CHEAPEST PLACES ON EARTH
Bohemia & Moravia, Czech Republic
I know a place in Europe that has a bucolic, stream- and lake-rich countryside worthy of England's Cotswolds; storybook castles and palaces equal or better than anything in the Loire or Rhine valleys; complex beers that give Germany and Belgium a run for their euros; and good wines from ancient hill towns as enchanting as those of Tuscany. In my Slavic Elysium, you glide serenely amid rolling pine-clad hills and fields adorned with carp ponds, beer hops growing on racks, and brilliant yellow rapeseed. It's an unindustrialized, very lightly touristed region where living, eating, and traveling all cost a fraction of what they do in all the above. Rooms to let at $2 a night and hot dinners for $1? Nen problem - just ask. Many Americans have at least heard of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic (once part of Czechoslovakia, it's the land of Martina Navratilova, Madeleine Albrightova, and Ivana Trumpova, not to mention a new member of NATO). That glorious city - as I wrote in the November/ December 1999 Budget Travel - is a must-see doable at truly bargain rates. But few folks have any real clue about the cultural, historical, and natural riches of the area south of Prague - where most prices are so low that even in the middle of an expensive continent, it can still be considered one of the cheapest places on earth.
The most bucolic, historic, and all-around appealing itinerary is the 260-mile route from Prague south to Vienna, Austria, a comfortable road currently being marketed under a "Greenways" program intended to shore up adjoining trails for hikers, bikers, and horsebackers, as well as to give a boost to economical development and "sustainable tourism." You can easily manage it on your own (trails are signposted), or via the "official" Greenways tour operator, Greenways Travel Club, repped in the U.S. by Summit International Travel (see box). Contributing part of its take to the nonprofit Greenways organization, Greenways Travel Club runs packages ranging from prearranged but independent to fully escorted (some also now use minibuses).
All the towns are served from Prague by inexpensive regular buses (and in some cases by trains), but the best way to see the countryside is to rent a compact Skoda (the cheapest model, but reliable) in Prague from agencies like Czechocar (2/6122-2079, czechocar.cz, from 1,700 crowns/$50 a day) and do the route round-trip, or one-way to Vienna, or to the city of Breclav, where you can take a four-hour train ($9.70 in first class) back to Prague. Your drive southward will be pleasant and pretty much a breeze on good roads; though English isn't exactly on the tip of every tongue (a Czech phrase book's an excellent idea, especially for small-town menus), the average American shouldn't have any trouble getting around and having a grand old time. I wish I could tell you about every single spot I love - the spas of Renaissance Trebon, the memorable ancient chateau and castle towns like Jindrichuv Hradec and Vranov nad Dyji. But here, from north to south, are five areas not to miss:
Tabor: Tunnels & heretics
55 miles (1 hour) south of Prague
A quick zip down Route E50, one of my favorite Bohemian towns (pronounced "TAH-bor") was the Waco of the Middle Ages - turned into a hilltop military garrison in the fourteenth century by a rebellious Christian cult which held off the armies of the Holy Roman Empire for 17 years. The Hussites, as these tough mothers were called, even carved out eight miles of defense tunnels - by hand - under the streets; you can visit a museum on them and their general, stormin' Jan Zizka, as well as actually go down into some of the tunnels. In spite of its riveting history and charming Star, Mesto (Old Town), Tabor has been nothing like the tourist draw it deserves to be, and only now is its hotel and restaurant situation coming more into its own. Go in September for the big medieval festival (contact local tourism at 361/486-230, fax /486-100; email@example.com).
You can "do" T bor in a few hours and continue on your way, but an overnight to fully absorb the atmosphere can be a kick. The priciest digs in town are the recently renovated, turn-of-the century Hotel Kapital (Trida 9 kvetna 617, tel. 361/256-096, fax /252-411), just down the street from the Old Town. Behind its five-floor pink facade, 50 white stuccoed rooms with private baths, TVs, and phones go for $29 double (including daily buffet breakfast in the cute little dining room). Even more economical options have opened more recently. Right off the late-Gothic main square, Zizkovo namesti, the nine-room Penzion Bylinkarstvi (Trzni 274, tel./fax 361/256-419) is named for the herb (byliny) shop up front, and owner Eva Horov charges a mere $14.70 a night, including private bath, boob tube, fridge, and breakfast. Across the square, the six-room Kostnicky Dum (Strelnick 220, tel. 361/252-283, fax /253-339) is also a good deal, its similarly equipped rooms with a view starting at $23 for two, while a studio apartment's $26.