Thursday, October 24, 2013

Hungary on $40 per person per day.

Actually, Budapest on $40/person/day. We didn't see anything else of Hungary on this part of the trip.

Initial budget: 14 days at $1204 ($86/day, $43/person/day)
Actual cost: 5 days at $401 ($80/day, $40/person/day)

I can't get over how little info went into the WAG for the initial budget, and how close we are coming in. But that's because I am nerdy like that.

Here's the breakdown with some details...

yep, they all kinda look the same
we're so predictable
  • Lodging: $153 - dorm rooms at hostels and one night for a hostel private room (CURSE YOU, SNORERS!!) averaging $15/person/night.
  • Transportation: $145 - except for nominal dollars spent on metro rides in Budapest, this is the cost of the train from Budapest to Brasov.
  • Groceries: $36 - we spent our peanut butter fund on the most amazing rye rolls from the local supermarket. If we never eat bread again after Central Europe...
  • Meals: $37 - most of this is lunch one day at the touristy central market and our "last meal in Budapest" (goulash and meat!).
  • Tours: $14 - two free walking tour guide tips.
  • Alcohol: $14 - hooray for inexpensive, tasty Hungarian wine!
  • Gear: $0.
  • "Misc": $6 - more public toilets and various other randomness..
  • Gifts: $0 - we'll just leave this one off going forward.
Other fun Budapest facts...
  • Cities visited: 1 combined city of Buda and Pest
  • National parks visited: 0
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited: 2 (Andrassy Avenue, Buda Castle)
Burned out mentally but not financially. That's a good thing, right? Here's to keeping on track to keep this journey going... and to getting some rest along the way.

A quick post on why - much to our surprise - we didn't love Budapest.

We thought we would love Budapest. We had no reason to believe otherwise so we booked five nights to allow ample time to check it out.

We saw Buda and Pest (mostly Pest), we got around easily using public transit, we walked 4-5 hours a day, we visited almost every green space we could find on the map, we found known and lesser-known fruit markets, we even explored the outskirts near the train station where one can sometimes find quirky shops or locally made inexpensive delicious baked goods. We stayed at a place called the Goat Hostel (no goats, only pictures, but still!) before moving to a more spacious hostel where they played excellent music at reasonable volumes all day long. We visited a ruins bar and a cat cafe.


You can flip through our Flickr set for proof of all of this.

But we did not love Budapest. In fact, no matter how hard we tried, we didn't even really like Budapest all that much.

We thought it might have to do with our tired, weary (OK, downright cranky) traveling moods but after talking through it days later we came to the same conclusion:  it felt like any city - Buenos Aires and San Francisco came to immediate mind. For whatever (misinformed?) reasons, we expected something a little more historic, maybe a little more exotic.

There is definitely history to the city. They are proud of their heritage and their (44-character) language. They talk about times other than WWII but they lived through WWII just like everyone else in Central Europe and while they don't dwell on it, they have mostly kept the downtown buildings reconstruction-free.  Between the bullet holes and the memorials there are constant reminders of that period of history.

But we found the mingling of past and present difficult to appreciate.  And as far as exotic...  There is definitely culture to be found, but things like "Van Gogh in 3D!" did not really appeal to us.  On the green space, the park on the north end of town was pretty and the park on the island was nice, but neither felt very welcoming. None of the green spaces felt very welcoming, in fact. Part of this is by design (homeless have been banned from major tourist areas) but still, it would've been nice to have more benches to choose from in the city park.

The one redeeming factor to us naive tourists was the free communist walking tour. We learned a lot about life in Hungary in the mid- to late-20th century, a perspective we hadn't gotten while in Poland or Czech.

Food notes:
  • goulash!
  • and great rye bread rolls at Tesco (a supermarket chain that sells amazing rye bread rolls... yes, we are sad to admit this but it's true)
Lodging notes:
  • Goat Hostel: was perfect for two nights. Really nice staff, decent free breakfasts, great location. The second night, our dormmate slept in the common area so that his girlfriend could more easily take care of his drunk self. Jen wanted peace and quiet at 6am to write that morning and couldn't find it anywhere in this small hostel.
  • Bazar Hostel: was perfect for three nights, especially because we booked a private room our third night in anticipation of not sleeping on the overnight train from Budapest-Brasov.  No breakfast but great coffee, all rooms have a sink (quite the luxury!), and Craig the manager was awesome - he made sure we had everything we needed during our stay. Although his staff were of the High Fidelity variety ("I hired these guys for three days a week and they just started showing up, every day - that was four years ago") they were always friendly and accommodating. It was in a great location, there was a nice big cozy common area (with a book exchange!), and the music was always amazing. Except for the music at the club that opened downstairs the night we got there... but we'll take that over snoring people anyday.
Perhaps if we naive tourists had been willing to spend more money on museums or other food/cultural activities, or maybe if we'd gone caving or out to the Buda Hills, or possibly if we could've gotten past our discomfort with the idea of public baths, we would feel differently about this city. We're sure we'd feel differently if we'd had a personal connection in Hungary or Budapest.

We know people who rave about Budapest so we don't mean to discourage visiting. If you're one of those people, we'd love to hear your thoughts - what did we miss? Do you have to immerse yourself to really love Budapest?

Staying under budget in Slovakia.

Dear Slovakia, we're sorry we didn't stay longer in your beautiful country.  We'll be back someday.  XO, J&P

Initial budget: 10 days at $880 ($88/day, $44/person/day)
Actual cost: 5 days at $366 ($73/day, $36.50/person/day)

Here's the breakdown with some details...

pie chart quality slowly but surely declining...
that piece is definitely not 44%
  • Lodging: $162 - one hostel, one dorm room, five nights ($16/person/night).
  • Transportation: $135 - one cheap bus ride from Zakopane to Lysa Polana, one expensive taxi ride from Lysa Polana to Zdiar, a couple dollars to get back from the "7 hour hike", one adventure navigating the bus system from Zdiar to Levoca and back, and one bus/train journey from Zdiar to Poprad/ Budapest.
  • Groceries: $21 - zero jars of peanut butter.
  • Meals: $31 - one lazy Sunday lunch, two soups at the hut during the "7 hour hike", two kebabs in Levoca.
  • Tours: $5 - two admissions to Church of St Jacob's to see the beautiful tarp covering Europe's largest wood carved altar (yes, we're still a little bitter about that).
  • Alcohol: $8 - somewhere around a dozen bottles of beer.
  • Gear: $0.
  • "Misc": $4 - no idea, the woods were our public bathroom this time so it can't be for WC visits.
  • Gifts: $0... yeah yeah yeah.
Other fun Slovakia facts...
  • Cities visited: 3, technically speaking (Zdiar, Levoca, Poprad)
  • National parks visited: 1 (Tatras National Park)
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited: 0 (we saw Spiš Castle in Levoca from afar, but we won't count that)
Still on track with money overall...  Let's see how we fare in Budapest.

Ždiar, also known as "all we saw of Slovakia."

Our Olomouc hostel bathroom had a poster for the "Ginger Monkey" hostel in Ždiar, Slovakia (right near the High Tatras which Patrick really wanted to visit). Whoever hung this strategically placed poster gets an A+ in marketing. We each saw the poster and discussed it for about 3 seconds before booking a couple of beds. A few seconds later we learned that two guys at our Olomouc hostel had worked at the Ginger Monkey for extended periods of time. They raved about Ždiar, saying if we went we wouldn't want to leave.

So after Krakow we went in search of Ždiar. And when we finally got there we extended our stay after just one night - it's just that kind of place.

Ždiar is a quiet, remote mountain town with a population of about 600 spread across 6km. It's a popular destination for Slovak and Polish mountain lovers, and most of the residents seem to have tourist businesses or work in tourist-related industries. Since our stay was between seasons, the town was especially quiet - exactly what we needed.

From town there are dozens of hiking trails within walking distance or via a short bus ride. We indulged in a few long, meandering walks along the town ridges and rivers, stopping for a few minutes or an hour to admire the views and just breathe.

got yer autumn right heah

Ždiar from downward dog on the green trail
(sometimes yoga was involved in our r&r)

and sometimes we just played -
mountain dogs loooooooove fetch

One day we undertook the "7 hour hike" up to a saddle in the peaks, then down to a few lakes and around to a mountain lodge. It turned out to be the clearest day of our visit and the views were truly stunning.

gorgeous peaks

amazing valleys

Chata pri Zelenom plese
they're here all season - try the soup!

The lake at the chateau was just starting to freeze; later we would learn that it snowed a few days after we hiked the trail. Thank you, Universe, for wonderful timing.

Like it or not, logging is also a big industry in Ždiar. According to half of us, this is fine if it means more snow runs. The other half disagrees, but then again she also doesn't snowboard.

likely the only time we will be together on a ski run

The couple manning the hostel was from Portland, OR and wanted to start their own farm, so we enjoyed Bridgetown reminiscing and sharing our WWOOF experiences. But otherwise we tried to keep to ourselves and just soak in the quiet of the mountains.

We did take one day trip to Levoča in search of the world's largest wood altar, only to find it closed for renovation. The church was otherwise beautiful and the town was calmly charming, but the detour was somewhat forced (we felt the need to explore outside of Ždiar at least one day, and this particular destination was the least difficult option). Between that and Jen's stress level overall (travel is hard!) it was a bit of a letdown trip. However! How many of you can say you've seen 650 year old murals in Levoča, Slovakia? So we've got that going for us.

there, at least you've seen Levoča

Full Flickr set is here.

Food notes - nothing special, other than wonderful sheep cheese pierogies and pork and dumplings from Pension Veronika.

Lodging notes - see above.  The Ginger Monkey was fine given that it was the only hostel option in town.  The rooms were roomy, the common area was cozy and the kitchen was well equipped.  (It would be lovely if they could fix the refrigerator and the shower heads though!)

We were given great Slovakia recommendations from friends, and even had the opportunity to meet up with them in Bratislava, but honestly we just didn't have the mental or physical energy for more days of crazy travel. So we kept to our original plan, holed up for a while and then headed east to Budapest after Ždiar. We're grateful for those five mountain days, and we hope to keep that low-key mentality going forward, no matter what city we're in at the time.

As an aside... As with everywhere else we tried to learn basic phrases and managed to get a few smiles out of the Ždiar bus drivers and the ladies who worked at the markets. There were a lot of penzions but ours was the only hostel in town; some of the hostel guests mentioned that the locals weren't terribly friendly. We have heard this several times on this trip already. Welllll, let's think about it. In Ždiar there were 10 rambunctious Aussies the night we arrived; a handful of obnoxious-to-us young travelers arrived the last few nights of our stay; hoardes of English-speaking ski bums have flocked there in the winter. How many of them bothered to learn a few Slovakian words? How many buy anything other than loads of alcohol from the markets (while marveling at how cheap everything is)? Gosh, we can't imagine why the locals aren't keen on hostel guests. Our pricey taxi driver even smirked when we told him where we were staying. There is a Friday five on how to not piss off the locals coming one day very soon...

That said, we're sure we offend people left and right (we're still not entirely sure how to pronounce "Ždiar", for example! "ja-deahr" is as close as we can get) but at least we try and it seems to count for something.

We saw the Czech Republic on $28/day!

Numbers for the Czech Republic are in...

Initial budget: 4 days at $320 ($80/day, $40/person/day)
Actual cost: 20 days at $586 ($28/day, $14/person/day)

We think we did pretty well, what do you think?

OK, we kind of cheated - 14 of those days were spent volunteering on a farm. Take those out and we were at $95/day ($47.50/person/day), which is still not bad considering we spent four days in the most expensive city we've visited to date and another two days in a quaint but touristy town. We even splurged a little in these cities knowing we wouldn't spend much, if anything, at the farm, and we still came in under $50/person/day. Here's the breakdown with some details...

looks a lot like Poland's pie chart -
this is a good thing
  • Lodging: $228 - 6-person dorm rooms at hostels averaging $16/person/night. If you're willing to share a dorm with 8-10 people, this number could be much lower. We can barely tolerate 6-person dorms at times.
  • Transportation: $171 - includes slightly more expensive buses and trains Poland-Czech and Czech-Poland just because of the additional distance. This also includes trams and buses within major cities, and a handful of dollars for transportation for day trips to Kutna Hora, Mikulov, and Lipnik.
  • Groceries: $46 - again, lots of peanut butter (it runs about $3-4 per small jar here).
  • Meals: $49 - mostly from our first night in Czech when we got in really late and grabbed something from the local pub, morning coffees to make up for the Nesca-rap coffee they have at hostels, and trying local foods.
  • Tours: $26 - Prague's free walking tour guide tip, admissions to the Kutna Hora ossuary and Lipnik Helfštýn Castle, nominal donations for a church here and there.
  • Alcohol: $18 - clearly, we did not drink enough beer in Prague! Had we paid for all the wine we were served in Nemcicky, this number would be a lot higher.
  • Gear: $15 - secondhand clothes for our upcoming Czech farm stay, a new battery watch for Jen.
  • "Misc": $17 - more public toilets, otherwise not sure but not worried about it.
  • Gifts: still $0.

Other fun Czech Republic facts...
  • Cities visited: 6 (Prague, Kutna Hora, Nemcicky, Mikuluv, Olomouc, Lipnik)
  • National parks visited: 0, sadly
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited: 3 (Historic Center of Prague, Church of St Barbara in Kutna Hora, Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc)

Overall we're still doing really well on the money side. We expect Slovakia and Budapest to be expensive, so we'll see how it goes...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Early Friday five: Olo-where?

When Patrick suggested a stopover in Olomouc ("Olla-motz") on our way back to Poland, my first thought was... "um, where?"

We loved this smallish town between Brno and Krakow. Loved it. It helped that the hostel was amazing. It helped that autumn was coming - the trees were turning, the air was crisp and clean, the days were bright and the nights were cold. It helped that the sunrises were amazing.

And it definitely helped that it only took three hours to get there from Nemcicky - in theory, anyway. You may recall a Facebook request about helping tourists in your hometown who are holding maps and looking confused? Well, here's why I posted that request.

Halfway through our trip the attendant came around to inform everyone that the train was having engine trouble ("machine defect!" she kindly informed us in English... the only English she seemed to know). Everyone disembarked at that station and ran to another platform to catch a different train that seemed to be going somewhere we didn't want to go. So we stood there for a few minutes collecting our thoughts and forming a plan, looking calm but confused, when a nice Czech gentleman came over to explain the situation in English. He and another young Czech student were also going to Olomouc; they kept us appraised of the engine trouble situation, and we all eventually got back on the same train. The Czech student even sat with us and talked for a while. We were more than happy to help her practice English in return for her assistance.

It's really easy to keep walking when you see someone squinting at a map, or trying to translate signs at a deli to figure out which meat is turkey when "turkey" isn't on their translation list, or frowning at a flat tire. Maybe you stop because you've been lost yourself. Maybe you stop because you want to practice another language. Maybe you stop because some nice Oregonians gave you a lift 30 years ago and you want to return the favor. Whatever the reason, we raise our virtual glasses to everyone who stops. The world needs more of you.

But I digress... Here are five more reasons we loved Olomouc, in no particular order:
  • The museums are free on Wednesdays, which happened to be the day we arrived. We visited the Museum of Modern Art featuring great photography and interactive temporary installations. We also stopped by the Archdiocese Museum to see dozens of rare, well-preserved religious artifacts - shiny, centuries old, a bit lost on us non-religious folk but interesting just the same.
over 500 years old

the beautiful botanic gardens were free as well
  • There are a bazillion cathedrals you can visit for free (or for a nominal donation). They're all quite interesting, and they were all gearing up for some sort of special services and had been decked out in fresh flowers throughout the worship areas. The Church of St Michael features a freshwater spring in the basement (allegedly where the original founders fed their thirst). St Moritz Church was our favorite - it has the largest pipe organ in Central Europe, and you can walk up a steep spiral staircase through a spooky warehouse type area and out onto the roof, where you have a great panoramic view of the city on a clear day.
if you go -
watch for soft plywood boards
  • Czech Republic's "other" astronomical clock. Prague's may be more known but Olomouc's features lots of communist-era relics, a much longer once-a-day show, and a much better rooster finale.
the crowd was almost as interesting
as the clock's show
handcrafted in the blacksmith workshop at the castle
  • We finally slowed down in Olomouc... for a little while anyway.
let's do more of this?

Food notes:
  • finally - kebabs!
in Europe "kebab" means delicious meat
shaved from a giant rotating steaming spit
on perfectly toasted bread and topped with garlic sauce...
we got our second kebabs there too
highly recommend the crepes from Palacinkola
home brewed, straight from the tank,
"very beneficial to health"

Lodging notes:
  • Poet's Corner Hostel - in a word, awesome. Great common area, great kitchen, great host, great location. We decided here that all future hostels must have a book exchange (it increases the chances of finding a comfortable place to hunker down for an hour or three, as opposed to having an uncomfortable Ikea chair to sit in for 10 minutes).
Regrettably, we only spent two nights in Olomouc before heading back to Poland to check out Krakow. But we learned some valuable travel tips during our stay - enjoying local fare despite the tourist tax, choosing the right place to sleep, and slowing down already!

Now, to just employ these lessons in our daily travel life. That's the challenge. We gave it a try in Krakow, didn't do too bad...

Friday, October 18, 2013


Prague wasn't exactly on our "must-do" list but it was definitely of interest, especially since it was the only regret from Jen's whirlwind Western European trip almost 20 years ago.  Since it worked nicely into the Nemcicky vineyard/orchard plan, we parked for three days and took in the sights.

Much like everyone who goes to Poland visits Krakow, practically everyone who goes to Europe visits Prague so we'll keep this short.  (Our Czech Republic flickr set has a lot more context on our visit... we've included some links to our photos below as well.)

We now understand why people rave about the city: the charm of Charles Bridge (and all the bridges, actually) and the numerous squares around town; the architecture styles; the beautiful panoramas from the top of Prague Castle; the amazing astronomical clock; the easy-to-navigate city streets; the tasty beer!  

lokal - the kind of place where
they put a piece of paper on the table
and mark a tick for each beer you drink

Prague is one of those places you could blow an entire month's budget if you're not careful so we mostly cooked at the hostel and stuck to cheap or free activities - the free walking tour, Vyšehrad Castle in the southern part of town, Letna Park and the Stalin metronome, meandering along the canal.  One day we went in search of thrift stores for work clothes - thank you, random blogger, because this ended up being a great way to see the less traveled neighborhoods.

We also took a day trip to Kutna Hora (an hour east of Prague) to check out the famous ossuary - according to Wikipedia, it's "estimated to contain the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, whose bones have in many cases been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel."

deschanel and boreanaz would have a field day in here

It was beautiful, creepy and interesting all at once.  Potential visitors should know that it's absolutely tiny and the admission fee is a bit steep.  We found it terribly crowded as well, so we took in what we could and then headed to the much quieter town center to enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

cobble stones in Kutna Hora

view from St Barbara's cathedral
Food notes:

  • see beer notes above

Lodging notes:

  • other than its excellent location and generally helpful, nice staff, Hostel Tyn was not the best choice - they moved us three times during our four-night stay; the kitchen and common area were too small for the number of guests it accommodated; the hostel seemed to be designed by a man (no handwashing sink in the toilet) who had never stayed in a hostel (the rooms had no hooks, no bedlamps, and big empty spaces where they could've at least put a table and a few chairs) who loved hot pink

Three days in Prague was the perfect amount of over-stimulation and mass-consumption to get us ready for a new mindset: small village farming.  Our Nemcicky summary is here - enjoy!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Poland on less than $30 per person per day.

Our next installment of "how much does it cost?" is brought to you by Poland.

Initial budget: 14 days at $1206 ($86/day, $43/person/day)
Actual cost: 18 days at $1006 ($56/day, $28/person/day)

The initial budget was a serious WAG because despite heaps of research, we really had no idea how much things would cost. Lodging ended up being far less expensive but we made up for some of that with meals/alcohol as we tried the local flavors. Otherwise, though, the category estimates were higher than actual costs but not too far off. Maybe 15 years of accounting and project management are worth something after all?

Here's the breakdown with some details...

pie chart not to scale

  • Lodging: $473 - dorm rooms at hostels averaging $13/person/night, and a private room in Białowieża for about the same cost.
  • Transportation: $193 - this includes buses and trains between major cities, trams and buses within major cities, and transportation to tour excursions (in Poland's case, the bus to/from Auschwitz - $13/person). This does not include our plane tickets to Warsaw ($490 each) which are included in our overall running cost per day.
  • Groceries: $110 - our guess is that half of this cost is peanut butter.
  • Meals: $103 - includes trying local foods, lunches on the go, countless train station coffees, and a few "first" and "last" night celebratory meals in cities.
  • Tours: $65 - major expenses included the tour for Białowieża National Forest ($11/person) and the free walking tour guide tips ($6 * 3 tours). Otherwise, nominal costs to climb a church tower for panoramic views and that sort of thing.
  • Alcohol: $46 - beer is cheap but yeah, we will start paying attention to this. Or not.  If we keep up our other frugality (except for not skipping must-see touristy places!) this is just fine.
  • Gear: $3 - clothes for our upcoming Czech farm stay.
  • "Misc": $14 - a large part of this cost is public toilets, which typically cost $0.30-$0.50. If we forgot the coffee line item for Canada, we definitely forgot Jen's gerbil-sized bladder and the WC line item for Central Europe. Otherwise we don't have great documentation on what this entails but at less than $1/day we aren't so worried about it.
  • Gifts: This blog is still your gift. And you're still welcome.

Other fun Poland facts...
  • Cities visited: 6, technically speaking (Warsaw, Wroclaw, Krakow, Białowieża, Zakopane for 15 hours, and Katowice for 60 minutes en route to Krakow)
  • National parks visited: 1 (Białowieża National Park)
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited: 5, technically speaking (Old Town Krakow, Historic Center of Warsaw, Białowieża Forest, Auschwitz Birkeneau, Centennial Hall in Wroclaw which we saw from the outside)

So that's Poland in a nutshell.  Overall we're still on track too.  Stay tuned for our Czech money post - we're gonna blow you away!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hey, remember when we were in Toronto?

Once in a while something in our current place jogs a memory of a prior location. Or a funny thought from three months ago pops into our heads, or we're having a particularly hard travel day, or we can't recall where we were 10 days ago, or we just want to remind ourselves how lucky we are... On these once-in-a-while occasions, one of us looks at the other and says, "Hey, remember when [fill in the blank]...?"

This "hey, remember when...?" flashback is brought to you by today's date.

Despite our intentions to keep Canada as inexpensive as possible, we could not resist splurging on two tickets to the Toronto Urban Roots Festival. Music is our only real splurge in Portland anyway, and this is something we're interested in exploring everywhere we go. (If we can ever stay up past 9pm, that is...)

The TURF July 4th festival timing could not have been more perfect - nothing says celebrate-America-from-Canada like a trip to Niagara Falls and four days of good folky music, right? A much better idea than Plan B which involved sitting in Quebec City eating baguettes with all the anti-Americans.

It's also fitting that we saw Frank Turner at some point on this adventure, and that he was the driver for the TURF splurge. See, we owe a lot to Frank. His Portland show two years ago was our first date. A week after that show, Patrick and I sat across from each other talking tall tales of wanderlust and the road beneath our feet, and the seed for this trip was planted.

Last October, on the one-year anniversary of that show, we got a little sentimental and wrote Frank a "thank you" email. He actually replied (!) within hours (!), wished us luck on our still-to-be-determined adventure, and told us to let him know if we'd be nearby during any of his tours so that we could have a beer.

So when we were in Toronto, we emailed him - and once again he actually replied (!) within hours (!). Various forces prevented us from actually meeting him, such as the fact that he's Frank Turner for gosh's sake, but we're holding out hope that he's touring on our path someday soon.

Portland TedX - March 2013 
(handshake still pending, 
and we still owe him a drink)

We had a great time at the festival, though. Familiar bands like Camera Obscura, Flogging Molly, Neko Case, Xavier Rudd and Canada's own The Wooden Sky were great. Newly discovered bands like Whitehorse, The Cat Empire, The Sadies, The Barr Brothers, and Portland locals Larry and His Flask were a lot of fun too. Plus it was a tiny venue to begin with, and the off-and-on rain (and outright downpour Sunday) kept the crowds down.

Toronto, ON, Canada - July 2013
(one of my favorite feet shots)

This "one splurge per country/continent" idea might be a running theme - or a really, really bad idea. Hopefully we won't be sitting in an empty apartment in Portland this December saying "Hey, remember when we spent all our money and had to cut our trip short a year?"

Zdiar, Slovakia - October 2013
(happy two years)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

How approximately 10 minutes in Zakopane turned into 15 hours.

Despite all the recommendations, we didn't intend to spend any time in Zakopane ("Zack-o-pa-nay") - we wanted to head through this touristy area of Poland straight to the quiet town of Zdiar in Slovakia, just across the border.

We also didn't intend for the direct Zakopane-Zdiar bus service to be discontinued (until ski season) three days before we arrived in Zakopane. But it was, and we didn't really find this out until 5pm, and a taxi to Zdiar would've cost us about $30, and other options weren't available until the next morning, so we were stuck there for a night while we figured out Plan B.

there are far worse places to be "stuck"

far worse places

far, far worse places

Food notes - none, other than:
  • there is a small grocery store about 10 minutes west of the bus stop on the main strip
  • and also a Biedronka about 10 minutes southwest of the visitor's information center

Lodging notes:
  • we stayed at Stara Polana Hostel because it was easy to find and the other easy to find place, Target Hostel, was closed until the next day - Stara Polana was definitely a youth hostel, as evidenced by the huge kitchen/dining area and giant soup pots, but since it was off season we got a private double room with a bathroom pretty cheap and we had a lovely view of the mountains from our window

the digital old-school radio was a nice touch

The woman at the Zakopane tourist office was incredibly helpful and told us exactly which buses to take. She forgot to mention that we'd need euros for the Slovakian bus, and we forgot to think about that too. We got off the bus at Lysa Polana as instructed, walked across the Poland/Slovakia border as instructed, found no "bankomat" (ATM) and in fact no town at Lysa Polana...

woohoo, walking across the border!
um... now what?

... and hoped the nice man who spoke English and offered to taxi us to Zdiar wasn't an axe murderer. He wasn't, and after a pricey but appreciated 15 euro ride during which we peppered him with tourist-related questions to ensure we got our money's worth out of that 15 euro, we arrived at the Zdiar bankomat and then our hostel destination.

And immediately extended our stay until Wednesday. Ahhhh... mountains. How we've missed you.

Krakow recommendations you might not find on TripAdvisor.

Look. Everyone who goes to Poland goes to Krakow. We know this, so we won't bore you with how fun it is to sit in the Market Square and people-watch or window-shop in the Cloth Mill. We won't go on and on about the beautiful riverside on a clear day or the picturesque Market Square at night. We won't detail every single gorgeous church and cemetery. We won't tell you about the bugler... But!

We will tell you that the parks in the area are totally worth it on a clear day.

slowly enjoying Krak Mound

slowly absorbing Parc Jordana

We will insist that you check out the various open markets. Of the more known markets Stary Kleparz was our favorite...

so much fun to browse

... but we also ran across Plac na Stawach near Parc Jordana one morning where we were treated to absolutely ginormous free samples of delicious pastry treats by one of the shop owners. And on Saturday morning we went to Hala Targowa's flea market in search of a warm sweater for Patrick - no luck with that, but if we'd been looking for socks, pirated DVDs, or antique dishware we would've totally been in heaven.

We will highly recommend the free Jewish quarter walking tour. (OK, this one is on TripAdvisor but bear with us.) We also did the general free walking tour our first morning in the city, which was interesting and a helpful introduction, but we got much more out of the Jewish quarter tour led by one of the 200 self-identified Jewish residents living in Krakow these days. The tour will take you through the Kazimierz district and Krakow's ghetto - we wish we'd done it earlier in our visit, instead of waiting until our last day to explore these less touristy neighborhoods.

If you do any of the free walking tours, we will suggest you seek out some of the street art highlighted on the free map. Most of the art is outside of Old Town, and it's a great way to see Kazimierz if you don't get to the Jewish quarter tour.

anti-corporate scrabble aht

anti-communist mural aht

anti-television stair aht
(steps lined with famous quotes)

On Auschwitz-Birkenau... yes, everyone who goes to Krakow tours these camps and yes, we did too, and no, words can't possibly express how we felt during and after the whole experience.

What we will say is that we did a self-guided tour around Birkenau before visiting Auschwitz, and we recommend that order vs the opposite. That wasn't really our original plan but you can only visit the Auschwitz museum tour-guide-free before 10am and after 3pm (guides are about $20/person and it sounds like they rush you through it so we wanted to visit on our own time), and our bus from Krakow didn't get in until about 10:30. So we took the free shuttle to Birkenau (no guide required anytime) and wandered there for about 3 hours before heading back to Auschwitz. English translations are available on all the maps and monument plaques, and being able to walk through what remains of the buildings at Birkenau before seeing Auschwitz helped us to appreciate (for lack of a much more appropriate word) the atrocities of both sites even more.

Other things we will tell you about Krakow...

the world's best laudromat is at the corner of Dietla and Starowislna

the pigeons are very efficient (or maybe just picky?)

seeing Peruvian flute players in Native American costume
in the middle of Krakow is just weird

the national pantheon underneath the Church of St Peter and St Paul,
soon to house influential artists and writers,
is pretty awesome

October might be the best time to visit

Lots of great food cart-type places in Krakow (finally!), great eats in general too. Food notes:

Lodging notes:
  • Hostel Atlantis: cheap, lots of people, a bit industrial and noisy for our taste, big kitchen and common area, choir practice between 8-9am while we were there (better than it sounds - they were amazing!)
  • Football Corner Hostel: also pretty cheap, all the football (that's soccer to you Americans) your little heart desires, only 3 dorm rooms and on a quiet street so in theory nice and quiet (except for when your UK dormmates party until 3am and snore like buzzsaws after they do finally settle in for the night), very close to the bus/train station and main square, but really lacking in common area space so we never felt completely comfortable

We had a great time in Krakow, and I'm sure that the 200,000 students (1/4 of the population) enjoy studying there, but soon enough it became another city and we were ready for some down time. Five regrets, though - not going to the Wieliczka salt mine ($30/person for admission), not taking the Communist walking tour ($20/person + guide tip), not going to Schindler's Museum (not pricey, we just ran out of time), not seeing a puppet show at Teatr Groteska ($20-30/person, we found a deal where first time visitors could get tickets to select performances for ~$3, but they were sold out while we were there), and not getting to Ojcow National Park (hint: if all the info you can find says "you need a car to get there", you really do need a car to get there). But that just means there's more to do next time we visit!

Speaking of cities and getting out of them - time for the High Tatras... and Slovakia!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Friday five: gnome hunting (and other fun!) in Wroclaw.

Wroclaw ("Vro-tz-wav"), known as Poland's Venice, was not in our original list of "must-see" places. But we ran across a quirky Wroclaw city map at our hostel in Warsaw highlighting funky street art, bridges galore, and a gnome scavenger hunt. And then we spontaneously decided to go to Prague and Wroclaw was right on the way... To our surprise it ended up being a highlight of Poland.

We got a really good vibe riding the tram from the bus station to our hostel. Warsaw was bustling with activity, but Wroclaw felt alive. In our short stay we would feel some kind of pulse flowing from the river and canals we crossed, the parks we passed through, the weekend events...
Senior Day celebration in the square 
(same day as Gnome Day, natch)

rainy day marathon 
(causing a 2 hour delay for our bus to Prague)

... and the countless youth we saw roaming the streets. All of this is probably why it's a big destination for Europeans looking for cheap beer and a good time on their way to Krakow. But it's so much more than a party town.

Like Warsaw, this city has also been taken over and reclaimed numerous times over the centuries. Given its history of being invaded and conquered by various countries and cultures, now it seems to be a bit of an ethnic and cultural melting pot. For example, our free walking tour guide (love these guys!) pointed out a corner where four religious institutions live harmoniously.

well, at least that's how he described it -
residents will have to confirm

Wroclaw also seemed to be a bit more modern than Warsaw. Vegetarian restaurants and foods were easy to find; the multimedia fountain used that irritatingly catchy Daft Punk song (as well as other equally terrible pop songs) alongside classical music during the water show; even the street art was more art than a political statement.

Honestly, it reminded us a lot of Portland.

Other than the elevator to the top of St John the Baptist's church for a wonderful panoramic view of the city, and the tip for the free walking tour guide, we opted to skip tourist attractions that cost money. We did visit the impressive ethnographic museum (free on Sundays). The exhibits featured centuries-old decorative, cooking and farming artifacts; some details on the area's history over the last 500 years; and an entire floor of life sized dioramas showing typical life back in the day. Really, who doesn't love a good life-sized diorama?!

Otherwise, we just meandered and enjoyed the city. Five Wroclaw experiences that made this our favorite town in Poland, in no particular order:

a Hare Krishna parade down the main square
where no one really seemed to blink an eye at first 
and then lots of the crowd joined in pulling the carriage down the square

walking everywhere - they have a good transit system too 
but the main city is totally walkable top to bottom in a day
(or bike-able if you have short legs) 

speaking of walking, the canal path was really charming 
(and featured the first signs of autumn)

speaking of canals, there are over 100 bridges throughout the city 
even tiny bridges where tiny gnomes light tiny oil lamps

and speaking of gnomes, not gonna lie - 
the gnomes are pretty awesome 
(moreso the original gnomes than ones commissioned by merchants to draw business)

Food notes:

  • great chicken salad lunch at Bela Cafe (no link available, check the CitySpy map though)
  • excellent falafel at Vega
  • instant packages of borscht are actually quite good if you add the right amount of water (and reconstituted soy nuggets and canned peas)

our most random meal yet

Lodging notes:
- Corner Hostel was in a great location but sort of dark and sort of dirty and and very, very noisy

but our room had a balcony with a great view

Definitely a cool town we'd like to visit again. Next stop: a few days in Prague before hitting our vineyard/orchard Help Exchange gig. Charles Bridge and Czech beer, here we come!