The prospect of open roads in Eastern Europe was a lure we couldn't resist. So in the first spring after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when the lilacs and chestnut trees were in full bloom, a friend and I took off from Vienna in our little Toyota for a 1,000-mile loop through Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary.
Our excitement, however, was tinged with apprehension as we approached our first border crossing, between Austria and Czechoslovakia. Our minds were filled with still fresh TV news images of Eastern European borders: guards with AK-47s at the ready behind barbed-wire barricades; large dogs straining at their leashes; escapees being gunned down from border watchtowers. But there wasn't a watchtower in sight, and the dogs and barbed-wire barricades were gone too. The guards were stolid and correct, although their expressions as they sized us up and studied our passports and visas were somewhat puzzled. Apparently this was still a Western phenomenon to them: two American women of a certain age traveling for pleasure on their own.
Our striped Indian money belts were securely fastened under our sweaters and stuffed with one-, five-, 10- and 20-dollar bills. Since tourists cannot take local currency out of Czechoslovakia, Poland or Hungary, and cannot convert it back to dollars when they leave these countries, we were carrying small-denomination dollar bills to exchange only if needed. Two hours earlier, in Vienna, we had been told that at the border we would have to change $15 for each day of our visit into Czech currency at the commercial rate rather than the far better tourist rate. Already that information was dated. After our passport check, the guards simply waved us on.
Since the whirlwind uprisings in East Europe, regulations for travel are toppling, like the barricades, at a dizzying rate.
We had turned off the autobahn onto a narrow back road as soon as we were out of the suburbs of Vienna. Almost immediately a pheasant had risen from the grassy verge and grazed our windshield, a lone reminder of the days when great pheasant hunts were held across this rich, gently rolling land by the nobility and haute bourgeoisie of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now, the first Czechoslovakian village we came to boldly proclaimed the present: On a wall, scrawled in large black letters, was the word we were to see everywhere: "Demokracie!"
In Znojmo, the first town large enough to have a national bank, we discovered the universal means of communication when language fails: pocket calculators. Almost everyone has one. The bank teller whipped his out, grinning and shaking his head, as we tried communicating to no avail in either English, German or French. But as soon as we fished our own calculators out of our bags, we had a lively three-way conversation going about how much money to exchange and how many gas coupons to buy. As we successfully concluded our first nonverbal transaction, the teller gave us a wide smile and a long, slow wink.
But directions were another matter. Lulled into false confidence by an initial abundance of signposts, we reached a crossroads where there were none at all.
Suddenly the strings of ancient trucks and little two- or four-cylinder cars we had crawled behind at 30 miles an hour were gone. The winding country road was edged with bright green and yellow fields, not a person in sight. In one direction we could see vineyards on a distant hill. In the other, a red-roofed village with an onion-domed church steeple rising from its center. The sun was directly overhead. For the next hour and a half we covered more of the beautiful Czech countryside than planned before we finally reached the picturesque ancient town of Telc.
At an old hotel in Telc's enchanting medieval square, we had an excellent lunch at a ridiculously reasonable price, then paused to rest by the square's central fountain. Kids eating ice cream cones sauntered by. Women with black shopping bags and men smoking cigarettes crossed the square. Everyone ignored us. Blessed invisibility for travelers who have suffered stares and harassments elsewhere. Too soon, it was time to move on.
It was dark when we reached Prague. We had reservations at the Hotel Praha, but we could not locate it on our city map. The policemen and taxi drivers we asked shrugged and shook their heads. Most assumed we had the wrong name and address and sent us searching fruitlessly up and down narrow streets and into dark corners of the city.
Exhausted and utterly confused, I drove into a forbidden zone and two outraged policemen fined me 100 kroner (about $4) on the spot. With disapproving looks they directed us not to the Hotel Praha but to a Hotel Pragha -- in a decidedly sleazy section of town. As I waited in the car -- and fended off swarthy men who tried to sell me watches through the window -- my German-speaking colleague went inside.
A long time passed. Suddenly a taxi pulled up, with a driver who looked exactly like my fresh-faced nephew in Indiana. I jumped out of the car and, with a pantomime worthy of Charlie Chaplin, explained our plight. Vastly amused, he indicated he would try to find the Hotel Praha.
My colleague returned -- reporting that the Hotel Pragha certainly was not where we had reservations -- and we were off.
We followed the young man's taxi through a complicated maze of one-way streets to a quiet residential area overlooking Prague Castle and the historic center of town. Several times he stopped to consult a map. Eventually we wound along a street bordered by a high wall, came to a large guard house and stopped. The taxi driver pointed down the driveway to a huge modern building with the sign, "Hotel Praha." "Komunista," he said.
We tried to press dollar bills into his hand, but he waved them away, gave us a jaunty salute and drove off laughing. Just like my nephew.
No guests were evident as we entered the sleek lobby of the Hotel Praha. But smartly uniformed attendants swarmed over our luggage and escorted us to the desk, where an attractive young woman confirmed our reservations in impeccable English. Under a huge chandelier an enormous staircase of pink marble steps descended to a lower, white marble-floored lobby.
This hidden Versailles proved to be a former Communist Party "secret palace," as a Czech friend later called it. It was built in 1981 for Communist Party officials and their guests and was reopened this year for the public. So far the public seems not to have discovered it. The dining room, next to an atrium filled with tropical plants, was nearly empty, and when we explored the next day, we found no one in the swimming pool, or the sauna, or the billiards and skittles alley, or in the vast gardens, or on the tennis courts. Our spacious room, like the other 79, had a large terrace looking down on Prague.
Fearful that we would never find the hotel again, we left the car behind and took a taxi down the hill to explore on foot the fairy-tale city of Prague. By the Charles Bridge over the Moldau River, here called the Vltava, we hummed "The Moldau" as we walked along the Smetana Embankment. Just off the Old Town Square on Meisel Street we found a plaque with a bronze head of Franz Kafka on the building where he lived. As we climbed to the medieval district of Hradcany, we saw President Vaclav Havel's personal flag flying above the castle, indicating he was within.
By choosing restaurants where patrons share tables, we found that one question led to a torrent of conversation. "We are so happy to be free," a young hotel worker told us, while his wife, a beautician who did not speak English, sipped her beer and smiled. But they were very worried about the inevitable hard times ahead, the young man continued, and explained at some length why. His wife's smile faded. Havel was their hero, but what does he or his intellectual friends know about economics, they asked?
Pictures of Havel and of Pope Paul II were in windows everywhere. The morning we planned to depart from Prague, the pope and his entourage were expected to arrive at noon. All main roads leading out of the city were blocked. Once again, city map in hand, we asked for help. But the soldiers at the barricades looked at the map as if they had never seen one and pointed vaguely in various directions. So we left Prague as we entered it: following false leads up hills and down until finally we were rescued, by an elegantly dressed elderly man walking his dog. He graciously explained a back route that put us on the road to Brno.
The shortest route between Prague and Krakow would have taken us through a heavily industrialized area, so we chose instead to swing southeast to Brno, the capital of Moravia. The pleasant, rolling countryside was often wooded, and Brno, where we spent the night, was an attractive old city with wide, tree-lined streets. It is Czechoslovakia's third largest city and the site of international trade fairs. Our hotel was geared to travel groups, made up largely of Germans (at least while we were there), laughing lustily and singing along with an accordian player who favored their tables in the dining room.
The Moravian villages we drove through that day and the next surprised us with their uniformity: attached houses lined at attention bordering the road, all neatly painted, each with a rectangular front garden bright with daisies, daffodils and grape hyacinths. They conveyed a distinctly different feeling from the haphazard charm of villages in Bohemia. These ethnic differences, preserved not only in language but in mortar and stone, enchanted us, but, we were constantly reminded, they bedevil Europe.
"Everything Slovak is no good," said a man helping us park our car in the town of Dolny Kubin. "I'm going back to Poland."
In a way we could understand his feelings. Ever since we entered Slovakia and started climbing the Tatra Mountains, evidence of dire poverty mounted. Hand-hewn log houses and log churches, dark with creosote and age, began to predominate. Scraps of broken machinery and building materials littered yards. We stopped to stretch, and an old woman pulling a small cart loaded with wood glared at us. She wore the national dress, the first we had seen: black boots, flowered pleated skirt and head scarf. We saw her counterpart in all the smaller Slovak villages.
Dolny Kubin is a center for excursions into the mountains and has one hotel, where we found a simple, clean double room with shower for $5. A wide, swift river arched with foot bridges flowed melodiously beneath our windows.
The Tatra Mountains have long been renowned for their beauty, but we had to search for scenic spots to picnic. In every valley there seemed to be a foul factory digesting huge piles of brown coal and egesting black smoke. Thick yellow industrial scum lined too many rivers. Too often a hillside was marred by a stand of dead trees.
By now, borders held no dread and we crossed into Poland without a hitch. But who expected horses? Seemingly everywhere we looked were scenes from pre-World War II movies: plodding drays pulling plows in the fields and wagons on the road.
Since Polish resembles no other known tongue, we couldn't even guess at the signs, but with a good street map we made our way through dense traffic to the center of Krakow and soon found there can be advantages in not being able to understand the language.
Forewarned that parking in the city would be difficult, we were delighted to find a parking place very close to our hotel, just inside the medieval wall. A well-tailored woman came out of the building across the street, and we asked her the direction of Hotel Polaski. She motioned for us to wait. In a moment she hailed a young version of Chopin: dark-haired, pale and handsome, with a flowing scarf around his neck. They held a brief, intense discussion. Then the young man turned toward us with a small bow.
"Mesdames, you are in a restricted zone. It is accessible only to those with a special permit who live here," he said in beautiful English. "We do not know why the police did not stop you. But do not be alarmed. Now that you are here we think you should stay because you have foreign license plates and we do not think the police will bother your car." With another slight bow, he said, "Please allow me to conduct you to your hotel."
Immediately we forgot the smog from the nearby Howa Huta (Lenin Steel Works). And we never thought of it again, so enchanting did we find this ancient royal city that is Poland's cultural center and former capital.
The next day, rounding a corner into Krakow's Market Square, we caught our breath. Here is the largest medieval town square in Europe, with a sweep and grace reminiscent of Venice's Piazzo San Marco. Stalls of flower vendors splashed the square with vivid swatches of color: banks of yellow daffodils, buckets of red tulips and rows of deep blue iris. Around the huge fountain people sat listening to a little oompah band composed of three men and a woman drummer, all wearing straw boaters.
As we headed for the craft market under the Renaissance arches of the great Cloth Hall that stretches the length of Market Square, our paths crossed with "Chopin." "Everyone passes through the square," he told us. "It is the heart of Krakow. Here is where our city lives."
Why, we asked him, were groups of schoolchildren waiting with their teachers in front of the huge Church of Our Lady Mary at the edge of the square? He related the story of the Krakow trumpeter, for whom the children were waiting. Every day of the year, every hour on the hour, a trumpeter appears at one the church tower's open windows. He raises his trumpet and plays several bars of an ancient hymn. Then he stops, with a broken note, in memory of a Krakow trumpeter who was felled by a Tartar arrow -- on a fateful day in the 13th century. At each of the windows, north, south, east and west, the broken hymn is repeated, as it has been, hourly, for more than seven centuries.
A short stroll from the square down Royal Way brought us to Wawel Castle, where we were given slippers to put over our shoes. We shuffled awkwardly over the highly polished parquet floors of rooms that, for all their rich furnishings, looked almost homey, with large bouquets of flowers artfully placed on Oriental carpets and carved side tables. On the rampart walls, we gazed down on a modern iron dragon that dwarfed the people looking up as he breathed fearsome tongues of real flames every minute.
Our last night in Krakow we lingered over our caviar and trout in the Wierzynek Restaurant overlooking Market Square. We didn't want to leave. Where else but Krakow would a gallant young taxi driver kiss our hands, or an overpaid waiter laughingly shake his finger at us and reach into our wallet for a smaller bill?
But next morning we plunged into the heavy traffic out of the city, through the dreary industrial suburbs and back over the slow winding road through the Tatra Mountains. We headed back to Dolny Kubin and on to the south, through the Czechoslovakian towns of Banska Bystrica and Zvolen. At the border we used our last Polish zloty to fill our gas tank and then crossed the fertile Hungarian plains to Budapest.
It was the week before May Day. "We're really going to celebrate," a Hungarian waiter told us. "All dancing and singing. No Communist military shows."
As we sat sipping coffee in Gerbeaud, one of Budapest's famous and elegant old cafes on Vorosmarty Square, we heard what he meant. Amplified jazz and rock from bandstands being erected outside nearly drowned out the violin players inside: blues, the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Grateful Dead -- the same familiar songs that in Czechoslovakia and Poland we had heard all the young people playing.
Vive la difference between Hungarians, Czechs and Poles, we said, as we tasted Gerbeaud's incomparable apple strudel. And as the Beatles' "Back in the U.S.S.R." grew louder, we raised our cups to this old/new beat that had heralded us along all the East European roads we freely traveled.
Luree Miller is a Washington writer whose latest book is "Literary Villages of London" (Starrhill Press). WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights from Washington to Vienna, but both Pan Am and TWA offer connecting service through New York for about $800 round trip, with 30-day advance purchase and travel on weekdays. GETTING AROUND: Our car was loaned to us by friends in Vienna, but Avis and Hertz have car rental offices in Vienna. Both offe considerably cheaper rates if a two-day advance booking is made from the United States. The smallest available cars, with manual shift, rent for $406 weekly plus 21 percent tax from Avis (Opal Cadet and VW Golf) and $300 plus 21 percent tax from Hertz (Fiat Panda), both with unlimited mileage.
It is advisable to carry an international driver's license, which can be obtained from the American Automobile Association for a fee of $10 to nonmembers, $8 to members, plus two passport-size photos. AAA will take the photos for $12.50. MONEY: We found that traveler's checks were accepted everywhere, but learned to ask for the tourist rate of exchange when we used credit cards at hotels. Our dollar bills were not as widely accepted as we expected because the dollar is weak against the German mark -- the most desired foreign currency in all three Eastern European countries we visited. WHERE TO STAY:
Prague, Czechoslovakia: Hotel Praha has 124 rooms with rates of $75 single, $88 double and $129 for a suite, all including continental breakfast served in the room.
There also is the much-favored, historic U Tri Pstrosu (Three Ostriches) in the Mala Strana at the end of the Charles Bridge. With only 15 rooms, it must be booked many months in advance. Other European-style hotels are the Alcron, the Esplanade and the Pariz. Of the two large, modern hotels, the International is adjacent to Old Town and the Forum is on the outskirts of the city. Rates are now running $150 and up double.
Brno, Czechoslovakia: Hotel Voronez, Krizkovska Street No. 49. Rates are $44 double.
Dolny Kubin, Czechoslovakia: Hotel Severan, Ralinskeho Street. The rate for a double room with shower is $5.
Krakow, Poland: Hotel Forum, ul. M. Konopnickiej 28. Rates are $88 single, $105 double. The Forum is a first-class hotel located a pleasant 15-minute walk along the Wisla River from Krakow's Market Square. It has a view of Wawel Castle
Holiday Inn, ul. Koniewa 7. Rates are $118 double, $92 single. The Holiday Inn is also a first-class hotel but is not as conveniently located as the Forum.
Hotel Pod Kopcem, al. Waszyntona. Rates are $57 double, $44 single. This is a delightful hotel in a converted Austrian fortress on a hilltop overlooking Krakow. Quiet, surrounded by forest and grazing cows, it is full of atmosphere. A short, very inexpensive taxi ride or Bus No. 100 takes you down the hill to Market Square.
Budapest, Hungary: Our travel agent made reservations for us in one of the city's many pensions, where our room was $25 a night double. But we preferred to hang out in the architecturally superb Budapest Hilton, built in and around the old castle ruins on Buda's Castle Hill. Rates at the Hilton run $270 to $350 double. Centrally located on the Pest side of the Danube are the modern Forum ($165 to $175 double) and the Atrium Hyatt ($150 to $175 double). WHAT TO EAT: None of the three countries is a gourmet's delight. But the ham and soups are excellent and the beer superb. In every town and village grocery one can buy (by pointing) sliced ham, cheeses and good, hearty bread for roadside picnics. Prices were so low that it was difficult for us to spend more than a couple of dollars for lunch for two. VISAS: Visas can be obtained from each country's embassy, as long as you have a valid U.S. passport. Call first for the latest information on application fees and procedures, and numbers of photos needed:
Czechoslovakia: Czechoslovak Embassy, 3900 Linnean Ave. NW, 363-6308 (recorded information 24 hours daily; office hours 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday). U.S. citizens with valid passports no longer need a visa for a stay of 30 days or less.
Hungary: Hungarian Embassy, 3910 Shoemaker St. NW, 362-6730 (10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday).
Poland: Polish Embassy Visa Section, 2224 Wyoming Ave. NW, 234-2501 (9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday). INFORMATION:
Austria: Tourist Information Office, 500 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10110, (212) 944-6880.
Czechoslovakia: Cedok, Czechoslovak Travel Bureau, 10 E. 40th St., Suite 1902, New York, N.Y. 10016, (212) 689-9720.
Hungary: IBUSZ, Hungarian Travel Co., 1 Parker Plaza, Suite 1104, Fort Lee, N.J. 07024, (201) 592-8585.
Poland: Orbis, Polish Travel Bureau, 500 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10110, (212) 867-5011.
-- Luree Miller