Tuesday, May 29, 2018

I left my heart in Central Europe, part 1

Ed and I have been back from our latest travel adventure for almost three weeks and I need to fill you in. In truth, I need to fill myself in; if I don't blog about our travels, my memories blur and I have a hard time recalling the details of our trips. And I want to remember every single moment of this one, so bear with me...

We spent 16 days exploring the heart of Europe: Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia, countries that stretch from the Baltic to the Mediterranean seas.  And, it appears, I left part of my heart there -- or perhaps a part of "there" is now a part of my heart. I find this often happens when we travel to far-off lands...

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Of course, the best part of the trip was traveling with Jack and his girlfriend, Kasia. Jack is living in Berlin and finishing his master's degree in Global History. Kasia lives in Krakow, Poland and is finishing her Architecture degree. We met up with both of them in Krakow and then traveled together for a week.


But let me back up and start at the beginning. Ed and I flew to Vienna in late April and spent three days exploring this beautiful and rather fancy imperial city on the Danube. From the hotel where we stayed, to the museums that we explored, to the castles and gardens we covered, to the food we consumed, every moment was delightful.

We stayed at the boutique Hotel Alstadt which features hundreds of pieces of contemporary art in a historical residence in the Spittelberg Quarter, just a 5-minute walk from the Museum Quarter, the subway station, and at least two great restaurants and a bakery-turned-quaint-bar that we checked out. The Hotel Alstadt offered a fabulous breakfast, a cozy library for an after-dinner schnapps, and a most helpful staff.

Hotel Alstadt

I've concluded that whatever Vienna does, it does very well, in many cases, world-class well. Take the Viennese coffee houses. We visited two: quiet Café Spurl and bustling Central Café. Both offered a place "where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee (and pastry) is found on the bill."

I'd put the Schonbrunn Palace and the Belvedere Palace (and art museum) also on a world-class list. We took a train out to Schonbrunn and wandered the gardens of the Habsburg Dynasty's summer residence for the better part of a morning. That afternoon, we headed over to the Belvedere and were taken by its impressive collection of art, including several Klimts. 

The grounds at Schonbrunn Palace.
A picture of a picture of The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt

I'm pretty sure that when Vienna's Natural History Museum opened in 1889, it qualified as world-class. Today, the building is fantastic, but the exhibits are looking a little dusty and decrepit. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a rainy morning inside looking at fossils, dinosaurs, butterflies, birds and mammals of all sorts.

Let's talk meals. We had some great ones. All of Europe seems to celebrate asparagus season and Vienna was no exception. We had big bowls of hot asparagus soup at Gasthaus Zur Eisernen Zeit, the oldest restaurant in Vienna market: the Naschmarkt.  

Gasthaus Zur Eisernen Zeit
Other memorable restaurants: 
Schweizerhaus, the beer garden in Prater Park.
Weiner, traditional Viennese fare.
Glacis Beisl, Viennese and old Austrian cuisine with a modern touch. 

On our fourth morning, we travelled to Krakow, via train. What a pleasant way to get from one place to the next!


Jack met us at the train station and we made our way to our two-bedroom apartment, Riverside Aparthotel, located just across the bridge to Krakow's Old Town.

Reuniting with Jack was the first great thing about Krakow.
Spending time with Kasia was the second great thing.
Meeting Kasia's mom, dad and brother for dinner was the third great thing.

We spent three days getting to know our way around the charming old town, watching the Wawel dragon breathe fire every few minutes, eating alfresco on the large medieval town square, and strolling through Planty Park to admire the blooming Chestnut trees.

Memorable restaurants in Krakow:
Chimera, located in a 14th-century cellar and featuring a buffet of Polish cuisine.
Goscinna Chata, met Kasia's family for a regional specialties dinner (Lemko cuisine)
Morskie Oko, sat outside on a warm spring night in the Szczepanaki Square. I'm determined to reverse engineer the mountain-style grilled sheep cheese served with cranberry jelly.

I suppose a trip to Krakow is not really complete without a visit to the somber Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration and Extermination Camps, where 1.5 million people, among them a great number of Jews, were systematically starved, tortured and murdered. I understand the importance of remembering this cruelty; nevertheless, it was markedly unsettling to see.

On a brighter note...

We picked up a rental car on our fourth morning, stopped by the village where Kasia lives with her family to pick her up and hit the road for the far southeast region of Poland. We were headed for the Bieszczady National Park in the Carpathian Mountains.

At the Obarzanowskis
Along the way, we stopped at an ethnographic park in Sanok, Poland's largest open air museum (think Shakertown goes to Poland).

Our ultimate destination for the night was the tiny town of Lutowiska where we had reservations at the Stanica Kresowa, a quaint (I believed) agriturismo inn. Instead, we found a very strange, large, newish hotel filled with cheesy and a bit creepy wax figures dressed in traditional Polish warrior attire. Not what we expected, but we made the most of it, heading out for a short hike in the mountains...

Well, it wasn't short, but it was exquisite and definitely worth the effort. We climbed up through pine and then beech forest. The maps said it was 3.5 kms, but it seemed like we were hiking uphill for a very long way. Almost to the top, we slushed through wet snow before arriving at the meadow peak, where we stopped for a picnic. 

The next morning, we were off for Slovakia. But I'm getting tired of writing and I'm pretty sure you must be getting tired of reading, so I'll save the rest of my trip report for another time/another day....