Saturday, April 30, 2005
Statue of Dobo IstvanWe woke up early —4 A.M.!— and walked to the train station. The town was mostly deserted and very quiet. Caught the 5:10 A.M. train to Hungary, a short time later we passed through border control. The Hungarian border guards were extremely nice and spoke English well. One quick glance at the passports, two stamps and we're done. So much easier than the last border crossing, though we have a few Slovak Crowns left in our pockets for crossing the border, just in case.
Eger Town SquareThe train stopped in Fuzesabony, a town about 15Km from Eger. We had some time before the next train, so we headed off to find some cash. I was happy to find an ATM this time! Another train ride and we arrive in Eger around 9 AM. The map in our Lonely Planet guide is useless, so I commit the town map outside the train station to memory and we start walking.
(Steph calls me the "human GPS" for my ability to navigate with, or without, a map. If I've walked/driven/rode someplace once, I will never forget how to get there again. Who needs sattelites?)
Beer For BreakfastWe walked to the center of town and found our hotel, the Hotel Senator Haz. Unfortunately, it was too early for us to check in, so we dropped our bags off and headed out to check out the town. First things first, we need some breakfast. We found a small bakery shop and grabbed a few sandwiches. The town was setting up for some kind of festival. This time we'd be sure to get to join in for all the fun. This is a great way to see Eger at its best! I started drinking at 10:30 A.M., I figured I should do as the locals do! Too bad the first Hungarian beer I tried, Soproni, was like Budweiser with a little added flavor. Yech. The Dreher Bak (Bock) I drank later in the day was much better. While quafffing my first beer a German tour group walked by and was admiring the statue of Dobo Istvan. One of the older men in the group pulled out a single-serving bottle of Jaegermeister and sucked it down right in front of me. Beer with breakfast, sure. But Jaeger?
View from Eger Castle
Seeking to recreate an Amazing Race 6 moment we walked up to the Eger Castle and did a short tour of the grounds. Not nearly as impressive as either Prague Castle or Wawel Castle and the hike wasn't as deadly as the Spis Castle — but it was open for visitors! The castle was nice, but the more interesting sites were the views across the city itself. Before we left, we replicated the "Canon Ball Run" scene from Amazing Race. Yes, we're reality TV watchers. And we're currently missing the final few episondes of the Amazing Race 7!
Recreating the Amazing
Race "Cannonball Run"
Back down through the square, things are getting going now with cheerleaders and a very bad marching band. We headed to lunch but we had trouble finding any local cuisine. Eger is a big tourist town so they had everything you could want, including McDonalds. So we ate at a Mediterranean restaurant where they served gyros without the pita. Weird. Spent some time people watching and Steph was evesdropping on the Israeli couple next to us to see if she still remembered her Hebrew. After lunch we headed off to see the local wine museum. Amazingly, it is out of business!
View from Eger Castle
Instead we found our way via taxi to the wine caves at Szepasszony-volgy, the Valley of Beautiful Women. We explored a handful of the cellars, some were dark and dank, others brightly lit and nicely decorated. The all shared one common theme, mediocre to really bad wine! Thankfully it was only 50HUF (~$.25) a glass! One of the cellars had a very lively band with 3 fiddlers and a bassist. They came over to us and tried to guess where we were from, intending to play our national anthem. They guessed wrong numerous times and we weren't helping them much. Everyone thinks we're German! Finally, we told them we're American and they played "If I Were A Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof! Weird.
I've been a very
After a few glasses of wine we decided to head back to the center of town and the festival. Unfortunately, we couldn't find a taxi to save our lives, but a nice waiter from a local restaurant was kind enough to call one for us. When we paid the driver he counted back our change in German! I guess that Eger sees a lot of German speaking tourists and not many English speakers.
Eating Cotton CandyWe continued to pop in and out of the festival through the day and ate some cotton candy, local pretzels, drink a few more beers and enjoyed the local color. Early in the evening a very funny — and very BAD — rock band went on stage. They were covering a number of songs that we knew, but it was clear that they didn't speak English so the words came out funny. Imagine "Born To Be Wild" sung completely phoenetically! They also sang quite a bit in Magyar. The local teenagers clearly knew the songs and sang along. It was so bad that it was good!
Barrels of WineDuring the show I spotted two kids wearing McDonalds/1996 Atlanta Olympic Games hats. That was definitely not expected, but it put us in the mood for dinner so we headed to the local MickeyD's. The day had been long and we were too tired to try and figure out a menu in Magyar and knew that there weren't many choices for local Hungarian cuisine. It may not have been called a Quarter Pounder With Cheese &mdash or a Royale With Cheese — but it tastes the same. I was annoyed, however, to have to pay for ketchup! Walked back to the hotel and packed our bags before bed. Tomorrow we're headed to Budapest, the final stop on our trip and where we'll spend our 2 year anniversary!
"If I were a
Posted by dhs at 4/30/2005 11:06:00 PM
Friday, April 29, 2005
Levoca Town WallA hot shower felt really good this morning. Yesterday was definitely a rough travel day and thankful that our pension is so nice! After a quick breakfast, we headed out on to the town. There's not a huge amount to see in Levoca, but we knew that we'd spend much of the day travelling on the way to Kosice, the capital and largest city in the eastern half of Slovakia.
Levoca Town WallWe walked around the town taking in the sights. The town itself is surrounded by town walls, Pension Miva is right inside one of the gates. First we went to the square and saw the Cage of Shame which was used to humiliate criminals. This large jail cell sits in the middle of the town square, right behind the Church of St. James. I'm not a huge fan of churches or religious sites, however, the church is an extremely beautiful Gothic building with a very large carved wooden altar. At 19m high by 6m wide, it's the largest in the world! The altar was carved by Master Pavol of Levoca from 1507 to 1518 and renovated during Communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia. The walls and ceilings were covered in frescoes and there were original wooden pews still in the church. As we were about to leave, a large group of tourists began to sing... something relgious? I didn't understand a word, but it was a really beautiful moment.
The Town Square and
Cage of Shame
LevocaBefore leaving town, we had to drop by the post office and the local grocery. I always love venturing into the local grocery store or market if I can, we always wind up with some kind of crazy snack that we fall in love with. Once again,we found some kind of cookie. Turns out that its a ginger cookie — Steph is not a fan of ginger — and we both love it!
The Town Square
LevocaOne more stop by Pension Miva to pick up our bags and Off to Spissky Podhradie we go! Its a short bus ride, thankfully, because its hot, crowded and stinky! We hop off in a decrepit little town, the guide book didn't have anything nice to say about it and now I know why. The reason we came was the Spis Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We walked toward the castle, it was standing out on a hillside just outside of town. We weren't exactly where the path to the castle was, but a local little boy walked a few blocks with us to show us where to go. He led us to the entrace to a parking lot from which the trail ascends to the castle.
The Town Square
LevocaSteph informed me that I was crazy if I thought we're going to walk up THAT hill with THESE backpacks. This was one of the adventures on our trip that I was really looking forward to, so we can't turn back now. We thought the castle might be closed to visitors, but our pension informed us it was open and I could see people in the castle, near the top of the castle walls. Up the hill we go.
The Spis CastleNearly an hour later, we're hot and exhausted. We had to stop a few times on the way, but we climbed "Mt. Everest" and we're ready to see what's inside. But the gate is CLOSED! I figured that someone is inside and we should see if there's another entrance. So I looked at the map at the castle and headed to the "East Gate". We never did find it, the terrain was steep, we were tired and we didn't see anyone else around. We took some pictures and started heading downhill. Even without getting inside, this was a very worthwhile trip for the gorgeous scenery, looking out over the hills and small towns. We were alone and it was quiet except for the gusty wind.
The Spis CastleAt the base of the hill is the train station, we decided to try our luck on the Slovak trains to Kosice. Spissky Podhradie is at the end of a small line with a one car diesel train running up and down a few times a day. The next train wasn't for 2 hours, so we headed for a bus instead. What a mistake, the bus was late and we eventually decided it wasn't worth waiting, the train would definitely by more comfortable. So, we walk back to the train station and wait, eating the snacks we bought earlier in the day.
The Spis CastleThe conductor and engineer come out of the tiny station, hop on the train and we're off. This is a pretty unique experience for us, its a local train with kids, teenagers, laborers and us. It takes 15 minutes to Spissky Vlachy, where we get off at a slightly larger train station with a few tracks, but no people. An announcement comes over the PA and everyone heads toward the track to get on the train. We end up in a compartment by ourselves where we ride for almost 2 hours to Kosice.
The Spis CastleWent to our pension where they seemed confused by our very presence. Checked in and thought how happy we are that this is only one night. Then we headed out "on the town" to go check out the city. Kosice is the 2nd largest city in Slovakia, but it has a very small town feel. We walked to the main square, everyone was setting up for a festival. We're a day early, unfortunately! After a stroll around the square we found a Slovak restaurant with a waitress that spoke no English but the beers and food were very cheap! We had a great meal and relaxed from a second tough travel day. We headed back to the pension early, we have a 5:10 AM departure for Eger, Hungary in the morning. Which means its time to learn how to say "please", "thank you" and "Do you speak English?" in yet another language!
The Spis CastleI wish we were spending more time in Slovakia. What we have seen has been beautiful, especially the countryside around Spissky Podhradie and at the base of the Tatra Mountains. This is a country we're going to have to come back to in the future.
The Spis Castle
The Spis Castle
Spissky Podhradie viewed from the Spis Castle.
Full Size JPG 9.1MB
Posted by dhs at 4/29/2005 10:50:00 PM
Thursday, April 28, 2005
The Tatra MountainsAnother early morning, we have a big day ahead of us. Too bad its raining. Neither of us slept well, there were two individual beds with extremely scratchy sheets. This was the worst bed, EVER. Went downstairs for breakfast, checked out and left our big bags at the hotel for the day.
We caught a local bus to Kuznice, at the base of Mt. Kasprowy Wierch. It was cold — about 35 degrees F — thankfully the rain stopped and some blue sky was peeking out from behind the clouds. Walked up and got on the first cable car up the mountain. We were packed in with a bunch of skiers, we seemed a bit out of place.
Mt. Kasprowy WierchThe ride itself was beautiful, it takes about 20 minutes to ascend to the top of the mountain. As we neared the top it became very foggy and began to snow. Suddenly we both realized that this was not quite what we had expected! Once we got off the cable car and on to the mountain it became very clear it was still the skiing season. There was 6' of snow on the mountain and it was about 25 degrees F. We couldn't see 10 feet in front of us! I stepped off the path to the top of the slop and found myself buried in snow up to mid calf.
On top of
Mt. Kasprowy WierchAll those plans for a rousing round of the hokey pokey at the border are for naught! We wouldn't be able to find the border if we even tried in this weather. One cup of hot cocoa each and we're headed back down the mountain to Kuznice. Waste of $20 or time well spent? It was certainly an experience!
We decided to walk back to Zakopane, it was gorgeous walking through the northern edge of the Tatra National Park and in to town. Thankfully it warmed up as we got closer to town, we had not planned on such cold weather and were a bit underdressed.
Cable Car at
Mt. Kasprowy WierchBack in Zakopane, we decided to visit the Tatra Museum which was highly recommended by the Lonely Planet Poland guide book. The museum was really interesting, I think. I wouldn't know because everything was in Polish and my ability to read Polish is pretty dismal! However, it was interesting to see some of the artifacts of the people of the region, including instruments, farming tools and clothing.
Cable car at
Mt. Kasprowy WierchBack to the hotel to pick up our bags, its time for us to cross the border into Slovakia. This is the one part of our trip that was not well researched for the simple lack of information that I was able to find in books or online. All we know is that one bus takes us to the border at Lysa Polana, we walk across the border and pick up a bus to Poprad in Tatra Javorina, Slovakia. So, we walked to the bus station and bought tickets to the border. We had some time to kill, and Polish zloty to spend, so we headed across the street for a bite to eat. Apparently, the zloty is not "fully-convertible", so it was in our best interest to spend all we had.
Cable car at
Mt. Kasprowy WierchThe ride to the border took almost 45 minutes through the mountains. The terrain was beautiful! There is clearly a lot of tourism here by the number of small ski lifts and hotels along the road. There was also quite a bit of new construction, some HUGE mountain homes being built on the top of impossibly steep hillsides. Finally we reach the border... the adventure begins.
We're the first off the bus, there are a few other locals crossing the border too. We walk up to a small building sitting in the middle of the road surrounded by granite peaks. We walk up to a small window with a Polish border guard who takes our passports, asks a few questions — apparently the lack of an entry stamp on the train was odd — and stamps the passport. She then hands it over a low wall to the Slovak border guard who stamps our passports and hands them back to us. A short walk past the gate and we're in Slovakia. Damn, that was easy!
Cable car at
Mt. Kasprowy WierchIts about 100 yards to walk into the next town, as we cross a small river we spy a family of deer hanging out near the border. I hope they have their papers in order! Soon we realize that Tatra Javorina is not much of a town, there are two buildings and a location for the bus to stop. There is one business open and a man sitting on the roadside in a bear costume. WTF? I attempt to ask him where to find an ATM or cash exchange desk so we can get some Slovak Crowns to continue our journey. After a few attempts he understands my request and points back to the other side of the border. Uh-oh. I did see a cash exchange desk on the Polish side but didn't consider that they would give me Slovak Crowns, so we didn't stop there on the way across the border.
Back to the border we go. Repeat the same process in reverse and we're back in Poland. We have US$ on us, I pulled out $40 to convert into Slovak Crowns (SKK). When we reach the exchange desk the woman working there — who thankfully speaks some English — informs us she cannot convert USD to SKK. She would have to convert USD to zloty and then to SKK, which she informs us would cost us a lot of money and she refuses to do it. Steph is getting nervous at this point and I am trying to figure out what to do. She tells us we have to cross the border — AGAIN — and we can get SKK in the next town. I tell Steph that we'll figure it out somehow and we head back to the border guard.
On the road to
ZakopaneWhen I approach the Polish border guard, she appears VERY confused. In broken English she asks me why I am crossing the border again. I explain the situation and she tells us to hold on for a moment. Steph and I exchange worried looks and wait patiently while she talks to a truck driver who is crossing the border. We figure that we'll hike the 3Km or so into the next large town and figure out what to do when we arrive. Then the border guard comes out of the building and explains to us that the truck driver is willing to drive us to a larger town where we can find an ATM or chash exchange desk in Slovakia! Woohoo!
We hop in his truck — Steph made me ride bitch on the console! — and started driving. The truck driver speaks Polish, Russian and German. We speak English, Spanish, French and Hebrew. This should be an interesting ride. We have no idea where he is taking us, although there is only one road around this part of Slovakia and it heads toward Poprad, so we can't go too far wrong. After more than 30 minutes of driving down from the mountains and into a gorgeous green and hilly countryside we enter Spissky Belá, a small town in the Spis region where our new best friend drops us off. I tried to give him $20, he wouldn't take it! This is truly good karma personified.
On the road to
ZakopaneAcross the street from where we were dropped off there is an ATM. YAY! After getting some cash, we walked into a small grocery store for some water. This must be what a grocery store in the former USSR used to look like, there was *nothing* on the shelves. With water and a Snickers bar in hand we head back across the street to the bus station and wait for the next ride to Poprad where we'll catch another bus to our destination for the night, Levoca.
The trip to Levoca was uneventful. On the way into town Steph spotted a sign for our pension, Pension Miva, along the roadside. When we pulled into the bus station we headed straight toward the sign, based on my map it looked like the right direction. Unfortunately, it wasn't the right way, there are two bus stations in Levoca and not one as was indicated on the map! The sign said, quite helpfully, that Pension Miva is 2Km up the road, in the opposite direction, uphill the entire way! We can't seem to make the right decisions today! Up the hill we go, huffing and puffing with our packs on our backs.
On the road to
ZakopaneWe finally reach our pension and check in. The prices posted outside are cheaper than our originally agreed upon price when I made the reservation, so we spent less than we intended, $35/night with breakfast for a beautiful room with a bathroom and shower! What a bargain!
After a quick shower and a little time to relax we headed out in the cool rain for dinner. We found a cute place right on the square and had a great meal, a few local beers and some of the local firewater, silvovice or plum brandy. All this for the bargain basement price of $11! I had heard Slovakia is cheap, but I didn't realize exactly how cheap it would be! Walked back to the hotel and got ready for bed. Hopefully tomorrow will be a better day for us!
Posted by dhs at 4/28/2005 11:16:00 PM
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Wawel CastleWoke up early again, checked out and walked to the same bakery as yesterday. We ran into a trio of Americans that we shared the train ride to Krakow with a few days before. Not the fun ones... bummer.
Wawel CastleWalked over to Wawel Castle where we visited the Royal Apartments, State Rooms and Dragon's Lair. The grounds were beautiful, though not nearly as large as those at Prague Castle. The crowds were also, thankfully, much smaller. This made our visit much more enjoyable than it was in Prague. After walking down to the Wawel Dragon's Lair we walked along the Vistula River and back toward Rynek Glowny, the main square. We searched out a "milk bar" that the Americans we saw earlier in the day recommended to us.
We walked right past it.
Wawel CastleAs we headed back in the other direction, who do we see? The exact same trio of Americans! They pointed us in the right direction, we missed it by a block. Popped in for some borscht with lima beans, pierogies and a cabbage salad. The food was very tasty and extremely cheap!
Wawel CastleBack to Hotel Polonia and then the bus station to go to Zakopane, a resort town in the Tatra Mountains south of Krakow, on the border with Slovakia. The bus ride took about 2 hours, through some beautiful countryside. It was amazing to climb through the foothills and gaze out across the valleys to the little settlements dotting the verdant green hillsides. We both passed out on the bus for part of the journey. When we arrived in Zakopane we were assaulted by people trying to sell us a room. Instead, we pressed on toward the heart of town to find someplace to stay. We wound up at small hotel, nothing special and overpriced, but it was right on the main street and just for one night.
After dropping our bags off at the hotel we walked down ul Krupowki, the main pedestrian street, checking out the shops and wandering aimlessly. We decided to buy a roll from a street vendor since we were hungry for a snack. Somehow the roll was more than $2 and weighed at least a pound! Feeling a bit ripped off, we walked down the steet and broke open the roll... it wasn't a roll at all! It was the local smoked sheep milk cheese, oscypek! We had heard about this, but didn't recognize it when we stumbled across it. It was smokey, salty and firm. I wish I could bring some home with me.
Stopped at a bar (big surprise!) for a drink and some people watching from the balcony over ul Krupowki. The menu had a beer that I didn't recognize, the waitress said it was served warm. What the hell, give me one! I wound up with a Zywiec that had been mulled with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, served with a straw! It was good, definitely interesting on a cool evening but not something I'd want all the time. Figuring this was our last night in Poland I had to have some local vodka as well.
Wawel CastleWhile people watching, we made our plans for tomorrow. We're headed to the top of Mt. Ksprowy Wierch via the cable car. The peak is about 6500' and sits right on the Slovak border. We're going to take pictures doing the hokey pokey on the border... its times like these I need a video camera! Then we're off to Levoca, Slovakia.
Wawel DragonWent out for the worst dinner we've had in Europe, yuck. Expensive too! Time to sample the local nightlife — too bad there is none! The town shuts down around 8 P.M., so we were the only people out and about. I guess we're headed to bed early tonight.
Mulled beer, YUM!
Down the hatch!
Smoked Sheep Cheese
Posted by dhs at 4/27/2005 10:13:00 PM
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Anti-gay PostersWoke up early again and wandered through the Florian Gate to find some breakfast. We found a VERY yummy pastry shop on ul Florianska where we bought three pastries for less than $2! Ambled back to the bus station to find the bus to Auschwitz. Even though Auschwitz is only 60Km from Krakow, the bus ride is almost 2 hours! The Polish transit systems are such a mess, everything is slow and very bumpy. I'm glad Steph had her motion sickness bracelet on, otherwise I would have had a very car sick wife.
Arbeit Macht Frei
Work Will Set You FreeAt Auschwitz we decided to explore on our own, we didn't want to be crammed in with a group so we could tour the grounds on our own terms. Both of us were concerned that it might become overwhelming, it would be much harder for us to leave in the middle of a tour. However, the tour seemed to be the best option once we found more information. We're both glad we did the tour, since the guide provided a lot of additional information not found in the guide book to Auschwitz and Birkenau.
AuschwitzIt was a cold and rainy day, quite appropriate for the somber sights which we were experiencing. The guide was excellent. What more can I say? It was an experience I will never forget, looking over our pictures from the day and writing these words bring tears to my eyes. Steph spotted a quote on one of the walls in the museum which we both liked "Information is defense." Unfortunately, we have both forgotten the original source of the quote.
Victims ShoesThe most shocking event of the day, however, is the poster we saw just 100 meters outside the entrance the the museum at Auschwitz. I'm not sure what it means — I think it equates homosexuality to pedophilia — however, it disturbed me to see such hatred and intolerance so close to the greatest example of intolerance and hatred in the 20th century. Of course I took some pictures, my eagle-eyed wife spotted more of these on the road between Auschwitz and Birkenau. Highly disturbing. (Upon returning home, I asked for some help from the folks at BoingBoing to figure out what the poster said. Apparently its Polish slang for "Gayness Prohibited. Healty, normal family guarantees our future." The authors are a far right-wing Neo-Nazi group in Poland. You can see the original post and comments at BoingBoing here.)
Victims Hairbrushes & ToothbrushesBack to Krakow. We both passed out on the minibus on the way, after a highly emotionally charged day we both needed the rest. After returning to Krakow we headed out to a brewpub I read about on Beer Advocate called C.K. Brower. We tried all four of their beers, the dunkel was by far the best so we had a few pints along with a plate with three kinds of herring: pickled, creamed and in a paprika based sauce. YUMMY!
AuschwitzA few oddities about Krakow:
- In Krakow, they serve a woman a straw with her beer. Men never get a straw
- Polish napkins are something that closely approximates single serving deli papers/wax paper. Not terribly absorbent! I guess Poles are not as messy at the dinner table as us sloppy Americans.
- Krakow doesn't believe in crosswalks. You take your life in your hands crossing the street in many locations.
- Krakow is not nearly as well maintained or clean as Prague or Plzen.
- Krakow is much more credit card friendly than Prague. This is good, since the exchange rate on credit cards is often better than any other means.
Guard Tower at AuschwitzThis day was mentally exhausting, so we're headed back to the hotel for an early night...
(As I am transcribing this at the Goose Island Brewpub in Chicago I hear two guys speaking what sounds an awful lot like Polish. Turns out they are both from Poland and we had a short conversation about our trip. They were impressed by my knowledge of how to say "Thank you" and "Do you speak English?" in Polish!)
Remnants of Prison Camp
Railway platform where
prisoners met their fate
Posted by dhs at 4/26/2005 09:25:00 PM