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Matt's Eastern European Vacation

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My wife, Jen, and I returned from a tour of Eastern Europe in July 1998. We traveled with a group of twenty other Americans through a tour arranged by Isram travel. Overall, the trip was wonderful and I'm so glad I was able to take it. I hope you enjoy reading about my travels and observations.

Saturday, July 11

Jen and I spent Friday night finishing up errands and making last minute purchases and didn't end up finishing our packing until after midnight. Since we needed to be at the airport by six a.m. on Saturday, we stayed awake all night. Saturday morning we drove to an airport parking lot located in the San Fernando Valley, approximately a half hour from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). This lot, called FlyAway, is operated by the airport authority and provides inexpensive parking and regular shuttles to the airport. The shuttle took us to the airport and we boarded our plane for Newark, New Jersey.

We arrived at Newark in the afternoon and spent the night at a hotel near the airport.

Sunday, July 12

We took an overnight flight on Czech Airlines to Prague, Czech Republic. The plane's "TV" monitors were equipped with a system called AirShow, which showed relief maps that indicate the plane's location and path. Additional screens showed altitude (35,000 feet), ground speed (approximately 600 miles per hour), distance to destination, estimated time to destination, and external temperature (as low as -50°F).

Though we had a night flight, for most of the flight there was a glow over the northern horizon as the light of the sun kept northern latitudes light for 24 hours a day. Flying over southern Germany, I could easily see how accurate Walter Christaller's Central Place Theory was. Tiny villages were at even distances from small towns and small towns were equidistant from larger cities. The city structure of not only German but other ancient European walking cities could easily be discerned.

Monday, July 13

Flying into Prague, I immediately noticed a mix of architecture types on the landscape. Traditional Czech homes sit near Communist-inspired apartment buildings (our tour guide pointed out that when someone sneezed in one apartment a neighbor can say "bless you" because the walls are so thin and lack insulation). The buildings remind me of dormitories at U.C. Davis. Factories dot the landscape, many of which are now shut down due to their pollution and the lack of need for them.

Arriving at the airport, almost all of our group quickly cleared passport control except for one person whose U.S. passport had recently expired. Though the police wanted to send her immediately back to the U.S., appeals led to the U.S. Embassy in Prague issuing a new passport while the passport-less individual waited in a holding area for most of the day.

We tour "golden" Prague, the most beautiful city on our trip. Our hotel is adjacent to the Vltava river and the Czech Bridge. We figure out that we flush a toilet by pressing a button on top of the toilet.

Tuesday, July 14

More Prague tours.

Initial observations include the lack of ice with soda, the tiny size of Coca-Cola bottles (I'm not a coffee drinker so my caffeine comes from Coke), and the predominance of great soups and goulash-style food.

Wednesday, July 15

A trip to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. We're all surprised that people live in the ex-camp but our tour guide tells us that the cheap rent keeps the infamous town populated.

Thursday, July 16

We visit the castle of Archduke Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 sparked World War I. He was an avid hunter and 300,000 hunting trophies line the walls of his castle. It is really a grueseome sight.

Friday, July 17

We return to Prague (Praha in Czech) Airport for our flight to Warsaw, Poland. As it turns out, First Class (known as Business Class in Europe) is located in the back of the plane and the seating arrangement is exactly the same. Those of us in coach have a good laugh.

We arrive in Warsaw and get an orientation tour of the city, of which over three-quarters was destroyed in World War II. Despite the fact that Warsaw is essentially a "new" city, the soot from Communist-era factories has turned all of the buildings in the downtown gray. The city's tallest building, the Palace of Culture and Science, was a gift from Stalin to the city. Years after the "gift," Stalin demanded that Warsaw pay for the building. Poles call it the "gift that Warsaw couldn't refuse."

We were all struck by the lack of smiles among Poles. We're already tired of CNN International and BBC News as the only English-language TV channels.

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