Category Archives: Poland

Baltic Amber

Jurassic Park is one of the greatest movies ever made. From a pair of spunky kids outsmarting a herd of velociraptors to a T-rex seriously ruining someone’s toilet time, the movie has it all. But one of the most underrated aspects of the flick is how it pushed amber into the public conscious. The Baltic region produces the vast majority of the world’s amber so the odds that fly with the dinosaur DNA was Northern European is pretty high.

Since the dawn of humans, amber has been marveled at and desired for it’s beauty. Then golden color can just mesmerize a person. The tourist industries in the Baltic states have taken full advantage of this. Walk through any tourist area in Gdansk or Vilnius (also probably Kaliningrad, Tallinn, and Riga) and you’ll see hundreds of amber trinkets for sale. You can also get them in Germany, but according to a German friend I toured Poland, Polish prices are less than half of German prices. Whether it’s just a little necklace for a special girl in your life or a huge ship that can dominate your mantle, amber artisans are still able to practice their craft.

Carry-on?  Vilnius, Lithuania

Carry-on baggage? Vilnius, Lithuania

Amber just isn’t for looking pretty. It has left it’s mark on European history. After the Crusades the Teutonic Knights conquered the amber rich Baltic region eventually building Malbork Castle. As the seat of the Teutonic power, it was where the knights enforced their monopoly over the amber trade. Amber was used for rosaries and by controlling the production and supply of the precious materials, the Teutonic Order was able to leverage concessions and power from various other world leaders. Kind of like OPEC. Eventually this license to print money collapsed with the Protestant Reformation and the Lutheran lack of rosaries.

The history of amber in Poland is shown through a surprisingly modern and well equipped museum located in Malbork Castle. You can see how amber is born millions of years ago and all the exact geologic processes that have to occur in order to complete the formation. You’ll also find dozens of pieces of jewelry stretching from the Neolithic time right up until today. The evolution of the craft as tools got stronger, smaller, and more precise is great to see. It’s like two attractions for the price of one. Just another reason you should visit one of the best draws in Poland.

Fouling the Food

In order to save money while I do much of my eating with food from grocery stores. It’s much cheaper than going out to eat and it’s nice to have so much more variety. Most of the time I have zero problems, but occasionally I make a mistake. So to celebrate I’ve made a list of some of my more memorable mix ups.

I bought the cheaper orangeade instead of orange juice or my sick friend. The worst part was it was my idea to get her OJ while she was in bed.

My friend send me out to buy some butter. I ran down to the local shop and found the butter section. Again to save money I picked the cheapest one up because butter is butter. Except when it’s pure fat to be melted on top of pierogies.

Topping that, a couple of friends of mine went out for ice cream in Armenia.  When you buy ice cream there it often comes in wrapped up blocks.  Well everyone got theirs and were heading out.  This was before we spoke enough Armenian to know what the shopkeepers were saying. One of my friends opens the ice cream and finds out it’s a stick of butter.  In order to save face he took a solid bit out of it as the shopkeeper watched on.  Like it was what he wanted the whole time.

I went out shopping while my friend was at work. I visited the butcher and got some chicken and as I was paying I noticed a pile of ribs for dirt cheap.  Like less than a dollar a kilo cheap. I’m a sucker for ribs. So I picked up about a kilogram and made them to go with the chicken. There wasn’t a whole lot of meat on them, but I figured that’s why they were so cheap. I served the food and my friend’s roommate informed me the meat was so cheap because it was meant to be served to pets, not people. Still tasted good.

At the shop there was a can of beer I hadn’t tried before. I picked it up and popped it open when I got back. Turns out it was an awful, awful ginger flavored beer. To top it off there wasn’t even any alcohol in it.

Another time I mixed up some lemonade tasting beer with real beer. It also was disgusting. But at least it can get you drunk.

I wanted to buy some mustard so I ran to the local store. They didn’t have any regular condiments. So I had to settle for this garlic sauce that was like three times more expensive than ketchup or mustard would have been. That was a downer.

I once mistook mustard for toothpaste. Did you know you can buy mustard in squeeze tubes in Germany? Real cheap too.

But my absolute favorite happened in Warsaw. I went to a meat shop to buy some chicken. I pointed it out in my non-existent Polish and had it wrapped up at the counter. I paid for it, picked it up, and left. A few hours later when it was time to prepare dinner, I unwrapped it and I was shocked and amazed to see a pile of sliced ham. I guess I just picked up some other person’s package. I still wonder if they noticed it before they tried to prepare their lunch or dinner.

Malbork Castle

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, Malbork Castle is one of the preeminent attractions in Poland. It was built by the Teutonic Order to be the seat of their power in the region. It is enormous, the largest castle in the world. After years of warfare and sieges the Teutonic Order finally gave Malbork over to the Polish kings who used it as their residence for a time. During the partitions of Poland, the castle changed hands multiple times and it wasn’t until after WWII the area was returned to Poland. Of course like much of Europe Malbork was a pile of smoking rubble after the war. The pictures you can see of the restoration are amazing. My first reaction when I saw the damage in the photos was, ‘Why didn’t they just bulldoze the whole thing and chalk it up as a loss?’ But if I guess they did that half of Europe would be a parking lot today.

Malbork is located about an hour south of Gdansk by train and very easy to visit as you’ll see.

I was in Poland and my friend lives in Warsaw. My original plan was to stay with her a few nights but she had just accepted a job offer in Bucharest and was busy packing and getting ready to move. She told me that it would be easier if I didn’t stay with her because moving sucks. She didn’t want to be frustrated or angry with me being in the way. So I decided to visit Malbork. I was traveling onwards after my CELTA course in Wroclaw but I had three nights in between the end of my course and my flight from Warsaw. So I did the only rational thing I could and turned Malbork into a two night trek.

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I left Warsaw after having dinner with my friend on a train heading to Gdansk at 11:00 PM. It was an over night train that would get into Gdansk at 7:00 AM. I pulled into the station and went over to the automated ticket machine to get my ride to Malbork. There was a train leaving in twenty minutes, but I passed on that. I wanted to get to Malbork at around 10:00 AM when it actually opened. It was too cold to be standing and waiting. The tickets from Gdansk to Malbork are quite cheap and the ride isn’t bad. It takes a little under an hour so if you’re already visiting the lovely city of Gdansk, Malbork is an easy day trip by train.

Getting closer to the station I caught my first glimpse of the castle. It was pretty awe inspiring. We pulled into Malbork and the first thing I noticed was an awful smell in the air. I looked around and noticed that quite close to the train station is a large factory belching out fumes. Luckily I had seen the castle from the train so I knew the general direction to head in from the station. It’s about a kilometer and a half, maybe two kilometer walk to the castle. I’m pretty sure I saw a bus that ran the route but I felt like seeing if the town of Malbork had anything else interesting to offer. It doesn’t.

To enter castle you need to purchase a ticket. If I’m being honest it was kind of expensive. More than I would like to pay normally, but I bit the bullet. It was definitely worth the money though. You can get in cheaper if you arrive later in the day, but since the tour takes about three hours you might miss much of it. Make sure to bring your passport with you. Normally I leave my passport somewhere safe when I make day trips, but this time I just had a gut feeling I should have it on me. I’m glad I did. If you have your passport they’ll let you borrow an audioguide for a self tour. The audioguide is in five or six different languages that you can choose from when you receive it. Physically it’s a small iPod touch in a case with some headphones and a custom app made for it. That’s why you need your passport, they don’t want their nice gadgets walking off. Not getting the audioguide isn’t much of an option because you won’t find a whole lot of signs explaining the different rooms in the castle.

You’ll get the chance to tour the knights quarters, mess halls, privies, chapels, an armory, even a really nice museum dedicated to amber. There are some beautiful pieces of jewelry and decoration that can take your breath away. All in all, the castle feels like something right out of Dungeons and Dragons.

After I finished my tour I headed back to Gdansk. I was leaving Gdansk on another over night train to Warsaw leaving at 11:30 PM so I had plenty of time to waste. I spent some time wandering the streets, I was quite surprised there was no Christmas market. Gdansk is a beautiful city so I was happy to spend time. I got some dinner and then headed back to the train station to wait. I had my Kindle with me so it wasn’t too bad. Also the train station has free wifi so I pulled out my iPhone and chatted with people on Facebook. I don’t like waiting but it wasn’t too terrible.

We boarded the train and my plan was to go straight to sleep. Unfortunately that wasn’t going to happen. Two other travelers in my car kept talking to each other with the lights on. Whenever there was a break in the conversation I would doze off for about twenty minutes then a conductor would come through asking to see our tickets. This would kick off their conversation for another hour easily. They weren’t going all the way to Warsaw and when they got off I was alone in the car. I immediately hopped up and turned the lights off, a sign to anyone else coming into the car that it was going to be quite. A few other travelers boarded and they didn’t make any noise, everyone just tried to get comfortable in their seats for the ride.

I arrived in Warsaw around 5:30 and felt like a zombie. In the last 48 hours I had spent seven hours on a bus from Wroclaw to Warsaw, 16 hours on trains from Warsaw to Gdansk and back, and two hours on trains from Gdansk to Malbork. And that didn’t include any of the time I spent walking around in Malbork exploring the place.

As a whole the experience wasn’t the most pleasant.  The obscene amount of travelling in such a short time really took a mental toll on me.  But it was worth it to see Malkbork.  The castle was awesome, one of the best things I’ve ever seen.  But from now on I’m going to try and avoid multiple nights of overnight travel.

Gnomes of Wroclaw

During the Soviet times, the USSR was understandably not too popular (see Katyn) in Poland. People would often paint anti-Soviet graffiti all over the place.  The militia would be called in and paint right over it.  They couldn’t let those hurtful words be seen by the toiling proletariat could they?   Eventually a couple of artists calling themselves the ‘Orange Alternative’ movement decided that instead of wasting everyone’s time with new graffiti that would be painted over within hours they would paint gnomes out of Polish folklore because folklore is awesome.  Fight oppression with absurdity.

This went on for a while and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union Wroclaw sort of adopted the gnome as their town symbol.  All around the city, not just the tourist sections, there are these gnome statues about a foot high. You’ll find them everywhere. On sidewalks near schools and businesses. Next to curbs for absolutely no reason. By government buildings because it’s entertaining. Many local businesses have caught the gnome fever and commission artists to make one specially for them, a tiny little advertising man.  One of the gnomes is even special just for the Christmas Market; they bring him out on his pedestal and if you rub his hat you’re supposed to get what you want for the holidays.

I’ve read there are something like 200 of them around, I was only able to find about 40 during my time there.  That wasn’t for lack of effort, I tried multiple times a week to get out and just walk around.  I know I could have looked up the locations online, but that’s sort of like cheating.

It’s surprisingly entertaining, like a city wide scavenger hunt.  It forced me to take so many side streets that I would normally ignore.  Sometimes I would find a gnome secreted away in a hidden corner, sometimes I wouldn’t.  But the thought that maybe there was something to be found made exploring Wroclaw far more entertaining than it could have been.  I think more cities should introduce city-wide art work ideas.

Here’s some more info and pictures to look at

Polish Buses and Trams

Transportation in major Polish cities is extremely efficient and pretty easy to navigate once you understand the rules. The first step might be to check out the websites for the different cities: Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, and Wroclaw. There may be more sites for other cities but unless you’re using Couchsurfing you’ll probably be staying somewhat close to the center of town and Polish cities are quite walkable. If you’re staying with someone, they’ll know the exact website to use to look up the bus and tram routes. If there is a route planner like the one for ZTM Warsaw you can easily put in your starting and ending points to get the information you need. If there isn’t that option, you just have to do it the old fashioned way.

By Panek (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Most bus and tram stops will have a big map of the city with the routes highlighted. If you know where you are and where you are going, you can trace the route and which buses or trams you will need to take in order to make the trip.

At each stop you will find a small timetable. I’m bad at this blogging thing and thought of writing this after I left Poland so I didn’t think to get a picture and can’t find one online. But it’s easy to describe. At the top in bold numbers will be the bus route. Under that will be a listing of times looking similar to this 14 :02 :12 :22: 32: 42: 52. This tells you what times the bus will arrive. There may be different schedules for the weekends, so look for the words sobota and niedziela, Saturday and Sunday respectively. If the schedules are different it’ll be marked with a new timetable.

Next to the timetables on the paper will be the bus routes. First you need to locate the name of the stop where you are on the route. Each stop is labeled on the waiting area so match that up with the stop on the route which looks like a line with circles on it and words next to the circles. Then find the small numbers 1, 2, 3 next to station stops. Those are the next three stops on the route telling you which direction the bus will be going.

Now here’s where you need to pay attention. If the stop you need to get off at is a white circle instead of black, the bus will only stop there if you push the Stop button near the doors as you approach it. If you skip this vital step, the bus will continue on it’s merry way until the next black circle stop arrives or someone needs to get on or off.

Sometimes you’ll arrive at a bus stop but not find any bus going to where you need to go even though the internet said the routes run that way. This often happens when you need to transfer buses or trams. In this case, look around for another waiting area in the vicinity. It’ll have the same stop name, but a different number next to it. Visit that station and repeat the previous steps to ensure you are going to where you want.

By Mateusz Włodarczyk via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve finally found the right bus route, the right stop, you know how far to go, it’s time to buy a ticket. There are three main options for buying a ticket. You can use the automated ticket machines at the stops. This is the best method because you can have the machine work in English. You may also go to a small shop near the station and ask for a normaly bilet. The odds of the person working there speaking English are pretty low unfortunately. And lastly you can take a risk and hope the bus or tram you get on has a ticket machine on board. If it does just buy a ticket there.

Wil at pl.wikipedia from Wikimedia Commons

The system is run with the honor method. You’re supposed to purchase a ticket for one of the options (one trip, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 60 minutes, etc) then validate the ticket on a little stamping machine on the bus or tram. No one actually sees you validate the ticket so there is a bit of temptation to simply not buy a ticket and save a few zloties. I did this the first few times I visited Poland. But now I’ve learned from a Polish friend of mine that they are beginning to crack down on fare jumpers. In between stops a plainclothesed officer will announce something in Polish and people will start rummaging around in their pockets and purses. This is the cue to pull out your already validated ticket. Don’t try to validated now, they don’t like that. Also don’t think you’ll be able to play the ignorant tourist card. I was coming back from Wieliczka mine to Krakow and one of the officers was able to nab five Korean tourists who didn’t have a ticket because they didn’t know where to buy one. You’ll get a bit of a fine and then allowed to go.

It’s a pretty easy system right? I learned how it all works through trial and error. My first experiences with the buses in Warsaw came on my first trip there. I was returning with my friend from dinner on the metro and saw a poster with a guy doing BMX tricks. It got me interested so I asked my friend to write down the details since it was all in Polish. We got back to her apartment and looked it up and where it was being held, I wanted to go while she was at work. She plugged the information into ZTM Warsaw’s route planner and wrote down what buses I needed to take and where to transfer.

The next morning I take my piece of paper with the details and head out to the bus stop. I get on the first bus no problem and place myself near the route maps located in every bus. I counted each time we stopped at and was getting ready for my stop… and then we drove right past it. This is where I learned that the buses don’t stop at every single stop. I hit the Stop button and figured I could just walk back to the stop I missed, no problem. Well of course the stop I was supposed to get off at was the last stop in the district so the bus crossed the bridge into the Praga area of Warsaw. A mile and a half later I hopped off the bus and started walking back.

I come from really rural areas in America. I’ve never ridden public transportation before because it doesn’t exist where I live. This was brand new to me. My yokel side will come out in a moment.

I finally get back to stop I missed and check my paper so I know what bus to hop on next. It arrives and I get on, feeling pretty good about myself that I solved this problem all alone. We’re cruising along and after twenty or so minutes I get this sinking feeling that I should have reached my stop by now. But we didn’t pass it yet, I knew that for a fact. I looked at the route on the wall of the bus and realized we were going away from where I needed to be. My lack of public transportation use never allowed me to think that ‘Hey, buses with the same numbers go in opposite directions along the same line. That means each bus stop should have another bus stop with the same name to service both directions.’

I hopped off the bus and looked around, finally finding the other waiting area. I dashed across the street and saw a bus coming up. I glanced at the number at the top of the bus and then quickly at the route list. It was going to the stop where I made the mistake. Smiling at my good luck I hopped on the bus, feeling pretty good about myself that I solved this new problem all alone. I’m riding the bus and I hop off at the stop. I’m not at the BMX show yet, I’m just finally at the last stop I before I get there. Since there were no buses coming I decided to spend a few minutes making the acquaintance of the waiting area, maybe there was some information here I could use. I started looking at the schedules and route maps and was pleased to discover that the bus my friend wrote for me was expected to come in about five minutes bringing me to the show. I was a little less pleased to discover that the bus I just hopped off of also went to the show.

Wielizcka Salt Mine, Krakow

Normally I’m not one for the very touristy attractions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pretentious and think that ‘I’m a traveler not a tourist,’ or feel there is something inherently wrong with popular attractions. Do you know why visitors are attracted to certain places? Because they’re worth seeing, that’s why. No I’m not big on tourist attractions because they most often cost money and I am notoriously cheap. So I never planned on visiting the Wielizcka Salt Mine. But all my Polish friends said Wielizcka is one of the best attractions in the country and I would be missing out if I skipped it. So I went.

Constructed in the 13th century the mine continued to produce salt up until the mid 2000s. For seven hundred years it was a prime source of employment for Poles in the Krakow area. In the days before refrigeration salt was one of the best ways to preserve food. This made Wielizcka vital to generations of Polish kings and leaders as a source of wealth.

Wielizcka is a pretty easy day trip out of Krakow if you’re not stupid. Unfortunately that seems to exclude me. I was CouchSurfing in Krakow with a wonderful local student who helped me find the bus I needed to take from the city to Wielizcka. I jotted her instructions down and hit the road. The first leg of my journey was easy. I got on a bus heading out of town in the direction I was going. However I must have missed a stop because I rode the bus to the very end of the line and I did not see any mine. That was the first problem. After that the entire day was an adventure.

I trekked a bit back down the road we came in on to try and catch my bearings. Maybe the stop was close. I wasn’t able to find any help in the way of signs and being a stupid guy I didn’t want to ask for directions either. Eventually I found my way to a hotel where I swallowed my pride and asked for some help. The lovely lady working at the front desk spoke English and told me that I was close, only a mile and a half away from the mines. Well that wasn’t too far, so I started walking in the direction she pointed me to. In a bit I realized that she thought I had a car because her directions would have taken my on to a highway. I felt like I was being clever though following the highway on a little side path that ran parallel.

Eventually the path hit a split and I guessed I should take the route that took me through a small town. I didn’t have any idea what I was looking for and assumed that Wielizcka was located near a town. So I start walking through town and then realize I’m in the wrong town and I also had no idea how to get back to where I was. I might be not the brightest guy, but I did bring a compass so I could get a general idea of where I was going. South and west were where I came from so I started to follow roads that could take me there. There was a nice little Saturday market I found in the town, but no signs pointing me towards the mine.

After approximately two hours or so of meandering through the town I end up heading down a hill and guess what I found? The hotel I stopped in before! At least I knew where I was, that was a good thing. I continued my trek but this time paid more attention to the highway and noticed that there were a couple of signs pointing to the turnoffs drivers would need to take to get to Wielizcka.

I cutting this story short here because it’s not very interesting and I’m tired of writing about it. The basic version is that I got lost again trying to follow the signs and some wrong intuition. I hooved around some more and eventually I found myself orientated in the the right direction and got a bus heading out that way. All in all what should have been a twenty minute bus ride from Krakow took close to four hours. When traveling though I’m not one to complain. The weather was nice, it was good exercise, and it showed me a part of Poland I doubt most tourists see. The journey is half the fun right?

But it was worth it. Oh it was so worth it. Even though Wielizcka was probably the most expensive single thing (there’s no way to visit without an organized tour) I did in my entire trip and one of the largest pains, the reward more than made up for it. There’s a reason it was one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. Hundreds of years of carvings and artwork by the salt miners has been preserved for your pleasure. With a guided group you get a chance to tour parts of the mine and marvel at statues carved from salt. Images of Polish historical figures are everywhere. The tour lasts a few hours and outside of the statues there’s an underground lake, giant chapel, light show, and journey back to the surface in a tightly packed elevator. Since it’s a mine it’s quite dark even with all the lights. It’s not dangerous or worrisome, but hard to get decent photos. So sorry about that.

Since I’m a bit of a nerd I immediately compared Wielizcka to Moria from Lord of the Rings. Not the Moria the fellowship went through full of orcs trying to kill them and a giant, fire whip wielding Balrog reasonably asking for a toll across the only bridge over a bottomless chasm. No, Wielizcka is what I imaged Moria to be like during the good years full of lights and history and carvings. Tolkienesque. Is that a real word?

While visit Krakow do yourself a favor and make a day trip out the mine. There are dozens of tour operators who can arrange it for you. Or you can purchase tickets online here. I simply arrived and bought a ticket from the counter, but that may not be a good idea during the high season.