Stopping at select sites on a Eurail tour of Austria, Hungary, and Romania

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by Beth Habian, Features Editor

It sounded like the perfect itinerary to me. We would begin in Vienna, a city I had been dying to see but had not yet had the pleasure of visiting. We would continue to Hungary, which is emerging as a fashionable travel destination while still exuding Old World charm, and end in Romania, my father’s boyhood home, before returning to Vienna for my flight back to the States.

Okay, maybe it was a little ambitious for a 9-day trip (most press trips are arranged to get in as much as possible in the shortest amount of time), but it was a nice introduction to each destination.

Vienna

While we would not be visiting some of Vienna’s more familiar sites on this trip (I’ll have to wait to see “Steffl”), we were able to hit a few highlights in the limited amount of time we had there.

A short walk from Hotel das Tyrol took us to the famous Naschmarkt, crammed with vendors selling an amazing variety of fruit, vegetables and snacks. As it was November, there were several stalls offering Sturm, the partially fermented juice from the first grape harvest of the season. What I wouldn’t give to have such a wonderful market in my tiny hometown!

After wandering through the market and the surrounding area, I was ready for lunch. I enjoyed a particularly tasty Thai vegetable dish (not a traditional Viennese offering but wonderful, nonetheless) at Do & Co Albertina (Albertinaplatz 1; www.doco.com), one of a number of Do & Co restaurants that can be found in the city. The restaurant boasts an eclectic menu and an elegantly appointed interior. Entrées average $20.

The large-scale reproductions of portraits by Egon Schiele that grace the restaurant’s walls proved a nice segue to the exhibition we would visit after lunch at the museum itself.

A bit of art

The Albertina Museum holds one of the world’s largest collections of graphic art, including over 60,000 drawings and more than one million prints. As only a fraction of the works can be on display at any one time, the museum offers a number of temporary exhibits throughout the year.

During my visit, featured artists included Gustav Klimt, cofounder of the Viennese Secession group, and Expressionist painter Egon Schiele. An entire room full of works by Schiele was overwhelming, for me, as I’d always been a bit disturbed by the gaunt, oddly angular figures often depicted in his work. However, I came to have a greater appreciation for the artist the next day when I was introduced to some of his landscapes at the Leopold Museum (Museumplatz 1; www.leopoldmuseum.org), which houses the world’s largest collection of works by this controversial painter.

Located in the MuseumsQuartier, a cultural complex that marries Baroque buildings with modern structures housing a variety of art venues, the Leopold is the perfect place to spend a few hours — not too big and the collection is nicely exhibited. A coat check and lockers are available to allow visitors to explore the museum’s contemporary collection unencumbered.

Lunch that afternoon was at Halle (phone 523 70 01), a trendy restaurant/café located next to the Leopold. Housed in the emperor’s loge of the former winter riding hall, the café serves a variety of fresh dishes — from soups, salads and sandwiches to a lunch special that changes daily (€7) — and offers outdoor seating from May to September. The food was very enjoyable and the service quick and friendly.

Then it was off to the Westbahnhof for our less-than-three-hour train journey to Budapest.

Hungary

We arrived at Budapest’s Keleti pályaudvar (Eastern station) and transferred directly to our hotel, NH Budapest. After checking into our rooms, we rushed downstairs for a trip out to the Hungarian Railway Museum (www.vasuttortenetipark.hu).

Departing from Nyugati pályaudvar (Western station), a 19th-century iron-and-glass station that was designed by the Eiffel company and harkens back to an elegant past, we boarded a vintage diesel shuttle train (which runs from April to October) that would transport us to the museum. For anyone with breathing difficulties or motion sickness, I wouldn’t recommend this transfer, as the diesel fumes pouring into the car made for a rather unpleasant journey. Luckily, it was a short trip!

The museum can also be reached via the No. 30 bus from Keleti station, by car or by bicycle.

The museum, built on the site of the former Budapest North Depot of the Hungarian State Railways, has 50 engines on display, some of which are used for nostalgic trips scheduled throughout the year by MÁV Nostalgia, Ltd. (More information about these trips is available on the museum’s website, or phone/fax +36 1 269 5242.)

The museum park also offers interactive opportunities for visitors, including driving a steam engine, operating a handcar or riding on the still-operational train turntable.

I enjoyed a wonderful dinner there aboard one of the restored train cars. The soup, especially, was fabulous. (The museum park is closed from mid-December to mid-March.)

Hortobágy National Park

The next day included a visit to Hortobágy National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The unique terrain of the pustza, a vast area of plains and wetlands, is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species. To preserve the integrity of the land, there are four areas designated for visitors: the Nyírölapos-Nyárijárás pustza, the Hortobágy fishpond, the marshes of Egyek-Pusztakócs and the Tisza Lake nature trail. The trails are marked with information boards explaining the importance of each habitat.

While November was not the best time for a visit to the park, we did explore its visitor center, which provided a nice overview of the flora and fauna that can be found in this 82,000-hectare area throughout the year. (At the time of my visit, they were working on English translations for all of the exhibits.)

Entrance cards can be purchased at the Tourinform office in Hortobágy village (4071 Pásztormúzeum, Pet˝ofi tér 1; www.tourinform.hu) or at the HNP directorate in Debrecen (Sumen u. 2; fax +36 52 410-645).

The finer things

We continued to Tarcal, located just outside Tokaj in a region noted for the quality of its wines, for an overnight stay at the Gróf Degenfeld Castle Hotel (fax +36 47 580 401 or visit www.hotelgrofdegenfeld.hu or www.slh.com/grofdegenfeld). A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, this is a really beautiful hotel in a lovely vineyard setting, and I would have loved to have spent a few days there just relaxing. Rooms range from HUF19,500 to HUF32,000, or $102-$170, depending on size and season.

While our dinner there wasn’t spectacular, the wine offered was. Produced on site, all wine is prepared using a reduction method — only stainless-steel tanks, no barrels — giving the wine a fresh, crisp, fruity taste. I couldn’t resist taking some home, even though adding the extra weight to my luggage was not ideal for rail travel!

Along the Danube

While we didn’t have much of a chance to see the city of Budapest itself, we did get to visit the Fisherman’s Bastion, which offers a nice view over the city — a great spot for picture taking.

One of my favorite excursions was to Neszmély, nestled along the banks of the Danube River. After a welcome glass of pálinka, a distilled spirit made from fruit, we warmed up at the fire pit in an outdoor pavilion and enjoyed a taste of the local specialties (the cabbage-onion pastry was really nice). After being presented with a gift of the local bread, which was baked in the outdoor ovens there, we continued to the nearby Hilltop Neszmély Wine Hotel & Restaurant (phone +36 34 550 440 or visit www.hilltop.hu) for lunch.

Overlooking the Danube, which on this day was actually blue, the Hilltop presented an incredible meal, each course accompanied by a different wine selection. The star of the table was the catfish “goulash” (HUF800, or about $4.25) — fantastic!

On to Romania

That night we transferred back to Budapest to catch the overnight train to Sighis¸oara, Romania. While the trains we had taken throughout our journey so far were comfortable, clean and modern, traveling on this train was not the highlight of my trip.

Each private sleeper cabin was small, which was okay (although those couples in our group who were sharing a compartment found them quite tight with luggage), but the major problem for me was getting some sleep.

Our train car was filled with smoke all night, courtesy of our chain-smoking steward, so I slept with the window open — a bit chilly in November. At 3 a.m. I was awoken by Hungarian border control for a passport check, followed about an hour later by Romanian passport control, then Customs. With an hour lost during a change in time zones, I was exhausted by the time we pulled into the station around 9:00.

If I were to do it over again, I might make this journey during the day — there are several daily departures from Budapest (timetable information can be found at www.elvira.hu).

We were scheduled for a walking tour of Sighi¸soara’s medieval town center, but I had picked up a stomach bug in Hungary and was in no shape for sightseeing. My guide arranged an impromptu room at Hotel Sighi¸soara (Scolii St., nr. 4-6), a comfortable hotel with local charm and rates from €35 to €45 (about $45-$58).

After a nap and a refreshing shower, I met my group for lunch at Casa Wagner (Str. Pla¸ta Cetaˇ¸til nr. 7; www.casa-wagner.com), just a few doors down. I could only manage the carrot soup, which was very good, but the rest of the group seemed to really enjoy their meal, especially the pickled vegetables that our guide had chosen for us. Then it was on to Bra¸sov for an overnight stay.

After a walking tour of Bra¸sov the next morning, we continued to Bran Castle, known (incorrectly) as Dracula’s castle. Actually a former fortress given to Romania’s Queen Maria (granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria) in 1920, the castle is worth a visit.

Although it is not the most spectacular of Romania’s castles, Bran draws hordes of visitors every year because of its association with Vlad Tepes. I did get a chuckle out of the kitsch for sale in the parking area — Dracula dolls and coffee mugs dripping blood — and the neon-signed Dracula Bar.

After lunch ($5.50) at nearby Vila Bran (phone 4 268 238 866 or visit www.turism-bran.ro), we continued to Peli¸sor castle (phone +4 244 311496; closed Mondays) in Sinaia. Peli¸sor is not as grand as its namesake, Pele¸s, but this “cozy” castle is a beautiful showcase for the exquisite taste of its former owner, Queen Maria (of Bran Castle fame), who had the castle decorated in Art Nouveau style, even designing some of the furniture herself. I thoroughly enjoyed this stop.

Bucharest

Our sightseeing day in Bucharest began with a visit to the Romanian Peasant’s Museum (3, Kisseleff Rd.; www.itcnet.ro/mtr), a comprehensive venue offering a look at the country’s traditions and history.

The exhibits here presented an educational look at the cultural background of Romania and included an entire wooden house, built in traditional style, which was purchased from a village family and reconstructed in one room of the museum. It was an interesting collection which helped make connections to my own family history (although the repeated inquiries from the museum staff about whether or not we had purchased a ticket to take photos was a little unnerving).

Then we were off to explore downtown Bucharest. I was genuinely impressed with the city, which was much more cosmopolitan than I had expected of this former Communist stronghold. Alongside the historical structures and the enormous number of Eastern Orthodox churches that dot the city stand modern coffeehouses and shops. Excited about joining the European Union in 2006, the city has even placed a clock along one of the main roads which displays a running countdown until the day of Romania’s anticipated membership.

We had only a few short hours to see the city before departing for the airport (which was also modern and very efficient) for our return to Vienna.

One last day

After arriving back in Vienna, we transferred to our hotel on the convenient City-Airport Train, or CAT (just follow the signs down from the arrival hall). The train takes passengers from the airport to the city center in only 16 minutes (€9 one way).

That night’s dinner at Stadt­wirt (Untere Via­dukt­gasse 45; phone 01 713 38 28) gave us a taste of traditional Viennese fare. Because our visit was around St. Martin’s Day (Nov. 11) we were in for a treat, as this is the time to find Martini Gans on the menus of many Viennese restaurants. This extraordinary goose, served here with red cabbage marinated in Glühwein (mulled, spiced wine), was incredible. If you are lucky enough to find this on the menu during your visit, be prepared: you may have to wait longer than the usual preparation time for this special entrée.

Our visit had come to an end and, while we had barely scratched the surface of what each destination has to offer, I came away with the desire to return for more.

Getting there

Our round-trip flight from JFK to Vienna, plus a one-way flight from Bucharest, was on Austrian Airlines. The flights were comfortable and the service good.

I flew United round trip from San Francisco to JFK. I thought the 1½-hour layover I had in New York would be sufficient time to catch my flight to Vienna, as I was able to check my luggage straight through from San Francisco, but because I had to take the AirTrain to the international terminal, I was one of the last passengers to board the plane. If traveling through JFK, be sure you have allotted sufficient time for transfers.

Getting around

Our trip was partially sponsored by Eurail and the majority of our travel in Europe was by train. This trip was prompted by Eurail’s introduction of a 2-country Regional Pass covering Hungary and Romania. Adding Austria to the itinerary, we traveled on a 3-country Selectpass. Allowing 10 days of first-class rail travel within two months in any of the three countries, my pass cost $542.

Be sure to have your pass validated by a European railway official before your first train trip.

The Romania-Hungary Pass, offering first-class travel within those two countries, starts at $200 (five days of travel within two months).

With the exception of the overnight train from Budapest to Sighi¸soara, all trains, both international and inter-city, were on time, comfortable and clean. For more information on Eurail passes, visit www.eurail.com or www.raileurope.com.

In Hungary, there are direct links between Budapest and most major cities in Europe. In addition to international trains, there are InterCity (IC) express trains, which stop only once or twice between cities, and fast trains (gyors), which are less modern and stop more frequently. Other local trains, called szemely or sebes, stop at all stations.

Timetables for arrivals are displayed in the stations on large white boards while departures appear on yellow boards. Information on train travel times is available in English online at www. mav.hu/eng. Reservations are required on all international and IC trains.

Guides

The local guides in each country we visited were wonderful; each possessed a unique style and spoke excellent English. In Vienna, we were led around the city by Alexa Brauner (phone/fax +43 1 5046597 or e-mail alexa.brauner@chello.at), a very pleasant, knowledgeable young woman who offers tours of the city, including museum tours, for groups of up to 49 people. The cost for a 2- to 3-hour walking tour is €125 ($162) per group; transportation can be arranged at an additional cost.

In Hungary, our guide, András Vereckei (phone +36 20 9618 291 or e-mail booster00@freemail.hu), had a great temperament and kept his cool no matter what the situation. His services are available for tours throughout Hungary for €60 per half day or €110 for a full day. Transportation is extra.

In Romania, our guide was Andrei Nicolau (phone +40 722 576456 or e-mail nicolau34@yahoo.com), who was absolutely fabulous. Andrei was laid back and able to answer all our questions with ease, and he happily changed plans without complaint when the group requested it. If I were to travel to Romania again, I would gladly travel with Andrei.

Tour costs range from €25 to €35 per day plus 24 to 34 cents per kilometer for transportation. (An additional charge for the guide’s accommodations should be added to the tour cost.)

Accommodations

In Vienna, Hotel Das Tyrol (Mariahilfer Strasse 15; phone +43 1 587 54 15 or visit www.das-tyrol.at) is very well located, just across the street from the MuseumsQuartier. A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, it is a lovely boutique hotel with pleasant staff and a nice breakfast buffet. Room rates range from €110 to €230 ($142-$296).

The Mercure Grand Hotel Biedermeier (Landstrasser Hauptstrasse 28; phone +43 1 716710 or visit www.accor-hotels.com) is within walking distance of the CAT terminal (although maybe not so convenient a walk with more than a small amount of luggage) and St. Stephan’s Cathedral. My room was very comfortable but smelled of smoke, although the windows could be opened for fresh air. Rooms start at €85.

In Budapest we spent two nights at the NH Budapest (Vígszínház u. 3; phone +36 18140906 or visit www.nh-hotels.com). I really liked this hotel, located behind the architecturally attractive Vígszínház Theatre. Room amenities were good and the buffet breakfast had a nice variety. Room rates range from €88 to €200.

In Bra¸sov we stayed at the 3-star Hotel Ambient (Str. Aninoasa nr. 5; phone 011 40 268 471 747 or e-mail rezervari@hotelambient.ro), a stylish, modern hotel that our guide described as the best in the city. Room rates range from €55 to €65.

Here we had a glimpse of a country still emerging as a major travel destination. We were notified that the city planned to turn off the water late that evening and for the following day. The hotel provided large bottles of water for washing up, but the city’s schedule was not quite accurate. In the morning we did have hot showers, however the water was turned off later that afternoon, leaving us without bathroom facilities during our city sightseeing tour.

In Bucharest we stayed at the 5-star Hilton Athenée Palace (Strada Episcopiei 1-3; phone 021 303 37 77 or visit www.hilton.com). The lobby was spectacular and the breakfast buffet was the largest I had ever seen, but I’m not sure the high price tag (rooms start at $225) and the 5-star rating is justified. My room was spacious and well appointed, but others had problems with their sinks not draining properly and lights missing light bulbs. It is, however, very well located, and the staff was extremely attentive and pleasant.

I was surprised to find that in all hotels at each destination we visited, English was spoken.

Beth’s trip was sponsored in part by Austrian Railways, Hungarian Railways, Romanian Railways and the tourist boards of Austria, Vienna, Hungary and Romania.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Beth Habian, Features Editor

It sounded like the perfect itinerary to me. We would begin in Vienna, a city I had been dying to see but had not yet had the pleasure of visiting. We would continue to Hungary, which is emerging as a fashionable travel destination while still exuding Old World charm, and end in Romania, my father’s boyhood home, before returning to Vienna for my flight back to the States.

Okay, maybe it was a little ambitious for a 9-day trip (most press trips are arranged to get in as much as possible in the shortest amount of time), but it was a nice introduction to each destination.

Vienna

While we would not be visiting some of Vienna’s more familiar sites on this trip (I’ll have to wait to see “Steffl”), we were able to hit a few highlights in the limited amount of time we had there.

A short walk from Hotel das Tyrol took us to the famous Naschmarkt, crammed with vendors selling an amazing variety of fruit, vegetables and snacks. As it was November, there were several stalls offering Sturm, the partially fermented juice from the first grape harvest of the season. What I wouldn’t give to have such a wonderful market in my tiny hometown!

After wandering through the market and the surrounding area, I was ready for lunch. I enjoyed a particularly tasty Thai vegetable dish (not a traditional Viennese offering but wonderful, nonetheless) at Do & Co Albertina (Albertinaplatz 1; www.doco.com), one of a number of Do & Co restaurants that can be found in the city. The restaurant boasts an eclectic menu and an elegantly appointed interior. Entrées average $20.

The large-scale reproductions of portraits by Egon Schiele that grace the restaurant’s walls proved a nice segue to the exhibition we would visit after lunch at the museum itself.

A bit of art

The Albertina Museum holds one of the world’s largest collections of graphic art, including over 60,000 drawings and more than one million prints. As only a fraction of the works can be on display at any one time, the museum offers a number of temporary exhibits throughout the year.

During my visit, featured artists included Gustav Klimt, cofounder of the Viennese Secession group, and Expressionist painter Egon Schiele. An entire room full of works by Schiele was overwhelming, for me, as I’d always been a bit disturbed by the gaunt, oddly angular figures often depicted in his work. However, I came to have a greater appreciation for the artist the next day when I was introduced to some of his landscapes at the Leopold Museum (Museumplatz 1; www.leopoldmuseum.org), which houses the world’s largest collection of works by this controversial painter.

Located in the MuseumsQuartier, a cultural complex that marries Baroque buildings with modern structures housing a variety of art venues, the Leopold is the perfect place to spend a few hours — not too big and the collection is nicely exhibited. A coat check and lockers are available to allow visitors to explore the museum’s contemporary collection unencumbered.

Lunch that afternoon was at Halle (phone 523 70 01), a trendy restaurant/café located next to the Leopold. Housed in the emperor’s loge of the former winter riding hall, the café serves a variety of fresh dishes — from soups, salads and sandwiches to a lunch special that changes daily (€7) — and offers outdoor seating from May to September. The food was very enjoyable and the service quick and friendly.

Then it was off to the Westbahnhof for our less-than-three-hour train journey to Budapest.

Hungary

We arrived at Budapest’s Keleti pályaudvar (Eastern station) and transferred directly to our hotel, NH Budapest. After checking into our rooms, we rushed downstairs for a trip out to the Hungarian Railway Museum (www.vasuttortenetipark.hu).

Departing from Nyugati pályaudvar (Western station), a 19th-century iron-and-glass station that was designed by the Eiffel company and harkens back to an elegant past, we boarded a vintage diesel shuttle train (which runs from April to October) that would transport us to the museum. For anyone with breathing difficulties or motion sickness, I wouldn’t recommend this transfer, as the diesel fumes pouring into the car made for a rather unpleasant journey. Luckily, it was a short trip!

The museum can also be reached via the No. 30 bus from Keleti station, by car or by bicycle.

The museum, built on the site of the former Budapest North Depot of the Hungarian State Railways, has 50 engines on display, some of which are used for nostalgic trips scheduled throughout the year by MÁV Nostalgia, Ltd. (More information about these trips is available on the museum’s website, or phone/fax +36 1 269 5242.)

The museum park also offers interactive opportunities for visitors, including driving a steam engine, operating a handcar or riding on the still-operational train turntable.

I enjoyed a wonderful dinner there aboard one of the restored train cars. The soup, especially, was fabulous. (The museum park is closed from mid-December to mid-March.)

Hortobágy National Park

The next day included a visit to Hortobágy National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The unique terrain of the pustza, a vast area of plains and wetlands, is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species. To preserve the integrity of the land, there are four areas designated for visitors: the Nyírölapos-Nyárijárás pustza, the Hortobágy fishpond, the marshes of Egyek-Pusztakócs and the Tisza Lake nature trail. The trails are marked with information boards explaining the importance of each habitat.

While November was not the best time for a visit to the park, we did explore its visitor center, which provided a nice overview of the flora and fauna that can be found in this 82,000-hectare area throughout the year. (At the time of my visit, they were working on English translations for all of the exhibits.)

Entrance cards can be purchased at the Tourinform office in Hortobágy village (4071 Pásztormúzeum, Pet˝ofi tér 1; www.tourinform.hu) or at the HNP directorate in Debrecen (Sumen u. 2; fax +36 52 410-645).

The finer things

We continued to Tarcal, located just outside Tokaj in a region noted for the quality of its wines, for an overnight stay at the Gróf Degenfeld Castle Hotel (fax +36 47 580 401 or visit www.hotelgrofdegenfeld.hu or www.slh.com/grofdegenfeld). A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, this is a really beautiful hotel in a lovely vineyard setting, and I would have loved to have spent a few days there just relaxing. Rooms range from HUF19,500 to HUF32,000, or $102-$170, depending on size and season.

While our dinner there wasn’t spectacular, the wine offered was. Produced on site, all wine is prepared using a reduction method — only stainless-steel tanks, no barrels — giving the wine a fresh, crisp, fruity taste. I couldn’t resist taking some home, even though adding the extra weight to my luggage was not ideal for rail travel!

Along the Danube

While we didn’t have much of a chance to see the city of Budapest itself, we did get to visit the Fisherman’s Bastion, which offers a nice view over the city — a great spot for picture taking.

One of my favorite excursions was to Neszmély, nestled along the banks of the Danube River. After a welcome glass of pálinka, a distilled spirit made from fruit, we warmed up at the fire pit in an outdoor pavilion and enjoyed a taste of the local specialties (the cabbage-onion pastry was really nice). After being presented with a gift of the local bread, which was baked in the outdoor ovens there, we continued to the nearby Hilltop Neszmély Wine Hotel & Restaurant (phone +36 34 550 440 or visit www.hilltop.hu) for lunch.

Overlooking the Danube, which on this day was actually blue, the Hilltop presented an incredible meal, each course accompanied by a different wine selection. The star of the table was the catfish “goulash” (HUF800, or about $4.25) — fantastic!

On to Romania

That night we transferred back to Budapest to catch the overnight train to Sighis¸oara, Romania. While the trains we had taken throughout our journey so far were comfortable, clean and modern, traveling on this train was not the highlight of my trip.

Each private sleeper cabin was small, which was okay (although those couples in our group who were sharing a compartment found them quite tight with luggage), but the major problem for me was getting some sleep.

Our train car was filled with smoke all night, courtesy of our chain-smoking steward, so I slept with the window open — a bit chilly in November. At 3 a.m. I was awoken by Hungarian border control for a passport check, followed about an hour later by Romanian passport control, then Customs. With an hour lost during a change in time zones, I was exhausted by the time we pulled into the station around 9:00.

If I were to do it over again, I might make this journey during the day — there are several daily departures from Budapest (timetable information can be found at www.elvira.hu).

We were scheduled for a walking tour of Sighi¸soara’s medieval town center, but I had picked up a stomach bug in Hungary and was in no shape for sightseeing. My guide arranged an impromptu room at Hotel Sighi¸soara (Scolii St., nr. 4-6), a comfortable hotel with local charm and rates from €35 to €45 (about $45-$58).

After a nap and a refreshing shower, I met my group for lunch at Casa Wagner (Str. Pla¸ta Cetaˇ¸til nr. 7; www.casa-wagner.com), just a few doors down. I could only manage the carrot soup, which was very good, but the rest of the group seemed to really enjoy their meal, especially the pickled vegetables that our guide had chosen for us. Then it was on to Bra¸sov for an overnight stay.

After a walking tour of Bra¸sov the next morning, we continued to Bran Castle, known (incorrectly) as Dracula’s castle. Actually a former fortress given to Romania’s Queen Maria (granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria) in 1920, the castle is worth a visit.

Although it is not the most spectacular of Romania’s castles, Bran draws hordes of visitors every year because of its association with Vlad Tepes. I did get a chuckle out of the kitsch for sale in the parking area — Dracula dolls and coffee mugs dripping blood — and the neon-signed Dracula Bar.

After lunch ($5.50) at nearby Vila Bran (phone 4 268 238 866 or visit www.turism-bran.ro), we continued to Peli¸sor castle (phone +4 244 311496; closed Mondays) in Sinaia. Peli¸sor is not as grand as its namesake, Pele¸s, but this “cozy” castle is a beautiful showcase for the exquisite taste of its former owner, Queen Maria (of Bran Castle fame), who had the castle decorated in Art Nouveau style, even designing some of the furniture herself. I thoroughly enjoyed this stop.

Bucharest

Our sightseeing day in Bucharest began with a visit to the Romanian Peasant’s Museum (3, Kisseleff Rd.; www.itcnet.ro/mtr), a comprehensive venue offering a look at the country’s traditions and history.

The exhibits here presented an educational look at the cultural background of Romania and included an entire wooden house, built in traditional style, which was purchased from a village family and reconstructed in one room of the museum. It was an interesting collection which helped make connections to my own family history (although the repeated inquiries from the museum staff about whether or not we had purchased a ticket to take photos was a little unnerving).

Then we were off to explore downtown Bucharest. I was genuinely impressed with the city, which was much more cosmopolitan than I had expected of this former Communist stronghold. Alongside the historical structures and the enormous number of Eastern Orthodox churches that dot the city stand modern coffeehouses and shops. Excited about joining the European Union in 2006, the city has even placed a clock along one of the main roads which displays a running countdown until the day of Romania’s anticipated membership.

We had only a few short hours to see the city before departing for the airport (which was also modern and very efficient) for our return to Vienna.

One last day

After arriving back in Vienna, we transferred to our hotel on the convenient City-Airport Train, or CAT (just follow the signs down from the arrival hall). The train takes passengers from the airport to the city center in only 16 minutes (€9 one way).

That night’s dinner at Stadt­wirt (Untere Via­dukt­gasse 45; phone 01 713 38 28) gave us a taste of traditional Viennese fare. Because our visit was around St. Martin’s Day (Nov. 11) we were in for a treat, as this is the time to find Martini Gans on the menus of many Viennese restaurants. This extraordinary goose, served here with red cabbage marinated in Glühwein (mulled, spiced wine), was incredible. If you are lucky enough to find this on the menu during your visit, be prepared: you may have to wait longer than the usual preparation time for this special entrée.

Our visit had come to an end and, while we had barely scratched the surface of what each destination has to offer, I came away with the desire to return for more.

Getting there

Our round-trip flight from JFK to Vienna, plus a one-way flight from Bucharest, was on Austrian Airlines. The flights were comfortable and the service good.

I flew United round trip from San Francisco to JFK. I thought the 1½-hour layover I had in New York would be sufficient time to catch my flight to Vienna, as I was able to check my luggage straight through from San Francisco, but because I had to take the AirTrain to the international terminal, I was one of the last passengers to board the plane. If traveling through JFK, be sure you have allotted sufficient time for transfers.

Getting around

Our trip was partially sponsored by Eurail and the majority of our travel in Europe was by train. This trip was prompted by Eurail’s introduction of a 2-country Regional Pass covering Hungary and Romania. Adding Austria to the itinerary, we traveled on a 3-country Selectpass. Allowing 10 days of first-class rail travel within two months in any of the three countries, my pass cost $542.

Be sure to have your pass validated by a European railway official before your first train trip.

The Romania-Hungary Pass, offering first-class travel within those two countries, starts at $200 (five days of travel within two months).

With the exception of the overnight train from Budapest to Sighi¸soara, all trains, both international and inter-city, were on time, comfortable and clean. For more information on Eurail passes, visit www.eurail.com or www.raileurope.com.

In Hungary, there are direct links between Budapest and most major cities in Europe. In addition to international trains, there are InterCity (IC) express trains, which stop only once or twice between cities, and fast trains (gyors), which are less modern and stop more frequently. Other local trains, called szemely or sebes, stop at all stations.

Timetables for arrivals are displayed in the stations on large white boards while departures appear on yellow boards. Information on train travel times is available in English online at www. mav.hu/eng. Reservations are required on all international and IC trains.

Guides

The local guides in each country we visited were wonderful; each possessed a unique style and spoke excellent English. In Vienna, we were led around the city by Alexa Brauner (phone/fax +43 1 5046597 or e-mail alexa.brauner@chello.at), a very pleasant, knowledgeable young woman who offers tours of the city, including museum tours, for groups of up to 49 people. The cost for a 2- to 3-hour walking tour is €125 ($162) per group; transportation can be arranged at an additional cost.

In Hungary, our guide, András Vereckei (phone +36 20 9618 291 or e-mail booster00@freemail.hu), had a great temperament and kept his cool no matter what the situation. His services are available for tours throughout Hungary for €60 per half day or €110 for a full day. Transportation is extra.

In Romania, our guide was Andrei Nicolau (phone +40 722 576456 or e-mail nicolau34@yahoo.com), who was absolutely fabulous. Andrei was laid back and able to answer all our questions with ease, and he happily changed plans without complaint when the group requested it. If I were to travel to Romania again, I would gladly travel with Andrei.

Tour costs range from €25 to €35 per day plus 24 to 34 cents per kilometer for transportation. (An additional charge for the guide’s accommodations should be added to the tour cost.)

Accommodations

In Vienna, Hotel Das Tyrol (Mariahilfer Strasse 15; phone +43 1 587 54 15 or visit www.das-tyrol.at) is very well located, just across the street from the MuseumsQuartier. A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, it is a lovely boutique hotel with pleasant staff and a nice breakfast buffet. Room rates range from €110 to €230 ($142-$296).

The Mercure Grand Hotel Biedermeier (Landstrasser Hauptstrasse 28; phone +43 1 716710 or visit www.accor-hotels.com) is within walking distance of the CAT terminal (although maybe not so convenient a walk with more than a small amount of luggage) and St. Stephan’s Cathedral. My room was very comfortable but smelled of smoke, although the windows could be opened for fresh air. Rooms start at €85.

In Budapest we spent two nights at the NH Budapest (Vígszínház u. 3; phone +36 18140906 or visit www.nh-hotels.com). I really liked this hotel, located behind the architecturally attractive Vígszínház Theatre. Room amenities were good and the buffet breakfast had a nice variety. Room rates range from €88 to €200.

In Bra¸sov we stayed at the 3-star Hotel Ambient (Str. Aninoasa nr. 5; phone 011 40 268 471 747 or e-mail rezervari@hotelambient.ro), a stylish, modern hotel that our guide described as the best in the city. Room rates range from €55 to €65.

Here we had a glimpse of a country still emerging as a major travel destination. We were notified that the city planned to turn off the water late that evening and for the following day. The hotel provided large bottles of water for washing up, but the city’s schedule was not quite accurate. In the morning we did have hot showers, however the water was turned off later that afternoon, leaving us without bathroom facilities during our city sightseeing tour.

In Bucharest we stayed at the 5-star Hilton Athenée Palace (Strada Episcopiei 1-3; phone 021 303 37 77 or visit www.hilton.com). The lobby was spectacular and the breakfast buffet was the largest I had ever seen, but I’m not sure the high price tag (rooms start at $225) and the 5-star rating is justified. My room was spacious and well appointed, but others had problems with their sinks not draining properly and lights missing light bulbs. It is, however, very well located, and the staff was extremely attentive and pleasant.

I was surprised to find that in all hotels at each destination we visited, English was spoken.

Beth’s trip was sponsored in part by Austrian Railways, Hungarian Railways, Romanian Railways and the tourist boards of Austria, Vienna, Hungary and Romania.