10 Reasons You Should Travel Central Europe in the Winter

  1. No lines.

    Except for one 10 minute wait to get into a palace in Vienna, we waltzed freely into every tourist trap or treasure with little to no wasted time!

  2. The epic pre-walking tour bundle.

    There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a medieval knight than spending half-an-hour layering pants, sweaters, scarves and mittens (yes, I even layer my mittens) before heading to the nearest castle.

  3. No strangers in my pictures.

    In the winter you can actually snap shots of iconic castles, famous graffitied walls, and beautiful bridges without Wanda World Traveler or Sandy Snap-Happy messing up your perfect shot.

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    Usually a busy garden outside the Bavarian State Chancellery…not in February

  4. Cheap accommodations.

    Who visits northern Hungary in January? Only the bravest souls. So Airbnb hosts and hostels have to pay their guests to stay. We found a beautiful quiet room in the centre of Budapest (surrounded by more restaurants and bars than we could count) for €15 a night–that’s a quarter of the summer price! What a steal.

  5. Hot drinks.

    If you are traveling Europe in the winter, you will not get to choose when to take sightseeing breaks. No, you will be forced to seek refuge at your body’s discretion. The good news is there are more hot alcoholic drink options than you can count. My favourite, so far, is rum and Early Grey tea. I kid you not, the cup was so hot I had to set it on the floor for a bit while carrying it to my table.

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    One of the many cappuccinos that keep my travel companion alive

  6. Historical empathy.

    Ever wondered what it feels like to be a medieval peasant? Take a three hour walking tour in minus fifteen degrees and helplessly watch as sleet begins to fall from the sky.

  7. Window seat views.

    Nothing is so beautiful as a snow capped Slovakian mountain or an ice crusted German forest, especially when they can be experienced from the warmth and comfort of a bus or train. Summer tourists may find public transport or travel days inconvenient, but winter travellers know how to count their blessings.

  8. Extended Christmas.

    In Poland, Christmas cheer stretches on into January. So if you haven’t had enough of Christmas carols and evergreen boughs you will find plenty of both in most town squares and some restaurants.

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  9. Ice skating and sledding.

    Choose an iconic building and then instead of paying the entrance fee, go skating or sledding in front of it!Here are just a few of the winter fun locations we noticed or experienced:

    Skating:
    Warsaw, Poland – Palace of Art and Science and old town square both have picture perfect rinks.
    Krakow – Galeria Krakowska near the old town.
    Prague – Any one of these eight great options.

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    Skating rink in Old Town Warsaw

    Sledding:
    Kassel, Germany – Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel (Here I speak from experience)
    Slovakia – A short walk off of almost any roadway in the beautiful High Tatras mountains

  10. Ego boost.

    Pat yourself on the back, you could be laying on a beach in Thailand, trying to surf in Australia, or tasting exotic food in India, but instead you are carrying a feather light backpack (since you are wearing every piece of your clothing) and wondering if these castle grounds would be prettier in the summer. You have chosen the road less travelled (at least this time of year) and for that you should be proud! Locals will smile and thank-you for gracing them with your off-season presence. Every restaurant server will forgive your inability to speak their language (due to your incessant shivering). Congratulations, you have earned yourself a travel badge…now get yourself to Istanbul.fullsizeoutput_2cd

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Poland: Top 10 Fun Facts

January 22-28 (bonus edition)

I knew so very little about this country before coming and now I am pleased to announce that I know at least ten new things:

1) Orange slices and cloves can go in almost any hot beverage. 

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2) Marie Currie was Polish! At the time when she discovered and named the element Polonium she was making a political/nationalist statement since Poland did not exist as an independent country, but was divided between Russia, Austria, and Prussia. 

3) If you see a bride and groom driving down a Polish road on their wedding day you should always try to get enough people together to form a human barricade, they will have to pay you off with vodka before continuing on their way.

4) Most people speak excellent English (expect for one old woman with no teeth who sold us donuts on a street corner).

5) At one time, 1/3 of Poland’s wealth came from a single salt mine just south of Krakow.

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One of the incredible salt carvings in that mine

6) If there is a fight about to break out in the hostel dorm at 3:30am because one guy is drunk and another guy accidentally took his bed, my husband will drag himself out of bed and diffuse the situation using only about four sentences, while I fearfully pretend to sleep.

7) 85% of Warsaw was destroyed after the city tried to overthrow their Nazi occupiers in 1944.

8) The back row of the Polskibus is always the best seat in the house. 

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9) Most words in Polish look nothing like they do in English, except for three important ones: Alkohol, Restauracja, and Autobus

10) It took about 12 hours for Jakob to decide that he wants to drop everything and move to Poland, so I guess we will have to be back…for a visit though…I told him not to be ridiculous.

We came to Poland in the mist and we left in the sunshine 🙂

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A Time to Laugh and a Time to Listen

January 22-28

Our time in Krakow can be split quite neatly into two categories: time spent laughing and time spent not laughing. Upon arrival at our hostel, the Dizzy Daisy, we were eager to meet fellow travellers and to make some short-term friends. Our last three nights, since saying goodbye to Yakob in Berlin, were spent at an Airbnb in Warsaw. While the city was fascinating and the Airbnb host was lovely, I think we were both ready for a change of scenery.

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This adorable Warsaw town square is not as old as it looks. The original medieval buildings were destroyed by the Nazis and rebuilt in the decades after the war.

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Another Warsaw re-creation…they certainly are experts at imitating medieval architecture.

I was looking forward to some authentic medieval architecture (no offence Warsaw, I know it’s not your fault your city was destroyed) and Jakob was ready to hang out with some fun-loving hostel dwellers (not that I’m not fun, but he only has so much patience for historical and political discussions). Upon arriving Jakob was quick to introduce himself to the only other person in our 10-bed dorm. A Brit? Or something like that, it’s always hard to tell with all those different UK accent variations. We immediately forgot his name and headed out for dinner. Now I would love to not tell you the details of dinner…but I guess I will sacrifice some of my travel pride in exchange for a good story. Keep in mind, we had just taken a 5 hour bus ride from Warsaw with only one slice of cheese, one sausage, and some chocolate and so we were VERY hungry. Let’s say delusional with hunger. So we started walking towards town. Since two hungry people trying to make decisions together is NEVER a good idea, I told Jakob that he could choose where we went for dinner. The meandering medieval streets were not our friends, and instead of finding an interesting old town restaurant, we found ourselves back at the bus station (which is also a train station and massive mall). Well, we were too hungry to turn around, so back into the madness of the station we went. Moments later we were staring at a semi-familiar smorgasbord of food court options. Starbucks, yup we know what that is; North fish, I guess seafood? In southern Poland? In a mall? Gross!; Pizza Hut, nope (ok to be honest we had Pizza Hut on our last night in Warsaw, another moment of travel shame); Sushi? Jakob would rather take a train across Siberia…then we spotted a buffet counter with what looked like Polish food. Hey! Looks like we can still have a kinda genuine cultural experience in a food court, right? We aren’t total travel failures, right? So on a whim we grabbed plates as big as frisbees and loaded them up with stuff we only sort of recognized, all the while quietly narrating “I think that looks like chicken, those are vegetables, I am sure those are vegetables, mmm doesn’t that thing look delicious!” Sitting down, we applauded our ‘adventurous’ choice and watched in disdain as someone a few tables over maoed-down on a Big Mac. Fifteen minutes later, I was eyeing the garbage can and trying to figure out if I was eating a perogy or a soggy meatloaf. As we scrapped the unbearable bits into the trash we resolved to find real Polish food, somewhere, someday, maybe after we regained some of the trust we once had in the restaurant industry.

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A little stressed when we had trouble finding our bus in Warsaw

After a couple hours of wandering the old town and wondering why it is still Christmas in Poland (really, does anyone know why there are still lit trees and decorations everywhere??) we returned to the Dizzy Daisy. We were please to see a few more potential travel besties lounging in the dorm couches. Jakob was quick to introduce us, and we joined the Britt (who’s name we still couldn’t remember) and two young Australian women on the couches. Conversation was halting at first. Where are you from? How long are you traveling? What did you do before becoming a full-time vagabond? Eventually we pulled out a massive bag of pretzels and the international language of sleepover food got things flowing. No beer, no wine, no Doritos, just one bag of pretzels and a plenty of water and we were soon pouring out our hearts and laughing uncontrollably. I caught Jakob’s eye, “this is what travel is all about,” I told him telepathically. He grabbed another pretzel and gave me a glance that said: “I know, we are hilarious, these people love us.” Until 1am we discussed anything and everything: moose, spiders, boxing, voting, colonialism, relationships, hometowns, Brexit, Trump…you name it. Some time just before midnight and just after one of the well-traveled Australians used the phrase “hot tip!” for the third time (leading to uncontrollable giggles, no joke, picture a nine year-old’s birthday party), I realized that I had no idea what their names were. Giddy on pretzel salt I blurted out, “I just realized I don’t even know your names!” Of course they knew Jakob’s name and my name because of our adorable tendency to tell stories about each other or our less adorable tendency to reprimand each other when the story is miss-told. The delayed introduction went off with little to no awkwardness and, before we knew it, we dove back into the personal details of our lives and travels. Finally, exhausted and content, we all shuffled the three steps to our respective bunk beds and drifted off to sleep, laughter still ringing in our ears.

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This is the Christmas tree in Old Town Warsaw, but Krakow is no different…Christmas in January

The next day there was more laughter. We chuckled when the four year old boy in our tour group wouldn’t stop yelling “Whisky, Whisky, WHISKY, I love Whisky” as he ran circles in a massive underground Cathedral built in a medieval salt mine. We giggled awkwardly when an elderly Polish man, who we met at a piano jazz club, freely offered us the details of his complicated family history after I asked him how long the plane flight is to where he now lives in the UK. We laughed out loud when a familiar voice and face greeted us on an unfamiliar Krakow street, it was one of the Australians! Nothing like running into an ‘old’ friend to make a place feel like home.

Our laughter stopped the next day as we stood in a horrible place. Honestly, it didn’t look so bad at first. Rows upon rows of red brick army barracks. Birds sat peacefully on the roofs and small trees grew along the paths. It could be a quaint, although much too symmetrical, Polish village. We stood in a group of twenty-or-so English-speaking tourists. Our serious-faced guide held our attention effortlessly as she explained how this place once named Oświęcim in Polish became Auschwitz in German. These buildings that were once built for the Polish army were turned into a work camp for Polish political dissidents (anyone who wore glasses, held advanced degrees, or had a penchant for revolt), then it was turned into a death camp for those deemed subhuman (Jews, gypsies, and others), finally it was expanded into a “death factory” 25 times the size of the original grounds and built from the bricks of a demolished Polish village. The only flicker of a smile on any of our faces was when the guide explained where the looted belongings of the victims were kept—Canada. The storage facility was named after the land of plenty and prosperity. Was that supposed to be a joke? Who would have thought of something like that!? The guide glanced around and asked if anyone in the group came from Canada. My stripped mitten shot into the air and then I pulled it down a bit…was this really the time for national pride?

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The quite serene looking barracks at the original Auschwitz camp

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The much larger and more haunting landscape at the expanded part of the concentration camp (Birkenau) just a few minutes drive away from Auschwitz.

The entire experience was probably the most somber four hours of my life. Our guide took every opportunity to make the experience more relatable. “Look at this pile of hair” “look at all of these shoes, look they even brought shoe polish, these people had no idea where they were going,” “look this woman wore sunglasses on her way to Aushwitz…sunglasses,” “look at this train car, made for 15 cows, how many humans? How many days?” “200 humans, and 4-11 days.” She quizzed us, reiterated details, stared into our souls, and quizzed us again. I was afraid if I cracked a smile she would make me write lines, or worse send me back through those awful chambers that I certainly never wanted to set foot in again. When we arrived back at the hostel that night a few of our fellow hostellers asked about our day. “We went to Auschwitz.” “O ya? How was it?” I paused and thought through my possible responses “Good?” no that can’t be the right answer…”It was interesting, I learned a lot.” Which was the truth. I learned about the dangers of fascism. I learned that racism isn’t a joke. I learned that whenever we dehumanize others, even in the smallest ways, we normalize hate. These lessons aren’t new, but they are pertinent. We still live in a world were politicians make generalized statements about entire ethnic groups and issue orders to build walls. On today, the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I don’t mind taking a break from the laughter and fun of travel and remembering that we must never let this happen again.

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The pile of shoes

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The train car

The First Glimpse of Poland

January 21

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Poland appeared out of the mist. The forests made of tall tapered logs standing on end and each aligned with the next. Paths cut their way through the trees at precise angles with the roadway, forming what must look like the feathered end of an arrow if viewed from above. The farm land lay in a similar fashion. Rows and rows of barren soil heaped with  potential. In the distance, dark shapes move. It appears to be a tall cloaked figure herding massive cattle. But it is not so much herding as wandering aimlessly amidst them. A blink and they move together. Trance like. A blink and they become less lively. More like bushes. Are they bushes? Power lines and their sentinel poles stand guard over it all, lacing through the disjointed patchwork of trees and fields. A gas station appears. Lined with pumps and skirted with empty pavement. There’s been no town for many kilometres and so the station appears as either a forethought for a town yet unplanned or an afterthought of a plan with no town.

In the town we find cracked walls bandaged together with posters and street art. A bubble gum mansion grows faded at the edges. It’s fence holds tight to a small patch of green, guarding it from the grey concrete abyss. Street by street concrete merges into glass and the beams of a modern cityscape reach from rubble to skyline, disintegrating in the mist. The sprawling arms of consumerism twist into a monument of greed at the centre of town. This is were the bus slows to a stall. Travellers pile off and locals pile on. We sit amidst the commotion wide-eyed and deaf to the world around us.

Slowly the road disentangles itself from the concrete and glass. Once again we drift into the misty farmland where we hurtle steadily faster into a thickening cloud of obscurity. Could it be that Poland exists in a perpetual cloud of mist? This somehow aligns with how I have always pictured the country which is synonymous with concentration camps. As our bus treads its eastward journey I can’t help but picture trains piled high with humans on the brink of death who once travelled the same direction. I do hope that when I eventually emerge from this cloud I will have more than just that one cruel image in my mind. Let’s not reduce a nation to its atrocities: Rwanda, Cambodia, Kosovo. Sadder yet are the forgotten genocides. So I will be thankful for the textbook train image and continue to hold it and sculpt it as Poland emerges from the mist.