Random Superficial Thoughts About Central Eastern Europe

1. Everyone smokes everywhere, all the time.
2. There are a million nuns here!

Hiking in the Tatras

Hiking in the Tatras

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3. It’s shocking how many skinny women there are around given their cultural cuisine and cheap beer!
4. These women are champs of high heels… On cobblestones!
5. Prague is the city of rude servers.
6. Olomouc is the city of brides.
7. Krakow is the city of nuns.
8. Slovakia is super humid.
9. PDA is huge. I feel like I am constantly in line at an amusement park!
10. The showers here are different. They almost all are in a tub and the shower head does not hang above you. It is conducive to shorter, more efficient showers perhaps because it encourages you to shut off the water any time you need to use your hands to soap or shampoo.

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11. It is really hard to find broccoli. We got used to broccoli being a staple veggie at home. We have to be lucky to find it in supermarkets here!
12. The street lights go red, yellow, green!! They also do green, yellow, red of course.

Budget: Poland

This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at Poland. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In Poland we used złoty. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 3 złoty to one dollar.

Total Spent (5 days): $425.96

We normally break down into the following categories:

Accommodation: $158.37

We stayed at one hostel in a dorm.

Activities: $86.78

This included the entrance fees to the various museums and important sites that we visited. More than half of this cost was visiting the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Everything else we chose to do was much less expensive or even free!

Alcohol: $8.83

Food: $104.09

We ate out approximately 1 meal a day. Breakfast was provided by our hostel.

Miscellaneous: $13.69

This included postcards, stamps, and bathrooms.

Transportation: $50.72

We traveled exclusively by bus in Poland.

This divides out to $85.19/day which, thankfully, is under our $100/day budget. Yay!

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Krakow, Poland

Krakow was initially on our list to visit because of Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Auschwitz is of course an infamous site, and we knew about the salt mine from a book we have at home that always helped inspire our travel (one of those 100 places you must see kind of books). The salt mine was in it, so we knew we had to see it! 😉 Krakow is much more than those things though. We found that we loved the old town. We spend 5 days there, and we could have spent many more!

Where We Stayed

Tramp Aparthostel – We found this hostel on hostelworld. It was spread out over many floors of an old building very close to the old town square. We were in an 6 person dorm. The benefits were that all of the beds were on the floor, a nice change from bunk beds and the room was very spacious. The hostel also provided a filling free breakfast! The other nice thing was that we ended up being the only 2 in our dorm for 2 nights which is always good. There was a pleasant common room upstairs where breakfast was served. Our main complaint was that they kept trying little ways to overcharge us. It was confusing because they kept trying and would back down very fast when we resisted. We weren’t sure whether they were just enforcing the “customer is always right” policy or whether they were trying to get us if we weren’t paying attention. Examples: we paid through hostelworld which says right there that all taxes and fees are included, but they tried to charge us extra taxes when we arrived. Then, when we decided to stay an extra night (a Thurs night) they asked us for a more money than the previous nights. They claimed it was the weekend rate… which started on Friday. We had to reiterate that we LEAVING on Fri, not staying on Friday. Both times they backed down immediately and we got our way, but it was weird. Also, unfortunately, there was not a communal vibe here due to the rooms being spread across multiple floors, so we didn’t make any connections.

What We Did

Free Walking Tours – There are several different kinds of free walking tours offered in Krakow. We ended up doing two different tours in one day. They were both excellent, though we are not sure we recommend doing two in one day. Our legs and feet were exhausted by the end! The first was a tour of the Old Town Area. We looked at the many beautiful buildings on the large town square including 2 different churches and the cloth hall where merchants have been plying their wares for 1000 years! We then headed up to Florian’s Gate, part of the last remnant of the city walls, and the Barbican fortress. We also found time to head back to the square to listen to the bugle call which happens every hour and to wave at the bugler. The story says that in the old days the bugler warned of approaching enemies. When the Tatars attacked in the 1200s the bugler was shot through the throat in the middle of the melody and they still play that aborted melody 4 times (1 in each direction) on the hour (every hour- even at night) to commemorate! We also visited the Jagiellonian University which was attended by Copernicus (who was an economist as well as a scientist!) We saw the window where Pope John Paul II spoke to his Polish subjects and finally headed to the Wawel Castle complex where we learned a bit more about the history of kings in Poland. It was quite interesting actually, they would elect their king and it was most often a foreigner. The powerful magnates (nobility) never wanted a king who could become too powerful so they could retain control of Poland.

We actually did a second walking tour with our same guide later that afternoon. This one was of Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter of Krakow. The tour started in the main square of the district, on Szeroka Street. We looked at the outside of three different synagogues and also heard about one of the famous residents who was a makeup mogul. Next we walked into an actual synagogue and heard a little about its history. Then, we stopped at the JCC and learned about how there really weren’t that many Jews (officially only 120) left in all of Krakow, since most were killed in WW2 or moved away afterwards. We then went to the square at Plac Nowy, where we took a break to look at the various stalls. Next stop was a walk through an alley that has been used to film many scenes of old town Polish life, most notably Schindler’s List. We then walked through a Christian church in the district – pretty gaudy inside, done in the Baroque style. From there we left Kazimierz and crossed over the Wisla River on a pedestrian bridge with some love locks into the area that was the Jewish ghetto during the war: Podgorze. Not much remains, except for a memorial with chairs in a main square and a fragment of the wall used to keep them in. The last stop was at Schindler’s Factory. Here our guide, Damien, explained that Schindler maybe was not as great of a person as the movie made him out to be. He said we should look into Irina Sendlerowa, who saved over 2000 children. After some research, we found that she is becoming more famous for her work in WWII and there are now several books written about her.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration/Extermination Camp – This powerful day trip from Krakow is described here.

Wieliczka Salt Mine – Read about our excursion to the salt mine here!

Schindler Factory Museum – This was the only museum we visited in Krakow, and it was excellent! The permanent exhibits walk you through what happened in Krakow during the years 1939 – 45, during the Nazi occupation. The museum does fascinating things in each room, designed to make you understand the subject with all of your senses. The room for before the war has nice, warm lighting and happy music playing. It feels like sitting in a comfortable room, watching old family movies about Jewish life in Krakow. Then you enter a hall which describes when Germany attacked. It is black and gloomy with red lighting streaking across the walls, representing the fire, and the sounds of shooting and bombs is everywhere. Even the floor of each room played a big role: in the room describing the initial attack, the floor was uneven; in a room describing life for the Nazis, the floor was fancy swastika tiles; in a room for a concentration camp the floor was actual white gravel. The last room was quite interesting as well. To get into it, you walk through a dark room with a spongy floor (we aren’t quite sure of the interpretation). Then, you enter the “room of regrets”, which is stark white and covered with snippets of writing. Upon closer inspection, the snippets are quotes from people who did something (or didn’t do something) during the war period. The building was actually Schindler’s Factory (from Schindler’s List), so his office is preserved and there are a few rooms dedicated to him.

Wawel Castle Complex – Krakow boasts a beautiful castle complex. We unfortunately did not have time to explore it all. We did visit the Dragon’s Den which is a cave under the castle walls. We were a bit disappointed because we thought there would be “dragon’s” bones there, but there was not. The bones they talk about must be the ones hanging in front of the Cathedral. We did enjoy taking some pics in front of the gorgeous cathedral with the many chapels, different architecture for different kings.

What We Ate

Our favorite restaurant (we went back 3 times!) was just a block outside our hostel and it was called the Milk Bar. Traditionally, a milk bar in Poland is a kind of cafeteria. It was designed to offer cheap but nourishing food. They were especially common through the communist era after WWII. Our milk bar is a modern take on this. It offered a cheap price for a meal of soup and entree. You had your choice of three different of each, which changed most days. They also had excellent pierogies which we enjoyed both boiled and fried!

Final Thoughts

We really liked Krakow! There were quite a few things to do, and the vibe was not nearly as hectic as Prague. The people were friendly, and prices for a tourist were quite reasonable. We’d definitely recommend it as a destination!

Auschwitz, Poland

For almost all of the attractions to be visited on our trip, we can use adjectives like “exciting” or “fun” to describe them. However, there are some attractions where that’s not really the right adjective. The concentration camp at Auschwitz is one such location. We knew that it would be a tough place to visit, but important from a historical perspective.

Getting There

The concentration camp is located in the Polish town of Oświęcim, just 50 km west of Krakow. There were tours of the site offered all around Krakow, but we decided to go on our own so we could keep our own pace. Buses leave for Oświęcim from the main Krakow bus station fairly regularly. We checked the timetable on this helpful website and caught an early morning bus. The bus dropped us off just a few minutes walk from the entrance to Auschwitz I.

Auschwitz I

The original section of the Auschwitz concentration camp was our first stop. The size of this camp is relatively small, so during the peak hours you are required to pay for a guided tour. We had read that it was possible to do it on our own, so we made sure to enter before the peak hours started at 10:00. This also meant that our entrance was free.

Auschwitz I, the original section of the concentration camp was intended primarily to house Polish political prisoners. This section mainly contains barracks that were used to house the prisoners who were forced to do work. (The mass extermination of Jewish and other peoples occurred later at the Birkenau section).

We spent quite a while walking through the grounds and going through various exhibitions housed in the former barracks.

Off the main track that the guided tours were taking, we found a series of museums dedicated to different populations whose members were prisoners at Auschwitz. We only had time for the Polish and Russian museums, but would definitely recommend to future visitors to search out any of the others as well if you have a particular interest.

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Display from the Polish museum

Auschwitz II – Birkenau

As Auschwitz I became more and more crowded, the Nazis decided to build another camp in the vicinity. Once Hitler decided to exterminate the Jewish people, this camp was turned into an extermination center.

Because of these reasons, the Birkenau camp is much more spread out, but the barracks are even more spartan than those found in Auschwitz I. The camp also contains the remains of five different gas chambers and crematoria – the Nazis destroyed them as they retreated.

There is a free shuttle from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II. Since Auschwitz II is so large, there is no requirement for a guided tour at any time, so we were free to explore the grounds independently here as well.

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to even describe what our emotions were after visiting these sights. The scale of the atrocities described is just hard to fathom. It was very difficult to see what we saw, but also not something that should be ignored.

A Tip for Future VIsitors: Backpacks are not allowed in either site. We were able to check our back at Auschwitz I, but not at II and had to improvise. Make sure to plan ahead accordingly if you normally travel with a day bag.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland

One of the reasons we wanted to visit Krakow, Poland was to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine. We had never heard of a salt mine before learning about this one, so we were fascinated to find out more.

Eric had discovered that the salt mine was only a short distance from Krakow, and it was easy to take a city bus there. We also saw that the bus would pick up quite close to Old Town. We took the 304 bus toward Wieliczka and it was about a 30 min ride. Unfortunately, we had a little confusion when we first tried to get on. As we approached the stop, we saw that a bus was there so we rushed to get on. However, the bus driver indicated that we needed to buy our ticket outside. We went to the ticket machine but there was quite a line and people seemed to be very slow and confused on how to buy the ticket. We were quite frustrated when it took so long that the bus pulled away without us. We waited for only about 15 min for the next one. This time we had our ticket in hand and were the first ones on! At this point, we saw that there was a ticket machine ON the bus… If we had known that, we could have caught the first one! However, it turned out to be good that we got on the bus early because it became very crowded!

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We arrived in Wieliczka and made our way into the large salt mine complex. The day was rainy and it turned out that we were not the only people interested in going underground. We waited in line for close to 45 min to buy our tickets! We had read somewhere that the salt mines are quite like the DisneyWorld of Poland, and we are inclined to agree. Luckily, once we bought our tickets, we only had about 10 min before our assigned (and mandatory) tour group headed into the mine. We quickly gobbled a small snack and found the bathrooms before we joined our English speaking tour group.

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The tour starts by descending 54 flights of stairs to the 1st level of the mine. It got pretty dizzying!! Here we learned some of the history of the mine. Salt has been made in the area as far back as the neolithic period where people made it from the rivers. As time went on and it became harder to make enough salt from the waters, people began to dig. The mine was established as far back as the 13th century! The mine actually produced salt continually until 2007. It grew to 327 meters below the surface. We walked for approximately 5 km through the mine, however, we saw only about 2% of the mine!

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Over the course of the tour, we descended down to the second and third levels of the mine and learned a bit more about what salt mining was like. It was quite dangerous, as all mining is. The miners used quite ingenious tools to move salt up and down. They even had horses which lived their lives in the mine. Because of the danger, many of the miners began to carve religious chapels into the salt to pray in. Also, from early on the mine has been a tourist attraction, with many famous dignitaries being noted as having visited and then memorialized in rock salt sculpture. So over time, the mine has become quite a beautiful place, full of sculptures, religious and otherwise!

The most amazing thing about the tour was that everything we were walking through was rock salt – floors, walls, and ceilings (with some wood used as stairs and for support). They had even made chandeliers out of rock salt, so clear that they looked like crystals.

The most impressive part of the entire mine is the huge underground chapel dedicated to St. Kinga, the patron saint of all salt miners. This was a huge room, amazingly beautiful, with many statues and scenes carved into the walls.

As the tour finished, we were deposited into the part of the mine that was the most touristy. It included multiple gift shops, a restaurant, and a small interactive movie room about the history of salt mining.

We had been told that when we were done exploring those areas, we could go to one of two lines. One to wait for a lift directly up and out, or another to enter the underground museum. We were definitely interested in the museum. However, after waiting in line for several minutes, we were beginning to question our decision. At some point, another guide came over and asked who would like to continue the tour in English. We were the only 2 people who were interested. The guide seemed quite disappointed that we were interested and turned abruptly. We followed her down many corridors without her saying a word. Then we entered the first of many museum rooms. Our terse guide gave a canned speech about one display case and moved on, ignoring most of our attempts at conversation. She even ignored some of our questions… We continued this way through the rest of the museum, so the tour was not very enjoyable for us.

In the end, we found the mine fascinating and were glad that we got to experience it. However, the cost was quite high and we were a bit disappointed in the museum portion at the end.

Fast Forward Friday: Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is near Krakow, Poland. It was built in the 13th century and was mined for salt until recently. Now it is mostly a tourist attraction. It boasts the beautiful natural wonder of a salt mine with caverns and beautiful crystals, but also interesting man-made sculptures, statues, churches, altars, and bas-reliefs in the rock salt.