Eastern Europe’s im­prove­ments spur sight­see­ing

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - TRAVEL - RICK STEVES

The his­tory, art and cul­ture of Eastern Europe are of­ten com­pli­cated for Western­ers. But it’s eas­ier than ever to en­joy this area, where there is plenty of good sight­see­ing news in its lead­ing cities.

Prague is buzzing with sight­see­ing changes. Af­ter a seven-year ren­o­va­tion, the Na­tional Mu­seum re­opened with eight per­ma­nent ex­hibits cov­er­ing top­ics from evo­lu­tion to the Czech Repub­lic’s 20th cen­tury. Ad­mis­sion to the mu­seum, which tow­ers over the city at the top of Wences­las Square, in­cludes ac­cess to its cupola — with great views over the “golden city of a hun­dred spires.”

An­other fun op­tion for fine Prague views is to ride the re­cently launched tram num­ber 23. Like the pop­u­lar tram num­ber 22, it runs from the cen­ter of town, across the river and up the hill to Prague Cas­tle — but with nos­tal­gic 1960s-era cars.

One thing that may not be on view in Prague is Al­fons Mucha’s Slav Epic, the artist’s 20-can­vas ode to the his­tory of his peo­ple. Af­ter decades on dis­play in an ob­scure Czech town, in 2011 the paint­ings were fi­nally taken to Prague’s Veletrzni Palace. But af­ter four years, they were re­moved and sub­se­quently toured Ja­pan. At this time, the paint­ings still don’t have a per­ma­nent home, and their fate is in the hands of Prague’s elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

With its youth­ful en­ergy and Old World feel, the Pol­ish city of Krakow is of­ten re­ferred to as “the next Prague” and it’s be­com­ing even more en­joy­able. The em­bank­ments along the long-ig­nored Vis­tula River have be­come sprawl­ing parks, lively with fam­i­lies and beach bars in the sum­mer. A for­mer tobacco fac­tory has been turned into the Ty­tano Dolne Mlyny Cul­tural Com­plex, fea­tur­ing fun bars and restau­rants while re­tain­ing a run-down and funky edge.

Schindler’s Fac­tory Mu­seum, also in Krakow, seems busier ev-

ery year — but smart trav­el­ers can beat ticket lines by book­ing an en­try time at the in­for­ma­tion of­fice (in the Cloth Hall in the Old Town’s main square). The nearby Auschwitz-Birke­nau Me­mo­rial — Europe’s most pow­er­ful look at a con­cen­tra­tion camp — re­quires reser­va­tions. As time slots can fill up months ahead, trav­el­ers should book as early as pos­si­ble. If a given date is full, try the fol­low­ing: Book a slot on a for­eign-lan­guage tour (then split off and see the sight on your own); pay for an ex­cur­sion through a Krakow-based tour op­er­a­tor (con­sider seekrakow.com, or dis­cov­er­cra­cow.com); or try show­ing up first thing in the morn­ing (the mu­seum opens at 7:30 a.m.).

Other Pol­ish cities are also busy re­vi­tal­iz­ing their sight­see­ing and so­cial zones. Gdansk’s Mu­seum of the Sec­ond World War opened in 2017, pro­vid­ing a poignant look at the war’s im­pact on Poland. In War­saw, a brick mar­ket hall from 1906 is now a mod food hall called Hala Koszyki — the best place to sam­ple War­saw’s con­tem­po­rary cui­sine. The Mu­seum of War­saw has re­opened in four ad­join­ing town­houses on the Old Town Square, of­fer­ing in­ter­est­ing in­sight into Poland’s cap­i­tal city.

An­other me­trop­o­lis in tran­si­tion is Bu­dapest, Hun­gary, where con­struc­tion con­tin­ues on an am­bi­tious Mu­seum Quar­ter in City Park. Mod­ern struc­tures are be­ing built to house sev­eral mu­se­ums, in­clud­ing the Na­tional Gallery and new House of Hun­gar­ian Mu­sic. Both are slated to open in the next few years.

With the growth in Danube River boat tours, tick­ets can sell out for the river­side Hun­gar­ian Par­lia­ment in Bu­dapest (book in ad­vance at par­la­ment.hu). With­out an ad­vance ticket, trav­el­ers can try to buy same-day tick­ets at the vis­i­tors cen­ter ticket desk. On busy days, if any tick­ets are left, they’re likely to be for morn­ing and late-af­ter­noon tours.

For years, a stir­ring mon­u­ment to Hun­gar­ian politi­cian and an­ti­com­mu­nist hero Imre Nagy has stood near the Par­lia­ment, where he has sym­bol­i­cally kept a watch­ful eye on the govern­ment. But late last year, the statue was re­moved by the con­ser­va­tive Fidesz govern­ment, which views Nagy as an ide­o­log­i­cal en­emy.

A cou­ple of hours west of Bu­dapest, the Aus­trian cap­i­tal of Vi­enna is also hard at work im­prov­ing its mu­seum in­fras­truc­ture. Sev­eral Vi­enna mu­se­ums are closed at least un­til 2020 for ma­jor ren­o­va­tions: the Wien Mu­seum of city his­tory on Karl­splatz, the Academy of Fine Arts Paint­ing Gallery and the Sig­mund Freud Mu­seum. Dur­ing the Freud mu­seum ren­o­va­tions, a tem­po­rary mu­seum nearby will dis­play some ar­ti­facts at a re­duced en­trance fee.

To avoid lines at Vi­enna’s Schon­brunn Palace and Hof­burg Im­pe­rial Apart­ments, trav­el­ers can buy a Sisi combo-ticket, which lets you en­ter the palace with­out a re­served en­try time. It can be bought in ad­vance on­line (schoen­brunn.at) or in per­son at the Im­pe­rial Fur­ni­ture Col­lec­tion in cen­tral Vi­enna, where ticket lines are short­est.

Some trav­el­ers think “been there, done that” when it comes to West­ern Europe, so the steady im­prove­ment in Eastern Europe’s sight­see­ing scene is ex­cit­ing news for Europhiles.

Rick Steves’ Europe/CAMERON HE­WITT

Vi­enna’s Schon­brunn Palaceis a world-class sight with crowds and lines to match, but those with Sisi combo-tick­ets can en­ter with­out a re­served en­try time.


At Gdansk’s new Mu­seum of the Sec­ond World War, vis­i­tors walk through re­con­struc­tions of the Pol­ish streets where the war took its toll.

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