|Liam with a 'beer tower' at CK Browar in Krakow.|
After an overnight train journey from Prague (complete with friendly conductor who woke us up in the morning with a cup of tea) we arrived on Polish soil. We planned to go straight from Krakow to Zakopane and return to Krakow after having had our fill of snowboarding. After a couple of hour bus journey we arrived in super-chilled Zakopane. Thus far temperatures hadn't been very low and we noticed the difference, especially hanging around waiting for the mini bus to hostel. We managed to get lost finding the hostel after missing the stop and taking an unintended detour through very snowy streets. The hostel was located just outside of the town on the way up to the mountains and the forest, a lovely setting for a hostel. It was an old Zakopane-style wooden building (like a chalet), with very friendly and relaxed staff. We got to to know Dave (from Newcastle) over the 5 nights we stayed there, a pretty legendary guy who even managed to come up with a better solution than a hair clip for my broken coat zip (which was becoming a real bore having to get a hair clip out every time I wanted to take it off or put it on).
We managed to get onto the slopes at Male Ciche the first afternoon for a few runs to reaquaint ourselves somewhat. Cue lots of dramatic falls (mostly on my part - my ribs are still hurting!) and of course big kielbasa sausages and hot beer. For some unknown reason the Poles like to serve beer hot in the winter (optionally of course), in this case with a shot of syrup which failed to mask the horrendous taste that comes from heating cheap lager. One of the first (and hopefully last) occasions on this trip where we failed to finish our beers! Waited for the bus at the slopes looking enviously at the people hopping onto horse drawn sleighs, being huddled under fur blankets and carrying flaming torches so the cars would see them coming. Must be quite a magical way to end a day at the slopes! After another day at Male Ciche we headed further afield for the next couple of days to the slopes at Bialkaa. This was a much bigger resort with long, wide blue and red runs. It finally started to feel like we were improving, and a jolly good time was had by both of us; whizzing / gliding / tumbling down the slopes, drinking hot wine and eating Zurek (a soup made from vegetables, sour cream and fermented rye, with sausage and egg in it - far more delicious than it sounds).
Towards the end of the week our good friend Mark flew out to join us. He had spent a day in Krakow and then taken the bus down to Zakopane to join us at the hostel. Cue beer, pierogi and bison vodka! Mark's arrival prompted the end of the boarding and instead we took the oppotunity to explore Zakopane. The town centre itself was very toursity, not helped by the fact that our visit conincided with half term, so there were lots of souveniour stalls, people in giant bear costumes and balloon sellers. We had heard horror stories of four hour queues to get on the funicular railway, but we checked it out anyway and found we could get straight on! The view of the Tatra Mountains from the top was incredible and made it stike home why Zakopane is such a popular place for winter sports (and hiking in summer).
The next day we caught the bus back up to Krakow. It was the third time that we've visited Krakow and the appeal doesn't diminish! In fact this time we probably enjoyed it more, and in our minds it cemented itself as a must-see destination in Eastern Europe (above Prague - its just a bit more down to earth!). As well as doing the usual routine of wandering the old town square, drinking pivo and visiting the castle, we also visited a new museum devoted to Krakow's experience of WWII, based in Schindler's factory. A fascinating modern musuem, with well presented exhibits and lots of video 'first hand accounts' of what Krakow was like under Nazi occupation. Neither of us have actually seen 'Schindler's List', so learning more about Schindler himself was also interesting, as was realising that Schindler wasn't quite the 'hero' that is sometimes made of him (for starters the reason he had so many Jews in his employ was that they were cheap labour and by many accounts a greedy capitalist - but of course he came good in the end). We also took in the old site of the Pharmacy Under the Eagle, the only pharmacy within the Jewish ghetto in Karkow that was allowed to remain open during the war, with the pharmacist continuing to dispense (often free) medication and bring valuable news from the other sides of the walls to the ghetto's occupants. A further museum we visited was the Museum of Pharmacy - lots of old pharmaceutical instruments, vials etc. Our favourite exhibit were some 'Everlasting laxative pills' which were suitable for multiple uses if you washed them after use!
Anyway - enough of the museums and onto the beer! Mark took us to C. K. Browar, where we enjoyed wheat beer in a 3.3 litre 'tower', basically a large tube brought to the table so you could dispense your own drinks. After much Polish lager it was a treat to find some tasty wheat beer, quite an interesting colour as it was pretty much opaque.
After a frustating day of failing to board buses (too full / can't make a reservation), we eventually caught a train up to Lublin at 4pm. The hostel we had booked there was fairly old school, with a 10pm curfew and you had to be out 10-5 in the day. As we arrived late we just had time to nip to the petrol station for some snacks and vodka before sttling in for the night and watching 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off', great film!
The next day allowed us a look around Lublin's Old Town. The centre is really beautiful, with lots of ornately painted buildings, each telling a different story. It had quite a different 'feel' to it than other places we had visited in Poland, and we imagine it would be fantastic in the summer when all the cafes have their outdoor terraces. The exterior of Lublin's castle is a bit of an anti climax (Charlotte - 'looks a bit like a crap hotel'). However, the real draw of the castle is the 14th century chapel inside, which was painstakingly restored over a few decades in the late 20th century. The walls are painted with different scenes from the Bible, with some usual and beautifully vivid colours and techniques. After seeing the rest of the Old Town we did a bar crawl, taking in some of Lublin nicer Old Town bars along with some of Lublin's dingier. We rounded off the night with an obscenely large pizza (who knew a 45cm diameter pizza would be so big even to share - well maybe we would have if we had paid attention in maths!). Of course, we were back by the 10pm curfew!
We spent a day in Warsaw before catching an overnight bus to Lithuania. The grey drizzle, teeming traffic and lack of things to do did not do much to alter our previously rather ambivalent opinion of Warsaw. However, we had our last Polish pierogi here and it was probably the best so far, so at least we can be positive about that :)
So - onto Lithuania!