DAY 144: REFLECTIONS ON EASTERN EUROPE


A quiet day of reflection in Plovdiv 

After a restful night’s sleep we spent today doing as little as possible and relaxing. We intentionally kept a low profile and gave ourselves a day off as there’s a good chance we won’t be getting much sleep tonight on our overnight bus to Istanbul (our overnight bus leaves at 10:00pm and is scheduled to arrive in Istanbul at 6:00am tomorrow). Today was our last day in Eastern Europe* which we’re actually quite sad about. It’s been a pretty cool few weeks, from our first day in Bratislava (Slovakia), to our time in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania and now Bulgaria. We were a little daunted at the prospect of travelling through parts of this region, but overall it’s been great – so much better than we expected. The whole region is so much more “civilised” than we expected (shows how ignorant we were!), and the language barrier was far less of an issue than we expected (i.e. heaps of people speak English and the local languages are not that hard to comes to grips with). We have experienced so many great moments in Eastern Europe that we wanted to dedicate today’s blog to our favourite highlights….

*We’ve lumped the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria into the “Eastern Europe” category more as a geographical categorisation than anything: they’re all East of the Europe we were most familiar with. We understand that these nations are, in fact, unique and quite different from each other and we certainly don’t mean to offend or upset anyone by calling them Eastern European countries. We had also psychologically put these 6 countries into one category as they were all equally unknown to us and coming here represented something of an adventure for us.


Reflecting on a great few weeks in Eastern Europe…

 

 

THE CASTLES

This region has its fair share of great castles – from the immense edifices in Krakow, Prague and Budapest; to the ruins of Rasnov Fortress in Romania, Tsarevetsi Fortress in Bulgaria and Brezalauspurc Castle in Slovakia. We love a good castle and Eastern Europe has definitely satisfied our craving for historical fortifications. The castles in this region are far older than those we saw in Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, representing the very best in Gothic architecture. With every citadel and palace we explored we also learnt a bit more about the history of the region and gained an even greater appreciation of what makes Eastern Europe so unique. The past few weeks have been fantatsic for a couple of castle lovers like us!

 

THE CHURCHES

Neither of us are religious, but we appreciate how pivotal religion is to many cultures, and therefore how important churches are in many communities. Churches are built to facilitate contemplation, introspection and meditation/prayer, and even for ignostics like us, churches can be incredibly beautiful, serene places. Throughout Eastern Europe we have seen and experienced some wonderful churches: from the steepled wooden churches of the Maramures region in Romania, to the beautiful blue Church of St Elisabeth in Bratislava, Kutna Hora’s macabre Church of Bones and the amazing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. Gothic cathedrals abound in Eastern Europe too – with their dark ambience, pointy steeples and gargoyles, Gothic churches have a captivating feeling about them that we just love. Best Gothic churches from Eastern Europe would have to be St Vitus Cathedral and Church of Our Lady before Týn in Prague, Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, St Stephen’s Basilica in Pest, and Matthias Church in Buda.

 

THE FOOD

We love food – especially good food. For this reason alone, Eastern Europe has a special place in our hearts. The food here has been SPECTACULAR and sooooooo cheap. It’s a miracle we haven’t packed on an extra 10kgs a piece over the past few weeks! Our fondest food memories include:

  • Trdelník in Czechia – think giant, hot, sugary, cinnamon scrolls that you can wear like a delicious bracelet. Mmmmmm….
  • Dumplings in all their various forms – from the small potato-and-flour knodels (they’re a bit like Italian gnocchi or German spätzle), to giant bread dumplings that are more like culinary canon balls than a dumpling! These are an absolute staple here; I think Eastern Europe would grind to a halt should dumplings disappear off the menu!
  • Goulash in Hungary. It’s such a cliché, yes, but Hungarian goulash is awesome! Juicy, tender meat stewed in paprika-rich gravy, served with the obligatory dumplings – does “comfort food” get any better than this?!
  • Papanasi are traditional Romanian sweets. They’re like giant, deep fried doughnuts; gauranteed to bump your blood sugar levels and cholesterol up over night, but absolutely worth it.
  • Dimitri’s grandmother’s mixed lamb stew in Bulgaria. The woman is a genius.Nothing more needs to be said.
  • Shashlik (i.e. grilled meat on a sword) from Bulgaria. Salads from Bulgaria. Soft white cheeses in Bulgaria. Thick, creamy, fresh yoghurt in Bulgaria. Really, Bulgarian food in general was a highlight!

 

THE TRANSPORT

Getting around in Eastern Europe is an adventure all by itself. The roads are not that great, especially in rural Hungary and Romania, and most of the time people drive like they’re race car drivers. Some of our scariest moments on Eastern European roads have involved overtaking at 160km/hour with millimetres to spare; dodging donkeys, cows, horses and various other farm animals at break neck speeds; and choosing which side of the road to drive on arbitrarily. In contrast to the endemic speeding on the roads, the trains in this part of the world have been SOOOOOOO SLOW. The only thing slower than a Hungarian train, we decided, was a Romanian horse and cart. We expected to see horses and carts around, but the sheer number of them is amazing – they seriously out-number cars in rural Romania! We’ve seen 4-way intersections “clogged up” with horse and cart traffic, each giving way to their right like “real” cars. Awesome!

 

VILLAGE LIFE

If you like rustic, you’ll love Eastern Europe – especially Romania. Most of Romania is like one giant farm stay waiting to happen. The smells were a bit pungent at times, but the people so friendly and down-to-Earth that it was worth the olefactory assault. If you want to step back in time and experience a rural getaway, definitely look at Eastern Europe.

 

CAFE CULTURE

In contrast to the rustic rural side of life, we also loved the vibrant, funky cafe culture – especially in Budapest, Brasov, Krakow, Plovdiv and Prague. The coffee was good, the people-watching entertaining (who knew tracksuits could be so fashionable?!), and the vibe very cool. Eastern Europe sure knows how to do cafe culture well – much to our caffienated satisfaction.

 

STREET SIGHTS

The streets of Eastern Europe are unique: the cobbles, the mix of old and new architecture, the ubiquitous graffiti, and the slightly “rough around the edges” finishes. There’s nothing sanitised or pretentious here! On the darker side, the streets are also home to a legion of stray dogs (especially in Romania), stray cats (especially Bulgaria) and beggers. We realise that poverty and beggers are (unfortunately) common in cities around the world, and we generally subscribe to a philosophy of supporting charities that help people help themselves, rather than just giving money to beggers. In Bulgaria, however, this principle was sorely challenged as we saw lots of pensioners on the streets, struggling to survive and trying to supplement their meagre pensions by begging. Only it wasn’t quite begging; too proud to simply ask for money for nothing, these hardy souls find ways to provide a service or goods to sell for a few stotinki (i.e. Bulgarian cents). For example, in Sofia we saw an old lady with a set of bathroom scales beside her and a sign that (presumably) said something like “weigh yourself for 50 stotinki” (about 25 Aussie cents). And in Plovdiv there was the elderly gentlemen who had picked the last few wild flowers of the season and was selling possies for 50 stotinki. The simply dignity inherent in these acts was so incredibly touching.

 

NATURAL WONDERS

Some of our best memories of Eastern Europe will be the “wild” ones – from the unique rock formations of Teplice National Park, to the high mountain scenery around Bansko and the Tatra Mountains, there are some seriously spectacular views to be had in this part of the world. Being here in autumn has made it all the more stunning, as leaves turn yellow, orange and red and whole mountain-sides look like they’re on fire. For pure, unbridled wilderness, however, Romania once again wins the prize. The hills and mountains of Romania were just awesome (full of bears and wolves, mind you, but awesome)!

 

So to all the wonderful people we crossed paths with whilst in this part of the world: THANK YOU! Thank you for your patience as we butchered your beautiful languages; thank you for your glorious food and wonderful hospitality! To all the guides and museum curators we grilled: thank you for sharing so much of your passion for your home countries with us – through your eyes we learned to look at Eastern Europe in a different way. There’s no doubt this part of the world still has its issues, but there is a vitality and an energy here that’s thrilling – and the natural beauty of the place is captivating. It’s been a blast!

DAY 124: KRAZY FOR KRAKOW!


A kracking day in Krakow…

We had a great day today exploring Krakow’s Old Town and Wawel Castle, the city’s hill-top seat of power. The city is so picturesque that it was a pleasure wandering its cobbled streets today, soaking up some history.

 

Wandering the streets of Krakow, soaking up some history.

 

 

We’ve actually been staying in Krakow for the past few days in a very grand old hotel* just outside the old town walls, but have been so busy doing day trips with our tour group (i.e. to Auschwitz and then the Wieliczka Salt Mine) that today was our first full day in town. 

*Note: When hotels are “old” in Europe, we’ve learnt this generally means no elevators. Not really a problem if you’ve only got 12-15kg suitcases like us, but a bit of an ordeal if you have lots of luggage!

 

Our spacious and rather well appointed hotel room here in Krakow.

  

Krakow is Poland’s second most populous city (population around 1 million) and has long been the nation’s intellectual, cultural and scientific heart.  It was also the nation’s capital for more than 500 years, from Poland’s inception as a nation in the 11th century until its (temporary) disbandment in the late 16th century*. Built along the banks of the Vistula River, the city lay along key trade routes; this location, along with the wealth garnered from the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mines, soon ensured the city’s rise to power and prominence. During the medieval era Krakow was, in fact, one of Central Europe’s greatest cities. Under the rule of the Piast dynasty, the city flourished and was second only to Prague in terms of wealth and political influence. This rich history is evident all around us in the architecture of the city, with its giant central square, beautiful churches and lovely old buildings. Fortunately Krakow survived the rampant destruction suffered by so much of Poland during WWII and today it is the most popular tourist destination in the country, attracting millions of visitors who, like us, want to gain some insight into the great kingdom that Poland once was.

*Between 1569 to 1918 Poland was repeatedly invaded by various warring factions, including the Russians, the Swedes, the Prussians and the Austrians. During these tumultuous years the nation effectively ceased to exist as a whole, as sections of the kingdom were partitioned between the various conquerers. It was only after WWI that poland was recreated and restored its independence. 

 

Built along the banks of the Vistula River, Krakow quickly became an important trade city.

 

 

We had the day to ourselves and it was great to be able to sleep in and explore the Stare Miasto (translation = old town) at our leisure. We started in the heart of the old town: the Rynek Główny (translation = Central Square).  This enormous square (it is 2.5 acres in size) is the largest medieval town square in the world; originally the square was not that big, but when invading Tatars destroyed much of Krakow in the 13th century, the king at the time took the opportunity to have Krakow rebuilt on a much grander scale. He also had the “new” Krakow built as a grid; for a medieval city Krakow is therefore surprisingly easy to navigate and virtually impossible to get lost in! 

 

Laid out in a grid pattern, Krakow is very easy to navigate.



Along the centre of the Rynek Główny lies the Sukiennice or Cloth Hall. This market hall used to house hundreds of merchant stalls where goods from all over Asia and Europe could be bought and sold. Today it houses hundreds of market stalls where souvenirs and tacky plastic wares, mostly from China, can be bought by tourists for just a few zloty ($1 AUD = 3 Polish zloty). The building itself is awesome, the market itself not so awesome unfortunately.

 

The Cloth Hall was built in the 18th century to replace a much older structure. There have been markets held in the square for centuries.

 

 

Also to be found in the Central Square is Krakow’s main cathedral: St Mary’s Basilica. Built in the early 13th century and then extended in the 14th century, this church houses a wooden alter-piece revered as one of the greatest religious works of art in Poland. The church is still used for masses and unfortunately we did not get to go in today as they had services on all morning. We did, however, get to hear the famous trumpet signal that is played from the taller of the cathedral’s tower every hour. The trumpet signal, called the Hejnał mariacki, has been played hourly for hundreds of years. The plaintive tune breaks off in mid-stream, reportedly to commemorate the famous 13th century trumpeter, who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Tatar attack on the city. 

 

The double turret of St Mary’s Basilica.

 

 

Across the square from the huge St Mary’s Basilica is the tiny Church of St Wojciech, Krajow’s oldest church. This Romanesque chapel was built in the 11th century and survived the Tatar attack on the city, making it one of the oldest buildings in town.

 

The Church of St Wojciech is Krakow’s oldest church.

  

 

Having explored the square we then proceeded down the Droga Królewska (translation = Royal Route), which connects the central square to Wawel Castle. Built on Wawel Hill, Krakow’s castle is made up of three dozen separate buildings, some dating back to the early 11th century, others from the city’s “hey days” in the 14th to 16th centuries, and yet others built in more recent times by various occupying rulers (e.g. the Austrians and Prussians). The castle’s architecture therefore spans 800 years and contains buildings representative of all the major European architectural styles – from Romanesque to Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical. We toured through some of the interiors of a couple of the buildings that have been fully restored; unfortunately we couldn’t take any photos so you’ll just have to take our word for it when we say they were pretty interesting.  

 

Built up on Wawel Hill, Krakow’s royal palace is a collection of buildings of many various architectural styles.

 

Some of the buildings within the castle compound date back to the 11th century, other are just 200-300 years old.

 

Built within the castle grounds, Wawel Cathedral is the central Roman Catholic Church in Krakow and is over 1000 years old.

 

 

After a couple of hours “off”, relaxing in our spacious quarters, we then headed back out to the Rynek Główny for dinner. It was great seeing all the buildings illuminated and walking around the Stare Miasto by night. 

 

St Mary’s Basilica and the Church of St Wojciech by night.

 

The beautiful Cloth Hall and one of Krakow’s more modern fountains stand illuminated at night.

 

St Florian’s gate is the only remaining gate from the city’s original defensive fortifications.

 

 

Somewhat surprisingly the city felt incredibly safe at night; I say “surprisingly” because we expected Poland (and most of Eastern Europe really) to be much dirtier, “dodgier” and far less appealing. I almost feel silly for saying this, but I really expected Slovakia, Czechia and Poland to be far less, well, “civilised”! Things here are so clean, well-run and efficient that it makes us both realise we had preconceptions about these former Communist states that are obviously 20 years out of date. Since becoming free democratic and capitalist countries, it seems countries like the Czech Republic and Poland have flourished. In many ways they put some of the other European countries to shame for how “civilised” they are! 

 

Eastern Europe is working out great – we want more!

 

DAY 123: THE WONDER OF THE WIELICZKA SALT MINES


327m down in Wieliczka

We continued our exploration of Poland today with a trip to Wieliczka, a small town on the outskirts of modern-day Krakow in the very Southern corner of the country. Wieliczka is one of Poland’s most popular tourist sights because this is where the Wieliczka Salt Mine can be found. We got to tour through the mine today and is was absolutely spectacular.

 

The amazing Wieliczka Salt Mine.

 

The Wieliczka Salt Mine was officially founded in the 1200s, though there is evidence that a early as 6000 years ago early human settlers in the area collected salt from salty above-ground springs. It is one of the world’s oldest and biggest salt mines, reaching a maximum depth of 327m and containing almost 300km of corridors and tunnels. The guided tour we took through the salt mine today took us through many of the original tunnels, where 300-400 year old salt-preserved wooden posts still hold the ceiling up. 

 

Much of the timber in the mine is hundreds of years old, made harder and durable by the salt. You can see these posts here are almost more salt than wood!

 

Some of the salt chambers we went into were huge – this one was 34m high and over 20m wide. The chambers are empty as all the salt has been mined and removed.

 

During the tour we learnt how the salt was laid down by an ancient ocean, and how the sandstone in the region is dotted with large deposits of salt crystals – like a cake full of raisins. Our guide (a very funny Polish man who Anglicised his name to “Mark” for us) told us how the miners created artificial lakes in the salt caverns so that the salt was drawn out of the surrounding rock and into the water. The super-saturated salty water was then hauled up to the surface via winches and using horses and carts, where it was then boiled and the pure, crystalline salt residue collected and sold for a tidy profit.

 

One of the underground lakes created to draw the salt out of the surrounding rock.

 

This lake of super-saturated salty water is saltier than the Dead Sea – salty enough that you could not sink if you were brave (or stupid) enough to dive into its cold, inky depths.

 

The Wieliczka Salt Mine helped keep the Lords of Krakow wealthy and powerful for centuries; today it is owned by the Polish government and still turns a tidy profit, we were told. Even though mining stopped at Wieliczka in 1996 for economic reasons, tourism has turned the former salt mine into a gold mine of sorts (more than 1.2 million visitors go through the mine every year!). The thing that attracts so many visitors (including us) to the Wieliczka Salt Mine are the amazing statues, chapels and cathedral carved out of the salty rock. These fascinating sculptures were carved from the rock by the miners themselves, some taking decades of work to complete. It was amazing seeing the wonderful creations these talented, artistic men created, so many metres below ground.

 

Many of the carvings in the mines, like this one, depict religious figures and events.

 

Some, like this one, depict Polish historical figures on import.

 

There are even chapels in the mine, carved out of the salt. In this chapel there was also a salt chandelier, made from lots of small pieces of carved salt strung together with rope.

 

This room, the Ballroom, contains numerous salt chandeliers and can be hired out for functions and wedding receptions.

 

 

The Underground Salt Cathedral was especially stunning, with its amazing alter and salt chandeliers. There are still masses held in the cathedral every Sunday and the church can be booked for weddings too. Our guide told us that the cathedral and all its carvings took 67 years to complete, with 3 miners each working on it for 20+ years in succession.

 

The stunning Wieliczka Cathedral (by the way, all those red and blue dots down there are people). The chamber was HUGE!

 

The beautifully carved alter within the cathedral chamber is made entirely from salt. 

 

It was fascinating being down there and seeing how something designed to be so utilitarian could also be so beautiful. It’s no wonder the Wieliczka Salt Mine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Tomorrow we will explore Krakow itself, where the Lords who owned the mine lived. Tune in on the morrow to see what they did with all that salt-garnered wealth…

 

More from Krakow (Poland) tomorrow!

 

DAY 122: A SOMBRE DAY IN AUSCHWITZ


The Auschwitz concentration camp & mass murder centre

Our travels today took us to Auschwitz, arguably the world’s most notorious concentration camp and site of over a million murders. It wasn’t exactly a fun day, but certainly a memorable one. The museum that has been set up at Auschwitz was quite moving and gave us both a new appreciation for the sheer scale of the atrocities carried out by the Nazi during WWII.

 

A sombre day in Auschwitz.

 

Neither of us realised before today that Auschwitz was in fact made up of 3 large camps and 45 smaller, satellite camps. Today’s visit took us to Auschwitz I (the original camp) and Auschwitz-Birkenau, the second and largest camp built (it covers and area of over 400 acres and housed over 100,000 people).

 

The entry to Auschwitz I. The sign over the gate reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” (translation: Work Makes One Free).

 

Auschwitz I was originally built as an army base for Polish soldiers. The prisoners were kept in former army barracks. For this reason the buildings here are more solid than at Auschwitz II.

 

This network of concentration and extermination camps were built and operated by the Third Reich in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during WWII. Initially Auschwitz I was used to house Polish prisoners-of-war, but then, as the Nazi campaign to rid the world of “undesirable peoples” (i.e. Jews, Roma people, etc) gained momentum, it was also used for the mass murder of more than 70,000 people. 

 

The gas chamber at Auschwitz I where 70,000 people were killed.

 

There were live electric fences around all the Auschwitz camps. Our guide told us stories of how people would commit suicide by deliberately walking into the wires.

 

Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was built in 1942 to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of victims destined for the gas chambers. We saw the train tracks and platforms at Birkenau where train-loads of Jews from around Europe were deposited, destined either for forced labour (if they were deemed to be strong and fit enough), or for immediate death in the gas chambers. We also got to tour through some of the barracks at Auschwitz II where prisoners working in the labour camps were kept; the conditions must have been brutal and it is no wonder most did not survive for long.

 

Auschwitz II was huge. The sheer number of people transported here and killed here were mind-boggling.

 

Train loads of people were delivered to Auschwitz in wagons like this; delivered to their death.

 

The numbers were just mind-boggling: we were told that at least 1.1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz, around 90% of them Jewish. The rest were Roma peoples (i.e. Gypsies), Polish prisoners-of-war (including many of the countries intellectual and spiritual leaders whom the Nazis wanted to remove to cement their control over the country), Soviet prisoners-of-war and other other peoples deemed “undesirable” enough to be removed (e.g. homosexuals, Jehova’s Witnesses). Those that did not immediately die in the gas chambers often died within a weeks of starvation, exposure and/or disease.

 

The plaque at the entry of Auschwitz I.

 

The genius and efficiency with which the death camps were arranged and run was truly disturbing. The way things were run as smoothly ad possible so as not to instil fear or panic in the victims so they literally did not realise what was happening until it was basically too late.  The way mothers with young children were kept together so the children would remain calm all the way into the gas chambers. The way all the bodies were looted for hair, gold fillings and anything else of value; and how the victims’ possessions were used to fund the ongoing Nazi war effort.

 

The scale of what was carried out at Auschwitz was truly disturbing.

 

The living conditions at Auschwitz II were brutal.

 

Most distressing were the things that put a human face to the tragedy and made it a tangible reality. Things like the piles of human hair, collected from women killed in the gas chambers and then sold by the kilogram to a German cloth manufacture who then made sacking cloth from the hair. Or the piles and piles of tiny children’s shoes, collected from the 200,000+ children that were killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

 

The ruins of one of the 4 gas chambers at Auschwitz II. The gas chambers were destroyed by the Germansas they fled from the appraoching Russian army in an attempt to cover-up what they did here.

 

 

I cannot even begin to detail everything that we saw and won’t even try to recount all the sad stories the Auschwitz Museum tour guide gave us. Suffice to say it was terribly upsetting seeing how the prisoners existed (because that certainly is not living) while at the camp, and how inhumanely they were treated. We knew before visiting Auschwitz that war can be horrendous and that human beings are capable of incredible brutality, but seeing evidence of such horror for ourselves made it very real. 

 

Auschwitz today is a museum…

 

…and a very moving memorial site. 

 

So much evil has been done in the name of power, wealth, religion and race; we only hope that the lessons from Auschwitz, Hiroshima and other similar tragedies around the world add weight to the argument for peace.

 

There are dozens of commemorative plaque at Auschwitz II like this one. They all say the same thing, just in different languages.