Blogged by Dave
We caught a short early morning flight from Vilnius to Warsaw in Poland, as opposed to a 7 hour bus – our only flight to get from one place to the next, but one that we felt was worth the saved time. We only decided to spend some time in Warsaw at the last minute, with the original plan to head straight to Krakow, but the limited availability of tickets to Auschwitz meant that we had to spend an extra night in Poland, so Warsaw got the nod.
The city has a really interesting World War II history, and was almost entirely destroyed by the Nazis when it staged an uprising shortly before the end of the war. When Poland became a Soviet bloc country Stalin helped rebuild the city, including an accurate restoration of the Old Town (which was 90% destroyed) and the construction of a huge skyscraper that now forms part of an Arts Centre. The city is covered with lots of interesting art installations and feels more like a proper modern city than some of the other Eastern European capitals, and there are some good walking tours that you can do. We also found a great little food and drink market held in a deserted corner of the old railway station, which is a great way to spend the evening. Warsaw also has a crazy nightlife, with normally quiet courtyards turning into crowded bars at night.
A short train ride got us to Krakow, where we would spend two nights in a lovely little hostel, Mundo Hostel (http://en.mundohostel.eu/). Krakow is a popular stop on the Poland tourist trail, with a tour to Auschwitz and the nearby salt mines being top attractions. The large main square in the Old Town becomes a bit of a nightmare during the busy sunny months. If you get there reasonably early in the morning it is much more bearable, and things are much less crowded once you head a few streets from the main square. The Jewish Quarter a short walk from the Old Town has some good bars and restaurants and I’d definitely recommend heading there instead of the square in the evenings.
If you are planning on seeing both Auschwitz and the salt mines then its probably best to do a combined tour over two days with one of the many companies offering these tours. This was you skip the long individual queues at both places and you get transport between Auschwitz and Birkenau, which would otherwise involve a very long walk. It’s also good to have a tour guide at Auschwitz. We first headed to the salt mines, which have been operating since the 15th century, and highlight the importance of salt in the days before refrigeration was available. We enjoyed the tour, although there is only so much you can do with a mine to make it interesting, and so sometimes the various statues and carving that have been put up seemed a bit arbitrary.
The following day we headed to Auschwitz, which consisted of two tours – firstly the original Auschwitz I camp and then the larger Auschwitz II – Birkenau camp. The tour doesn’t include Auschwitz III nor any of the smaller camps. Auschwitz I was originally set up in 1940 for mainly Polish political prisoners, and later became an extermination camp towards the end of 1941. Auschwitz II – Birkenau ran from 1942 to 1944 and was one of the main termination camps, with a total of 4 gas chambers and crematoria. At least 1.1 million people dying at Auschwitz, around 90% of them Jewish people from the areas occupied by the Nazis. The tour started at Auschwitz I, where the exhibitions in the brick buildings and small gas chamber / crematorium give you a good idea of the system the Nazis set up. It includes some harrowing exhibitions of the huge piles of shoes and hair (to make fabrics and stuff cushions) collected from prisoners murdered in Birkenau. The second part of the tour is at Birkenau, a massive camp that held up to 200 000 people and shows how the murder was ramped up to an unbelievable scale, with many woman and children murdered a few hours after arriving on the trains.
After our short trip to Poland we headed south to the mountainous region of Slovakia, the High Tatras. Unfortunately there were some traffic issues which led to our bus from Krakow to the border town of Zakopane arriving 2 hours late, which meant we missed our connecting bus (the last of the day) to Stary Smokovec in Slovakia by 5 minutes. After a bit of wandering around figuring out what to do, we hopped on a local bus to the Slovakian border, where we had to wait another 3 hours for bus to Stary Smokovec – all in all a very frustrating day of travel!
The High Tatras is a smallish ski area in winter and a large and popular hiking area in summer. There are numerous little villages where you can start hiking, and there is a really good variety of hikes of different lengths and toughness in the surrounding mountains. It’s generally easy to get from village to village using the tram (or replacement bus), so you don’t need to stay in one of the larger villages. We stayed in an AirBnB in a tiny village near Stary Smokovec, where the owner Miro gave us some great advice on the different hikes as well as giving us a taste of typical Slovakian food (yummy bryndzove halusky) and generous amounts of booze (Tantratea, Slovakian Tokaji wine, a variety of beers and Um, the Slovakian version of rum). We did a 6 – 7 hour hike starting at Strbske Pleso heading up one valley, over a ridge and then down another valley back into town. The hike was quite tough, with a lot of the trail being loose stones, but the views down the valleys across the mountain lakes are really spectacular, especially since we had wonderful sunshine for most of the hike. You need to bring lots of water and food, as there is nowhere on the trail to buy anything. The next day was very cloudy and rainy, so we did a trip to the nearby town of Poprad, which was nice, but the real attraction of the area is the mountains.
Next stop: Hungary!