So happy to read Heidi's post. Glad everyone is keeping up with us by reading the blog. I'm in Gdansk on the Baltic coast of Poland today. Ania and I are renting a small flat in the nearby resort town of Sopot, and took the train in today to sightsee and visit a cousin of hers who lives in Gdansk. We made it to the Baltic! It's been quite a journey, cutting a swath across Europe from the Adriatic to the Baltic, and getting a nice cross-section of the Slavic world in the process. In this context, Vienna is an interesting little peninsula of Teutonic influence jutting out into the Slavic parts of Europe. Yet, so much of the architecture and culture many other places we have been owes a debt to Vienna, from the days of the Hapsburgs. We left Vienna on Monday, and got to Prague at about 20:30.
Considering its reputation, it may sound odd, but Prague was an expensive detour. Although I tried in good faith to cancel our first nights' reservation in Prague, as I suspected, it wasn't exactly successful, so when we got to the pension we were staying in, we got charged for both nigths, instead of the one we actually stayed. Prague is such an odd set of contrasts - more than any other place we've visited on this trip. It knows well its identity as a tourist Mecca, however, it also seems firmly entrenched in its own traditions - sometimes difficult to understand when you seem them side-by-side. Prices are now inflated to match its tourist identity, and you have a hard time avoiding paying what you know is much more than you should for certain things. Everyday items in shops are dirt cheap, but even a pack of gum from a kiosk near Stare Mesto (old town) is the same as you'd pay in Vienna. Our Pension was a bit outside the main city areas, and we wound up in taxis more than I'd have liked. Nothing like the insane cab ride Heidi and I took five years ago, but we did get nailed with the late night tourist tax in a cab at 02:00 to get from Charles Bridge back to our Pension. The Pension was a bit out of the way, but quite comfortable, and we wished we'd had more time to enjoy it. We had a palatial room (at a palatial price, I might add, especially considering we paid double for it), which did include a nice brekkie in an adjacent restaurant, which had a typically Czech cellar with low red-brick ceilings and wooden accoutrements. Since we were taking a night train from Prague to Warsaw, we had all day the next day to sightsee in Prague, after checking out of the pension at 11:00.
We dodged the throngs of tourists in the old town as we walked toward the Mucha Museum, which I really wanted to see, and hadn't seen before in my previous visits. It was great! Just the right size, and I learned a lot about Mucha that I didn't know before. But - to see those oiginals. Oh my :-) For me it was a more intimate experience than the Klimt gallery in the Belvedere in Vienna. We picked up a few goodies in the accompanying shop, and contuned on toward the other side of Charles Bridge.
The night before, after dealing with the squirrely checkin at the pension, we took a tram into the old town. Ania will post her impressions, but suffice to say Prague by night is truly a spectacle. Every time I see it, it gets more and more under my skin. We sat at one of the cafes lining Old Town Square, and had food and drinks. The Budvar-Budweiser was sublime :-) especially in that setting. We then enjoyed a walk out along Charles Bridge, and Ania patiently waited as I went nuts taking time exposure pictures up and down the Vlatva. We continued our walk, and found a secluded nook alongside the statue of some anonymous saint, and had a very romantic interlude. It was cute to watch other couples occupying other similar nooks and crannies along the bridge. We were in the right place for our mood.
The next day, after the Mucha Museum, we ran across an interesting thing... an ambassador from Tibet (or someone - it wasn't clear who), was emerging from some state building, and was escorted away under full police gaurd and motorcade. We had a nice meal after that, in a little cafe looking over the Vlatva, and I had another beer epiphany - Velkopopovicky Kozel dark. I'd had two of my favorite beers in the world in as many days - ahh Prague :-) Eventually we made it up to Prague Castle, although the weather had been threatening rain all day, and it was getting breezy up on the hill. We took a brisk stroll down the Golden Lane, which is a quaint area made famous by Franz Kafka, and took in the views from the steps leading up to the castle itself. We did some more strolling along the streets of the old city, and stopped for some food for the train.
Eventually, around 19:00, we collected our bags from the pension, and made for the main train station, where we sat, ruminating on the potentially rough night we had ahead of us on the train from Prague to Warsaw. We had purchased our tickets earlier in the day (which turned out to be our saving grace, as the sleeper-car was full), and, unlike the tickets from Vienna to Prague, which cost about twice what I thought they should have (€87 for both), we got what I thought was a great deal on what turned out to be 1st class sleeper-car tickets to Warsaw. Instead of a nightmare 6-bunk cabin with 4 strangers, we were treated to a wonderful 2-bunk private cabin all to ourselves. In the station before we left, Ania had a little time left on a phone card she had bought, so we called my parents in the States. We both talked to my father for a while, and it was really cool to touch base that way.
The first part of the journey out of Prague saw many stops, and there was a lot of noise, making it hard for us, and Ania in particular, to sleep. The rain the had been threatening all day finally came, and as we started to climb into the mountains to the east of Prague, things got charachteristically grey and glum in the sleepy old stations we kept stopping at. Finally, we crossed the border near Ostrava, and after the passport check, we had hardly any stops. We both fell soundly to sleep, and were woken-up with only about 30 minutes to go to Warsaw by our conductor at about 06:30. I actually felt relatively rested, and I could tell just by Ania's face that she had gotten some sleep too.
In another scheduling near-miss, we caught the train to Gdansk/Sopot from Warsaw with only a few minutes to spare in between our arrival from Prague and its departure from Warsaw. We knew that it might be difficult to catch this train, and were prepared to waint in Warsaw until the next one at nearly 09:00, but as we arrived, the only other train on the platform in Warsaw (and the opposite side of the very one we arrived at!) was the one we needed to catch to get to Sopot. What fortunate timing. I might add that it is SO NICE to have Ania to translate. Polish, although I am slowly learning bits and pieces, is impenetrable, and I am incredibly fortunate to have a native speaker to travel with here. Questions get answered quickly and accurately, and not in broken English or vaguely correct German (mine). This ride went easy, and we arrived in Sopot just before noon. We had a couple of hours to kill before we could meet the owner of the flat we are staying in, so we found a really really cool cafe right off the main drag in Sopot - the Josef K. Café. It had comfy couches and good espresso, and it felt good not to be on the go for a bit. We moved on from there still with time to spare, and rather than lug our bags around in an attempt to sightsee, we ate a small lunch at a nearby restuarant serving traditional Polish food. This was a good place to remind myself how much I like Polish beer. No, Czech definitely is the top of the heap (although Vienna isn't shabby either - more about that in my "beer post" coming later), but beer in Poland is good. Damn good. So are the prices. Poland, much like Slovenia, is still incredibly affordable, and a nice contrast after Prague, and, even more so, Vienna. Our flat is a bit of a hike from the train station, but it was worth it. Ania handled all the arrangements, for which I was thankful. We have a neat and tidy 2-room apartment with a kitchen. It is comfortable and relatively quiet, and a nice change from our hectic schedule since leaving the relative splendour of Kent's place in Vienna. We took a little nap, as, despite our relatively restful night on the train, we were still exhausted. I might add that the weather here is sublime :-) Low 20's during the day, and a downright chilly 10C last night. It's sunny though - not a cloud in the sky - and we spent several hours yesterday just relaxing on the beach. We didn't venture fully into the water as we had in the Adriatic, but I was still tempted enough to go in up to my waist. It was pretty cold at first, but as the nerves numbed themselves, it was nice ;-) haha. But, for the first time this whole trip, I'm downright comfortable walking around, and not dripping with sweat at every turn. It feels good.
As we were making our way from Vienna, through Prague, and up here to the coast of Poland, I began to notice that autumn is definitely around the corner. In the foothills of the Tatras in Czech, the birches were starting to turn, and the willows in Prague had little touches of gold on their branches. Further north, similar signs of fall are evident, and it seemed that in the outskirts of Warsaw I noticed more color than when we'd been there a couple weeks before. The Baltic coast is nice. Very nice. Differences in architecture and lifestyle almost reminiscent of Danish or even Dutch zeitgeist. This is definitely a different place than the far East of Poland where we will be headed tomorrow - Lublin and Kraśnik.
Our first night in Sopot we walked out along the longest modern pier in Europe - a full 500m. The views of Gdansk and Glowny off in the distance were neat, and the old lighthouse and luxurious Grand Hotel along the water in Sopot were compelling. We stopped in a very groovy little restaurant (called Euforia) along the main street in Sopot that served mainly Italian food, and I had a delicious sampling of local seafood in a taglitelli frutti de mare. Italian food, but with a nice baltic twist. The mussels were fresh, and not as big as the ones you'd get in Ireland, which is more to my liking. It had squid, octopus and crab, and little prawns that were delicious. As good as it was, Ania and I both agree that of all the places we've visited, Vienna is a gastronomic paradise. Maybe not quite up there with London or New York, but for my tastes, it's hard to beat.
If it might make things easier, I am going to review the rules I set-up for posting and making comments. I'd really love to hear from anyone and everyone who cares to drop a quick note here. I don't want to totally monopolize Ania's cousin's computer so I wont upload any more pictures for now, but more will come soon.
Hope everyone is well! I'll be returning in a week, which will be a sad moment for the two of us, but this trip has been incredible so far. I'll be coming back with so many new impressions, and, although I know it sounds a touch melodramatic, I'd have to say not the same person as when I left. Travel gives us (well, me anyways) perspective. I hope my postcards have started rolling in. I've sent a bundle, and although I know some were not given the right postage, I hope they make it. I tried the shotgun approach, so I'm sure some will arrive. Which ones, we'll see :-) Enough for now. We have Gdansk to see! Dowidzenia!