Last October, friends and colleagues knew that my husband and I were traveling to Prague and Budapest. I was largely quiet, however, about one detail: We were joining up with a tour.
Kurt and I pride ourselves on self-guided travel. Being part of a pack of 50, following a guide with a red flag and a strict timeline, is not our idea of fun.
We do, however, enjoy Rick Steves’ travelogues and guidebooks and use them to map out our itineraries abroad. His travel style is a good match for ours. And like Steves, our linguistic skills serve us well in French- and German- speaking countries. But Czech and Hungarian are completely foreign to our ear. And tough!
To benefit most from our time in bucket-list Prague and Budapest, we broke our solo-travel streak, took a chance and signed on for an eight-day escorted tour with Rick Steves’ Europe.
Truth be told, I was in an “I-don’t-think-we-need-this” frame of mind when we met up with the tour group in Prague. The orientation session quickly modified my thinking.
This was not the stereotypical travel junket I feared. Kurt and I were in the company of sophisticated, seasoned travelers. Bonus: This was one of Rick Steves’ most active tours, with most days strenuously paced with up to 8 miles of walking. (This is something we knew going in.)
As introductions were made, I took particular note of a NASA retiree on his 20th Rick Steves tour; a high-ranking Air Force officer and her naval aviator husband; and a single thirtysomething neurosurgery physician’s assistant (who — joy! — became my assigned “buddy” for the duration of the tour).
The most extraordinary travel companion, however, was Jana Hronkova, our Prague-based guide. Jana (pronounced Yana) grew up under Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. We bonded immediately, and my anti-tour bias evaporated.
Seeing Prague and Budapest with this group was a priceless experience.
Kurt and I left with:
- A deeper understanding of the hard realities of Communist oppression and the horrors of the Holocaust, having heard the stories of families who lived it.
- Gratitude for Czechs and Hungarians who speak English. We never got beyond “Ahoj!” (hello) in Prague. And “Egészségedre” (cheers!) in Budapest.
- An appreciation of having local guides who know the best watering holes, exchange kiosks, local markets and laundry facilities.
- A new group of friends with similar travel interests.
- A note to self: Triple-check the currency you’re using so you don’t repeat the mistake of leaving the equivalent of a $150 tip for a $60 restaurant meal. This happened in an Italian restaurant in Budapest (after a bottle of wine). Oops. I hope the waiter went home happy ...
Here’s to that time when it will be safe to travel the world again!