Waterlogged Austria is a surfer's pariadise

The Gürtel is the boulevard that runs around the core of Vienna. On the western side stands Surfinsel, a surfing shop. What, I wondered as the bus I was on sped past, is the point of that? The nearest sea is at Trieste, 250 miles away as the errant seagull flies; but the Adriatic there is usually placid. To find surf worthy of the name, the Viennese beach boy or girl must head 800 miles west to the Atlantic coast of France for a real breaker.

The Gürtel is the boulevard that runs around the core of Vienna. On the western side stands Surfinsel, a surfing shop. What, I wondered as the bus I was on sped past, is the point of that? The nearest sea is at Trieste, 250 miles away as the errant seagull flies; but the Adriatic there is usually placid. To find surf worthy of the name, the Viennese beach boy or girl must head 800 miles west to the Atlantic coast of France for a real breaker.

Or so I thought until Wednesday, when I walked across the main bridge in the middle of Austria's second city, Graz. The Mur river was confined within its banks, with no imminent danger to the adjacent Old Town. But high waves were cascading downstream. And doing their best to emulate southern California in southern Austria were two surfers. Though the whitewater was more of a mucky brown, they were having the time of their lives, and entertaining a large and appreciative audience watching from the Hauptbrücke.

This week, tourists in Central Europe have experienced many surprises beside Graz's new role as Surfers' Paradise. Across Austria in Salzburg, floods have dampened demand for The Sound of Music tours that are the city's trademark, as holidaymakers climb ev'ry mountain in search of dry land. The Elbe is threatening the painstakingly reconstructed city of Dresden with yet another civic catastrophe. And Prague, the new Venice of the North, matches the real thing except in two respects: gondolas are absent, and Ryanair has not yet come up with an airport in a small and distant town that it pretends is Prague.

The consequences of this week's deluge for local people in the Czech Republic, Germany and the countries bordering the Black Sea have been awful, with dozens of deaths, and thousands of lives traumatised. The inconvenience to tourists is of an altogether more minor order. But the events draw attention to the patchy rights that British holidaymakers enjoy when unforeseen events disrupt their plans. Indeed, when what the lawyers call "an unforeseeable and irresistible act of nature" occurs, it is safest to assume that you have no rights at all.

A typical case is that you have bought a flight aboard one of the four airlines that link the UK with Prague. To satisfy their contract with you, they need only fly you to the city's airport, Ruzyne. As is the case with most airports, the runway is on relatively high ground (among other advantages, this means there are fewer things to bump into after take-off or on the approach).

What you do upon arrival is entirely up to you; it is not the airline's responsibility. If a flight is still operating as scheduled, normal rules apply. So if you're on any kind of restricted ticket – and most are these days – you face losing some or all of your cash. To their credit, British Airways, Go, Bmibaby and Czech Airlines offered passengers the chance to postpone their flights until the waters of the Vltava have subsided.

Flights are but one ingredient of a city break. Suppose you had bought accommodation separately, and paid for it upfront with a credit card – as hoteliers in Prague, where beds are scarce in August, are prone to demand. Unless the hotel is so waterlogged that you face having to snorkel your way to reception, you will still be obliged to pay for the room, though some generous hoteliers will charge your card for only the first night.

When havoc interferes with travel plans, those who put their trust, and credit cards, in the hands of an intermediary are in a stronger position that people with DIY holidays.

Last week, travel agents were jubilant about the news that a couple had booked a flight on the internet to Sydney, Nova Scotia, rather than to Australia's largest city. This week, it is the turn of the city-break operators to champion the worth of involving a professional in your trip. Book a flight plus another element – such as a hotel room, or a rental car – through a single company and you should find yourself covered by the Package Travel Regulations, a handy set of rules that means the tour operator has to deliver what's promised, or refund your money.

Many operators will provide more than they are obliged to do by law. The short-break specialist Kirker Holidays had two sets of clients booked to travel to Prague this weekend. One group swapped a three-centre tour taking in the Czech capital, Vienna and Budapest for an Italian trilogy of Venice, Florence and the Tuscan countryside. The other clients were booked to fly to Prague for a long weekend staying at the Four Seasons Hotel, whose cellar is currently flooded. So they opted for its namesake in Istanbul. Even though Turkey's largest city is more than twice as far away as Prague, and the hotel pricier, the clients paid not a penny extra: "We are absorbing the additional cost," says Andrew Layard of Kirker Holidays.

Other travellers will, I am afraid, either have to put on the Wellingtons and wade off to Prague, or watch their money being washed down the drain by the flood waters.

So where does that leave your expensive travel insurance? Surely a Noah-style deluge is just the sort of unexpected event that a decent policy should cover? Indeed, before BA changed its tune and allowed people to postpone Prague flights, it said travellers "should check to see if they're covered by travel insurance". But the Foreign Office says only that "British citizens planning to visit Prague should be aware that many of the normal tourist sites in the centre of the city are likely to be closed", rather than telling people not to go. "Disinclination to travel" is uninsurable – otherwise, says one broker, holidaymakers "would claim every time it rained".

People who have yet to book their city break may be busily selecting the "new Prague" – partly because of the city's rising damp problem, but also because some travellers find the Czech capital full of the wrong sort of tourist. The unsavoury website www.praguepissup.com, run by "the largest British tour operator in Prague" sums up the problem: "Getting married? Coming for a rugby tour? Just want to get pissed all weekend? Prague's a lovely place to do it."

Since Prague sprang on to the tourism map in 1990, in the wake of the Velvet Revolution, there has been a debate about which city is its aesthetic superior. The rules are strict: it must be a city preserved for decades within the aspic of the old Eastern Bloc, and relatively untainted by war – though brutal ranks of Cold War apartment blocks in the suburbs are permissible; Prague has masses of them. There must be a castle, though more for decorative than defensive purposes. A river must flow through it, ideally at a gentle pace unless city surfing really catches on. And the beer must be tasty and ridiculously cheap. One leading candidate, Krakow in Poland, has been touted as the "new Prague" for so long that it is already passé.

Two strong contenders are Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and Lviv (formerly Lvov) in western Ukraine. The former, though, is ruled out by an unavoidable concrete memorial of 45 years of state socialism: a piece of decidedly uncivil engineering called the Slovak National Uprising Bridge, perched like a wanton alien astride the Danube (which yesterday resembled Niagara). Lviv loses out because securing a Ukrainian visa is almost as tricky as surfing through Graz, and – at £50 a go – a lot more expensive.

Without a moment's hesitation, Mr Layard nominated Budapest: "uncommercialised, unwesternised and much better value". And the website www.budapestboozeup.com is safely dormant; I know this, because I registered the domain name yesterday, together with its co.uk counterpart, and have no plans to activate it.

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