Day 21 & 22: Zadar, Croatia

Zadar is the first of two trips to Croatia’s beautiful Dalmatia coast, which is supposed to be the new French Riviera and definitely rivals the Amalfi Coast in Italy. The town of Zadar is half beach community, half old town enclosed by massive defense walls (Dubrovnik also shares this layout). We arrived at our hostel after a fun local bus ride from the bus station. My Croatian is about as good as my Mongolian so we struggled to explain to the bus driver where we wanted to go. Turns out he just wanted us to pay and knew exactly where to drop us off. Zadar was our second HI hostel of the trip. Upon arrival we met this Frenchman named Thomas who ended up joining us for all our daily activities. Thomas ıs a 20-year-old from Northern France who riding his bike across Europe on roughly a 5 euro a day budget. He started in N. France, headed up to Belgium, then made his way down to Croatia. Pretty impressive to say the least especially since with the exceptıon of the hostel ın Zadar he was mainly spending his nights camped out in parks or knocking on random houses to see if he could stay for the nıght. The real kicker about hıs 4 month trip ıs that the adventure was a requirement at hıs college. Each student had to design a project that involved traveling somewhere and living on a small budget. He told us that one of his classmates bought a round trip ticket to South America with a passports. ONe set of clothing and zero money and was to travel around for four months. ANother duo were travelıng around Europe via rivers on pedal boats similar to the ones you see at zoos. We enjoyed hearing about Thomas’ adventures and meeting hım again shows the advantages of staying at hostels.

Our first day was spent walking around the old city. Like most old cities Europe the town was full of cool small churches and cathedrals along wıth mazes of small walkıng streets littered wıth shops and cafes. On the water’s edge Zadar has some nice rock and pebble beaches and also features a giant Sea Organ, which plays various notes with the rising water and waves. Very cool.

Zadar was unfortunately heavily damaged during the Balkan war of the early nineties so there was definitely signs of modernity mixed in with the traditional architecture. All in all Zadar was a nice relaxing break in our busy trip. We got to sample some the blue green clear waters, had our share of Italian style pizza and met some interesting people along the way (we spent our last day and night with Thomas and an Aussie, Glen, who we met.) During breakfast one day another Aussie let us sample his Veggiemıte, whıch ıs a staple Aussie delicacy made from yeast extract. Aussies live by Veggiemite spreading it on just about anythıng and everything. It’s a bit too salty for my liking but was still fun to try.

Next up is Dubrovnik, the city that George Bernard Shaw described ıt perfectly by sayıng, “Those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik.”

Until next time, keep on keepıng on

Day 21: Ljubljana, Slovenıa

We set aside three nights in Zagreb so that at some point in during our trip we could head to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, that small former Yugoslav country that most people probably couldn’t find on the map. The country itself has a fairly interestıng history. Slovenes were the first to break away from Yugoslavia in 1991 causing a ten day war but more importantly prompting Croatia to follow in its footsteps, with Bosnia and Herzogovina following behind. Of the Balkan countries Slovenia also has the strongest economony and upon arrival has a very Western European feel to it.

The capital is nestled inland about two hours from Zagreb by train between beautiful mountains, hills, and rivers. A day was all we needed to scope out the city’s offerings as it is still a fairly small place. Our first stop was the Preseren square, which is featured in the photo above. There is small river that runs through the city allowıng for a number of picturesque bridges including the most famous one, Dragon bridge, which was pretty cool.

Other highlights included the Ljubljana Castle, a pink franciscan church and a large cathedral, where we saw the Slovene Minister of Defense surrounded by secret service agents. I guess he enjoys Gothic architecture as well. One of the best parts of our short stay ın Ljubljana was simply sitting at one of the many cafes that line the river boardwalk all around the city and enjoying a Slovene beer or Cockta, a Coke knockoff that became famous during the Iron Curtaın days when real coke was hard to come by. Eventually Coke became readily avaible and Cockta nearly went under but lately the drink has made a huge comeback with Balkan youth (Croatians also drink ıt). I tried it and can write it up as Coke meets Dr Pepper with a hint of cherry.

Our train back to Zagreb was a bit of a hassle. We caught a train that would go half way and then we’d change traıns for the last hour (it was the only option at the time). The first train got to the transfer station in the middle of nowhere no problem but upon arrıval we found out that the second train was more than an hour delayed. We asked a local if there was any food around and the only thing open in a ten mınute walking radius was a fast food stand that sure enough sold Doner Kebab, backpackıng fuel. We all felt a bit out of place while waiting with the locals for our food but in the end it all worked out.

The next morning we caught an early bus to Zadar, Croatia on the Dalmatia coast.

Day 19 & 20: Zagreb, Croatia

This was our first stop in Croatia, which is the country that we will be seeing the most of. Our train from Budapest to Zagreb was nice. Southern Hungary is very flat similar to American farm land. The trip was quite beautiful however and we got to pass Lake Balaton, which is a large body of water which serves as a place for Hungarians to vacation.

Zagreb is a cool industrial capital with a layout very similar to Warsaw in the sense that there is an old traditional side of town divided by a river with the more modern part on the northern half. THe old town is very charming. We stayed in an HI hostel, which are the HOstelling International hostels all around Europe. Generally these places are massive with hundreds of rooms, nasty bathrooms (the one in milan has prison style showers) and no sense of community unlike our experiences in other smaller hostels on this trip. Still, we had a three bed room all to ourselves which was pretty nice save the fact that the more south we go the hotter it gets.

Our first day was spent walking around the old part of town. We climbed the hill that overlooks the city and has a beautiful old church, St. Marks, and a couple cool museums including one on the history of the city of Zagreb from before the Austro Hungarian empire up until the Balkan war of the early 90s.

The best part of the city was definitely just walking around exploring all the little back streets and alleys that make up the old town. We discovered a cool vegetable and fruit market and climbed a large old tower that had a great view of the city and its outskirts. During the night I thought it would be interesting to hike outside the old part (which also meant leaving the area the book recommended. Since we were so impressed by the Danube river in Budapest and even Warsawćs city river I lead us towards Zagreb*s river. After a good 4 mile walk that included walking along a highway we discovered the river was more of a canal and had nothing even remotely nice about it. Still it was a fun walk, we grabbed some cheap Croatian beer.

The next day we took a day trip Ljublana, Slovenia, which warrants its own entry since the city was absolutely stunning.

In other news, the facial hair seems to have stopped growing and i am now left with some odd patterns and patches. Both Paul and Sam have gotten sick from either the water or the food while I remain healthy. Tap water is perfectly fine and is free. Most european cities have fountains scattered around that have ice cold water running all day.

I have to run now since my internet is almost up.

Until next time,

Keep on keeping on.

Day 17 & 18: Budapest, Hungary

Once again I fell behind on this blog between Poland and Croatia where I currently am. Past hostels have had free internet, while some recent one have had computers that I believe are still running on Windows 95. Internet cafes in europe are expensive at times but in reality I just haven’t had that much spare time.

Budapest was a big change from our time in Poland. While Poland felt Eastern at times the cities and culture was still fairly Western, in the sense that Poland was very similar to Germany etc. Budapest is truly the first city with an underlying Eastern pulse. The people, the language, the archictecture and of course the food. Goulash and Doner all over the city. Budapest was also the city where we met up with our third party, Sam Kang. Sam is from L.A. and also studied with me in Salamanca. His Korean background makes him stand out a bit in Europe. Even with my “rugged” facial hair (still haven’t shaved and boy do I look creepy) I no longer have any shot of masking my American tourist status since our trio now stands out more than ever. Recently a group of Balkan tourists actually wanted to take a picture with Sam in front of a fountain.

Sam’s Easyjet flight arrived a bit late so we our first night in Budapest was spent mainly walking around. We walked down the the Danube river to check out the city scape. What a stunning view it is. Budapest reminds me a lot of Prague in the sense that there are two cities (in this case Buda and Pest) divided by a major river. The most prominent structure (seen in the photo above) is the Parliament house which we mistankened for a cathedral when we first caught a glimpse of it. Absolutely stunning to look at, especially at night.

One bizarre side story regarding our hostel stay in Budapest. While waiting for Sam to arrive we started talking to these two American girls staying in our dorm. They were both recent graduates taking a break before grad/med school. ONe told me she was from southern Pennsylvania. My knowledge of PA geography consists of Philly, Pittsburgh and Hanover, a small town where my cousin currently lives with his family (it is also where they make UTZ chips. mmmm). I mentioned Hanover and sure enough the girl was born and raised there. I mentioned Sheppard Mansion, the bed and breakfast that my cousin’s wife owns and operates. She replies, “oh yeah, I used to babysit the owner’s kid.” So this random girl I met in a random small hostel in Budapest, Hungary not only knows my cousin but has babysat for Dawson, my second cousin I suppose. Small world huh.

Back to Budapest. The next day we checked out more of the city, climbed to the Citadel, an old army base high above the city in the hills (great view), and visited Budapest castle. The majority of Hungarians live in Budapest and after talking extensively with Joe, the owner of Caterina Hostel, Hungarians are very proud of their heritage and have strong feelings about the loss of territory and land after the fall of the austrian-Hungarian empire post WWI and later post WWII. For example, Trannsylvania, the patch of beautiful countryside in Western Romania (famous as being the setting for Bram Stroker’s Dracula) was originally part of Hungary and that a large population of people living in Romania are Hungarians who refuse to call themselves Romanians. Interesting background info. Joe was very nice and was eager to tell me more about his culture and past (his hostel was really his apartment). I was eager to listen and learned that Hungarians, like many other Eastern Europeans, are extremely hospitable and friendly people.

We also visited The House of Terror, a museum dedicated to Socialism, Nazism and the Gulags of WWII and the Iron Curtain. The museum was extremely modern but and very interesting. Depressing, absolutely. Fascinating, for sure. THe one thing most of these countries have in common is a devastating past. Due to large Roma populations and a large Jewish population as well, Hungary lost a lot during WWII.

Our next stop is Zagreb, Croatia. I will try to update that as soon as possible. Until then, keep on keeping on.

Day 14, 15, 16: Krakow, Poland

So after missing our original planned bus from Warsaw (honestly as much as I loved the city I have to say they lack an efficient train station. We waited in the ticket line for like 10 minutes only to get the slowest ticket lady in all of Warsaw. You’d think she’d be solid at printing out easy Warsaw to Krakow tickets but instead she fumbled around on the computer and then told us that we had missed the train we wanted and that there would be “train in hour”) we ended up arriving to Krakow a bit later. The Aussie, Chris, who I mentioned in the previous blog entry was also headed to Krakow and was actually staying in the same hostel. Chris is a professional poker player from Adderley, Australia (wicked). Similarly to other Australians I’ve encountered he also has a penchant for traveling. Also wicked. On the train ride down he busted out his laptop and we ended up watching “Mad Max: The Road Warrior” for a part of the trip.

Krakow is a radically different city compared to the more industrial Warsaw, however, its history and unique sense of culture is as fascinating. The former capital of Poland was almost completely untouched during WWII, therefore the architecture is not only beautiful but also original. To top it off we were greeted upon arrival by the closing ceremony for the city’s week long commemoration of Krakow’s 750 year history!!!! 750 years is a long time. We stumbled into the main plaza and discovered a large scale stage set up near a cathedral with thousands of people watching a chorus and orchestra play. Honestly writing in this blog cannot even come close to describing the experience of listening to this unique and beautiful music being played for what I can imagine was the city’s entire population. I took a number of long videos with my sweet new digital camera!! So at some point I’ll figure out how to post them. Absolutely amazing start to the night. Oh and we ate another traditional Polish restaurant where we were served heaps of great food for literally less than 7 Dollars.

The next morning we spend the day exploring the city, which is quite small and is mainly concentrated in one general area that used to be surrounded by a moat and brick wall (it is now surrounded by “Planty Park,” which is a nice green area where Cracovians hang out all throughout the day. We also visited the Jewish quarter, which has its share of old synagogues and a Jewish cemetery. Probably the most impressive and stunning part of Krakow is the hundreds of small churches and cathedrals that are strewn all over the city, many of which were just breathtaking. One of the most rewarding parts of exploring a city outside of the concentrated tourist areas is stumbling across small churches like the ones in Krakow. One in particular had an exterior that was almost Turkish in architecture, mimicking the minarets and mosques that we will soon be exploring in Istanbul, however the interior was traditional Rococo. Stunning.

During the night we went out for some beers with the Aussie and met up with some English girls that he had previously met in Paris. Polish beer is not only cheap (if you seek out cheap grocery stores or kiosks) but is also very refreshing. After trying a couple I settled on Leche, which can be bought by the .6 liter bottle (Like a 40OZ) and costs roughly 1.25 dollars.

The next day we checked out some more sites and some historical museums in the city, one of which chronicled Krakow’s ancient past as a major hub for salt trade (there are apparently some great mines outside of the city.)

Our final day in Krakow was actually spend outside the city at Auschwitz, the Nazis largest and most effective death camp. Arbeit Macht Frei, or “work (will) make (you) free” hangs above the entrance to the camp. In reality the extermination center took the lives of roughly 1.6 million people, the majority were killed in the large scale gas chambers. The experience was sobering to say the least but I was glad I saw it and I definitely learned a lot more about the horrors of the Holocaust. An exhibition on the Roma or gypsies of Europe, a sect of people who are often overlooked when thinking of the holocaust, was very informative and extremely depressing. In many ways this large and often hated minority were treated the worst, undergoing some of the most atrocious methods of death and torture imaginable. Walking through the museum and the camps ruins is a constant reminder of the horrible capabilities of man kind.

Our flight to Budapest is at 6am tomorrow morning, which means we’ll be getting up around 3:30 to leave enough time to get to the airport. Budapest is where we meet up with Sam (also a buddy from Salamanca) making our duo into a trio. More on that next time.

Keep on keeping on

PHOTO CAPTION: The extremely ornate alter piece is from St Mary’s Cathedral, which is probably one of the most impressive interiors of a cathedral’s I’ve ever seen. Incredible attention to detail and the whole church was extremely well preserved and maintained over the years and through the war.

Day 11, 12, & 13: Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw. Poland’s sorrowful capital city. Poland as a whole has had one of the darkest and hardest pasts of any other European country going way beyond WWII and Warsaw alone has an incredibly dreary history. At the same time Poles are patriotic about the fact that they have survived and that their country has remained culturally in tact (just listen/read their national anthem).

We arrived by train to Warsaw at around noon after a six hour trip from Berlin. For an early as hell train ride it was surprisingly pleasant. We had the entire train cabin to ourselves save a Polish gentleman who got on a third of the way and spent the entire ride quietly working on some Polish crosswords. Incidentally Soduko is also quite popular here in Europe.

We arrived at Warsaw Central station with simple directions to get to our hostel that in the end were anything but simple. Western Europe is fairly easy to navigate thanks to language and alphabet similarities and efficient street signing and city planning. For two Americans with no language skill past Spanish, Eastern Europe provides some more obstacles. We started off by walking down a street that took us 15 minutes away in the opposite direction of where we wanted to be. Luckily a nice Polish woman noticed our obvious American tourist confusion while we were fumbling with our lackluster hostel directions and pointed us in the right way.

The Jump In Hostel is located a bit in the middle of nowhere. It’s off a major highway and is about ten minutes walk from the metro stop (Warsaw has one city train line that runs either north or south. It also has very confusing signing issues). We checked in, met a fellow traveler from Bangladesh!!! who was very kind and in the end invited us to join him for dancing at a “nice club down the road with lots of pretty girls.”

After dropping our things we embarked out to explore the city. Since the fall of communism and the Soviet occupation in Warsaw the city has blossomed into quite a nice European gem of a capital. Half of the city is modern, industrial, with an obvious potential for growth. They recently joined the EU and I suppose it’s only a matter of time before they take on the Euro. The other half of the city is the older part, Stare Miaso, which was rebuilt to look like the pre-war Warsaw (the city was almost completely leveled during WWII for those who don’t know. Completely leveled, as in everything you knew was demolished. Sobering to think about). We checked out the old part then headed across the river to Praga, which the guy at the hostel told me had great architecture and some wonderful city parks. He was correct.

What initially struck me about Warsaw is how simple people live their lives. This is true of other parts of Europe but in Eastern Europe you definitely feel it more. Little things like the fact that people will wait at red crosswalk lights even if there aren’t cars in sight, or the fact that people go to parks after work or ride bikes show a real value of the simple things in life. People don’t seem to be in a hurry (unlike the fast paced life of the average American). Then again, I’m used to our fast paced lifestyle so we cross the streets on reds and often get looks from locals. Oh well.

After Praga we ate at a traditional polish restaurant that “Let’s Go Europe” listed as a must eat. 18 PLN (Polish Zloty) will get you a steaming plate of Pierogi (I ordered the Grandma’s and Diavolo style. The latter combining meat and sour cabbage. The other having a spicy sausage of sorts), a large bowl of cabbage and cauliflower soup, and a side salad (coleslaw minus the nasty cream or mayo. Those who know me know that I despise coleslaw, however, loved what this cozy eatery had to offer). The best part is 18 PLN is about $6. Cheap and extremely filling. NOTE: After Dublin and Germany where we lived off either Kebab stands or grocery store bought sandwich fixings, a hot filling meal was a bit of a treat).

Finally there was the Warsaw club that we ventured out to when we returned to the hostel. Our group consisted of our Bangladesh friend, 5 drunk Germans (one of whom was dressed in a tux and carried a bottle of vodka around wherever he went), an Aussie who plays poker for a living online and makes mad money (wicked), and a brash Texan who told me that global warming was a farce and backed up his argument with references from a Michael Crichton (my reply was: “The guy who wrote Jurassic Park about raising Dinosaurs???”)

The night club was definitely European. It was below ground, blasted techno and house music, much of which i recognized from the mid nineties, and had lasers and a strobe light (it’s quite possible that the fog machine was broken that particular night). All in all it was a good time. I look awkward when I dance, especially when I’m the tallest dude around. Still I had fun.

On the second day we explored a couple museums, saw lots of old churches, and ate at a traditional Polish Milk Bar. Milk Bars were created during the Soviet occupation as cheap cafeteria like eateries that served hot food for very little money. The milk names comes from the fact that since meat was scarce or pricey the places served food heavy on dairy and potatoes. The menu was all in Polish, which made ordering a bit difficult. I ordered what i thought was meat but ended up being fish, for desert we picked something completely random, which came out as a mucus like custard pudding served warm with what appeared to be beet juice on top. It surprisingly was pretty good. Tasted like tapioca without the tapioca. Milk bars are dirt cheap and our meal per person was approximately $4.50 with a room temperature Pepsi Cola to boot.

When we returned to the hostel we spent much of the evening chatting with three Poles who worked at the hostel, the Aussie (Chris) and our Bangladesh friend. Sharing a bottle of vodka and a carton of apple juice (vodka and apple juice is a big drink i Poland and apparently Russia as well), we compared our cultural differences, discussed popular music (the Poles impressed me by recognizing/being able to sing The Root’s “You Got Me,” Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” and Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” At one point during the evening we all sang “Akuna Matata” from the Lion King in our own native tongues. An experience in its own I must say.

Warsaw is yet another city I would love to explore again and it definitely changed my prior views of Poland as a whole. Next up is Krakow, the former capital of Poland and a city that I’ve heard is a real gem that is not to missed. I wouldn’t be surprised if cities like Warsaw and Krakow become the new Vienna’s or Prague of Europe. Tourism is starting to blossom and no doubt will be flourishing in the next ten years or so.

So the photo of the large building that almost looks like the Empire State building is the Warsaw’s Palc Kultury (Palace of Culture). The massive building is Europe’s tallest structure (the second tallest being that nasty TV tower in Berlin) and was a gift from Stalin much to the dismay of the Polish people. Stalin wanted to build something that would show the Soviet’s power and prosperity but would also reflect the Polish culture. To this day the building is referred to as “Stalin’s Dick” by Poles who find the building to be an eyesore and constant reminder of the Soviet occupation. I personally think it’s an impressive building but it definitely epitomizes Soviet behemoth style architecture. Also check out Bucharest, Romania’s Palace of the Parliament, which is one of the biggest building per square feet in the world but is an ugly mammoth concrete bloc of a building.