Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic – traveling with friends through Central Europe

By Lynn Dyche
This article appears on page 42 of the March 2019 issue.

Kraków’s main square, where carriages await visitors.

My wife, Ruth, and I and six friends gathered in Budapest for a 24-day excursion through Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic (Czechia), Sept. 29-Oct. 21, 2017.

After some collaboration among the eight of us, we had chosen JayWay Travel (New Rochelle, NY; 800/344-5785, jaywaytravel.com) to help organize our trip.

My wife and I paid $4,200 for our portion of the travel package arranged by JayWay, which included lodging, most meals, transportation between locations, a dinner cruise on the Danube, a rafting trip and two private day tours in Warsaw. This price reflected a 3% discount for paying via bank transfer.

Beginning in Budapest

JayWay did an outstanding job of selecting hotels (primarily of the B&B variety) that were reasonably priced. Though two of the hotels didn't have elevators or porters, which made it harder to get our suitcases to our third-floor rooms, we were never disappointed. The rooms were clean, with firm mattresses, and the buffet breakfasts were excellent.

Our first hotel, pre-tour, was in Hungary: Budapest Rooms (15 Szentkirályi St.; phone +36 1 630 4743, www.budapestrooms.eu/en). Ruth and I booked this hotel ourselves on Booking.com for 69 (near $78) per night. Two young men operate this hotel, which occupies a couple of renovated buildings. They did an outstanding job of meeting guests' needs.

Once our entire group arrived, we moved to the Bohem Art Hotel (35 Molnár St.; www.bohemarthotel.hu) for two nights at $94 per night. This hotel had the best buffet breakfast of the entire trip (included in the room price), consisting of fruits, pastries, eggs, cold cuts, cheeses, hot dishes and five coffee drinks to select from.

There were many interesting sights, museums and attractions within walking distance. Both hotels were well located, about six blocks from the Danube River.

Highlights in Budapest included a stop at Buda Castle, high on a bluff overlooking the city, with a great view; a visit to the Gellért Thermal Baths, a historical bathhouse with a variety of indoor and outdoor pools, where we spent most of a day (the weather was great, and we especially enjoyed the outdoor pools on the top deck), and an enjoyable 2-hour dinner cruise, passing bridges and buildings that were nicely illuminated.

Transportation options in Budapest are excellent, with trams, hop-on/hop-off buses offering tours of the city, an underground subway and more. One can easily travel through the city on public transportation.

On to Poland

From Budapest, we traveled to Zakopane, Poland, about a 5- to 6-hour drive away. JayWay provided a new, comfortable VW van, which seated nine people and had ample room for luggage.

View of the island of Wrocław, Poland, with the spires of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Zakopane is a ski resort area with scenic mountains and many shopping opportunities. While there, we rode the Gubałówka Hill Funicular for the wonderful view.

We also floated down the Dunajec River on flat-bottom wooden rafts with comfortable seats. Two boatmen steered each raft from a standing position, and we had two hours of flat water. It was very scenic.

Our accommodations were at the very nice Hotel Sabała (ul. Krupówki 11, Zakopane; sabala.zakopane.pl/en) for one night. (It had no elevator.)

In Kraków, our next destination, we attended a one-hour klezmer concert in an intimate concert hall.

The following day, we took a walking tour of the area, then visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine. This was an enjoyable 2-hour underground tour, with long corridors of salt. I didn't feel either claustrophobic or cold.

At the start of the tour, we walked down about 70 stairs into the mines, and an elevator returned us at the end. There were provisions to allow the physically impaired to see a good portion of the mines.

On our way to Warsaw, we stopped at the Jasna Góra Monastery, home to the "Black Madonna of Częstochowa" icon.

We had booked two guided tours in Warsaw with JayWay. I'm a certified tour guide in the San Francisco area, so I had certain expectations, and the guides met those expectations and more!

The first guide used a multitude of photos on his tablet to share with us the history of the city, pre- and post-World War II. It was an excellent presentation. On the second tour, the other guide's presentation showed how the Communists and Germans controlled the eastern and western portions of the country before Poland was liberated.

We also had a very informative tour at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp — a sobering experience. Hearing the stories and seeing pictures of how Jewish people were treated and exterminated was beyond belief.

From Warsaw, we took a 4-hour trip to Wrocław, another beautiful area that shouldn't be missed. We stayed two nights, taking a half-day walking tour and a 9-hour tour to Lower Silesia.

Prague

Our last stop on the tour was Prague in the Czech Republic. Prague is a wonderful city, with so much to do and see.

We had contacted tour guide Pavel Cernosek (pavel.cernosek@seznam.cz) in Prague by email and booked three day tours, about six to eight hours each. He had been recommended by ITN subscriber Richard Krajeck (May '16, pg. 35). But Pavel had had surgery recently, so he was unavailable. However, the replacement guides he sent were excellent.

For the first tour, a walking tour ($35 per hour for the eight of us), a wonderful woman guided us around the city. It seemed as if we walked forever, up and down cobblestone streets.

The next day, for the same price, another woman guide took us by trolley to the top of hills that overlooked the city in order to visit a castle, a cathedral and other sites. Afterward, we walked down cobblestone streets all the way to the river.

For a driving tour ($60 per hour) to out-of-town locations on our third day in Prague, Pavel's son, Jaroslav, took us in a nice van to Kutná Hora and the Sedlec Ossuary (the Bone Church), among other places.

We stayed for our two nights in Prague at the Cloister Inn Hotel (Konviktska 14; phone +420 224 211 020, hotel-cloister.com), in an ideal spot near the river and restaurants.

Český Krumlov

A display inside the Sedlec Ossuary, located in a suburb of Kutná Hora.

At the conclusion of our trip arranged by JayWay, four members of our group departed for home. The rest of us had hired an independent tour shuttle service in Prague to drive us to Český Krumlov, a beautiful medieval area located about two hours away.

We stayed at The Castle View Apartments (Satlavska 140; phone +420 731 108 677, www.castleview.cz/en), which had been featured in a Rick Steves' video presentation. It had no elevator. Our apartment (93 per night) had two bedrooms and could have easily accommodated two couples.

We had excellent views of the castle, and touring the town and castle with a local guide we'd hired for the day was a wonderful experience.

During our stay in Český Krumlov, we took a one-hour tour of the inside of the castle theater and saw how sections of the stage could manually be lowered and elevated during performances.

Reservations were needed for this tour, as only 20 people were allowed at a time. We purchased tickets for about $10 per person at the castle's ticket office.

We returned to Prague for our trip home.

There is so much to see and do in the countries we visited! I would highly encourage anyone interested in these areas to do some research in order to have a good idea of what they want to see.

JayWay Travel was very helpful in making arrangements for our visit.