Eastern Europe Adventure- J. P. Cox

May 21-June 12, 2010
Adam Corvin and J.P. Cox

Adam and I left New Orleans the previous day at 11:20 a.m. on Delta Airlines and had a layover in Atlanta before arriving in Munich, Germany on Saturday morning around 8:30 a.m. We had two smooth flights with no problems. Upon clearing passport control and getting our bags at the airport, we headed to Munich’s central train station to begin what would be a long, all-day journey by train to Prague, Czech Republic. The train voyages allowed us to view the beautiful countrysides of Germany and the Czech Republic, as we passed through quaint villages as well as fields of poppies. Although purchasing rail passes for trains are fairly expensive depending upon what type of pass you get, they are definitely worth their value as trains are a very efficient and fun way of getting between countries that are in close proximity to each other. After arriving in Prague at around 7:00 p.m., we took a taxi from the train station to the Hotel Betlem. Something that I noticed in relation to the taxis in Eastern Europe was how fair the taxi drivers were when it came to charging. They didn’t seem to overcharge or hassle us, which was quite different from what we experienced in Turkey. The taxi prices ranged between 12-25 Euros, which I thought to be quite reasonable.

The Hotel Betlem is a small hotel with an old-world feel. It is a little outdated and cramped on space and lacks some of the amenities of chain hotels, but it is in a prime location, about a mere 10 minute walk from the city center sand just across the street from the historic Bethlehem Chapel. While affordable, one concern is that, depending on the size of any potential group that we bring to Prague, the hotel might not have enough rooms to house our entire group. After checking into the hotel, we dined across the street from the hotel at a great restaurant called Club Architecture, where the food is good and affordable. After dinner, we strolled through Bethlehem Square before retiring for the night.

After a light breakfast at the hotel, which is included in the room rate, we then spent the day sightseeing on our own. We saw such amazing sites as Charles Bridge-the oldest bridge in the city, built in 1357, St. Nicholas Church, and Prague Castle. Prague is a most beautiful city and is very compact, which would make it quite easy to get around if we were to bring a group there. It is also not as expensive as one might think, which is also to our advantage. Another good fact about the hotel is that it is right next to three or four restaurants, all affordable with great food. We ate at one such place, Restaurant Jeslinka, for lunch.

After resting in the afternoon, we met the rest of our group at 5:00 p.m., and the tour officially began. Our guide for the trip was Marijan Kristovic. He was incredible, displaying a full knowledge of the history, culture, and politics of each location and was also personable, making himself accessible at all times.
He was a truly great guide, and I highly recommend him. His phone number is 00 386 40 222 739. After an orientation meeting, we had a group dinner at Club Architecture. After dinner, we took an evening stroll through Prague by night, where we got a gorgeous view of the Vltava River, Charles Bridge, and Prague Castle all lit up. We also strolled through the main square of the Old Town, which was Prague’s version of the French Quarter.

After breakfast at the hotel, we met up with our local city guide, Martin Belohradsky, and started the day by taking a walk through the Jewish Quarter. Martin is an outstanding city guide whose expertise lies in fine arts and architecture but did a great job relating personal stories of his experiences in communist Prague. His contact information is martinb@[email protected], 723-414-565. In the Jewish Quarter, we visited the Pinkas Synagogue, where on the walls are written the names of all the Czech Jews that were captured and executed by the Nazis. We also visited the Old Jewish Cemetery, where the first burial dates back to the 15th century. The bodies in that cemetery are so numerous that they are stacked 12 high. On this day, we also visited the Spanish Synagogue, the Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square, and St. James’ Church. After a great lunch of curry chicken and potato croquettes at Restaurant Jeslinka, we took an afternoon walk learning about the Czech revolution against communism. I ended a great day with an amazing concert by the Prague Royal Orchestra at Municipal Hall, where they played Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”, Pachabel’s “Canon”, and selections by Mozart. It was a wonderful ending to a wonderful day!

Today was our final day in Prague, and it turned out to be quite a busy day, as we visited numerous sites around the Castle Quarter. We toured the stunning gardens of Wallenstein Palace and also visited St. Vitus Cathedral, Royal Palace, Rosenberg Palace, St. George Basilica, and the Royal Gardens. We lunched at a small pub-type establishment near the Petrin Hill overview. It had good food but only accepted payment in cash, which could be a drawback for large groups. After lunch, we had a free afternoon and later had dinner at an Italian restaurant near the hotel called Sherry. The soup and salad were excellent, as were the affordable prices.

Today was mostly a travel day as we headed to Moravia. Along the way, we had lunch in a small, picturesque village called Stromberg, where they are known for shortbread cookies that are in the shape of ears and stuffed with fruit and cream. We spent the night at the Hotel Tanecenica on Pevensky Hill, which is a charming ski resort area with beautiful views of the valley below. The hotel was a little outdated in its’ furnishings but could easily accommodate large groups and was overall very comfortable. We had dinner at a small restaurant near the hotel and were then treated to an evening of traditional Czech music and dancing.

On this day, we said goodbye to the Czech Republic and hello to Poland as we made our way to Krakow. Along the way, we stopped for lunch in the beautiful town of Pszczyna. There, we took some time to walk through the town square and to view the palace and gardens of Princess Daisy. After a light lunch at a local restaurant, we continued on our journey, but not before stopping at the infamous Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The camps was beyond description, as we saw rooms filled with hair, glasses, shoes, crutches, clothes, and other materials belonging to the one million plus people murdered by the Nazis. Over 90% of the victims there were Jews. It was such a sobering reminder of the cruelty of man during that time. The site it’s a must see if bringing a group to Krakow. The site will provide an English-speaking guide for the group, but you really need a minimum of three hours to do the site justice. After leaving Auschwitz, we headed toward Krakow, arriving there in the early evening hours. We checked into our rooms at the Hotel Francuski and had a late group dinner at Restaurant Ferina. The hotel is a lovely hotel and is once again located just a short walk from the city center, but it is quite obvious that it is a more upscale establishment and most likely out of our price range.

Though I did not expect it, I found that Krakow holds a great deal of potential as a possible destination for a mission trip. Though the city as a whole is beautiful, there are several areas that are run-down and dilapidated and are in desperate need of work. This could definitely be a possibility for us. I think that there would also be some good opportunities for evangelism, as most of the city is Catholic.

Today was our first of two full days touring Krakow. We spent the morning touring the Old City of Krakow, visiting the home of John Paul II when he was Archbishop of Krakow. We also visited St. Francis Cathedral, Vavel Hill, Vavel Castle, Royal Cathedral, St. Mary Church, and the wonderful Krakow market. We had a great lunch at the highly recommended Pod Aniolami, a somewhat pricey but delicious and centrally located restaurant near the market. Their salads and grilled dishes are amazing! We wrapped up this day with a light dinner and walk around the market.

We had a great city guide for Krakow as well. Her name is Anna Gega. Though she is soft-spoken and somewhat difficult to hear with large groups, she was nonetheless informative and accommodating. She charges 250 zloty for four hours or 350 zloty for an entire day. Her contact information is [email protected], 0604-151-293. It is important to note that since only official Auschwitz guides can lead tours at the concentration camp museum, she could get us there but wouldn’t be able to lead us around. She could, however, arrange for an official guide or help us to join an already scheduled tour.

Today, we visited the amazing Wieliczka Salt Mine. It was simply stunning! There were numerous cathedrals and statues that were made exclusively out of salt. It is a massive facility, as we toured it two hours and saw about 1% of the total mine! It is only 15 minutes outside of Krakow and did not contain small or narrow spaces.
It would be great for our groups to visit on free time. In the afternoon, we visited the Jewish Community Center and toured the Jewish Quarter, where we saw several old, run-down synagogues, as the total Jewish population has been drastically reduced from the thousands to about 100. We wrapped up the day with dinner at Pod Aniolami and a walk through the town square.

We left Poland this morning and made our way to Hungary. Along the way, we stopped in a small town in the country of Slovakia for a picnic lunch.
Other than that stop, this was mostly a driving day, as we arrived in Eger, Hungary in the early evening. After a walk through the town, we dined on traditional Hungarian dishes such as goulash, veal and potato dumplings, pork and sauerkraut, goose liver and apples, and sweet crepes and strudel at a restaurant called Bajor Sorhaz. The food was served family-style, which gave us a glimpse into Hungarian culture but otherwise wasn’t great. We stayed at the Hotel Korona in Eger, which was a small and simple hotel that still met all of our needs.

After breakfast, we had some free time around Eger. Around mid-morning, we visited a middle school in the town of Recsk, where we got to talk to their teacher, Edit. We also got to talk with the students and help them with their English lessons. In the afternoon, we visited Kohari Winery in Egersalok. The proprietors of the winery, Istvan and Ibolya, put on a great show for our group and entertained us all with music and dancing. The drawback to not being on a Christian tour is that you have to go to events like the previously mentioned one that you normally wouldn’t have to. We then drove into Budapest and checked into the Hotel Erzsebet. This hotel, like our previous hotels, is centrally located and has all of the modern amenities of a business hotel. However, you have to pay for Wi-Fi, which would definitely be a drawback for many people in our groups. We had dinner at the Central Café, which is a two-minute walk from our hotel. The food is great and affordable, and they separate their smoking and non-smoking sections, which is not common in Europe. That is a plus for our group. Their chicken paprika is excellent.

We toiled through rainy weather throughout our stay in Budapest but managed to visit several areas on the Pest side of the city, including Heroes Square, Vajdahunyad Castle, the Szechenyi Baths, the Hungarian Opera House, St. Steven’s Basilica, Hungarian Parliament, and the Great Market Hall. We had lunch in the cafeteria of the market hall, which was overpriced and had only average food. We had a free afternoon, so I went over to the House of Terror Museum, which recounts Hungarian occupation by both Nazi Germany and communist Russia. It is a good museum but is designed primarily for Hungarians, so the only information in English is the overly-lengthy pamphlets, which describe each section of the museum. After dinner at the Central Café, we ended our day by taking a beautiful evening cruise of the Danube.
Budapest is a most beautiful city and very easy to get from one place to another, as their subway system is one of the easiest that I have ever used. It would be very easy for our groups to navigate the city through the subway system.

We had yet another wonderful city guide in Budapest. Peter Polczman was, in my opinion, the best of our three city guides and did simply a masterful job of putting us in touch with the real Budapest. His rate is 18,000 forints for four-five hours or 25,000 forints for eight hours. His contact information is [email protected] or [email protected], 011-36-20-926-0557.

We spent this morning touring sites on the Buda side of the city. We stayed in the Castle District, visiting the Royal Palace, St. Matthias Church, Residence of the Hungarian President, and Statue Park, where the Hungarians deposited old statues of communist leaders after communism fell apart in Budapest. Budapest is a remarkable city, and I think it would be a great place to take a group to, if we were able.

Today was primarily a driving day, as we headed to Croatia. The only extended stop of the day was a picnic-style lunch at a small farmhouse restaurant near the Croatian border. We stayed at the beautiful Hotel Plitvice in Plitvice National Park. The hotel was very modern and had a great breakfast as well as a great dinner, which we had on this evening. We dined on soft cheese, cabbage salad, mixed grill, and apple strudel.

We took a beautiful, long morning walk through the gorgeous waterfalls of Plitvice National Park. After a small lunch at the park, we spent the afternoon driving to the island of Rab. After checking in at the Hotel Imperial, we took an evening walk through the town of Rab before having a fish dinner at Restaurant Astoria, where we dined on salad, carp, sole, calamari, mussels, potatoes and Swiss chard, chocolate mousse, crème caramel, and coconut cream for dessert. Great meal and great harbor view, but too pricey for a group. Once again, we had a great, centrally located hotel. However, we had to pay for Wi-Fi.

Today was a total free day in Rab, so after breakfast, I took a walk along the coast of Rab before having lunch at the Santa Maria Restaurant. It has great food, but was a bit pricey and didn’t accept credit cards. Because of its status as a popular resort destination, Rab is a bit expensive when it comes to food and souvenirs. After a relaxing afternoon, we had dinner at Ana, where the food was great and portions were huge.

Today made for a long day, as we traveled to Slovenia. Along the way, we had a picnic lunch and visited the Skocjan Cave, which was good but not nearly as impressive as the salt mines. We then spent a few hours touring the city of Ljubljana before arriving at the Best Western Hotel Lovec in Bled at around 7:30 p.m.
The hotel is business-style, centrally located and has all of the amenities that we would need, including an indoor heater pool as well as a sauna. It is plenty large enough to house our entire group, but the service staff is somewhat unfriendly and slow to help.

Today was the last day of being with our group. We went to the small island in the middle of Lake Bled and visited the beautiful Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Four our farewell dinner, we ate at Ocarina, next to the hotel.

Today we said goodbye to our group and headed out to Vienna on our own by train. We arrived at the Best Western Hotel Beethoven that afternoon. Our travel agent, Bill Bryan, did a fantastic job of finding us comfortable hotels that were centrally located near city centers. This hotel was no exception. The staff was extremely friendly and helpful, the breakfast was great, and the accommodations were quite comfortable and spacious. Additionally, the hotel was just a 10 minute walk from the city center. It also had free Wi-Fi and was situated right across the street from a large market that contained many affordable restaurants. I highly recommend this hotel! After checking in, we spent the afternoon and evening getting oriented to the large city. Vienna is a gorgeous city and contains the most beautiful architecture. It is also a surprisingly ethnic city, with a variety of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian restaurants and shops. We viewed St. Stephen’s Cathedral, St. Peter’s Church, Hofburg Palace, Imperial Treasury, Spanish Riding School, and other sights. Adam and I both had a light dinner in the market across from the hotel.

Today was a full day of touring some of Vienna’s most famous sites. Great weather allowed me to visit St. Stephen’s Cathedral, St. Peter’s Church, Hofburg Palace (Silver Collection, Sissi Museum, and the Imperial Apartments), Sigmund Freud House and Museum, Parliament, Rahaus, and we rode the train around the Ringstrasse. Hofburg Palace is definitely a must-see! It was definitely one of my favorite sights of the entire tour and was only 10 Euros. However, you need a good two and a half hours to really see everything, but it is well worth the time and money! The Freud Museum is a waste of time and money. It is out of the way, and is really not interesting at all. We had dinner at Wienerwald, which is a chain restaurant, but the food was actually very good, and so were the prices.

We traveled to Munich via train and had no problems. Purchasing our rail passes ahead of time sure made things convenient, as all we had to do was arrive at the train station, find our train, and board. It was well worth the money! The Hotel Cristal in Munich is also owned by Best Western and, like the Hotel Beethoven in Vienna, is also a great hotel. The rooms are spacious, and the staff was extremely helpful. It is in close proximity to the city center and also had a great breakfast. However, it did not have central air, so we had to use a portable air conditioner in order to cool the room. Additionally, we had to pay for Wi-Fi. However, those were simply minor inconveniences compared to what you get for the price. After checking in, we explored the Marienplatz area of Munich with its gorgeous cathedrals and churches. Upon the hotel receptionist’s recommendation, we had dinner at Augustiner. The food was good, but not great. However, the prices were reasonable.

Today was our final day in Europe before heading home after three weeks. We continued in our exploration of the Marienplatz area of Munich, where we visited Fraukirche and Theaterkirche-two beautiful and most impressive churches!

This was certainly an incredible trip, and it was one where I learned a great deal. I discovered that, in addition to Prague, Krakow as well as some other cities that we visited definitely hold potential for mission trips. All of the hotels that we stayed in were clean and comfortable, and all included breakfast. All of the breakfasts, were similar in nature, with eggs, some type of grilled meat, a variety of breads, cheeses, deli meats, fruits, vegetables, and condiments. I think that we could definitely bring a group on a trip to Eastern Europe, whether that takes the form of a mission trip or something else. I look forward to further exploring such possibilities.

J.P. Cox

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Clay Corvin

Clay Corvin is Co-Pastor at Bethel Community Baptist Church. He is the retired VP Business and Professor of Admin at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and was employed by NOBTS for 38 years. He was the pastor at the Brantley Baptist Center for twenty-five years. He is married to Carol Corvin and the father of three children and has three grandchildren. His ministry is to the homeless and helpless seeking to promote the cause of Christ everyplace he travels.