Eastern Europe continues to work hard to build its tourist industry. From Prague to Poland to Turkey, plenty of changes are in the works.
Prague, the region’s most visited city, has nearly completed the first restoration phase on its iconic Charles Bridge. Built in the 14th century, this much-loved bridge offers one of the most pleasant and entertaining 500-plus-yard strolls in Europe. And now old-fashioned gas lighting will make an evening walk across this landmark even more of a joy.
Nervous about al-Qaida threats, Radio Free Europe has moved its headquarters out of the communist-era Parliament building in Prague’s New Town. A guided tour now takes you step by fascinating step through recent Czech history in the building’s once off-limits interior.
Hovering above the Old Town in Dubrovnik, Croatia’s top destination, is the fortress on Mount Srd. It is reclaiming its status as a tourist attraction. Workers are repairing the cable car that once linked the city to the fortress before the lift system was destroyed during the breakup of Yugoslavia (dubrovnikcablecar.com). When the work is completed (likely this summer), it will be easier for visitors to enjoy the mountaintop’s sweeping views and a modest new war museum about the 1991-1992 siege of Dubrovnik.
Both Croatia and Slovenia are continuing to expand their expressways. Slovenia has switched from a tollbooth payment system to windshield toll stickers called “vinjeta” (about $21/week, $42/month). Croatia’s expressways are being extended south from Split toward Dubrovnik. Work has begun — and stalled — on the controversial Peljesac Bridge. This $400 million project would allow the highway to bypass a border crossing into Bosnia-Herzegovina, thereby keeping the road entirely in Croatian territory.
In 2012, Poland (jointly with Ukraine) will host the Euro Cup soccer championship. Throughout the country, a wave of new construction is refreshing and re-energizing dingy old quarters, especially in Warsaw, Gdansk, Poznan and Wroclaw, which will host matches. Poland also is using the Euro Cup as an excuse to upgrade its rail network. (Unfortunately in the short term, construction is causing many train delays.)
In Krakow, Poland’s historic capital, the big news is that Oskar Schindler’s factory, where the German businessman did his creative best to save the lives of his Jewish workers during World War II, is being converted into a museum. It opens in mid-2010 (mhk.pl). At this site, where Steven Spielberg filmed some of the scenes in ” Schindler’s List,” exhibits trace Krakow’s World War II experience. Visitors also can see a replica of Schindler’s office and watch testimonial footage of Schindler’s grateful employees.
Also in Krakow, the eclectic Czartoryski Museum has closed for restoration, likely through 2012. The collection’s two masterpieces ( Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady With an Ermine” and Rembrandt’s “Landscape With the Good Samaritan”) are temporarily on loan to other cities, but sometime this year they will be displayed in the Gallery of the 19th Century Polish Art, above the Cloth Hall on Krakow’s Main Market Square.
At Auschwitz, individuals may no longer enter the Auschwitz I part of the concentration camp memorial on their own at busy times (9 a.m.-3 p.m. May-September). During these peak hours, you must join one of the memorial’s organized tours or hire a private guide. The famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free) gate is now a replica, after the original was stolen and then recovered last December.
In Warsaw, the confusing Central Train Station is slated for a much-needed remodel sometime before the Euro Cup. Because 2010 marks the 200th birthday of Polish-born composer Frederic Chopin, Poland is celebrating the Year of Chopin (chopin2010.pl). Along with special concerts and events, Warsaw’s Chopin Museum has gotten a high-tech face-lift, with interactive exhibits to complement the Chopin memorabilia.
Turkey’s national currency, until last year called the new Turkish lira (“yeni Turk lirasi,” or YTL), has been renamed. It’s now simply TL, or Turkish lira. Istanbul’s wonderful Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent is closed for renovation, likely until August (but you can still visit its courtyards, cemetery and mausoleums).
The Galata Dervish Monastery in Istanbul’s New District is likely to be closed through late 2010 for renovation. But even during this work, you can see performances of the Whirling Dervishes. The authentic two-hour religious ritual, performed by followers of the Muslim mystic Rumi, will be held at temporary locations (at a theater in the New District and even at the Sirkeci train station; see rumimevlevi.com).
Wherever your whirl in Eastern Europe, you will find that many of the natives speak excellent English and are forever scrambling to impress their guests.
Any rough edges left over from the communist era simply add to the charm and carbonate your experience.