Top 10

With only a few moments left of this around-the-world trip, I have been pondering my favorite memories of 2008.

Because I can not choose the most  beautiful country, or the friendliest people or the tastiest food, I have compiled a list of the times I felt overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude. If I could go back to these moments, I would be able to travel another full year!

Top Ten Adventures of a World Traveler

1. The four-day Mediterranean Blue Cruise from Fethiye- Turkey

turkey


2. The vineyard and bike journey through Mendoza´s wine country- Argentina


3. Waking up on a roof deck in Jerusalem to the smell of freshly baked bread and sensing the spiritual ambiance of the city – Israel

israel

4. Coromandel Peninsula´s Hot Water Beach with friends- New Zealand (North Island)


5. All-night karaoke festivities- Hong Kong


6. Rottnest Island´s serene beaches and bike routes- Australia


7. Meeting up with family and old friends along the way- New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Hong Kong, India, The Netherlands, Hungary, Greece, England, Italy and Argentina


8. Nha Trang´s massages and fresh fruit delivered right to the beach chair- Vietnam


9. Chiang Mai´s motorbike route into the countryside- Thailand


10. Reaching the top of The Golan Heights, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, after a 3 day steep bike journey- Israel



If you are interested in reading the details of any of these adventures, use the search box to type in a key word and find the entire article.

Zakopane – Tetra Mountains and One Last Night in Krakow

Zakopane

Just as we had hoped, Zakopane was a small community tucked into the mountains. It is the Lake Tahoe of Poland, minus the 240 square mile lake. A summer haven for hikers and bikers and winter resort town for snow enthusiasts. We checked into our hostel, Goodbye Lenin, and payed further homage to the removal of the communist regime from this part of the world. I whipped up a quick pasta dinner so we could carbo-load and we settled into the scene, quickly making friends with fellow travellers and planning our hikes for the remainder of our time there.

The next morning we ate our complimentary breakfast, a service we will never take for granted again before starting off on a day-long 14 mile hike. On the way we made a wrong turn and bumped into our fellow hostelers, English gals Barbara, Caroline and Ollie and joined forces for the ascent. The scenery was breathtaking and after roughly five and a half hours of climbing we had reached the ridge, a long stretch that is the borderline between Poland and Slovakia. The nearby summit is at an elevation of roughly 7000 feet and we were up and over before descending. Three hours later, sore and aching, we were back at the hostel and as a group ordered four large pizzas which we completely devoured and celebrated with some well-earned beers.

The next day we were still sore so decided to just “go lazy” around the small town of Zakopane. I had already worn through my flip flops and purchased a new pair and Erin’s are on their last leg so we shopped around for some new ones for her, had a nice lunch with BBQ’d lamb and a side salad, and brainstormed what we would BBQ that night on the hostel’s grill. Putting together a group of 11, we manned the kitchen and grill with the help of Donna, a newly arrived Aussie and had a true feast. Kielbasa, Erin’s mac ‘n cheese and my garlic butter grilled potatoes all topped with sauerkraut rounded off the meal and received thunderous applause. Fortunately we cooked and didn’t have to do the dishes.

Erin and I hiked to Morskie Oko, the most picturesque lake in the mountains, the next day. Roughly 12 miles round trip, we powered through the heat and had a picnic lunch on the shore. The only downside of this hike is that is extremely crowded with tourists and the best scenery is only at the trailend. It was definitely a good daytrip though and great way to end our small vacation in Zakopane. We packed our bags and joined the English gals for a train trip back to Krakow. I had a craving for some of U Babci Maliny’s pierogies and it was going to be satisfied.

Krakow

We checked back into Mama’s Hostel in the town square, showered and hit the streets for a night on the town. Someone had the bright idea (I think it was Ollie) that we would each be responsible to buy a round of cocktails and before long the wee hours of the morning were upon us.

Needless to say, we slept in and spent the rest of the day together walking around Krakow. Erin and I played tourguide for the girls and took them to all of our favorite spots including U Babci Maliny’s for dinner. They, of course, were not dissapointed. Walking through the town square and enjoying some more live music we had one last drink with the girls before bidding them farewell. Making our way to the train station, we recounted our days in Poland and realized what a great time we had.

Train Troubles

Unfortunately, the train system is in need of a major overhaul. We purchased round trip tickets in Budapest and had called the Krakow station to confirm that our tickets would work and they instructed us that we were okay and our train left at 10:25 that evening. Trying to board, we were turned down by the conductor because we didn’t have a “reservation.” My obvious reply was “Isn’t that why we have the ticket?” Sprinting to the ticket office, we fortunately were able to book a reservation for the later train and were on our way to Budapest. At 4:30 in the morning, our conductor was screaming something in Polish but the only word we could make out was “strike.” We had’t really picked up much Polish but somehow he was able to confirm that the Hungarian train system was on strike and we had to leave the train. We were on the southern border of Slovakia in a town called Kunice, roughly 200 miles from Budapest. Our flight was to leave at 12:30 in the afternoon.

As a group of stranded travelers, our entire train walked to the bus station where we assumed we would just hop a bus and be on our way. Not so fast. Buses only leave to Budapest on Saturday’s. We decided to take the local bus to the border of Slovaki and Budapest and walk across where we would catch a bus. Walking across the border, there wasn’t a bus station in sight. The only bus that was leaving there wasn’t until 11:30 and it was only 5km away to a bit larger of a town. Undeterred, we wished the group good luck, left them at the bus station and started to thumb it. A big rig stopped within 2 minutes but he could only take one. Two hours later, with a storm blowing in, Erin and I retreated to the bus station we had left the group. Somehow, they had all disappeared and we still don’t know how they managed. We both passed out in the bus station while the rain came thundering down.

We were awoken by an older lady who was also waiting for the 11:30. Realizing we didn’t have any Hungarian Forint’s we were essentially stranded. Erin attempted to communicate with the older woman and whatever she said worked because the lady gave us enough money to ride the bus to the train station. Fortunately the strike had ended. From there we were able to make our way towards Budapest, but were stopped halfway due to the strike being back on. It was only an hour this time and around 4 pm we arrived in Budapest. We called the airline and they moved us to the evening flight to Athens. At 4 am we knocked on the door to our room in Athens where Erin’s friend, Katie, was anxiously awaiting our arrival. Nine days of sun, friends, and island hopping would ensue.

Krakow, Poland- Old and New in Perfect Harmony

Krakow

An overnight, modern train zipped from Budapest, Hungary to Krakow, Poland while I snuggled beneath a thick, white duvet in a couchette sleeper. Throughout the night, the weather got progressively worse (reminding me I was in Eastern Europe) and I slammed my window after realizing that my dream of splashing in a puddle was really sheets of rain being thrown like tiny javelins at my bare ankles.

At 6 o’clock am, the conductor tapped on the tiny door, announcing “Krak-off.” I guessed that the “w” was pronounced as a “v” in Polish and realized we were stopping in Krakow, the final destination. My second speech observation came shortly after stepping onto the solid ground of the main train station; all announcements involved a whistling sound hidden within the vowels and consonants of the Polish language, as if the lady calling out the train departures had just lost her two front teeth. Every time a new announcement was cast on the loudspeaker, we started chuckling, putting ourselves in a great mood despite the dreary weather through which we’d have to wade to find the hostel.

Above:Krakow’s town square is a mix of modern and medieval.

The first day in Krakow was spent sipping java and reading in an English coffee shop, running intermittently to the city center to explore when the rain was drained of energy and the sun took back its reign. Wawel Castle, which has been the home to kings for 500 years, sets in stony triumph at the base of Krakow’s Old City.

Above: A sketch of Wawel Castle during the 16th Century and a photo of it today.

Inside is ornate furniture from Italy; cordovan wallpaper (a thin leather covering which was decorated especially for the Royal Family) and carved wooden heads attached to the ceiling of one room, portraying everyone from servants to family members of the king.

Above: Wawel Castle’s Head Room

Encircling the whole Old City, including Wawel Castle, is The Platy, a well-groomed, tree-lined path with 50 meters of park on each side. Walking to and from Krakow’s historical destinations is not done as a stressful city-like rush, because The Planty sets the stage for a meander through the park. This walkway filled with trees, fountains, benches and grass was created after 1807, when Medieval city walls were demolished and a green strip remained in the empty area of 52 acres.

Above: The Planty surrounds Krakow’s Old City, adding a natural breath of fresh air to the bustling city.

After avoiding rain storms and catching an English viewing of the “Other Bolyn Girl,” a hearty, hot meal was in order. The famous Ubabci Maliny was recommended as a “grandma’s style cooking” restaurant by a local girl. Buttery pierogies and Polish sausages practically bounced up the steps toward us as we descended to granny’s kitchen. Smells of home-cooked European food brought back memories of Midwest potlucks and Sunday dinners with my extended family. The decor consisted of old quilts hung on racks and baby buggies filled with curly-haired dolls. Old fashioned ovens were stuffed with loaves of ”mod podged” bread for looks only.

Above: Ubabci Maliny serves the world’s best pierogies.

This quickly became Jason’s favorite restaurant, since the pierogies reminded him of his Polish grandma’s masterpieces and we both admitted that the aroma and community seating made us a bit home sick. Seeing the kitchen crank out enormous portions, we decided to share the meat and cabbage pierogies. This is when I learned that Jason had a rare ability for devouring the little stuffed pastas and I never made the same mistake of sharing one serving with the pierogi hound during our repeat visits to Ubabci Maliny!

The days in Krakow passed quickly, filled with simple pleasures such as listening to an accordion quartet outside St. Mary’s Basilica. Music reverberated though Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter, as we stumbled upon the final day of the Jewish Cultural Festival.

Above: People danced traditional jigs at the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow.

Kazimierz was where Oskar Schindler ran his factory, made famous in the movie “Schindler’s List.” Schindler employed over 1,000 Jews during Nazi time. By insisting on keeping his workers at the factory, Schindler saved the lives of many Jews who would have been sent to Auschwitz, one of the many Nazi concentration camps.

Auschwitz

Drab, horrifying and a must-see is the concentration camp called Auschwitz, a Nazi labor camp that was responsible for exterminating 1.1 million people, of which 90% were Jews.

Above: Barbed wire ensured prisoners could not escape Auschwitz.

After buying a book written by some of the prisoners that did escape this concentration camp, I learned that many were in the dark about what the Nazis were doing. These escapees spread the word of the horrifying acts that took place in Auschwitz, which then in turn encouraged the allies to step in and end the war. Many barracks, which are no more than stables, are now converted to museums dedicated to each county’s losses. Not only Jews but gypsies, homosexuals and everyday civilians who had a talent for building were captured and brought to Auschwitz. Most prisoners died of starvation and disease and many more were shot at the killing wall or gassed when they were lead to believe they were just taking a shower. It is hard to believe this type of treatment happened only 60 years ago. It all was so barbaric.

Krakow – Feeling Right at Home

U Babci Maliny

“Excuse me, can you direct me to the best pierogi restaurant in town?” That simple question has led to a massive obsession. The pierogies make my toes curl and I vow to eat here for at least two meals every day for the remainder of my time in Krakow. If it opened earlier than 11, I would make it three meals, no, scratch that, I would just move in. They couldn’t stop me either. I’ve shrunk down to 165 pounds since starting this trip, I’m hungry and hell bent on putting some meat on my bones. There can be no better way to accomplish this than some rainy weather and hearty Polish food. The pierogies at U Babci Milany, Your Grandma Maliny, remind me of my pre-arthritic Grandma Herrmann’s recipe and the atmosphere and ambiance are similar to her living room; the only thing that is missing is the faint smell of moth balls. And don’t get me wrong, Mrs. T still holds a special place in my heart but U Babci Maliny is to pierogies what Philly is to cheesesteaks; simply unbeatable. In the corner of the basement-level restaurant is a small doll’s bed, complete with an eyelet-style bedspread and ruffled pillow cover. That’s where I’d sleep and rub my belly after one of many large meals. In fact, this describes my perfect day in Krakow:

Krakow

I’d wake in the morning in my small doll-sized bed and eat the Pierogi z miesem i kapusta, a shredded meat and cabbage dumpling, hand-made with lots of love. The plate of 12 pierogies is only $4.00 and I’d wash it down with coffee. Rubbing my belly and smiling, I’d walk along the Planty, the garden-adorned walking path surrounding the old city of Krakow past the dedication to the late Pope John Paul II, down to Wawel Hill, site of the old Royal Castle nestled on the banks of the Vistula river. Siteseeing would be the motive but if I timed it just right I’d catch the mass taking place at Wawel Cathedral, the national Polish santuary.

Slowly building up my appetite, I’d wander down to the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz, once the mass evacuation site to the nearby concentration camps during the Holocaust, and snack on Zapiekanki, a polish-style pizza loaded on a halved piece of Italian bread. Come to think of it I’d wash it down with a tall can of Zywiec, one of many Polish brews. Of course, it would be afternoon by this time and all this walking is making me even hungrier. Heading back towards the town square, I’d grab a scoop, er, make that a triple scoop of gelato. Now I’m set until dinner.

The town square is packed with street performers, puppeteers, acoustic singers and of course, a quartet of accordian players. Moseying around, I’d give them my small change for the entertainment before entering St. Mary’s Basilica to enjoy the colorful mosaics and Gothic altarpiece. Afterwards I’d head over the to the “cloth hall” located at the center of the town square for some souvenir, gift and window shopping.

Needing a boost and a break, Massolit bookstore in the old town calls me into her quaint cafe and serves me up a great American style coffee, with cream and sugar that is. With the expansive selection of English language magazines and books, I’d settle in for a couple of hours to get caught up on the happenings of the World. My stomach never lies so before long I’m on my way home to U Babci Maliny’s.

The menu is full of delicious options but tonight I’m having the beefsteak with hunter’s sauce, pototoes with a dill butter sauce and a small side salad. Depending on my company, I’ll probably talk them into trying the Ruski Perogies, potato and cheese-stuffed dumplings and secure for myself at least a taste. Smacking my lips I’d wish Babci farewell as I have a train to catch to Zakopane, ski village extraordinaire in the Tetra Mountains.

Since this is an overnight train, a nightcap is in order so I’d stop at one of the many fine establishments in town for Poland’s favorite drink, Vodka. For the effect, I’d go with the cherry-infused flavor and knock it back before boarding the train. Settling into my couchette, I’d slowly doze off and dream of pierogies.