Kraków Old Town

My next stop after Warsaw was Kraków (kra-kohv) in southern Poland. I was sad to leave Warsaw behind, but at least I still had more time ahead in Poland. I wasn’t ready to move on just yet. I took a train (the cheapest and most inconveniently timed train, of course) and bonded with some other tourists as we attempted to navigate the Warsaw train station.

Kraków flowers, for your viewing pleasure 🙂

The ride to Kraków was my first experience in a compartment train, and it was strange. Since I didn’t have a travel buddy to share the weirdness with, I wrote about it in my journal.

The compartment is too quiet, no one is talking and it would be weird if they were. I almost feel like my typing is too loud, THAT’S how quiet it is. Shouldn’t the train be making more noise?? What is this? Some newfangled electric train or something?

Also, am I allowed to eat in here? I think that if the answer was no, there would be signs making that clear. But it’s not like they’d put up a “yes, you can eat” sign… that doesn’t make any sense. At least then I’d be sure, though. If we were in rows, I would just go for it because you can kind of hide yourself. Since we’re in a compartment, I feel like there are 4 people here who would judge me really hard if I’m doing something wrong. One is a nun so maybe she wouldn’t judge me, but at least the other three would.

Supposedly eight people can fit in this compartment, but I think that would be a mess. There are just 5 of us now, and I think that’s enough. Maybe 6 would be okay. But 8?? Eek!

A couple minutes later: AH! The nun just started eating a sandwich. I assume she wouldn’t break the rules, so eating must be allowed. Okay, first I’m going to eat something because my stomach is empty, and then I’m going to get to work on my to-do list.

This one is so pretty!!

The train took about 3.5 hours, and despite the compartment weirdness, I was sad to get off because I was being incredibly productive… probably because I felt like I had to stay busy or else risk making awkward eye contact with one of my co-passengers. Eye contact means someone might start talking to me, leading to the weird “oh, sorry, I don’t speak Polish” thing and totally ruining my camouflage.

The train arrived in Kraków around 3PM, and my goal was to make it to a 4PM walking tour. Doable. I had 1 hour to figure out the trams, get myself to the hostel to drop my stuff, and sprint back out again to the meeting point. I made it with seconds to spare and only mildly sweaty from my brisk walk across the city.

While we were waiting for the tour to start, the guide asked where everyone was from. There was one other group visiting from the US – two couples, plus a girl around my age – and I started a conversation with the girl, asking what part (Florida). She ended up being super cool, and I felt good about myself for being outgoing and making a friend.

Whoa!!

Soon enough, the tour started, and the guide seemed determined to make us all Kraków history experts by the time he was finished.

Kraków as a settlement began as early as 50,000 BC, but not much is known about it beyond what archaeology has revealed until 966AD when the first written mention of Kraków appeared. By then, it was already a bustling commercial center. The Kingdom of Poland came soon after in 996AD, and Kraków was named as its capital in 1038.

The earliest settlements were on Wawel Hill, a rocky outcropping near the Vistula River (the same one that runs through Warsaw) that later became the site of Wawel Castle, the royal residence of the Kingdom of Poland until the capital city was moved to Warsaw. As the town grew, it expanded off of the hill and to the north where the heart of modern-day Kraków is now located.

View of the Vistula River from Wawel Hill

Kraków Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as is Warsaw’s Old Town. The difference is that Kraków’s is actually old. Unlike Warsaw, Kraków was not a major battleground during WWII, and much of the city, including many of its historical and cultural monuments, survived without too much damage.

Kraków Old Town streets

The city used to be surrounded by city walls (because what medieval city wasn’t??) with 47 towers, plus a 4km moat. Most of the fortifications were dismantled during the Austrian occupation during the partitions, and today, a ring of green space stands in their place, encircling the oldest part of the city. Only a small portion of the formerly extensive fortifications was saved from destruction – Floriańska (St. Florian’s) Gate, one of the major entry points into the city, and the Kraków Barbican. The Barbican was a defensive structure that was connected by a drawbridge, over the city’s moat, to St. Florian’s Gate.

St. Florian’s Gate

The Kraków Barbican. You can see the former location of the drawbridge shown by the pavings stones.

The Barbican from the front

A pretty church just inside of the park ring surrounding Old Town

St. Anne’s Church, located on the square. There’s a legend that during the Mongol invasion, a trumpeter warned the people of the approaching invaders in time for the city gates to be closed. Unfortunately for him, however, he was shot in the throat and killed before he could finish playing the song. In reference to this legend, the traditional trumpet call is played (by a live trumpeter) from the tower every hour on the hour and stops abruptly before the end.

In the 1200s, before the city walls were built, Kraków was invaded by the Mongols. The city wasn’t defended, and the invaders massacred everyone and burned everything that wasn’t behind fortifications. The people of Kraków used this opportunity to rebuild the city with a better layout, and the new design included a HUGE town square. It is now the largest medieval square in Europe, with 200m long sides.

One of the reasons for Kraków’s rapid growth and great wealth was its location. By law, merchants weren’t allowed to cross Poland with their goods. Instead, they were forced to sell their wares in Kraków to then be sold on the other side of the country for a profit. Kraków was also fortunate to have access to the valuable resources of salt and lead. A trade agreement with Hungary gave Kraków a near monopoly on copper as they traded Polish lead for Hungarian copper.

The large medieval square was put to good use as a market, and it also became one of the most disgusting parts of the city. The ground was covered with garbage and human waste, and when things got out of hand, a soil layer was added. The ground level is now 3m above its original level. When the government decided to redo the cobblestones in the early 2000s, they gave archaeologists permission to dig in the square for 4 months. Instead, they ended up staying for 5 YEARS, still only managed to explore about 10% of the square, and unearthed hundreds of burials and thousands of artifacts. (There’s an archaeology museum under the square that I didn’t visit, but it’s at the top of my list if I ever go back!)

Market Square!

The Cloth Hall in the center of Market Square

Bustling square!

Old Town is also home to the second oldest university in Europe, Jagiellonian University (aka University of Kraków), founded in 1364. Copernicus attended from about 1491-95, and Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, attended until it was shut down in 1939 when over 180 professors and intellectuals were arrested at the start of WWII. Some of these professors were later released, and they returned to operate the university as part of the underground education efforts until it was reopened officially in 1945.

University of Kraków

A glimpse of Kraków outside of the Old Town center

Town Hall Tower in Market Square

At some point during the tour, much to my dismay, my Floridian friends vanished. Then, at the very end, the girl popped up again and said that they ducked out for a bit to get some ice cream. That made me like them even more. She came back to ask for my number so we could hang out! And then they vanished again.

Later, she invited me to join them for dinner! I was thrilled to have made some new friends! Dinner was so much fun. The girl, Annika, had just finished a master’s degree in Sweden, and her parents came to meet her and do some sightseeing with another couple before they all went back to the States. They’re all the kind of people who make you feel immediately at ease, and they asked me about a million questions about my time in Armenia. They had a tour planned for the following day, but they said that they were considering going hiking the day after, and if I was interested in joining, they’d keep me posted. Of course I said yes! By the time we parted ways, I felt like I had been adopted and had known them for my entire life. I didn’t know if the hiking thing would actually come through, but I hoped it would because I had so much fun hanging out with them. I walked back to the hostel that night with a big smile on my face and a warm feeling inside.

Batumi

I took it slow during my first day in Georgia because I wanted to give myself some time to process everything going on in my brain. I checked into my hostel, sat in a park and journaled, and went to bed early because the next day, I had an 8AM train to Batumi.

Batumi is the major beach town in Georgia. It’s on the Black Sea, and I knew basically nothing about it going in except for those two things. Last time I was in Georgia, we met some people who said it was a great place to visit, and apparently that’s all I needed to be convinced. I also knew that I wanted to get out of Tbilisi for a few days, and Batumi seemed like as good a place as any.

I was definitely not prepared for such interesting buildings! The pointy one in the middle literally has a ferris wheel on the side of it.

The train ride was five hours which is maybe a lot, but at this point, unless a leg of my journey is more than ten hours, I don’t even think twice about it. Five hours is easy, plus on a train you have a bathroom and space to walk around if you want. Luxury!

After the all-too-familiar packing struggle, I pulled myself together and left the hostel around 7:15 to get to the train station early in case I had any issues. It was a little confusing to figure out how to get into the station, but with my “keep cool and use your brain” mantra playing on repeat in my head, I followed some people carrying suitcases and was delivered straight to my train. Fabulous.

To help orient you, Armenia is at the bottom (Yerevan is marked with green pin), Tbilisi is marked in blue, and Batumi is to the west in red

The train ride went smoothly until we were maybe 20 minutes from Batumi. We stopped at a station along the way and then didn’t start moving again. They made some announcement in Georgian and Russian, and people started freaking out. I asked some Russian-speaking girls sitting near me if they spoke English, and one knew enough to explain that there was something happening with the train and the tracks and the weather maybe? But the conclusion was that the train was not moving until whatever was resolved, and there was no timeline on when that would happen. Okay, cool. I settled in to wait it out because sometimes these things happen. Around me, it was chaos. People were yelling at the conductors in Georgian and Russian (as if that was going to change anything). Some were jumping ship and aggravatedly calling taxis to go the rest of the way. An English-speaking kid was whining about how the wifi wasn’t working, and his mom was going on and on about how she was worried that the train was going to leave us in the middle of nowhere as if she thought that was an actual possibility. And then she said, “and we’re running out of water,” as if we were stranded on a desert island and minutes away from death by dehydration.

Batumi!

About an hour later, we started moving again and made it to Batumi maybe an hour and a half behind schedule. Not a big deal. The next step was figuring out how to get from the train station to my hostel. The easy thing to do would be to take a taxi. When you’re trying to travel on a budget, you usually choose economic over easy, so I was taking the bus. I had scoped out the bus routes online, so I was fairly confident that I knew which numbers I could take. After a struggle figuring out where the bus stop was, I made it there and hopped on the first bus that came by.

Grey rock, grey sky

When I’m figuring out a new public transport system, I usually watch to see how everyone else pays and then just follow along with that. This time, I was the only one to get on, so that wasn’t an option. I sat down and stared at the various payment locations like maybe they’d make sense if I focused hard enough. Finally, a woman got on and I watched to see what she’d do. She took a chip card out of her purse and tapped it on one of the card readers. Okay, not helpful. I only had cash which meant that I needed to figure out the cash payment method. The woman looked nice, so I made eye contact (probably with a slightly panicked look in my eyes), held up some change, and made my best “how do I pay with cash?” face.

This is the way that travelling works when you don’t speak the language. Observation, facial expressions, sign language, and charades are key. She pointed to a woman who was sitting in the back of the bus, and the woman quickly came over to me. I pulled out the amount I thought I owed, she looked perplexed, and I dumped a bunch of change in my hand and held it out to her. She took what she needed, gave me some change, went to one of the machines to punch my ticket, handed it to me, and showed me that I had paid for two rides instead of just one which was why my ticket cost more than I thought. When we got close to my stop, my friend was getting off too. She offered to help me with my bags, and the ticket woman helped me to untuck my scarf which was stuck in my backpack. Basically, everyone was taking care of me. On the street, my friend introduced herself as Mina and asked if I needed a place to stay (via charades). I had a hostel booked so I was good, but I was definitely appreciative of the fact that everyone was so nice and helpful.

Since it’s still the off-season in Batumi and I was there during the week, I had the entire 6-person room in the hostel to myself! I was super happy to see how quiet and relaxed the city was because that’s exactly what I needed, a little escape from chaos and some time to think. I walked out to the harbor and followed the water to the beach where I had the BEST surprise. It was a stone beach! Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “Lara, you went to this place without even knowing that the beaches weren’t sand? Did you read literally nothing about it??” The answer to that would be yes, and that is totally not like me but I’m trying this new thing where I go with the flow and don’t over-plan my life.

Okay so prepare yourself for a lot of rock pictures but like… I’m in love.

Anyway, that complete lack of research led to me being pleasantly surprised and extremely excited by what I found, so I’d argue that it was even better that way. In case you don’t know this about me, I despise sand. I don’t think I’ve ever truly liked it, but I successfully ignored that truth until a pivotal experience. Long story short, my friend Sarah and I went camping on a beach once because that’s such a romanticized idea and how cool to sleep on a beach… and by the morning, we were so over it. Three words: Sand. Gets. Everywhere. It was in the tent, in our clothes, in our mouths, all over everything. There was no shade because we were on a beach, and the tent was like an oven in the morning (that’s not sand’s fault, but it didn’t help the situation). We took showers and still felt sandy. We were on an island, and when the morning’s first ferry to the mainland pulled up, we couldn’t get on it fast enough. And that was the dramatic end to my already rocky (hehe) relationship with sand.

<3 <3 <3

Me pretending I wasn’t taking a picture of myself

So anyway, as I was saying, stone beach. I think this might be one of my new favorite things because besides the fact that there’s no sand, the stones were beautiful! They were a million different colors, smoothed out by the sea and with pieces of driftwood mixed in. I walked along the shore (note: walking on a stone beach is at least as awkward as walking on sand, especially as the stones get smaller. Also, infinitely louder. There’s no way to sneak up on someone on a stone beach) until I found a good spot devoid of weird beach couples, plopped down, and organized my rock collection.

I love rocks. Pretty much in every application. I love old buildings made of rocks and rock-filled ruins. I also LOVE smooth and colorful rocks, and that is exactly what I was surrounded by. Between the rocks and the sound of the waves, I was in heaven. AND the weather was perfect. I had a t-shirt on, there was a nice, warm breeze coming off the water, and I didn’t even notice the temperature which means it was exactly right.

Some of the best rocks that I picked up along my walk

After sitting there and sorting rocks for who even knows how long, I decided that I had to go and touch the water because it’s the Black Sea, and I’m trying to touch as many bodies of water as possible. Okay, always a difficult task when you’re trying to touch water that’s coming in waves and you don’t want the rest of you to get wet. As I got closer to the water, I realized that half of the sound of the waves was the rocks clinking over one another as the waves went back out to sea. Seriously one of the coolest sounds. So of course, I stood there for a bit just listening before I got back to my mission.

Wet rocks near the sea

I spotted a good strategic location… there was a concrete pier sticking out into the water, and I thought that would be the perfect place to stick my hand down and keep the rest of me dry. The only problem was that there was some guy filming a video of himself that seemed to go on and on forever. After he finished, I hopped onto the pier, did my water touch, and was about to leave when he asked me to take a picture. He was British, and we got to talking and that was the end of any plans I had for the day.

Me and the sea! Photo thanks to my new friend Ben

Meeting people is arguably the best part of travelling. I know, you can meet people anywhere, but it’s not the same. This guy, Ben, is in the middle of a motorcycle trip around the world. The purpose of his trip is to raise money in memory of his friend who passed away from Crohn’s disease, and it grew into a round-the-world adventure (if you’re interested in donating, you can do that here). He’s been going for eight months now and he thinks it’s going to take about four more years. Yes. Four years. He was planning to go through Armenia next, so we started talking about that and ended up getting dinner and hanging out for the rest of the day. That was the first time that I realized I’m now one of those crazy travel people. I looked at him and thought, “Look at this guy who’s doing this crazy travel thing!” and while we were talking, I was like, “Whoa, I can actually keep up with him. Look at this girl who’s doing this crazy travel thing!”

Ben and I got khinkali for dinner because he hadn’t had it yet, and it’s a classic Georgian dish. I always describe them as little meat-filled money sacks.

Nearly every travel friend I’ve made has taught me something about myself. I’ve met some incredibly insightful people, and despite the fact that those relationships are generally short-lived, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, an 8-hour friendship can have a lifetime impact. It’s a good reminder that every interaction, no matter how brief, has the possibility to shift someone’s life.

(P.S. Sorry for the philosophical musings, but they’re probably going to be semi-frequent. I have a lot of things to sort out in my head right now, so enjoy your complimentary window into my swirling thoughts.)

Darjeeling

Darjeeling is beautiful!!! I already feel like I need to come back here to do some hiking. The crew I’m with right now is not exactly the hiking type, so I don’t think we’ll be uncovering any hidden gems of Darjeeling while we’re here. Anyone out there want to come and trek across northern India with me?

The train at Ghum Station. It’s interesting to see how the British have left a legacy in the most random of places… if you’ve ever been to London, that station sign should look familiar. It’s the same symbol as is used for the tube.

We took the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (also called the “Toy Train”) from Sonada to Darjeeling (elevation = 6,700 feet). Its tracks are only 2’ apart, so obviously, it’s much smaller than normal trains. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been running since 1881. It’s kind of amazing to see how the tracks wind their way through the mountains, and they’re 48 miles long! I mean, that’s not that impressive if we’re just talking about regular train tracks, but add in the mountains, and I think it’s pretty remarkable.

After probably an hour on the train (it doesn’t go very fast, plus it made some stops along the way), we arrived at Darjeeling Station. The views for the entire ride were great, and at the station, we got another glimpse of some of the awesomeness that lay beyond (I say “a glimpse” because there were power lines galore blocking us from getting an unobstructed view). I personally am all about mountain views. I’ve seen a lot of them, but I don’t think they’ll ever get old for me. Plus, they’re all so different. The mountains in Peru were green and awesome, and these are also green and awesome, but they look NOTHING alike. Earth is the coolest.

Ah, what a beautiful view! I’m so glad that there isn’t anything blocking it!

The wildlife starts before you even get to the zoo. There are wild monkeys all over the place. Pastor Daniel talked to me about the monkeys soon after I got here and told me what to do if you’re even in a face off with one – don’t make eye contact and DON’T smile. It’s funny how, depending on where you grow up, you learn very different animal facts. Growing up, I learned about what to do around alligators and mountain lions. Here, the kids learn about what to do around monkeys and elephants.

From there, we headed to the zoo. It’s a decent size, and it was interesting to see what animals they had because many of them are native to nearby areas. I also got to see my BFF, the snow leopard. It was just as magical as it always is. Pro tip though, the best place I’ve found to see snow leopards is the San Diego Zoo. You might have heard about how amazing that zoo is, and I’m telling you, people say that for a reason. The zoo is beautifully designed, it’s HUGE, they have multiple snow leopards, and you can get so close to them! Anna (the snow leopard) and I made eye contact and instantly became best friends. Sorry this is a huge aside, but seriously, you should go. Also, they have koalas. And Tasmanian devils.

Anyway, as I was saying, this zoo wasn’t the best ever, but it was still cool. I felt like we were in the forest (because we were), and besides the snow leopards, they also had some red pandas which are adorable. As we were leaving, one of them climbed up into a tree that was probably 100’ tall (at least). It’s nice that they have the space to give them such a big habitat! Or maybe it escaped, who knows.

Not a bad-looking zoo!

It’s a yak!

I love you, snow leopard.

One of the many super-cool walls at the zoo. Come for the animals, stay for the moss-covered walls.

Weird bear sculpture-type thing in the bear enclosure.

 

Some 100% safe electrical wiring at the zoo. Yes, at the zoo. Like in a public place where people and children visit. Yes, those splices are wrapped in electrical tape. Keep in mind that the voltage here is 240V, so a shock would be quite unpleasant.

After the zoo, we spent some time wandering. We walked farther up the mountain, somehow managing not to get hit by a single car even though we were basically walking in the middle of the street. I frequently feel like I’m some sort of safety nut here because I’m like “hey, maybe we shouldn’t walk in the middle of the street” and everyone else is posing for selfies right in the path of oncoming traffic. I think I’m just being reasonable though, right?

 

This makes me laugh. All of the bags of chips here are puffed out because they’re brought up from a lower altitude (so as the air pressure outside of the bag decreases coming up the mountain, the pressure inside stays the same and puffs the bag out).

There’s another cultural difference you can add to the list. People here love selfies. Well, okay, maybe that’s not a cultural difference, but the love of selfies here is far beyond anything I have ever experienced before. Maybe I’m just not running in the right crowds at home. It’s not just selfies though, to be fair. It’s all pictures. People take SO MANY pictures, and most of the time, they’re of very underwhelming things. Like we’ll take a selfie in the middle of the street with nothing interesting in the background. Then we’ll take a selfie on the train. And next to the train. And sitting at the train station. And walking down the street. And and and and and… the list could go on forever. I’m more of a “take pictures for the memories, but also use your eyes and just enjoy the experience” kind of person, so I quickly grew weary of the constant picture-taking. Luckily, everyone’s phones except for mine were dead long before the end of the day. Life’s little blessings.

By the time we finished our wandering and made it down the mountain, dark clouds were starting to roll in. Oh, rainy season, how I hate you. The rain comes frequently, quickly, and heavily. We snagged a bus back to Sonada before the worst of it started, thankfully. Oh, and we also ate more momos… yummm! I ate beef ones this time, so now, in two days, I’ve hit three different kinds. That’s pretty good, right?

THIS IS SO COOL!!!!!!

Hi, mountains.

Beef momos! Not nearly as beautiful as the ones we made. This is very close to what my first attempt looked like, actually.