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Poland: Can you have too many Pierogies? September 22, 2011

Filed under: Contiki,Europe,Food,Poland,Travel — Kelocity @ 9:43 pm
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If you don’t know what a Pierogi is, please go google it, and then come back. Because this post is alllllll about Pierogies. And for good reason too. Poland is known for them! After eating lots of Schnitzel in Austria and Germany, we were ready to eat our weight in Pierogies once we got here. And boy, was it delicious.

After a morning heavy with history in Krakow, we headed back into Old Town on a mission to find some good Pierogies. A few people had recommended a place nearby called “Domowe Przysmaki”. Sure it was pretty much in the heart of all the tourists, but we gave it a try anyways.
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The menu was in Polish, but we were able to successfully order two three amazing dishes.
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Irving had been dreaming of this moment for months prior to our trip. We were very excited for some authentic Polish dumplings!
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The first dish was the traditional boiled version. Filled with cheese and topped with grilled onions. I was hoping for some sour cream on the side, that’s how we always at them growing up. But that must be another one of those “Americans ruin everything” tricks, because they definitely didn’t have sour cream there. And honestly? Didn’t even miss it. It was awesome even without it.
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The second dish was the same thing, but fried. It was like a crab rangoon or crispy wonton or something. Love.  We split both dishes halfsies.
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I have to say it was a tie. They were both amazing-melt-in-your-mouth Polish deliciousness.

Then we went back up to the counter and ordered another item off their awesome ‘hung by clothespins’ menu.  This was “Dumpling with Fruit”.  Yum! Not exactly what we were expecting, but it was also tasty and satisfying.
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So what are you supposed to do after eating three plates of Pierogies? Walk. Walk. WALK! So walk we did. All over Krakow.
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We didn’t have too much free time, but we had just enough to get explore old town and it’s surroundings. Wikipedia told me that ‘entire medieval old town is among the first sights chosen for the UNESCO’s World Heritage List’. It used to be a walled city and a few of its original towers and moats are still standing.
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Krakow has one of the largest public squares in Europe.
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I just noticed those people behind me… what are they wearing?!
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Soon enough, it was time to board the bus again. We chose to do the Wieliczka Salt Mines, which was an optional Contiki excursion and we heard they were pretty cool anyways. It wasn’t too far away, but long enough to squeeze in just one ‘sleeping-on-the-bus’ picture. (We’ve got one from every trip!)
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Soon enough, we arrived at the mines. It is one of the oldest mines in the world and had been consistently mined from the 13th century until 2007.
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The mine was also on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
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The tour started with a 64-flight descent down an old mine shaft. It now has stairs and you have to walk all the way down. (wasn’t as bad as you’d think, they were short flights!)
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As soon as reached the bottom, we realized how commercialized and touristy this site had become. Some of the displays were impressive, but they tried to add light and sound shows that made it a little bit hokey. (Although they project laser beams on the Egyptian Pyramids, so maybe that’s just the way of the world nowadays).
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Even though we were a quarter mile below the surface, surprisingly our guide’s cell phone still had enough reception to ring… strange, no?

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Each of the caverns inside the mine used to be salt that had been chipped away and sold. And all of the tunnels were rock that had been blasted out of the way to find more salt.

When the miners were down there, many of them used to carve statues out of the salt. They were beautiful and impressive. I raised my hand and asked “weren’t they supposed to be working?” but the guide didn’t answer me.
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At one point, we were just walking along and then the guide mentioned “oh, and now you have to pay for your photos”. We were confused since we had been taking pictures the whole time. But apparently what she meant was that you had to pay for the right to photograph the “big salt ballroom”. We declined, so I have no pictures of it, but lucky for you, the internet had lots to share.

This entire room used to be salt that was mined and hauled away. Now it’s a cavernous space with carved salt murals, statues and art work. Supposedly, the chandeliers are solid crystal from a nearby mine.
wieliczka-salt-mine.14239.large_slideshow [source]

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There was also a big brine lake with a higher salt concentration than the dead sea.
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In the middle and end of the tour, we were greeted by souvenir stands and snack bars. It did feel a little strange to be inside a 800 year old mine and be faced with bags of Doritos and espresso machines. Took the charm away I thought.
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The worst is that you were victim to the trap and they made you stay there for 20 minutes with the hopes you’ll cave and end up buying something. That doesn’t sit well with me, so we just walked around. We were very entertained my this sign near the snackbar, haha:
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Anyways, all in all, the mine itself is worth seeing. It’s crazy that human hands carved away at it for eight centuries. But I think they ruined it by trying to rip people off left and right once you’re in there.

Thankfully at the end, they don’t make you walk back up to the top, there’s a cool old-fashioned mining elevator that shoots you up to the top in just 30 seconds.
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The bus then dropped us back off into Krakow’s Old Town and we did what any decent tourist would do. Hunt for MORE Pierogies! Seriously!
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Didn’t take long to find one. This time we tried Zapiecek (which we later found out was a popular chain).
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I decided I needed some vegetables and tried to order a root soup (sold out)… beet soup (sold out)… side salad? (got a quick ‘no’)… Ok then. Just a plate of Pierogies then. And add some broccoli (and a single kernal of corn?). Done.
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Once again it was great.
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We really loved Krakow. The people were fantastic, the food was great and the history and sights will literally take your breath away. For a country that has been torn apart so many times and ravaged by war, they have done a tremendous job rebuilding their country and their spirits.
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Krakow: The Sad History and the Importance of Visiting September 20, 2011

Filed under: Contiki,Europe,Poland,Travel — Kelocity @ 10:55 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Our first full day in Krakow started with a really great walking tour in Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter of the city.
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This area was once home to many synagogues and a bustling community before the Nazis invaded and forced nearly all of the Jews into the ghetto. This was called the Old Synagogue, but was later occupied by the Germans to store weapons. Now it is a museum dedicated to Krakow’s Jews.
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At the other end of the square from the Old Synagogue is a touching memorial to the Jews who used to live there.
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And next to it is the only functioning Synagogue in Krakow now. Before the war, more than 60,000 Jews lived in the city. And today, less than 200 identify themselves as Jewish. The weight of the Holocaust was starting to hit me standing in that square.
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The square fell into disrepair for decades and nearly all of the facades looked like this:
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But when Steven Speilberg came here to shoot his movie, Schindler’s List, based on Krakow, this square became the ghetto. It wasn’t the ghetto in real life, but it served the purpose for the film. After the movie came out, tourists starting visiting this section of the town more frequently and suddenly people started to rebuild it once again.
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This is where we ate dinner the night before, and right next door, we noticed this sign:
”Probably the best pierogi… Pierogi is a traditional Polish dumplings similar to ravioli but more delicious.”

Oh my gosh, we laughed so hard. It’s an honest sign. Truthful, humble and quite funny. I respect that. hee hee
They’re not 100% sure if it’s the best… but it probably is. Oh man, we laughed for a long time over that.
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Then we hopped back on our bus and headed to our next destination: Wawel Hill, home of the Royal Castle and Cathedral.
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The grounds are really beautiful with all kinds of architectural designs mixed together.
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It over looks the city on one side and the river on the other.
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This castle was designed centuries ago with the harsh winters in mind. It was genius in design back then.
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It was spared during the war because the Nazi’s made it their home. They even built a wing to house their military headquarters.
Sad as it is, the Nazi’s saved a lot of historic buildings in Europe by making them their private dwellings. There are a lot of stories like this one throughout the continent.
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Outside the castle walls is a hodge podge of a church. It’s famous not only for it’s quirky design, but because this was Pope John Paul II’s home church before he became Pope. If there is one thing the Poles love about their Country, it was their Pope. There is evidence everywhere about how proud they were of him.
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Reese, my gnome, visited the Vatican in 2008, and now she (and I) got to see the former Pope’s beginnings here in Poland.
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Though I’m not religious in practice, I find religious history fascinating.
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Next on our tour, we took our bus over to Oskar Schindler’s factory. Schindler’s List was based on how Oskar used his business to save the lives of more than 1,000 Jews during WWII. This was the actual factory that has now been turned into an amazing museum. But most of the scenes from the movie were shot here, on location.
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The front part of the museum has a few props from the movie and a small café, but they did a great job of focusing on the serious history rather than commercialize the film.
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We had a private tour through all of it and starts with the history of the Jews before the war, telling some of their stories and showing actual photos of the happy people who used to live in Krakow.
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Then it taakes you back in time and explains how Poland fell under Nazi rule… then later Soviet rule. Poland ceased to exist for nearly 80 years while it was being occupied by the east and the west.
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Then we learned about the Nazi occupation and how they took control of Krakow. Here’s an image of the Germans in front of the Cathedral we had just visited.
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These exhibits were so well done in such an interactive way that you couldn’t help but be engulfed in it.  This section was about the Nazi regime and how they took over the city. Those columns rotated and it looked like the soldiers were actually marching. The floor has the Nazi symbol in it, and the photos on the wall shows how they transformed the city to feel German (streets were renamed with German words, etc).
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This staircase was decorated in the street signs, and was also the scene where Spielberg shot one of the scenes from the film.
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Here was Oskar’s desk. I think they said the actual desk here was a prop, but the map behind him was original.
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The workers that Schindler saved worked here making pots and pans. I want to watch the movie again, now that the reality is so fresh in my mind.
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Then the museum goes through the horrors of the ghetto and how most of them were then sent to the nearby death camps.
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Out back you can still see where most of the people worked.
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Also in the museum was a collection of first hand accounts from Jews who survived the Holocaust. One of the most famous survivors was Roman Polanski, who lived in the Krakow ghetto.

Translation: “I suddenly realized that we were to be walled in. I got so scared that I eventually burst into Tears” – Roman Polanski, Aged 8
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On the way back into town, we passed the actual site of the Krakow ghetto. There is a powerful memorial in the center now, a bunch of oversized empty chairs and normal sized chairs along the edge. I read a little more about it online:

“The memorial to the Jews of the Podgorze Ghetto in Krakow was inaugurated on 8 December 2005.

The winning project by Krakow architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak included 33 steel and cast iron chairs (1.4 m high) in the square and 37 smaller chairs (1.2 m high) standing on the edge of the square and at the tram stops. The theme of empty chairs has also been used at the Oklahoma City Monument at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building blast site to reflect "absence."…

Ironically, the Krakow monument intrudes to bus and tram stops and are used by locals awaiting transportation, suggesting that anyone can be a victim. The small building in the square was used by Nazi authorities during the occupation and ghetto period. The inscription on top is 1941-1943, the years of the ghetto. The interior of the building has been reworked artistically to resemble the interior of a deportation train car.” – [source]

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~~~~~~~~~~~~
Even though we did all of this sightseeing in just four hours, I’m going to continue the rest of the day in another post. This one feels heavy and I think deserves to stand alone. I know that I will never be the same after what I saw in Poland this morning. I will never forget it.

 

Lunch in Slovakia, Dinner in Krakow September 18, 2011

We left Budapest after breakfast and headed towards Krakow Poland.  On the way, we drove through Slovakia. The Czech Republic and Slovakia used to be Czechoslovakia until it split peacefully in 1993.
_45338269_slovakia_map226 [source]

Halfway through the drive, we stopped in a town called Banska Bystricia for lunch.
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Slovakia is a little off the radar for the hoards of tourists, so it was nice to enjoy a sleepy European town and have it all to ourselves. I really enjoyed this stop in an off-the-beaten-path location. (Rick Steves would be proud).
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The town was so picturesque, colorful and vibrant. And the only other people we saw were locals strolling with their kids on a quiet Saturday morning.
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The old square is zoned for pedestrians and is lined with cute buildings, local businesses and a few restaurants.
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We surveyed our menu options and ended up at a place advertising their crepes. Sold. It sounded perfect!
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Since all we were doing was sitting on a bus all day, we kept it pretty light. I started with a greek salad that came with creamy cheese and some toast. Hit the spot!
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Irving ordered a ham and cheese savory crepe that looked awesome!
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But don’t worry, I got my share of crepes too when I ordered a Nutella and banana dessert one!
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Feel free to drool…. I’ll wait…..

The prices there weren’t hiked up for tourists and it was so reasonable, Irving ordered a Nutella and Banana waffle too!
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I’m not sure where all of our other Contiki mates dined, but I’m pretty sure they missed out, this was amazing.

Wish we could have explored Slovakia more. I bet the whole country is peppered with little towns like this with unexplored sights.
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And check out their tourist information center… lined with chandeliers. So pretty.
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I’ll be back, Slovakia!
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From there, our drive continued towards Poland. It was a long drive, but the view out the bus window was worth it. So pretty!
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By dinnertime, we had arrived into Krakow!
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Tonight, there was an included regional dinner in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, Kazimierz. I think I remember a statistic that said more than 80% of Krakow’s jews had been killed in WWII. It may even actually be higher than that. Before the war, this Jewish Quarter was vibrant and full of life, now it’s a little ghostly and sad, but more on that during our guided tour tomorrow.
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Dinner was at Ariel, a traditional Jewish restaurant that was happy to accommodate our group.
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We started with Onion Soup, served with Cheese and Croutons.
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Irving had the meal that was served (though we can’t remember now if it was chicken or duck).
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And I got the latkes… I thought it meant potato pancakes, but instead was more of a potato loaf). It had a mushroom gravy over the top and was extremely salty. I’m all for eating authentic when I travel, but I was overwhelmed by the amount of salt many of the countries used in their dishes.
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Dessert was a rum raisin custard.
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Dinner was accompanied by a three piece musical group (accordion, clarinet and bass), the music was beautiful and really set the stage for our visit to Poland.
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After dinner, a group of us headed out for some night life. We hit two bars along the way. The drink of choice was a traditional cocktail that mixed apple juice, vodka, cucumber schnapps and cinnamon. Even I caved and had my first drink of the trip, it was worth it. Yum!
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Later, map in hand, I led our little group through the streets of Krakow until we found the old town square. It was stunning at night.
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I love when our first impressions of a city are at night. The crowds are gone, the vendors shut down, and you can bask in the white lights of a town proud of its history.
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Can’t wait to get up and explore more tomorrow!
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