An intimate look at the sites and cities of Eastern Europe recalls ancient history and reminds us that the region’s story is still unfolding
Zsófi was born in the east—Szombathely, Hungary, to be exact—and she lived in sight of the barbed wire for 18 years. Just six miles away, Austria and the West were a mystery shrouded behind the Iron Curtain.
On the other side, in “free” Vienna, Martin also felt isolated. “We were always exposed to the curtain,” he says. “We were just an hour car ride from ‘the end of the earth,’ and we were living with our back to it.”
And then, in 1989, the wall fell, the border opened and the curtain pulled back. Zsófi’s East and Martin’s West turned to face each other and begin reconciling a common past that goes much deeper than the Berlin Wall. While the world celebrated what appeared to be the last chapter in a long war story, a visit to the region today reveals deep complexities.
“History hasn’t stopped here,” says Martin, the lead guide on Classic Journeys’ Prague to Budapest trip. “We have a lot of shared history, because we were part of the same empire for 600 years. From that base you can detect how the different political systems and digressions affected the region through the 20th century.”
To that end, Martin and Zsófi weave guests into a narrative that began with the Habsburg Dynasty and continues today.
The picturesque Czech town of Ceský Krumlov, for example, transports visitors to medieval times. Its orange rooftops, baroque houses, cobbled streets and royal palace are seemingly unchanged since the 16th century. “It’s like good old Europe, how many people expect it to be,” says Martin. “But if you look behind the façade, you see something very different.”
Describing the itinerary, he continues, “we follow the winding Vltava River through time and space toward the former forbidden area. We see pristine nature, and then, behind some bushes, we see the ruins of villages that were destroyed during the Cold War because they were too close to the border. Most people only think of the Berlin Wall, but there were barbed wire and towers for hundreds of miles. You feel the brutality of the Communist system,” he says, and it stands in sharp relief against the picture-perfect scenes in eský Krumlov and the bustling thoroughfares of Prague and Budapest, which bookend the trip.
“When the Communist system collapsed and free-market systems were introduced, two radically different lifestyles just a few miles apart came together,” says Martin. “There was and still is a clash, and that’s something guests can detect when taking the trip with Classic Journeys. We go from a former Eastern Bloc country to a Western country back to an Eastern country.”
With that perspective front-of-mind, guests experience the region in a more profound way, says Zsófi, who leads the tour of Budapest. “We can now walk freely around the city and not have secret police officers following us. If Westerners had come during Communism, that would have happened.”
Zsófi left her border-town home in 1990, at the height of the transition, to attend university in Budapest. “It was an exhilarating time,” she says. “I voted in my first free election, and my party won. Everyone was very happy and looking forward to new things.”
But in the next breath, Zsófi juxtaposes that hope with today’s reality: “Here, you still see war wounds” on the buildings and on people’s faces as they’ve realized prosperity isn’t something you can just switch on. People who were once provided for suddenly have to make their own destiny amidst a struggling free economy. The enthusiasm of the ’90s has faded. Other tour companies shield guests from those wounds, but Martin and Zsófi think they’re crucial to understanding the region.
In Budapest, Zsófi takes her groups on public transit rather than private buses or vans, so they can mingle with locals. On the way to the Royal Palace, she stops at the former Ministry of Defense and points out the bullet holes from the 1956 uprising. The building has remained in ruins for decades, left not only as a reminder of the past but also a reminder to the citizens and visitors that Central Europe’s story isn’t over: It is constantly unfolding.
For more information on Classic Journeys 8-day walking tour of Austria, Prague and Budapest, visit www.classicjourneys.com/prague or call 1-800-200-3887 to speak with a Guest Services Coordinator.