Last autumn, when I intended to visit Poland, a friend of mine who is living in Warszawa told me “There’s nothing to do in Poland, just a couple of days, then spend time in Hungary.” However, that “couple of days” brought me so much emotion.
Everywhere in Europe is amazing in autumn, but Eastern Europe seemed to satisfy my student budget better than Northern Europe where I’m currently studying. Krakow, together with Warsaw (Warszawa in Polish), are among the top ten cheapest cities to live in Europe. On an October day, I arrived at Warszawa-Frédéric Chopin Airport. There were regular trains and buses from the airport to the center of Warsaw, about a 45 minute journey. A taxi is not a bad choice, since prices in Poland are very acceptable. From the Metro Wilanowska bus station, the red Polskibus took about five hours to deliver me to the Małopolski bus station in Krakow. The ticket fair was around US $7.5/ adult, and only passengers with pre-booked tickets were accepted.
Krakow – the ancient capital of world’s heritage
KraKow – the ancient capital of world’s heritage Krakow greeted me with a stunning mix of mist and sunshine covering the river, the trees and the dew-soaked grass. I took a walk by Vistula river (in Polish: Wisła) – Poland’s largest river and drainage basin of the Baltic Sea. The long streets of gray buildings, trams and trees appeared to be old but bustling and full of life. The leaves had started to fall, turning brilliant shades of yellow and red all around.
If Krakow has been a center of academia, culture, and art, and is one of the country’s largest economic centers, the Royal Palace and Wawel Hill are the most important historical and cultural relics of Poland. The hill was the residence of emperors and the symbol of Poland for centuries. The castle is nowadays home to many masterpieces including paintings, sculptures, textiles, King Sigismund II Augustus’ rug collections, goldsmithing, ceramics, and furniture.
The lunch at the restaurant in the castle’s yard was not really excellent, but on the upside, it gave me more time to both relax and enjoy the bright, beautiful scenery. My destination in the afternoon was Wieliczka salt mine.
Located 10km southwest from the center of Krakow, Wieliczka salt mine is one of the symbols of Poland for the prosperity it brought to the country. According to legend the salt mine was a dowry of the Hungarian King Béla IV for his daughter Princess Kinga when she married a prince from Krakowto strengthen the two neighboring nations’ relations. When Kinga died she was canonized by Pope John Paul II for her great devotion to both countries’ wealth.
The 327 metre deep salt mine was built in the 13th century and is one of the world’s oldest salt mines still in operation. Tourists can buy individual or group tickets, and they are all provided with maps and a radio. After the seemingly endless 378 wooden stairs, I came to the first floor. The chatty tour guide remarked “rock salt usually looks as gray as granite rather than the sparkling bright appearance that we normally think. If you are doubtful, you can taste anything, even the floor.” The 100% salt walls, ceilings, floors, corridors, chapels, sculptures, paintings, underground lakes, and the shimmering halls presented in front of my eyes. Some crystallized salt areas looked like fluffy white cauliflowers. Mining stories became more vivid through the laser performances on the salt walls with the ring of mine shaft work, wagons, and horse’s hooves mixing with the sounds of Chopin coming through the speakers.
Returning to Krakow ‘s center in the evening, I treated myself to a delicious but very cheap kebab and beer at the Main Square Market. I spent my first night in Poland in an old dom (house) located near the city center where many backpackers meet.
Warsaw – the “uprising” capital
Before jumping onto the red bus heading to Warsaw, I bought a bagel (in Polish: bajgiel) – a special bread of Krakow. Wheat flour is molded into a ring shape, and then quickly boiled before being baked. Thus, the bread becomes crispy on the outside but still chewy inside. It looked so simple, but the smell of the grains and the juicy taste of butter and salt was unforgettable.
The bus passed highways and roads where the apple farms of the harvest season stretched endlessly. An old friend picked me up in Warsaw. The city became the capital of Poland in 1596. Today, it has the look of a vibrant city with bustling streets and squares, luxury buildings, hotels, and restaurants everywhere.
However, the Old Town might be the most exciting destination in Warsaw. It was built in the 13th century on the Vistula River. The Old Town Market Place – one of the most picturesque sites of the city – was constructed along the main road linking the Royal Castle with the New Town to the north. The ancient city appeared cheerful and colourful with its buildings of the LateRenaissance style, red brick walls, shops with traditional items, and busy cafes and restaurants. Wandering around the Old Town, you will encounter stone stairs dating back to the 15th century which lead to the defensive walls around the city center.
The vitality and excitement can be witnessed from any corner here. Tourists looked delighted on the strolling coaches. A red nosed clown was blowing a long, rainbow bubble. At the center of the square there was a band of elderly men playing piano to promote their new CD. A group of Polish girls in their traditional dresses called Stroje ludowe invited tourists to participate in the folk dance Krakowiak.
A further attraction of the Old Town is that you can find delicious and delicate dishes almost anywhere. Dinner of roasted duck and beef steak with wine in one of the crowded restaurants near the town’s walls really satisfied our hunger. In the afternoon when the sun was gradually setting, the area became more attractive in the sparkling lights and candles. Occasionally some police sidecars passed by with the sound of the engines blended with (once again) Chopin’s Etude Op. 10, No. 3 in E major.
I spent the evening walking from the Old Town to the New Town, to take in the changing face of Warszawa. Some musicians were playing classical music with violins and guitars on some corners along the main road. The wonderful blend of “old” and “new” is probably what makes this city so impressive.
Europe and Poland is stepping into the most glorious time of the year, are you ready to hit the road?
Things you must know about Poland
– Poland’s currency is Zolty. 1 Zolty = approx. US$0.256. However, in tourist-centric cities such as Warsaw and Krakow, the Euro and US dollars are widely used.
– The most convenient and cheapest way to travel between Warsaw and Krakow is by train. Trains departing from the central station of Warszawa Centralna to Kraków Główny usually take a bit under three and a half hours, and the fare is US$8.70. You can also take a bus to save money, but this may add another two hours to the journey. For moving around within the city, you’d better choose buses and trams (see the official fares in Warsaw: ztm.waw.pl, and in Krakow: mpk.krakow.pl).
– Budget travel in Krakow costs about US$32 per day on average. The average cost is generally 10% higher in Warszawa than in Krakow.
– Backpacking sometimes doesn’t mean that you only have the opportunity to stay in cheap, small hostels or guest houses. Rather, an early reservation at a 3-4 star hotel might offer you an even better discount.
– The salt mine’s daily opening time is 8am to 5pm, with the ticket price for an adult foreigner US$20. The most efficient means of transport are trains and buses. Every 30 minutes there is a train from Krakow central station to Wieliczka Rynek Kopalnia station which lasts 22 minutes. You can also catch the bus number 304 from Galeria Krakowska shopping center to Kopalnia Soli Wieliczka bus station.
– One thing to be noted is that on Poland’s public transport system, especially in big cities, the appearance of ticket inspectors called “city police” is quite frequent. You only realize when two men in casual clothes suddenly stand up and check passengers’ tickets. You will be fined US$60 if you don’t have a ticket, haven’t activated it, or have the wrong type of ticket.
Quynh Huong (published on Vietnam Traveller Magazine, view here)