Ski. Hike. Eat. In Zakopane

Zakopane is known for skiing and hiking. And cheese. Before I came, I thought the first would play the most important role. It turned out to be a combination of the three. And maybe mostly the cheese…

Arriving winter wonderland in the early afternoon, I dumped my bag at Helios Hotel, and headed for the funicular to Gubalowka. On the way we passed through a local market, selling traditional handcraft, clothes, slippers and food. This was my first (but certainly not the last, as you might have already guessed) meeting with the local cheese. The small oval shaped pieces of patterned sheep cheese were quickly grilled, and served hot with cranberry jam. Mmmm, delicious! I had barely finished the first when I spotted a second stall, and we decided to have one more. I was officially addicted.
Traditional sheep milk cheese in Zakopane, Poland
The Gubalowka Funicular ran through an alley of evergreens, taking us up to 1120 masl for magnificent views of Zakopane and the Tetra mountains.
The funicular to Gubalowka. Zakopane, Poland The view from Gubalowka. Zakopane, Poland View from Gubalowka. Zakopane, Poland
There are several restaurants on top for some food and drinks to accompany the view. Since I love to try the local food when I travel, we went for traditional Kwaśnica soup with meat and potato and potato cake with mushroom, cheese and bacon. For drinks we had warm beer(!) with ginger. Well, I had never tried that, so of course I had to! To be honest, it was not my favorite, but still.

For dinner later in the evening, we went along the walking street looking for a restaurant. Just after the end, we found a place that looked cozy, and even brewed their own beer. Watra looked very small from the outside, but when we entered we found an enormous hall in the next room, with massive wooden benches and tables, a dance floor, and a live band! We decided to go all in and joined the locals. A thing to keep in mind, food portions are HUGE. The five of us shared mixed meat for three persons and a cheese plate as starter, and it was still lots of food left when we were more than stuffed!

It was time to get moving and check out the nightlife. The nightclub at Aries Hotel, Le Scandale Cocktail Room & Music Loft, is supposed to be the best in town, so we decided to give it a try. It sure was stylish and the bathroom amazing, but personally I am more a bar kind of girl.

Waking up to rain, we decided to go to Polana Szymoszkowa, just a few minutes away by bus. There were several places to rent skies, but we went for the first we saw, offering 4 hours for 20 zł. Perfect that we did not have to rent for a full day!

Choosing what type of lift card on the other hand, can be a challenge. Unlike the ski rental, it was no lift card by the hour, only full day, half-day and point card. As we were not sure about the conditions and the weather was not so good, we decided to go for the point card. We could always refill it if we wanted more. It turned out to be a great decision. The top of the slope was slushy. To put it mildly. It turned out to be more a workout turning in the heavy wet snow, than being fun. The last part of the run was better condition wise, but for me it was a little too flat.

Skiing in Polana Szymoszkowa. Zakopane, Poland
Seeking shelter from the rain, we went for a break with something hot to drink. As the rain only picked up, it turned into lunch. Including grilled cheese… And as the waiter so correctly put it; this weather is most suitable for sitting in a bar. We agreed, and ordered a hot beer with honey, cinnamon and cloves.

The last few runs felt a little bit easier, but it was probably just because there were almost no other people, so we did not need to worry about navigating between them and could concentrate on looking more professional when turning…

Luckily, the workout worked up an appetite again (Even though I swore I would never be hungry again after the dinner the night before…), and the mixed dish to share at Kolibecka restaurant looked tempting. Let’s just say we could not finish this time either…

It seemed that there are hardly any bars in Zakopane, just lots of restaurants, but finally we found Cafe Piano. Yes, they do have a piano, but it does not look like it is used often. It is a small cozy bar with wooden interior, giving a nice and welcoming feeling!

Overnight, winter wonderland turned to spring (In fairness, with a rather rainy day in between), so we decided to go for a hike. Taking the bus for about 10 min to Dolina Koscieliska, we paid the 5 zł ticket for Tatry National Park, and got going. We soon realized that the rain the day before had made the road quite icy and slippery, but we figured we could handle it. That was not the case for the woman planning to do the hike in high-heeled shoes… Quite frankly it was an easy hike, so it would be possible during the summer, but still… We did not see them again.
Hiking scenery from Dolina Koscieliska in Tatry National Park 2. Zakopane, Poland Hiking scenery from Dolina Koscieliska in Tatry National Park 1. Zakopane, Poland Hiking scenery from Dolina Koscieliska in Tatry National Park. Zakopane, Poland
Hiking along the gravel road, a couple of horses with carriages carrying local tourists passed us. I must admit I wished I was in one of them a few times while sliding on the ice like Bambi. However, the road between the evergreens and steep mountains steadily lead us to Hala Ornak following along the lively river. Our reward; sitting outside in the heating sun, looking up towards the snowcapped Błyszcz mountain with an ice cold beer in our hand. And nibbling grilled highland cheese with cranberries. For dessert, we enjoyed the local apple cake, with the same view and beer. Apparently, there is a competition between the chalets in the mountains to have the best apple cake. As I have only tasted one of them, this took first place. Judging by the taste of the grilled cheese (that I have tried a lot of!), I would say it was medium+.
Hiking scenery from Dolina Koscieliska in Tatry National Park 3. Zakopane, Poland Hiking scenery from Dolina Koscieliska in Tatry National Park 4. Zakopane, Poland
On the way back, an incredible amount of snow and ice had already melted, so it will probably only be a few days until the track is bare.

Back in town I was keen on some winter again, so we went straight to the Kasprowy wierch cable car to go to the top. Sadly we had not done our homework and did not realize that the cable car had its last run to the top at 15.00. To my defense, the ski slopes at the other places were to my surprise open until 20.00, so I did not even think this would close early. Anyway we learned our lesson, and pre-booked the ticket for the next day…

Due to the popularity of the Kasprowy wierch cable car, you have to choose the exact time when to go up, and return two hours after. At the top there are a few slopes with chair lifts on both sides. As I was craving to do some more skiing, I rented equipment at the top (2 hours for 20 zł) and got going. Bear in mind that the selection at the top is very limited, so I would advise to rent the skies downtown. That way you don’t waste the short time you have for skiing either. Also, there is a special ticket combining the cable car and the chair lifts. Buying them separate will cost you 20 zł per run with the chair lift. You do the math…
Skiing at Kasprowy wierch 3. Zakopane, Poland Skiing at Kasprowy wierch 1. Zakopane, Poland Skiing at Kasprowy wierch 2. Zakopane, Poland Skiing at Kasprowy wierch 4. Zakopane, Poland View from the Kasprowy wierch cable car. Zakopane, Poland
In general, I was quite surprised of the structure of the skiing in Zakopane. They did not have one big ski resort, but many smaller ones, most of them with just one lift and one slope. I also learned that many of the small private hotels had put up their own small lifts as well. For me this was a very strange, being used to larger areas with several ski lifts and many slopes to choose from at the same place. There are luckily a few larger areas a bit out of town. Or, you can easily do a day trip to Slovakia.

Getting to Zakopane:
Flying in to Krakow, I got on the train to the main train station, right next to the bus station. It was cheap and convenient, taking only 15 minutes. There are several bus companies going to Zakopane, but I found Polskibus very convenient, and booking the ticket online in advance was nice and easy.

Experienced in February.


Sopot and Gdansk

Sopot and Gdansk are two of three cities on the Baltic seaside of Poland, often known as Tricity. They are all very different. Sopot is situated by the long stretched beach, being a popular place for relaxing and retreat. The old Hanseatic town Gdansk is larger, with the old town packed with the lovely colourful houses I just can’t seem to get enough of. In addition, it is known for the many shipyards. Gdynia is a more industrialized city, and also the place where our boat to Karlskrona will leave from. All in all, they complete each other.

We decided to stay in Sopot, as I really needed to be able to swim in the sea! Finding a cheap apartment centrally located in the main street Monte Cassino, was just perfect. At least that is what I thought in the beginning. Monte Cassino 50 apartment was situated in a backyard, so we luckily got away from the party in the street. Both the young and the old we met later seemed to have had way too much to drink. To be honest, I was quite disappointed. I have been here before, both in winter and spring, and the atmosphere was so much nicer then. By all means, if you are after a place to hang out on the beach during the day, and party hard at night, this is definitely an alternative. Damn I feel old writing this!

We, on the other hand, just wanted to find some nice bars with people sitting talking, while enjoying a beer. It appeared to be much harder than expected, but finally we discovered the small beer house Małe Piwko with nice atmosphere.

In the morning, I at least got to feel the sea water on my skin. Finally!
Finally swimming in the ocean again! In Sopot Poland Sopot Beach
Sopot beach. Sopot Monte Cassino
Leaving our bags in the car at the guarded car park, we took the train to Gdansk. It runs very frequently, and from Sopot to Gdańsk Główny (the end station), it takes about 20 minutes. It is also possible to take a boat between the two cities, but there are limited departures, so check in advance.

Gdansk old town was just as pretty as I remembered, only a bit more crowed as it is high season, but not too much. But I must admit; after travelling through Europe, seeing so many stunning places, we were both quite filled with impressions. A bit sad, and unfear to beautiful Gdansk.
The old Hanseatic town Gdansk in Poland The old Hanseatic town Gdansk in Poland 8 The old Hanseatic town Gdansk in Poland 7 The old Hanseatic town Gdansk in Poland 5 The old Hanseatic town Gdansk in Poland 4 The old Hanseatic town Gdansk in Poland 6 The old Hanseatic town Gdansk in Poland 3 The old Hanseatic town Gdansk in Poland 2 Gdansk in Poland

Pretty Polish Poznan

Poznan is a pretty city with so many things to see and do, that you should not make the same mistake as we did; spending only one night. The historic buildings in renaissance style will make your jaw drop and already start planning your next visit.

Through a friend of a friend, I had made an appointment to meet with a local. Arriving quite late, she met us upon arrival and took us for a walk around the city. With various stops for both eating, drinking and even some history, we got a great overview of this magnificent city.
Poznan Old Market Square by night Poznan Old Market Square by night 3 Poznan Old Market Square by night 4 Poznan Old Market Square by night 2
Aneta took us to Basilium a small, cozy bar with a huge beer collection from all over Poland. The bottles were lined up on the wall behind the bar, and also in an additional shelf covering one of the others. The lighting was dimmed, with soft light to brighten up the dark walls. To divide one of the rooms, they had used melted and flattened glass bottles. A great place to go with both your friends or your loved one.

Basilium bar in Poznan 2 Basilium bar in Poznan 3 Basilium bar in Poznan
The next place we went, I must say I had my doubts just for a second. Entering Dragon, it was almost like walking in to a dragon’s cave. The place actually looked kind of tacky, and packed with loud, partying people. Luckily, Aneta walked determent through the horde, and out in the backyard. Better, but still the same crowd. But she went on, and opened a door that seemed to lead to a private house. Walking up the stairs, we passed two small rooms with bars, before coming out on a nice terrace. The perfect hidden gem! Apparently, there are several more rooms, and there are often concerts played there.
Secret stairs to heaven at Dragon Bar in Poznan
The heart of the city, the old market square, is surrounded by so many colourful houses, beautifully decorated with family shields and other decorative ornaments. Needless to say, I (again…) took too many photos…
Poznan market square 3 Poznan market square 4 Poznan market square Poznan market square 2
In the middle of the square, you find the high raised renaissance Town Hall from the 13-14th century. The beautiful decorated belfry is place for one of the city’s’ main attractions. Every day at noon, two mechanical goats appear, and butt their heads together twelve times. Legend has it that the clock master Bartlomiej Wollf in 1551 decided to present his finished work to the city council and the citizens of Poznan. For the special opening ceremony, all the nobles were invited as well as the citizens. The meat prepared for the ceremony unfortunately was burned, and the assistant chef was told to find new meat immediately, as the supper was about to be served. It was late and all the butchers were closed, so he could not buy it anywhere. At the last moment, he saw two goats playing on the fields nearby. He grabbed them and took them to the kitchen. The goat understood what was happening, and as they did not want to end up as food, they ran up the stairs to the high clock tower. Everybody was laughing, the goats were spared, and supper was served without meat.
Goats in the Town Hall in Poznan market square. Goats in the Town Hall in Poznan market square
Right next to the Town Hall, a group of narrow houses are lined up like pearls on a string, one more colourful than the other. These were the craftsmen houses, where articles like fish, candles and salt were sold.
Craftmen houses and the high raised renaissance Town Hall in Poznan market square Craftmen houses  in Poznan market square
When we were in Krakow, we were told that if we went to Poznan, we could not leave without trying the traditional St. Martin Croissant. We took their word for it! There is actually a museum for this, telling the interesting story and show how it is done. The light version, that is. To make a real St. Martin Croissant, you actually have to have a license, and it has to be renewed each year to prove that you make it the right way. Among other things, this means making the dough into many thin layers before it is cut into stretched out triangles. The filling is made by almond and poppy seeds. Mmmm!
Rogalowe museum in Poznan Making traditional St. Martin Croissant in Rogalowe museum in Poznan Traditional St. Martin Croissant in Rogalowe museum in Poznan
St. Martin is often described as a knight on a white horse, giving his coat to a beggar. The legend has it that a confectioner once found a horseshoe belonging to St. Martin’s horse. He gave the dough a similar shape, and decorated it with almonds. As a sign of his appreciation for the goodness of St. Martin, the confectioner gave them away to the poor.

And the bonus when visiting the Rogalowe museum; their windows face the Town Hall at the old market square and the demonstration finishes at noon, so you can watch the goats from there.

The cathedral is situated just across the bridge, on Cathedral Island. Dating back to the tenth century, it was actually the first built in Poland. In front of the cathedral is the gothic Holy Virgin Mary Church.
The Cathedral and the gothic Holy Virgin Mary Church on Cathedral Island in Poznan
Sadly, we had to rush back and get going, as we had a long drive ahead of us. But as the sun was finally shining, we had to make time to stop for ice cream. Lodziarnia (Wroniecka 17) make their ice cream from scratch, and frequently change their flavors, varying from traditional taste like caramel and chocolate to different fruits. Delicious!!
Ice cream at Lodziarnia in Poznan Ice cream at Lodziarnia in Poznan.
Poznan, I promise, I will be back!

Where to stay:
We went for the budget version, and booked an ensuite double room at Hostel Frolic Goats. It is very centrally located, only a few hundred meters from the old market square. I can imagine it being a bit noisier during the weekends, but in that case, the room came with earplugs as accessories. The room was tiny, but we only needed a bed to sleep in, so it was ok. It has a rather large kitchen and common room if you want to hang out there, but as we had minimum time, we were outside all the time.

Read my other posts from Poland and the road trip through Europe.

Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau – A day for reflections

Auschwitz Arbeit macht frei
main camp house different exhibitions including war history, explanation about the extermination, evidences of crime, collection of personal belongings and photos of prisoners. Living- and sanitary conditions are also shown. Moreover, there are several places of special interest, such as the Death Wall and gas chamber and crematorium 1. In addition, there are national exhibitions going in depth of the fate of the prisoners from different countries. Auschwitz II – Birkenau, show the living conditions of the prisoners in original barracks, as well as the railroad tracks leading directly into the camp, stopping by the unloading ramp.
Death Wall in Auschwitz
Auschwitz prisoners
Auschwitz II Birkenau 11
When I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau 13 years ago, it was as a part of a school trip. The previous years, classes had went on this trip during spring, but the teachers had now decided they wanted to go in winter instead as the site looked quite idyllic when the trees were blooming. I totally get there point! The trees along the path between the houses in Auschwitz were bursting with green leafs, and the grass among the barracks in Birkenau were packed with colourful flowers.

Don’t get me wrong, it is hard enough to imagine the cruelty that found place in the concentration camps anyway, but the more idyllic scenery does not help.
Auschwitz II Birkenau 6
I was actually surprised that the entrance to the area was free, but at the same time I am very glad, so that all that want do visit can do that. The only thing you have to pay for is if you want to have a guide.

Since both of us had been here before, we decided to walk around by ourselves. On my previous visit, a time witness that had been a prisoner in a concentration camp accompanied us. The stories of Eskild Jensen made such a big impression that I could still remember details from the stories he told us 13 years ago. He was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen that we also visited back then. It was obviously a totally different experience now, but at the same time it was also good to be able to take some more time to soak in the impressions. However, I think it could be useful to get the small guide book that give the brief description what the different barracks exhibit to be able to select what to focus on.

Auschwitz was established I 1940 for Polish political prisoners, but it did not take long before the Nazis deported people from all over Europe. They were mainly Jews, or others the Nazis considered less worthy as humans.

The choice of location was not by coincidence. Located just far enough outside the town Oswiecim for the inhabitants there not to intervene, and also being close to an important railway junction.

Auschwitz originally counted 20 buildings, but as the number of inmates continued to rise, they first built an additional floor, before they had to build eight new buildings. All this was done by the prisoners. In 1941 they constructed a second camp, called Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

One of the first things you notice when entering the area, is the barbed wire fences. Above the main gate at Auschwitz you see the inscription “Arbeit facht frei” (Work brings freedom). The prisoners would pass this gate every day on their way to work, with an orchestra playing to make them march so the SS could more easily count them.

From 1942 Auschwitz became the largest center for mass extermination of European Jews. The majority of the Jews deported here were killed in gas chambers immediately after arrival. As many of these were never registered, it is hard to know exactly how many persons were murdered here, but it is believed to be 1,5 million victims!

Most Jews coming to Auschwitz and Birkenau were convinced that they had been deported for resettlement. This also made them bring their most valuable belongings. Once unloaded from the trains, a physician from SS examined the new arrivals, determining who was capable for work, and who would be sent strait to death in the gas chambers. They did off course not know that this was their destiny, as they were told they would have a shower. The large bathroom was indeed filled with lots of showers, but they were never even connected with water. After locking and securing the doors, the chamber were filled with Cyclon B gas, killing the ones trapped inside. Their possessions were removed, including jewelries and gold fillings in their teeth.

Photo: Aschwitz II – Birkenau

Photo: Aschwitz II – Birkenau

One of the things making most impression, are the rooms filled with the victims belongings. Especially the piles of shoes in all sizes, knowing that every pair represent a person. And this is just a small part of the ones they collected. Suitcases, glasses and tons of hair are also displayed. Much of the victims’ hair was also used to make clothing.

Shoes in Auschwitz
Glasses in Auschwitz
Suitcases in Auschwitz
Countless prisoners were also undergoing medical experiments, and Dr. Joseph Mengele especially used twins for this matter.

The Death Wall between block 10 and 11 was the scene where thousands of prisoners were executed, by either shooting or hanging.

Aschwitz II – Birkenau is situated 3 km from the main camp. Coming through the gate, the first thing you notice is the railroad tracks leading directly to the center of the camp. After getting the background information from the main camp, you can vision the hordes of people at the unloading ramp, waiting for their fate to be determined.
Auschwitz II Birkenau 2
Auschwitz II Birkenau
The large area once contained over 300 buildings. Of these, 45 made of brick and 22 wooden have survived almost intact. The outlines of the previous other houses are clearly visible.
Auschwitz II Birkenau 7
At the end of the unloading ramp, there are remains of two crematoria and gas chambers. When SS had to retreat, they tried to blow up many of the buildings to conceal their criminal actions.

One of the things that I remember best from my last visit is the barrack for the children. The drawings on the walls made it all a little bit more alive, and made such a big impression on me.
Auschwitz II Birkenau 9
Auschwitz II Birkenau 10
Auschwitz II Birkenau 8
You should allow at least half a day for the visit, preferably even more, as time runs quicker than expected. The sun was setting for an emotional day at the concentration camps.
Auschwitz II Birkenau 4

How to get there:
There are several bus companies leaving from Krakow. We bought a one way ticket from the bus/train station by the local bus company PKSiS. The price was 14 PLN per person. This was a local bus stopping quite a few places along the way, letting off and picking up new passengers.

There is a free shuttle bus running between Auschwitz and Birkenau.

When returning to Krakow, we used another bus company, Lajkonik Bus. It started from the parking lot just across the street from the main building at Auschwitz. The standard was much better, it did not stop that many times along the way, and the price was even better, so I would absolutely choose this company instead. At least on the way back. I would still consider the other bus one way, to get the local experience.

Read my other posts from Poland and the road trip through Europe.

Kazimierz, the former Jewish Quarter, through the eyes of a local.

I am fortunate enough to have a friend from Krakow. I really love to experience the city through the eyes of a local. This time was definitely no exception!

Location: Kazimierz, the former Jewish Quarter. Said to be one of the coolest areas in Krakow, with many bars of different themes.

First, we went to Komisariat, a bar made as a former police station. The interior included a wall for, and with, mug-shots, TV screens with old news broadcasts. On one was there is a sheet with the police stations opening hours (not very long…), but with the address of the nearest working police officer!

Komisariat bar

Komisariat bar

A little food was needed before we went on. The polygonal house in the middle of the market square Plac Nowy, is known for the typical polish snack zapiekanka. It is kind of a mix between a half baguette and pizza. All of them serve more or less the same, but the queue in front of some makes it obvious that they are more popular than others. We ordered from the booth called Endzior, that the locals state have the best zapiekanka in Krakow. Even in the whole of Poland! We chose to share one with peperoni and mountain cheese, actually from the Tatra area! Tasted very delicious!

Enjoying the traditional snack zapiekanka.

Enjoying the traditional snack zapiekanka.

The second bar, Klub Piękny Pies, was situated in a side street to the main square. It has two different rooms, the one in the back often plays concerts. This bar is usually packed, but as it was Sunday it was quite quiet. But we enjoyed a few local Polish beers before we continued.

A very interesting concept is small bars offering small meals and vodka. It is popular in post-soviet countries to drink a shot of pure vodka with some local snack. Very fascinated! One of them, Zakąski i wódka, was situated right by the market square, so we went there and ordered Bigos, soup/stew with meat and cabbage. And vodka, since that was the way to do it. Perfect bar snack! Zakaski literally mean “something to bite after”, or simply snack after a shot of vodka. It would be a great idea to go out for dinner just eating one dish at each place. There are many to choose from!

Zakąski i wódka with a few pots in the corner for cooking.

Zakąski i wódka with a few pots in the corner for cooking.

Bigos and vodka at Zakąski i wódka.

Bigos and vodka at Zakąski i wódka.

We also had a beer at Alchemia, one of the most popular bars in the area. The bar has several rooms, decorated quite cozy with old-fashioned furniture. In the middle of the room, there was a large wardrobe, made as a door to the next room. Just like in the movie (and series) The Chronicles of Narnia. And the resemblance continues. Getting out on the other side, it was misty. In Lucy’s case in the movie, the mist came from the frost. In my case, it was smoke. The door lead to the smoking room.

One of the rooms at Alchemia.

One of the rooms at Alchemia.

Even though we walked from bar to bar, it was also time for some history. The Jewish Quarter Kazimierz is situated on an island and was originally granted from king Casimir III the Great (Kazimierz III Wielki in Polish) as a gratitude in the 1300s. During Holocaust, most of the Jews from the area were sent to Auschwitz, Birkenau or other concentration camps. The area still has a few synagogues, the only ones remaining in Krakow today. The fence in the park has obvious signs from the Jewish belief, shaped as many menorahs.

Although this was a night out to enjoy, it was good to get some perspective and realize the area has a lot of history dating back to ancient times, wartime and also present time.

Read my other posts from Poland and the road trip through Europe.