Tag Archives: tour

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.


The Churches on the Hill

One of the most popular tourist draws to Armenia, churches can be found all through the mountainous region. Dating back hundreds, even a thousand years, some churches are run down and decrepit, others have been rebuilt for posterity. A person could easily revolve their entire trip to Armenia and not be disappointed. However if you are not one of those people, don’t give up reading just yet. There’s an easy trip to the shores of lovely Lake Sevan that gives you just a taste without being overwhelming. I’ve recommended this to every person who visits the country because it hits three quality sites and can be done in a few hours. So far they haven’t complained. At least to my face.

Before touring the sites, it’s pretty important to get there. You have a few possible options available. The first would be to hire a taxi from Yerevan for the day. In theory you negotiate a price upfront after telling the driver what you want to do. In reality if you don’t speak Armenian or Russian the odds of this happening without a huge markup are pretty low. The second option is easier, contact a tour company and work with them. One of the best in the country is Envoy Hostel. The extremely helpful staff run a wonderful hostel in Yerevan for your accommodation and they can set you up with a packaged tour or even one you create yourself. With the hostel being very popular with Yerevan visitors, finding a few others to go with should be easy. And finally if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous (read: cheap) you can take a mixture of public transportation and hitchhiking. Take a morning marshutni to Sevan from Yerevan, hitch down to Gavar, then marshutni or hitch back into Yerevan.

On to the sites.

Now you’ve covered a decent tourist area, maybe had a transcendental experience like I did, what’s next? Time for a superlative.  Noratus is the largest collection of Armenia’s famed khatchkars in the world. Previously that title was held Julfa in Nakhchivan until the khatckars there were bulldozed by Azerbaijani authorities. So now Noratus is the place to see the evolution of the stone cross.

Evolution is not a stretch when it comes to what you’ll find through the field of khatchkars. There are extraordinarily old stones that have been worn smooth with nothing more than a cross etched on to them using a harder stone. Some are covered in lichen and moss. Others are beautiful examples of medieval Armenian art. Still others tell stories. There are a lot of them.

This is the sad story of two young lovers. There once was a young man in the village who was a tailor (represented by the scissors near his head) and caught the attention of the most beautiful girl in the area. When the two decided to wed there was great rejoicing because she was so lovely and he was a well brought up and responsible young man. Although the two families were poor they were able to provide enough for a large wedding party (the food and wine jugs) and invited the whole town. The young couple were standing in front of the priest staring lovingly into each other’s eyes when a force of marauding bandits (man on horse) swept down from the hills and began to slaughter the populace. The couple were violently butchered along with many of the other people, but somehow half of the population was able to survive. The groom’s younger brother vowed revenge, and as he marched to the blacksmith to turn his plowshares to swords, his mother begged him to reconsider. She could not bear the idea of losing her only remaining child. After the rage subsided, the brother understood the wisdom of his mother and apprenticed himself to the town’s stone cutter. After three years of apprenticeship he carved out this scene to remember his brother and would-be sister in law and placed it over the place where the two were killed.

Most recently in order to help Armenia preserve its cultural heritage as well as promote tourism, USAID sponsored a project to install sign posts and make information available to Noratus visitors.  Visit to show USAID and governments that cultural heritage is worth saving.  Preservation can be a viable source of income if we as travelers do our part.

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.