The final stop on our Eurotrip was to Budapest, Hungary. This city was even better than I expected - and I’ve got some recommendations for you!
If I were to choose a relationship status with Vienna on Facebook it would be “It’s Complicated.” There were a lot of things I liked about it, a few things that rubbed me the wrong way, and overall I just didn’t leave feeling the same way I had about our other stops.
The one place on this trip that I had absolutely zero expectations about was Cesky Krumlov. To be honest, I didn't even know what country it was in. At best, I figured it would be a pleasant surprise like my day trip to Girona on my Barcelona trip, and at worst, I figured it was only a quick stop on our way to the next big city on our trip.
I won't bury the lead here - Cesky Krumlov was by far the most magical stop of our trip. Magical meaning it gave me ~feels~ like I got in Stockholm - like this was a place I would be content to stay forever. It wasn't just the quaint cobblestone streets or the beautiful castle or the winding Vltava River that seemed to be giving the city a hug - it was also a feeling of perfect contentedness - of slowing down and not feeling like there were 23842 "must see" things and specific "must eat" dishes. All we had to do for 24 hours was appreciate this incredible little town in the Czech Republic - and appreciate it I did! I wandered its streets when all the day trippers had left, napped in a sun-filled log cabin and hiked to the top of a grassy hill overlooking the picturesque city.
But let's start at the beginning!
We had two cabs waiting for us when we got off the train and they took us to the Krumlov House - a hostel situated super close to the center of the city. After stepping through the elaborate wooden dragon door we were greeted by an American who checked us in and let us know that we would have the hostel to ourselves for the night. Once we got up to our second floor suite, I think it sunk in just how unique this hostel was. Dad had been raving about how much he loved this hostel - and that he was so glad we were getting to go there. And it was immediately clear why he had been so excited. Everything was handmade from wood and it had the most incredible light streaming in. It was so tranquil.
We didn't have too much time at that moment to get comfortable though, because we all headed to the grocery store up the street to buy some snacks for a picnic in a park next to the river. Sitting on a shady bench looking up at the castle I was incredibly zen.
David had set up a tour for us with one of the locals who he promised we would absolutely love. As we walked to the center of town to meet her, David told us stories about different townspeople, stores, restaurants, etc. I loved the small town feel of Cesky and the fact that David was passing people he recognized on the streets. He popped into a restaurant whose owner he knew so we could use the bathroom before the tour started and knew the artist who had made some of the metal-work outside of a bar.
It felt a little bit like we were walking through the "Little Town" scene in "Beauty in the Beast."
Our tour guide was so lovely - she was such an upbeat, happy person and Allison and I loved chatting with her as she showed us around town and promised us that later in the day, things would clear out and we would have the place to ourselves. A lot of day trips come through but leave around 3 or 4.
Everywhere we turned there was cool artwork or beautiful views. There were so many little things that she pointed out to us , like these little paint tube fingers that I loved for some reason.
As we wound through the cobblestone streets, down to the river and up to the castle, we marveled at her ability to conduct the tour wearing wedges.
The views from the top of the castle were stunning and we could have stayed there taking pictures all day. The one thing I didn't love was that there's a bear in the moat of the castle and while there used to be more than one, now he's all alone down there and it made me really sad.
When the tour was finished, Allison and I wandered around a little longer through the streets before heading back to our beautiful hostel. At this point in the trip, everyone other than me was feeling under the weather, and there couldn't have been a more peaceful place to take a nap.
I wasn’t quite ready for go inside though, so I chatted with the woman working at our hostel and asked her what her suggestion was for a short run/hike. She knew exactly where to send me- I went for a nice little loop and when I finished that, I started the hike up to the church. It was a good incline that got my heart rate going (as did the dog that started running at me at one point). I felt totally alone, which was nice after constantly being with people for days on end. At the top, I found a relatively flat area of grass and did a deck of cards workout before heading back to the hostel.
I made myself some tea, an orange, and granola and just sat in the kitchen soaking in the incredible sunlight coming through the windows and making all of the wood work look golden. The woman working at the hostel started chatting with me and it turns out she was from California and had been visiting the Czech Republic when she stumbled upon the hostel in Cesky Krumlov - while she was staying, one of the employees had quit. She was offered the job and took it - and had been there ever since! Talking to her didn’t make it seem so crazy…
I went back up to the room eventually and dozed for a little bit before it was time to get ready and go with the group to dinner at a place Dad promised we would love - for a full “Bohemian feast” at Krčma U dwau Maryí . We stopped for many photo opportunities along the way - it was my favorite time of night, SUNSET TIME.
We were thrilled when they seated us at an outside table along the river. We ordered the chicken version of the feast which comes out for the whole table - it had chicken, smoked meat, millet, potato dumplings, potato cake, potato and vegetables. I didn’t really know what I was eating, but it was good! It was very traditional food from the days of feudalism.
Also traditional to the Czech culture is mead - so I figured sitting outside along the river on a crisp April evening would be a good time to give the warm, alcoholic drink a try. Sadly - I was not a fan of the mead. It was soo strong. It reminded me of back in the day when I hated the taste of every alcoholic drink that I tried because it burned my throat.
At least now I know to never order mead again!
We were definitely full after dinner, so it was nice to walk around and look at the castle and town all lit up. We seemed to be the only ones left in town!
I woke up earlyyy the next morning so that I could get a picture from a wonderful viewpoint as the sun rose and it was a nice, quiet moment but also sad, because Cesky looked so so beautiful and I didn’t want to leave!
But alas, “Vienna Waits for You…..”
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While I was sad to say goodbye to pierogies - so many people had told me that they loved Prague, and we were excited to see what was next in the Czech Republic!
The highlight of the journey from Krakow to Prague was definitely the salad we had picked up the night before from Krakow's Fitagain Cafe.
For the 17 days we explored Central Europe (they don't like being referred to as Eastern Europe!) I ate a lot of bread, a lot of meat and a lot of cheese. I truly cherished every vegetable I consumed.
And this salad from Fitagain wasn't just your average salad - it had all my favorite things like apples and chickpeas and sweet potatoes and sunflower seeds.
When we arrived at the train station in Prague, David took us down the platform to take a look at a statue. It was of two kids with their father and a suitcase, and the story he told about what the statue represents was amazing! It's a tribute to Sir Nicholas Winton, who helped 669 Jewish children in Prague find foster families in Britain to save them during the Holocaust.
Winton never told anyone about the lives he had saved until nearly 50 years afterwards. David showed us an incredible video of Winton unknowingly surrounded by the people he had saved that you should definitely watch if you feel like getting emotional!
That quick little detour upon our arrival in Prague is just one example of why David was the best tour leader ever!
After our stop at the statue, David helped me get some money exchanged for a fair price before leading us out to walk through a park to the tram. We waited awhile in the sun before loading all of our things onto the car. I'm sure locals cringed whenever they saw our group coming - especially Allison and I with our massive suitcases.
After a quick ride, we walked the rest of the way to get the keys to the apartments we would be staying in. I'm so sad I can't remember the woman's name, but a precious little lady walked Allison and I a little further into the center of town and taught us how to get into the apartment - it included the unlocking and re-locking of approximately 80 doors before loading into the world's most terrifying elevator (we screamed 9/10 times we rode it over the weekend).
We didn't realize we would be sharing the apartment with her - so that was a little weird to realize at first - but we very much had our own private space with a bedroom, living room and bathroom. We shared the kitchen and 1/2 bath with our host (and her dog - which was a little annoying since Allison is allergic and they never asked if anyone had allergies).
She had us lock and unlock the door a bunch of times until we figured it out and let us know in her very limited English that if we had to go "ka-ka" we should use the 1/2 bath in the kitchen. Personally, I was trying very hard not to laugh during this entire thing. We were also both reallllly hoping she would speed it up on her whole spiel because we were desperate to eat and get ready before meeting up with the group. (Josh and Heidi were staying in another apartment just a ways down the street).
Finally she left and Allison and I started getting ready.
We met up with everyone back at the rental office and from there, walked into Old Town Square. We were staying SO CLOSE - that was one of the things I loved about this trip and the way it was planned. We were always steps from the center of town which saved so much time as opposed to constantly having to get on subways and buses every time we wanted to get somewhere. We could almost always walk to the biggest/most popular sights.
Prague's Old Town Square was still done up for Easter with lots of stalls and vendors selling all different kinds of foods - entire turkey legs, spiraled potatoes on a stick, candy, etc. Dad gave us some warnings about buying anything from these stalls - they tend to really jack up the prices or do things like weighing the turkey leg and charging per ounce.
You could tell that Dad loved Prague, because he spent a looong time on our orientation tour. He was disappointed that some of his favorite stops were closed on the weekend, and also to find that the Astronomical Clock, one of Prague's most popular tourist stops, was under construction.
Despite that, we still saw quite a lot, including lots of art by contemporary Czech artist David Černý. I've come to realize that I absolutely love contemporary art - and my favorite part of Prague was definitely all of the hidden art throughout the city. I loved stopping and seeing all of the odd little pieces by Cerny and others.
We stopped for awhile to observe his piece "Head of Franz Kafka." This is a giant sculpture made of steel with rotating panels that move around and eventually come back together to create a face. It's mesmerizing to watch!
Of course walked along the water so that David could point out the incredibly famous, and photogenic, Charles Bridge - though it was the prime time of day for the bridge to be overrun by tourists. So we just looked at it from afar and David encouraged us to wake up early the next morning to enjoy the bridge with fewer people. He also told a funny story about a couple in one of his tour groups who got engaged on what they thought was the Charles Bridge - only to find out they were one bridge over, on the Mánes Bridge (a mistake Allison and I also almost made the following morning).
We continued our walk and on the way to Wenceslas Square made a quick stop to see the Cubist Lamp Post and passed the Velvet Revolution Memorial. Wenceslas Square was bustling and seemed to be the Times Square of Prague - it was a little too touristy and crowded for me - at one point we passed a window where people were sitting and having their toes eaten by fish ("fish pedicures") - 10/10 would not recommend. I was fine with never coming back to this part of town.
Our last stop was to see another one of Cerny's pieces - Statue of King Wenceslas Riding an Upside-Down Dead Horse. It hangs from the ceiling in the Art Nouveau Lucerna Palace (Lucerna is also a big dance club where they play 80's/90's music and music videos on Friday and Saturday nights!)
With that, our orientation tour was done and we were left to do our own thing around town. I had been told to get a drink at the rooftop bar of the Hotel U Prince for stunning views of Old Town Square and while we had to wait about 10 minutes to be allowed up, it was well worth it for the classy vibes, good drinks, and beautiful views. We seemed to have arrived at just the right time, because once we sat down in the hotel lobby to wait, the hostess started sending everyone away! There was such a steady stream of people - this is absolutely a very popular spot and I would recommend making a reservation for lunch or dinner if you definitely want to get in.
We enjoyed a cheese plate and drinks and shamelessly took tons of pictures until we had the perfect Instagram shot. This is the kind of place that just begs to be 'grammed.
When we felt we had outstayed our welcome on the roof, we headed out in search of my first doughnut of the trip at a place called Donuterie. When we arrived, there was ONE DONUT LEFT in this adorable little shop which she gave us at a discount and we all enjoyed a few tasty bites of. I honestly don't remember what it was - but it was fruity/citrusy and I was very content.
Next stop was the Prague Beer Museum which was...an experience. The museum itself seemed like it was a joke - first of all, it was empty. Second of all, it was dingy and everything looked like it hadn't been touched in 100 years. We sped through the laughable exhibits in the dark, musty basement in the hopes that the entrance fee would be worth it when we got our free samples of beer. Turns out, it was - we got 4 free beers and were seated in the most bizarre drinking environment ever - we dubbed it the "Communist Bar" as there was propaganda playing on the television screens and mannequins wearing uniforms. I think the picture below accurately portrays the room. We were sharing the space with a bachelor party from Germany which made for a funny hour or so while we drank our beers. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this as a must-do in Prague (OK, I definitely wouldn't) but it didn't end up being as horrible as we originally thought when we first stepped into the museum.
On our walk back to the apartment we realized just how many bachelor parties were walking around Prague - the streets were just filled with European men and Allison and I committed to going out having fun. But first - we needed dinner.
We ended up going to a vegetarian restaurant around the block from us that was pretty good - but the quiet, tranquil vibe of the restaurant left us struggling to find that "Let's go seize the night" attitude we had had an hour ago. Maitrea was a much needed break from meat, potatoes, bread and cheese.
After, we mustered up the energy to go to a bar that David had pointed out during our tour - saying that it would be filled with hockey-loving locals. Sadly - when we got there it smelled like chicken wings and all we saw were other women...so we halfheartedly looked around for a more poppin' spot only to decide bed sounded like the best option.
It was a good decision - because the next morning we were up at the crack of dawn - literally, it was still dark out when we set out for our own private exploration of Prague and it was the best decision ever!
Old Town Square was completely deserted, the air was crispy and cool, the moon was still hanging in the sky, and we were one of only a few people when we reached the Charles Bridge.
The sun was starting to rise and we decided we would sit on the bridge and watch for awhile. It was slow, and we got a little antsy, but everything turned the most amazing golden color. People were lined up across the bridge taking pictures - but it was still so much emptier than any other part of the day.
After enjoying the sunrise, we crossed over the bridge to Malá Strana ("Little Side of the River") where we wound our way up look around at the churches and castles (and saw the Starbucks with the world's most impressive view). It was so crazy how empty it was up there - it was us and the guards!
We walked back down and along the river for a picture of The Dancing House ("Fred & Ginger") which I was really excited to see. It was designed by an American-Canadian and Croatian-Czech architect duo. It would have looked better in the sunshine, but I still really liked it!
We also loved the colorful buildings along the Vltava River.
We walked back through Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square, where it was still very quiet and stumbled upon a cubism-themed restaurant called "Černá Madona" where we enjoyed a delicious breakfast. I was overjoyed by a yogurt parfait with granola, honey and fruit after days of bread, cheese and meat for breakfast (I will never get used to a ham and cheese sandwich being breakfast). Ah, the simple things.
Afterwards, we went to see the Jewish Quarter ("Josefov") and the Old Jewish Cemetery - there were really long lines but we were able to peer through the fence to see the headstones dating back to as early as 1439. Jews living in Prague were given so little space, that the cemetery holds 100,000 bodies - some piled up to 12 deep. Insane.
On the walk back to the apartment we stumbled upon a sculpture that I loved by Jaroslav Rona - it supposedly depicts beloved Czech author Franz Kafka.
By now it was 11 AM - and we had been walking around for HOURS. Part of the deal I'd made with Allison for getting out of bed at 5 AM was nap-time! So we got comfortable at our apartment and passed out for a few hours. I love naps. I am also GREAT at naps.
Eventually we got ourselves up and walked around in search of some lunch/dinner to bring back and eat while we got ready for our drinking tour.
We stumbled upon Country Life Restaurant which had a salad bar that I thoroughly enjoyed. We ate and got ready and set out in search of the Prague Riverside Party we had signed up for - with a quick stop to take a picture of Heidi on her princess balcony! We had a lot of trouble locating the actual start of the tour - a fratty, dark, dank basement bar called the "Recovery Room."
The Prague Riverside Party had come recommended to me by a friend and I have mixed feelings about it. Overall, I like it and would recommend it - but I would only recommend it after letting people know what they're in for. The premise is that you get a tour from a bunch of foul-mouthed/comedian type "tour guides" while drinking free alcohol. The guides are your typical bar-crawl leading/hostel working types - you're not sure if they're homeless and you're not sure why they're acting like 16 year old's when they're clearly approaching 30 but at the same time you kind of wish you could live their carefree, travel the world life. We called ours drunk Jesus.
The Recovery Room bar where we started smelled like mold. I was fairly certain we were all going to leave with a disease. The "free alcohol" was really really bad beer, or really really sweet/poisonous "sangria." We sat down and were immediately greeted by a man who stumbled out from some back room and was fifty shades of fucked up. He let us know he had been out sine the previous night, which was 100% believable. Soon, he was joined by his girlfriend and they proceeded to make out and tell us about all the sex they had been having. Heidi, Allison and I laughed along with them but inside we were all cringing and couldn't wait for them to retreat to their back room.
Eventually Drunk Jesus started the night by explaining to us that we would be using Exacto knives to create stencils of whatever our hearts desired. He was definitely under the impression that saying "fuck" 3 times per sentence made whatever he said hysterical, and most of the people in the room seemed to agree with him.
We made our stencils and handed them in and soon were lead outside to start the tour. I was very happy to be out of the Recovery Room and into the fresh air. At that point the tour got better - we stopped at the glowing embryo on the side of a building (Cerny, of course!), and the Rudolfinum where our tour guide told us the plot of Weil’s Mendelssohn Is on the Roof as if it were fact and not a novel.
All the while, guys biked behind us with carts filled with endless supplies of shitty beer and sangria which we happily sipped on because #FREE (well, we paid for it, really).
Another stop was the Winged Lion Memorial before walking across the Charles Bridge where we learned that many of the statues are not, in fact, the originals. The originals were taken down to preserve them and replicas were put up - after attempting to make them look aged and worn out.
At this point in the night we were desperate for a restroom - and luckily when we got to the other side of the bridge they let us into a restaurant that the group clearly has some sort of agreement with. After that, it to the pleasantly named "Piss Statue" - literally a statue, complete with running water, or two men facing each other and pissing. We were all encouraged to take inappropriate photos with the statue which many people were more than happy to do.
The pack of us continued along the streets, probably irritating everyone we encountered as more and more beer and sangria was consumed. We got to a bridge and sat down under it and were served our meat pies - no joke - dinner is included in the tour and dinner is homemade meat pies that honestly were out of this world good. Even our Aussie friend agreed. While we ate we finally took some time to talk to other people on the tour - including two guys from Canada who knew people killed in the tragic Humboldt crash that had happened that day.
The grand finale of the tour was getting to spray paint our stencils on the John Lennon Wall - which was honestly pretty damn cool! The wall is owned by Malta, and it's pretty awesome that they have kept it open to the public for spray painting all these years!
Afterwards, we took a group picture and were invited back to the Recovery Room where for a small fee of 10 euro or something, you could drink for another hour before starting a bar and club crawl. The thought of having to ingest any more horrible beer and having to breathe in more of the mold from the Recovery Room was enough for me to vote hell no on that proposition.
Instead, Heidi, Allison and I slowly made our way back to our apartments - eyes peeled for some place that pulled us in for another drink. But, as often happened to us, our bed's seemed to call the loudest!
Overall, Prague didn't do it for me. I'm not sure what exactly it was. Just how I felt! It was the weekend, it was crowded, it was touristy - by far my favorite part was getting to walk around in the early morning hours before the streets were filled! But there will always be some great Prague memories - communist bars, a twerking T-Rex, our host barging in while I had no pants on, and proudly looking at the Islanders logo spray painted on the Lennon Wall.
We didn’t have to arrange for our accommodations for this portion of the trip, since Geckos (now Intrepid Travel) set everything up for us - but here’s an article with some of the best hostels in Prague! One of the spots on their list, “Hostel One” Prague, is the same chain that I stayed at in Barcelona and absolutely LOVED.
Next up, Cesky Krumlov!
We began the first of many journeys by train from one country to another – and this is where it was extremely helpful that the group was only the five of us. It was a lot easier to stay together while navigating crowded train stations and subway cars with our luggage than it would have been with a larger group.
Despite having a suitcase that weighed 50 pounds and a wonky wheel – I think I did a pretty good job managing it the entire trip (although I’ll be happy to never carry it up a flight of stairs again if I can help it). The only time I really needed help with it was loading it on and off some steep train stairs.
To get from Berlin to Krakow we first took a train to a small town on the border of Germany and Poland. Usually, a tour group would have about 15 minutes to catch the overnight train to Krakow but the way that our trip was scheduled, we had a few hours to enjoy the town of Szczecin.
After getting off the train we had a chance to exchange money (going from the Euro to the Polish zloty) and store our luggage in lockers at the train station before heading out to explore. We did a nice walk around the center of town and were all excited to find that we had the place to ourselves AND that it smelled overwhelmingly of chocolate. We couldn't figure out why it smelled so richly of chocolate but when I got home I looked it up and there's a chocolate factory in Szczecin and the streets' smell of chocolate is a well-known fact.
Once we felt we had seen the sights that Szczecin had to offer, we stopped into a local brewery for drinks and dinner since we would be spending the next 10 hours or so on an overnight train ride.
The interior of Wyszak Family Brewery was beautiful and while I didn’t order any food – I did eat plenty of bread and butter and ordered a flight of their three beers (which were giant). I really liked them all – even though none of them were my typical beer preference. I even liked the dark one!
It was a really nice night and I feel like we could have sat there all night drinking and talking but soon it was time to get back to the train station and continue our journey to Krakow.
I’ve always wanted to take an overnight sleeper car train and now it’s officially crossed off the bucket list. The cabins were not luxurious in any way – no mahogany paneling and red velvet headboards. This was not the Hogwarts Express. Instead, each sleeping cabin had a small closet, a little sink in the corner, and three beds stacked one on top of the other. If I were claustrophobic, I would not have done well on this train.
We had kind of assumed there would be a place to sit before we were ready to get into bed – but nope. As soon as you board, you’re in that tiny room in a bed that you can’t sit up in. Yikes.
Thankfully, it was Allison, Heidi and I and we all knew each other. But I can’t imagine how awkward the experience would be had I been in a cabin with strangers. There’s no privacy and I would have felt even more trapped in my bed.
We sat on our suitcases, perched on the sink, in the window frame – anywhere we could to feel like we were still up. David and Josh stood in our doorway and we drank wine and the conversations got more and more interesting as the night wore on. I think it was one of my favorite nights with the group – lots of laughs and interesting perspectives but unfortunately, at a certain point the conductor told us that it was time to be quiet and close our doors.
Of course, that didn’t mean that three girls who just drank a bottle of wine were able to immediately settle down and fall asleep. We were definitely the conductors’ least favorite cabin. At one point, he tried OPENING the door on us – yelling in Polish while we all screamed back in fear.
Once I was laying down, the movement of the train started to rock me to sleep but damn it was LOUD. Luckily, I can sleep through anything, especially on moving vehicles, so I got a decent amount of sleep that night. But I continually woke up because of the banging and train whistles and train station announcements every time we stopped.
We could have closed the window to help with the noise, but then it would have been stiflingly hot in our cabin.
Around 8 AM or so I finally got up for real even though we still had 2-3 hours left. We managed to figure out how to flip the top two beds up into the wall so we were left with a bottom couch we could sit on. I will admit that this part of the trip dragged a little, especially when David came to tell us that we were running 45 minutes behind schedule. But eventually we pulled into the station and walking off that train felt a little bit like walking out of prison (I’m exaggerating – I actually kind of liked the experience).
We had made it to Krakow! And I was so excited to be in the land of my ancestors and more importantly the land of PIEROGIES.
We were able to walk from the train station to our hostel – which couldn’t have been any closer to the Main Square (Rynek Glowny). Our hostel (Heynow Hostel) was very dated, but the fact that we were able to check in and get a shower upon arrival made them winners in my book.
Within 20 minutes Allison and I had both showered and changed (this was a trip of approximately zero down time) and met the group downstairs to walk over to Stary Kleparz. Stary Kleparz is an 800 year old food market.
Read it again. 800 years.
It was by far the most authentic food market we visited during the trip with the most variety. I wandered around for a little while before buying a loaf of grainy, seedy bread that reminded me of Swedish bread (I couldn’t communicate that I just wanted a few slices so – loaf of bread it was!) and the most incredible tapenade I’ve ever eaten (sorry, Dad!) from a vendor selling all different hummus and dips. He was incredibly nice despite the clear language barrier.
We took our food on the go with us and headed back towards our hostel and the Main Square to meet David’s friend who was a tour guide and had agreed to give us our own private tour (with the understanding that we would tip him at the end).
It was a great tour and we stopped at a lot of places that had been on my to-do list.
Rynek Glowny is the main square of Krakow and has two “centerpieces” – the Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s Basilica. Both are beautiful – especially lit up at night!
Our tour guide started off by having us guess how many churches are in Krakow and the answer is nuts – 120! Poland is still one of the more religious countries in Europe.
He then told us about the story behind St. Mary’s Basilica – two brothers were each tasked with building a tower on top of the church and when the younger brother realized his brother’s tower was taller, he murdered him. Later, he was so filled with guilt, that he stabbed himself with the same knife and fell from the tower into the square below.
According to our tour guide, the silver knife hanging in the doorway of the Cloth Market is the very knife that the younger brother used. Throughout our tour, he told us stories that are legends but in a way that made us question whether they were fact – he was extremely sarcastic which I personally loved but I think some people were like, “Wait – can you actually tell us the truth? You had to take most things he said with a grain of salt.
Another fun part of St. Mary’s Basilica is the trumpeter that plays a song from the highest tower to signal every hour. The song is called “Hejnal” (pronounced “Hey Now” – the name of our hostel!) He plays it once from each corner of the tower. There are many legends surrounding the Hejnal – including a tale of invaders shooting the trumpeter with an arrow – lending to the abrupt-sounding ending of the tune.
Another building of note in Rynek Glowny was St. Adalbert’s Church. While it appears to be sunken – it was once on ground level which shows how much the surface of the square has risen over the centuries. (Layers and layers of garbage…)
Cloth Hall was basically just filled with touristy stalls - the best part of walking through was trying to pronounce all of the Polish town names that line the halls. The Polish language has additional letters and difficult pronunciations – for example “ł” sounds like “w” and they don’t use q, v or x!
Our next stop was to the Collegium Maius – just the college building where Copernicus studied, no big deal! We happened to arrive right in time for the courtyard clock to go off (every two hours) and a crowd gathered to listen to the song and watch the wooden figures circle around. Thrilling stuff.
David pointed out his favorite little souvenir shop filled with a local artists’ clever comics where I later picked up a deck of playing cards and a postcard. As we walked, I loved this little corner behind the city walls that was filled with beautiful hand painted canvases and made a mental note that there was a 24-hour pierogi place.
A stop on our tour included Piwnica Pod Baranami – a bar that’s been around since the 1950s when it was used as a literary cabaret! (Shows still happen every Saturday night at 9 PM). It was a really cool place to look around at all the old relics, strange art, and random knickknacks covering every inch of the space. It didn’t hurt that the unfiltered beer we had was ice cold and delicious!
Our tour continued up to Wawel Castle which was gorgeous and includes a gold dome on one of the chapels.
As we looked out at the Vistula River below the castle, our tour guide told us about the dragon statue which has lots of folklore and legend surrounding it – he also mentioned that there’s no way of knowing when, but every so often the statue will breathe fire. To our delight, we go there at “the perfect time” as fire burst out of the dragon’s mouth…
Yeah it breathes fire every couple of minutes. We were that gullible.
The next day when I was out for a run I passed the dragon statue for a closer view – 7 heads and all. In the summer, a small cave behind the statue is opened as the “dragon’s cave.”
After our tour wrapped up, Allison and Heidi and I walked through the church before heading our separate ways. Allison and I walked back towards the main square and sat down at the tour-guide recommended Café Camelot for a coffee (some Amaretto might have found its way in into my cappuccino) and to rest our feet.
We shopped our way back towards the hostel (I needed one of those canvases, obviously) and made a stop at Jama Michalika – an extremely historic café filled with old art that you can just pop in to take a look at. By the time we got back to the hostel, we had just a few minutes before meeting the group for dinner and drinks.
We walked to the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) to get a traditional Polish street food – Zapiekanka! If I had to describe it in three words it would be loaded Texas Toast. It’s like a cross between in open faced baguette sandwich and pizza and you can load it with tons of different toppings – but all of it has melted cheese! The bread was airy and crispy and while I would never crave this again – I’m glad I got to try it!
The stand was in the middle of “New Square” with a bunch of other street food vendors and I believe it was called “Mr. and Mrs. Zapiekanka.”
After we finished eating in the street, we went to a bar right across the square called Alchemia. They had an extensive list of cocktails, but I stuck with wine. We found a table in the smoking section – which required us walking through a wardrobe modeled after the Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. We settled into Narnia and enjoyed our drinks on the quirky furniture. I really liked the vibe!
Our final stop of the night was to a bar filled with old Singer sewing machines – aptly named Singer Bar. Our tour guide from earlier in the day had joined us for the night out and said we all needed to try a shot of vodka flavored with Orzech Laskowy (Hazlenut) to close out the night. Dad (tour leader David) said, “Well, I was supposed to buy you guys an obwarzanek – but would you rather a shot instead?” to which we all said SOUNDS LIKE A DEAL.
I was really not excited to take a vodka shot but with the hazelnut flavoring it was actually pretty tasty! Never did get to try obwarzanek though…
The next morning, I woke up early to go to the 24-hour pierogi restaurant – we were scheduled to take a tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau and we’d need food for the 6-hour excursion.
I walked in the crisp spring air to the nearby restaurant and wasn’t surprised that I was more or less alone in the streets and most definitely alone in Przypiecek. I got two different variety orders – the traditional fillings (meat, cabbage & mushroom and “Russian” which is what I grew up eating – potato & cheese!) and a mix of “fancy” pierogies (broccoli, more Russian, and spinach). I really loved the meat pierogies but still, nothing beat the classic potato and cheese!
I had to laugh – when my pierogies they came out on a real plate - as if I were going to sit down and house two dozen pierogies at 7 AM. I was luckily able to communicate that I wanted them in a to-go box!
Of course, I had to have some with my free hostel breakfast…breakfast of champions right there.
Allison and I set off to walk to where we were getting picked up for our tour – but we were running behind schedule thanks to a stop at Starbucks and were panicking that we were going to miss it. We had set the pick-up location before we knew where we were staying, and luckily once we arrived our driver came up to us and asked if we were part of the tour. It was a small van with about 8 of us – much smaller than I had been expecting which was nice (I booked through Viator!)
It was about an hour and a half drive to Auschwitz, and though I had a full nights’ sleep the night before, I found myself dozing off in the front seat. I slept the entire journey. Something about moving vehicles just knocks me out!
When we arrived we had some time before our tour was scheduled to depart so we used the bathroom (you have to pay – like most places in Europe) and waited around. The weather was a little chilly and gray which seemed fitting for the occasion.
There were tons of people, but Auschwitz is very organized in terms of when they allow tour groups to depart/how many groups at a time/etc.
When it was our turn we met our tour guide and another van of people and went through security where we got a headset. I really liked that as we walked, our tour guide just spoke quietly into his microphone and everyone in our group could hear it in our headsets. There were so many other groups as we made our way through the different sections that it never would have worked if they were all competing to be heard over one another.
The tour was very well done – our tour guide was soft spoken, solemn, and factual without a lot of superfluous language. Honestly, being at Auschwitz and walking through a former concentration camp really speaks for itself.
For me, all of the museum-like displays weren’t as powerful or impactful as just being there. Of course, seeing artifacts that were taken from prisoners as they entered was disturbing – but I had seen a lot of those things at the museum in Washington D.C. already. Plus, it’s hard to even comprehend when you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes that they only represent a small portion of the lives that were lost.
What stood out the most to me was walking down a long hallway filled with pictures of prisoners with the date that they were taken away from their homes and the date that they died. So many of them were a shockingly short period of time – sometimes, just one day.
I think a lot of the time we hear the amazing stories of survival. Survivors can tell us how horrible life in a concentration camp was, but their stories have somewhat happy endings because they made it out. But walking down that hallway was a really striking reminder that those stories we hear from survivors are the vast vast minority. It was hard to find even a handful of people on that wall who lived more than a year from their imprisonment, let alone until the end of the war.
Another part that was shocking was seeing one of the prison blocks where they punished misbehaving prisoners – as if it was possible to be punished more than they already were. They would be forced to stand in miniscule cells for days on end – it was impossible to sit down or really even move at all. Sometimes there would even be more than one prisoner placed in these standing cells. Seeing it in person sent shivers down my spine.
Outside of that block was the “shooting wall” where prisoners were killed. That was another part of the tour that made me stand still and just stare in disbelief and shock.
Moving through the blocks was a little frustrating at times because it was sooo slow moving and packed with people. But the tour ends going into Crematorium 1 and at that point I felt like our group was pretty much on its own.
As we approached, I saw people standing outside looking shocked and sad and I took a deep breath before walking in.
But nothing could have prepared me for the feeling that overcame me while I was standing there. I had remained stoic throughout the tour, all things considered, but the second I was inside Crematorium 1 tears just started pouring down my face.
It was like nothing I’ve ever experience before – there were barely even any thoughts in my head I just knew I felt so sad and shocked and there were tears coming out of my eyes and my chest was tight and my throat burned and it didn’t even feel real. I tried to take in the gravity of where I was standing. All the books and diaries I’ve read about World War II. The class I took in college with a Holocaust survivor. The documentaries and movies. And I was standing where it happened.
I couldn’t stay in there for very long – but it was even more moving than I could have imagined it would be.
That was where the Auschwitz portion of the tour ended, and we walked back in relative silence to the van to drive over to Birkenau for the second part.
Walking into Birkenau was another surreal experience because it’s such an iconic picture – we walked down the train tracks where cars full of prisoners were “sorted” – the vast majority being sent straight to the gas chambers while those that were capable of work were sent to the camps.
A lot of Birkenau is just remains, as the Nazi’s destroyed much of it before liberation. We walked around, saw the remains of one of the Crematorium which is now a big monument/memorial, and then finished the tour by going into one of the barracks where it hit me for the first time just how cramped the quarters were for prisoners. Sometimes there were 3-4 people in a “bed” and the ones on the bottom were so tight that you had to slide into them on your side. People couldn’t sit up in them in the slightest. It was horrifying to see.
I'm so grateful that I had the chance to tour Auschwitz and Birkenau. It sounds like a weird bucket-list item, but it's always something I've felt I needed to do and it was absolutely worth the time, emotional discomfort, money, etc. It was actually one of the reasons I found this tour group - I knew I wanted to go to Berlin and Budapest but it seemed like a waste to be so close to so many historically relevant Eastern European cities and not get to them. I started researching a trip to Auschwitz from Berlin or Budapest, and eventually found this trip that was all planned out for me.
The van ride back to Krakow was a somber one, and I smelled up the whole van with pierogies. And slept, per usual.
We got dropped off closer to our hostel than we had been picked up which was nice. And I almost immediately changed into sneakers and headed out for a run. I needed to work through all the thoughts and emotions of the day and what better way to do that than a run? Moving meditation.
I loved running in Krakow - there is a park that surrounds the entire old city (Planty Park). It's just crazy to me how rarely you see people exercising outside in some of these European cities. I only passed two other runner's the entire time.
I set out at half past the hour for my run, and just planned on running around the old city until the Hejnal played signaling that I'd been running for 30 minutes. I finished at the door of the hostel just as the trumpeter started! It was the perfect little run.
It's crazy how a few solitary minutes running around, discovering a new city always end up being some of my favorite memories from different destinations. You can ask me "How do you like Nashville" and I'll vividly remember my early morning run down Broadway and the smell of BBQ at 6 AM. You can ask me, "How was Barcelona?" and I can tell you about the farmer's market I passed on the run or that there were tons of other runner's out along the water.
After my run, Allison and I went to a bar/cafe I had read about called Bunkier Cafe in the middle of the Planty Gardens. They have a huge outdoor area and it was nice to sit outside in the beautiful park with a cold beer! We also ordered flavored syrups which you pour in your beer - I got passionfruit! It was delicious - and it reminded me of college when I would use Mio to flavor my cheap beer. I was really just doing the European thing.
Afterwards, we stopped at a cute salad shop I had passed on my run and got ourselves something that we could eat on the following days' train ride (we got the most amazing salads from Fitagain Cafe and they were everything that I ever wanted!). On the walk back to the hostel, we couldn't refuse a photo shoot in the square since it was the perfect pre-sunset lighting.
For dinner, we met back up with David ("Dad") and Heidi to the somewhat hidden Kuchnia U Babci Maliny which had been on my "to eat" list. You need to go through a courtyard and library to get into it, and once inside its a quirky little place. You order at the counter and then they'll call your number and ring a bell when it's ready.
At Dad's recommendation, I ordered the beet soup and OMG IT WAS SO GOOD. Actually, every time I ordered soup this entire trip I was obsessed with it. But this one might have been the winner.
For my main dish I ordered the pork with oatmeal porridge - the meat was amazing but I had been looking forward to "oatmeal porridge" and it was dry and bland and pretty disappointing.
After dinner, we couldn't get the energy to go out, so we bought a bottle of wine and went back to the hostel where we realized a) we apparently weren't supposed to drink and b) we didn't have a bottle opener.
This resulted in us struggling to open the bottle of wine with a knife which turned into push the cork through into the bottle and the red wine resembling a volcano science project all over the kitchen.
Once we cleaned up...we played a few rounds of cards as we drank the wine and eventually headed to bed.
The next morning was another early one but our trip was done in style - a van was waiting for us outside with a driver dressed in a suit! He drove u to the train station where we would catch a train to our next destination: Prague!
PS: My favorite fun fact is that in Polish, one common insult translates to calling someone "potato face."
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I recently went on a whirlwind vacation with my best friend - visiting 6 Countries in 17 days. These are the stories, the must-sees, the must-eats, the tips, and the things I don't want to forget about a once in a lifetime trip.
The first part of my trip was a flight to Amsterdam, where I would have an 8 hour layover. Because the airport is such a quick train ride from the city center of Amsterdam, I had plenty of time to get out and explore a bit of the city.
My first interaction with a Dutchman was the customs agent whose line of questioning ended with, "Are you meeting a boyfriend?" My response was, "No, just a friend" but I probably should have added, "When is your shift over?"
Getting onto the train was a breeze - I had pre-purchased my ticket but it definitely would have been just as easy to buy it when I landed. After a pleasant 15 minute ride (where I marveled at each seats' personal mini trash can on the wall), I was at the city center, making my way out into the chilly, rainy streets. Yes - the smell of weed hit me almost instantly.
I was immediately greeted by a canal but the further I wandered the more quaint and charming the canals became. Passing a church on my way to find a cafe (I had slept a little on the plane, but also watched Greatest Showman and listened to some podcasts), it dawned on me that it was Easter morning!
It was strange being in a foreign city by myself on a holiday when I'd normally be at home surrounded by family...but what was even stranger was that as I opened my phone to write myself a quick note about the chiming of church bells and the sound of rain drop on my umbrella I looked up and spotted my first Amsterdam prostitute in a window. 9 AM on Easter Sunday morning. What a sight.
As I walked through the still sleepy streets of the Red Light District, I noticed a few places that we have in NYC including Le Pain Quotidian and Van Leeuwan's - the beloved vegan ice cream shop! I passed by De Koffieschenkerij - a gorgeous little cafe with outdoor seating but the rain made the garden a little less inviting. Instead, I settled in at De Koffiesalon - which satisfied my needs of WiFi, a bathroom, and caffeine. An added bonus was the fact that it was pretty and bright inside.
Outside of the coffee shop, I noticed some stalls being set up and wandered through some absolutely gorgeous art! I'm kicking myself now that I didn't purchase anything.
My next stop was for a cookie from the famous Van Stapele Koekmakerij. They hand make one kind of cookie and one cookie only - chocolate stuffed with white chocolate. Walking into the small storefront, the sweet smell of chocolate was absolutely heavenly. My cookie was placed in a sleeve and sealed with a silver sticker - a nice touch, but did they really think I was planning on saving it for later?
Despite being 10 AM - a Van Stapele cookie begs to be devoured immediately upon purchase because they're STILL WARM. Not only are they fresh out of the oven, but you can see the women rolling the next batch as you pay.
Van Stapele is open every day from 10 AM - 6 PM, but consider this your warning: they sometimes run out by 4 PM.
I continued to meander my way through Dam Square and various canals until it was time for my 12 PM ticket to the Anne Frank House. This was by far the most important thing on my list of things to accomplish while in Amsterdam and I was happy to take my time walking through the museum.
TIP: As of April 2018 - you MUST pre-book a specific date and time for entrance to the Anne Frank Museum!
When you enter you receive headphones and a small remote that's activated when you get to each new room. It was quite crowded, but still surreal to be in such a historical place. Anne Frank and Anne Frank's diary were both fascinating to me as a kid and I loved that this exhibit/memorial to Anne Frank and her family and friends who hid in the secret annex of Prinsengracht 263 had so many personal touches that made you feel like you were really getting to know them.
The part where it really hit me was stepping through the false book case, which you have to bend down to get through. Once inside the secret annex, it was sad to see the blacked out windows and realize that this family was unable to see the light of day for their entire time in hiding (two years).
Small details like the growth chart etched on the wall and the pictures that Anne hung in an effort to make the place feel like home were the most moving part of the exhibit. I felt a kinship with Anne Frank when I read about her great desire to be a journalist, when I saw the picture of chimpanzees having a tea party that she taped on her wall, and when I saw the notebook where she copied down her favorite quotes from books.
The saddest part was hearing about their eventual discovery. I cannot imagine being found and seeing other people and knowing that they want to kill you - even though you have done nothing wrong, have never even met them before.
What's even worse is the realization that the Frank's and the others they were hiding with were on the final transport to Auschwitz.
After finishing the tour at the Anne Frank house, I stood in the lobby using the museum's free WiFi to figure out where to eat lunch. I was determined not to pay $10 a day to activate Travel Pass on my phone if it wasn't necessary. Usually my attitude is, "Eh, it's $10 for piece of mind" but this was 17 days and $170 isn't chump change.
I would have loved to explore the "bohemian" De Pijp neighborhood, which I'm fairly certain I would have loved, but it was just a little too far of a walk considering I had a flight to catch.
Instead, I found a place called Vegabond that was absolutely perfect and right around the corner. You order from a counter and sit on couches in front of a big street-facing window. Vegabond is also a health-food shop with a large communal table in the back that I imagine would be perfect for people who work remotely (or blog!)
I ordered the acai bowl and it was picture perfect, and tasted even better!
After lunch I slowly started to make my way back to the train station, stopping in stores along the way and taking my time. At one point, I passed three guys on a side street laughing as their friend stripped down to his boxers. It was so random, and we were the only people on the street, making blatant eye contact, that I had to comment. "A little cold for that, no?" They just cracked up.
At this point the streets were coming more alive, and as I got closer to the train station I started to feel a gritty/seediness that I hadn't detected at 8 AM. I must say, I preferred having the streets to myself!
I felt that I needed to do something, "Amsterdam" and since I wasn't about to gawk at women in windows or light up a blunt, I stopped into a super sketchy "casino" with 5 slot machines and 5 video poker machines and threw away $5.
Back at the train station, I was FLOORED by the sheer number of bikes parked. I guess everyone in Amsterdam really DOES use their bike as the main mode of transportation. Just look at this madness!
Inside, I went to use the bathroom before remembering I was in Europe - and public restrooms are not free. Seeing as I didn't have any coins/change yet, that was a no-go. This is something we would huff and puff about the entire trip
The journey back to the airport was again super easy and smooth and the only thing of note from my trip from Amsterdam to Berlin was the pat-down I received while going through security! WOW! the TSA agent full-on pulled up and snapped the front of my bra and stuck her hands DOWN the front of my pants. Very thorough.
If you have more time in Amsterdam than I did, here are a few more ideas!
I'm fairly certain this was the OG avo-only restaurant!
(REALLY sad I didn't get to do this. After my incredible experience with Hey Captain in Copenhagen I know I really would have enjoyed a ride down the canals with a smaller boat company run by personable people!)
English-speaking spin classes in a foreign country! If you're anything like me - that's a JACKPOT.
Next Up: BERLIN!
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