Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia
As the summer approaches, throngs of people will be planning their European backpacking adventures. I find that with the exception of the Czech Republic, much of Eastern Europe oddly sits far down on the list of must-see places for many people. However, having covered a fair number of countries in Europe over three trips, I personally think it should be somewhere around the top.
Perhaps I’m a bit bias. With my grandfather being born in Czechoslovakia to Polish parents I have always felt linked to Eastern Europe. It is no surprise then that as soon as I stepped off of the plane in Warsaw, I immediately felt somewhat at home. So I spent the next few days exploring the city inside and out – the tomb of the unknown soldier, Krakowskie Przedmiescie, Old Town Market Square, the Monument to the Warsaw Uprising, the Royal Castle, Palace of Culture, and the Jewish Quarter and Cemetery. All amazing.
The people were friendly, streets clean, and love for Pope John Paul in high gear. They love him so much that much of the graffiti around town is of him. Yes, you read that right people…Pope graffiti. I couldn’t help but picture a bunch of punk kids, in their baggy pants and bandanas under the guise of night….scrawling Pope tags on buildings, train cars, and alleyways. Hilarious.
The only thing I didn’t love about the city was the food. Don’t get me wrong, I generally loved the actual taste of the dishes I tried, but it was just all so damn heavy and stew-y and meat-y and potato-y, covered in some kind of gravy or sauce that probably weighed 5lbs alone. But the beer. Good gawd….the beer. Honestly, some of the best I’ve ever tried. And I fit right in there because they all loooves to enjoy a few drinks down at the local pub. Yup, I was home. lol.
I then took a train to Krakow which was safe and easy and only took about 3 hours. To date, it’s probably in my top three cities I’ve been to in all of Europe. It was amazing. I had wanted to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau just outside of Krakow since I learned about the Holocaust as a child, and the trip was made especially more significant because my grandfather had fought in WWII and spent time there as a soldier. I made sure I had a picture of him in my breast pocket and I can tell you that I put my hand on it for strength numerous times while there.
I can’t say that I ‘enjoyed’ the tour but I will say that it was likely one of the most important things I’ve ever seen, and I think everyone should see it in their lifetime. At Auschwitz, we had a chance to tour the various buildings that housed prisoners but now act as museums. These museums contained numerous artifacts from the wartime, but the most ominous were those that had leftover relics from the prisoners themselves – a room of shoes or baby clothes and the most heart-wrenching for me, human hair. Usually the artifacts were just heaped in huge piles behind a glass partition, sometimes floor to ceiling piles – suitcases, prosthetic limbs, shoe polish, eye glasses, all items confiscated from the Jews. I’ll never forget seeing those piles, once someone’s belongings and in some cases, a physical part of people. I’ll never forget the pile of braids that were presumably shaved right off of the heads of women right before being sent to their deaths. I wish so much I could forget that image but am glad I never will, all the same.
Birkenau had a different feel, no less moving, just different. The scale of the grounds was so much larger and seeing how people lived really put into perspective how life was valued, or should I say, devalued. I remember as our group walked around, some people wept, knelt down to touch the earth, smelled the walls, you name it. I left there that day feeling so sad about humanity, but in awe that some were able to live through it. To this day when people ask me how it was, I always say it was hard, but I’m glad I learned more about the dark side of humanity because it gives me an appreciation for all of the good. The next thing I say….go.
In Krakow it was not all doom and gloom though. It just so happened to be the 750-year old birthday of the city when I was there, so the place was in FULL celebration mode. I met a few other backpackers at my hostel as well as a few friendly locals who spoke English, so it was nice to have company taking jaunts around the city and enjoying the festivities.
I also visited Wawel Cathedral, Franciscan Church, The Barbican, The Church of St. Joseph, and the amazing Wieliczka Salt Mine. Not for the claustrophobic, the mine was one of the coolest things I did while there, so I highly recommend it.
There was definitely a strange balance of emotional highs and lows for me in Poland. However, it doesn’t have to be that kind of a trip. I went mainly for the history and culture and had an incredible time, but you could go more of the party route because it’s definitely there too. I found the people to be friendly, everything relatively cheap, and the country safe for a solo female traveller.
Perhaps because I found Poland to be kind of demure and low key, the Czech Republic seemed to be so large and grandiose. In the capital city of Prague, the neighbourhood squares were bigger, the sites were busier, and everything was more expensive. I also found that the heart of city was built almost like a bicycle spoke because I got lost every time I left my damn hotel. Frustrating beyond words. Not much of a change with the food as I generally liked it, or maybe I was just growing accustomed to eating a dozen potatoes and a full side of cattle at every meal. Not sure.
Some of the highlights were the Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square with the Astronomical Clock, Tyn Church, and a great little art gallery if you are a fan of Salvador Dali or Mucha as I am. Of course there is also Prague Castle, which I spent a good part of my day walking around and photographing.
The highlight for me was going to visit the little town that my grandfather was possibly from. I say ‘possibly’ because much of his life was a bit of a mystery to me. He claimed to be born in Bratislava, now part of Slovakia, but he had other ID saying he was born and baptized in a little town called Stochov, which falls in present day Czech Republic. I decided to go to both for good measure, but the latter was a bit of a challenge since it was a dinky town outside of Prague which involved a sketchy train ride to get to it. As I got off the train car in this one-horse town, I think I literally saw some tumbleweeds barrel down the road by me, it was so small.
When I walked into what looked like the only happenin’ spot – a grocery store, bar, laundromat and I think a garage wrapped in one – the music screeched to a halt like in the movies as everyone stopped to stare at me – the only person not related to everyone and with a full set of teeth. I showed the befuddled worker my grandfather’s various pieces of ID, and played my best hand of charades to find out where the church was that was listed on his ID. I think (as in I’m totally guessing but have no bloody clue…) that one young guy said go this way, another said go that way, and yet another said up that way. It was all leading nowhere and the last train back to Prague was leaving an hour later. Seeing as I was out of luck, I chalked it up as a good attempt at answers but my time to leave. I left the one-horse town back to the big city and definitely shed a few tears on the way. Not because I didn’t find anything definitive but because I got there. I know I’ll go back someday, hopefully armed with a guide or a dictionary and enough time to find some answers.
Slovakia was my last stop and was the quietest and least assuming of all three countries although no less beautiful, in my opinion. Walking along the Danube was pretty special, and I couldn’t help but think that quite possibly my grandfather once walked where I walked, sat where I sat, and ate where I ate.
A trip there should also include a walk through Old Town, a visit to St. Elizabeth’s Blue Church, and Devin Castle. As a big people watcher, one of the highlights for me was Hlavne Namestie square, with a ton of shops and restaurants and the coolest sculptures all over the place.
I left Eastern Europe and moved on to another more travelled, more expensive and more congested part of Europe. And while I loved my time there too, a part of me was puzzled that the trip I just took wasn’t more talked about or popular in the backpacking world. I wasn’t complaining then and am certainly not now, for I know I will head back someday to explore more of what these countries have to offer. With a few more salads next time though.