Audra and I took a life changing trip 3 years ago. We wanted to challenge the way we traveled, so we bought a flight to Amsterdam through Iceland, booked our stay in Iceland and our initial hostel in Amsterdam, and left EVERYTHING else unplanned. We didn't even have a flight home. Yes, we did some research: "Europe through the Backdoor" by Rick Steves and Nomadic Matt's Blog. We also had a vague idea of countries we wanted to visit, but that changed through the trip.
We learned a TON from this trip!
1) If you are doing an unplanned trip where you want to go to lots of places, get a Eurail pass.
2) In Brussels, we booked a train to "a random city in Germany" and received a ticket to Koln. We got off the train and recognized the Cologne cathedral immediately. Yes, cities have different names in English.
3) Don't wait until the last minute to book flights (usually).
4) The infrastructure exists all through Europe for this kind of travel. You can get off the train, find wifi somewhere, book a hostel, and start exploring.
5) The world was HUGE!!! We visited 10 cities in 6 countries and the world only seemed bigger after that.
Cutting to the chase. The farthest east we got was Vienna. We had to decide to go to Budapest, Prague, or Innsbruck from there and chose the beautiful mountains of Innsbruck. Memories of the majesty of the Austrian Alps are streaming back to me now. Needless to say, we didn't regret the choice. But we promised ourselves that the next time we visited Europe, we would trek through the Eastern part. This brings us to now.
Poland and our Second Workaway
Believe it or not, we knew we were going to Poland before any other place in Europe. We had an interview with Maciej through Workaway way back in February. We eagerly accepted the invitation to his town: Kołobrzeg (Pronounced Ko-wob-zheg, and known as Colberg in German).
So what is Workaway? Read about it in one of our previous posts: Paris and our first Workaway.
What were my responsibilities for this one? There were two kids in the family, Marianna and Janek, who were home schooled. For 2-3 hours in the morning I was to work on Math, English, and general activities with them. In the afternoon, I gave English lessons (usually just conversations) to various middle and high school students. On Fridays I (sometimes We) went to the high school and spoke with a few of the classes: talking about ourselves and our journey and answering questions about life in the USA.
In return: We had our own flat about 10 minutes walk away. Audra was able to work from there while I was teaching. We had delightful dinners prepared by Ewa (usually accompanied by a few nice Polish beers). They introduced us to the sauna (something we'll continue back home) and the correct ways to drink Vodka, took us to accordion concerts and discos, and helped us with our travel plans. We are incredibly grateful to this family for welcoming us into their busy home!
Our day to day life: On Tuesdays and Fridays, there was a farmers market 3 minutes walk away. We routinely picked up mushrooms (types we've never seen), eggs, and other produce. Our favorite breakfast was delicious yellow mushrooms fried in butter over eggs! After my morning lessons, lunch was on our own. I made creamy potato soup, polish sausages, pierogis (sometimes with mushroom gravy), mushroom soup (getting the theme here?), and others. This was followed by afternoon lessons, dinner and games with the fam and bedtime. Repeat. Weekends were nice times to explore the city, the Baltic Sea, Gdansk, and finally Warsaw.
How can I mention Warsaw without talking about our great friends: Jake and Katie Buhrman. I have to admit I was a bit homesick in Poland. The geography, mentality, and food really reminded me of the Midwest. I longed for meaningful conversations with friends and family from back home. After our short 2 nights in Warsaw with Jake and Katie, I was fully recharged! We took a very informative walking tour (highly suggested), went to the Uprising museum (eh...), ate a bunch, drank a bunch, laughed a bunch, and talked about everything under the sun. We love you guys! See you in November!
Budapest - So Much to Do, So Little Time
So, If you come to the EU (more specifically - the Schengen area) as an American citizen, you'll get a stamp in your passport allowing you to travel within the zone for 90 days within 180 days. You can split that time up however you want, but you only get to be there for a total of 3 months in a 6 month period. The clock started ticking for us on July 5th in Reykjavik, Iceland. Doing the math (or doing a google search) showed we had to leave by October 3rd in order to avoid paying any fines. We were in Poland until October 1, giving us just 2 more days before we had to leave. Since Budapest was one of the places we wanted to see last time in Europe, we jumped on a plane (the train would have eaten almost a whole day) to spend two short days here.
Wow, we are so happy we came!
First, the beauty of the city. If you've been to Vienna, the architecture is similar. There are no skyscrapers, and the tallest building is the cathedral at 96 meters tall. This has made the city the backdrop for many movies because it is so timeless looking. The main street, Andrassy, was built to replicate the Champs Elysee in Paris. Underneath it runs the 3rd oldest metro in the world, built in 1896 for Hungary's 1000 year anniversary.
The city is composed of two parts: Buda and Pest, one on either side of the Danube River. This river flows through 10 countries and touches 4 capitals (Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade). Geographically, Buda is all hilly and Pest is as flat as a pancake. The city is situated right over natural thermal springs, leading to numerous beautiful thermal spas. Audra and I visited their most famous one, Széchenyi spa, the largest medicinal bath in Europe. There are around 20 different pools (of varying temperatures) and various dry, aroma, and wet saunas. The best pool is a massive one outside with the temp of a hot tub and massaging fountains.
Second, the history. The country was initially settled by a group of people from the Ural Mountains (central Russia). The language is different from all other neighboring slavic languages because of this. In 896 it was officially recognized as a country. It's made it through many invasions: Mongols, Ottomans, French (Napoleon), and Austrians. The latter led them to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. This boosted Budapest into a golden age, hence the architecture being so similar to Vienna. You probably know that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, sparked WWI. At the end of the war, the empire was broken, and Hungary lost much of its land. Along comes WWII and Hitler promises to give back that land to Hungary if they fight for Germany. A puppet government was formed in Budapest by the name of The Arrow Cross. Fast forward to the end of the war and Hungary falls behind the Iron Curtain.
Finally, food and drink! Yes, I'm starting to get some spice! Paprika is a major ingredient. In fact, a Hungarian discovered Vitamin C, not in oranges, but in paprika. Types of foods you'll see: paprikash (like a meat stew flavored with paprika, ours was served over homemade noodle/dumplings), grilled meats and sausages, goulash, and langos (referred to as communist pizza, deep fried dough topped with sour cream and sheep cheese).
If you like bars, go to Budapest and go to Bar Szimpla. Trust me. Coolest bar we've ever been to! If you're from St. Louis, imagine Venice Cafe on steroids. Like with 20 different rooms each with their own theme and bar. Going here is like going on a pub crawl, without having to leave. Bar Szimpla is the first of its kind, starting the trend of Budapest Ruin Bars. Basically, these are abandoned buildings in the old Jewish quarter that gave rise to an underground bar scene. Nomadic Matt describes them best: Read about it here.
Onwards - Croatia: Lakes, Coast, and GOT
Audra and Kevin Arendt: Digital Nomads, World Travelers, and Midwestern Americans. To learn more, see About.