Warsaw: a special gem in Poland

Warsaw: the city that would bring me back to Poland in a heartbeat.

So I sadly can’t say I got to spend too much time in Warsaw, or really have a recommended itinerary after my whirlwind time there (including a missed flight and a night that lasted until 7am -those are whole other stories). But it was just enough to make me want to come back again and again, and discover even more of Poland. Note: I was there in October 2015, just as it started to get colder and the air a bit crisper.

First off: Poland is cheap. Like, really cheap – despite being the 2nd biggest economy in Central Europe and 6th biggest in the EU. It also has amazing food and really friendly people. And, compared to Krakow, Warsaw is like its hipper, younger cousin (my opinion). A lot of people say you prefer one or the other: like a San Francisco/Los Angeles or Berlin/Munich rivalry, and in this case, Warsaw reminds me of Berlin – I loved it. Continue reading “Warsaw: a special gem in Poland”

Krakow: a day full of food

Sometimes you leave a city and your biggest memories of that place are the food. And the eating. And the drinking. It happens. Krakow was one of those places.

We got into Krakow late at night (sensing a pattern?) after a day full of train rides from Budapest into Brno, Czech Republic, a BlaBla car to Gliwice, Poland, and then trains all the way to Krakow.

Undeterred and obviously determined to soak in all of Poland, we headed right out after checking into the hostel and ended up at another Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa in the Old Town. I’ll say right away these vodka bars were probably one of my favorite parts of the entire trip – and no, not just for the alcohol. From the second you walk in, it’s like walking into a Russian bar and old-style American diner, blended into one. White tile, swivel bar stools, and 2 chalkboards – 1 for food, at 8 zl each (about $2), 1 for drinks (4 zl each). Old Communist posters and advertisements cover the walls, and people – young, old, and everywhere in between – keel over laughing, drunk, red-faced, and enjoying life. It’s a crazy scene. We also went to one in Warsaw that was not part of this chain that was a bit more authentic, but they’re really all great. It’s sadly also somewhere I knew right away I never would have ended up had I been alone or with someone other than a Polish person.

Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa – a chain of vodka bars all over Poland

 

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2 days in Belgrade

After a great 2 days of hiking in Montenegro, I was ready to hit the “Party City” of Belgrade. I know Serbia doesn’t too often appear on the travel plans of many Americans, but I would strongly recommend including the Balkans area in general (including Serbia) on your radar. I never once felt unsafe in Belgrade (full disclosure: I was traveling with a guy, but I’m not sure I would have felt much differently if I had been traveling alone). Overall, I wish I had gotten more time there, and look forward to coming back to experience the infamous nightlife.

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The beautiful Tara Bridge on the way out of Montenegro

 

The bus ride to Belgrade was long: 9 hours from Zabljak to be exact. (I think I’ve learned a new level of patience from the long bus rides in Europe – 8 hours from Berlin to Munich, hours more down the coast of Croatia, and now this). I was definitely happy to have some company along for this ride at least. Continue reading “2 days in Belgrade”

Bobotov Kuk: I can see 3 countries from here!

If you’re in the Balkans and looking for a (relatively) easy, off-the-beaten track day-hike to the tallest mountain in the country, you should make it out to Durmitor National Park for a short trek up Bobotov Kuk.

So, after a decently adventure-filled day of biking and hiking the day before, today it was time to hike the tallest mountain in Montenegro – Bobotov Kuk. The whole reason I’d come to Montenegro (OK, there are obviously many more things to do in Montenegro, but with my short amount of time and desperate need for more nature, this was it).

Somehow another guy from the hostel and I ended up as the only ones without a ride from hostel host Alex to the start of the Bobotov Kuk hike. Undeterred, we of course took matters into our own hands. There was no way either of us was leaving Montenegro without climbing to this peak. So, after a hearty breakfast, we set out (with the dogs in tow) to the parking lot next to the supermarket. A few attempts later of calling out “Seblo? Seblo. Seblo?” (the town where we would start the hike) to anyone who would listen, I got some help from a woman running a newsstand. She agreed to call a taxi driver and within a few minutes we were off in his car, with a taste of local Montenegrin music for extra flair. 

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Montenegro: stray dogs, deep canyons, and biking without brakes

If you like hiking, consider yourself pretty adventurous, and like getting off the beaten track, you have to make it to Durmitor National Park in Montenegro. Formed by glaciers, the Tara River Canyon is the deepest in Europe, and makes for some gorgeous views.

I started out my trip to Montenegro mostly unplanned. At 1am, in typical non-planning-backpacker fashion, I was sitting around my hostel in Mostar, Bosnia, with one other Australian backpacker, curled up on the couch writing down all my bus times to get to Sarajevo the next morning. I had “planned” (because any sort of planning when you’re mostly just deciding on a whim which place to go next is always up for change) to go on to Durmitor National Park in Montenegro after Sarajevo for 1 quick day of hiking. I knew it wouldn’t be enough, but at this point in the trip, I was really trying to squeeze everything in. After a last minute move to check the weather, though, I realized the one day I had marked off for Montenegro hiking was expected to be a fully wet one with 90% chance of rain. Back to the drawing board – made a whole new page of bus times and routes to go to Zabljak, Montenegro at 7am instead of Sarajevo, and with that, snuck back into my dark hostel room, packed up last minute things, and crept into bed.

One mistake I did make (not even sure why because this is the first time I decided to do it) was purchasing my bus ticket online. Note: especially in these areas, it’s much easier to just buy your ticket at the station. Buses and trains were never full, and showing up with an online reservation and no printed ticket usually just causes more hassle. Sure enough, at my stopover in Nikšić, I had to buy a new ticket (only 5€ luckily) since the attendant wouldn’t accept my email confirmation. Luckily, the bus driver at the station in Mostar was extremely helpful, and even walked with me over to a tourist office near the station to ask them to print my ticket for me, reassuring me in broken English “Is OK. Is OK. Don’t worry” the whole time, as if caring for a lost, injured songbird. That’s about how I looked I’m sure. Continue reading “Montenegro: stray dogs, deep canyons, and biking without brakes”

Brač: life on the big island

Brač (pronounced “Bratch”) is the largest island off the coast of Split, but also one of the less touristy (compared to Hvar and Korcula). It’s mostly known for 2 things: its white stone and the Zlatni Rat beach, which were about the main highlights during my 1 night stay there with a Croatian family. 

The easiest way to get to Bol (the city on the other side of the island where I’d booked a small AirBnB room in the home of a Croatian family) from Split is probably by the once-daily direct ferry. But since I didn’t want to wait until afternoon to take the ferry (it runs at 4:30pm during the summer and 4pm the rest of the year), I got the 9am catamaran over to Supetar first, and then the 1 hour-long bus from there across to Bol. Let’s just say, I think I underestimated how much of an ordeal it would be getting there, just kind of floating with the idea of “island=small” in my head when I booked the room without much research. Oh well. The bus ride allowed me to see a lot of the piles of white stone I’d read about (mostly after my visit). Did you know that a lot of the stone from major monuments (like the Reichstag in Berlin, Diocletian’s palace in Split of course, and even the White House), comes from Brač? Pretty cool.

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“Old Boys Club” at a bus stop in the middle of Brac island

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Split: when a city doesn’t always live up to expectations

Sometimes you get to a city and instantly know you’re ready to leave- that the main “story” you’ll get out of it is “well, I guess now I’ve seen it.” If you’re thinking of going to Split for more than just a stopover, below is my account of why this city, for me, was Split. I also considered titling this post “French tourist mecca.” Take it with a grain of salt.

I decided to head to Split because I’d heard good things about the city. Granted, this is all from people who’d never been there. First mistake. And I admit that I can see how the city might have held a certain charm before it exploded from being just a transit hub into being a full-blown tourist mecca. Maybe I’d just hit it too late.

On my way to Split from Šibenik, I did get into a mess that I knew would happen at some point. Since I was sick of being that obvious tourist and repeating “Split? Split?” (insert name of city you’re trying to get to here), I did my best to check the signs on the front of each bus, and hopped on board the one I thought was headed to Split. Big mistake. Turns out, the bus was coming from Split. 5 minutes after we pulled out, the ticket guy got to my seat, checked my ticket, and said roughly and matter of factly: “Split? No. Zagreb.” And just as I’d mentally resettled on making the best of it and changing my plans to include the 8 hour trek back up north to Zagreb and a new city, I was (kindly) dumped at the next bus stop.  Continue reading “Split: when a city doesn’t always live up to expectations”

Krka National Park

Imagine bright green water, cascading gently over mossy rock and forming beautiful pools. Little wooden walkways just above the water offer a path right through this unique landscape and biosphere. Now imagine you can get in that water on a warm day and swim right up near these waterfalls. Surprise: you’re at Krka National Park. 

My ride to Krka National Park from my hostel in Sibenik was in the very back of a van, carefully balanced in a wicker chair. Bumpy ride. The roundtrip had been arranged by the hostel owner for 30 kuna, but you can also get there by bus or by bus to Skradin (which, by the way, is known for its 12 hour risotto) and then by boat in, which I hear is a very attractive option.

The entrance fee was 110 kn this time of year (roughly $16 USD), and once paid, it’s a straightforward walk down a dirt path. When you reach the water, you’ll amble on wooden footbridges hovering just above the water, snaking through fish-filled green ponds and overhanging trees. Given the mostly barren landscape leading into the park, it’s an especially interesting little oasis.

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Šibenik: small town with the gorgeous sunset

“What’s your favorite city you’ve visited so far in your 6 months traveling through Europe?” I once asked another traveler. Without hesitation he answered “Šibenik.” This charming city boasts all the best parts of Croatia (sunsets, great seafood, quaint alleyways, and historic churches) all in one small, magical location. As the oldest native Croatian town on the shores of the Adriatic (others were founded by Greeks, Illyrians, or Romans), it deserves to be enjoyed as much more than just a stopping point on the way to Krka National Park.

The Croatian part of my stay started in Šibenik, a small Central Dalmatian city that serves as the gateway to Krka National Park. I sauntered off the train in Šibenik around 11pm, three trains and a bus later from my farmstay in Semic, Slovenia. When I finally made it to my hostel, the middle-aged woman at the front desk looked tired and relieved that I’d finally made it. She was very nice in broken English, though, and got me a seat in the back of her son’s car to go to Krka National Park the next day, the main reason I’d come.

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Slovenian train stop on the way

Some of the bombing evident in the town of Karlovac, Croatia – pit stop on the way to Sibenik

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Kufstein for the Almatrieb festival!

In Kufstein on Saturday, we got in just as the festival was kicking off. The little town we’d seen so quiet a few days before now was lined with tents selling homemade schnapps, food, honey, and all sorts of little trinkets. There was one big beer garden area, where everyone sat eating donuts and pastries with beer or Fanta. We watched rowdy, entertaining Austrian performances of men in suits chopping wood and dancing in circles. Another had young guys snapping ropes above everyone’s heads, standing on beer garden tables. Tons of pastries and beer flowed freely and it was quite an experience in a little Austrian town. Finally the cows started coming down and I made sure to get plenty of videos. This is really a thing? I loved it. After grabbing some local pear schnapps to go, we reluctantly headed to the train station, sad to leave this little town that had grown on us.

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