Monday, July 9, 2012

Back in Poland - Krakow

For the last five days I've been based in Krakow, Poland. Prior to arriving, Wroclaw had been my favorite stop of my trip, but Krakow has also been very nice and has been challenging for the top spot. The architecture is beautiful, and there are so many things to do in the city and just outside of it.

Main market square. 

Wawel castle. 

Art in the old Jewish ghetto.

I took two side trips. The first was to the Wieliczka salt mines, the oldest in Europe. We toured a number of different chambers which showed the mine throughout history, had statues made of salt, and even chapels. We went 135m down into the mine via approximately 800 stairs - probably the most stairs I have ever descended at one time. About halfway through my camera died and I attempted pictures with my iPod, but the quality was not very good. At the end nine of us were crammed into the smallest elevator ever and we were "saved" from having to climb back up the from the mines. It was a very short, but very scary ride.

Looking 300m down. 

Salt formations on the wall. 

Statue of Copernicus made of salt.

This afternoon I went to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, which are located about an hour and a half outside of Krakow. It's kind of surreal being there, because on one hand you feel like such a tourist with the headsets and the giant tour groups, and on the other it's such a serious place. It was also a beautiful, sunny day, which seemed kind of inappropriate for the occasion. At first I was hesitant to go with a tour group, but in the end the guide gives so much information that it's worth putting up with tour. We spent about two hours walking around Auschwitz itself, which has a lot of small museum-like exhibits explaining the site's history and showing just some of the artifacts left behind in 1945. We then took the shuttle to Birkenau, which is enormous. It's difficult to describe the day - it's so overwhelming and brings to life what I'd only read about in a classroom setting.

 Smoke stack of gas chamber 1.

Birkenau is enormous. 

Ruins of gas chamber 2. 

Birkenau housing.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Last night in Bratislava, and I'm ready to move on. I happened to arrive in the middle of a heat wave - 40 degrees every day so far (one day I saw temperatures as high as 43). I've heard that it's about ten degrees higher than normal. It's made sightseeing a bit difficult, since it's hard to generate much enthusiasm for going out and getting lost for hours.

Bratislava is a nice town, but it's not one to visit right after Prague. Prague is just so huge and impressive that the direct comparison just isn't a fair fight. I've also been a bit let down by the food here. The types of food offered (that I can understand, at least) is 33% bagety/baguette sandwiches, 33% hamburger/hotdogs/kebab, 33% ice cream, 1% other. It's sad when the best place you've found is the dried fruits and nuts shop at the train station. I think under different circumstances I might have enjoyed the city a bit more, because it is very nice. Small enough to get around on foot and not overwhelming. The first day I was here I took a nice free walking tour of the city which ended up being two and a half hours, and the guide was very nice and enthusiastic. Day two all I could really manage was a hike to the "castle" at the top of the hill, and some more wandering.


Cute square with pools and statues.

Statue of Napolean hanging out in the square.

Blue church.

Soviet housing across the river - it's its own small city.

 At the "castle"/fortress.

My last day in Slovakia I took a trip about an hour and a half outside of Bratislava to Trencin. Trencin was on the top of the "tourist day trips" and must-see lists, and is another small town with a castle and a nice old town. There was not much English spoken in the area, but I was lucky enough to show up just in time for an English tour of the castle. A bit strange and awkward, since I was the only person on the tour, but kind of nice since otherwise I would have gotten nothing out of the trip (all posted information was in Slovak).

A fun fountain in the center of town.

Monday, July 2, 2012

One month in...

I'm now one month into the trip. It feels longer though, since every day here feels like two or three. I thought I'd do a little reflection on what's happened so far.

  • Seeing a lot of new places. Each one has been special and beautiful in its own way.
  • Being alone. It can be wonderful doing exactly what I want, when I want. I've also had a lot of time to think about a lot of things and a chance to reflect.
  • Meeting interesting people. In the hostels and on day trips I've met a lot of very nice, helpful people.
  • Food. Very, very delicious food. And finding that favorite restaurant in each new place I go to.
  • Filling in my mental map. A lot of these places have always been very vague in my mind, but now I have a much better idea of their histories and what they're like.
  • Widespread Wi-Fi. I've been really impressed in some places (Tallinn, for example) with the number of free hotspots.
  • McDonald's. I very rarely go to McDonald's in the U.S., but it's my favorite place when traveling. Why? Free bathrooms AND Wi-Fi. It's incredible.

  • Being alone. This is on both lists because it really is a bit of both. Along with the good, it can make things more difficult. There's no one who knows you, so a lot of conversations are "small talk." Two heads can be better when it comes to finding directions or making decisions. It can also be not as safe when you're alone, so I err on the side of caution and don't always do as much as I would have if someone else were with me.
  • No water fountains. The tap water is usually potable (I drink it anyway, because who's going to spend half of their budget on bottles of water?) but it can be tough to find a place in the middle of the day to refill.
  • Paying for toilets. WHY???
  • So. Many. Buses. And trains, and boats, and trams, and ....
  • Hostel living. You learn a lot about the strange habits and quirks that complete strangers have. It's so odd.
  • Smoking. I always forget how popular it is.

This has also been interesting so far because it's been different than most of my travels. I usually am going places I have some knowledge of (language, culture, history), but this time I've gone in a bit blind. Of course tourist maps have been helpful, as well as books and the internet, but it's a very different kind of traveling. I guess I don't feel as invested as I generally do - a bit more separated emotionally. Like an "Oh, well that's nice" rather than a "That's amazing!"

Time has also been very strange. The freedom of having absolutely no plans can really be a double-edged sword. All of a sudden you're completely responsible for filling up your day with things to do, so time seems to go so much slower. I plan out my day, head out, see everything on my list, check the clock and it's only been two hours. The question of the trip so far has been, "So now what?"

Overall I've been enjoying my time. I am definitely looking forward to the next month though. Just under two weeks until I meet up with the family in Norway!

Czech Republic

 After a few days in Wroclaw I threw my Zloty into my (ever-expanding with spare change) wallet and withdrew Czech Crowns. Everyone says that Prague is "so cheap!" but I'm wondering if those people are just used to ridiculously high prices in Western Europe and Scandinavia. I found it to be comparable to the U.S., but with more expensive food. I ended up spending a lot more money in the country than I had expected - about double what I initially withdrew.

The thing that surprised me most about Prague was the weather. I was not expecting it to be nearly as hot and humid as it was. In fact, it was so gross and I was sweating so much that I ruined a shirt because I got my hot pink purse wet and the dye bled all over. Though I suppose I shouldn't be complaining, because it's better than the cold and rain I found in Helsinki.

As expected, the city was beautiful. There was about the right amount to do for three full days, and then I was able to take two day trips. The first day I concentrated on the west side of town - Old Town, main square, and Jewish Quarter (and getting lost). Day two I headed across the St. Charles Bridge and up to the castle complex on the top of the hill (this took me almost the entire day). Day three was more wandering and getting lost, and the rest of the east side of the bridge.

 Old Jewish cemetary.

 Entering the main square (with the dancing beer man).

 View from the St. Charles Bridge.


 Inside St. Vitus Cathedral.

At Lennon Wall.

My first day trip was to Kutna Hora, home of the famous Ossuary. It was one of the more difficult side trips I had to take (again, everyone said "tourist trail!" but I was the only one on my bus...) and started with me getting a bit lost (surprise, surprise). Finally though, I found the Bone Church. They estimate that it's decorated with the bones of about 40,000 people, most of whom died in the 14th-15th century due to war and plagues. After that I found a bus to the Old Town, where I found all of the tourists I had heard so much about and the beautiful St. Barbara's cathedral.

 At the entrance.

 One of five massive structures.

 The centerpiece - the chandelier.

 Small street in Old Town. Possible new nickname?

 Walking up to St. Barbara's is incredibly impressive.

View of the town from St. Barbara's.

My final day I had planned to go way outside of town, but I was tired, so instead I chose the closer town of Karlstejn. According to the books, it's a lovely castle, but it's been overexploited by tourism. While it is definitely set up for tourists, it really wasn't as terrible as I was expecting. The castle was nice (if a bit pricey) and I got a workout in climbing the hill to the top in the heat.

 Arriving in Karlstejn.

 First view of the castle.

 Nearing the top, and the sun is really coming out now.

 View from the top.