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)

The Antiques Diva and The Wine Guy’s Travel Planner for September 2007!

e depart this morning for a few weeks driving tour through Eastern Europe – just me, my darling husband and our Volvo packed to the hilt with bubble-wrap for bringing home all the breakables we intend to purchases en route. As I pack my bags, visions of “Crystal, Pottery, and Porcelain Oh My” dance through my head like sugarplum dreams on the night before Christmas! And in the spirit of Father Christmas, I might feel generous and pick up a few beer steins for my father-in-law, although I suspect he’d be happier if these traditional tankards were accompanied by a few bottles of authentic Pilsner Urquelle or Budvar beer.

My husband, “The Wine Guy” (WG), is certain to fill our trunk with wooden crates of Moravian and Tokaji wine which is fine with me as I’ll soon be serving them in my new gilded and hand-painted Bohemian stemware. Of course, I’ll have to lug back some artisanal water from Carlsbad to serve with the wine for we wouldn’t want to break the Eastern European dining theme – although I might have to draw the line at cooking up some authentic cuisines, as I must confess Eastern European food is a little too hearty for my taste buds. As I have a few preconceived notions about what to expect from the food on this trip, I’m making an attempt to contradict the stereotype I’ve formed from other forays east. Should you have any recommendations on places where I must dine, do email them to me, as I value your opinion!

From shopping for peasant blouses to paprika, Zsolnai to Herendi porcelain, Czech chocolates to heel-tapping, gypsy, music cds, The Antiques Diva is going to be one busy gal. I’ve been given a few addresses in Budapest where I can buy some “made to measure” clothes and covert research has already begun on where to find the best antiques across the region. I’ve even been walking around Amsterdam muttering the word “Starozitnosti” over and over again (which perhaps not so surprisingly hasn’t even drawn a raised eyebrow or two). All this in preparation so that, when the time comes, I won’t miss an antique shop sign simply because the language is unfamiliar.

By the time The Wine Guy and The Antiques Diva ™ return in mid-September, we’ll roll back into Holland with our car doors bubble wrapped shut, exhausted by our whirlwind tour through The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (and need I mention the vast expanse of Germany we’ll need to cross in order to reach our destination). I would give you an itinerary so that you could follow along each day except that I have none.

The consummate planners have planned not. We’ve decided to do “An Experiment in Travel” as we swing by the seat of our pants, waiting to see where the road leads, what hotels we stumble upon and what adventures await. Now you see why I called my shopping research “covert” as research of any kind has been strictly forbidden by WG as defeating the purpose of our experiment. I’ll try to pop in for a quick blog hello should we stumble upon an internet café to at least touch base and keep you abreast of our travels. Of course, this should only serve as an “aperitif” to wet your appetite. Stay tuned next month for our post trip travelogue.
It really doesn’t seem fair that while I’m off having fun you should be here all alone… so to keep you company while I’m away, I’ve organized a few things for your entertainment:

Pack Your Bags….
Slam a ‘Sling and book your Easy Jet tickets to Singapore Sept 1 – 2, 2007! Well, sort of… since you can’t fly to Singapore on Easy Jet, then the land that brings you Europe’s lowest priced airline brings the taste of Singapore to you! is hosting its annual “Tiger Beer Singapore Chili Crab Festival”. If we weren’t already going away, The Wine Guy would be all over this like a fly on… uh…. “chili-crab”.

If spicy Malaysian food isn’t your thing, then how about breezing into the weekend of Sept 15 & 16 for a” target=”_blank”>Garden Gourmet weekend at Northern Ireland’s largest flower show / food and drink festival. State-side readers still have time to hop on the Chattanooga Choo-Choo to go to Wine Over Water, a festival held on Sept 15 in the Tennessee River Valley where wines from over a 100 different countries are presented for your tasting pleasure.

Speaking of things that tickle your taste buds, who wouldn’t want to spend two weeks Sept 6 – 16 at “Pizzafest” in Naples, where pizza was first created in the 19th C in it’s home, the worlds first pizzeria “Antica Pizzeria Port’ Alba”. During this same time period, you can “drop the cannoli” and pick up paella instead in Valencia at Sueca’s Feista del Arroz during their international paella-making contest.

Safe & Happy Travels (for both you and me!).

The Antiques Diva

Please note: the photo of crystal stemware is courtesy of