Krakow, Poland – Europe Day 39 – July 5

I woke up on the train a half hour before me alarm and started packing my things. The bed was a welcome change from the seats I’d previously sat in on overnight trains. I actually felt rested, which was great. In the cabin, I was provided with a sink, closet, and two water bottles and croissants. I ate all of it, and the last slice of pizza from the 4 I’d bought the night before and got ready to get off the train. There were several stops for Krakow so I asked the woman next to me which one was the main stop. She answered in German and surprisingly I understood her.

She said, “I know not where we are now, but the next stop is the right one.” I love the way Germans structure their sentences. The language isn’t poetic, but the word choice is.

Anyways, I got off the train and walked the short walk to my hostel. The weather was a bit cold and it was cloudy out with an occasional shower. The hostel was about 5 minutes from the station.

I set down my bags and helped myself to the free breakfast in the common room. The hostel had both free breakfast and dinner, a fact I planned to exploit as much as humanly possible. After breakfast, I edited some picture and made my way to the Krakow city center. The center of Krakow is built on top of the original medieval city and occupies several square miles. Surrounding the city center is a park where the citiy’s medieval wall once stood.

The Heart of the City

At the heart of the city is a church, cloth hall (market), and a beautiful square. I made it to the square just in time for the city’s free walking tour to start. The tour led through Krakow’s major sites and up to the castle south of the city center. When we reached the castle, it began to rain and I opted out of the rest of the tour and instead returned to the hostel. I never get a great night’s sleep on the train so I often nap the next day.

Salt Rocks!

Back at the hostel as I was about to sleep, I met an older guy named James. He was a former geography teacher from Canada backpacking through Europe.  He and I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon visiting Krakow’s famous salt mines. The mines are a 30 minute trip outside of town via the city bus, which we caught for 3 zloti, about 1 dollar.

We caught the 5:30 tour and walked the 368 stairs down to the first level of the mine. On the walk down, I made friends with some Korean engineers who worked for Hyundai and lived in Vienna. We made plans after the tour to go out for dinner afterward.

On the tour, we walked from cavern to cavern admiring elaborate rooms carved entirely out of salt. Most rooms had carvings of miners or ancient mining techniques, while others just had gnomes or pope statues in them. It was an eclectic mix. The largest room, and second to last was an enormous banquet hall complete with grand staircase and detailed chandeliers. On the walls of this large room were etchings into the salt walls of bible scenes, the largest of which was the last supper.

My Introduction to Korea

From this room, we took the lift up to the surface and the Koreans gave James and I a ride back to the central square in Krakow.  James walked back to the hostel, and I went to dinner with the Koreans.  We ate on the square at a nice restaurant and it only cost us slightly more than burger king. Krakow is fantastic.

After dinner, the Koreans and I said goodbye to each other and planned to meet up in Prague before they went skydiving.

That night, I met two American grad students and we went to the sister hostel down the road for a vodka tasting and pub crawl. Something like 5 shots later, the group was ready for the pub crawl. The crawl started at a basement bar just off the main square. At each of the two tables of crawlers, there were giant 5-liter cylinders of beer with a central tap that we all took turns filling. From the bar, we went to a club and danced til around 2 when I walked home and slept.

Overall, Krakow is amazing so far. Its small, its cheap, its sites are centrally located and well preserved. I would recommend the city to anyone.

Ljubljana, Slovenia – Krakow, Poland – Europe Day 38 – July 4

Independence Day behind the Iron Curtain

Rob and I got up around 8 and had an early breakfast before packing and taking a taxi to the train station. We got a quick bite to eat at McDonald’s and used their free Wifi to catch up with people back home. McDonald’s has become the US embassy for me. I know no matter where I am, except for Italy, McDonald’s had free wifi and clean bathrooms. I have no idea if the US embassies offer either of those services, but I would imagine so.

Rob’s train left at 11:30 so he was the first to leave. We said our goodbyes and made tentative plans to bike the Pinellas Trail when I returned to St. Petersburg in mid-August. I spent the rest of the afternoon editing pictures and catching up on blog posts. I’d been so busy over the past couple of days it was nice to have a chance to do nothing for a bit.

I was going to spend the entire day traveling and rather than dreading it, I looked forward to it. I’d be able to rest for a whole day and do nothing but nap and listen to music. My first train took me to Vienna. I left at 4 and got in at 10. My next train left at 10:30 so I only had enough time to buy a slice of pizza and a tea and board the train.

Since I’d be traveling all night, I booked a sleeper car from Vienna to Krakow. I’d booked the cheapest bed I could which was in a room with three beds. Fortunately for me, however, I was the only one in my room and got to lay about all over the place for the duration of the trip.

Ljubljana, Slovenia – Europe Day 37 – July 3

Jaime, Rob, and I woke up and ate breakfast at 7am, in time for Jaime’s early departure to Croatia.

Breakfast was included with the hostel, and it was delicious. We had two eggs, bacon, and two rolls, the best free breakfast I’ve had so far in Europe.

After breakfast, Jaime left and Rob and I planned out our day. Around 11, Rob and I walked down to the train station, missed the first two trains by minutes, and finally caught a train out to Lake Bled to do some mountain biking. Lake Bled is a resort area outside of Ljubljana known for its beautiful mountains, forests, and lake. In the center of the lake is a small island with a church on it, and on the surrounding lakeshore are small beaches and parks. On one side of the lake, atop a large cliff face sits a castle. Rob and I spent the day biking around the lakeside eating cheese and drinking wine. Overall, it was a great day. We slept on the train back into Ljubljana and got some food in town. There was a giant orchestra/choir concert in one of Ljubljana’s town squares. Rob and I ate pizza on the side of the square and watched this amazing concert for free. Ljubljana offered so many free performances around town in the couple of days that we were there. It was incredible to see what the city provided to its citizens on a regular basis. I feel like concerts and ballets in the town center like that wouldn’t happen in the United States. We watch the concert for awhile then returned to the hostel to get some sleep that night.

Back at the hostel, I skyped with my grandparents and found out that I will not be going to Japan this September. I was disappointed. Its been a lifelong dream of mine to travel to Japan, but I understand how strenuous a trip like that would be on my grandparents, and I hope that we can go on a trip perhaps closer to their home in Boston instead. I assured them that it was fine, and that I understood how much of an undertaking the trip would have been.

Ljubljana, Slovenia – Europe Day 36 – July 2

Once the cleaning lady let us in, Rob and Jaime passed out on the couch immediately inside the door. I went in search of warmth and found a large couch in a dark corner of the top floor. I woke up at 10:30am and Jaime was asleep on the couch across from me. She’d gone looking for me and found a couch of her own. Rob came upstairs and woke us up so we didn’t sleep all day. I wasn’t a fan of being awake at this point, but I understood the logic behind it.

The three of us made our way through Ljubljana’s beautiful park that separated the residential area of the city from the downtown commercial area. The park was dotted with wildflowers and winding paths. Families picnicked, people rode bikes and walked their dogs. It was a very tranquil place. On the other side of the park, we reached Ljubljana’s downtown. It’s more beautiful than Venice. The river winds directly through the city center and numerous bridges criss-cross the river connecting both banks.

We found ourselves in a large market selling various meats, cheeses, and produce. We all bought buckwheat cakes and grapes to share. I bought a “Cockta,” a crazy soda from Eastern Europe that tastes like Iron Brew. Everything was delicious, which I suspect had something to do with only eating an omelet and crepe the day before. With breakfast out of the way, we made our way from the market to the castle on the hill. From the top of the castle, we could see all of Ljubljana stretched out before us. Beneath the castle’s courtyard in an underground cavern was a series of modern art exhibits. We perused them then made our way to the courtyard for Elderberry flavored water on our way back down the hill.

Back in Ljubljana’s downtown, we ate gyros and sardines for lunch from a local cafe. I really enjoyed the pace of life in Ljubljana. No one is in a hurry, and the attitude of the city seems very carefree yet people still get things done and everything still runs on time, minus the train that took us here. After lunch, we returned to the hostel to nap, in hope of recovering from the night before. Jaime and I ended up staying awake and talking about San Francisco for the entire afternoon. I’m planning on visiting there on the way to Japan with my grandparents and she offered to show me around the city. The city sounds incredible, like a massive Gainesville, filled with interesting bars and parks, shops and taco trucks.

When Rob woke up, we walked back through the park and into the town center again. In one of the squares, a ballet performance was happening, complete with professional lights and audio equipment. A full production had been assembled in the square, free for anyone to come and watch. It was incredible. Further down our walk we stopped at a riverside cafe for dinner. Jaime and split a delicious magherita pizza with hot peppers and washed it down with a Hungarian beer.

Our waiter brought out Rob’s water with ice in it and gave us ketchup and tabasco to put on our pizza. The whole scenario was funny. Our waiter wasn’t being rude by doing this, by all accounts he was incredibly polite, I just don’t think he’d ever encountered Americans in Ljubljana, and this is what he’d learned about Americans from TV. Either way it was hilarious.

After dinner we returned to the hostel to call it a night. The hostel we stayed at was very bizarre. Based on the large number of doctor’s offices in the area, and the bizarre configuration of everything in the hostel, I suspect it was at one time a hospital. Everything was painted the sterile white hospital color and all the lights were harsh industrial florescents. The room Rob and I stayed in was a dorm, but each bed had its own room but with walls only on three sides, and a curtain on the last side. Because Jaime had booked late, she had a single room. It was more expensive but it was nicer and reminded me of a private hospital room with only two beds in it.

Budapest, Hungary- Ljubljana, Slovenia – Europe Day 35 – July 1

I woke up and looked over. Rob was asleep. It was 6:15. So much for going to Zagreb. We decided to skip Zagreb and just take a late train to Ljubljana arriving at 2am. I had met a French girl named Gaelle on the pub crawl a couple nights earlier and she and I walked all over Budapest for the first half of the afternoon. We went to the Opera House, Parliament, a giant church, and the House of Horror. Budapest’s Nazi/Soviet occupation museum. The building the museum was in was first the Nazi Headquarters in Budapest, then the Soviets. The top three floors were museum space, while the bottom was an actual torture chamber complete with prisoner cells, gallows, and a tiny room where prisoners were forced to stand.

After our morning of adventures, I returned with Gaelle to the hostel to pack and check out. Rob and I nearly missed our train as we race across Budapest with about 20 minutes to catch the train. We took a tram down the road to metro, then the metro to the station and sprinted onto the train, making it with only a minute to spare.

Once on board, Rob and I met a school teacher from San Francisco named Jaime. It turns out her and I had talked back at the hostel for a couple of minutes and so we had report, or as the lady at the liquor store by my house says “child, we have relations”. The three of us had the usual backpacker talk, where are you from? How long are you traveling? Where are you going? Etc.

I went to the dining car on the train to eat a ham omelet with a side of bread, as I realized I hadn’t eaten anything all day and it was now 6pm. Rob, Jaime, and I talked all night, played shithead and ate jam crepes at midnight in the dining car together. Jaime was originally planning to travel to Zagreb on this train but decided she would rather go to Ljubljana with Rob and me.

Around 3am our train arrived in Ljubljana. It was an hour late and very cold outside. The three of us piled into a cab and rode to our hostel, only to discover that it was closed and no one would be there until 7am, four hours from now. In a cruel twist of fate, we were able to get the hostel’s wifi from outside, only to discover there weren’t any other hostels nearby and nothing was open.

As the night dragged on, the temperature dropped and soon it was 50 degrees with the three of us putting on all of our warm clothes, huddling together on the front stoop for warmth. When I woke around 5:45, it was actually colder than when I went to sleep, despite the sun being up. I was about to just start walking until I found warmth, somewhere, anywhere, when a station wagon pulled up and the cleaning lady got out. We were saved! She looked at us, clearly perplexed, then let us in.