USTI NAD LABEM, Czech Republic
“You know where I got to go when I was a kid?" I asked my daughter as we climbed the steps to a 14th century castle overlooking the River Elbe and this worn, industrial city.
"Texas," I said.
It's hard to remember the Alamo when you're in Strekov Castle, built in 1316, a place that inspired Wagner's opera Tannhauser, with a view that Goethe called the most beautiful in Central Europe.
This was a pit stop on a remarkable journey through Europe. In 17 days, I visited nine countries and saw both well-known sites and forgotten amazements, ate write-your-mother food and consumed enough art and music to satisfy my soul. The reason for the odd route: research for a book about a Texan who walked backward around the world in 1931. I wanted to retrace his steps. My daughter Asher, 13, wanted to help.
And because Norwegian Air flights are so inexpensive ($469 per ticket from Fort Lauderdale to Paris, two meals included), Paris and Oslo became bookends to the linear hustle through Eastern Europe.
We caught an early Air France flight out of Charles de Gaulle Airport and arrived at Hamburg on the S1 train from the airport. We checked into Hotel Hafen (SeewartenstraBe 9, 20459 Hamburg), a historic maritime hotel that overlooks the port and the River Elbe. We rented bicycles and rode about a mile along the river to a canal-crossed district called HafenCity, where we spent several hours touring Miniatur Wunderland, billed as the largest miniature railway in the world. I threw in this novelty on a whim, but it's one of the most interesting things I've seen. Each continent is re-created in miniature. There's even a tiny Florida depicting the Everglades and Miami Beach.
We spent the rest of the day biking around Hamburg, admiring street art and the tall ships docked at the port. We also enjoyed memorable veggie burgers at Das Peace (Karollinenstrasse 14-15), a hipster joint with a robust vegetarian menu.
Two Air France tickets from Paris to Hamburg, $125; train from airport to port area, $27 for two tickets; Hotel Hafen, plus two 24-hour bicycle rentals, $152; Miniatur Wunderland, adults $15, kids $7.60.
We took the Deutsche Bahn train from Hamburg to Berlin and arrived at Alexanderplatz Station in central Berlin by midafternoon. The boutique Hotel Indigo (Berhard-WeiB-StraBe 5, 10178 Berlin) was a short walk from the station. Asher and I rented bicycles and, starting at Alexanderplatz, biked a self-guided tour of many of the important reconstructed historic sites in the city, including St. Mary's Church (built in 1294), the Nikolaiviertel neighborhood, St. Nicholas Church (the oldest in Berlin, built in 1230), Humboldt University and the eerie Bebelplatz, empty bookcases underground that memorialize the 1933 Nazi book burning. We continued to the Brandenburg Gate, a neoclassical monument the Nazis used as a party symbol, and the Tiergarten, and accidentally found the Reichstag, the house of the Imperial Diet of the German Empire, which mysteriously burned during Hitler's rise, in 1933.
Just before the sun set, we biked to the east side of the city and rode the length of the remaining section of the Berlin Wall, known as the Wall Museum East Side Gallery, stopping for photographs of the colorful, often provocative panels.
Train from Hamburg to Berlin, $29 for two tickets; Hotel Indigo, including bicycle rentals, $134.
For the drive south from Berlin, we rented a car from Europcar. I was a little nervous about driving on the Autobahn, but I've driven in Florida for a decade so there was nothing to worry about. Besides, before we left home I secured a one-year International Driving Permit from the Tampa AAA for $20. I also needed vignettes, windshield stickers that indicate you've paid the road tax, for driving in other countries; I bought one for the Czech Republic from a tourism shop near the Europcar facility ($14 for 10 days) and the others at convenience stores on the well-marked borders of Austria ($10.50 for 10 days) and Hungary ($11.55 for a week).
The drive directly to Dresden took barely two hours, and we checked into the stately Westin Bellevue on the north bank of the River Elbe. The hotel itself was beautiful, with views of the river and a great lawn behind the property. But the rooms, large by most European standards, felt dusty and outdated.
We couldn't get a reservation for Caroussel, a Michelin one-star restaurant in Dresden, but we did enjoy a homey meal of veal and vegetable crepes at Café Schinkelwache (Theaterplatz 2). We spent the evening walking around the breathtaking city center, which was in ruins after a surprise Allied bombing raid during World War II but has been rebuilt. The old city's Semperoper opera house; the Baroque Zwinger palace; the stunning Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden's foremost landmark; and Altmarkt Square, the heart of Dresden city life, are all a short walk from the Westin.
Europcar rental, $706; international driving permit from Tampa AAA, $20; the Westin Bellevue, including parking, $162.
Prague, Czech Republic
Asher and I took two detours on the drive to Prague, turning two hours into three. But the diversions were worth the time. We visited the Strekov Castle, then pulled off in the charming Central Bohemian town of Melnik, where we walked the narrow streets, ate fresh ice cream and climbed to the top of the observation tower at Saints Peter and Paul Church, one of the oldest churches in Bohemia, to see the confluence of the Labe and Vltava rivers.
In Prague, we checked into Hotel Waldstein (Valdstejnske nam. 6), a worn but wonderful 14th century boardinghouse close to the Prague Castle, the statue-lined St. Charles Bridge and Old Town Square. We were happy to learn that our night in Prague was the summer solstice and we were in for some Bohemian magic. We joined a large group at the base of the Old Town Bridge Tower and watched the sun pass the tower and set above the tomb of St. Wenceslas, then emerge from the apse of St. Vitus' Cathedral at Prague Castle to set a second time.
Admittance for two to Strekov Castle, $20; admittance for two to Saints Peter and Paul Church, Melnik, $10; Hotel Waldstein, parking included, $126.
Our time in Vienna felt short because we did some laundry at the surprisingly spacious flat we rented through Airbnb.com. But once we got outdoors, we ventured into Old Town Vienna on a self-guided walking tour of government buildings and historic churches, and marveled at two in particular: the Gothic Stephansdom, the most important religious building in Vienna, and the Baroque Peterskirche, or St. Peter's church, which was modeled after St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Dozens of groups of young people had gathered around sundown at the Burggarten, a contoured park near the national library, to talk and listen to music. After dark, we followed the sound of a beautiful voice down the Kohlmarkt, one of the oldest streets in the city's shopping zone, and around a corner to where a plump street musician played the classical guitar and sang. It seemed fitting that the city that inspired Mozart and Beethoven would offer up a most beautiful after-dark opera from a lowly character in an empty storefront.
Apartment via Airbnb.com, $60; parking, $5 for 24 hours.
I was worried about taking Asher farther (unnecessarily so, as it would turn out), so she flew out of Budapest and met her mother in Fort Lauderdale without issue. Meanwhile, I ditched the car at the airport and pushed through a region less impacted by tourism. I spent the evening relaxing at Anabelle Bed & Breakfast (Garibaldi utca 1), two blocks from the Danube between the Chain Bridge and Parliament building, then ventured out the next morning for souvenirs at Tisza Cipo (Karoly korut 1), a shoe shop that sells the once-hated brand of Communist kicks. Out of fashion for years, the line was revived in 2003 and has become very popular and pricey. I climbed aboard the nearby Budapest Eye at Erzsebet Square for a better view of the city of spires, then walked a few miles for a midtrip massage at the Gellert Hotel Spa and Bath across the river in hilly Buda. A relaxing swim in the famous hot-springs baths prepared me for what was to be a long train ride to the next destination.
Tisza Cipo, $127; Budapest Eye, $10.61; massage (50 minutes) and bath entry, $80 plus tip; Anabelle Bed & Breakfast, $98.
Leaving the grand Budapest Keleti railway station before sundown gave me the chance to watch a few hours of rural Hungarian scenery blur by as we sped toward Romania, but I slept all the way through Transylvania in a sleeper car on the Ister Night Train. The 17-hour trip was interrupted twice for passport checks, but I was otherwise undisturbed.
As soon as I arrived in the Romanian capital I dumped my backpack at an apartment rental and hustled to the delightful Lacrimi si Sfinti, a hip peasant-themed restaurant in the oldest part of town. The menu was so playful and interesting that I sneaked one out after a sausage sampling and some rooster jelly with toast. I caught a recital featuring famous violinist Alexandru Tomescu at the Sala Auditorium, then stumbled onto an outdoor orchestra concert in a nearby park. After dark, deep inside the popular Lipscani district, I found an outdoor courtyard ringed by food trucks and listened to a rock band play a live set. Before heading back to the apartment, I drifted down the street to behold the 15th century Curtea Veche palace (where Vlad "The Impaler" once ruled) and the giant Communist-era Palatul Parlamentului government building, said to be the second-largest building in the world.
Ister Night Train, ticket plus sleeper car pass, $166; Lacrimi si Sfinti, $35.54; ticket to recital at Sala Auditorium, $31; Airbnb.com apartment, $53.
A two-hour trip by air-conditioned van and I was across the border in Ruse, the fifth-largest city in Bulgaria. On the walk to my rental apartment, I enjoyed a small feast in a wild plum thicket beside the road. Ruse is somewhat rural, but it was the first town in Bulgaria to have films, streetlights and weather forecasts. The charming town has for years been influenced by Bucharest, and while rough around the edges, I found the locals friendly and welcoming. On an evening walk along the river, I randomly stumbled onto a spectacular celebration. The bank was packed with hundreds of locals dancing while an orchestra played from a riverboat. When the music stopped, I wandered to a nearby restaurant, the Danube, snacked on salty fried minnows and washed it down with Kamenitza 1881, a pale Bulgarian lager.
Van from Bucharest to Ruse, $11; apartment rental, $33; Danube minnows and a beer, $6.
The tiny town of Yablanitsa is not a scheduled stop on the commuter bus between Ruse and Sofia, but a helpful college student persuaded the driver to let me off. My hosts for the night picked me up near the highway and drove me the few miles up to their mountaintop spread, the start of the best experience of the trip. Yavor Pavlov and his father, Pavka, run a small farm and the Yablanitsa Balkan Huts, a handful of rental yurts on the property. The yurts are cozy when it's cold (eight months of the year) and cool in the summer, when the wildflowers explode and the mountain swarms with life. I took a long hike and ate wild strawberries along the trail. The lovely setting, overlooking about 30 small towns spread across the valley, could barely compete with the charm of the proprietors. Throughout the evening, Pavka, a gregarious man who spoke no English, routinely bounded away from the table and brought back homemade offerings — pickles, white cheese, cabbage slaw, rabbit sausage. And Yavor kept us entertained with American blues music from his collection. We closed the night passing around a bottle of Pavka's rakia, homemade fruit wine, under a blanket of the best stars I've ever seen.
Bus from Ruse to Yablanitsa, $12; Yablanitsa Balkan Huts, $44; car ride up the mountain, plus dinner and breakfast, $25.
The Bulgarian capital city is rich in violent history so I joined a guided, free walking tour and visited buildings like the Neo-Byzantine St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, said to house the largest collection of Orthodox icons in Europe, and St. Nedelya Church, site of the attempted assassination of Tsar Boris III, who was spared because he arrived late. Noteworthy are the yellow-brick streets near the Communist buildings, the eerie Statue of Sofia and the subterranean ruins of the ancient Roman city of Serdica, which are surrounded by Sofia's subway system. I rounded up a good dinner of tomatoes, feta, fresh bread and olives from the outdoor market along the northern end of boulevard Stefan Stambolov.
Bus from Yablanitsa to Sofia, $14; apartment rental, $44.
I landed in Turkey and was hustled to a rental apartment in the Sultanhamet neighborhood by a driver arranged by my host, important because I didn't have to stress about finding a fair taxi at the chaotic airport. The apartment overlooked the Bosphorus Strait and Sea of Marmara and sat just a few blocks from the Sultan Ahmet Camii (the Blue Mosque) and the Hagia Sophia Mosque, two popular tourist attractions where daily calls to prayer fill the air. I wandered the city on foot both days, visiting several intense bazaars and antique malls, and crossed the strait by ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul, which has more modern buildings and a rich nightlife. The incessant pleas by shopkeepers and gimmicks to get you in their stores can be grating, but I learned to keep my head down and avoid eye contact.
I also found a delightful Cretan restaurant called Giritli, which offers a prix-fixe meal of 16 hot and cold meze dishes (think herbed feta, sea bass ceviche, grilled octopus) followed by several fish entrees and a dessert of Turkish-style doughnuts with ice cream. The meal was like a culinary romp on its own, and the bottomless wine made it a steal.
Turkish Airline flight from Sofia to Istanbul, $131; apartment rental for two nights, $86; Giritli Restoran, $47 per person.
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I returned home through Oslo, Norway, and appreciated the orderliness and natural beauty of the city, which helped me relax and unwind. Getting there from Istanbul on Norwegian cost $172, and the flight back to Fort Lauderdale was $355.
A few tips, then, if you go: Swapping currencies can be confusing, but I found that my MasterCard and Visa with no foreign fees were accepted almost everywhere. ATMs for cash withdrawals were plentiful as well. Get Google's Translate app, which allows voice, text and even image translation, and bring along extra battery power and a foreign outlet converter. Wear good walking shoes, and pack light, in a comfy backpack — almost mandatory on a trip like this.