Posts Tagged With: eastern europe

Krka National Park – Croatia

The Krka River from above.

The Krka River from above.

So I’ve taken a not-so-brief hiatus since returning home. But between much job hunting and interviewing, and finally job accepting (at a travel company, very exciting!) and moving to Burlington, Vermont, I’ve let the end of my Eastern European travel documenting fall by the wayside.

However, it doesn’t feel right to begin another adventure without completing the last one, so I’m going to finish off with the last few days of Croatia, starting with Krka National Park.

Looking down on the Krka River from the walking path.

Looking down on the Krka River from the walking path.

While not quite as popular as Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park (coming up next), Krka offers similar unbelievably blue water and has little waterfalls flowing everywhere you look along with an added bonus – you can actually swim in the water, not just look.

It was this fact that persuaded Chris and I to take the long bus trip from Zadar to Krka and back again via Šibenik, and I don’t regret it for an instant. Although you would never predict it from the hours of arid coast and foothills the bus ride passes through, the end result is a lush, jungle-like valley with a surprisingly blue river running through the center.

Wooden walkways like this lead visitors through the park without disrupting the delicate ecosystem.

Wooden walkways like this lead visitors through the park without disrupting the delicate ecosystem.

After descending into the valley by foot or by bus, visitors can follow wooden pathways through the greenery as water flows in all directions underneath. Trees, bushes and rocks force the water into tiny pools and falls everywhere you look, making for an unreal and unique setting.

Tiny sections of the river form miniature waterfalls as they run through trees and plants.

Tiny sections of the river form miniature waterfalls as they run through trees and plants.

I think this may be the best place on earth to be a fish.

I think this may be the best place on earth to be a fish.

After about a mile or so of wooden walkways, you come to the main event – a huge, multi-tiered waterfall that visitors can swim beneath. The combination of the cool, clean water, the scorching late-June heat and the awesome scenery made for one of the most refreshing swims of my life. The strong current made it a little more difficult to get close to the falls than I thought, but once you reach the line keeping swimmers from getting too close you can just hang on and enjoy the sound of the rushing water.

The swimming area at the end of the path is definitely the highlight of the journey.

The swimming area at the end of the path is definitely the highlight of the journey.

Somehow we managed to get a picture without any of the crowds.

Somehow we managed to get a picture without any of the crowds.

Although most of the backpackers we met along the way skipped over Krka in favor of Plitvice, I would say if you have time to do both, you shouldn’t miss it. Just be sure to bring some kind of water-friendly shoes as the rocks beneath the water in the swimming area are sharp and uneven (I found this out the hard way), and don’t be afraid to utilize the smaller vans driven by locals between Šibenik and Krka as they were faster, cheaper and more frequent. Finally make sure to get an early start if you want to spend any significant amount of time in the park, because the last bus back to Šibenik leaves at 5:00 p.m.

The falls from the final bridge.

The falls from the final bridge.

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Categories: environment, hiking, nature, photography, travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lost Days in Krakow

St. Mary's Church dominates Krakow's main square.

St. Mary’s Church dominates Krakow’s main square.

I’ll admit it, I was bad in Krakow. I got so caught up trying to squeeze as much of this spectacular city into three days as possible that I was remiss with my camera and less than dutiful with my note-taking. We were having so much fun and doing so much that it seemed like we had just got there when we had to leave, which to be fair, was basically true.

Fierce lions keeping watch in the Old Town.

Fierce lions keeping watch in the Old Town.

We did manage to fit in several amazing meals in during that short time.  This included the best burger I’ve seen thus far in Eastern Europe, and rivaling the best ever, at lovekrove (it even had guacamole!), my first ever raw vegan experience at RO RAW, some apparently quintessential Polish pizza-bread things called zapiekanke and, of course, traditional pierogies and sausages at the Easter Market.

Sheep-shaped bread and sausage. About as Polish as it gets.

Sheep-shaped bread and sausage. About as Polish as it gets.

As always, we took full advantage of the fantastic free (read: tip what you can or feel is right) tours which you can find offered in so many European cities and were overwhelmed by Krakow’s amazingly rich history. (Most of its architecture was spared in WWII, which is rare.) Of all of the spots in the city, I gravitated most towards the Jewish District, Kazimierz. It hums with youthful energy, full of totally unique restaurants, pubs and shops in addition to important tourist sights such as synagogues and churches.

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The entrance to the last active synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter

Unfortunately, as upbeat and fun as this district now is, one can’t forget the somber and scarily recent history of persecution, mass deportation and genocide that began here during the Nazi occupation during World War II, which leads me to a much more serious part of our visit.

Down a side road in Kazimierz.

Down a side road in Kazimierz.

I can’t fully explain the experience of going to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. What I can say is that any one who feasibly has the opportunity to see it for themselves should be sure to take it.  It isn’t until you step onto the grounds that you can completely (or at least speaking for myself) understand the horrifically efficient and scarily regimented way such unfathomable crimes of hate were carried out here. To see the expanse of the grounds sprawling all around you and to take stories from history books and place them in a real location is an experience that will stick with you for a lifetime. Hopefully it will serve as a grim reminder that vigilance against such inhumanity is necessary in the future.

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A restored Jewish Cemetery in Kazimierz

Despite the dark parts in its history, Krakow has emerged as a vibrant city of hope. The energy, architecture, food,history, both the bleak and the inspiring, and most importantly, the people, are all part of what makes Krakow a city which proved to be above and beyond the mass amounts of backpacker hype that it receives. Prior to visiting, I thought a week in any city of that size would be excessive. But now, seeing all it has to offer, I know I’ll have to return for at least that long to make up for this three-day blur of a trip.

Luckily – for those interested interested in knowing more about the specifics of Krakow – Chris happened to create a much more witty and detailed record than I. You can check it out in his post on his blog A Wayfarer’s Murmurings.

Entering Wawel (it sounds less silly, as it's properly pronounced Vavel) Castle.

Entering Wawel (it sounds less silly, as it’s properly pronounced Vavel) Castle.

How Rochester made the cut and New York City did not is beyond me, but go Upstate New York!

How Rochester made the cut and New York City did not is beyond me, but go Upstate New York!

Categories: food, photography, tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Trenčín – A Slice of Slovakia

If you venture east of Bratislava or south of the Tatras, Slovakian cities are pretty hit or miss from a tourism standpoint. While the country’s natural landscape is always stunning, the small urban centers spattered throughout its center are as likely to be industrial and harshly practical as historic and picturesque. However, these days most of Slovak living happens in these very places, and to skip over the heart of modern-day Slovakia would be doing yourself a disservice. Fortunately, Trenčín, a western Slovakian city with about 57,000 inhabitants, can provide both your touristic appeal and a taste of typical Slovak life as it exists today.

Trenčín from halfway up the castle cliff

Trenčín from halfway up the castle cliff

Having recently spent five days in Trenčín, I feel like the city is a tiny slice of so many of the best things Slovakia has to offer. Trenčin lies in a valley surrounded by gorgeous almost-mountain hills which serve as the perfect  backdrop for a straight-out-of-a-storybook castle perched upon a rocky craig. The pedestrian old town streets below are frequented by families and university students along with tourists and are dotted with cafes and restaurants. These streets curl around the rim of an extensive forest area where you can find Slovaks getting their typical weekend dose of nature along the wooded trails. And although Trenčin still has the typical communist-era block apartments and industrial areas, they sit quietly on the edges of town, rather than looming over it like concrete giants as they do in so many places throughout Slovakia.

Castle watchtower over the city

Castle watchtower over the city

During my months in Slovakia, I’ve passed by Trenčín’s majestic castle on a cliff several times. Thanks to its location and impressive lighting, it will always strike you long before you enter the city limits. It may only be the third largest in Slovakia (behind Spiš Castle, which lies much further east, and Bratislava Castle, which to be frank, isn’t really a castle in the way you want it to be), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t vie for a spot as the greatest, at least in the traditional sense. Its light stone exterior, tall towers and high walls give it the classic castle aesthetic. Trenčín Castle proves to be historically impressive too with the first mention of the structure dating back nearly a millennium. The remains of a Slavic rotunda can be dated back to the ninth century. It’s hay day seems to have been in the 13th century when owner Máté Csák used it to control the majority of Slovakia. Most of the remaining structures are from the 15th century and a fire in 1790 made extensive restoration necessary, but the history of the location still long precedes and overshadows many of Slovakia’s hundreds of remaining castles.

Remains of a castle wall

Remains of a castle wall

The views of the town from above are more than reward enough for the fairly steep climb up to the castle and there are plenty of places to stop and take them in. Once you get to the gate, it is necessary to purchase a tour if you want to  enter the castle grounds.  The prices are very reasonable (less than 3 € for a student ticket and a camera pass) for a half-hour mini-tour of the Mathias Tower, which is all you really need unless you really want to see the castle galleries, which takes an hour longer. For us, there were no English guides available, so the tour consisted of a friendly Slovak woman leading us from room to room with a packet of translated information, which was actually quite interesting and more informative than some other castle tours I’ve been on.  Climbing the historic tower with its labyrinth of tiny doors and staircases for tiny medieval people was entertaining. When we reached the lookout deck at the top and saw the expanse of the surrounding valley below us, I suddenly understood why this castle and its vantage point were so important many centuries ago. Continue reading

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Return to Slovakia and the Hills of Nitra

Bratislava Castle from under the UFO Bridge

Bratislava Castle from under the UFO Tower of the New Bridge

After some time at home, it feels great to be back in Slovakia with my expectations even higher and my backpack even lighter than before. My flights from Buffalo to Budapest all went off without a hitch (something unheard of for about the last five years of my life). And although I’ve already passed through it before, I finally got my first view of Budapest’s stunning cityscape before moving on.

Art in the bus station under the New Bridge

Art in the bus station under the New Bridge

From Budapest, I headed to Kosice, Slovakia – one of 2013’s Cultural Capitals of Europe, for those who haven’t heard – to check in with HQ, and then onto my beloved Bratislava for the weekend. Since I’d already been to Bratislava a couple times before, I checked out some places outside of my usually old town rounds.  Chris and I took a bus up to Slavín, which is a looming war memorial honoring Soviet troops who died liberating Bratislava from the Germans during WWII.  The memorial itself was worth seeing, but the view of the city below and the residential neighborhoods we passed through on the ride up were even more interesting. Huge and strangely modern private residences are mixed amongst ambassadors homes and embassies. The American ambassador’s home is actually quite close to the memorial and in a moment of need, we briefly thought about asking to use the bathroom. That’s within our rights as American citizens, right?

A child plays beneath the Slavin memorial

A child plays beneath the Slavin memorial

After returning from Slavín, Chris and I, and our new co-worker Ryan, hit up brewpub and restaurant Meštiansky Pivovar as per a local’s suggestion. The place lived up to its hype with a warm atmosphere, good beer, absolutely scrumptious, reasonably priced food, and exceptionally friendly service, which is something that can be hard to find in Slovakia.

Overlooking Bratislava from Slavin

Overlooking Bratislava from Slavin

The next day we headed to Nitra, where we would be teaching for the week.  Although it is the fifth largest city in Slovakia, I didn’t know much about it beyond its emboldened name on the west side of Slovakia’s map.  It turns out Nitra is one the oldest cities in Slovakia.  Sprawling down and around Zobor mountain, Nitra has anything you could possibly want as far as modern conveniences, from malls to cinemas to bowling alleys, in addition to a church older than the United States around just about every corner. This is quite logical seeing as the first Christian church in the Czech and Slovak Republics was founded here in the 9th century.

Nitra and Calvary Hill from Nitra's "Castle"

Nitra and Calvary Hill from Nitra’s “Castle”

While the town proved to be a very pleasant place to spend a week teaching (and this, of course, is largely due to the students and teachers at the school) it might only be worth a day-long stopover for backpackers or tourists. Beyond the churches and the city’s castle which is basically, surprise, surprise, a church, the two biggest attractions are Nitra’s hills: Calvary and Zobor.

My fellow teachers on top of Calvary Hill

My fellow teachers on top of Calvary Hill

Calvary immediately grabs your eye, easing gently upwards through the stations of the cross on one side with a jutting, rocky face on the other.  A small chapel and three crosses sit atop the hill, making for dramatic silhouettes with the right lighting. It takes only a few minutes to walk up after you reach the base, but provides an excellent view of the city.  The best views, however, are taken in from the city’s other hill.  The center of Nitra lies in the shadow of Zobor mountain, or perhaps more accurately, Zobor hill, while some of its nicer residential areas creep up the side.  If you take bus number nine from the center you will be taken about halfway up the hill to where a network of trails begins.  Take the blue and then the green to Zobor, to reach the summit of 588 meters.  From here you will get a close-up look at the mountain’s transmitter, which looks like it could be something more exotic from a further distance.  You’ll also see the whole of the city, the course of the Nitra River, expanses of farmland and a nearby mine.  I’ve been told, on a clear day, it is possible to see 40 km or more, but we were just fortunate enough to get some golden haze through the previously overcast afternoon. The views were fantastic none the less. While you can hike to the summit of Zobor and back to the bus stop in about an hour and a half, a network of trails on the hill could easily keep you busy for an afternoon or longer.  Continue reading

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Looking back – the best of 2012

I started 2012 (and also Incurably Stir Crazy, which is nearing its one-year anniversary) with a mission. I wanted to spend this year seeing new places, chasing new experiences and packing as much life into 366 days as possible. Looking back on the year, I’d say things went pretty much according to plan. I hope it is just one of many adventure-filled years to come.  Below is a list of some of the  highlights, as a way to remember, and to be honest, a chance to share some of the stuff I’ve slacked on posting. But that’s what new year’s resolutions are for, right?

1. Skiing the Swiss Alps

Ok, so Christmas 2011 doesn’t exactly fall into 2012, but its close enough.  Plus pictures from this trip have not been documented besides in my header photo.  Although I’ve been skiing since I was five, this was my first opportunity to take on anything bigger than the mountains of Vermont.  While a week prior to the trip we were planning on changing it from a skiing vacation to a hiking vacation thanks to lack of snow, mother nature took care of us just fine. Davos, Switzerland got pounded with snow to the point of avalanche warnings and my siblings and I got our first taste of real powder skiing. This week of family bonding and fantastic skiing won’t soon be forgotten, but hopefully soon repeated.

The first day of skiing - perfect conditions.

The first day of skiing – perfect conditions.

Not every day was so ideal however, with avalanche and wind warnings cutting one of our days short. But we still felt very intense being the last skiers left on the mountain.

However, not every day was so ideal with avalanche and wind warnings cutting one of our days short. But we still felt very intense being the last skiers left on the mountain.




On the slopes

On the slopes

Valley in Davos

Valley in Davos

View from halfway up Jakobshorn, Davos

View from halfway up Jakobshorn, Davos

2. Exploring my own backyard

My final semester of college made any substantial amount of traveling difficult, but it did give me an opportunity to visit some local places that I had always meant to get to before.  This included several trips to nearby Allegheny National Forest in winter, spring and summer, and my first visit to Griffis Sculpture Park, which I’ve been driving past my whole life.  Not being able to go elsewhere made me appreciate how much there is still to see within day-tripping distance of my own home.   I’ve got several new local destinations slated for the new year already.

My hiking boots are laced and ready on one of my several trips to Allegheny National Forest.

My hiking boots are laced and ready on one of my several trips to Allegheny National Forest.

Continue reading

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