Czech and Slovak Heritage
Good travel advice
Making preparations to visit the Czech and Slovak Republic’s:
For first time visitors, its recommended you take a tour, or some sort of program, to get yourself orientated and used to the language, customs and traveling in these countries. A more informed traveler will have a better experience, and will save time and money by not being taken advantage of, or making uninformed or poor decisions. The considerable rise in the value of the Czech Republic Crown ( money ) has made traveling to the Czech Republic much more expensive. One must have good plans, and can’t just wonder around like a few years ago. Getting lost with gas at over $ 9.00 a gallon is crazy these days ! (yes that is correct - gas costs over $ 9.00 a gallon )
Why are you interested in visiting these countries?
If your main reason for going, to visit the major cities and sites : then a general type tour is acceptable, or going on your own with a guidebook is fine. Keep in mind your personality type, those who are outgoing, adventuresome and/or can speak the language will have a better travel experience. It’s very true that those who can speak the language are favored, can do and see things, and get discounts that the rest will not. If your only interest is in Prague and a few major places as a tourist, then you really do not need to go on a tour. Keep in mind that you will be almost totally among tourists, with few natives. You can find plenty to buy, and keep you busy. It will be quite easy to get around using English, at major places. Most restaurant menu’s are not in English, but will be in German. Expect most guided tours of places to be in Czech or German and not English. (except when it’s arranged on a fully guided tour)
More in-depth, off the beaten path, experiences: You have a few choices:
A language or educational program, most of these programs are based in major cities. Most exploring will have to be in your free time and on your own. ( only a good choice if you want to learn a language ) Independent travel: gives you the most control, you can do and see what you wish. Take a guide book and some very good maps and off you go! Some caveats of traveling on your own are : They are very aggressive drivers in Central Europe, and the road signage is not very good ( especially in the cities ! ) so plan on getting lost, and getting very stressed out. Public transportation in and between major cities is great, in the countryside or between small towns and villages its poor. It’s not fair to expect your relatives to expertly tour guide you around, they are not professionals. Its just like here, if they came to visit you, do you know where your local museums, folk artists are, and the hours they are open? People are always least knowledgeable about their local area and the same goes for over there.
Group tours vary greatly, with some stopping only at the most known tourist sites, while others take people off the beaten path - make sure you check and understand the tour itinerary. Most tours do the standard cookie-cutter itinerary to the same places. It’s easy to find the stores that sell folk crafts/art items, but they do not have the best prices. If your interested in seeing and learning how items are created or learning more about the historical significance of folk art items from the artists, folk dance groups, etc, they are very difficult to find on your own. Can a few people afford to hire the local folk dance group ??? a tour group can and should. A licensed local guide will know many more fascinating details about, local history, stories and legends than are to be found in any guide book. To really understand the people and background of these countries means you must learn about their history.
The best person to teach you, is someone who has lived through it, and has a genuine love of history and the important role that the Czech and Slovak people played in it. While some guides and researchers do their work because they love it, others are more interested in the amount of money they can make from you. A number of other tours claim they are better because “they were born in the old country” the fact that they have lived here for over 20 years does not seem to matter ? If being born someplace makes you a expert, then anyone from Kansas City has to be a expert in BBQ, anyone from Las Angeles has to be a expert in the movies / Hollywood, and anyone from Texas has to be a expert in Oil. If your tour leader / guide has no interest in Slovak or Czech history or culture here, how could that make them a expert in the old country ? Either these things are important, and mean something to you, or they don’t. I am well known as a life long learner of all things Czech and Slovak. All this as you can see in my web sites, this means a great deal to me personally. Always look for people who are passionate about what they do.
Genealogical trips: again its mostly two systems:
Independently: again gives you the most control. I personally do not recommend you travel over to do genealogical research, as it is very complicated, and will take far more time then you think it will. The records are very hard to understand, you must be trained to read the various scripts. Most of the time you will know more about the family history then your relatives in the old country do. Most people go over to see the ancestral homes, and church and meet their relatives. Don’t plan on getting a great deal done, everything will take longer…I highly suggest you prioritize your wishes, start at the top of your list and just work your way down.
A family visit over there is like surfing the Internet, many hours go by and you wonder why you are where you are, and where the many hours went by! Everyone’s agenda will not be yours, most relatives will feed you to death, then will “show off their American relatives ” to whoever. In this case, being on a tour is better as you will still see everything you want, plus meet the relatives. Finding a place to stay should not be a problem, except for weekends, and holiday’s. German’s have many holidays and the vast number of tourist are Germans. There are lots of hotels, and bed and breakfasts, more in the western or southern areas near Germany or Austria and less as you go father east. Rental cars and gas are more expensive then here. Plan on terrible traffic and parking problems in all major cities, and tourist areas. Do not even think of drinking and driving! There are many brand new gas stations, and drive through McDonalds opening everywhere. ( yuk ) Driving is extremely stressful be very careful !!!!!
Genealogical tours and how to pick the right one for you:
The first step is to read and map out the tour itinerary carefully, how much of the countries does it cover ??? If it’s a ten day tour and visits many places, are you spending too much time on the bus, and very little time really seeing things?? Research the reputation of the tour company. Do they provide you with references to contact?? For your family history, what do they do to find your roots?? Do they do any research?? If you want someone to accompany you, to your village, will it be a bored taxi driver, or a high school student who knows nothing about genealogy??? It should be someone who knows what they are doing, who is already familiar with your research in advance, and knows where to find information. Check with the Genealogical Society for their list of recommended genealogical tour operators. Please don’t rely on looking in a cemetery for your roots. Their is no guarantee that who is buried in the cemetery is related to you. They have different customs regarding cemetery plots and burials there, then we do here in the USA. The local records MUST be researched to confirm your family is from the village. Your spending a lot of money so make double sure. This is a very important point it could mean you just wasted your time and money. Make sure you find out everything you can about your roots in the old country before you leave. If all you know is that they came from near Prague, just enjoy your trip because your information is just too vague to locate relatives. Take copy’s of old documents and pictures with you. While there, take the opportunity to meet a professional genealogist to find out about researching your family tree. Wonderful records do exist, many people have their family history researched back into the 1500’s (I have 4-5 family lines back that far myself)
Final thoughts on travel advice:
There are plenty of travel guides to look through, do to the many changes taking place in these countries they become outdated very fast. The only official Czech or Slovak travel authority in the United States is,
“Czech Center”/ New York
1109 Madison Ave
New York New York 10028
The phone number is : (212) 288.0830, Fax (212) 288. 0971
You can find many other resources on the Internet.
FINAL TRAVEL ADVICE:
My main advice to you is that you go over soon, before all the beautiful squares are lined with fast food restaurants. Many changes are coming to these countries, some better then others. Prices will become much higher ( like 25 % higher ) when these countries enter the Euro money systems. Slovakia will do this first on January 1st 2009, the Czech Republic will be a few years later….. Head to the smaller towns and the countryside, the Czech Republic is far more than Prague, beautiful as it is. Go to Slovakia its very dramatic and scenic, its mountains and villages are enchanting. The big point is just GO, and don’t wait until your knees and mind are failing!!!
© 2008 Mark Vasko-Bigaouette, Founder and past President CzechoSlovak Genealogical Society Intl. (CGSI) , President Czech & Slovak Heritage Tours Inc.
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Comments: Webmaster; Revised October 1st, 2007