Eastern Europe - 2006

I found a pastry shop today and bought some filled doughnut looking things. They had a strange filling in them that was fruit but there was another odd taste. We’d find out later from another baker that spoke 4 english words (which was 4 more than the first one) and she pointed to the pastries and said “alcohol” when I tried to buy them. I’m guessing that strange flavor was alcohol of some sort. Weird, beer in doughnuts.

Our plan was to take the train or bus to Wiliczka (via-leech-ka) to see the salt mines. As we were standing in the train station a man came up to us soliciting his services. I saw his accomplice near the door when I came in. You can always tell these people because their the only ones in the train station not moving. Everyone else is trying to buy a ticket or get to a platform, they just stand trying to make eye contact. Anyway his deal was he’d drive us to Wieliczka for 160 zloty ($55). This seemed a bit steep to me but the train schedules weren’t making any sense and both guidebooks were really vague about what to do once I got there so I told the man it was a deal and we followed him out of the station. He drove a early 90s Mercedes and the whole experience reminded me somewhat of Fernando in Mexico City driving us around. On the way out of town he started pointing out various places of interest and telling me history that I’d already read. We stopped at Schindlers factory and went in. Even though there isn’t much to see but a movie with Schindler in it and the stairs and office in the movie it was still neat going there and knowing it was the real factory that saved so many people. I’m sure they’ll make it into a museum some day. Back on the road for about 20 minutes and we arrived. Our driver started earning his keep fast. The line to get in was about 1 hr long and our English tour started in 30 minutes so he put us in line and took off somewhere. In about 10 minutes he came back with tickets. Apparently he does this a lot and knows the ticket sellers. He says sometimes they let him barge in line and sometimes not. Today they did. He didn’t have enough money to pay for the tickets so he had to wander around to find someone that would convert Euros to Zloty. He really went out of his way to get us in. We made our tour which started out with a 360 stair decent into the earth. Thoughs of Jules Verns “Journey to the center of the Earth” came to mind. Our guide spoke English but her accent was really strained. Polish people sound like chihauhas when speaking English. Maybe the sounds are hard to say but they sound very tense.

We start once again foraging for food. I find at yet another small grocery yogurt cups. I’m getting desperate so I’m willing to eat bacteria infected milk for breakfast. It was much better tasting than the yogurt we have in the states but still no replacement for a good burrito or Paris croissant.

Before the second world war there were 65,000 jews living in Krakow, after the ware there were 200. There used to be an actual second city where all the Jews lived called Kazimierz (kazsh-meer-ezsh). Krakow has grown to the point that it engulfed Kazimierz and it is now a district. I guess it was hard to figure out who should own the buildings there after the war because there just wasn’t enough jews left to claim it. It’s sort of a run down area but is starting to come alive as people move back into it. We spent the day wandering around there and didn’t see much to take pictures of. We were told by the two Polish guys on the train that we should go down there and eat at a Jewish restaurant. The idea of trying to order food that I’ve never seen before in a language that I can’t speak isn’t appealing so we eat dinner back in the city center. Many years ago there was a wall surrounding the city with the Wawel castle at one end. The wall was taken down by the Austrians when Krakow was part of the Austria-Hungary empire. The Austrians seemed to think there was no use for it and took all but one small section down. Where the wall used to be is one long park or “planty” area as they call it. It’s really nice because they’ve put benches along all the paths so if you need to get anywhere in Krakow you walk allong the planty area instead of walking next to the street. Sometimes it’s almost a block wide and other times it’s only 30 ft. You could start at Wawel castle and walk all the way around old town and back to the castle without ever leaving the planty area.

Our first day in Krakow started by Jade and I foraging for food. Bernadette said there was a supermarket to the right of our apartment so that’s where we went. We found a few min-mart types of places, a nice park with fountain, a tiny grocery that had croissants but no supermarket that would have cereal. On the way back we found a slightly larger grocery that has small bags of cereal and milk. A welcome suprise was the fact they give plastic bags to carry your grocery items in. We’ve gotten accustomed to bringing the day bag because most of the eastern countries don’t give you bags, they expect you to bring your own. The croissants weren’t too bad in a non-French way. I guess about the quality I’d get in America which after spending a month in Paris were unexceptable. I think I’ll starve in these countries because I don’t get my burritos for breakfast and I can’t have my second breakfast (croissants) either. Anyway after breakfast we walked toward the city center and found a Polish fast food place so we ate lunch. Piper and I had a big sausage with onions, Jade had fried chicken patty and Natalya had Pierogies. People here don’t speak English at all. The order process is a little weird. We point at the menu and tell her how much, she has us pay and gives the receipt to another lady who takes it into the next room to a food counter. When the food is done the same lady comes back, picks up the food and yells it out at which time you’re supposed to motion to her that it’s yours. You’d better be able to pronounce your food in Polish or you might not eat. The rest of the day we spent in the old center of the city.

We spend the day on the train with two young guys from Poland. One spoke ok English and the other spoke excellent English. We talked about the language and America. The one had taken a Greyhound from San Diego to Chicago and vowed never to do it again. He also said the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC is excellent.. He saw it before going to see Auschwitz in his own country which seemed backwards. We get to Katowice 20 minutes late and our connecting train is supposed to leave in 5 minutes. We jump off the train and run under the overpass to the first train that says Krakow and get on it. It’s a very rough rattly regional train that gets us to Krakow 25 minutes late. We manage to get a fair taxi for 15 zloty ($3) to our apartment and Bernadette a pretty red headed Polish girl is waiting for us. Our apartment is really kind of fun. It’s one of those things that’s so peculiar that you’re just willing to live with it like French cars with gear shifts in the dash or Swedish cars with ignition switches on the floor. We enter the courtyard with is very pretty and head for a building at the back. Inside is a wooded crate of an elevator that can only handle 35 kg so we put 2 bags in it and carry the rest up the stairs. The stairs are bare wood and very rustic like they were in a barn. We climb, and we climb and we climb some more until we get to the attic. The two bags are waiting for us. Our bodies were so tired by this time I could see it possible to accidentally fall over the rail and plunge to a violent end at the bottom of the stairs. Thankfully this doesn’t happen. Inside the apartment you are very aware that you are in the attic. The floors are a dark stained hardwood like Cherry or Walnut and there are dark exposed beams in the ceiling and walls. There are also exposed wooden poles supporting the ceiling. We have one bedroom instead of two like we thought. These Europeans count funny. In America a two room apartment would probably have two bedrooms, in Europe it has two actual rooms not including the bathroom. So you take the number of advertised rooms, subtract the number of bathrooms and kitchens and what you have left is the bedrooms. If this number is 0 you sleep in the kitchen and if it’s less than 0 you sleep in the bathtub.

It rained like crazy friday night while we were eating dinner at a restaurant. When we returned we found that our roof was leaking but only in one small spot. That spot was exactly overtop my running laptop! After drying it out all day Saturday and this morning it tries to boot but makes all kinds of beeping sounds and Linux says there are tons of harddrive errors. I’m guessing the hard drive bit the dust at the very least. So this means I may not be uploading any more pictures before I come home. Thankfully this trip I brought an external harddrive that I backed up all my pictures on as well as uploading half of them here. I also have them a third time on flash cards in a waterproof case. Do you think I’ve lost data before???

I told the owners and they’ve appologized and are fixing the roof tomorrow and brought by cookies. That doesn’t make this trip any cheaper for me beause this week has now cost me $2000 if I have to replace my laptop. I may just buy a harddrive and see if that works. It’s a little ipod style harddrive and a 60 Gig costs $175 so it’s still not cheap. Anyway there will be more blog entries but maybe not pictures. I’m copying all of my pictures off of flash cards onto my USB harddrive so I have them in two places.


We ate the last of our food and the kids were starving but I couldn’t do anything about it. Had this been Budapest or Ljubljana I would have sent Natalya out for food but none of us new Prague so if she got lost she couldn’t even call me and I couldn’t contact her so we waited. I ate a dried out strudel to get strength and we ventured outside. There was a fruit market across the street with bananas and nectarines. Had I known this we would have at least had fruit. It was Sunday so not much was open. We found a pizzeria on the corner that cooked up a Hawaiian pizza for $5. One of the ingredients listed was tomato but I wanted to keep things simple so I didn’t have them taken off. We got the pizza home and it didn’t have tomatoes on it so apparently they were referring to the sauce. Good thing I left it on. I went back to bed. The walk to the end of the block wiped me out. The kids ate and I finally got a few hours sleep. The next day was our last day in Prague so we needed to get out to buy our train tickets. I actually slept most the night but still didn’t feel good enough to get out in the morning. I was eating whole bananas and drinking 6 oz of water at time but I still couldn’t get away from the bathroom. At 1pm we headed for the train station. We arrived at the main train station and some of the stuff I wrote about Budapest having big wonderful buildings that are about to fall down could be said here as well. The train station is a monstrosity but looks like it’s not even being used anymore. We did find a door open and inside there was this wonderful domed ceiling and elegant stairway downstairs but no ticket agents or people waiting for trains, how strange of a main train station. We venture downstairs and see a bit more life. There was a casino and more stairs to the Metro. I ask an information person and he says go downstairs again so we do. Two floor underground in the basement are the ticket agents and shops selling food, drinks etc.. So you have this big beautiful train station and the only part they use is the basement. The rest is slowly crumbling into nothing, sad. We stand in line for about 30 minutes without getting to the window. We also realize we didn’t bring our passports so we ride the metro back to get them. We come back via metro and stand in line for another 30 minutes just to have the ticket window close when we get there. We choose another line and stand for 10 minutes then notice there are windows open 24hrs and think this is a horrible waste of time when we could use the last 6hrs to see the city so we leave the station with the intent to return when there’s nobody standing in line.

We had planned on catching a train to a town I can’t pronounce let alone write to see a castle built by an architect over 40 years for his wife. That just sounded too romantic to pass up but time has run out and the time machine still isn’t working right (it only goes forward in time and takes 365 days to go one year) so we decide to stick around and see what we could. We also needed to pick up train or boat tickets to Prague. There is a street in Budapest that we call the Paris Street because it looks just like a boulevard in Paris. We started walking on this street away from the river to Hero’s square and the city park. There are so many places in Budapest that we just didn’t get to because we ran out of time that we need to come back and spend more time. This street is beautiful and I’d like to know more about it’s history. Closer to the river it’s lined with beautiful old buildings that are all restored. The House of Terror is on it which is the former residence of the Nazi and Soviet secret police. I really wanted to tour this museum but didn’t get to it. The section of the street further away (and closer to the city park and hero’s square) is lined with huge mansions that have also been restored. I want to know who lived in these houses as they’re quit amazing. Something I’ve mentioned about Budapest before is the number of unrestored buildings. For every beautifully restored mansion, museum or church there are 10 that haven’t been restored. I took a few pictures of them. One had a very nice Art Nouveau awning over the stairs and columns lining the front entrance. People stared at me for taking pictures of an old wreck. It will probably be taken down. I think it was at least 4000 sq ft.

We spend the morning Skyping a friend. The plan was to ride all kinds of strange Budapest transportation options. Leg one would be the oldest subway in continental Europe, then a tram to the base of the cogwheel train which climbs to the top of the Buda hills (1500 ft) and lastly the children’s train which is a railroad run by kids ages 10-14. We go to the metro station and buy tickets for about a buck a piece, the same as anywhere. We attempt to start our journey on the metro but we find that line two is being renovated so we need to take a surface bus that runs the same route. What makes Budapest different is you have one ticket for all modes of transportation. Also you don’t give the bus driver or tram driver money or even your ticket, you validate it in a machine just like on a long distance train. This speeds up how fast buses and trams can pick up passengers because they only stop for a minute. Buses have three very large doors here too which allows people to get on using the back two doors. The bus shows up and we get on but can’t get the ticket validator to work. A unilingual Hungarian shows us how to punch holes in our ticket. Had he been able to speak English he probably would have told us not to worry about it. If you don’t validate your ticket it’s as good as not having a ticket which is a 2300 forint fine. Multiply that by four and I just paid $40 to ride a bus for a few minutes. No thanks, I’ll validate my ticket. We’re probably the only ones on the bus that does. The bus takes us to a tram stop. Budapest has buses, tram buses (electric buses that use the overhead wires to power them), trams and metros. It’s said there no matter where you are in the city public transportation is no more than 400 meters away. Riding the tram was uneventful and nothing new since we’ve ridden them in other cities. The tram takes us to a railway station where the cogwheel train stops. There is a small station there where we buy food and realize the 10,000 forint bill I had was actually a 1000. I’ve said it before but this money’s out of control. One thousand is $5 and 10,000 is $50. Quite a difference if you plan on living on it for the day. Piper and I leave to find an ATM and return just in time to catch the train.

Day four started out the same as day 3. Things are falling apart at work so I bought more Skype credits so I could call them. Seems the machines are coming unglued. They’ll be happy when I return I think.

I edited pictures and then we ventured out once again. This time we were in search of the Grand Market Hall to buy paprika. Hungarians use Paprika in everything so I wanted to get some real stuff not like the junk we get in supermarkets in the America. Paprika is a pepper that is used in it’s vegetable form as well as dried and ground up into powder. It comes in both sweet forms as well as hot forms. We tried to go to the Grand Market Hall earlier in the week but it was closed. We didn’t know what we would find but we still needed to find gifts for a few people and what better place to look than a Hungarian market? We’ve speculated on what the market used to be and everyone agreed it looked like an old train station.

Grand market Hall

Inside the market are old time photos and explanations so we find out it was always a market. It did have a railroad that came into it but only to deliver produce from the farmers. It was originally one of four markets in Budapest and has something like 10,000 meters of stall space. It felt a lot like the Musee Dorsay in Paris inside. There is unique ironwork railings everywhere. It was created in the late 1800’s which explains it’s extravagance. The communists never would have built something like this. Upstairs is a few eating places and bunches of tourist shops. Downstairs probably looks a lot like what it did 100 years ago with stalls selling meat, produce and of course paprika. We find a Hungarian cookbook here and eat some Hungarian food. The lady at the food counter threw salt over each shoulder every time I talked to here so maybe I was giving her bad spirits or something. The food was good even though we have no idea what it was. There was a goulash sort of thing that looked more like our goulash than the stuff we had earlier because it had noodles in it. We ate dinner for $9. I bought some gift paprika which comes with little burlap type bags and a spoon then I bought some for the kitchen.

Paprika Stall
Jade wanted a watermelon even though we were staying about 30 minutes for the market and we’d have to carry it home. Natalya and Piper said they’d help carry it so we bought one and they carried it home. Watermelon is a fruit that I don’t fully understand. It’s 99 percent water but we pay by the pound for it. I want to pay by the pound for the stuff that isn’t water and just add my own. It would be cheaper that way. Tomorrow we plan on heading to the cog wheel train and the children’s train, that is if we get up early enough.

The temperature was climbing so we staying in most of the day and edited photos, wrote in our journals and goofed off. I wanted to get some night pictures of the Chain bridge and we were in the mood for Hungarian food so we ventured out after dark. Earlier in the week I noticed a very Paris like street not far from our apartment that had many restaurants on it so we decided to start there. After walking past the second or third place I realized I didn’t fit in because I didn’t have the cool clothes, the fancy glasses or the slicked back hair. Apparently this is where all the trendy cool people hang out and I define uncool and I’m usually not even aware of trends.

We moved on and ended up finding a place that I’ve walked by several times. Each time I go by restaurants I take a peak at the menus which are posted on the streets (the U.S. Has to start doing this..) and this one looked good. It had a paprika cream sauce that sounded tasty so we ate here. The cool thing about Budapest is you could find the most back alley eating place and the odds of them speaking English is still quite good. It’s much easier traveling here than in France. After a short wait we get one of the four tables on the sidewalk and attempt to order two Hungarian menus. The menu is similar to the French menu in that you get a salad, soup, starter, plate and dessert. Our waiter informed us that the Hungarian food isn’t suitable for children. So much for trying Hungarian food. He said he’d give me a couple of main dishes and a dessert for the same price. The menus were about 3700 which equates to around $17 for two people. I ended up ordering my chicken in Paprika cream sauce anyway which included a spatzel type of potato noodles, Natalya got duck liver, onions and baked apples. Piper and Jade had lemon and tuna pasta. All of it was pretty good and the total price was about $30 which I was happy about.

We met a couple of English lady’s that were in Budapest to get dental work done because it cost 1/3 what it does in London. If I lived in London I’d have a ticker on my desktop showing the cheapest plane tickets anywhere and I’d spend every weekend in strange cities. The Brits don’t know how lucky they are.

After dinner we decided to visit the famous Chain Bridge for some night photos. Budapest is a pretty nice looking city at night on the river. They’ve built all of their real large government and religions buildings along the water. The castle is overlooking the rest of Buda and the Danube. There are lights on the Chain bridge that they turn on at night which ensure you’re going to take pictures of it. I got quite a few decent pictures of the bridge and a few of it’s permanent residents the spiders.

Chain Bridge
There must be a wind that brings flys into the south side of the bridge because these spiders are very well fed. Some of them are a couple inches across. There’s a funicular that takes people up the side of the hill where the castle is during the day. It was not operating at night so we climbed some stairs to the top of the underpass to take pictures. Buda is interesting geographically. The castle walls are built on very narrow ridge overlooking the Danube and Pest. There wasn’t very much room for roads on the river side of the hill so they just tunneled under the hill and castle. You can drive across the Chain bridge and drive right under the castle. We found our way home only after stopping for some Gelato and went to bed. The gelato cones are small here but don’t cost more than about 60 cents so their cheap too.

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