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Back Door Travel with Rick Steves

Europe in Transition

It’s a New Day—for Locals and Tourists Alike

Czech Young Girl
Before the fall of Communism, Czech freedom-lovers found inspiration at the graffiti-covered wall dedicated to John Lennon—an icon of Western freedom in the 1980s.

A few years ago my Polish friends were taking in their windshield wipers at night. Bomb craters appeared in front of Bulgarian train stations and no one talked about it. People ran their kitchen faucets so neighbors in their flimsy apartment flats couldn’t hear their conversations. Teenagers were allowed one rock concert a year—scheduled at the same time as Easter Mass. And train conductors checked my ticket before motioning me into the bathroom to change money at black-market rates.

Those days are long gone. Throughout Eastern Europe it’s a new morning—for locals and tourists alike. It’s amazing what a decade and a half of freedom can do.

Old World Romance

For travelers, the rise of Eastern Europe means we all get a second chance to relive the good old days of European tourism—full of color, surprise, and challenge. Exploring towns that spent decades in a Communist cocoon you’ll encounter weathered locals, intellectual priests, rickety dirt-cheap trolleys, befuddling symbols for the men’s and ladies’ rooms, and new food adventures--from menus where the price doesn’t matter. You can gulp the best beer in Europe for 50 cents a mug, munch a hearty plate of pierogi (Polish-style ravioli) for a buck, and enjoy classical music in palatial settings for $10.

While in Western Europe hallucinogenic absinthe is illegal and mead (or honey wine) is served only in touristy castle banquets, both are basic brews in Bohemia. Scruffy children spin crude wooden tops, babushkas bake doughnut-shaped breads, and Gypsies dance with their bears on street corners. On my recent visit to Kraków, I crossed paths with one of our tour groups. They griped, “You should have told us to bring more film!” That’s my kind of tour complaint.

New World Efficiency

Despite the Old World romance, the efficiency is New World, with an English-speaking younger generation and Internet cafés on nearly every corner.

The kids here don’t own computers—but it’s standing room only at the neighborhood computer club. Writing my email, I was surrounded by grade-schoolers playing the same games my teenager plays—a cacophony of explosions and chirpy computer-game tunes. While statues of raging Magyar warriors crushing 16th-century Turks are out on the main square, their adolescent descendants battle space-age bad guys indoors. It’s as if another group of villains—the Soviets—never existed.

One day we lunched at a village school, and then enjoyed a Q&A session with the middle-schoolers. It took a while to dawn on our gang of cold war baby boomers that these kids have no memory of Communism! To them, Hungary is a rapidly developing country, and they are excited about their new membership in the European Union. The shift from one generation to the next has been dramatic. While their grandparents may miss the cradle-to-grave “security” of the Communist era, their parents seem enthusiastic about capitalism and thankful for the world of opportunity in their children’s futures.

Throughout Eastern Europe, the new mixes it up with the old. The buxom babushka ladies are still collecting coins at the public toilets. But now they actually smile.

Charming Krakow

Krakow:
Poland's top tourist attraction, Krakow, promises to be "the next Prague."

The top stop in Poland is Kraków. And enjoying a drink on its marvelous main market square, you’ll know why. The biggest square in medieval Europe remains one of Europe's most gasp-worthy public spaces.

Knowing this is one of Europe’s least expensive countries, I chose the fanciest café on Kraków’s fanciest piece of real estate and ordered without even considering the price. Sinking deep into my chair and sipping deep into my drink, I ponder the bustle of Poland just a decade and a half after it won its freedom.

Vast as it is, the square has a folksy intimacy. It bustles with street musicians, fragrant flower stalls, cotton-candy vendors, loitering teenagers, businesspeople commuting by bike, gawking tourists, and the lusty coos of pigeons. This square is where Kraków lives (and visitors like me find themselves hanging out). To my left, activists protest Poland's EU membership. To my right, local teens practice break-dancing moves.

Kraków is the Boston of Poland: a captivating old-fashioned city buzzing with history, intriguing sights, colorful eateries, and college students. Even though the country's political capital moved from here to Warsaw 400 years ago, Kraków remains Poland's cultural and intellectual center.

Flat and easy to navigate, Kraków is made for walking. A greenbelt called the Planty, rings the Old Town, where the 13th-century protective walls and moat once stood (a great place for a stroll or bike ride).

With its diverse sights, Kraków can keep even a speedy tourist busy for three days. Most sights are inside the Planty park, except for the historic hilltop Wawel Castle grounds and the Jewish quarter in Kazimierz. You’ll want to side-trip to the notorious Auschwitz Concentration Camp and the Wieliczka Salt Mine—my vote for the deepest art gallery in Europe.