As we made our way down the steps outside my flat, wrapped up in oversized winter coats, bobble hats and mittens, and with our backpacks strapped firmly to our small frames, my then boyfriend passed an amusing comment that we looked like a pair of hobbits setting forth from the Shire on an adventure much bigger than we were.
In truth, we were a couple of friends heading off for a long weekend in Eastern Europe, but, with me standing a little over five foot tall, and my friend Katy barely reaching four foot nine, I can see what he meant!
That was as we set off for Krakow, Poland; the year before we’d been to Bratislava, Slovakia. We were setting an eastern European trend, and had already planned to travel to Dracula’s country the year after: to Transylvania in Romania.
I loved holidaying with Katy. We worked well together as travel companions because she was happy for me to do all the researching and planning, book the flights, decide upon a cool hostel in which to stay, and build an itinerary of fun and interesting activities to do once we were there, and I was more than happy to do it. It satisfied my wanderlust and kept my innate desire to be organised and in control, in check.
I take my hat off to the girl: she’d known me less than a year when she first invited me to coordinate a trip for the two of us. We’d both recently gone through a lot of emotional turmoil involving men, and so a vacation – however short – was just what we needed. I don’t even think she was especially bothered where that vacation took place either, so long as it was abroad and it was cheap.
I love travel challenges like that. Generally my starting point is Skyscanner: type in your departure location (which is usually just ‘UK’ for me, as Shrewsbury is in easy reach of Birmingham, Manchester, or Liverpool airports), select the month you want to travel, and choose destination ‘anywhere’. This is what I’ve done for most short (under a week) trips I’ve taken within the last 10 years and it’s worked well for me. I’ve ended up in Bratislava, Krakow, Prague, Lisbon, Brussels, Berlin, Seville, Barcelona, Rome, Sofia, and Budapest, and all for under £100 return. Mine and Katy’s trip to Krakow back in 2009 (before the recent increase in airfares and taxes) cost us £65 each – for a return flight and 5 night’s accommodation.
So why Eastern Europe?
Before my trip to Bratislava with Katy, I’d been to Prague, and to Dubrovnik, but I’d not ventured to anywhere in Eastern Europe in between those two cities. Prague and Dubrovnik are two very different cities, but they were also two of my favourites in Europe, so it seemed fitting that I should explore some more of Eastern Europe.
There was also the financial factor: the cost of living in those countries that had not yet adopted the euro was still substantially cheaper than their counterparts. What’s more, the accommodation costs were also a lot less – not to mention the flights. So basically Eastern Europe was cheap, and cheap was good.
Thirdly, Eastern European cities are usually relatively small and manageable, which – considering we had a limited amount of time – was also good.
Bratislava versus Krakow – Interesting Facts
- Bratislava is the capital city of Slovakia, and is the only national capital that borders two independent countries – Austria and Hungary; Krakow was once the capital city of Poland (between 1038 and 1569)
- Bratislava has a population of 460,000 compared to Krakow, which – although it’s no longer a capital city – has a larger population of 758,334
- Bratislava occupies both banks of the river Danube; Krakow lies on the Vistula river
- The name ‘Bratislava’ was officially adopted in for the first time in 1919, whereas the first written record of ‘Krakow’ dates back as far as 955
5 things we loved about Bratislava
The quirky street statues
As Bratislava strived to shed the greyness of the communist era, many buildings were repainted in an attempt to enliven the city centre, and a few quirky statues were installed. They’ve now become so popular with tourists that Bratislava is now famous for its statues. There’s Cumil (The Watcher), who appears from a manhole and is said to peer up women’s skirts, a Napoleonic Soldier, who rests his forearms on a bench, with his backside to the French Embassy on the main square, The Paparazzi, who hides behind a street corner, slyly photographing passersby, and Schone Naci, a 20th century man dressed in a top hat and tails who was often seen giving flowers to women he met in the streets. As you walk through the streets of the city’s compact old town, it makes for a curious and fun game to see who can spot these statues first and then – once spotted – who can pose for the most amusing photograph with them. It certainly brightened up our cold, rainy, November day in the city.
As soon as I arrive in a new city, I always head straight to its historical core and Bratislava was no exception. It’s old town is characterised by baroque palaces, medieval towers, and colourful churches. St. Michael’s tower, a 51 metre high structure above a gate of the same name, is one of the oldest buildings in Bratislava, and a climb up to the top affords some wonderful views across the inner city and its narrow, winding streets.
Its quaint, cozy historical centre
Bratislava has one of the smallest historical centres around. The cobbled streets, pastel-coloured buildings, quirky statues, and musicians in traditional dress – coupled with the emergence of several tiny roofed street stalls serving ‘Verene Vino’ (mulled wine) and local snacks, in preparation for the traditional Christmas market that takes place here during the festive season – gave Bratislava’s old town an almost fairy-tale appeal. As we wandered through the city’s historical core, with its compressed collection of cute little cafe’s, fascinating boutiques and traditional bars full of warmth and character, we felt so far removed from the urban outer city that surrounded it.
Its proximity to Vienna
Bratislava is just 60km (37.3 miles) from Austria’s capital city, Vienna, which meant that – when we’d exhausted Bratislava’s major sites – we could make a daytrip to another country! We’d read about the possibility of getting to Vienna via boat on the Danube – which, in the summer months, would have been quite an appealing prospect – but, aside from the fact that the boat probably wasn’t running at this time of year, we decided that – given the weather – travelling by bus would be a more favourable option. So, after less than an hour on a rather comfy bus, we arrived in Vienna. It’s a stark contrast to tiny Bratislava and its quaint historical core: Vienna is a buzzing metropolitan city, its streets lined with grandiose buildings, modern cafe bars, coffee shops, and living statues, with an impressive cathedral at its core. We drank rather a lot of coffee (primarily to warm ourselves up), treated ourselves to a Viennese Whirl each, and watched some street performers in action – namely some American Indians in full costume and head gear, and some awesome break-dancers – before hopping back across the border again.
Hands down, at the time this was one of the best hostels I’d stayed in. Downtown Backpackers hostel has character. Located in a charming old building with a wooden bannister you could slide down, a common room filled with antique furniture, wall hangings, comfy sofas, and a piano, a cozy, atmospheric, dimly-lit bar with a relaxed, friendly vibe and bar staff that served you drinks into the early hours of the morning, and a laundry basket you could hide in. What’s more, we’d paid a bargain price for a bunk bed in a dorm room, but what we actually got was a little annex just off the main dorm room, with two single beds, and a sliding door to separate us from the peasants next door 😉 It was our own little private room for the same price as a bed in a dorm would have been. To top it all off, it was stumbling distance from the old town – just a short walk across the bridge would bring you to Bratislava’s historical centre.
5 things we loved about Krakow
Rynek Glowny (Old Town Square)
This part of Krakow reminded me very much of Prague. It’s old town square is an attractive hub of activity, with an town hall whose tower you can climb up in order to gaze upon the little tiny people milling around in the square down below. Much like Prague’s astronomical clock (although this one does not attract quite as large an audience), you can watch and listen to the live Hejnal Mariacki (trumpet signal) that is played every full hour from a little window in the tower of St. Mary’s Church. There are outdoor cafes spilling out into the square, horses and carts offering overpriced tours around the city’s historical centre, and Rynek Glowny is home to the Cloth Hall – once a centre of trade in Krakow for hundreds of years and now houses numerous market stalls where local artists and craftsmen sell their wares. It’s a great place to check out if you want to bring an authentic piece of Krakow back home, such as amber jewellery (I couldn’t resist treating myself to an unusual amber pendant that spotted my eye) and sheepskin rugs.
It’s not a castle in the traditional sense but I loved Wawel Castle. It’s possible to walk the entire Royal Way, from St. Florian’s Gate, down Florianska, across Rynek Glowny, and down Grodska, to Wawel Castle, on Wawel Hill. Wawel cathedral and castle are surrounded by attractively landscaped gardens and tall trees. Wawel is also the home to the Wawel Dragon – or rather the folklore that surrounds it. Legend has it that Wawel Hill was once terrorised by a dragon, and in true fairytale fashion, the king offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who vanquished it. The successful hero was a young man who left a sheepskin filled with sulphur for the dragon. The dragon’s stomach burned so much when he ate it that he rushed to the river and drank until he exploded! A copper replica of the dragon stands in the castle grounds and if you wait long enough you’ll see it breathe fire. Obviously I had to get a photo, so I waited – along with several young children, looking up expectantly, eyes wide, mouths open.
Kazimierz (the Jewish Quarter)
Much like Prague, the Jewish Quarter in Krakow is one of the nicest areas in the city to stroll around. There are some attractive little cafes with thoughtful, quirky decor, colourful markets, and streets that seem to emit a sense of the history they once enveloped. The Jewish Cemetery – despite its crumbling grave stones, overgrown, neglected graves, and natural sense of solemnity you feel when you consider the lives of those who are buried there – is a beautiful and tranquil spot in which to gather your thoughts and escape from the crowds. Kazimierz is also where the best nightlife in the city can be found (in my opinion): along Estery there are a collection of relaxed, friendly, alternative hangouts, as well as modern, trendy bars – take your pick!
Ok, so yes you can argue that this is not strictly a reason to love Krakow, because it’s 111km south of the city, and you’re right. However a visit to this attractive little town, nestled at the foot of the Tatra Mountains – which serves as a ski resort in the winter months – was an important part of my trip to Krakow, and also one of the highlights. So, considering it’s a 2-hour bus journey from Krakow, Zakopane can be easily visited as a day trip from the city, and it’s a day trip I’d thoroughly recommend you make – regardless of the season. Zakopane has the feel of a proper little alpine town, its streets are lined with wooden mountain villas, dating from the late 19th and early 20th century. Some of these have been converted into hotels and pensions, some are privately owned, and some lie abandoned upon the hillsides, however they’re all beautiful in their own unique way.
There’s also a beautiful cemetery, each grave having been built, sculpted, carved and crafted in great detail, and if you can forget about its solemn purpose – to house the dead – then wandering around here is akin to a wonderful art gallery or installation. It’s by no shadow of a doubt the most delightful and fascinating cemetery I’ve ever visited. Of course Zakopane has the advantage of being surrounded by mountains, so a ride on its funicular railway up to the base of the ski resort, affords some spectacular views across the countryside.
Ok, so I’ve already touched on this above, but I loved the kooky, laid-back, atmospheric bars. Our favourite bar in the Jewish Quarter, Alchemia, had huge, gothic candelabras, dripping with years worth of wax, there were glass bottles of all different shapes and sizes which looked like they should contain some kind of mystical, magical potion, copper and bronze containers of every shape and size hung from the ceiling, candles burned on every table, skeletons sat hidden in the corners, and if you wanted to use the facilities, you had to walk through a mirrored wardrobe door. If it wasn’t September I would have thought this bar was decorated for Halloween; it was wonderfully medieval, gothic and mysterious.
There are also the Vodka bars, where you can sample the tipple in every flavour you dreamed possible – and more! The honey Vodka – which Poland is famous for – was my favourite, and it comes served in miniature frosted wine glasses, which make you feel like a giant as you drink from them.
And the food…ah, the food! I must admit I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Poland’s food. I loved the Borscht (beetroot soup) and Pierogi (filled dumplings), and we had a really tasty meal involving both of those dishes, at Brzozowy Gaj, in the Jewish Quarter. However we also had some not-so-enjoyable experiences, discovering that whenever you order a salad, everything arrives pickled, and also that when you order Pierogi filled with cheese in one of the infamous milk bars, it arrives as a sweet dish. Sweet cheese? No I didn’t know it existed either! However these experiences were sometimes so bizarre it really made us laugh, so – along with the quirky bars and delicious vodka, Poland’s ‘interesting’ culinary offerings were just another of the jigsaw pieces to our experience of nightlife in Krakow.
We never made it. A year later Katy was giving birth to a beautiful baby girl, named Bellatrix. Understandably her priorities changed. We still do our best to go away together every year, but Eastern Europe has been replaced by Wales, and hostels have been replaced by tents, and we are now joined by her endearing, intelligent and fiercely independent little girl, her husband, my boyfriend and his twin girls, and an idiot hound to boot. In many ways, I miss those carefree times with Katy before Bellatrix arrived. But I cannot blame Katy for having different goals in life to my own, and instead of hankering after a life that can no longer be, I should be concentrating on building my own life and realising my own dreams. Things are different now, and may be for some time. But we’ll travel again, of that I’m sure 🙂
This is part of the #SundayTraveler link up, the spot to be to get the lowdown on all things travel.