From 10 May to 23 May, we travelled on Insight Vacations “Highlights of Central & Eastern Europe” coach tour. This was late in the northern Spring, which meant that the weather was variable, including one day that was spoiled by wind and rain, a few days of cool weather with tolerable occasional showers and several sunny days, tending to be quite warm at the end of the tour.
The main comment I want to make about this tour is that it has two distinct elements or themes. Firstly, the tour takes you to numerous places which feature attractive buildings and environs, or which embody a rich and interesting history going back many centuries. Several of these sites demonstrate the remarkable resilience of the human spirit, having been rebuilt physically and culturally following any number of devastating events.
And there’s the rub.
All of the countries and major cities which we visited had experienced destructive trauma during the 20th Century; ie one, more or all of the two world wars, Nazi tyranny and Soviet domination. That is part of the reason for choosing this tour, to learn about these awful events that, in some cases, are within living memory and, in every case, are embedded in the cultural DNA of the residents of continental Europe. You must, then, be prepared to hear the grim stories of each country and each city; not just to celebrate the regeneration that has emerged through reconstruction and cultural and political freedoms.
The challenge for the tour operator is to get the balance right. Every member of our group hailed from North America or Australasia. Yes, our countries were involved significantly in what happened in Europe last century but, apart from the loss of too many members of our armed forces and some one-off-if-shocking events, eg Pearl Harbour, we were spared the appalling destruction, ruthless oppression and state-implemented savagery that remains a factor in how Europeans see themselves and their continent.
By the time we had left Berlin for Dresden – speaking of horror stories – many of our group had reached a point where they had heard enough of the bad times; some gave voice to this feeling. Our Tour Director took this on board and, with the help of outstanding local guides in the second half of the tour, the balance shifted towards the contemporary story and delight in what we were able to see of Europe’s genuine beauty.
Sorry to be a bit long-winded but any prospective customer should be aware of such things. That said, Maggie and I both feel grateful for this well-organised and well-managed opportunity to learn, view and experience as much as we did.
Other comments about the tour? The accommodation was generally of a very high standard. We had enjoyed four coach tours with Trafalgar – part of the same corporation – but this was one and a half steps up in hotel standard … beginning with the Corinthia in Budapest (see photos below).
Our coach was very comfortable with more leg room than with Trafalgar. Our driver, Janos was of the highest order, including four occasions when he worked minor miracles to get us out of unforeseeable tight situations. Our Tour Director, Monica was experienced, efficient and wonderfully organised, as well as charming. All but one of several local guides were wonderful and, the company, Insight Vacations went out of its way and, at least once, out of its budget to ensure that we were satisfied.
The tour itinerary – views, visits and experiences – was varied and full of highlights. Just to name one, the concert of Mozart and Strauss music, including singers and dancers, on our last evening, was of a very high standard in a historic building and we were seated in rows two and three. Many of our group will treasure this experience for many years to come.
The main weak spot of the itinerary was the included meals. I concede that it is next to impossible to ensure that all such meals on a tour are satisfactory without blowing the budget or adding excessive hours for the driver and tour director. And I have to allow for the fact that dining is one of our personal preoccupations when we visit Europe. So, you just have to be prepared for quality that ranges from poor to excellent.
All in all, we had a wonderful tour experience at a price that represented very good value.
(This is the last post I will be publishing about our 2104 trip to Europe and Dubai. However, we do have plans for our next two visits to Europe! Meanwhile, I have added some extra photos and words to the posts that I wrote before we returned home. One day, I will add captions to the photos as well – I am still getting the hang of this blogging caper. A bientot! Home cooking posts will resume soon. Buon appetito!)