Our European Odyssey

This blog covered our month-long trip to Eastern Europe -- specifically the countries of Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria and Slovakia.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Anti-Smoking Gun

We started our day with a visit to the Russian Market, which is a large open-air market located in a former soccer stadium. You can find clothes, antiques and more (including bootlegged movies and other shady goods). Despite the shadiness, Andrea bought a sweater to fight the incessant cold. Her one long-sleeved shirt just isn't enough.

We then headed to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which was recommended to us by Maciek. The museum is dedicated to the citizens of Warsaw who rose up against the Nazi occupiers in 1944. They were successful enough to control parts of the city for more than two months but were eventually crushed by the Nazis.
As punishment for the uprising, the Nazis methodically leveled the already-war-torn city. This is why there are very few pre-World War II buildings in Warsaw and why it looks like a more modern, U.S.-style city (with skyscrapers and all).

Although something like 150,000 citizens of Warsaw were killed, until our trip, we had never heard of this event. Our history books focus mostly on the Western front, where American forces were actively involved. It's easy to forget about the horrors that occurred on the war's Eastern front.

The museum was very interactive and well-done. We hadn't planned to stop there, but after going, we would recommend it to any of you who find yourselves in Warsaw.

Later, while making our way down the Royal Road, Warsaw's most regal street, we happened upon an anti-smoking parade. Some people (such as the guy below) were carrying big cigarette guns and wearing skull masks. Whenever someone who was smoking passed by, these protesters fired their "guns" at the offender. It was odd but nice to see an anti-smoking movement here.

Our next stop was the day's second museum, which houses the John Paul II Collection. It's not pictures of the late pope but instead a collection of paintings donated by one family in honor of him. The museum features works by Dali, Picasso, Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian and Van Gogh.

Oddly enough, however, we had the museum to ourselves. They actually turned the lights on and off as we entered and exited rooms. We aren't sure why there was no one else there, but we felt like we were getting a private showing.

Tonight we plan to eat a Polish dinner with Maciek and his girlfriend before boarding a night train to Prague. Jake is hoping for more lard at the meal. He's developed quite a fondness for the greasy stuff. Andrea just wishes they sold granola bars in the grocery stores here.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Eminem by Candlelight

Today, we visited Warsaw's Old Town and New Town. New Town dates back to the beginning of the 15th century, and Old Town, as would stand to reason, is even older.

In 1944, the citizens of Warsaw rose up against the German Nazi occupation. They were successful for a short time, controlling a large section of the city, but the German army responded with overwhelming force, retook the city and crushed the freedom fighters. As punishment for their rebelliousness, the Nazis destroyed almost every building in the city, including the historic Old Town and New Town.

Shortly after the war, both Old Town and New Town were rebuilt as close as possible to how they looked before their destruction. Large fragments of the original buildings were reused in the reconstruction. Old Town was so well restored that it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is by far the most beautiful part of Warsaw.

We first visited the Royal Palace, the palace that replaced Wawel Castle as the royal residence when the capital was moved from Krakow to Warsaw. We will say again that royalty sure does have its privileges. It was beautiful. We visited the royal apartments and state rooms. Some of the furnishings were reproductions from the pre-war designs, but others were original pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries.

We also visited churches, but they were nowhere near ornate as what we saw in Krakow. Old Town and New Town both have beautiful main squares as well. The first picture shows Old Town's main square.

For lunch we ate at Gospoda Pod Kogutem, a small restaurant in New Town. We had potato pancakes with a "spicy" sauce (shown below). We have learned that nothing is actually spicy here, even the chili pepper sauce.

Andrea had a traditional sour soup. It was served in a bread bowl and consisted of a white broth, sausage and half of a hard-boiled egg. Jake had a soup that consisted of beet broth and small meat-filled dumplings (shown below).

We also enjoyed bread with homemade lard (shown below). It was surprisingly very good, though it doesn't look that appetizing. The lard had a strong bacon flavor and had pieces of bacon and carmelized onions in it.

We should mention that this whole meal cost only 30 zloty, which is about $10. You can eat very cheaply over here. That is a very good thing.

The ambience of the place was nice. There white tablecloths and candles on the table. The walls were adorned with a variety of traditional Polish items and pictures. However, the music was American pop music, including Eminem singing "The Real Slim Shady." It took something away from the elegance of the place, but it was amusing.

Speaking of food, we should mention the meal we had for lunch yesterday. Maciek and his girlfriend wanted to take us to a nearby Asian restaurant that is owned by a half-Chinese half-Polish woman. Jake had a Thai soup made of chicken broth and coconut milk, and Andrea had a Thai green curry dish. It was very good. The meals were supposed to be spicy but weren't. We guess the Polish palate is more sensitive than ours.

We also forgot to mention that after we arrived at Maciek's yesterday (a little before noon), he offered us tea and shots of Polish vodka. Apparently, it is a traditional thing to offer guests a shot of vodka when they first arrive. It is also traditional for the vodka to be cherry-flavored. We declined.

We Saw Stalin's Penis

Well, we were finally able to post again. It's always a bit trying to find an Internet connection when we get to a new city. Really, it just takes a bit of time to get our bearings (actually for Jake to get his bearings, as Andrea never has hers). It seems like just when we are getting comfortable with a place, we move on, but such is the traveler's life.

Yesterday, we got up at 4 a.m. to catch the 5:30 train from Zakopane to Krakow and then an express train to Warsaw. When we arrived in Warsaw, we walked to the home of our friend Maciek. We met him last summer in Columbia when he was visiting Mizzou after winning a journalism contest.

He had offered that we could stay at his place, but until we walked in his place, he failed to mention that his apartment consists of only a small kitchen, living room and bathroom. There is not even a bedroom. For those who have seen our Columbia apartment, his place makes ours look like a mansion. The couch pulls out into a bed, which is where he and his girlfriend sleep. The only place left to sleep is the limited amount of hardwood floor left over.

Luckily, a couple of Maciek's friends, with a very spacious apartment, offered to let us sleep there. So all is well, and we even got gifts last night and breakfast this morning.

On the sightseeing front, we visited Wilanow yesterday (pictured below). They call it Poland's answer to Versailles. We've never seen Versailles, but the palace sure was pretty. We had also planned to visit a poster museum, but unfortunately it is closed as they change exhibits.

After we rode the bus back to the city center, we were able to get a good look at Stalin's Penis...

"Stalin's Penis" is actually a pejorative nickname given to the Palace of Culture and Science (shown below), a 1955 "gift" from the Soviet Union. It was at the time the tallest building in Poland and was widely viewed as an ugly symbol of communism.

Today, we plan to visit the New Town and Old Town. Also, we booked our reservation for the night train to Prague tomorrow night. The forecast for Prague is calling for highs of about 50.

Speaking of the weather, our host Maciek said this is the coldest May that he can remember. It is apparently freakishly cold now. *Sigh*

Sunday, May 28, 2006

"Cold" is a Four-Letter Word

Enough with the hot-weather comments. You are making us jealous.

Yes, it is cold here. We'll sum it up this way: Andrea has worn the one long-sleeved shirt she packed five days in a row. (Don't worry; we've been able to do laundry.)

We arrived in Zakopane yesterday, and the temperature was maybe 50. Plus it was raining. The perfect combination for getting out and exploring a place. It's a shame because Zakopane is a beautiful outdoor recreation area surrounded by the Tatra Mountains. It's also extremely popular in the winter. It was actually one of the finalists for this year's Winter Olympics.

Anyway, we had big plans for hiking in the mountains, but this has ended up being more of a relax-in-our-warm-room kind of weekend. Actually, our room is as cold as it is outside because our hostess leaves the windows open, but at least it has blankets.

We took a bus yesterday morning from Krakow to Zakopane. It was an experience in itself. Roads were blocked off in Krakow so the pope could be taken from one place to another. Our bus driver apparently was unaware of this and had a conversation through the window with a police officer at a busy intersection. The officer must have explained that the way was blocked because we then set off on a bit of a detour. Instead of getting on a highway, our driver (after backing up traffic by doing something like a U-turn in a residential neighborhood) started down a very narrow, very curvy, carsickness-inducing road for which the speed limit was 30 mph (but our bus went more like 45). We traveled this way for too long as far as Andrea is concerned. She wasn't feeling so well, but eventually we made it to Zakopane.

As soon as we stepped off the bus, our next adventure began. Zakopane is the only stop on our trip for which we didn't arrange our lodging ahead of time. There are many residents who offer rooms in their homes, and we had read that finding a place to stay is no big deal.

When we got off the bus, an older Polish woman told us in broken English that she had an available room in her home. After asking her a couple of questions and having her point to her place on the map, we decided to give it a try. The room is just fine -- we even have a TV (to watch such great shows as a Polish-dubbed version of "Baywatch") -- and there is a shower and a toilet.

But our hostess -- well, she's no Hungarian grandma. She's actually quite weird. She repeated herself a lot. She told us many times which direction the souvenirs were. When she made up our bed, she kept repeating something that sounded disconcertingly like "Gross." We think she might have meant "Great" though because she asked Andrea whether we're from "Gross Britain." We do have such refined, proper-sounding accents...

Oh yeah, and she decided that Andrea's name is Angellica and Jake's is Jackie. But she talks mostly just to Andrea, however. She showed Andrea how to lock and unlock the doors, but after Andrea took the keys from her, she snatched them back and said, "No. Man" and handed them to Jake. Apparently, Andrea's dainty little feminine mind wouldn't be able to keep track of the keys. Funny considering the fact that Jake has had to call Andrea at work a few times after locking himself out of the apartment.

After we escaped her clutches, we wandered down the main road, which is tourist central. Jake said it reminds him of Estes Park or Jackson Hole. Andrea said it reminds her of Branson.

We decided that instead of taking a hike, we would ride the cable car up into the mountains. Our guidebook says the walk to the cable car is less than a mile. It's actually more like 3. Uphill. Well, up a mountain really.

The views from the cable car on the way up were spectacular -- tall peaks, deep valleys, black rock, green trees and white snow. The view from the top was also spectacular. Spectacularly ... foggy. We really couldn't see much more than a few feet. So like the pope photo fiasco, we were foiled again in our quest for photo glory. It was also really cold up there, and it was misting.

After our descent and minibus ride back into town, we gave in to our American urges and went to Pizza Hut for dinner. We didn't exactly feel like hard-core travelers, but it was a good meal.

We relaxed in our room last night. We even watched a little Polish TV. Five of our seven channels were covering the pope's visit. They're pope-crazy around here.

This morning we were lazy and lay in bed until 7:30. After leaving, we followed a stray dachshund to the train station to buy our tickets to Warsaw. Oddly enough, this is actually the second stray dachshund we've seen around a train station. (The other was in Hungary.)

We went to the local natural history museum. It was neat and also free. It had taxidermied animals that are found in the Tatras. Later, we might do a short hike up one of the nearby mountains. It's not looking promising though. There's a 90 percent chance of rain. And of course it's still cold.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Final Thoughts from Krakow

Well, we are in Zakopane now, but we wanted to share a few more photos and thoughts about Krakow. First, we did a double-take yesterday when walking by a clothing store in Krakow. It had a shirt in the window that said "Iowa State Supply Teacher." We don't know what to say about that.

Interestingly, in Krakow they seem to put heads on everything, like these two doors to St. Mary's Church. In Wawel Castle, there is a room with 30 wooden heads on the ceiling that were made to look like a taxidermist's work.

While in Krakow, we visited a lot of churches.

We ate a lot of good food.

And at the end of the day, we were worn out.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Running With the Nuns

First of all, we did get to see the pope last night. We will explain the circumstances in just a bit (including the running with the nuns.)

We apologize for the multiple post madness. We were having trouble and tried to post several times but didn't think it was working. It obviously was...

Anyway, after we returned from Auschwitz and Birkenau yesterday, we were hungry and decided to try some authentic Mexican food, as only Poland makes it. (OK, Poland's version of Mexican food.) Instead of chips and salsa, they brought us peanuts in the shell. Definitely interesting. Our meals were pretty good though. Andrea had enchiladas, and Jake ordered fajitas. Our only complaint was that they needed salt. That's actually been our one complaint about several of the things we've eaten here. It seems these Eastern Europeans don't know how a little salt can really enhance flavor.

The salt and pepper (if they are present) are located in little ramekins on the table. (A ramekin is a small bowl.) If you want some of either, you pinch a little out of the bowl and sprinkle it on your food. In several places, we have seen ramekins of paprika alongside the salt and pepper.

But back to the pope.
You could tell he was coming because of all the preparations in the city. Vatican and Polish flags were everywhere. Barricades were set up, and the police force seemed to double daily. At Auschwitz, they were setting up chairs for the pope's visit on Sunday. Also, many of our fellow hostel guests were pretty upset to learn that alcohol sales would be banned while the pope was in town.

It can be extremely hard to get good information when you are in a foreign country where you don't speak the language. After we found out that Pope Benedict XVI would be coming to Krakow, we asked at least three different people (and looked on the Internet) for the schedule surrounding his visit. Until last night, we thought that we were just going to miss his visit -- that he would be here Saturday and Sunday, but we would be in Zakopane those days.

Turns out that he was arriving by helicopter at about 8 last night. We only discovered this when we noticed barricades, people waiting by them and a large number of police (including SWAT team-like officers). We decided to try to catch a glimpse of him, so we walked to Main Market Square a little before 7. We got a good spot and settled in to wait. And wait we did. We stood alongside excited Poles and tourists waving their pope flags that the city had been selling in anticipation of the big event. At about 8, a helicopter, which we assume was transporting the pope, flew overhead.

After waiting two and a half hours, we saw the first police car of the motorcade. The next vehicles were loaded with security personnel. And then came the popemobile, with two cardinals in front and Benedict himself. The excitement in the crowd was contagious. As the cars cruised by, the pope smiled and waved to all. We were within 15 feet of him. It was pretty neat. We'd like to say we can prove it with pictures, but as you can see, in the only picture that would have turned out, the pope is obscured by an exuberant Polish woman's flag. So use your imagination, and remove the flag from the picture to see the pope.

Here is a news photo from the event showing the pope in his popemobile.

After his drive-by, the crowds began to disperse, so we headed back to the hostel. We had left laundry in the washer and needed to move it over. As we approached our hostel, we noticed that people were running around us in the direction of the Archbishop's Palace, where Benedict would be staying. Jake went to investigate where everyone was going while Andrea went up to move the laundry.

Jake followed the crowds, but they only led to a dead-end street. He stood around for a few minutes until he heard a huge cheer a few streets over. He (along with everyone else) began running over to where the cheer came from. As he ran the three blocks, he looked to his left and realized he was running alongside 10 nuns holding hands. They were giggling like schoolgirls. It isn't every day that you run with nuns down cobblestone streets in search of the pope.

He arrived at a huge park packed with thousands of people just as Benedict began to address the crowd. Jake couldn't see him, so he tried to move to get a better vantage point. However, everyone else had the same idea, so he didn't move very quickly.

He never did see the pope in the park, but he did hear his speech, which he assumed was in Polish. The only word Jake recognized was the pope's last one in the speech: "Dziekuje," which is Polish for "thank you."

It sure was exciting. It will be hard to top the experiences that we have had here in Krakow, but today we move on to Zakopane, a popular outdoor recreation area.

We plan to do one last Krakow post when we get a chance with some more photos and stories.

Auschwitz and Birkenau

This morning we took a minibus from Krakow to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Our tour started at Auschwitz, which was a concentration camp until 1943, when it was changed to an extermination camp. The difference is that in a concentration camp, the causes of prisoners' deaths were starvation, overwork and illness, whereas in an extermination camp, deaths came quickly via poisonous gas. About 1.5 million people died at Auschwitz and Birkenau, mostly Jews but also intellectuals, Russian POWs, gypsies, homosexuals and the infirm.

Above the entrance to Auschwitz is the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign, German for "Work Shall Set You Free." This only gave false hope to the many who perished there. We also saw barracks where prisoners were housed, cells used for punishment (including cells so small that prisoners suffocated) and an execution wall.

One of the barracks housed the most gut-wrenching exhibits. There were rooms full of the prisoners' personal belongings recovered when the camp was liberated in 1945. These items were confiscated from the prisoners when they first arrived at the camp. There were rooms stuffed full of eyeglasses, shoes, pots and pans, crutches and prosthetic limbs. Perhaps the most difficult to view were the children's clothing and toys. There was also a large room (about 10 feet by 25 feet) full of hair that had been shaved from corpses in the gas chambers. The Nazis sold these items, including the hair, to industry and German citizens. The Nazis even went so far as to sell the human ashes from the incinerators as fertilizer.

The second part of our tour took place at Birkenau, which served primarily as an extermination camp. It was built hurriedly because of overcrowding at Auschwitz. Even though Birkenau was 425 acres, conditions were so crowded that 10 people would share a 5-by-10-foot bed. We got an upsetting glimpse into the cramped and filthy conditions the victims were forced to live in.

Birkenau has five gas chambers that were used to kill prisoners with the gas Zyklon B. The chambers were about 2,000 square feet, and as many as 2,000 prisoners would be packed in and gassed at one time. The chambers are in ruins now because the Nazis destroyed them shortly before the camp was liberated in order to remove evidence of the genocide that was taking place.

It wasn't what you would call a fun experience, but we're glad we went. It was a sobering reminder of the evil man is possible of.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A Day of da Vinci

Yesterday, we took a break from Catholic churches to visit Jewish synagogues and cemeteries. You can't escape religion in Krakow.

Kazimierz is the 600-year-old Jewish quarter of the city. Before World War II, there were more than 68,000 Jews in Krakow. However, because of deportation and extermination by the Nazis, there are now fewer than 100 practicing Jews in the quarter.

The first cemetery we visit was Remuh Cemetery, which was founded in 1553. Legend says that the Remuh, the rabbi who founded the cemetery, caused strong winds to rise up and cover the cemetery with sand, protecting it from the 19th-century Austrian invaders. It was still covered with sand during the Nazi occupation, so unlike many other Jewish cemeteries, it was not destroyed.

We also visited the New Jewish Cemetery, which was established in 1800. Unlike Remuh Cemetery, it was largely destroyed by the Nazis. It has been mostly rebuilt, and broken tombstones have been
symbolically used to construct a portion of the walls.

We also visited two synagogues in the quarter, Remuh Synagogue and Old Synagogue. We were struck by how plain and simple they were, in sharp contrast to the extreme ornamentation and gilding in the town's Catholic churches.

After lunch, when Jake had more pierogis and Andrea enjoyed sauerkraut and sausage pasta, we visited the Czartoryskich Museum. The museum houses Polish historical items and European art. Its most famous work is da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine" (pictured below). We played the roles of art critics by critiquing the masterpiece. (Because we know so much about art...) While there, we also saw Egyptian mummies (both humans and animals), Greek art and medieval military weapons and armor.

We ended our day with more da Vinci by seeing "The Da Vinci Code" (or in Polish, "Kod Da Vinci") at a nearby theater. Going to the movies is easier on the pocketbook here. For about $7, you can buy a ticket, popcorn and a soda. Polish theaters are different also because you get assigned seats when you buy your tickets. The movie was pretty good. It was in English with Polish subtitles. The only problem was that because the movie has scenes spoken in French and Latin, the Polish subtitles weren't that helpful.

On the way back to the hostel, Jake stopped to take a photo of the Ratusz and Cloth Hall at night.

On the pope front, we found out that he will not be in Krakow until Saturday. Unfortunately, we will be in Zakopane by then, so we will not get a chance to see him.

Several of you have mentioned that the weather is hot and dry in the Midwest now. Here it has been cool and rainy almost every day. We packed shorts but haven't worn them yet. Andrea has worn a fleece pullover every day. We can't say we are longing for a Midwest summer, but some warmer weather would be nice.

Today we are going to Auschwitz and Birkenau. It should be a sobering day.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Salt Under the Earth

Yesterday morning, we rode a minibus from Krakow to Wieliczka, home to a gigantic salt mine. On the way there, we saw another poster advertising a Guns N' Roses concert in Krakow. So they're not just big in Hungary. They must have quite a following across Eastern Europe. Speaking of American music, we hear '80s American pop songs everywhere. American music at its pinnacle...

But back to the salt mine. We took a two-hour tour that started with us descending 385 stairs. But by the time the tour was over, we had gone about 400 feet underground. (And the mine extends much farther down than that.)

The mine was started more than 700 years ago and at one point supplied more than a third of Poland's GDP. They only stopped actively mining salt six years ago. This mine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the sculptures carved into the salt by the miners. Everything is salt, from the walls to the floors to the chandeliers and staircases.

Some of the sculptures we saw date back more than 400 years, but the crown jewel of the mine is one of the chapels. We say one because the mine has at least three that we saw on the tour and several more that we didn't see. So we even make it to church when we are 400 feet below ground.

This chapel features carvings that date from the 1870s to the 1950s. The carvings depict scenes from the life of Jesus -- from birth and the slaughter of the innocents to his teaching in the temple (pictured above) to the wedding at Cana to the Last Supper (pictured below), the crucifixion and Doubting Thomas. All of the carvings are made entirely of the dark gray salt native to the mine except the baby Jesus in the Nativity. The baby Jesus was done in pink rock salt from a nearby mine. This chapel was phenomenal and entirely done by three miners who were only amateur sculptors.

After the mine, we came back to Krakow and took time to, you guessed it, visit a few more Catholic churches. We then stopped in a poster gallery featuring original and reprinted Polish posters. Jake sure is glad he brought a poster tube because now it is filled. He picked up a couple of political- and travel-themed items.

We finished the day by attending a classical music concert at Saints Peter and Paul Church (pictured above at night). The performance was done by a five-piece ensemble (with a trumpet soloist). They performed six different pieces by J.S. Bach, Pachelbel, Albinoni, and Mozart. The crowning piece was Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" ("A Little Night Music"). It was phenomenal. The church was not only beautiful but also had great sound quality. It inspired us to listen to more classical music. The only downside was that we had to sit in the hard wooden pews for an hour and a half.

Today we are planning to visit the Jewish Quarter and a couple of museums. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Andrea and Jake, the Churchgoers

Since we've started this vacation, we've turned into avid churchgoers. We've probably been to church more than any of you, dear readers. OK, not really to church but in church. Churches, actually. Since arriving at 6 yesterday morning in Krakow, Poland, we've been to at least seven Catholic churches.

Krakow appears to be the most Catholic town we've ever seen. In addition to the many Catholic churches packed into a very small radius, we've seen nuns, priests and monks (in full garb) everywhere, plus posters trumpeting the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI.

Last night was our first night in a hostel. So far, we've been very impressed. Mama's Hostel offers a free breakfast, free laundry, free Internet and a great central location. We can walk basically everywhere we want to go in the city.

Did we mention free breakfast? It's quite a spread, too. In both Hungary and Poland, we've been served sandwiches for breakfast -- not American-style bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches but ones with good bread, deli meat, cheese, veggies, cream cheese and more. They are wonderful.

We're sleeping in a 10-bed dorm. Not surprisingly, we were the first to go to bed last night and the first to get up this morning.

Yesterday, after checking in at the hostel, we started our day by visiting Wawel Castle, a 10th-century castle with 71 chambers and beautiful 16th-century tapestries. We viewed the state rooms, the armory and the royal treasury. Royalty sure did have its privileges.

We also visited Wawel Cathedral, the coronation site for centuries of Polish kings and queens and home to the tombs of several Polish royals and national heroes. Our poor legs didn't get a rest, as we climbed to the top of the cathedral to view Krakow from above.

We then meandered down the Royal Road, home to many of the city's notable sights, mostly churches. Also part of the Royal Road is Cloth Hall, a venue for local merchants to sell jewelry, clothes and knick-knacks. The jewelry is made primarily of amber from the nearby Baltic Sea.

We just found out yesterday that the pope will be in Krakow at the end of this week. We'd like to catch a glimpse of him while he's here, but it might not work out. Notice in the poster that Benedict is following in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II, who was Archbishop of Krakow and beloved by his countrymen.

For dinner last night, we went to a small restaurant that specializes in pierogi, a dumpling that can be stuffed with a wide variety of food -- fruits, cheeses, meats, etc. Andrea had the pierogi ruskie (stuffed with cottage cheese and potatoes), and Jake had a mixed platter of pierogis (stuffed with cheese, meat or sauerkraut). Oh yeah, did we mention that bacon grease was drizzled over the tops of them? They were a very good dinner. We also drank cherry juice with our dinner. It was neat because you could see the woman making the pierogis after you ordered. It was definitely made-to-order, authentic Polish cooking.

Today we plan to visit the Wieliczka salt mine. Click on the link for the fascinating history of the mine.

Eger Pictures

Here are the promised pictures from Eger.

Andrea enjoying browsing at the local market. Notice how happy she is to be around all that food.

The ultimate fear conquerer, the minaret, with its small circular staircase. Our legs are still feeling the aftereffects.

The view from the top of the minaret. Some of the vineyards can be seen in the background.

Jake enjoying a glass of Bull's Blood wine in the Valley of the Beautiful Women.

While in the Valley, we enjoyed an appetizer. Don't worry; we ate off of the "Special Diet" menu. Apparently, a special diet in Hungary means all fried foods; sign us up!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Eger, eh?

Hello from Krakow, Poland! It's 6:30 a.m., and we got off the train less than an hour ago. We have no Poland stories yet, but here's how our day went yesterday:

We said goodbye to Grandma, who had hugs and the traditional two-cheek European kisses for us, and boarded a train from Budapest to Eger. We arrived at 11:15 a.m. and had to catch our train to Krakow at 8 p.m., so we didn't have a lot of time. Shortly after arriving, we already wished we could spend more time in Eger. Though it is a town of more than 50,000, it seemed like a relaxing and quiet place, far from the hustle and bustle of Budapest.

Because we both think with our stomachs, our first stop was the local market, where we shared a langos, which is a Hungarian fried doughnut. We topped ours with sour cream, though other toppings include cheese and garlic. We also bought some strawberries at the market. They looked gorgeous and tasted just as delicious. You don't eat strawberries that good very often.

After our lunch of sorts, we headed to the minaret, which was formerly used to call Muslims to prayer when the city was controlled by the Ottoman Turks. It's just a very narrow, 130-foot-tall tower, and for a dollar, you can climb to the top. Sounds simple, but we didn't know this would by far be the scariest thing we'd done on our trip. (Scarier than getting locked in a Burger King bathroom even.)

To get to the top, you climb a long spiral staircase. Each step is small and narrow, and the staircase is only about 2 feet wide. It would be impossible for someone to go up while someone else was coming down. Also, there are a few light bulbs installed, but one was burned out, so we had to climb a few stairs in complete darkness. Oh yeah, did we mention there's no handrail and the stairs are very smooth (nearly slick)? It seemed like a way to attack all the big phobias at once: claustrophobia, fear of darkness, fear of heights ... We enjoyed the view of Eger once we got to the top. We then braved our way back down and quickly noticed our quads were burning. The climb was quite a workout.

We then visited Eger Castle, which had its heydey around 1500 when Dobo Istvan, supposedly emboldened by the town's famous Bull's Blood wine, led his men to success by unexpectedly stopping the invading Turks.

Our next stop was the Eger Cathedral, which was huge and ornate, as so many Catholic churches in Europe seem to be. It's also the location of Europe's second-largest organ. We wish we could have heard it played.

Our last destination in Eger was the "Valley of the Beautiful Women." Eger is known for its red wine, and the valley is filled with private wine cellars dug into the volcanic rock. We visited a couple for samples, including Bull's Blood, a dry red that's a bit spicy. Unfortunately, the insides of the cellars were covered with mold, which wasn't good because Andrea quickly found out she's allergic to mold. She couldn't stand to be in them for very long, so we sat outside.

We finally boarded our overnight train to Krakow, where we were awakened three separate times for passport inspections at border crossings, not to mention the additional times we were woken for ticket checks, so it wasn't a very restful night. We're now in Krakow, where we'll spend the next four days and get to see the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps and the Wieliczka salt mine. Hopefully we'll be able to post pictures later today.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Locked Up in Budapest

Of all places for Andrea to be locked in a bathroom stall, it would have to happen in a Burger King in a foreign country. She went in to use the restroom and after taking care of the lack of toilet paper in the stall by finding some in her bag, couldn't get the door unlocked. She tried unsuccessfully for a few minutes but realized she would have to wait for someone else to come in the bathroom (an English speaker at that.) After a few minutes, a couple of people entered, and Andrea asked whether anyone spoke English. Someone said she did, and Andrea explained her predicament. The nice young woman went to get an employee, but before she returned, another helpful soul managed to unlock the door with a coin. By the time Andrea came outside, Jake was about ready to send in a search party.

That was probably the most exciting episode for the day. Today was a rather relaxing day because most stores in Budapest are closed on Sundays, and we had planned to do some shopping.

We were able to go to the House of Terror, a museum that documents the horrors of Nazi and Communist occupations of Hungary. The museum is located in the former headquarters of both the Hungarian Nazi and Communist parties and includes the torture chamber and gallows in the basement. It was a powerful exhibit.

For dinner, Grandma served us goulash and bread. It was very authentic and perfect for the rainy weather. Dessert was a dense, doughnut-like ball with a sour cream topping. We have never had anything like it.

Also, we forgot to add this the other day: A choir from the University of Missouri-Columbia is going to sing at Matthias Church in Budapest next Sunday. Talk about a small world!

Tomorrow, we head to Eger (known for its red wines) for the day, and then we will take an overnight train to Krakow, Poland. We aren't sure when we will post next, but we will when we get a chance.

Szentendre pics

Here are the pictures we couldn't get posted yesterday.

Andrea in a Szentendre side street.

A group of the aforementioned dancers at the Szentendre children's performance festival.

This photo shows a man sweeping the walkway of a church. The broom is made of twigs. We also saw workers in Budapest using this same type of broom along with more modern-looking brooms. It looks like a Quidditch broom from "Harry Potter."

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Szentendre on the Danube Bend

We spent the day in Szentendre, a small town north of Budapest on the Danube Bend. In Hungarian, "Sz" is pronounced like the S in "Sam," so the town name is pronounced sen-ten-dra. (We have seen English loan words like "szerviz" for "service" and "szauna" for "sauna.") The town is known for its cobblestone streets, medieval church, artists and Danube view.

After enjoying the medieval church and early-morning deserted streets, we bought Grandma some flowers at the town's outdoor market. We hope she likes them.

We were in luck because a children's festival was going on today. We got to see kids singing and dancing to some traditional Hungarian music and others dancing to some not-so-wholesome American rap and pop music. The audience and performers probably had no idea what the lyrics were saying.

We enjoyed a quiet lunch in a local restaurant. Andrea had Bűkkős-style pork stew, and Jake had Bugac-style turkey breast stew with fried potatoes. We had two glasses of strong Hungarian wine along with our meals. It was very good. We would like to describe our meal a bit more but aren't sure how.
We wanted to post more pictures, but we are having computer issues. We guess that is how it goes when you use an Internet cafe. We'll try to add them later.

Day 3 Pics

Here are six of the pictures from our third day in Budapest. Click on the pictures for larger versions.

A view of the Danube, Margit Island and Parliament from Chain Bridge.

A view of Chain Bridge and St. Stephen's Basilica from Castle Hill.

Andrea next to the stone fortifications surrounding the Royal Palace on Castle Hill.

The altar and one of the stained glass windows in Matthias Church on Castle Hill.

Our Hungarian grandma, who only pretended she didn't want to pose for a picture. In true grandma style, she keeps trying to feed us cookies when we are already full, including for breakfast this morning.

Speaking of Grandma, this is a picture of the dessert she made for dinner last night. It is what we described as an apple German pancake-like dessert with meringue topping. She said the name of it is Magiya Rakas, which means "witch's bonfire pile" because the layers are stacked up like wood in a bonfire pile to burn a witch.