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Driving the Road to the European Union

I leave my map behind and proceed to get blissfully lost, eventually finding myself on the hilly streets east of Riegrovy Sady park. It is an old area, with cement walls rainbowed by graffiti. On stone sidewalks and curlicue streets that would have been prime locations for a car chase in a John Frankenheimer film, I catch whispers of the former Prague. After a stop on the hill above the Hlavnitrain station, I descend to the tourist-friendly area near the Charles Bridge. Searching for a pilsner, I find a hard-rocking joint, speed metal grinding out of the jukebox and two large dogs growling and fighting on the floor despite the NO PETS sign. The long-haired clientele make a point of ignoring me.

The sheer number of places to go out in Prague—austere minimalist boîtes, cozy clubs, upscale restaurants, techno dance halls, and plenty of seedy dive bars—is a testament to the fervor with which the Czech Republic has embraced capitalism. I'd planned for a nice dinner, but after spending hours chatting with locals and expats, the desire for a meal slips away. I end up at Ocean Drive, a cocktail lounge where I sit at the bar next to Charles, from London, and his wife, Eliska, a Prague native. They are in their early thirties. "I've been here twelve years," Charles says. "It has become a city of the world. Expats love to complain, but," he says, gesturing to his gorgeous blond wife, "I lack for nothing."

"As a poor little girl growing up," Eliska adds, "I never imagined that I would have an English husband and eat expensive dinners every night."

It's 5 a.m. I'm driving out of Prague on a deserted road. A thick fog smears the light from overhead streetlamps across my windshield. The countryside reveals itself in small patches of farmland before the mist closes in again. Taking a wrong turn at the city of Brno, I end up an hour east. I pass an air museum off the road near the town of Vyskov and pull over beside a chain-link fence guarded by a cranky German shepherd. A sign says the museum is open, although I have no luck summoning anyone by honking the horn. Peering through the fence, I spy, upon a field of cracked asphalt, dozens of snub-nosed MiG fighters, Mil M1-8 helicopters with drooping rotors, and decaying twin-engine bombers. Despite their decrepitude, they still look fierce. This is the Eastern Europe I remember from the Cold War years.

Back on the right road by midday, I pass into Slovakia. The border is again a smattering of buildings and a cursory passport check. Czechoslovakia dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, ending a federation of 75 years. Slovakiawill be invited into the EU this month, but its capital, Bratislava, is still a gray place with uninspired office buildings and small, sharp-roofed houses. The area outside the city seems even more desolate—miles of flat grassland or brown earth. In one blink-and-you'll-miss-it town, I see dozens of white-haired men and women, all dressed in black, riding bicycles. Many seem to be in their seventies, pedaling slowly down the road in clusters. Then I pass the cemetery where a funeral service has just ended, and I understand.

To the south, the Hungarian border is demarcated by the Dunaj River, which cuts down the center of the Slovakian town Komarno (it's called Komarom on the Hungarian side). A skeletal metal bridge connects the two countries. I pass through this portal and within the hour I'm in Budapest. After I check into my hotel, I walk over the Chain Bridge, with its yawning lions. The first permanent structure to span the Danube and link Buda to Pest, it was destroyed in World War II. At its foot, on the Pest side, sits the Gresham Palace. First built in 1906, this grandiose Art Nouveau structure—which glittered with exquisite stained-glass windows, ornate marble floors, and lacy scrolls of wrought iron—was once the pride of the city, but was badly damaged when the retreating German army blew up the Chain Bridge in 1944. Now, after $134 million in renovations, it will open in August as a 179-room Four Seasons hotel. Marta Palfalvi, the hotel's public relations manager, says locals are excited by the reopening, particularly because of the Gresham Kavehaz, the hotel's café. "It was always a place for the people to gather and talk art and politics," she says. "It will again be open for everybody—a gift to the city."

Up in my room on the other side of the Danube, I lie down. It is Friday night, but I'm exhausted after so many miles. It has started raining. Hard. It would be very easy to close my eyes. Then I sense the thrum of energy on the streets. Because, despite the rain, things are looking very good for Budapest and Hungary. Communism is declawed. The euro is coming to town (good for the locals, bad for my wallet). There is reason to party. I put on my shoes. I'm going to join them.

JASON HARPER has written for Men's Journal, Ski Magazine, and Travel + Leisure Golf.

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