An Experiment in Travel — The Antiques Diva™ and The Wine Guy Return Home to Holland

top:2px;padding-right:5px;font-family:times;”>Sixteen days, six countries, and countless purchases later, The Antiques Diva™ and The Wine Guy (WG) have returned home to Holland after easing their way through Eastern Europe in what can only be defined as yet another “trip of a lifetime.”

WG and I traversed The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, pushing as far east as the Ukraine border and dipping as far south as Austria, verging north into Poland before crossing the vast Rheinland with “A’dam or Bust” written in dust on the rear window of our sorely-abused Volvo. 3,800 kilometers had taken its toll on our automobile and any remnants of the new car sheen had deteriorated by the time we neared Romania. In the final days of the journey, our car – packed to the hilt – looked like a Steinbeckian scene retitled “Okies Done Good– 70 years later”. As we drove west for our return home, our car was overloaded with purchases and border crossing guards did double takes as they saw my socked feet resting upon a red, grainy, marble table top lining the floor of the passenger seat and the ostentatiously gilded claw-foot table it belonged to resting lengthwise atop our other purchases in the backseat.

Budapest was good to us. And not just for the antique shopping — although it is worth mentioning that it was the best we found on our journey. Budapest dripped the faded grandeur and regal elegance of centuries gone by. In the mist (or if I squinted my eyes so that I barely peaked between my mascara-laden lashes) I could see past the years of neglect, the decades of pollutants griming the buildings and yesterday’s graffiti covering all the surfaces within stretching distance to see the baroque exteriors and sparkling chandeliers within. If I listened carefully, I could almost hear the clinging of crystal champagne flutes ringing in a century gone by. While Prague was prettier than Budapest – having that jaw dropping beauty that makes you want to fill up your digital camera’s memory stick with countless pictures of everything around you – it lacked a raw edge, the wild horse sensation that real rodeo riders are always looking for when visiting un-chartered territory. And for WG and me, this trip was all about exploring undiscovered lands. A trillion tourists had unfortunately already tamed Prague long before my Keds ™ sauntered into town.

Bratislava (and Slovakia in general) was the real surprise of our journey. Though we were only in the capital for an overnighter, it enchanted us and made us wonder why we hadn’t thought of coming here for a lazy long weekend before now. Perhaps our view of the city is seen a bit through rose-colored glasses, as we arrived unknowingly during the celebration for the coronation of the queen. During this event, locals dress up and parade within the town walls throwing coronation coins and candy, partying like it’s 1699, selling handmade, traditional craft items, foods and drinks to delighted, mostly Eastern European tourists. The whole city takes on a Disney-esque quality that makes you not quite certain what is real and what is make believe. But as you wander about town on foot, you realize you are definitely in Old Europe. Only once in two days did we hear another American accent in Bratislava, which after all the “Cools” and “Awesomes” parleying about in Prague, felt like a little gift from God. If it weren’t for the stag parties scandalizing Slovakia, I’d say pack your bags and go to Bratislava today before it’s too late and gyrating bachelorettes and fallen down, drunken bachelors take over the city.

Wanting to get beyond the Eastern European capitals (and having already checked Vienna off our to do list in May), we pointed the car to the countryside for our experiment in travel. If you’ll recall from my pre-vacation blog, The Wine Guy and I had decided to travel “sans” itinerary. Although at the last minute, over dinner at De Nederlanden with good German friends, The Shulte-Schultz’s, we decided to take their advice and book a hotel in advance for the first night of our journey. The rest of the trip was taken wherever and whenever the winds blew us – or at least wherever our GPS took us en route from one decided upon destination to another. W
hen a turret or spire beckoned in the distance we shut off” target=”_blank”>Tom-Tom and pursued the hunt, content in the knowledge that when we turned the GPS back on again he’d circumvent any arguments directing us back towards our decided destination. While I’ve a million out of the way places to tell you about, perhaps the biggest discovery on the trip was that our relationship is ensured a lifetime of marital bliss now that Tom-Tom makes our happy family complete, with a 3rd very wise voice ending all arguments over map reading and back-seat driving.

On this trip, the road had no boundaries… well, almost no boundaries. We did find ourselves surprised upon our return drive home when Tom-Tom took us from our fabulous hotel in the town of Levoca, at the edge of the Carpathian mountains, through the High Tatra’s to the border with Poland, having deciding it would be faster for us to go home via Krakow rather that cutting back the way we’d entered the country. Of course, Tom-Tom didn’t know my penchant for Polish pottery, so this shopping detour added a significant chunk of time AND expense to our 13-hour drive home.

Overall, traveling without reservations allowed us to see the best, and perhaps the worst as well, of the beaten (and less well-trodden) paths. While traveling in Czech, we realized we are Bohemian at heart, falling in love with to/soucas/i_zakinf.htm” target=”_blank”>Cesky Krumlov and the spas of Karlovy Vary, as well as other villages and towns in Southern and Central Bohemia. We also realized that when a tour book doesn’t list a destination, such as tokaj/tokaj.html” target=”_blank”>Hungary’s Tokay, there is probably good reason. We were both anxiously anticipating discovering the vineyards of northeastern Hungary, dead set on sampling the noble rot of the Tokay Aszu, despite the fact that all our tourist books said this region was “not yet a tourist destination”. What we found in Tokay was an utter disappointment, and even the ample opportunities to purchase the golden elixir did not make up for the lack of decent hotels. Next time, we’ll buy our Tokay at one of the ubiquitous Tesco’s dotting the Hungarian countryside and forget to forage into the region.

To let you know just how bad the tourist facilities were in this region, our hotel – the 3 star, eponymously named” target=”_blank”>Tokay Hotel – did not have a bottom sheet on the bed, nor a separate water faucet for the bath tub and sink. To fill your basin, you turned the wall-mounted faucet from either the sink or the tub to use accordingly! All to say that while Tokay may be “the wine of kings, and the king of wines”, the area designated for this appellation has a long way to go before it gives” target=”_blank”>St Emilion a run for it’s money. Having visited both destinations this summer, we can assure you, the Bordelais have no cause yet for concern.

No matter how long I live in Europe, I am always an American at heart, bleeding red, white and blue. No matter how I try to change my travel mentality from that of a fast-paced American to the slower-paced, stop-and-smell-the-roses European, I always find myself one adventure beyond where I intended to go. Though the trip was only 16 days we saw a lifetime of places, moving across country borders as easily as crossing state lines. Without hotel reservations and a set itinerary, we found that we could go at whatever pace suited our fancy, spending more time in places that merited an extra day and “getting the heck out of dodge” when it didn’t. I could blog for ages and pages telling you about the journey, and in fact I’ll do just that, just not right now. Over the next few months, between the happenings in the diva’s daily life, I’ll cover in-depth each of the destinations we visited, advising you on where to go, what to do and most importantly what to buy while there. I’ve collected a bevy of antique addresses across the region in which you can empty your wallet when you pack your bags for your very own “Experiment in Travel”. As I suspect we’re both too exhausted from our whirlwind trip, I’ll save my “best and worst” list for later this week.

Happy Trails Until We Meet Again,

The Antiques Diva

(seen at right, sipping from a traditional Becher Cup while “taking the waters” in Karlovy Vary)