Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Krakow, Poland


The rest of our experience in Poland was less gloomy. The city of Krakow is a delight, with a big beautiful square and hearty food. Also, a castle which is always good in my book.



First off, I congratulate anyone who can pronounce anything in Polish. Bravo.


The center of Krakow (Old Town) is surrounded by a wall and a beautiful green space called Planty. As you walk through the ancient gate, feeling all old timey, you are greeted by the dreaded Golden Arches. More on them later.
The best sight in Krakow is the Main Market Square. Bustling with people and school groups, horse drawn carriages. On one end (the main building in the photo above) is the Cloth Hall which is a popular souvenir market.
On the other side is St Mary's Church which has overlooked the square for more than 800 years. We skipped the interior and climbed to the top of the tower (15 PLN). We arrived just in time to hear the bugler who plays from each window in the tower every hour on the hour. The bugler is paying tribute to a watchman who was killed while sounding the alarm of an enemy. While he played, he was shot in the throat, cutting the song mid note. So today, the bugler plays and ends the song abruptly, mid note.
After playing the song, he leans out of each window and waves to the crowd below. It was a little exciting (and loud) to be in the tower while he played. They did not allow anyone else to come up while he played, but we were allowed to stay since we were already there.

The best view!



It was worth the 239 narrow steps to the top of the tower for these views.

And then we visited McDonald's which is something we never do at home. But we heard that the McDonald's hear was built into a Gothic cellar that was discovered during renovations. So they excavated it and incorporated it into the design. That was worth buying a Mickey D's hot cocoa.



We then wandered over to Wawel Castle and explored the grounds. And I salute the Polish for incorporating fire-breathing (literally) dragons into their castle design. It was a fun area to explore but lots of rain so no pics.


We ate heartily in Poland. Mushroom soup, pierogi, and meat sandwiched in pretzel and drenched in gravy. For how chilly it was, it was nice to have stick to your ribs food.


Our apartment in Krakow was a little random, complete with an enormous mirror above the bed. The neighborhood was kind of sketch and a bit far from town. I would recommend staying as close to the center of town as you can which is fairly close to the train station as well.


And just like that, our time in Poland came to an end. We took in dusk at Main Market Square which is hopping all times of the day. Picked up our luggage and hopped aboard an overnight train to Prague.

Practicalities:

  • Transportation: your feet! Krakow is incredibly walkable. But if you want to get fancy, you can take a horse carriage ride around Old Town (we didn't but it looked fun). For train tickets, if you book more than two days ahead of time, you can get a significant discount. Book ahead if you can. 
  • Accommodations: stay close to Old Town if possible. But staying in a studio with an enormous mirror on the ceiling, we stayed here
  • Costs: Krakow was very affordable. Food and sites were cheap.
  • Itinerary: I was feeling under the weather the last day so we took it slow. I really wish we would have visited the salt mines or Schindler's home.  
Traveled May 2015.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Auschwitz, Poland

After our overnight train we arrived in drizzly Krakow, Poland. See a theme? The rain followed us constantly. The rain matched our sight for the day, the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Visiting Auschwitz isn't something you enjoy. And perhaps a strange place to visit on your vacation. However, I highly recommend it for its sobering significance in history and a dark reminder that we must be better.

The infamous "work sets you free" sign
We got there mid morning and all of the English tours were sold out for the day. Between 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. a guided tour is mandatory so we selected Spanish (because it was the language closest to Portuguese- Jacob is fluent). It was a little frustrating not being able to understand the tour, but the sites often speak for themselves.


Respectful pictures are encouraged, as the Polish do not want the atrocities to be forgotten. Pictures are allowed outside but not in the museums.

However, some of our fellow tour mates didn't quite understand the "respectful" part. Instead, they took selfies and bro pics in front of firing squad chambers and a glass case full of inmate's hair like they would at a sporting event. I was pissed and infuriated. It still fires me up to think about it.

So please, share the story to remind ourselves that we cannot let this happen again. But do it respectfully.




Should you visit?

It was a hard, depressing and sobering day. I was sad and angry. But I recommend visiting.

Other notes:

  • You must check any bags, even small ones. They allowed me my camera but I'm glad that I brought a plastic bag because it rained a lot throughout the day and much of the touring is outside. 
  • We arrived via public bus departing from Krakow's main bus station for less than $2.50. 
  • We visited both Auschwitz I & II. You can access II via shuttle bus and tour it yourself. The bus back to Krakow departs from Auschwitz I.

Traveled May 2015.


Budapest, Day 3

Even though Budapest is modern, it is hard to forget hints from its Communist past. A interesting and terrifying history, we explored Memento Park (Statue Park) which is a graveyard of Communist Statues. Momento Park made it interesting and you can see the propaganda exuding out of the metal.

Beneath a replica of Stalin's boots, all that was left after Hungarians tore it down
Communism brings out a lot of opinions from just about everyone. I once had an old man tell me "If you want to know a man's a commie, give him a Reese's Pieces and see if he likes it." I'm not sure if this is a surefire way to determine if someone is friend or foe, but you never know.

Memento Park is a bit out of the way and took half a day. If you only have two days in Budapest, I would skip it. But it was interesting so I would recommend if you have three or more days. We booked the tickets online and took a direct bus from downtown Budapest.
If it seems like we jovially enjoyed the park, we kind of did. However, the gravity of what real life was under Communist rule was not lost on us. We will never understand what life was like under Communist rule. Most of what we know about that time is perpetuated by movies. As a communications major, propaganda and its effects fascinates me and so we enjoyed (for lack of a better word) this park. Plus, who doesn't like posing in front of an extremely large statue.

Plus you get a chance to sit in a smelly old car. This is a real, original Trabant car a "terrible car" synonymous with Commies. It was really a little smelly.


After jumping back into present day we finished off our day by visiting St. Istvan's Basilica and waited in line for the Gelarto Rosa which turns gelato into darling rose creations. The line is long but we had time to kill.

Our plan for the rest of the afternoon was to visit the Great Synagogue and Jewish Museum and walk along Andrasay Ut. But it was Whitsunday which apparently means everyone shuts down. What?! Who knew? So we people watched in a square before hopping on our overnight train to Poland.

Practicalities:

  • Transportation: Public transportation was super easy to use. We utilized both the metro and the cute yellow tram. We got a three-day metro ticket (72 hours) and used it very often.
    • Info about train travel in and out of Hungary on seat61.com
  • Currency: Hungary uses the Forint which is hugely inflated. $1 =295 forint. So get used to your 295 times tables and division. It was hard for me to work out costs on the fly. 
  • Accommodations: We stayed here which was super cheap (can't beat $35 a night) and close to public transportation. Most people we spoke to recommended staying in Pest because that has the greatest concentration of tourist sites. However, Buda is more residential. If you don't have an Airbnb account, use this link to get $35 off your first stay
  • Guide Books: Rick Steves for life. Other helpful sites included: 

Traveled May 2015

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Budapest, day 2




We woke bright and early and spent an hour in north Buda going to our Church before taking our official Parliament tour.


In interior is extravagant inside and the 45-minute tour was actually pretty interesting. Favorite spots include the grand entryway and the Hungarian crown which is housed under the large dome.



The yellow tram is ubiquitous along the river bank of Pest. Also, want to know what's not in style in Eastern Europe? A maxi dress. Only person wearing one and got a lot of looks. Which at home everyone is wearing one. Not sure who is on the right side of fashion. :)



After our tour we explored Buda and Castle Hill. But first lunch. After a wet week it was really nice to have a sunny day and eat out on the patio. We enjoyed chicken legs and Hungarian goulash (again, I love paprika!).


We strolled by the Vienna Gate to Matthias Church, which is a unique church that has been destroyed and rebuilt many times which might explain why there are so many different styles of the design.

We then wandered over to the Fisherman's Bastion which is one of the best places to take pictures of the Parliament Building. Just try and elbow past the crowds along the ledge.



We then strolled along the famed Chain Bridge, flanked by lions on either side. It is pretty impressive but even more so when we visited later that night.

We had dinner at a restaurant just off Andrassay Ut near the Opera House before the performance of Faust. The Opera House in Hungary and state sponsored so you can get super cheap tickets in the upper balcony for around $5. But if you will pay the pauper's amount then you have to use the pauper's entrance. In the olden days the "poor people" have to use an entrance around back as to not fraternize with the upper class.  Even if opera is not your things (it's definitely not mine) it was cool to see the interior of such a beautiful building.


We ended the night with a stroll by the Chain Bridge which is stunning at night. If you go to the other side of the bridge, you can get some stunning pics of the Parliament Building at night as well.

So pretty much the best way to end the night.

Practicalities:

  • Transportation: Public transportation was super easy to use. We utilized both the metro and the cute yellow tram. We got a three-day metro ticket (72 hours) and used it very often.
  • Currency: Hungary uses the Forint which is hugely inflated. $1 =295 forint. So get used to your 295 times tables and division. It was hard for me to work out costs on the fly. 
  • Accommodations: We stayed here which was super cheap (can't beat $35 a night) and close to public transportation. Most people we spoke to recommended staying in Pest because that has the greatest concentration of tourist sites. However, Buda is more residential. If you don't have an Airbnb account, use this link to get $35 off your first stay
  • Guide Books: Rick Steves for life. Other helpful sites included: 

Traveled May 2015