Krakow- Pierogies and Vodka

Contiki Eastern Road
Days 10-11

Entry into the motherland! It has been about 10 years since I last stepped foot in Poland; I didn’t feel any sense of familiarity, other than maybe the language and the food. It was nice to be a visitor and experience the country from the perspective of a visitor. In my youth I had only visited very small areas of Poland where my grandparents had lived, so to visit a city like Krakow, really gave some wonderful insight to the country.

What a beautiful city it is. So pristine and with character, no wonder so many people like it and characterize it as one of their favourites in Eastern Europe. It’s just a perfect place to sit back and watch the world go by. Along with that, it is a gateway to many historical sites, as well as one of the only major cities in Poland which was not flattened by the war. So basically, if you want to have a drink and just enjoy the city, you can do that. Or if you want a crash course of the historical events in Krakow and surrounding areas, this is one of the best places to do so. If that doesn’t work for you; castles and dragons are also an option for exploration.
Krakow

Krakow is filled with great restaurants and bars, really to suit any taste. I quite like the restaurants in the Jewish quarter for a very traditional meal. For more contemporary though, the square has a bit of everything for everyone.
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I wish we were here longer though. This is the one place I really feel was rushed. 3 full days at the minimum are necessary, especially if you do anything extra like the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Speaking of the mines, this is a really cool little gem, but I will say this, taking the full length tour is a bit much. An hour or two there are more than enough- any longer and you’re walking down winding tunnels of salt that never seem to end and eventually become a little tedious. Just a taste of the mines though will let you see beautifully carved sculptures, all made out of salt- an amazing example of craftsmanship. I will say though, only come here if you have a few days in Krakow, otherwise it will take out a huge chunk of the day.

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Although it was great to see, and be able to say I’ve seen it and been there, with the time we had, I would have preferred to spend more time enjoying Krakow. Even just wandering the streets, doing some shopping, wandering through the castle grounds. I don’t feel i got enough of this city, and it is quite a shame.
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If you get a chance to spend some nights out here, please do. Krakow is filled with awesome bars and clubs, many of which are just restored cellars. One that I had went to and thought was rather awesome was called “Alchemia”. One of the oldest bars in Krakow, which like many others, is really just an old cellar. The whole place is just dark, with small rooms and candlelit- might sound a bit creepy, but thats just part of the charm. It has quite the ambience that I haven’t experienced at a bar before. Although attracting its said share of tourists, the locals were out as well; a great way to start or end an evening.
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No introductory visit to Krakow, or Poland for that matter is complete without a sampling of Perogies and Vodka- particularly Zubrówka. Where you do that? Basically anywhere. It’s Poland- its the staple dish and beverage. Come for a quick jaunt or have an extended stay. One thing is for sure, Krakow will be a very pleasant surprise on the itinerary.

BERLIN- Walls and Sausages

PRAGUE- Beer and Ice cream

VIENNA- Schnitzels and Schnapps

BUDAPEST- Ruin Bars and Sparties

coming soon…

WARSAW- Clubs and Goodbyes

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What the Gnome?

One of the most fun things about travelling the world is discovering everything it has to offer.

Some trips are about hitting those essential world sites and wonders, some are about getting in tune with the culture, and some have none of that at all.

One of my favourite things about travelling is discovering all the quirks of any given area- as every city or country in the world definitely has its quirk.

On my last visit to Europe, when I was in Poland, not too far off from where my family lives is a city called Wroclaw- a beautiful city with a gorgeous main square, very familiar to that of Krakow and not far from the Czech border. My favourite thing about the city was not its appearance or location, but the gnomes. Yes, you read that correctly, I said gnomes!

Across the city, you will stumble upon bronze gnomes. Some are very apparent and others are hiding. Some low. Some high. But all have their very own story.

It first started as an art installation, and seemingly over night, more and more of these little guys kept popping up. I think now there are over 100 across the city; which now can basically be turned into a scavenger hunt, which to me, is exactly what it became.

It was a mission! The adorable little Krasnoludki (gnomes in Polish) were the center of my attention, and tracking all of them down was key! (Well, almost all of them).

Not all travel has to be about seeing a famous landmark or monument. Sometimes travel is simply about finding what makes that place unique in its own right.

With that said, here is my collection of the Wroclaw Gnomes. Aren’t they just THE BEST!

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TOP TEN: Best cities in Europe

So I haven’t been to every city in Europe, but I’ve been to enough to be able to put forth an opinion on my top ten. Let’s just get straight to the point on this one. And yes, yes, I’m aware I left out a few good ones, and in time, this list may change- So feel free to share your favourites!

In no particular order, here are my top ten best cities in Europe! (My personal favourites of course).

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NUMBER ONE: Barcelona

Anyone going on a Euro-trip at some point in time really has to go to Barcelona. Spain in general is an awesome country, but Barcelona is extra special. From the vibe of Las Ramblas, to the history of the Gothic quarter there is just so much to explore. Love him or not- Gaudi and his architecture can be found throughout the whole city, with the most iconic piece of all, The Sagrada Familia being the crowning jewel. Although perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, it is to be marvelled at in all its bizarre glory. Once all the sightseeing is out of the way, everyone has to find their own little spot of paradise and order all the tapas they can handle, and better yet, get a liter of sangria to wash it all down. Lets call that a starting point, and the rest you can make up as you go along.Barcelona

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NUMBER TWO: Warsaw

I have to give a spot to the Motherland (I’m Polish). Recently I went to Warsaw for the first time, and quite honestly my expectations were limited. However, this city is very cool in its own right. With a beautifully rebuilt “old” town square, with a mixed vibe of young and old, there is much to be explored by anyone. The daytime can be filled with stuffing your face with perogies, ponczki and other Polish favourites then the evening can easily be spent barhopping and finding some cool little outdoor hangouts. It may not be an expected favourite city, but between the history, the vibe, and just the beauty of it, everyone should make a stop in Eastern Europe. Oh, and girls, be prepared to drink beer with a straw- it’s a thing here.Old Square Warsaw[hr]

NUMBER THREE: Prague

Oh Prague. This city has a great first impression- as well as a last one. From the cobblestone streets to the beautiful medieval architecture; this picturesque city is bound to satisfy every impression you had expected from Europe. Getting lost is probably the most amusing activity, and if that gets redundant- which it never could, perhaps visiting one of the many quirky “museums” or the Lennon wall will fill in the gaps. If that fails, just find a rooftop café and you’re set. I could easily spend all of my time in Prague. It can take weeks just to navigate all the nooks and crannies of awesomeness, but if you can even scrape through the surface, it might just become one of your favourite cities in the world.

Streets of Prague

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NUMBER FOUR: Budapest

There really are very few places in the world like Budapest. Hilltops, Spas, old European charm- what more can one ask for? Sharing the same essence of Prague, the atmosphere alone makes this one of the best cities in Europe. Thermal spas by day or by night; can’t go wrong! Beautiful architecture is around every corner, and matching those corners is the history that goes with them. There is something very dramatic about Budapest; perhaps it’s the grandeur, or maybe its presence. Whatever it is, I like it! Scratch that, I love it! One day I will go back to Budapest and only Budapest- purely to give it the attention it deserves, without having its Eastern European counterparts taking away any of its spotlight. Ps: You must see it by night on the river- nothing compares.

Budapest View

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NUMBER FIVE: Amsterdam

Amsterdam: a classic European city that should never be overlooked. This is probably the more obvious choice on my list. Who wouldn’t go to Amsterdam? I mean it has been featured it pretty much any movie relating to a trip through Europe. It is one of the most liberal cities to say the least. Some of the main attractions are the red light district and marijuana bars- and that’s great and all, but there’s just so much more! What about a little history? This city isn’t just for those looking to have a questionable experience. This is home to the Van Gogh museum and the Anne Frank house. There is a true learning experience to be had here. What about just wandering through the streets, or watching performances in Dam Square. Just being present will give you quite the experience. Regardless of all that though, no trip to Amsterdam is complete if you don’t take a picture in the big yellow clog- you’ll regret not taking one.
Amsterdam Magnets[hr]

NUMBER SIX: Stockholm

Stockholm, the land of Ikea! Ok, maybe not, but how can you not help but think it? Regardless, Stockholm is so charming. People are as lovely as they are beautiful- and really, they’re seriously beautiful! Everything is so clean and picturesque. Go to the Saluhall market to pick up some good eats- the meatballs and Lingonberry sauce are delicious! The sites are quaint, but there is just something about it you can’t help but love. Not many people place Stockholm on their list of European destinations to visit. However, if you plan to visit any of the Baltic, this is one of the best cities by far! Oh, and if time permits go to the Ice Bar- it is the original!Market Hall in Stockholm

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NUMBER SEVEN: Rome

Rome may not be everyone’s favourite city, but I think it is all about timing. Really any part of Europe is about timing. The thing about Rome, you really need to see it when it is not busy; it takes on a whole different personality. Perhaps if you catch it on a quiet day, you may learn to love it- otherwise you’re stuck with this whole Colosseum thing in all of your pictures- just yuck! And by yuck I mean, its the COLOSSEUM! Then you have some just ok landmarks like the Spanish Steps, Trevi fountain, Vatican; you know…nothing special. Then after you are dying of boredom looking at those, you just have to stop off for pizza, gelato and a cappuccino just to make the day worse. All of the above was my shot at sarcasm. On another note- Rome is awesome, go there.

Rome and Me

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NUMBER EIGHT: Hamburg

What an incredibly underrated city. The Pearl of the North as it’s known by some. Everyone visits Berlin or Munich, but no one gives Hamburg a fair chance. It’s really the smaller cities of Europe that epitomize what Europe is all about. It gives you the nightlife of Amsterdam with a daytime charm of Munich- by the water. Stroll the streets, have a sausage, do as the Germans do. You can go to a flea market, sit in some cafes or watch the ships go by at the port- perhaps this is one of my favourites because of my time working on the Queen Mary 2 (cruise ship), and if you’re lucky, and she’s in town, Hamburg throws on one hell of a show in her honour.
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NUMBER NINE: London

I suppose I have to put London on the list or I’ll never hear the end of it. It actually is an awesome city. What’s there not to love? You have a palace, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Piccadilly, Harrods, the London Eye, Harry Potter- need I continue? If that’s not enough, this is the Queens stomping ground. Perhaps after a day of running around, you can stop somewhere for high tea- seriously, what’s there not to love! Then when that’s over go see a show, or  do as I do, and stuff your face with some Cornish pasties or sausage rolls, and yes, there is a theme, I eat a lot when I travel.
London Calling

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NUMBER TEN: Madeira

I’m in love with Madeira. What upsets me the most; the fact that most people have never heard of it. Quick geography lesson- it is a Portuguese Island in the North Atlantic fairly close to the Canaries. It is a hidden gem of European cities (islands). With beautiful hillsides, a great town square, steak on a stone, the best Sangria of my life and down hill street sledding (it’s a thing here), it really is just the best. I especially love it at Christmas time; twinkling lights and displays litter the streets, hot wine served on every corner; just the best.

Hilltop Madeira

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So there you have it- my current favourite European Cities! So what are yours?

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BUDAPEST: Ruin Bars and Sparties

After having such an amazing time in Prague, it was really hard to top it; but then came Budapest.

After Vienna, we took off in the morning with a stop for lunch in Bratislava, which is the tiny capital city of Slovakia, and famously portrayed in the movie “Eurotrip”. Which might I add, is very inaccurately portrayed at that. Although tiny, it is beautiful and charming. Not a whole lot to do on the exploration front, but still a pleasant stop on route to Budapest.

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From the moment we got there to the moment we left, this city had so much to offer. This trip in particular is filled with a lot of history and culture- Budapest is the epitome of just that.

Once we arrived, we had a few hours to relax before the start of the evening. From there our bus took us on a driving tour of the city. We drove over to the Buda side of the city while getting a quick history lesson. We arrived to our first viewpoint, which I must say, may just be on of the best ones Europe has to offer. Budapest is just so picturesque. The Danube River, multiple bridges, the parliament building and just a classical European vibe come together to really epitomize what Europe is all about.

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We continued onwards still getting some great views along the way, and stopped at an even better viewpoint on the hill where Matthias Church sits. Religious or not- anyone who appreciates good architecture will appreciate this church in all its glory, and perfect placement as such.

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To me, one of the highlights of the trip was the dinner river cruise we had later that night. The food, the drinks and the sites were just amazing! I really do think this is one of the most beautiful and charming cities in Europe. At night, it just gets lit up like no other, and pairing that with some nice wine and some great people really made the night. Not to mention the food was amazing! I’m pretty sure I had something silly like 4 plates (it was a buffet). Just being out on the water was such a peaceful experience, but it was just so beautiful, and the group really came together for an awesome night. There were selfies and group photos going on all night! It was just awesome! You can’t really explain how amazing something is unless you do it. So if every going to Budapest, or if every going on this Contiki tour, the river cruise is an absolute must!

Budapest Parliament

As much fun as that cruise was, it was really just a warm up to the rest of the night. For the most part the group split up into smaller groups to do different things across the board. Myself along with a smaller group decided to go to one of the famous Budapest Bath Parties at Szechenyi. To say the least, it puts a Las Vegas pool party to shame. It is such a crazy place. You enter a beautiful spa-like venue, and all of a sudden it is a water club gone mad. Music is blaring, drinks are flowing people are disastrous it is just like a car crash and you just can’t look away. It just got busier and busier as the night progressed, and as more and more people became inebriated, the more interesting the whole night became. I don’t recall what time we left, or how long this party continued- but I sure am happy there were no cameras to catch this mess in its full force. To say the least, the following morning was not particularly pleasant.

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Being in Budapest, regardless of the painful start to the day, you have to just wake up and explore this amazing city. Although those who did wake up opted to visit the Parliament buildings, I sat at a café nursing my weary head with an amazing cappuccino. After a couple of hours, productivity seemed a little more reasonable, so we headed to The Museum of Terror (of the Nazi and Soviet regimes). I will say, it was definitely a sobering experience (Perhaps a little too sobering after a night out). One of the best museums I’ve been to, and it truly packs a punch when it comes to the delivery of the terrors in our history. It is an uncomfortable experience, and really, it should leave you with no other feeling. If you walk out feeling as comfortable as you did when you walked in, then you missed the point. In fairness, this museum does not allow you to miss the point, so be prepared.

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After leaving, and taking a wander through the streets of Budapest, we decided to go on a mission to the Buda side of the city, and revisit the beautiful hilltop church we saw the day before. Too bad that as soon as we made that decision, a thunderstorm rolled through out of nowhere and literally rained on our plans. It was unfortunate as the view from there is just beautiful, but instead we decided to wander in the rain and grab some lunch. As it eventually passed, we ventured off to explore more of the city.

There is so much to do; you just have to take your pick. If you want to relax, go to one of the famous spas. If you want to gain some history, go to one of the exhibits or museums. Not for you? Then just wander around or go shopping. Doesn’t really matter, whatever you’re looking for, you will find it in Budapest. Also…try the food, all the food, but be careful, as unlike other parts of Europe, food here packs a punch and can be really spicy- hence why you will see chili peppers on everything!

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Once you do all that don’t forget to head over to a Ruin Bar for a night out. What is a ruin bar you ask? Well it’s basically what it sounds like, typically a run down building turned into a very quirky bar. Inside that bar, or outside depending on how you look at it, seeing as it is a mixture of both. It decorated with basically every lost treasure, or item found on the side of a street. It is a wonderland for the senses, and definitely a great place for those who have a short attention span. Adding alcohol to the mix, just make it that more much interesting and almost confusing. Then, when you think your confusion has subsided, a waitress starts serving carrots. Yes, I said carrots. So basically in an odd way, a ruin bar basically reflects what Budapest is all about.

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The one thing you can say about Budapest though, it is very quirky. However it is going on my list of top European cities. Go there, now, don’t wait!

BERLIN- Walls and Sausages

PRAGUE- Beer and Ice cream

VIENNA- Schnitzels and Schnapps

coming soon…

KRAKOW- Pierogis and Vodka

WARSAW- Clubs and Goodbyes

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VIENNA- Schnitzels and Schnapps

Vienna was my least favourite stop of the trip. Nothing against Vienna though- it is fantastic in its own right- but when you have a line up of so many amazing cities, it just doesn’t quite measure up (my opinion only). Although the city was built with the intent of being a grand, beautiful city- and it is; somewhere along the way, it lost any sense of charm. It is almost too perfect, and too grand- to the point it seems artificial. Almost feels like a world pavilion at Disney World’s Epcot- Where they create a city to imitate a city. That is what Vienna is, and it doesn’t seem quite real.

Vienna- photo cred, Joel Lafleche

Regardless of that, after what felt like a very long bus ride (purely due to the evening before), there was a lunch stop in Kutna Hora, a teeny tiny town in the Czech Republic. There we visited the bone church, which is basically what it sounds like. It is a church, where the inside is fully decorated with human skulls. Although it sounds a little bit morbid, it is quite fascinating. As well, the designs are so impressive and intricate.

From there we made it to Vienna. Same drill as always. Get ready at the hotel, short walking tour- then free time for dinner.

Dinner was quite the treat. We went to a chain so eloquently called “Wienerwald”- home of the extra large schnitzels. The food was good, but we did not go on a good night, as our service was something special- definitely one for the books. Oh well, at least we all had a Viennese schnitzel. Due to that ordeal, we were caught running for the bus again!

DSC00056Another pretty easy going night- but we chose to make it as interesting as possible and go to the Prater amusement park. Because you know, when in Vienna, go on some rides. It was so much fun! I think we all got taken back to our childhoods for a few minutes. The bumper cars seemed to be pretty popular with our group. But we hit up all sorts of rides. My favourite was the world’s highest swing. I think it was a lot of fun because of how out of place it seemed in our trip. We were seeing all sorts of historical sites and cities and all of a sudden we were in bumper cars. I suggest it to anyone going.

Prater Amusement Park

On the second day, we took a lengthier walking tour through the streets of Vienna- it didn’t take all too long, so it gave us tons of free time. As soon as we were set loose, we went straight for Café Centrale; a classic Viennese café, one that you would expect to see in the movies. We all got some form of coffee with desert to match. I opted for a cappuccino with an apple strudel. I chose this as not too long before this trip I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, and the café reminded me of a scene from the movie, which involved an apple strudel- so it only seemed suitable.

Strudel

Now that we were all fed and properly caffeinated we dispersed to go out on all of our individual missions. By this point, my fellow Canadian, Craig, and I basically buddied up for all of our daily missions. For Vienna we decided to skip out on history as we’ve already had an overload and instead opted for shopping and ice cream. I think if there is any city to take a break from the history, this is it. As on this night we were going to a classical concert at the Schönbrunn Palace, we had to get some fancy clothing to match. For whatever reason though, we were terrible with time. Perhaps it was the chalice of ice-cream he ordered, or perhaps me forgetting one of my purchases at this café and having to run back. Either way, we did run it back in time to get on the bus for the next stop, which was the Schnapps museum. I’m not going to lie, I had pretty low expectations of this optional- but I figured, when you’re here, just do everything. It was actually very amusing. It wasn’t long winded- to the point and funny too- and capped off with a tasting of as many varieties of schnapps as you wanted. Now that everyone had a good buzz going- back to the hotel we went to get prettied up for our classy night out.

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We headed out to the palace in the early evening, where we started with a dinner and ended in a classical Mozart concert. It was a great experience, and I can definitely say I’ve been to a classical concert in Vienna- would I do it again, probably not, but I did enjoy it at the time. Perhaps if it wasn’t so hot and we could take drinks into the concert venue it would be better, but it was still good.

That was basically good ol’ Vienna, I likely won’t visit again, but I am glad I did go and checked it off the list. But leaving Vienna only meant one thing; Budapest was up next- and that is something I was really looking forward to!

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