Posts Tagged With: poland

April Adventures – Part I

In like a lion, out like a lamb. Although normally March’s motto, this expression applied more to April’s antics in this part of the world. The rough winter weather lagged into first days of April with no sign of stopping soon. But when spring finally peeked out from behind the snow clouds a week later, it was all at once, allowing for perhaps the most action-packed month in Slovakia thus far. Since I haven’t mentioned most of the minor adventures and excursions, aside from the castle visits, I figured I’d put together a little list of highlights. The problem was, once I looked through my pictures and made the list, it turned out to be not-so-little.  So, I’ve divided it into two parts. Part I is mostly lion, so stay tuned for Part II for the green and sunny stuff.

Zakopane

After spending a nippy, jam-packed weekend of food, history and culture in Krakow, Chris and I headed south to Zakopane, a mountain town that sits right above the Slovakian border. We had been here once before, desperately seeking Polish Zloty to avoid being stranded in the Polish wilderness (A Quest for the Elusive Polish Lakes can tell you all about it if you want to know more) and had decided it was definitely worth a second full-length visit.

Typical Zakopane mountain scene

Typical Zakopane mountain scene

Since we arrived on Easter Sunday, there were no cabs parked in their usual waiting spot and no buses were running. It was almost snowy, but mostly raining, so we were not picky about how we got to our hostel 5km away, as long as we got there quickly.  After 10 minutes of wandering around in search of transport and older man approached me claiming he had a taxi.  We followed him to a car in the train station lot that was certainly not a taxi. Although I know it’s a traveling no-no to take an unmarked taxi in many places, but sometimes you just trust your gut, and this man’s grandfatherly ways told mine we’d be fine.  We mostly were since the price was fair and he was very talkative for the few words of English he know. The only minor danger was the swerving that occurred as he wiped his windshield with a sponge every 15 seconds so he could at least see a blurry version of the road through the damp flakes falling. Even without a defroster, we made it to the hostel safe and sound  and spent a sleepy afternoon in  heated Uno battles with other hostel guests.

This sign normally stands above eye level. You do the math.

This sign normally stands above eye level. You do the math.

The next morning we headed across the street to the national park for a lengthy hike to a mountain lodge deep in the woods. We were ecstatic to find that our feet didn’t sink through the layer of icy crust on top of the path of footprints from previous hikers, allowing us to float over the multiple feet of the white stuff as we walked. The hike itself was enjoyable enough, winding through snow-dusted pines and past rustic cabins. However, after a certain elevation, just like the last time we hiked in Poland, the fog and mist made it impossible for us to see more than several feet in some places, particularly at the mountain’s summit. While the thick fog did create a pretty cool other-planet-like effect on the top, when you haul your butt up that much mountain, you just want to see some views.

The nearly invisible snowboarder wasn't so far ahead of us.

The nearly invisible snowboarder wasn’t so far ahead of us.

Luckily we found our rewards elsewhere. Not too far past our low-visibility peak we came across the mountain lodge, and therefore restaurant, that we sought. A Polish woman very graciously took the time to translate the entire menu for us, which turned out to be somewhat unnecessary since they had English menus. It was not a complete waste though. Her favorable description steered us towards a new dish of pancakes with cream and powdered sugar and a special Easter soup that no one could describe except for being delicious and having an egg inside.  Both choices made for a perfect hikers’ lunch, and of course we accented them an obligatory plate of pierogies.

Hearty hiking meals are the best rewards.

Hearty hiking meals are the best rewards.

Completely stuffed and somewhat reenergized, we headed back out into the foggy abyss. Since we had already been disappointed by the lack of vistas by the blue trail we had taken up, I suggested that we take a winding yellow trail that would meet back up with it on the way back. Chris was skeptical as this was certainly the road less traveled if the footprints were any indication, and his skepticism proved to be founded. The path was not nearly as wide or spacious as the other, resulting in more than a few full-snow immersions when either of us stepped off the narrow line of packed snow.

Coming across an igloo is always a bonus.

Coming across an igloo is always a bonus.

Despite the initial struggle, in the end, the yellow pick didn’t end up being a complete failure. The fog lifted a bit and we could see the huge pine walls and rocky cliffs that surrounded us.  The trail led us through a completely different valley, making the return journey more of a new discovery than a trudge back.

There isn't supposed to be this much ice in April.

There isn’t supposed to be this much ice in April.

Although the hike officially left us 0-for-2 for actually seeing the Polish Tatras that we have spent over 14 collective hours hiking through, we still returned to our hostel having covered more than 12 km with rosy cheeks, sore legs and a familiar post-hike good mood. Maybe the third time will be the charm for the visibility.

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Categories: hiking, nature, TEFL, tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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

RO Raw: An Adventure in Raw Dining

Adorable Veggie friends brighten up the room

Adorable Veggie friends brighten up the room

The last time I ordered a salad in Slovakia, the roasted mushrooms and tomatoes I had expected arrived on a bed of cheese cubes rather than lettuce.

Even as a self-proclaimed dairy queen and carb-lover, spending a significant length of time on a Eastern European diet of heavy meat, potato and cheese dishes can really leave you craving something green. So, after hearing about RO Raw, a raw vegan restaurant in Krakow from a delightfully non-preachy enthusiast, I was intrigued. A  longing for fresh veggies combined with a curiosity of how anything but a glorified salad could be made with just raw, vegan-friendly food kept the place in the back of my mind until I finally made it to Poland over Easter break.

I must admit, I initially approached the idea with caution. I was really hungry and in the back of my mind wondered if I might need another meal later in the evening to sustain me. But as soon as we walked into the bright, whimsical restaurant in Wolnica Square and took our seats next to a stuffed carrot and broccoli stalk, I had a good feeling about the whole experiment. Once I saw the ingredient combinations on the very conveniently English-friendly menu, I knew we’d picked a winner.  After starting with shakes, one Green Insanity (apple, banana and spinach) and one Brazilian Delight (Brazilian nuts, pineapple nuts, cranberries, banana) we struggled to choose from a menu where everything sounded fresh and fantastic.

Our Green Insanity and Brazilian Delights Shakes match the decor.

Our Green Insanity and Brazilian Delights Shakes match the decor.

The first step was to eliminate the additional normal, but not raw, vegan section. If we were going to try it, we were going to go all of the way.  After that, it became more difficult, mostly because of the high number of unfamiliar items. Vegan sandwiches made on raw bread. How does that work? Raw soups? They can also be served at 41 °C, thank God. Pumpkin Tagliatelle or Carrot Spaghetti? The possibilities, which I thought would be so limited, were endless.

Luckily our waitress was one of the most patient, kind and genuine I have encountered in Eastern Europe, or quite possibly ever.  She answered our probably stupid questions about just about every item on the menu, the restaurant and the vegan scene in Krakow as a whole. Finally, she helped us decide on the Discover Raw which included samples of Raw Pumpkin Cream Soup, A Passion for Fresh Salad, Raw “Pierogis”, the Raw Sandwich, and Zucchini A La Lasagne to seal the deal. Continue reading

Categories: fitness, food, photography, tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Return to Ždiar: A Quest for the Elusive Polish Lakes

I couldn’t stay away from the High Tatras for long. Just three weeks after my first visit to Ždiar, I was longing for mountain air and alpine views. I was also pretty excited to curl up in my comfiest clothes and hot cocoa in the cozy Ginger Monkey common room.

Views like this bring you back.

The day we arrived in the Tatras turned out to be utter perfection. Crisp air, stunning vistas complete with character-adding cows, and sunrays streaming through mountain peaks like nobody’s business.

Chris and Wally playing beneath the Bela Tatras.

Once we were blissed out from a short trek through rural Slovakian perfection (which also included the hostel’s perfect dog, Wally), we decided we had to take on the Polish Lake hike the next day to continue our fantastic outdoor weekend, questionable weather forecast or not.

The drizzle and overcast that greeted us Saturday morning should have been an omen that this day would not be like the last. But ever the optimists, just before 10 a.m. we took a bus that took us to the Slovakian-Polish border. There we walked crossed a bridge over a small river into Poland. While it really is no different than driving, it just feels very dramatic to walk over an international border, and so, we documented with equally dramatic photography.

First moments in Poland.

From the border we flagged down a new bus to take us to Tatra National Park, the location of our hike.  This bus driver, as I suspected, had no problem taking my Euros instead of Polish Zloty. (Of course allowing for a horrendous exchange for me, but these are the sacrifices you make for the thrill of walking over ATM-less borders.)

Upon arrival we found the park to be unexpectedly packed for a dreary October morning. However, I always love to see people out enjoying their local natural treasures, and therefore I was more than happy to endure the crowds and traditional Polish horse carts near the park entrance. We walked alongside the crowds on a paved road for about 20 minutes before our the red trail we were told to follow veered into the woods. While we were somewhat wary that the masses continued on to what you would assume to be some sort of landmark (a Polish lake perhaps?), the directions seemed very clear and thus we began our trek up the mountain.

A horse pulling a carriage full of older tourists speeds past.

A horse pulling a carriage full of older tourists speeds past.

As soon as we entered the forest it became clear that the Polish Tatras were mystically beautiful. Nearly an hour up the mountain it became it also became clear that we should have stuck with the masses a little longer.  The trail was intriguing, all shrouded in mist and fog, but it certainly wasn’t the route described on our map. (It’s funny how precise a small paragraph can for a seven-hour hike can seem until it’s not.) However, based on our limited map it appeared we may have been starting to do the route backwards, and based on our limited time continuing was the only way to go if we wanted to see any lakes. So continue we did. Continue reading

Categories: hiking, travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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