Central and Eastern Europe

After a few days chilling out in Athens, I flew to Krakow, Poland, to start the final part of my European trip.  I had heard a lot about the beauty of Krakow, and was especially looking forward to exploring the historic Old Town (Stare Miasto).  Little did I expect I would arrive to a cold, wet and windy city and a drop in temperature of more than 20°C (it was 12°C when I arrived)!  I would’ve gladly traded the cold for the heat of the Balkans and Greece!  Freezing in my summer clothes and thin denim jacket, I had no choice but to go shopping for something warmer.  Fortunately, I found Galeria Krakowska on a map, not far from the Old Town main square, Rynek Glowny, and where I was staying, so I reluctantly headed there.  I was so peeved to be wasting time going to a mall that I basically bought the first jacket that I saw, and walked out wearing it.

Back at Rynek Glowny, it was just a sea of umbrellas.  It was such a grey and gloomy day that I didn’t bother taking pictures.  I took refuge from the rain in the covered Cloth Hall (known locally as Sukiennice), briefly browsed through the souvenir market there, and then decided the best thing to do would be to go for a nice lunch!  Coincidentally, Chimera, which was on my list of restaurants to check out, was conveniently located just steps from Rynek Glowny and across the street from my hotel!  With nowhere else to go, I enjoyed a hearty and leisurely lunch of traditional Polish dishes.  I asked the server if I was ordering too much food for just myself.  She said yes, but I thought, why not?!  I assured her I would probably be able to finish all the food…and I did!  The zurek soup (“white borscht” with smoked ham, bacon and quail egg), bigos (considered Poland’s national dish, this “hunter’s stew” was made of venison and cabbage) and pork pierogi (Polish dumplings) were absolutely delicious!

Delicious and hearty meal at Chimera: Bigos, Zurek and Pork Pierogi

Later that evening, I went to Krakowska Manufaktura Czekolady where I warmed up with the most amazing rich, smooth and creamy hot chocolate with chili!

Hot Chocolate with Chili…yummy! Made with real chocolate!

While the weather continued to be pretty grey, the rain eventually stopped, and I managed to take some photos around the Old Town.

Statue of Adam Mickiewicz (Polish poet); Cloth Hall; “The Head” (Eros Bendato); St. Mary’s Basilica

 

Town Hall Tower and Cloth Hall in Rynek Glowny

 

There are a lot of restaurants on Rynek Glowny, the main square in the Old Town

 

Street Art in the Kazimierz (the historic Jewish quarter): Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain”

 

Planty Park is a large park that encircles Krakow’s Old Town (Stare Miasto)

 

Top left: Wawel Cathedral; Bottom left: 16th century Renaissance inner courtyard of Royal Castle; Top and bottom right: Herbowa Gate, entrance to Wawel Hill

Everywhere I went in Europe, I couldn’t resist going into the bakeries!

A cafe/bakery in Krakow

Most people won’t know what Pączki are, but will recognize them as soon as they see them, because they’re just jam/jelly-filled doughnuts.

Pączki shop in Krakow

 

More pączki and other baked goods

The only kind of doughnut I’ve ever liked is the old-fashioned hole-in-the-middle yeast (not cake!) doughnut, coated with just sugar on the outside, which aren’t so easy to find anymore (interestingly, I found these same kind of doughnuts sold by a street vendor in Athens when I first visited 10 years ago, although I wasn’t able to track down any this time!).

Believe it or not, I’d never actually eaten a filled doughnut before!!  I just always associated doughnuts with being a typical overly sweet American snack food.  Maybe it’s because in North America doughnuts do mostly come glazed in an assortment of colours and sprinkles and what not, and I just imagined them to be cloyingly sweet.

Since I’d never had a filled doughnut, I couldn’t make any comparisons, but I sure got hooked on pączki…specifically, the rose jam-filled ones!!

Pączki with rose jam filling

Of course, I also had to try a Krakow bagel (Obwarzanek) from one of the many street vendors.

Krakow bagels (obwarzanki) sold on the street

 

“Obwarzanek Krakowski” sprinkled with poppy seeds and sesame seeds

And more pierogi…!  This time I tried pierogi with cheese, mushroom and egg…so yummy!

This restaurant specializes in all kinds of pierogi

 

Cheese, mushroom and egg pierogi at Pierogarnia Krakowiacy

I couldn’t leave Poland without seeing the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, which is only about 1.5 hours west of Krakow.  Needless to say, it was a very sobering and thought-provoking visit, but one which I felt was important.  It was such a surreal experience to be there, on the grounds of where one of history’s worst atrocities took place.

Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp

 

Auschwitz I

 

3 km from Auschwitz I, the concentration/extermination camp at Birkenau (Auschwitz II)

 

Inscription in English (one of many languages) on a plaque at the International Monument at Birkenau

I took an overnight train to Prague, where I caught a connecting train to Cesky Krumlov in the south Bohemian region.  A World Unesco Heritage site, Cesky Krumlov is known as one of the most picturesque and charming towns in Europe.  Cesky Krumlov Castle is the main attraction, and from the top of the bell tower, you get sweeping views of this beautiful town.

View of Cesky Krumlov from the bell tower

 

View of Cesky Krumlov from the bell tower

 

View of Cesky Krumlov from the bell tower

 

Cesky Krumlov Castle: Bell Tower and wall paintings in the 4th courtyard

 

Cesky Krumlov town centre

At Hospoda na Louzi, a pub which serves traditional Czech food, I had a tasty and filling lunch of Bean Soup with Paprika and Bacon and the “Czech national meal” of Roast Pork with dumplings and cabbage.

Bean Soup with Paprika and Bacon; Roast Pork with Dumplings & Cabbage

I love Chimney Cake (Kürtőskalács), which is actually more like a sweetened bread that’s cooked on a spit.  It’s Hungarian in origin, and also popular in Romania.  Once in a while, I’ll allow myself to buy one from this dessert shop where I live (Yes, I say only once in a while, because I can literally eat a whole chimney cake in one sitting!).

Making Trdelnik

I was most surprised when I first saw chimney cake in Cesky Krumlov!  It’s called Trdelník, and I soon found it everywhere in Prague!  Let’s just say, since I was on holiday, I felt justified to have more than my fair share of trdelnik!  I prefer eating it on its own, but I saw some places getting really creative and serving trdelnik filled with ice cream, or apples and honey, topped with whipped cream, drizzled with chocolate sauce and garnished with a rolled wafer!

Trdelnik rolled in just sugar, and also with nuts and cinnamon.

If Cesky Krumlov is one of the most beautiful towns in Europe, Prague has got to be the most beautiful city in Europe!  I’ve been to a lot of cities in Europe, and I thought Prague would just be another beautiful European city.  But no, Prague is something else!  The architecture is nothing short of stunning!

The famous Charles Bridge

Everywhere I turned, I found myself snapping pictures of both famous and random buildings!

Gorgeous buildings in Prague

 

Beautiful pastel-coloured buildings in the Mala Strana district

 

Inside St. Nicholas Church, Mala Strana district

 

The majestic St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, with its Gothic architecture

 

St. Vitus Cathedral

 

St. Vitus Cathedral

 

View of the city from Hradcany (Castle Hill)

 

Staroměstské náměstí, Prague’s Old Town Square

 

Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square): Ornately painted buildings and statues of Death and the Turk by the Astronomical Clock

Czechs like their pork, and you’ll even see whole pigs being roasted….

….and Klobása (sausage) stands all around Wenceslas Square.

I decided to head to Nase Maso instead, which is a butcher shop known for its quality meats and use of local ingredients.  They’ll also grill up whatever you want so you can enjoy it right there!  I ordered some really tasty sausages.  It’s a small place though, and there are only a few tables.  So be prepared to stand and eat, like I did.

Sausages at Nase Maso

From Prague it was a 4-hour bus journey to Nuremberg in the Bavarian region of Germany, where I stopped briefly to see a friend (she and her husband introduced me to Elisenlebkuchen, which I loved so much that I made some at Christmas!).

Then it was on to my final stop, Berlin, a city that I’d been wanting to visit for a long time, but never managed to make it to, on previous trips to Germany.

I started off with a tour of the Reichstag that I had booked online a few months earlier (Nope, you can’t just show up and expect to get in.  You have to book a specific date and time and register the names of everyone in your party.  Then you are emailed a confirmation letter.  You must show up on the day with the exact same people whose names were registered, and all with proper identification).

The exterior of the Reichstag building; the debating chamber of the Bundestag; graffiti on the wall left by Russian soldiers when they seized the building in May of 1945

 

The Norman Foster-designed glass dome of the Reichstag building has become an iconic landmark in Berlin. You can walk up the spiral walkway to the top, while getting 360 degree views of the city.

 

Brandenburg Gate and Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral)

All the major tourist attractions in Berlin are really spread out, so I relied on the S-bahn and U-bahn a lot.  Even so, getting around took time, which I didn’t have a lot of.  Hence, I made the difficult decision to skip the collection of world-class museums on Museum Island and instead, focus on those unique to Berlin, such as the Stasi Museum, DDR Museum, Berlin War Memorial and Ghost Stations Exhibition and East Side Gallery.

Top: Checkpoint Charlie; Bottom: Stasi Museum, which is located in House 1 of the actual former headquarters of the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) of East Germany.  It was so fascinating to learn about all the ways in which the East German secret police spied on its populace and the extent of snitching among its citizens.

 

I loved the DDR Museum! I’ve always been intrigued by life behind the Iron Curtain, and this interactive museum gave a good insight into the kinds of food that the people in the GDR ate, the sports they played, the kinds of homes they lived in and the cars (if they could even get one) that they drove.

 

A section of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery

 

Enjoying the view and a slice of Black Forest Cake at the Panorama Cafe of the Panoramapunkt at Potsdamer Platz

As a self-professed foodie, I naturally had to make time to browse the food hall on the 6th floor of the renowned KaDeWe, the largest department store in continental Europe, and the second largest in Europe after London’s Harrods.

Gourmet cakes and Marzipan at KaDeWe

It was so nice to be able to walk into a bakery, Kamps, and get a bockwurst – no bread, just the sausage!

Bockwurst at Kamps bakery

 

Taking a break to have Apple Strudel!

As always, I kept visiting bakeries….this is one of the things I miss most about Europe!  European bakeries are just different!

Top left: Berliner Pfannkuchen (“Berliner”), similar to the Polish jam-filled paczki; Top right: Pretzel; Bottom left: Marzipan brezel; Bottom right: Bienenstich

Near where I stayed in the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood was Konnopke’s Imbiss, where I’d wanted to go for Currywurst since the day I arrived in Berlin.  But they were never open whenever I was in the area!  Eventually I ended up eating currywurst at some little hole-in-the-wall place in Alexanderplatz the night before I left (just to say I’d tried it!).

Alas, my trip through Europe was coming to an end, but not before the biggest travel misadventures of my life!

So when I was in Nuremberg, my friend’s husband asked what flight I was taking back to Vancouver.  I mentioned I was flying Air Berlin to L.A. first.  “You know they filed for bankruptcy…”  What?!  I’d been travelling all this time and hadn’t heard anything about Air Berlin’s woes.  He assured me that the airline was in negotiations and he’d heard all flights were still going on as scheduled.  I checked their website, which assured all those with tickets that nothing had changed. The night before, I tried to check in online, but wasn’t able to.  However, since my flight was shown as confirmed for the next morning, I put it down to a technical glitch.

Ursula, my Airbnb host was out of town and had told me to just drop the apartment keys in her mail slot after I locked the door.  I scanned my room again as I was leaving, because that’s just what I always do.  It’s not like me to lose things or leave anything behind!  Sure that I’d packed everything, I still hesitated for a moment before dropping the keys in.  A little voice in my head asked, almost with a sense of foreboding, “Am I sure I’ve got everything?”  While another little voice said “Yes, of course!”

At the bottom of the stairs, I checked my handbag once again… OMG, my phone!  Where’s my phone?!  OMG!!!  At that moment, a man walked in, and in a panic, I asked if he spoke English (thankfully he did).  I don’t know how I expected him to help me, but he turned out to be Ursula’s neighbour.  I told him Ursula was out of town, but I had her number, although it was in my Airbnb account.  He invited me into his apartment and let me use his laptop!  He even offered me a cup of tea, although I was much too panicky to accept!  He called Ursula, who apparently didn’t seem thrilled with the idea of getting in a locksmith.  She said a friend of hers had a spare key, but he was working way on the other side of town.  I stupidly asked the neighbour what he thought I should do!!  He suggested I head to the airport to check in first, because who knows, my flight might be delayed.  I finally came to terms with the fact that there was no other option.  I would just have to get Ursula to send the phone to me.  In the meantime, I convinced myself that I could survive without my phone (at least I had my laptop)!

Fortunately, I remembered the S-bahn route and bus number to Tegel airport that I had googled the night before.  I got to the airport and checked the Flight Departures board.  Los Angeles…cancelled?!?!  I did a double take.  Yes, my flight was really cancelled!  The funny thing was, I was actually kind of happy!  I was in no hurry to get back for work or anything, and perhaps I now had a chance to get my phone back!

But what ensued was a nightmare!!  I was told to join a long queue (for reissuing of tickets) that had started forming.  Can you believe, I stood in line for 9 hours!!  During that time, I used my laptop to email Ursula, to get the number for her friend with the spare key.  I tried to call her on Skype too, but the connection was really bad.  Fortunately, there was a nice man in front of me from Abu Dhabi (who had only just found out, when he arrived at Tegel airport, that the flight for his onward journey had been cancelled; he didn’t even know where his checked luggage was!) who kindly lent me the use of his phone, not once, but twice, to call Ursula.  As I neared the front of the line, I told an airport employee about my phone, and asked if I could use hers.  She looked at me as if I had just made up some sob story, and directed me to a pay phone.  But I kept getting a message in German that I couldn’t understand, so I went back to the lady and begged for her help again.  This time, she offered me her phone to call Ursula’s friend, Matthias, to arrange a time to meet at the apartment.

Finally, after 9 hours, I got up to the ticket counter and I just wanted to cry!  I made it!  The woman serving me found a Lufthansa flight to Vancouver via Frankfurt the next day.  Perfect, I told her to book it.  But then frustrated stranded travellers started running up to the counter, one after another, and she started helping them!  I was in disbelief.  This was not the kind of customer service that I had expected in a country like Germany!  I was furious, but every time I pleaded with her to help me, she just said it was taking time to get my ticket confirmed.  It wasn’t until I complained to another employee (who yelled at her in German) that she finally decided to finish dealing with me.  By then, I was getting really anxious about making it back to the apartment on time.  I told the woman what I needed to do, and suggested that, since my ticket was taking so long, she could work on it while I went into the city.  She ignored me and agreed to my suggestion only after I had asked her about 5 times!

I made it back to the apartment with 5 minutes to spare.  Whew!  I got my phone and thanked Matthias profusely.  As I headed back to the S-bahn stop, I felt a huge sense of relief and decided to take some time out for dinner across the street at Ali Baba Restaurant & Doner.  By now it was already past 10 pm, and since 11:45 that morning, I’d only had 1 bottle of water and 2 little snacks that Air Berlin had provided to each person.  I don’t know if it was partly due to the emotional state I was in, but I thought my chicken doner was just the best tasting ever!

The tastiest doner at Ali Baba!!

Back at the airport, I was disheartened to hear that they were having problems issuing my ticket!  Words can’t describe how I felt.  I was utterly exhausted and too tired to even say anything.  What more could I do?  I was beyond angry.

Finally, shortly after midnight, and more than 12 hours after I started lining up, I got my new ticket!!!  OMG, I felt like I’d won the lottery when they called out my name!

And so that was my European trip….a wonderful journey through 10 countries, full of incredible experiences and delicious foods, and  hiccup-free until the very last day (at least I’ve now got a good story to tell)!

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