Historically, there have been only two options when planning a European golf vacation: the links golf of the British Isles and Ireland or the sunny southern coasts of Spain and Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula.
Then there's Europe's not-so-obvious golf trip: still raw in many ways and perfect for the more adventurous group. It's the golf courses in the former Eastern Bloc, or what I like to call The Iron Curtain Golf Trail.
In a lot of ways, it's the perfect time for a golf trip to the former Eastern Bloc countries. For Americans and Canadians fed up with the strength of the British pound and euro, your money can go a relatively long way here because most of these countries don't use the euro ... yet.
And a bonus: You'll have an assortment of foreign coins to use as ball markers for many years to come.
Though each country's tourism markets are fully developed, there are some added challenges for the tourist. There's Russia's Cyrillic alphabet for starters. Another problem is the fact that most schools only taught Russian and German during the Soviet occupation. That means many of the middle aged and elderly locals know little English. So should you need help in one of these countries' city centers, look for a teenager; they're your best bet for a common tongue.
Finding a respected golf packager will be trickier, too. Most of the larger, international packagers don't bother with Eastern Europe yet, so booking a golf package will require a little more homework.
But that's the charm of the golf in this region. It's golfing in a land where locals at a train station curiously surround and touch your golf bag, not unlike how the apes inspected a mysterious monolith at the beginning of "2001: A Space Odyssey" - as I experienced after a day of golf and beer in the city of Plzen in the Czech Republic. It's telling a Polish man in a pub in downtown Krakow I was there to discover the city's golf - and him telling me he had no idea what I was talking about (or maybe it was my English).
Everyone seems to be learning golf there, though, and in a way, the game is a barometer for capitalism in Eastern Europe. The future certainly holds plenty of 'green.'
Russia, the world's largest country in terms of area, can count its ultra-exclusive courses on one hand. The first course was Moscow Country Club, built in 1988 by American Robert Trent Jones Jr. The Moscow area is seeing more courses in development now, including Forest Hills Golf Club, built by Toledo-based Arthur Hills-Steve Forrest Associates. Forrest has said bringing golf to the land of hammer and sickle is surreal.
"It's certainly unusual, growing up in the Cold War days, to be standing in the Kremlin," Forrest said recently on the TravelGolf.com This Week podcast. "You kind of have to pinch yourself. We really are pioneers with the game of golf in this country."
Of all the former Soviet occupied countries, the Czech Republic has the most golf, as the Soviets' stronghold was lighter there. Its golf association was founded in 1931, and today there are more than 70 golf facilities in the country, including 42 18-hole courses. The most stunning is Karlstejn Golf Club, set in the shadows of a 14th century castle in the hills outside Prague.
The Czech Republic's neighbor, Slovakia is a rural nation with a less-developed tourism industry. The country's first 18-hole championship course is Gray Bear at the Tale Golf & Ski Resort in the beautiful Low Tatra Mountains, and more courses are on their way.
To the east, Poland has fewer than a dozen 18-hole courses in a country of nearly 40 million people. This summer, Krakow Valley Country Club is celebrating the country's first major pro event: the European Tour Parkridge Polish Senior's Tour Championship.
But their work also involves conducting weekend clinics for locals, many of whom have never touched a golf club before. They also take their act into the city, where they close down streets in Krakow to offer golf demonstrations.
Farther south, Hungary is an incredibly historic country famous for its thermal water and spa culture. Golf has a relatively long history too, with its first competition dating back to 1909. It was dormant through most of the Soviet occupation, and the Hungary Golf Association wasn't established until 1989.
Today, a handful of courses surround the capital city of Budapest, including Pannonia and Polus Palac. BallesterosGolf.com offers golf itineraries that mix Budapest city and culture tours, along with wine tastings and spa excursions.
Bulgaria and Romania are presently seeing a great deal of western investment. While Romania's countryside and Transylvania are extraordinarily beautiful, Bulgaria has more golf potential. It's become a popular spot with British ex-pats, who use their strong currency to scoop up prime real estate in resort towns on the Black Sea.
While only three courses are open at the moment, up to two-dozen golf projects are under construction or on the boardroom table, spanning from resorts along the Black Sea to Pirin Mountain ski resorts and Sophia.
So while golf isn't exactly full steam ahead in the former Eastern Bloc, it's good to see the seedlings that sprouted out of the Berlin Wall's ruins beginning to bloom. And perhaps the best way to encourage the growth of golf into a global game is for your next trip to bypass the mainstays of Western Europe for the countries of the former Iron Curtain.
April 8, 2008