castle, so named because it was once the center of alchemy (Number 22 was Kafka's home, one of several residence the scribe occupied while living in Prague). In Old Town, cafes and galleries entice visitors on their way to Charles Bridge. To avoid the bustle of tourists and to catch the city in its most favorable light, walk across this pedestrian-only 13th-century bridge at sunrise, then grab a coffee and wait for St. Nicholas Cathedral to openthe interior should not be missed.
For more info on Prague, visit the Czech Tourism page on the country's capital.
The Czech Republic, divided between the regions of Moravia and Bohemia, has over 100 castles; some, like the fairytale structures of Karlstejn Castle and Konopiste Chateau, can be visited on a day trip from Prague. You could see all of thempublic transport is reliable and frequentbut those with limited schedules should select one of the two regions. Visitors, including Beethoven, frequently chose Bohemia for its rejuvenating spa towns and opulent outdoor arenas. Combine a little activity with the water's curative nature by paddling three hours along the Ohre River from Loket (50 miles northwest of Prague) to western Bohemia's Karlovy Vary. Also known as Karlsbad, this is the region's most-famous spa town with off-season rates that justify a visit. While in Bohemia, head north to the Czech Switzerland National Park for miles of hiking and sandstone structures (the largest natural sandstone bridge in Europe), canyons, and caves. For those less interested in paddling or staying overnight, buses travel the 75 miles to and from Prague several times a day.
The region of Moravia, while not as visited, has enough charm to capture the visitor's camera lens. Known for its quaint wine villages, vineyards, and orchards, the region is home to the town of Olomouc, second only to Prague in historical vestiges. Other must-sees in Moravia include Moravsky Kras, an area of more than 1,000 limestone caves (four easily accessible to travelers). Trains run regularly from Prague to Olomouc and the region's capital, Brno. From Olomouc, grab a train to Warsaw, Poland (six-and-a-half hours).
The 700-year-old city of Warsaw has been Poland's capital since 1596 and has plenty of remnants to prove its worth. The city has 50+ museums for the culture hound (the Chopin Museum among them), but at the top of the not-to-be-missed list is the Old Town Square, accessible through Castle Square, which includes the Royal Castlea montage of ells added on by various kings. The Royal Rout, a two-and-a-half-mile walk from the Royal Casle to Lazienki, and the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, honoring the courageous victims from the uprising in 1943 against the Nazi occupation, are both worthy distractions. And if you visit in late October, don't miss the International Jazz Festival: "Jazz Jamboree."
Visitors can reach KrakowPoland's old royal capital from the 11th to the 16th centuryvia a two-and-a-half hour train ride from Warsaw. The city dates back to the seventh century and was the only major Polish city to remain architecturally intact after WWIIone of the reasons it remains Poland's most-visited city. Check out the biggest Gothic sculpture in the world: Viet Stoss's altar in St. Mary's Church. Cycling remains a popular way to see the sites here (especially along the Vistula River), but come winter, there are obvious limitations. Choose one of the 50 basement pubs in Krakow's Old Town to sketch out tomorrow's itinerary.
Krakow runs ten buses per day 40 miles west to Auschwitz, the largest Nazi concentration camp (make sure to check the museum schedule as the closing times differ depending on the month).
The Tatras Mountains flank Poland's southern edge connected to Krakow by a 60mile train ride to Zacopane, the region's capital city. The Tartra are the highest range in the Carpathian Mountains and undoubtedly offer the region's paramount skiing. A funicular runs you right up 3,675-foot Mt. Gietwont, which towers over the small resort town. Hiking season in the Tatras lasts from May into September and ski season begins shortly after, around late November or early December (in the warmer months, check out availability on rafting trips through Dunajec Gorge). Zacopane accesses four major ski areas, and many smaller ones, but most local skiers will tell you that Mt. Kasprowy Wierch and Mt. Gubalowka offer the best pistes. Cross-country skiers will find snowy bliss on the Droga pod Reglami Trail or on the slopes of the Gubalowka and Cyrhla hills. For a real buzz, try paragliding in Koscieliska Valley. If that thrill is a bit too high, the valley has a multitude of caving options as well.
For additional information on Poland, visit the country's tourism website at www.polandtour.org
Catch the $3 morning bus to Poprad, Slovakia, on just the other side of the Tatras. From here, hop a train to Slovakia's capital, Bratislava. While tourism isn't very heavy during the fall months anywhere in central Europe, Slovakia sees even less tourist tread than Budapest and Prague put together. Much of the city has been bulldozed and remains frozen in concrete, but the old quarter maintains a Hapsburg Baroque style, and will offer an interesting window into what the Slovac part of the former Czechoslovia is like (they split peacefully in 1993).
Jump aboard a hydrofoil boat on the Danube River for a scenic route to Budapest, Hungary (tickets are considerably cheaper during the low season; click here for scheduling information). This capital city deserves at least a week, but for the transient visitor, there are a few spots you don't want to miss, and a Budapest Card offers access to a lot of sites in a few days. If you haven't worn yourself out yet with cathedrals, visit St. Stephen's Basilica where St. Stephen's mummified right hand is on display in the rear chapel. On that appetizing note, enjoy at least one bowl of goulash and some of the funkier Hungarian desserts such as gesztenyepüé (cooked chestnuts mashed, topped with whipped cream). The Soviet Army Memorial is one of a few of its kind remaining outside the U.S. Embassy. Near Heroes' Square, City Park houses Vajdahunyad Castle. Constructed in 1896, the castle has Gothic, Romanesque, and baroque architecture, symbolic of the various styles within Hungary. Although Budapest is a surprisingly young city (its history really begins in the late 19th century when Buda and Pest were merged), it preserves a nearby Roman aqueduct and several age-old customs: one of these being the therapeutic baths. Unwind during one of these last days abroad; less than ten bucks will get you into the baths and earn you a complimentary massage (click here for addition info). So while you may head home reluctantly, at least you'll leave on a languid note.
For additional information, visit the Budapest Tourism Website.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication