Browsing Posts tagged Czech Republic

travel surprises festivals

“I like going on group tours because there are no surprises,” a traveler I met once told me. “I know the whole travel itinerary in advance and someone else is taking care of all the arrangements.”

Oh, but how many things does she miss by aiming for a trip with no surprises?

Travel surprises can be negative things if it’s your flight getting delayed or a bus breaking down. But travel surprises can be beautiful, wonderful things if you stumble upon something great you were not expecting.

Here’s a photo of a surprise in Cusco the first time I visited. We had no plans for the morning and were just wandering. Thank goodness, or we never would have discovered this.

festival Cusco Peru

Or this.

Peru festival

Coming back from the Colca Canyon on another trip to Peru, I had thankfully left enough wiggle room in the schedule that I didn’t have to whiz by Chivay where this festival was going on. The whole town was decked out. And dancing.

Colca Canyon festival

Speaking of dancing, a semi-organized biking trip I did in the Czech Republic had a nothing-to-do day tacked onto the end. Some vacation-time-starved people would have probably nixed that and gotten back to their jobs faster. I stayed and saw this couple and many others in traditional festival clothes dancing in the street.

Moravia tour

In Puerto Vallarta one day I had absolutely nothing on the agenda. So I discovered this—people dressed like Aztec royalty, on their way to the city’s main Catholic church. (?!?!)

Mexican parade

Just a few days ago, wandering around Guanajuato with no set plans, I followed the sound of a tin whistle and stumbled upon these kids.

Guanajuato street festival kids

There’s a video from a similar one when I was living there a few years ago, a block from our apartment.

Here’s a 23-second video from Guanajuato that makes me smile every time I see it.

No surprises? Why aim for that?

If you want color in your photos and color in your experiences, leave time in the travel schedule to find the surprises.

Despite using the euro, Slovakia is a good enough value that it’s taking another country’s place for the Europe section of the next edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations.

I used to think that the Czech Republic and Slovakia split up after the fall of the Soviet Union because of big national pride issues. In reality, it was mostly the politicians that wanted the split. People I’ve met on both sides of the line say had it been put to a referendum, the split would have failed miserably. The citizens of the two countries still think of themselves as one, but this way there were double the number of jobs for the people in power.

Unfortunately for Slovakia, much of the big business money and tourism stayed on the Czech side. There was already more industry there as the Slovak side was more agricultural. And the Czechs had Prague, which was 10 times more interesting to visit than Bratislava. So Slovakia is like the plain sister who is constantly overshadowed by her flashy older one.

Typical wine prices in euros: 2.5 to 6.5

The good news for you is, that makes it a better value for travelers overall. Bratislava has somewhat higher restaurant costs because of it being a river cruise stop and part of some coach tours, but it’s still far less expensive than Prague. The real values are in the lesser-visited but more interesting eastern part of the country, anchored by the beautiful small city of Kosice, pictured at the top. The whole main drag is pedestrian-only all day every day and it’s filled with cafes and restaurants with a view of the opera house and cathedral. From here you can get to dozens of interesting places, including the High Tatras Mountains, in 1-3 hours. Castles, great manor houses, caverns, monasteries, wineries, national parks with good hiking, skiing, rafting, cycling, and lots more.

Everything is priced in euros, but I’m doing the math for my fellow yanks to put it in dollars, at the current rate of 1 euro = $1.30.

Accommodation in Slovakia
Not many backpackers make it here—heck not many travelers from the west period do—so outside of the capital there’s not the bustling backpacker infrastructure you find in the northern Czech Republic or Budapest with dozens of hostels to choose from and day trip tours going out regularly. So lodging tends to be a better deal for mid-range travelers than shoestring ones as almost nothing is over $100 per night. It’s far easier if you’re a couple and not a single as hostels are rare. Camping is easy and cheap though and around the hiking areas you can rent a simple mountain hut for two for under 10 euros/$13.

Camping at Slovakian Paradise national park – $8 one person with tent, $12 two.
Mountain hut here or in High Tatras mountains – $6-$10 per person
Hostel bed in Bratislava – $17 – $25 per person
2- to 4-star hotel or pension – $26 – $70 double, usually incl. breakfast
Apartment for four with kitchen – $69 to $90
Best hotel in Kosice – often $120 standard double (Doubletree by Hilton)

Typical pension prices in Kosice

Food and Drink Prices in Slovakia

This is where the real bargains are. You can eat well and drink well (the wine and beer are both excellent) for a fraction of western Europe prices. This is one of those countries where a soda can cost more than a beer or wine, as can coffee. You can drink the tap water though.
Set meal 3-course lunch $3 to $8
Soups – $1 to $2.50
Main dishes – $1.50 to $6
500ml beer in a bar – $1 (happy hour) to $2.50 (nice place), average in the middle
500ml beer in a store – $0.60 to $1
Good bottle of wine in bar/restaurant – $6 to $12
Good bottle of wine in a store – majority $3.50 to $8, premium $8 to $20
Glass of house wine in a bar/restaurant – $1 to $2.60
Shot of local fruit brandy – $0.60 to $1.60
500ml of local honey – $5 to $7
Kilo (2.2 pounds) of seasonal produce – $0.75 to $2
Local cheese 100 grams – $0.40 to $2
Rolls and baguettes – $0.20 to $0.90

Transportation

There’s not enough demand here for any kind of tourist shuttle system, so bring a phrase book and a map or guidebook to figure out where you’re going. Trains cover most of where you’d want to go, but sometimes you’ll need a bus.
Long train ride (Bratislava to Kosice) – $24 2nd class, $35 1st class, 1/2 price for students
Short train ride (Kosice to High Tatras hiking point) – $8 2nd class, $12 first class
City bus ticket – $0.60 to $1
Short Intercity bus ticket – $2.25 for 40 kms
Long Intercity bus ticket – $22 for 400 kms
Taxi ride – $0.80 to $1.30 per km, Bratislava center to airport $14 to $18

What I got for 2 euros at the supermarket

Other costs in Slovakia

Some attraction places hit you with an extra charge for using your camera, so either leave it in a locker or be stealthy with a phone.
Admission to castles, manors, and castles – $2.60 to $6.50
Admission to monasteries & churches – free to $3.90
This boat trip on the border with Poland – $13
Bike rental in same town – $6.20 half day
One-day ski pass – $17 to $36

For some reason this Euro26 card seems to be more commonly known here than the ISIC card, but either should get you a discount of 50% off most attractions and trains if you’re a student.

I can’t be everywhere checking out the current prices for travelers, so occasionally a wandering writer will stop by with an update. Today we’ve got a report from travel writer Sharon McDonnell, who has been spending some time in Prague. Take it away Sharon!

Prague isn’t the bargain it used to be—and is decidedly more expensive than the rest of the Czech Republic—but values can still be found in one of Europe’s most beautiful and magical cities if you follow a few basic tips. The reward is great: check out that dreamy skyline of steeples, spires and castles from the statue-lined Charles Bridge.

A fast, efficient and cheap transportation system of tram, bus, and metro covers the majority of the city and outskirts. This means you can reach major tourist sights in a few minutes, even if you’re not staying in Old Town or Lesser Town.

Here are some sample costs for travelers in Prague. All are in U.S. dollars, but Prague accepts Czech korunas and Euros. In the past couple years, a dollar has been worth between 17 and 21 korunas and is close to 20 as this post goes live.

Transportation
– Bus from airport to Old Town, Lesser Town, New Town (#119 to Metro Line A to Dejvicka metro station; buy ticket at airport metro booth) – $1.50. Large luggage costs an extra 50 cents for each piece.
– Express bus from airport to Main Train Station – $2.50
– Taxi from the airport to Prague Old Town – $26
– Prague tram, bus or metro ride – $1 (good for 30 minutes and all transfers), or $1.50 (good for 90 minutes and transfers).

Food & Drink
– Beer in a locals’ bar or restaurant – $1.80
– Beer in a tourist bar or restaurant – $3.60
– Meal of the day lunch in a budget restaurant – $5.20 (one course), $10.50 (3 courses). Food tip: Bread usually costs extra in restaurants – 40 cents. If you don’t want bread, tell the waiter when you order.
– Street food: sausages, $1.80. Hot mulled wine $1.50-$2. Fried cheese sandwich with mayo in a hamburger bun (raved about by Anthony Bourdain in his TV show No Reservations), $2.60. Trdelnik, fried doughnut-like pastries sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and baked on the spot, $2. Halusky, potato gnocchi with cheese, bacon and sauerkraut, $6.30.

Lodging
– Hostel bed in Prague, $5-$29 in a single-sex dorm of 5-10 beds. Some are open 24 hours, have pubs and free WiFi.
– Budget Prague hotel room with private bath, maid service, breakfast, hot water – $55 (spring/fall)
– 3-star equivalent hotel – $80 (spring/fall)

Best tips on saving money in Prague
Stay outside the popular touristed areas of Old Town (Stare Mesto) and Lesser Town (Mala Strana), the neighborhood below Prague Castle and across the Charles Bridge from Old Town.

Best thing for free in Prague
Christmas markets in Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square, Republic Square and downtown walking zone, which offer dozens of vendors selling gifts, tree ornaments, toys, food and beverages, and daily afternoon/evening concerts and folk dance troupes (Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square). Most open one month before Christmas and end January 1.

Worst rip-off
Taxis. Ask fare before stepping into taxi. Avoid taxis waiting in front of main tourist sights and train stations, who up their rates for tourists. Make sure it’s a registered taxi, with “taxi” in big letters and company, rate and license number posted on doors. Luckily, there’s no reason to take a taxi in Prague unless you’re in a huge hurry.

* Photos courtesy of Czech Tourism. Visit their site for info on what’s happening in the city and useful articles like a rundown on Czech brewery tours.

To find a deal on a hostel, try Hostelbookers or HostelWorld. For discounted hotels, check Hotwire or make a bid on Priceline.

I’ve read a few articles and blog posts lately complaining how overrun some places have become (like Ankor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance) and then making the false logical leap that this there aren’t any undiscovered places left in the world. We’re all on the same circuit, all flying to places millions of people have experienced already.

This is bunk.

A week from today I’m taking a trip to Morelia in Mexico? Never heard of it? You’re not alone. My Lonely Planet Mexico book calls it “the coolest place you’ve never been.” From everything I’ve seen, it’s a fantastic place to visit, but I’ll probably be able to count on one hand the number of gringos I see over the weekend. When I went to awesome Zacatecas last year, I ran into two. They lived there.

In the past few weeks I’ve talked to four people who have been to Salta, Argentina but did not make it through the canyon to laid-back Cafayate. There are no real “sites” in Cafayate except the canyon outside of town, so many tourists give it a pass. So it’s mellow, sleepy, and feels undiscovered, despite the proliferation of wineries all around town. There are a dozen little pueblos in that region that are in dramatic settings but they get even fewer visitors.

Sure, Machu Picchu, Cusco, and the Sacred Valley are jam-packed with visitors now. Take a trek to Choquequirao though and your group will have the grand ruins to itself. Or just do a trek in the Sacred Valley to places where the tour buses aren’t stopping. Or head to northern Peru and gaze at 5,000-year-old ruins in solitude.

The other Czech Republic

Prague is completely jammed with tourists, especially in the summer, but it’s a whole different story in the Moravia region in the south. Same with Eger in Hungary or Poland away from Warsaw and Krakow. Even in France and Italy, if you take your time instead of zipping around checking off boxes, you can stay in places nobody you know has heard of (except maybe Rick Steves).

Escaping the travel crowds is no harder now than it was 20 years ago. Two decades from now you may be reading about Morelia, Cafayate, and Eger all over the place and you may sigh, “Oh, it was so much better when…” But there will be awesome places not swarming with tourists that are still off the radar. Go enjoy them.

If you happen to be near a good U.S. newsstand, pick up a copy of the always-excellent Imbibe magazine. In this month’s issue you’ll see an intriguing story title on the cover: Wine Country Bike Tours. Hmmmm, sounds fun, right?

Well, if you don’t want to pick up the pretty print version, you can see my article in online form here: Slow Ride – American Bike Tours on Two Wheels.  It gives you the rundown on four bike-friendly wine regions in the U.S., places where you don’t have to be a Spandex-wearing triathlete with bulging calf muscles to pedal from winery to winery. (Though there’s nothing wrong with that…)

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may have noticed a theme here. I wrote about Missouri’s wine country on two wheels recently and also wrote about biking through the wine country of Moravia on this blog and in Imbibe. Oh yeah, and biking through Hungary’s wine district. And there was that story about riding a bike to vineyards in Argentina

What I can say. I’m a lush but I stay in shape.