My Favorite Nativity Sets

I am not typically focused during my travels on picking a particular item from every place I go.  (OK, maybe a beer glass but I am not consistent with that one…)  But if an item really catches my eye in a certain category, I do buy it.  Nativity scenes (“pesebres” in Spanish) is one of those categories.  I especially like the ones from Andean countries which you will see below.  Here are my favorite ones with special emphasis on one of them.

Nativity scene made from glass

Only exception in the bunch: this was a gift I was given, source unknown

Nativity scene from Poland - Christmas

From Poland

Nativity scene from Peru - Christmas

From Peru

Nativity scene from Chile - Christmas

From Chile

Now to a series of pictures from a nativity scene from Panama.

Nativity scene from Panama - Christmas

Nativity scene from Panama – the entire set

Nativity scene from Panama - baby Jesus, Christmas

Baby Jesus

Nativity scene from Panama

One of those who came to adore baby Jesus

Nativity scene from Panama - Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary

Nativity scene from Panama - Joseph

Joseph

Here is hoping to many more still to be discovered and happy new year to all!!!

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Read some about the trips when I acquired the Nativity sets:

Poland:  Visiting Krakow, Czestochowa, the Wieliczka salt mines, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Wadowice.

ChileSantiago, Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, the Atacama Desert, Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Valley of the Moon, and the Tatio Geysers.

PeruLima, Huaraz and Ancash, Puno, Cuzco, and Lake Titicaca.

PanamaPanama, Panama City

Podcast about Visit to Krakow, Poland

A few weeks ago, through my Twitter account (ilivetotravel), a friend connected me with the Amateur Traveler Travel Podcast ( http://amateurtraveler.com/ ).  Chris Christensen runs this website and he interviewed me a couple of weeks ago to share my experience visiting Krakow and the neighboring region.  Being interviewed is not necessarily a daunting thing in and of itself but being recorded for playback did feel more daunting!

The podcast was published this past weekend (episode 185) and you can hear it by going to his site and either clicking the play button above the picture or downloading the mp3 or the enhanced iTunes version.  The iTunes version will play different pictures of what is being spoken about, some are my pictures and some other not.

Overall, it was a great experience and a great way to continue the work of spreading the word about the rewards of travel and specifically about Krakow and its vicinity!  Check out my podcast and check out all the podcasts Chris has developed.  It is an impressive list of destinations for which he has podcasts!

Eating Out in Krakow and Polish Food in General

When preparing for my trip, I got asked a lot: “how will the food be?”. I honestly didn’t have a lot of awareness myself as I had not researched the topic. There was definitely no need to worry in Krakow!

Krakow, Cracovia, main square, plaza, Poland, beautiful, statue

Krakow’s Main Square is said to be the most beautiful in Europe

First, let me say that eating out is cheap. I am not talking going to a hole in the wall or a mom-and-pops. I am talking even at nicer restaurants. On the top end of the scale, places we never visited since we felt the food we were having at mid level restaurants was outstanding enough and very low priced, a main entree could run up to $25 (at least, based on a non-scientific sampling from my walking around). At the restaurants I ate (most were recommended by the people who rented us their apartment), a main entree was no more than $8-10.

Now to the quality. Every meal was delicious. Whether the veal scallopini at Cherubino‘s or the pork knuckle in honey and plums at Polskie Jadlo, every dish was spectacular. House wines were not shabby either. I didn’t get to eat desserts at every meal simply because I was usually stuffed by then but I did have ice cream a couple of times and it was double-darn good ice CREAM! The real stuff.  I did eat a cream cake that the late Pope John Paul II favored in his birthtown of Wadowice and a rather large and delicious doughnut on the train to Czestochowa!

cream cake, Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II, Wadowice, Poland, photo, travel

Cream cake – delicious!

doughnut, Poland, Polish food, chocolate, photo, travel

“Bite me!”

Places we visited were:

  • Kuchnia i Wino (ul. Jozefa in the Mazimierz district, http://www.cracow-life.com/eat/restaurants_details/61-Kuchnia_i_Wino)
  • Cherubino (on a side street from ul. Jana called ul. Tomaszka, http://www.cherubino.pl/restaurant_krakow.html)
  • Polskie Jadlo (ul. Jana, http://www.cracow-life.com/eat/restaurants_details/1272-Polskie_Jadlo)
  • Miod i Wino (ul. Slawkowska, http://www.cracow-life.com/eat/restaurants_details/270-Miod_i_Wino).

We also enjoyed bakeries (“cukiernias“) around the Old Town and a cafe in a square in the must-see Kazimierz district called TeD (Plac Nowy 7) – very nice loungey feel to it.

The only thing that bothered me a little bit about restaurants is that, while they have a non-smoking section, it is practically non-functioning as you still get to breathe enough secondhand smoke to lose a little of the sense of smell…

So what is the Polish food I experienced?  Well, lots of meat (especially pork), potatoes (fried or baked, of different shapes), little in terms of greens (unless you order a salad), bread (served with lard in the more traditional places I went to; yes, LARD but it had bacon to probably make it healthier 🙂 ), etc..

Lard, food, Krakow, Poland, photo, travel

The pot on the left is lard for your bread!

A lot of the pork was fried which reminded me of my favorite Cuban dish but the pork knuckle was not fried (it was very tender!).

pork knuckle, Polish food, Krakow, Poland, bread

My best meal in Krakow: the pork knuckle cleverly served. Flavorful and tender!

I also enjoyed pierogis (many options as far as filings), and pancakes stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese.

food, Krakow, Poland, Polish, travel, photo, pancake

Ricotta cheese and spinach -stuffed pancakes

OK, I better stop here because I am making myself hungry!  Hope you get to experience Polish food – in Poland or elsewhere!

Last Day in Krakow, Poland

Alright, vacation is almost over, I am on my last evening in Krakow prior to heading back home. Morning flight at 5:30 AM to Prague, then another to JFK, and then Atlanta. It will be hard but sitting down for a long time sounds good after all the walking I have done this week. I have eaten all sorts of delicious yet very fatty food (the whip cream here is REAL cream!) but I don’t feel my jeans are any tighter!

I need to write more about a few experiences from the trip but here I will recap some of the sights in Krakow itself.

Krakow main square Poland Wawel Castle travel Canon EOS Rebel Photo

Krakow’s is one of the most magnificent squares in Europe

Krakow, main square, Poland, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Another angle on the great square of Krakow

The city is loaded with history. It used to be the capital and we visited the site of the royal palace, Wawel Castle (http://www.wawel.krakow.pl/en/), which sits atop the hill of the same name. Unfortunately, the royal residence was closed for a few weeks and re-opens on Monday. But we visited the crown treasure and armory museum in the basement of the palace and also toured the Cathedral (which is also in Wawel Hill) and the royal tombs underneath it. All very impressive (reading up a little Polish history before the trip paid off!).

Wawel Hill, Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland, Basilica of St Stanisław and St Wacław, cathedral, history, religion, architecture

The main features of Wawel Hill are the same-named castle and the Basilica of St Stanisław and St Wacław (the Wawel Cathedral)

We also got to see very different style churches and key sites in the life of Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II). He clearly is still a big figure in the city where he lived most of his life and served as priest, bishop, and cardinal.

We have eaten very well and will write more about that later. Highlight of the day was finding a bakery with cream cakes, like the one I ate in Wadowice. Mmmm… cream cakes…

Today has felt very cold due to high winds.  I learned from someone that it is the “halny”  (winds from the Tatra Mountains http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halny).

I am guessing my next entry will be once I am home but have a few odds and ends to write about the trip. The trip to Krakow, though short, has been well worth it!

Wadowice: Birth Place of a Pope

Among the key figures of the 20th century is the late Pope, John Paul II. He not only was a giant in the Catholic religion but his role in the fight in his country against Communism (and with consequences in the rest of Eastern Europe at that time) was pivotal to big change. We took a short trip to the town of his birth and childhood, Wadowice, to learn more about his early life and the town that saw him grow.

John Paul II statue in his hometown of Wadowice, Poland

As far as transport, mini-buses and regular buses depart Krakow, where I was visiting, with regularity. The former from a non-descript parking lot across from the Galeria Krakowska (a regular shopping mall) (the tourist info office pointed us to it). The latter from the bus station on the other side of the mall. There is also a Pope train but it seems not to be running or not in the day we were going, one of those details beyond my tourist Polish…

Going on regular bus has the added advantage that it will stop at the bus station of the town you want whereas a mini-bus requires you knowing what stop to get off on (which is hard if you have never been to the place). Unfortunately, we went over in a mini-bus… So once the time was close to get to Wadowice, I kept my eyes peeled on the approaching town and then just asked for Wadowice centrum to let the driver know where I needed him to stop (in a mini-bus you have to tell them to stop by walking to the front).

Once in town, things were pretty easy. It wasn’t as small a town as I expected but not big either. We immediately ran into the tourist info office where we oriented ourselves to the key sites to visit. Being that it was still early, we decided to first try one of the famous Wadowice cream cakes. The Pope apparently greatly enjoyed them as a kid and they came back in fashion either when he became a bishop, cardinal, or Pope. Wow, loaded with fat and calories but absolutely delicious [did I already say good eats??]. A touch of brandy nearly makes them heaven on earth!

Cream cake, the favorite of Pope John Paul II as a kid

First off, we visited the apartment where he was born and lived most of his childhood. It was moving for me to see the pictures of this kid who would come from this town to be one of the top figures of his time. Seeing the room where he was born with a picture of him as a baby was special. The apartment-come-museum is fairly small and well signed in English (not always true in places I’ve visited in the country). Much to my surprise, it was free though I’m finding out that is not uncommon for religious sites here (Jasna Gora in Czestochowa was also free). Oh, and we had to wear big old slippers over our shoes – since I was wearing my boots, they didn’t really fit so I had to slide over the floor instead of taking steps. I found myself still doing that shuffle at the museum next door (after taking the slippers off an hour or so before!).

Side of the building where Pope John Paul II was born in Wadowice, Poland

Side of the building where Pope John Paul II was born

Room where Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) was born in Wadowice, Poland

Room where Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) was born

We then visited the main church where he served as an altar boy and where he was baptized. It clearly has been renovated since he became Pope as it has acquired preeminence given the ties to him. (His childhood bedroom faces the church.) We got there during daily Mass (which is always a “short” Mass, 20-30 mins depending on the church) and it was fairly full but that could be because it was the holiday for the patron saint of Poland. The interior of the church was actually one of the prettiest I’ve yet seen in Poland.

Main church where Karol Wojtyla served as an altar boy in Wadowice, Poland

Main church where Karol Wojtyla served as an altar boy

We walked around town on this winter day and enjoyed seeing life going on as well as the side streets and buildings.

Around the main square in Wadowice, Poland

Around the main square

Side street in Wadowice, Poland

Side street

Around the main square in Wadowice, Poland

Around the main square in Wadowice

On the way back, we took a regular bus (about 60 cents more expensive). The buses, though, have more space and better windows to see the views along the route. The countryside in this part is more developed than I expected but we did pass some forests and saw beautiful rolling hills, some still with snow on the ground from a few days ago.

I don’t know if non-Catholics (or non-history-aficionados) would find Wadowice interesting enough to take the side trip but for me it was most definitely a special journey to make. It reminds me that any child has potential for greatness no matter the circumstances of their childhood.

A Somber Day in Auschwitz – Birkenau

Coming to Krakow is not a complete visit if one does not make the short trip to nearby Auschwitz and its counterpart, Birkenau, where more people died than in Auschwitz itself.    Clearly this entry will be more somber than my usual.

To get to Auschwitz, we took a mini bus from the bus station. We left at 830AM and got there around 10 AM. The day was gray and with a drizzle – apparently to set us up for the difficult visit ahead. Once there we decided to take a guided tour for a little over $10 which seems expensive but entrance to Auschwitz is free so we figured it would be worth it. (Otherwise, they have books/guides you can purchase and self-guide yourself.)

Guard tower in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, near Krakow

The group consisted of 6 of us and the guide. We passed under the well known “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free) sign at the entrance to the camps. An eerie feeling.

The buildings we visited in Auschwitz had been Polish army barracks before WW II. Many of these in Auschwitz I have been converted to museums. For example, a building will explain the origins of those who came to these camps. Another building depicts prisoner life. Another depicts the belongings gathered and what happened to them. Because these were army barracks before, the buildings are quite solid. If you think of an old building from around 1900 or 1910 at a U.S. university, you would know how these are designed and built.

Building in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, near Krakow

 

Some things were hard to see in the exhibits:

  • people’s belonging like hairbrushes, eyeglasses, suitcases (which had names and addresses on them); a strange feeling came over, thinking that someone used to, for example, brush their hair with that pink one laying on top of the pile or that one over there
  • women’s hair; their hair was shaved and sent to Germany as fibers or material for coats, blankets; some bags not yet shipped when the camp was liberated are on display
  • crutches and artificial wooden limbs
  • children’s clothing or artifacts were the hardest for me to see and process…

Though I understood we were basically in a very large cemetery or holy ground, walking between the barracks was surreal as I felt I was in a movie set. That may sound odd but given movies I have seen (Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, etc., whether actually filmed here or not) they were my only reference so far about concentration camps. But, of course, this was the real deal. In the gloomy weather we had, maybe my mind was shifting to “movie set” to protect me…

I tried picturing the guards and prisoners walking around and it wasn’t hard to envision the scene. Also quite hard to take was going into one of the gas chambers. It was an earlier one, too small for the mass scale the Nazis needed. It was used mainly for Soviet prisoners of war and Polish intelligentsia and activists imprisoned at the beginning for being dangerous. We also saw where St. Maximilian Kolbe died. He traded his life to save a man who had a family. For some reason, the Nazis allowed the switch. How many other acts of nobility may not have been caught for posterity…

We then went to Birkenau which the Nazis destroyed towards the end of the war and where the majority of Jews were exterminated in this set of camps. The main entrance building was shown in Schindler’s List.  The camp was built especially for large numbers. About 90,000 lived there at a time but hundreds of thousands died there. Living conditions were horrible and one can visualize them from reconstructed living quarters.

Entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, near Krakow

The gas chambers there were of mass scale as were the crematoriums. You can see their ruins (they were not reconstructed) and you can see the field were ashes were then buried. It was a massive camp.

Gas chamber ruins in Birkenau concentration camp in Poland, near Krakow

Gas chamber ruins

One of the more poignant spaces in Birkenau was the train platform where people were separated into those going straight to their death vs. those who had some value to the camp as workers. One can only imagine first how those people would feel after a multi-day train trip packed in a wagon and then to get separated quickly from your loved ones. Very painful to imagine.

Train platform in Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland

So a very difficult place to visit but one that helps make sure we do not ever forget the cruelty that mankind is capable of when it loses its humanity.  Check out a short slideshow of my pix at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7K5Hh41Qss .

May all those souls who died there rest in peace.  Their lives stolen and the survivors’ lives shattered and battered as this lamp bears witness…  Never again.

Train track lamp in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland

Pilgrimage to Czestochowa

The main reason to go to Czestochowa is to see the spiritual heart of Poland, if you will.  The Black Madonna – a key religious item (supposedly painted/carved onto a table by St. Luke, the Evangelist) and an item also tied to Polish history – resides at the Jasna Gora monastery/fortress.  I was expecting to be visiting another important site, take a few pictures, and learn something.  But I learned something I was not expecting to learn as I did when I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau

A Monastery Fortress – Jasna Gora

The Jasna Gora monastery seemed daunting at first.  It sits atop a hill and surrounded my massive fortifications.

Jasna Gora monastery and complex in Czestochowa, Poland

However, a visit to the info office at the monastery quickly made it very accessible to us.  As quick background, back in the 17th century (or was it the 16th?), the monastery resisted the Swedish armies that had just conquered and ravaged most of Poland and I think may have been the only place not taken thereby ensuring the continuity of Poland at the time (someone with better history, please correct me or add to this info!).

To get to Czestochowa from Krakow, the best way was a 2hr+ train ride.  Upon arriving at the train station, we took a cab to the monastery on recommendation of a Krakovian who said there wasn’t much to see along the way. We were glad we did because of the timing of our arrival at the monastery.

The painting of the Black Madonna hangs in the altar of the chapel next to the Basilica.  The painting is not always exposed and the screening (covering up) and un-screening of it are key events which we got to witness almost by coincidence in the timing of our visit – pretty cool.

Chapel with the Black Madonna in Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, Poland

The chapel fills up with pilgrims or locals, people kneel during the un-/screening, and big trumpet (or horn) music plays for the important moment.  At the info office, we were informed that the next screening was 15 mins away – so our timing was great (this only happens twice per day).  An hour and a half later the un-screening would take place so we would be there to see it – this worked well because it was the right amount of time to see the 3 small museums in the monastery in between events.  The un-/screening was not as momentous for me though I’m aware how important it is religiously here and how it played a key part in Polish history.  I imagine if I were Pole, I would have experienced differently but seeing it and seeing the locals at those moments definitely gave me a view into Poland.

One nice surprise was the second story of the chapel (we accessed it via the Knights Hall).  The stations of the cross (plus 2 extra stations) were painted around 2000-01 by a painter named Duda Gracz. They are fairly graphic but basically place the stations of the cross with key personages or events (mostly from Poland).  For those familiar with the stations of the cross, one depicts Veronica helping Jesus. In this version, it is Mother Teresa.  In the one where Jesus walks past his mother, the Black Madonna is the figure shown.  The Holocaust is also represented very vividly.

The museums in the monastery are simple and small sized but the arsenal one was my favorite as it eventually displays photos and key items from the Solidarity movement in the 1980s. Very moving to see.  Part of it is built around one of the exterior corner walls of the fort so that was pretty neat.  Walking around the fort is really neat.

View of Czestochowa from Jasna Gora

Looking towards the main avenue from the fort

Jasna Gora building in Czestochowa, Poland

Jasna Gora building in Czestochowa, Poland

Out and about down the Main Thoroughfare of Al. NMP

Once done with Jasna Gora, we walked down the main thoroughfare (known as Al. NMP due to its long name) and stopped at a cafe for a snack.  The first cafe we tried only had desserts (no pastries) and was very smoky (while there are non smoking sections in some restaurants I ate at.  Those non-smoking sections were usually worse off than the smoking sections).  The second place, a few doors up, had the front door open so it was very pleasant inside and, besides desserts, had pastries.  The almond/apple tart I had was delicious.  That and a cafe au lait totaled a whopping $3.25. Nice.  The place was spotless, the restroom clean and the cafe had good ambiance.

We kept walking down Al. NMP until we saw a plaza with a very large cross and a status of Pope John Paul II in from of St. Zygmunt Church.

St. Zygmunt Church in Czestochowa, Poland

St. Zygmunt Church in Czestochowa, Poland

We arrived to the area near the train station, typical of many train stations around Europe.  With extra time in our hands, I had some time to snap a few shots along the way.

Stands near the Czestochowa, Poland train station

Stands near the train station

Train station at Czestochowa, Poland

Train station in Czestochowa, Poland

Czestochowa, while not seemingly as exciting as Krakow in the short duration of our visit, certainly helped me know Poland a little better and is a great destination for those wanting to see more of Poland – a place unencumbered by the importance of Warsaw or the fame of Krakow.

Going under at the Wieliczka Salt Mines near Krakow

Among the many great things to see in Krakow, many are actually OUTSIDE of Krakow.  Wadowice and the Wieliczka Salt Mines are both great examples.

To get to the Wieliczka Salt Mines, a UNESCO world heritage site, one can take bus 304 from Krakow or a mini-bus (same prices, but less comfortable than the main bus and probably not as nice a view). Either costs 2,60 zl each way (less than $1). I always enjoy figuring out how to buy tickets; there always seems to be something new for me in a new country. Here, pretty straightforward: if you have coins, you can buy from the machine in the bus. Some bus stops have a machine that accept bank notes. Either way, don’t forget to stamp the ticket once in the bus!

The ride was pretty smooth and took about 20 mins. We got off the bus when we saw other tourists in the bus do the same but we didn’t know where to go. My thought was to follow them but unfortunately the two parties took an equal number of separate routes, placing us in a quandary. But with some confidence, we followed one of the parties and made it fine.  But we got to see some of the area around the mines as we made it there!

Wieliczka, Poland near Krakow

Wieliczka church, Poland (near Krakow)

Wieliczka in Poland, near Krakow

At the mines, there are English tours available with groups starting every hour or so. We hadn’t checked ahead with the information office in Krakow (always a good idea, especially with so many info offices in Krakow!) so we got lucky that the next English tour was like in 10 mins. Taking the tour in English cost extra but was worth it.

The tour starts with a climb down a staircase that was maybe 25 stories. You then meander through tunnels between chambers in the mine, each chamber with different decorations (mostly religious and most all made from salt too). Since the miners used to have daily Mass offered down there, a few of the chambers are chapels.  The most impressive chambers are at the bottom of the tourist route and well worth seeing.  One hardly feels “trapped” while there as it is well ventilated.  The salty air is actually quite good for you (which I undid later in the evening by going to a pub with all the smoking that goes on in such places – not by me).  People with respiratory ailments supposedly visit longer for therapeutic reasons.  The tour took about 2 hrs and the guide interjected the usual funny comments along the way.  At the end of the tour, well over 100m underground, there is even a cafeteria in one of the big chambers in the mine.

Wieliczka salt mine

Most of what you see here is made from salt!  (Credit:  http://www.wieliczka-saltmine.com/visiting/pilgrims-route)

Wieliczka salt mine

Most of what you see is made from salt here too! (Credit: http://www.wieliczka-saltmine.com/visiting/pilgrims-route)

To go back up, we didn’t have to climb back up but were packed tighter than sardines in a lift about 2.5ft deep by maybe 4ft wide. Good thing the person right in front of me had brushed his teeth and wore deodorant!

The salt mines get a thumbs up, especially because they are so accessible from Krakow and they are simply an experience!

From Atlanta to Krakow – Planes, Train, Bus and Automobile

img_80142I am in Krakow!  This blog post (and the next few) will be written during a trip.  Nice change for me and maybe for the readers??  Just arrived in Krakow yesterday late afternoon local time.

 

A flight

Flying to Warsaw via Amsterdam with KLM went without a hitch aside from the possessed kid on the transatlantic leg. More than the screaming child, the screaming mother was the worse part. Where is flying Super Nanny when you need her?

Schiphol, as usual, a great airport to connect through. At Warsaw, much to our chagrin, passport control was closed (yep, I am a sucker for that passport stamp).  I guess they are not concerned with who is coming (just keep coming?).

A bus ride

The Warsaw airport was quite small and very easy. The information desk was very helpful and pointed us to take a bus to the Warsaw Central train station instead of taxi (bus nbr 175; bought the 2.8 zloty single pass at the ever-present Relay shop).  Outside of baggage claim, there was an ATM (why are these machines always tucked a way at the far end of the arrivals building in many European airports?) and money problem solved.

A train ride

In about 20 mins (a Saturday morning), we were at the station.  It is a maze of alleys and shops and not quite like the train stations I am used to in Paris, Madrid or London.  The ticket windows are not in one central area but there are numerous small kiosks called “Kasa” (cashier, I suppose) around. We walked past a couple before being comfortable that was where we needed to go.  The lady did not speak English but between a printout I had of the schedule and my phrases for asking about price, etc., the transaction was done!

Then to grab lunch where, again, the person didn’t speak English.  Between my broken Polish and hand signals, it was all good.  We decided we were too tired and splurged for a first class ticket on the train.  What sold us on the idea was how cheap it was: $40.  The ride was smooth and uneventful.  Two other folks shared our compartment and they didn’t say much until they left the train when they told us goodbye in English.

An automobile ride

Once in Krakow, though we weren’t far from the apartment, we were exhausted from lugging ourselves and our luggage around and chose to cab it.  It also saved us from figuring out directions at dusk, etc.

Our host’s friend met us and gave us great advice for local things.  He actually spoke almost perfect Spanish and pretty good English.  Impressive.

Next time, I will write about the food (so far) and the initial impressions of the town and the Salt Mines at Wielickza.

Details of Trip to Krakow

Today is Sunday and this coming Friday, I am off to Poland as I mentioned in an earlier entry.  A lot of final details to still take care of and, because I have a very loaded work week, for once I actually have to pack more than 2 days in advance (usually I pack in the 2 days prior to a trip, at most!).

One part for which I am ready is the cold.  It will be very cold.  But that is why we have coats, gloves, and scarves.  I had to upgrade in the glove department but the rest was all good.  Will be using my Gore Tex boots most of the time to handle any ice or snow though the area of the city I will be staying at is likely to be well kept in terms of snow and ice.  However, the same may not be true elsewhere.

We opted to rent an apartment in Krakow as we realized we could make it our home base for the things we wanted to see and visit.  This was a great decision as it would make a lot of things easier (no packing-unpacking moving from one hotel to another) and much cheaper than a hotel ($90 per night for a 2 bedroom which translated to $45 per night for each of us).  It is located close to the city center.  The owners wanted full pre-payment, which may be a common approach, but we settled for 20% upfront, the rest upon arrival.  A few weeks later, they have been very helpful with many details so we are likely to go ahead and settle up before getting there to avoid carrying all the cash and for them the hassle of getting the money to them in the UK from their local contact.

In terms of planning, there is a lot of info available on the Internet, as you can imagine.  Plenty of resources from the local and the national tourism websites:   http://www.krakow.pl/en/turystyka/  and http://www.poland.travel/en-us/pot_front_page.  Also, the following interactive map has been an excellent Krakow resource:  http://www.cracow-life.com/map/map.php.  Finally, the following link will be very helpful to plan train travel (what I was able to Google in terms of train travel was not as good as this link sent to me by the apartment owners):  http://www.intercity.com.pl/?page=home_page.

We are likely going to be visiting Auschwitz, Wadowice, Czestochowa, and the Salt Mines in Wieliczka in the 5 days we have in town and then, of course, explore Krakow itself for which we are allowing ourselves a couple of days.  We also have received recommendations in terms of restaurants from the apartment owners and from perusing various websites.  We are ready for good food!

Finally, though we expect we will find enough English speakers, I have been trying to learn basic phrases and words just in case we find ourselves lost in a small town.  It is a curious language for me and some words remind me of Latin – whether a real or imaginary connection, I don’t know, but it makes remembering some of the stuff easier.

I am ready to get there and explore a new place!  I will be blogging about my trip as it happens so stay tuned.

Any final advice? 

Planning a Trip to Southern Poland

Well, this entry will be different than the others. Why? Because it is not about a trip taken but about planning a trip to be taken. I have to admit, I enjoy planning a trip a lot. It is as if the trip has almost begun as I begin to plan, imagine, and make more concrete what the actual trip will be.

Decision to Visit Poland
As a friend and I were discussing that we should travel together for a weekend or a week, we began randomly talking about what could we do.  Talking about possibilities TOTALLY energizes me!  EVERYTHING is possible at that early moment in planning.  In talking, we decided that instead of a weekend in the U.S. or nearby, perhaps we ought to take the entire week and go further.

Where to go then?  Immediately we narrowed it down to Europe or Latin America just due to the constraint of a week max.  Our mind went to the big capitals of Europe.  We ran through countries like Portugal, Spain, Poland, Ireland, Germany, France.  We ruled out Italy as we had both been there a couple of times (doesn’t mean we don’t love Italy, we do, but we were feeling like exploring something totally new).  We ended up narrowing it down to Ireland and Poland.  So it was either going to a place known for its beauty, friendliness and pubs or a place we didn’t know as much about and knew nothing about the language.

We began throwing around that maybe seeing where Pope John Paul II had been born may be interesting (we are Catholic, this line of reasoning may not apply to others 🙂 ).  So, we decided to study that area of Poland to see if there was enough to explore.  I had a notion that Krakow was a place to see but I don’t know that I could have explained exactly why.  Never fear, some Internet searching, some visiting local bookstores and checking out a few books and we got the info we needed.  There was so much to see and explore in Krakow and its vicinity to fill a week and not get it all done.  We also felt that we might as well go out on a limb now that we are relatively young (late 30s, early 40s) whereas Ireland seemed an easier place for later in life.  So, with perhaps not the best set of criteria but criteria we felt good enough with, we chose to go to Poland.  The fact that we are going in winter is not scaring us.  We will just bundle up and enjoy low tourists fighting with us to enter places, etc.!

So what a realistic itinerary for a week in Poland??

Destination settled.  Not quite…  So, how much of Poland should we aim for?  How much was realistic without being too aggressive?  How was the transportation network?  Well, we didn’t know enough nor people who had gone.  Again, the resources mentioned above plus posting questions on the Internet answered our questions.  Southern Poland, in fact just one part of southern Poland, would easily fill a week and more if we really wanted to.  Krakow and the nearby salt mines would fill a couple of days at the very least.  We realized Czestochowa would be an interesting day trip.  We obviously knew we had to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  We clearly were going to see Wadowice to see where JP II was born.  We realized we may be able to even squeeze in a day trip to ski at Zakopane.  Wow!  So much to do and so many other places we probably would not have time to go see!

Details, details

Well, the rest is planning details.  Fly to Krakow, or fly to Warsaw and take a train down?  Stay in Krakow as our home base or move around these towns?  So many possibilities.  We haven’t nailed it all down yet but we think we will fly to Warsaw and take the less than 3 hr train to Krakow and at least get a glimpse of the countryside in winter.  We will not be able to see anything outside of the south except perhaps for a day in Warsaw on our way out of the country (which may not do it justice but Warsaw may be an easier place to return to than Krakow).  We are likely using Krakow as the home base and we are looking at renting an apartment since then we don’t have to be lugging stuff around – plus it is cheaper and more comfortable.

So, that’s where we are.  Enjoying the questions, details, and unknowns about the trip as we continue our planning.  I will be writing about this awesome trip soon enough!

Anyone have any tips about Krakow or any of the places we are considering visiting?  Does anyone else enjoy trip planning as much as I do??

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