the Giant Mountains to the massive Tatras, but many of the 500 castles (and other history) are crowded into Bohemia— the land of good King Wenceslas.
The most majestic is Karlstejn, built in the fourteenth century like the cathedral and silver mint at Kutna Hora. Another ancient town is Tabor, cradle of the Hussites; and not far away is Konopiste estate with its huntingtrophies and horse-riding. The less active may 'take the waters' amid faded grandeur at Carlsbad or Marienbad— whence it is a short drive to Pilsen, famous for its Skoda motorworks and Urquell brewery.
These are all easy excursions from "golden Prague of a hundred spires," a baroque city with lively taverns, beer-halls, night-clubs and theatres as well as cobbled streets, ancient monuments and fine old buildings. The Czech capital is the most captivating in eastern Europe.
The prize for elegance goes to Budapest, whose magnificent waterfront is best seen from the hydrofoil which brings summer passengers down from Vienna. Past Esztergom, dominated by Hungary's largest cathedral, the Danube flows into the great city . . between the Parliament on the Pest side and the Fisherman's Bastion on the Buda bank.
High above it around the Coronation Church of Matthias are restaurants like Fortuna with their gypsy music, their paprika dishes, their Tokay and Bull's Blood.
The wine from Eger (onetime Turkish outpost) and the sausages from reformist Debrecen are among the gastronomic specialities that have made the Magyars notorious trenchermen! Budapest is a feast of food-shops with mouth watering window displays which include plumbrandy (szlvapalinka) in green scratched pots.
Finer is the porcelain from Herend, which lies between the thriving Benedictine abbey of Pannonholma and the "Hungarian Sea." This well describes Lake Balaton, whose aquatic attractions are as popular as the equestrian holidays at the Hortobagy puszta and other studs on the Great Hungarian Plain.
Once a Hungarian duchy was the flat Voivodina province of Yugoslavia, whose brooding capital is also on the Danube. From Belgrade steamers go down to the Iron Gates, whose rapids are now harnessed for hydro-electric power serving both Yugoslays and Rumanians.
A Latin nation in a sea of Slays, Rumania gets its name and language from the
Romans. It wants to be western and the parisien boulevards of Bucharest are symbolically sweeping away the bumpy Balkan back streets.
The national roads are good and top-grade petrol is only 3s. 6d. a gallon. You can hire Hillmans from Carpati (state tourist office) in the capital and start a good tour by going north past the Ploesti oil-wells up into the glorious Carpathians. See Sinaia and Brasov, both settled by the Saxons of Transylvania, and then follow the wooded range to northern Moldavia.
Almost in Holy Mother Russia are the mediaeval monasteries of the eastern rite —still with vivid frescoes on their windswept walls. Return south through the university city of Jassy to the birdwatchers' paradise in the Danube delta. From this fenland it is a short run to Europe's latest dolce vita of sea, sand and sun—Mamia Further down the Black Sea coast are Golden Sands and Sunny Beach in Bulgaria. Inland attractions of this Slav corner south of the Danube are the Valley of Roses . . . picturesque Turnovo . . . the Rila Monastery. Sofia, the capital, is a relaxing gardencity at the foot of Mount Vitosha.
Frontier formalities everywhere compare well with western ones, but money-changing is a bugbear due to regulations about exporting the local currency. But far from fearing ruthless controls in eastern Europe. beware instead of bureaucratic muddle and misinformation.
In Hungary leave everything to IBUSZ, the state tourist office, and let Balkanturist take care of arrangements in Bulgaria. Carpati, though efficient, is not a vital fairy-godmother in Rumania — where hotel and other bookings can be made on the spot.
The same goes for Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, which in any case offer a choice of travel agencies such as Cedok or Rekrea, Kompass or Putnik.
The state hotels and restaurants are good, but service worsens as you near the orient unless you go in for capitalistic tipping. Another problem is the language barrier, for English-speakers are rarer than people with German or French (the latter mainly in Rumania).
But the joys outweigh the snags. Travel costs — apart from hotels — are cheaper than in the west. Some countries offer discounts after sterling's devaluation. Public transport is ridiculously lowpriced. And light traffic on the roads gives drivers a wonderful sense of freedom.
Another freedom is apparent in the crowded churches, both Catholic and orthodox. Only in the remotest areas will you find it difficult to hear Mass.