WHAT WE DID:
- Traveled for 36 days around 7 Eastern and Central European countries (8 countries including a day trip to Belarus).
- Stayed primarily in rooms (self-contained unit) booked through AirBnB, with the exception of a 4-night ski lodge suite in Koscielisko, Poland (Tatra National Park).
- Our basic itinerary:
- Transit – bus (Lux Express) from Moscow to Riga, Latvia
- Riga (3 nights)
- Transit – bus (Lux Express) from Riga to Vilnius, Lithuania
- Vilnius (2 nights)
- Transit – bus (Lux Express) from Vilnius to Bialystok, Poland
- Overnight in Bialystok
- Transit – bus (Voyager) from Bialystok to Bialowieza
- Bialowieza (3 nights)
- Transit – bus (Arriva) from Bialowieza to Warsaw
- Warsaw (3 nights)
- Transit – bus (Lux Express) from Warsaw to Krakow
- Krakow (4 nights)
- Transit – bus (Szwagropol) from Krakow to Zakopane
- Zakopane (Koscielisko) (4 nights)
- Transit – bus (PolskiBus) from Zakopane to Krakow
- Krakow (2 nights)
- Transit – bus (Lux Express) from Krakow to Prague, Czech Republic
- Prague (4 nights)
- Transit – bus (RegioJet (Student Agency)) from Prague to Vienna, Austria
- Vienna (4 nights)
- Transit – train (ÖBB) from Vienna to Bratislava, Slovakia
- Bratislava (1 night)
- Transit – bus (RegioJet (Student Agency)) from Bratislava to Budapest, Hungary
- Budapest (4 nights)
WHAT WE LIKED:
- The open-air markets! Amazing produce and bakeries, and so much fun to poke around at all the fresh, locally-grown ingredients and see what/how the locals eat. Also a huge money saver, as we stayed in AirBnBs with kitchens so that we could cook our own dinners. As in Australia, we saved a ton on food cost and were able to utilize the wonderful ingredients (plus the money is going into the locals’ pockets, rather than a supermarket chain).
Example (Krakow market): 3 fresh pastries, 12 yellow (Mirabelle) plums, 1 kg raspberries, 1.25 kg dry beans (mung, garbanzo, & lentils), 1 zucchini, 1 carrot, 2 tomatoes, 0.5 kg green beans. Total cost = 24 zloty (just under $6 USD).
- Bus travel is fantastic in Eastern Europe, and typically about 1/3 the cost of the train. Many of the coach lines have reclining seats, tons of legroom, outlets, and WiFi. We were exceptionally fond of Lux Express – good prices, the most comfortable line we rode, friendly customer service and drivers, and tickets were easy to purchase online (seat selection included).
- The tram systems in all of the major cities are great – an inexpensive and convenient way to get to the more peripheral areas of larger cities. Warsaw’s seemed to be one of the best deals – a ticket cost 4 zloty (~$0.80 USD), and was good for the next 75 minutes of travel (unlimited distance within city).
- Vienna’s dessert scene! Eat the cakes… as many as you can… just do it!
- Budapest had a really cool feel to it… a bit more authentic (if that’s an appropriate description) – less touristy, less in-your-face, and not such a compact, defined ‘historical center’ where a handful of landmarks bottleneck hordes of visitors.
WHAT WE’D CHANGE:
- It’s not something we can really change, but we’ve found many of the ‘Old Town’ districts to be just brimming with tacky souvenir shops and to be somewhat overrun by large tour groups (i.e. groups of 20+ getting off a tour bus for their whirlwind, few-hour visit to a particular city). Sometimes it makes us think we should just head for the countryside and national parks, but at the same time we’re torn, as we want to experience the renowned architecture, museums, and cultural hubs. With only 90 days of visa-free travel in the Schengen region, I think we keep second-guessing ourselves. Do we keep trying to see as much as possible? Do we head for the hills? Do we narrow our scope to two countries and just hang out and see less, not knowing if/when we’ll next return to Europe?
WHAT WE LEARNED:
- Holy friggin’ ticks in Bialowieza Forest! It’s always good to check yourself thoroughly after a hike, but it seems exceptionally important here. I pulled 6 off my head/face on one hike, and Stephan pulled another three out of my hair afterward. Ever the science geek, I [Jenn] started skimming the scientific literature, and found that Bialowieza is hot zone for studying tick-borne diseases (including the endemic and regionally-significant tick-borne encephalitis virus).
- Belarus recently began allowing ‘day visas’ for Bialowieza visitors to cross the border and explore the Belarusian forest. A permission form can be filled out online in advance. At the border, you present your passport, completed and approved permission slip, and proof of medical insurance (valid within Belarus), and you are free to cross either on foot or by bicycle. Total cost is about $3–5 USD per person (12 zloty ($3 USD) for the trail pass and 8 zloty ($2 USD) for the insurance (which you can buy at the tourist center in the Polish park if you don’t have a travel policy)).
- If you do cross the border from Poland to Belarus, the time zone changes (+1 hour). Keep this in mind, as the border closes at 7 p.m. Belarus time (6 p.m. Poland time).
- Entrance to Auschwitz is free, if visiting without a guide, and entry passes can be reserved in advance online. However, the museum puts only about 30% of the total available daily tickets on their website (we were told this by a museum employee when we called panicked that no tickets were available). If you are unable to book in advance, show up early (the museum opens at 8 a.m., the first bus arrives from Krakow at 7:40 a.m.), and you’ll have no problem getting an entry pass for immediate admission. We took the Lajkonik bus, which departed Krakow at 6:20 a.m., arriving at Auschwitz at 7:40 a.m. (price was 12 zloty ($3 USD) per person one-way). We’d also recommend purchasing a one-way ticket, as you won’t know what time you’ll be done with your visit (we were there for about 8 hours). You can just hop on a return bus and purchase a ticket with the driver. Also of note – Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau are located about 2 km (1.5 miles) apart. A free shuttle runs between the two sites, but we chose to walk (easy and there is signage) as the shuttles were super packed.
- We noticed that everyone in Poland seemed to be super nice to the pigeons (they fed them in the square in Krakow, they never chased them away…). As bird lovers, we were obviously wicked excited and impressed to see this, albeit slightly confused, as we’ve never seen people with a real love for the feathered pariahs. We then stumbled across this local legend (The Legend of Krakow’s Pigeons), summarized below:
Krakow’s pigeons are actually the knights of a medieval prince. In exchange for the funds for a trip to Rome, where the nobleman intended to help reunite his divided country, the prince allowed a witch to transform the knights into pigeons. Regretfully, the selfish prince ended up squandering this newfound fortune, never arriving in Rome, and failing to reunite Poland. When he returned to Krakow, the witch was gone, and his knights were left to live out their days flapping about the city. Many believe that the affable birds are actually the feudal knights, awaiting the return of their prince, and a return to human form.
- Again, not so much something we learned, but we found it almost odd to be back in a part of the world where driving laws were actually obeyed and enforced. The ‘rules of the road’ seemed more a suggestion throughout most of southeast Asia, so it was interesting to return to a more regulated state.
- There’s no Uber in Slovakia or Hungary. Prepare to pay a hefty price for a cab or suck it up and hoof it (or hitch-hike).
WEIGHTS & MEASURES:
AVERAGE PETROL COST:
|Country||Cost per liter
|Cost per liter
|Czech Republic||28 Kč||$1.17|
AVERAGE EXCHANGE RATE:
|Country||$1 USD equivalent|
|Latvia||0.91 Euro (€)|
|Lithuania||0.91 Euro (€)|
|Poland||4.1 zloty (zł)|
|Czech Republic||24 koruna (Kč)|
|Austria||0.89 Euro (€)|
|Slovakia||0.88 Euro (€)|
|Hungary||275 forint (Ft)|