The final chapter of my saga continued from Czech Republic part II. I have 16 days for this small loop in Eastern Europe. I need to be back in Amsterdam on the 17th to catch my flight back to the US. It would be better if I had a few more days but I'm not considering changing my ticket at this time. Let's see if that changes though!
Yep I went to Poland. It is close and a popular travel destination for some. Also it's cheap and the language is related to Czech. It doesn't mean I'll be able to speak it but there should be quite a bit that I can recognize in written form.
Hey it's my birthday. I only remembered when I typed the date for this entry. I don't celebrate it (I believe in parties every day) so I won't do anything special. At least nothing extra special above being in an exotic foreign location. :)
Getting to Krakow took the better part of a day. As usual I didn't prearrange any accomodatioins but I found something easily enough. This is a big tourist city. Formerly the royal capital (until 1596) it still boasts many historic buildings that somehow managed to escape annilhilation during World War II. Supposedly the city was founded upon the defeat of a dragon. I don't know about that but there is something called Dragon's Cave below Wawel Hill better known as the site of Wawel Castle and Cathedral. Since I arrived after most attractions had closed up I spend my first evening just walking around the old town.
Oh no! I brought a camera with no memory card so I had to use the internal memory in my camera which isn't much. That means that all my photos from today were shot at a resolution of only 1024x768.
I decided to go with a local tour company so I could just pay one lump sum for transport and an English speaking guide. The tour visits both Auschwitz and Birkenau. They are only 3 km apart. There was also a third large camp in the same area but it was totally wiped out by the Germans before they fled. In addition to those three there were around 40 small camps in this part of the country to basically supply slave labor near to where it was needed. If you think you know what went on there the chances are that you really don't have a good idea. The biggest shock for me was seeing the room full of cut hair that was being shipped out to textile factories in Germany to be made into socks for U-boat crews, felt, ropes and whatnot. The whole operation was incredibly industrial. Auschwitz and Birkenau
Wieliczka Salt Mine was a bit of a disappointment. It was okay I suppose but I've seen some pretty cool stuff underground including another salt mine with carvings and this didn't really impress me. However it was something different. We spent over two hours underground on the tour looking at salt carvings and historical artifacts. The church was cool. I met a trio of amusing Americans that I hung out with a little and we got dinner together later. This was a very full day. Wieliczka-Salt-Mine
Today was my relaxing day siteseeing in town except it wasn't that relaxing. At ten o'clock I arrived at Wawel Hill. This is the site of the famous Wawel Castle and Cathedral. I booked four different castle tours right away and later booked the expanded Cathedral, Royal Tombs, and Bell Tower tour. In total I had to be there for over six hours. That is a lot of looking! I started with the excellent armoury that had some things that I had never seen before (particular styles of armour) and really great examples of crossbows and ornate halberds. From there I walked through the State Rooms then the Royal Apartments. After the Cathedral I finished up by descending down into the Dragon's Cave which opens out onto the riverside. Go ahead and amuse yourself with my photos from Wawel Hill.
From the castle I walked over to the old Jewish town but there wasn't much to see. I did however find a superb place to eat. I tried a number of traditional Polish delights. The biggest surprise were the prunes wrapped in bacon. Regardless of what it sounds like it was so good. Then I feasted on a platter of roast boar, roe deer, and stag. Very delicious. All this was washed down with some fine local beer and a vodka steeped in grass from one of their national forests. Once I was through stuffing myself I headed back to the room to shower and shortly thereafter take photos of Krakow.
I decided to head to Slovakia by way of Zakopane. This would take me through the heart of the High Tatra Mountains forming the Slovak-Polish frontier. These are a branch of the Carpathians that stretch through Romania. This is an area where I would have liked to do some hiking and climbing but I don't really have the time anymore. And if I postpone my departure a little that might jeopardize my ascent of Triglav in the Slovenian Alps since it is getting late in the season.
So to get on with the story... On the bus I met Michael a Polish high school lad with some family in LA, Chicago, and Pittsburg. His speaks pretty decent English and we talked about computers (he's a Linux fan too) and Southpark among other things. He suggested that if I were to spend the night, he'd take me into the mountains tomorrow. He knows them well. I didn't know if I was spending the night until after arriving at the bus terminal where two little grannies approached me about a room for 50 PLN. I decided to stay there instead of the local hostel because it was in the town center and I would have a private room instead of a dorm bunk. I made the right choice. Zakopane is a charming little ski village. I only wish that I could stay longer and get into the mountains.
Later I checked my email for a message from my new Polish friend but he hadn't sent anything. I guess we aren't going into the mountains Friday. Maybe I'll just take the chairlift up the local peak and get an overview of the area. I'll take this opportunity to scout the place out for a return climbing and hiking trip before crossing into Slovakia.
I massively added to my Zakopane gallery! This was an unexpected surprise. I left the apartment to visit the 'net cafe and while there decided to take a lift up the mountain. The weather wasn't good but the funicular only goes up a smaller ski hill so the clouds were still above me. Across the way the mountains were in serious cloud cover. This little excursion was a great diversion! What I bought (using sign language) was a trip up on the cog railway (funicular) and a trip down on a ski lift about 3 km away. At the top of the ridge was a narrow road filled with souvinir stalls, restaurants, and all manner of tourist diversions. Wow, it was pretty cool. I took lots of photos to update my Zakopane section. I got caught in the rain toward the end but no big deal. I dried off a little back in town with the best perogie dinner ever before heading to the bus station. Eventually the minibus to the border arrived. The ride was short but picturesque.
I have returned to the homeland of my mother's family, however, I have neither the contact info nor the time to visit distant relatives like my sister did.
At the border I hopped out and with a little redirection from some locals walked over to passport control. Soon I was in Slovakia! Excellent. Even thought the weather wasn't great that couldn't detract from the beauty of my surroundings despite the fact that I was hiking along the road shoulder in a drizzle. Such is my life. After 2 km I was in quaint Tatranská Javorina where I was desperately trying to understand the tiny old lady at the bus stop. No luck. She seemed to understand my bastard Czech-Slovak fine, but I didn't understand a single word of her replies. Eventually I scientifically constructed the perfect simple sentence. Happily her reply while mostly unintelligable included her pointing her finger at herself so I correctly guessed that we were both headed toward Poprad. Also the bus was due soon. Yippee! Check out the High Tatra Mountains.
I can't believe I'm doing this but I don't have much choice. I decided to alter my plans and change this Polish-Slovak-Austrian-Hungarian-Slovenian loop by removing Hungary. This crushes the side of the circle down. It is more properly called the Polish-Slovak-Slovenian-Austrian flattened loop now. In addition I decided that if I really wanted to maximize my chances to summit Triglav in Slovenia I'd better get there right away. What that means today is I go to Bratislava which is a very easy train trip from Poprad. That's nice. The bad thing is that I leave Slovakia tomorrow. Two days is an insult to this country but the weather isn't good for outdoor pursuits right now and I will be back someday. Maybe I'll spend a month in just this country. By the way the Check out the train ride from Poprad to Bratislava was beautiful! I kept asking myself why I was leaving...
Bratislava is the capital and has a number of nice sites. Since I arrived a little late my pics span nice afternoon light to illuminated night photos. I had time to see the usual things in the historic center and get a mediocre meal in a small place on a side street. I'm staying at City Backpackers Hostel which is okay. It could be really cool with the downstairs restraunt/bar but I'm getting a little bit of a weird vibe that I can't quite describe. I head out tomorrow morning though so it doesn't really matter. On to Slovenia!