It’s never during the excitement of the experience that you tend to notice the oddities of the world. It’s during the quiet down time, when you’re stuck in an airport or sitting quietly on a park bench or waiting out a transfer at the train station that you notice something about what you’ve experienced was strange. Something wasn’t what it once was, or it was just different than what you would have expected it to be. (Travel books ALWAYS gives you the best case scenario.) That’s the point when you know you’re actually experiencing travel. When you notice the small and out of place.
I tend to notice more stuff as I travel. Stuff that I never paid attention to when I was twenty. The small things. The interesting idiosyncrasies of places that make them the same, yet different. The things that have changed along the way. The odd. These realizations provide me with as much satisfaction these days, as the paintings in the museums do.
Some more of the things I noticed while backpacking around Europe in 2019 are below. I think they’re interesting oddities.
It is my profound belief that, at least once every city, you should stop and eat real food. Seriously, it’s easy to get lost in the endless cycle of vending machine candy bar and coke dinners, while waiting on a train to someplace new. food stalls on the streets of most cities can provide effective relief from the need to eat. Truthfully, half a dozen beers can do the same thing.
Sometime during all of the food stalls and vending machines you should pause and get real food. Go to a restaurant. Sit somewhere that has napkins and silverware. An actual person taking your order is also nice. There are lots of them, in almost every city. It will help you to relax and unwind. It will also help you to emotionally recharge. I highly recommend it. Plus, they usually have free wifi.
I’m not sure why I always end up going for pizza, when I think of real food. It might be the ability to get some loose definition of vegetables, without having to actually order them. Hahaha
I stared at this photo for a while, trying to remember where it came from. I’m pretty sure that if was from a restaurant adjacent to the Hapsburg Palace, in Vienna. And, if so, I do remember that it was tasty!
An Americano, Please?
One of the universal truths of traveling is that almost every country in the world thinks Americans drink bad coffee. If you don’t believe me, ask them. I have. The answer is universally the same. Why do we drink such awful things calling them coffee? I guess they just don’t like coffee filters in other places?
Normally, I tend to divert to whatever they drink in the the country I am in. During this trip around Europe, I decided to drink what I wanted to drink. The majority of the time, this meant Americanos. now, the European idea of American coffee is a thing far-removed from anything you would actually be able to get in the states. The most of it is … well, awful. you’re actually better off getting a cappuccino or an espresso, but seriously? What’s the point in that? Culture? Immersion in a different environment? trying new things? I say, sometimes you just want a taste of home, even when you’re abroad. Just sayin…
Close your eyes and think of coffee. You’re travelling, you stop into a shop or café and ask for a coffee. A suitably dressed man with a thick mustache brings you our a steaming cup with a rich smelling fluid in it. You inhale, and know you’re going to enjoy it.
This cup of very fine coffee was served after dinner, at a street-side restaurant in Istanbul.
This, my traveling friends, is much more like what you are going to receive. Europeans don’t understand the idea of filter-brewed coffee, and usually aren’t set up to do it that way. They simply don’t drink it or want to lower themselves to drink it.
What you will receive, if you ask for an Americano, is a cup of European coffee (usually an espresso) and a cup of hot water with which to dilute it down. It will usually also come with a strange expression from the server.
This cup of coffee was obtained from a street-side vendor, in a square in Geneva, Switzerland. The Metallica coming from the sound system was more enjoyable than the coffee. oh well, it got me out of the rain for a bit.
Getting Into Town.
I’m pretty sure that I’ve touched on this one before, but hitting it one more time won’t hurt anyone. Depending upon how you plan to get to a place, you really should pull up a map and see where that entry point is relative to the center of town. This will save you misery.
Back in the day when things weren’t as large, or in less-developed places where they still aren’t, train stations and airports were either in town or right on the edge. You could walk or cab from the airport to the train station and then go into town. As cities expand and build new infrastructure, this is becoming less the norm and more the exception.
Bucharest, Lima, and Istanbul are just a few of the places where I landed and then had to take a long trip into town. The new western airport in the city of Istanbul (the main airport from Europe and the west) is a solid forty-minute highway ride outside of the city. The main airport in Ammon is almost as far away. In these situations it pays dividends, no matter the travel budget, to book an airport transfer. Airport transfers these days can be done completely online, which means that you can set them up from whatever country you happen to be in before you arrive. I utilized Kiwitaxi.com for a couple stops in Europe and they were fantastic. I am not affiliated with them, but I got exactly what I paid for and it was friendly.
If you don’t want to set one up in advance, stop at you airline’s service counter as you exit the plane. they will be happy to point you toward the best lobby counter to get help. As for the back leg, I set up all of those transfers from my hotel desk and never had a problem. Hotels usually always adjust for local travel times as well, so you don’t get there late. That, is key!
Time For A Drink.
When in Greece, I like an ouzo. When in Puerto Rico, I like a rum. Whenever I can find a bottle of Absinth, I attack it. That being said, if you’re unwinding at the hotel bar, you pretty much have to take what you can get. And what you tend to get is always the same.
Somewhere, sometime ago, in the dark and smoky back room of an unknown place, some people got together and decided what the standard assortment of liquor would be at every hotel bar on the planet. During some twenty-years of time in the international game, I can assure you that wherever that list is written down, it’s written in stone. The small assortment of universally available liquors haven’t really changed in all the years that I’ve been paying attention to such things. In the beginning, I drank whatever was available, because it was there. Now that I’m older and more seasoned, I tend to gravitate toward higher-priced choices. Still, when you need a drink after a long day of touring, you need a drink.
Have you ever noticed that all tourist hotel bars look the same? I don’t mean the bar itself (this one is from my hotel in Santorini, and was quite welcoming), but I mean the booze that’s available. I’m sure I’ve never actually bought a bottle of silver label Bacardi in my life, but I have obviously drank enough of it by necessity.
Normally, I bypass the hotel bar, and head downtown. It yields better booze.
Tracking Down The Bars.
When I was younger, okay actually not so long ago maybe, I really didn’t plan too far in advance. Life in Germany had taught me that I could show up to a place and figure out how to get around with little enough effort. Either at the train station or nearby at some information station there would be a map of the city with one of those “you are here” markers. You figured out where you were, and walked around or caught a cab. Sooner or later, you got wherever it was you were thinking of going. It worked perfectly well.
In today’s world of instant everything, travelers and tourists alike have lost the sense of exploration. Google maps and itinerary-driven travel books with outlined walking tours have taken most of the exploration out of exploring new places. Granted that, in a world full of more expensive travel, you want to maximize your time and experiences. Still, I think we’ve lost something along the way. Getting lost is part of what makes new experiences new.
Back in the day, there was a map like this located at every train station in Europe. You would get off the train, go look at the map, figure out where you wanted to go, and then head out into the city.
This map, located in the old town of Krakow, Poland, is a fine example of how to get around town without technology.
Now, everybody these days has technology, me included. There probably isn’t any going back to the local map days, as long as there is goggle maps and route tracking.
Seriously, if you have cell service, you have mapping these days. I’m not going back either, I just think being able read a map and follow it gave you a much better introduction to a new place. understanding roads and and city layout, is lost when walking along following a dot on your phone screen.
My friends, travel is a many splendored thing. It is also, strange, and exciting, and oddly revealing. I’m not saying you should search out the strange and different. Just, stay casually observant. Continued casual observation will lead you to crazy, funny insights that the travel books don’t begin to cover. And, it adds to the experience. Plus, it gives you a story, for when you need one in a bar. And, you will, at some point.
Now, once you decide that you’re no-longer scared of COVID, get out there and explore. Get a passport, get vaccinated, get a plane ticket, and go have some new experiences. It will help your life. It always helps mine.
I confess that I wasn’t naturally attracted to Vienna at the beginning. I needed a place to stay, that was a quick train ride from the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, and Vienna fit the bill. it was big, had lots of stuff to do, was easy to get in/out of, and was a straight train ride from the race track. Admittedly, I could have stayed in a half-dozen places that met this criteria. At the end of the day, I’m super happy that I chose Vienna.
How happy, you ask? so happy, that the city features in the newest Kristin Hughes adventure novel that I’m currently working on. Yup, that happy. The city is amazing, on every level. It’s an old city, which I approve of greatly. It’s also layered with multiple layers of history. It’s easy enough to find. The architecture is amazing, and the food/beer is excellent. I honestly can’t say enough good things about the place.
That being said, The city is a little pricey, especially if you’re coming out of Eastern Europe as I was. It’s also congested, or it was before the COVID shut everything down. I hear Europe is kind of empty right now. I kind of blew into town in the first part of summer of 2019, which didn’t help either the prices or the tourist density. Still, the city’s charms far out-weighted any of its issues.
In the open space of the Michaelerplatz, fronting the opening which leads to the Sisi Museum, you will find a pair of imposing fountains. This fellow in the picture here is the base of the one to the left-hand side of the entrance. I like the look of determination on his face. It’s truth speaks to me.
Vienna is overflowing with excellent sculpture. Walking the street of the city will give a budget traveler an easy and enjoyable art exhibit. If the weather is nice, it’s an excellent way to spend a day.
Weather I landed in Vienna at the end of June. The weather was excellent. Warm to hot during the day, and warm at night. It was t-shirt weather, all around. I packed a rain jacket, but it wasn’t necessary. I had several days of blue sky and sunshine. If you are travelling during the other months, definitely check the weather. Austria can be very cold, at times.
Money: Austria sits on the eastern side of Western Europe. As such, it uses the Euro. Currently, the euro is trading at $1.18 to 1.00 euro. Austria (and Vienna) is also not a specifically budget-friendly travel stop. Using bank ATM machines for cash withdraws will get you competitive exchange rates. Utilizing credit cards will also help you get the bank exchange rate on transactions. Otherwise, plan on spending a little more money on things than you would in other locations.
Passport/Visa: If you’re coming from the United States, you won’t need to worry about a visa. You’ll need a passport that is in good repair to enter the E.U., and Austria requests that it be valid for at-least six months after your stay. They also request that you have proof of a return plane ticket or onward train ticket, though I’ve never been asked to show one to a customs agent anywhere in Europe.
Language Barrier: As has been the case with all of this adventure, I found not speaking good Dutch be not be an issue in Vienna. There are enough English-speaking people and bi-lingual signs to make navigating Vienna pretty easy. Being polite and friendly will get you the rest of the way. If you do speak Austrian, even better.
As is the case with all people trying to help you out, English won’t be their first language. Speak slowly. Use easy to understand words. Be patient. And, smile. Being happy and polite won’t kill you. Your traveling after all. It’s supposed to be fun, not easy.
COVID-19 Situation: Let’s face it, COVID-19 is sucking the soul out of the travel industry. It’s also not going away anytime soon. Please check with the Austrian government before making any travel plans, as countries allowed to travel to Austria (and any of the other E.U. countries) change frequently.
Race Tickets: I purchased my race ticket when the tickets went on-sale at the race track, and had them shipped to my home in the United States. I purchased the ticket straight from the Red Bull Ring’s website. It was easy and problem-free. I wanted the race ticket in-hand before committing to this piece of my travel itinerary.
As a side note, I’ve used ticket sales agents in the past (for the Monaco race specifically). Where they all work fine, I find it easier to deal directly with the track at this stage in my life. Tracks are also more apt to help you with information/problems, if they can see that you purchased a ticket straight from them.
Getting In and Out.
I made it in and out of Austria by train. On my way to Vienna, I took the train straight from Krakow, Poland, to Vienna. It was a smooth journey with no complications. On the way out of Vienna, I also took the train east to Bratislava. This too was smooth and with out complication. I utilized a EURail pass for both journeys.
Setting up the reservations for the individual legs of the journey down from Krakow was done at the Krakow train station. The service counter there was quite helpful. On the way to Bratislava, I just found a train that didn’t require a reservation, and hoped on. No muse, no fuse.
In truth, I also flew out of Austria. After the side trip to Bratislava, I came back to Vienna to fly to London. Vienna’s airport was a better choice for that leg of travel. Considering it was only a forty-five minute train ride from Bratislava to the Vienna airport, it seemed the best choice. Crossing the border was not a problem, as many people do it each day, and didn’t slow down my trip. I made it from my hotel in Bratislava to the airport Vienna without issues.
Moving from Eastern Europe back into Western Europe, my housing choice became one of cost over location. Eastern Europe is significantly cheaper and allows for more centrally located hotel options. Western Europe, especially the big cities, is definitely more pricey. This needs to be taken into account when you are planning your stay.
If I had of planned this one stop from back in America, I would have researched numerous options and probably chosen something more-expensive than I really wanted. It happens. I like to think of it as a facet of over-planning. (As a side note: You can definitely over-plan things. truthfully, I think most westerners over-plan things greatly. There is too much information available, and too many opinions on the internet about what to do (like this one…) that it’s easy to develop a plan that is both too busy and too expensive. You need to actively temper that idea.)
My housing choice for my time in the Austrian capital was made from my phone, while sitting at a bar in Krakow. I scrolled the list of options on Booking.com, found one in my price range, made sure that it was close to a metro station, and booked it. I didn’t over-think it, I just moved on and tracked it down, once I was in Vienna. Truthfully, it was a great choice. The hotel was in a quiet part of the city, and very-low key. It had a nice restaurant and bar, with outside seating. The staff was friendly and very helpful. I would definitely stay at the Ibis Wien Messe on a return trip to the city. The four nights came out to $329.00, which equals approximately $82.25 a night. I think, A reasonable rate for the Austrian capital.
The Ibis Wien Messe.
Located much closer to the Danube than any of the attractions in the city center, the Ibis was a good economical choice in a pricey city like Vienna. The hotel was located in a quiet section of the city, not a good two blocks from a metro stop. The metro made getting around the city quite easy, and the hotel a good deal for travel on a budget.
A second side note: If anyone reading this knew me from my early days living in Germany, on the government plan, they would find the same humor in me staying at an Ibis hotel which I found. It provided great nostalgia for me.
It is safe to say that people travel to Vienna for a variety of reasons. There’s sports, politics, and Mozart, to name just a few. many people stop by because its part of a larger itinerary; river cruises, bus tours, and the like. That being said, I think it’s completely safe to say that the vast majority of people who travel to Vienna for any type of culture actually travel to visit the Hapsburgs. One cannot encounter any part of the city without encountering a piece of the Hapsburg Empire. Its cultural footprint in the city is literally everywhere.
Hapsburgs aside, there is a lot to see and do in the city. It’s historical presence as a crossroads of humanity is well-established and on display. There are numerous layers to the city that could be explored, given sufficient time. With only a couple days to get around, I decided to stick to the highlight items. Or, what I considered to be the highlight items, while researching things to do from my bar stool in Krakow. The options are all but limitless. Here are some of the best parts of my stay.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
Located conveniently in a section of the city center known as Stephansplatz, must all local transport will get you here. Dating from the 12th century, the cathedral is an amazing building to view. the interplay of light inside the building is excellent, and produces a emotionally warm interior for such a large space.
Upon entering you will be greeted by the ticket sales. I mean, these things don’t maintain themselves, do they? there are different tickets available, and the main section may be closed off, if church services are being conducted.
If you have time, don’t miss the chance to visit the crypt. It is a guided tour and well worth the your time. I had to hang around about twenty minutes to catch it. I wasn’t disappointed.
The Hapsburg Palace.
When you’re a Hapsburg, big isn’t good-enough. The Hapsburg Palace Complex is a massive affair, and encompasses some five different museums (the palace being only one of them.)
In front of the semi-circular entrance you will find the ticket stands. You will need tickets for each of the different museums, so I recommend buying the combo-ticket and being done with it. The palace complex itself is worth a good day’s time, though I didn’t do it justice in a mere morning.
The Austrian National Library.
By-far, my favorite piece of the palace complex is definitely the National Library. There is a bit of a scavenger hunt to find the entrance, following signs and markers around the various courtyards of the complex, but once you do find it, it’s truly magnificent.
The library is a linear, multi-room affair, which leads you from one section to the next. There are numerous statues and displays. Hidden sections of the library stacks are open to show how different collections were kept. The display gives you a good feeling for the true depth and breath of the Hapsburg Empire. In my opinion, the best of the museums in the palace complex.
Crossing Burgring from the Hapsburg Palace complex, you will come to Maria-Theresien-Platz and Memorial. It’s an open space centered by a monument. It is also bookended by two buildings, the left one being the art museum.
The art museum shouldn’t be missed. It’s collection is very good and well-displayed. The atmosphere of the museum is open and airy, making it quite enjoyable. Plan on spending some time in the building. The collection spans several floors and will chew up a couple hours of your day.
Natural History Museum.
Across the courtyard from the art museum is the the natural history museum. It has a grand an imposing collection that spans all the facets of the natural world, from gems to dinosaur bones. It is well laid out and basically self navigated. Due to it’s size, plan some time. You’ll burn a couple hours going through the whole collection.
Under the well-hidden Capuchin Church in downtown Vienna you will come across the Imperial Crypt for the House of Hapsburg. The church is located on a quiet side street, and is not an ornate affair. it well hides the magnificent collection resting underneath it.
The House of Hapsburg was long-lived, and that is reflected by the number of caskets on display. They range from simple wooden affairs, to the bizarrely macabre. It should definitely not be missed.
A Day at the Races.
This is where I probably should confess that I had no great force drawing me to Vienna. I needed a city where I could get straight to the race track. That could have been many places in Austria, but really gave me Linz or Vienna as options. Vienna seemed more interesting, so that’s where I ended up. I knew that I was going to the Austrian Grand Prix before I left America. I had my race ticket in-hand before I got on the plane. The accommodations and travel were made up on the fly. I find it works just as well as worrying about things in advance.
The race track is located just outside the town of Spielberg, Austria. The train can get you to Spielberg with little complication. It’s better to take the train in than to pay the outrageous hotel prices in the small town charged during race weekend. Once at the train station, there is a free shuttle bus service that moves people from the train station to the race track. the buses unload in a hayfield a short walk from the race track, and the walk over is quite enjoyable.
I had an excellent day for a race. Blue skies and warm-hot temperatures made for a great day at the track. If I go back for another race, I’ll plan this part a little better. (See the picture caption below.)
My view of the Red Bull Ring, from the cheap seats around the backside of the circuit. It was a great day at the races, weather-wise. If you are a real Formula 1 fan, buy tickets in the grandstands. The track layout isn’t really conducive to watching from the grass. Also, their is no money exchanged at the track. You have to get a track-side credit card (Available at the track) and load it with money to do anything. It was a really big pain in the butt.
There was a shuttle service that ran straight to/and from the train station, so getting to the track was easy. You just lined up in the queue outside and waited for the next shuttle bus to load up.
I have to say, Vienna is an excellent travel choice. I had an amazing time there. As the title of this little novella implies, two full days of exploring the place, or its many layers of history, is far too-short a time to do it all justice. I like to think that my effort was more of a highlight reel than it was a true exploration. Still, any time in this fantastic city is worth it. You won’t be disappointed making a stop here.
If you’re wandering through Austria to attend the Grand Prix, as I was, I recommend staying in Vienna as well. It’s a direct train from Vienna to Spielberg, and everyone along the route understands where you’re headed. Also, unlike some countries I’ve been to, getting back away from the track after the race isn’t a big deal. The lines are short and move fast.
Yours truly, standing next to a fountain, somewhere in downtown Vienna. The city is replete with ornate statues, fountains, and buildings. I’m sure that, if you stay around long enough, you can use them as landmarks to navigate. I, sadly, wasn’t in town that long.
I plan on returning to Vienna, one day, to pick up where I left off my explorations. It’s a world-class city. Now, that being said, you should get out there and do some exploring of your own! Soon! After COVID!
A Quick Overview
If you spend more than a brisk afternoon in Krakow, or spend any amount of up-front time researching things to do when you get there, you will come across the obligatory Concentration Camp/Salt Mine Day Trip. It is absolutely guaranteed.
I think I first stumbled across it in Prague when searching for things to do after I made it to Krakow. It seemed to be somewhere in every top-ten-things-to-do-when list. I admit, that at first, I couldn’t quite get my head around the idea. The two things seemingly had nothing to do with each other. And where, in truth, they certainly do not, they are the prefect compliment to one another. Why you ask? Simple. The salt mine tour allows you to decompress after the heavy emotional journey through the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. It’s a lot to take in and process. The salt mine allow you to get your head around it, before being dropped off back in the city. I didn’t get it, until I got it. and then, it made all the sense in the world.
If you choose to take a day trip to visit the concentration camps and the salt mine, you will have many options to pick from. I utilized a group called Krakow Shuttle, from the look of the lanyard in the picture. ( I confess that I kept the invoice so that I might have the information for this blog post, but deleted it off my phone at some point. What are you going to do?) I have no affiliation with Krakow Shuttle, other than to say that they were a fine company to take a tour with. I handled the entire purchase online and they picked me up promptly from my hotel. The shuttles were clean and well-maintained. The staff was great to talk with, and knowledgeable. Like I said before, there are a bunch of options to choose from. Just look around and pick the one that strikes you as a good deal.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Our first stop of the three was the Concentration Camp of Auschwitz. The camp is amazingly intact and maintained. The tour of the facility, from the detention buildings, to the killing house, to the gas chambers, is a slow emotional decent into despair. You will start the tour with a feeling about how you think you are going to feel at the end, and end with a completely deeper and stronger one.
I am not going to explain the feeling that the tour leaves you with, as it took me some time to process for myself. I believe that it is individual to each person, based upon their own life situation and beliefs. I will say that it’s profound.
Both the exhibits and the staff/tour guides do their best to present the material on a very human level. It is an experience that should be mandatory for all real travelers. History is repeated, as soon as it’s forgotten about (my opinion).
A tour of the various buildings at Auschwitz includes numerous displays of the events that took place at the camp. There are piles of clothes and suit cases, various room reconstructions, and the like. This picture shows one of the hallways that was lines with pictures of individuals who were sentenced to the camp. The Nazis meticulously documented everything that took place, including photographing every inmate.
Sadly, the wealth of recordkeeping shows both the level of horror, and the system inefficiency. The Nazis found that the starvation and cruel treatment made inmates almost unrecognizable only weeks or months after coming to the camp. The inefficiency of the pictures was one of the things that led to tattooing serial numbers on each individual.
The perimeter of the Auschwitz compound, along the rear end of the compound, with its fortified walls and guard towers. The open areas between the fence lines and the buildings is an obvious field of fire. The signs demarcating the unauthorized areas are labeled with a skull and crossed bones. Even today, the eeriness of the situation is palpable.
Here you can see the stark and functional interior of the gas chamber that was used to kill those deemed as unnecessary. Though the chamber itself seems huge in this picture, it was quickly deemed too small to be effective. The limited killing capacity of the unit was one reason that the larger Birkenau Camp was built.
Directly adjacent to the gas chamber is the oven complex, used to dispose of the bodies afterward. A large steel door separated the inside of the gas chamber from the oven room. This helped with efficient movement of the corpses.
The whole of the system, gas chamber and oven room, is covered by a large mound of earth. From the outside, it looks like an ammunition bunker or big earthen mound. The exterior gives little indication of its intended evil. It’s not until you step inside that you see and feel it for yourself.
There is only a short bus ride between the Auschwitz Camp and the Birkenau Camp, so you get to carry your thoughts with you from one place to the next.
Birkenau Concentration Camp
When the Nazis decided that Auschwitz was just too small to be properly effective, they moved a little distance away and built Birkenau. And, where you start the Auschwitz tour at a visitors center with gift shop and snack bar, You drive up and walk straight into Birkenau. There is little to distract you in this location from the purpose that it was built for.
Since most of Birkenau was destroyed or dismantled after World War II, a large part of the complex is now open fields surrounded by concrete post supported perimeter fencing. It is at this point that the knowledge of the tour guides comes into full use. Our guide was completely knowledgeable about the history and use of the complex, and presented the information in a humanizing way.
The entrance to the Birkenau Camp. The railroad ran straight into the center of the camp and terminated at a large unloading platform. Looking down the rail line at the entrance, you don’t get a real sense for what is awaiting on the other side of the brick entrance building.
You can get a sense of Birkenau’s size from the fence lines. The concrete fence posts and chain-linked/barbed wire fencing are all that remains in many sections of the camp. The numerous buildings were either destroyed by the Russians or dismantled by the Polish people who came in and rebuilt after the war.
When the Nazis arrived, they dismantled the existing polish town and used the materials to build the camp. When they ran out of building materials, they had to import the remainder by rail. after the fighting had ceased, the Polish community that was there previously had to dismantle the camp, so that they might rebuild the town.
An interior shot from one of the existing structure. The shelves visible in the picture are sleeping areas. It was estimated that six people would fit on each shelf. With almost no heat in the building, it was a desperate existence during the winter months.
A handful of brick buildings exist from the WW 2 time period. they survived because the Russian army used them for prisoner cells. This kept them from being torn down.
I think most people walk out of Birkenau just wanting to go have a drink. It’s a natural reaction to the overwhelming amount of travesty that you’ve just experienced. The ride from Birkenau to the Salt Mine was a quiet and reflective affair, to say the least.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
You arrive at the salt mine and it’s like a completely different planet. The large open parking area gives way to a well-maintained green space with paths that lead to the ticket area. You are surrounded by shady seating areas and iced cream stands or little snack stands. And, everybody there seems to be happy.
The ticket line isn’t long, and our tour guide fashioned us into a group quite quickly. The tour is lead by a guide from the mines, our guide for the day hung out at the bus. Our mine guide was young and quite funny, baring the English-as-a-second-language effect.
stepping into the long descending stairwell that lowers you down into the upper reaches of the mine, the natural air conditioning takes over. The cool air was a refreshing change from the June heat, and signaled the beginning of a wonderful tour.
Petrified timber beams hold up the passageways inside the salt mine. As the timber ages inside the mine, it absorbs salt from the surrounding stone until it is almost completely given over to it.
The miners used a vast amount of timber to shore up the interior spaces of the mine. In the larger chambers, timber scaffolds were constructed to brace the roof and walls. The wooden constructions are absolutely massive.
One of the most famous interior spaces in the salt mine is the cathedral. A working cathedral to this day, the entire space was chiseled out of the rock, as the salt was extracted. The interior of the cathedral is covered by statues of saints and carved reliefs on the walls. There is a carving of The Last Supper that is amazing (Sadly, I didn’t get a good-enough picture of it). The cathedral is still booked out for weddings and services.
The miners of the day weren’t uneducated individuals, per se. They stayed up with the events of the times and carved them into statues inside the mine. My favorite, a statue of Nicholas Copernicus, is displayed here. They were found of their Polish heroes, scholars, scientists, and theologians. There are a couple statues of Saint John Paul II inside the mine.
Daylighting out the other end of the tour, you will find yourself a little ways from your starting point. This turns the tour into a bit of a scavenger hunt to find the entry parking lot again. I noticed as our group walked back to the parking lot, stopping to inspect each street sign we came across for useful information, that most everyone in our group was smiling and happy. Our time underground had allowed them to decompress.
I have a great respect for history. That statement explains a lot about my travel habits. I like churches and cemeteries. I like ancient temples and museums. I like context, when I can find it. It is my belief that if your not seeking out a solid connection with wherever you are traveling to, then you aren’t a real traveler. You’re probably not even a real tourist. You’re simply on vacation. What is it Rick Steves says about travel “you come home with a broader perspective.” Or something like that. I firmly believe this is true.
That being said, The experience of the day trip was impressive. It took several days to process the thoughts generated by the concentration camps. I took way too many pictures in the salt mine. It was a great pairing of events that I recommend to anyone going to the Krakow area. The old city is great. It has a lot to offer any traveler, but there is more to the area than just the city. Take the time to explore further. You will be rewarded for you efforts.
Now get out there (after COVID, of course) and learn a little history!
Upon proofreading this blog post, I confess it comes off as a little utilitarian. Trust me when I say that its utility in no way reflects my new-found love for the city of Krakow. I travel a lot, and its easy to get jaded. You see things as another museum, or another beach , or whatever. I can say, without reservation, After traveling Europe and the Near East continuously for months, Krakow, Poland is the one place I definitely want to go back to. It’s an amazing city, and provides a great travel experience.
The weather was very nice in summer. The people were all friendly and outgoing. The city of Krakow was easy to navigate. Even the new section of the city, which I wandered out into so I might find a laundry service, was easy to figure out. The sights are world-class, and the food/beer is exactly what you expect. Seriously, if you go to Krakow and don’t enjoy your stay, I’m pretty sure it you and not them. I absolutely loved it.
Weather. I landed in Krakow in the latter part of June, 2019. The weather was absolutely fantastic. The whole time in the city was blue sky and sunny, with temperatures perfect for t-shirts and shorts. The days were warm to hot, and the evenings were pleasant.
The Old Town. Pretty much dead in the middle of the city, you’ll find the old town. It’s an area surrounded on three sides by a large encompassing green space, and at it south end by Wawel Castel. The old town holds everything from ST Mary’s Basilica, to museums, to monuments, and even a university. It is where you’ll come across most of the tourist-oriented offerings in the city. It’s open spaces are full of cafes and bars, and shops aren’t in short supply. It’s an easy-enough walk from the train station, as I made the walk twice.
Money. The Polish Zloty is the currency of choice in Krakow. The exchange rate, as of January 2, 2021, was 3.74 Zloty to 1.00 US Dollar. I never had any trouble finding ATM machines while in Krakow, and most of the vendors seem honest enough if you have trouble converting currency amounts in your head. After a couple days of using the currency, the math goes away and you just have a feel for what things cost.
Poland is part of the EU, and as such will be converting to the Euro eventually. There is no timeline for this transition.
Passports/Visas. Tourists coming to Poland will need a passport which is valid for at least six-months, and at least three-months validity remaining after leaving the Schengen Zone. If you plan to visit for less than 90 days, there in no visa requirement (USA Passport holders). There are also no vaccine requirements (A pre-COVID statement. Hey, the world’s a crazy places these days. I wouldn’t be shocked if they require a negative COVID test document for entry, whenever international tourism kicks off again.)
Language Barrier. Yet again I have to admit that I didn’t speak any Polish. I’m that guy that goes to other places and hopes somebody there speaks my language. That being said, I had zero problems with any language barrier while in Krakow. The English-speaking rate within the city was outstanding. I’m guessing that this is due to a young and outgoing population. There was a certain amount of signage that was completely in Polish, but it was of little distraction. Where I absolutely don’t recommend being an ugly tourist, and just assuming that people will bow to your wishes, getting around in Krakow with a couple basic Polish words, politeness, and a smile is pretty easy.
COVID-19 Issues. I was in Krakow in 2019. Currently, January 2021, Poland is about as well off as the rest of Europe. The country opened its borders to tourists from select countries in June, 2020. sadly America was not part of that group (yup, nobody likes us right now.)
Honestly, with countries opening and closing borders due to new strains of COVID, or hemorrhaging case numbers, I would research your specific travel country with your country’s tourism office (US State Department) for the latest information regarding travel. Keep in mind these organizations tend to hold a conservative view regarding international situations. Just, please, stay informed as you go.
Getting In and Out.
Poland is the largest economy in Central Europe. It’s an easy-enough place to get to. The city of Krakow is serviced by all major airlines. The John Paul II International Airport is located to the west side of the city. Major railroad lines also run through the city. The central train station is located in the center of the city, just north of the old town. It is a large and modern affair that is easy to navigate, and has a rail that runs out to the airport.
I travelled into and out of Poland via train. Using a EURail pass, I came into Poland from the Czech Republic. I left Poland and headed south to Austria by train as well. I had no problems crossing borders at the border stops, or using my EURail pass in Poland. Getting train reservations at the Krakow train station service counter was also quite straightforward. Poland has good countryside, and is an enjoyable journey by train.
Lets Talk About The Tram For A Minute.
I travel mostly by public transportation. I like trains, planes, and the like. I’m not averse to renting cars, I just find them to be a hassle (the majority of the time). When I get to a city, I tend to walk a lot. When not walking, I take the metro, a tram line, or catch a cab.
In decades of travelling around places where I don’t speak the language, I can say that the tram service in Krakow is the only one that has completely baffled me. I couldn’t make it work for nothing! I would get on, and go the wrong way. I would use the wrong tokens for the rides. It was so confounding that it was funny. I was officially bested by an automated train. If you use the trams a lot while you travel, I recommend doing some research on this one before you go. Hopefully, you’ll fair better than I did.
While in Krakow, I stayed at the Rembrandt Aparthotel, located on the south end of the old town on Wislina Street. The hotel was hidden inside a centuries-old building, and the entrance was through the street-side carriage door using a provided key code. I literally can’t say enough good things about this place. It was a great place, in a great location, with a good view of the old town traffic, and the price was reasonable.
I have no association with the property. I found them through Booking.com (which I also have no association with, LOL!!) while I was in Prague. They had good reviews and proved to be an excellent choice. I would recommend staying inside, or directly adjacent to, the old town during your trip. It is where you’ll spend a bunch of time, so staying close by cuts down on walking and tram rides.
The old town area of Krakow is an amazing and densely-packed place. There is much to see and do. There are many excellent churches, and grand museums. You can find anything you like here, from tourist-book top tens, to funky craft markets selling tourist trinkets and paintings. After some exploration, these things appealed to me as being highlights of my trip.
The Interior view from Wawel Castle. The castle complex sits at the south end of the old town, between old town and the Vistula River, and is easy to find. The castle complex draws many tourists, as it is home to the Wawel Cathedral. The complex is truly an amazing place to visit, and is well worth your time. There are different entry tickets, depending upon what you want to see, so ask questions at the ticket counter. Some parts of the complex are only open on certain days of the week. Built during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the UNESCO World Heritage Site was the home to many of Poland’s great rulers.
The Dragon’s Den is a cave system or grotto, depending upon your interpretation of geology, that sits under the southern fortifications of Wawel Castle. The den was said to once be the home of a dragon that lived in the area. You can enter the cave from the castle, and exit it below, at street level by the river. It’s a fanciful alternative to the otherwise straightforward historical sites around it. Also, it’s cool in the summer, if you need a break. I’m pretty sure that I had to purchase a separate ticket for it when I entered, so ask at the ticket counter.
Sitting dead in the middle of the old town square is the Krakow Cloth Hall. Once a major trading location, the Renaissance-era building is now the home of tourist stalls and cafes. It is open most days during standard hours, and is fun to walk through. The upper floor of the hall is also home to The Sukiennice Museum, and houses a permanent exhibit of Polish painting and sculpture.
Toward the north end of the old town is the only remaining section of Krakow’s original fortification wall. The area around the section of wall is the home to street art sellers, and tourist stands. There are numerous cafes in the area, and it provides a nice distraction from more touristy areas to the south end of the old town.
The memorial to Nicolaus Copernicus, located inside a magnificent church (that since I have returned to the US, cannot figure out what its name is. ugh!!) located along the greenway on the western side of old town. The church is just up the way from the Nicolaus Copernicus statue, which is adjacent to the university. Where I’m a physicist by education, a stop here seemed a must-do event.
Let’s face it, sometimes you just want to sit down and have a beer. You’ve seen a pile of sites, and walked all over the place. Now, you’re hot, tire, and thirsty. It’s time for a beer. At this point, I would stop at a table outside the Bulldog Bar, on the north end of the old town square. The place had a good view, cold beer, and nice people. As one who has had a lot of beer, in a lot of places, I recommend it.
While I’m on the topic of things that i definitely recommend, I definitely recommend the pierogi. Every place you will travel to has that dish that just sums up your experience, and in Krakow, Poland, this is it.
If you take a turn east off the old town square onto Sienna Street (???????), and wander along a ways, on the right hand side of the street you will come to a blue-fronted little pierogi shop. It’s was run by a pair of young ladies, and they do a brisk business. My lunch on several occasions (pictured to the left) were pierogis filled with red and black berries, and covered in cream sauce. It were absolutely fantastic!
I’m not saying that you need to stop at this particular place, but you definitely need to try them someplace, while you’re in town.
Some Final Thoughts.
Looking back over the pictures, the city looks a little like a one trick pony. It’s really, really not that way. I have come to notice that the majority of my posts are now a picture collage of the insides of museums and churches. I confess that I have those pictures from here as well. I just didn’t use as many of them in this post. While I was in the city, I explored several museums, and art galleries. I also stopped in on every church that looked worthwhile. The central part of Krakow is old, and as such has many very fine architectural and museums treasures.
I think that if you just see the museums and churches, you will do the city an injustice of sorts. Get out and sit in the cafes. Drink beer at a local bar. Pop into little restaurants and have a local dish. In a word, explore. Krakow has much to offer. And, I personally think, that its amazing spirit and openness is one of its greatest offerings.
Now, get out there. Find a new city to explore!
***I wandered into Budapest in June of 2019. This blog post, minus the currency information and the updated COVID information, reflects that adventure. Please check with your embassy regarding the current travel situation.
Budapest, Hungary is a city where the beer is cold, the tourist sites are amazing, and the people are friendly. Two cities, melded into one, with layers of history, make for a rewarding travel experience. I greatly enjoyed my time in Budapest.
General Notes.Weather. I visited Hungary in June, and the weather was fantastic! Hot sunny days, and warm mild nights. It is my understanding that Hungary follows the same basic weather patterns as the center of the European continent. I definitely didn’t need a jacket, and it was beautiful weather for my whole stay. Depending on your time of year, you’ll want to check the local weather to make sure.
The Danube. The Danube River cuts the city nicely to into two distinct halves. Originally, it separated two different cities. Initially the city of Buda sat on one side of the river, and the city of Pest sat on the other. Trade went back and forth via barge and boat. With construction of the Chain Bridge in 1849, the two cities merged in Budapest. The Danube River still holds command over the city, being the transit for river cruises and local sightseeing tours.
Money. Everybody wants to know about money. Though a member of the E.U., Hungary does not utilize the Euro for its currency. The national currency of Hungary is the Hungarian Forint. The exchange rate with the U.S. dollar (as of 9-17-2020) was 305.977 Forints per 1 dollar.
Don’t worry too much about the currency exchange. Use ATMs to get cash, as they provide recognized exchange rates. Credit card purchases do as well. Just understand that Budapest is a tourist city, and is priced accordingly, and you’ll be fine. I found the prices not out of line with other countries.
Hotels, taxis and such are starting to post prices in Euros, as Hungary is going to go that way, sooner or later. If you work better in Euros (I’m personally fine dealing in Euros) this May be helpful for your budgeting.
Passports. You’ll need a passport with at least 6 months of remaining validity, and three month’s validity from your departure date out of the Schengen zone. Travels from the United States do not require a visa to visit Hungary for stays under 90 days, but the Schengen zone total travel of 90 days in the zone also does apply. So, you’ll need to consider any other destinations when making your plans.
There are no required immunizations to get before traveling. My only stop in the country was Budapest, and I found it to be quite safe and welcoming of tourists who don’t speak the language. That being said, one should always use sound judgement when out in public.
Language. I found not speaking any Hungarian to not be a problem. Most all people I encountered spoke enough English to have passable conversation. They all also seemed genuinely unbothered speaking English, as opposed to other countries I’ve visited who tend to get putout. I wouldn’t worry if you don’t speak the local.
COVID-19. The situation with the pandemic (as of 9-17-2020) is Hungary is a stage 3 country. The US State Department advises to reconsider travel at this time.
That being said, airports, cultural institutions, hotel, cafes, and bars are all open. Social distancing of 0.5 meters and wearing of a mask or face covering is expected in public settings.
***Foreigners without a residence permit will be banned from entering Hungary, effective September 1. Travel for business purposes and military convoys are possible, and there will be a humanitarian corridor. (US Embassy in Hungary website.)
Getting in and out.There are numerous ways to get in and out of the Hungarian capital. All the major airlines have a route that goes through the city, so flying is an easy option. There is a good rail system in the country which makes traveling by train a definite option. And with its prominent location on the Danube River, there are also river cruise ideas to explore. I traveled into and out of Budapest by train. I found the rail system easy to navigate with a EURail pass, and most of the train choices I picked didn’t require a seat reservation. I also didn’t have any hassles at either of the railway border crossing.
Navigating the City.The city of Budapest is mostly navigable on foot. I found meandering in one direction an then returning by metro or tram to be quite effective as well.
Generally speaking, the citadel hill, Fisherman’s Bastion, and great church are on the Buda side. The walking shopping areas, majority of outdoor cafes, churches and galleries are all on the Pest side. The major parks, the famous baths, and a large number of museums and monuments are also on the Pest side of the river. Hotels seemed to be scattered about on both sides.
I suggest walking around to get the lay of the land. Though the city is good sized, the main tourist sections are collected together nicely.
Some City Highlights.A city that is as historical as Budapest should have loads of major attractions to draw in tourists, and it does. Here I picked some of the one I particularly enjoyed.
Buda Castle is a site that you can’t miss. I literally mean you can’t miss it, as it takes up a good chunk of prominent ground on the Buda side of the city. All you need do is make your way across the chain bridge and ascend the hill. If you’re not a hiker, there are several options for getting up the hill, from a funicular to motorized tour couches. Personally, I didn’t find the walk terribly taxing.
The castle hill and ramparts offer great views of both the Danube and the Pest section of the city. Check in advance about open sections and times of day. Most all of the castle was closed when I was there.
The Great Market Hall is the oldest indoor market in Budapest. Holding a prominent location at major metro and tram stops, the market anchors one end of a large walking/shopping area on the eastern side of the Danube.
The lower floor of the market is mostly vegetable and meat stalls. The upper floor is general tourist stuff stalls and a host of food stalls. The food stalls get heavy traffic during the main hours, so go early to eat at one or just wander through. Either way, it’s a definite must-stop.
The chain Bridge, a little walk along from the indoor market, is the first bridge to span the river between Buda and Pest. A walk across the bridge is easy and provides great views of some major attractions.
The chain bridge is a definite tourist item. It does draw crowds to it, and generates a lot of walking traffic. Most people are crossing either to or from the citadel on the Buda side of the Danube.
The Matthias Church sits directly in front of the world-famous Fisherman’s Bastion, on the citadel hill section of Buda. They even use the same ticket sales location.
The church is a beautiful piece of Romanesque architecture, and is very well preserved. In a section of the upper floor, there is a small museum with pieces important to the church and surrounding city.
In a small private chapel to the rear of the church you will find one of its prize jewels, the Black Madonna. The statue is credited with helping Christian forces recaptured the city of Buda from the Turks in the 17th century. It is a nice piece, and the small chapel gives it a full and inviting presence.
ST. Michael’s Church is located along the pedestrian Váci Utca. This church is kind of indicative of other lesser churches in the city. The real beauty of this church is that it hosts live music in the evenings (along with some other churches). You can just walk up to the church during the day and buy tickets for later that evening. The evenings are comprised of classic works by various composers, and the tickets were quite reasonably priced. A great setting for a live music opportunity like this should be investigated.
Thoughts.With Budapest offering me a completely different view of Eastern Europe from that of Bucharest, I embraced the city quickly. It’s easy to navigate, and the people are quite friendly to travelers. Where I didn’t cover it here, make sure you spend some time in the parks. Budapest’s parks are lovely and well maintained. Get an ice cream and sit on a shady park bench. You’ll find the experience well worth your time.
Now, wait till COVID is over and then get out there! You have exploring to do.
Bucharest, Romania is one of those cities that takes work. It’s not going to give up its secrets to you easily, or all at once. You have to wade into it’s streets and alleyways and search around for yourself.
Though a member of the European Union, Romania is not part of the so-called, Schengen Zone. This is good for travelers. If you’re spending a bunch of time traveling, you won’t be burning up your maximum Schengen days (90 days within six months for westerners, if you’re curious) by visiting Romania. It still carries its own currency, so make sure you prepare yourself in advance, both monetarily and with visas (if needed. US citizens don’t need a visa to enter Romania.)
Bucharest has a completely different feel to it than the other Eastern European cities I visited during my journey. It’s harsher and more rugged than others. Not less refined, but definitely less polished. The Romanian people know this, and are pulling the city into the current age as best as they can.
I enjoyed my stop in Bucharest. It gave me a real contrast to my other stops. But it did require more work to enjoy.
If you read an earlier post about my stop in CluJ, Romania, you get a completely different feel for the country. CluJ is young and hip, while still embracing its past. Bucharest is much older and more languishing, like CluJ’s doting grandmother. It’s the contrast of places that makes travel interesting.
Following, I’ll try to do three days in Bucharest justices, without being overly critical.
Getting There, and Escaping.
Considering I was coming out of Israel, the easiest way to get to Bucharest was to fly. It was pretty easy to find a flight, as there were multiple international carriers making the trek in one direction of the other.
I chose the most reasonably priced ticket I could get, which led me to getting into Bucharest late in the evening. Too late to figure out buses and taxis. This led me to set up an airport transfer to my hotel before I left Israel. The transfer turned out to be a good idea, as the section of town that I found my hotel in got super sketchy after dark! (Like the hotel was locked up after dark sketchy.) it was reported to me that they had large problems with crime from the Gypsy population.
It turned out that, as long as the sun was up, the place wasn’t so bad. This made it possible for me to walk from the hotel to the train station for an early morning exit. Getting train reservations handled at the station in Bucharest wasn’t even remotely straightforward, as nobody spoke anything but Romanian. (Stay calm and smile Aaron. Keep looking harmless and you’ll get what you want, eventually) Getting my rail pass stamped and a reservation for the trip over to CluJ took me four ladies, at for different windows (one lady twice), and about an hour, but I got it done. And, I got a crazy lost in translation story out of the deal.
It was in and out via public transportation on this trip. I find it the easiest way to get around places I’ve never been. Don’t know that I’m excited about driving in Romania just yet.
Coming to terms with Eastern Europe.
Most of Eastern Europe is definitely in a state of transition. Countries that are trying to pull themselves out of communist depression and insert themselves into the new E.U., represent every level of this transition. Romania, though not a member of the Schengen Zone yet, is still doing all it can to survive and thrive in this new economic landscape.
At first sight, It is a lot to take in. The social feel of Romania is quite different than anything you will find in the west. They are holding on to their stoic, rural past, attempting to adjust as a slower pace.
The second definite thing that can’t be overlooked is the effects of Communism on the country. I literally mean you cannot not see it. Communist depression had a larger effect on Bucharest that it did on other Eastern European stops I made in my continued travels. Bucharest will need to work harder to dig themselves out.
And, they are definitely trying. New infrastructure and building projects are evident in many parts of the city that I visited. Old buildings are being repurposed, and new areas are being created from urban renewal. Just down the street from the building above was a fantastic green space with a fountain that fronted a modern shopping mall, with major retailers.
I suggest you just take it slowly. Don’t expect too much from the city and it will no doubt reward you with more than you plan on. Keep an eye open for change, and you’ll find it.
I became quite comfortable in the city, once I understood its nature. You just have to take it at a slower pace than other cities.
Happiness in the Despair.
The state of Bucharest reminds me of something Mark Twain said. It has “the mold and decay that go with antiquity.”
As you make your way around the sections of the city that have not received any major rehabilitation (where I spent the majority of my time), you can feel it’s pre-communist charms. One of a handful of cities to wear the Moniker “Paris of the East”, the city’s architectural connection to the French capital is impossible to miss. Numerous examples of the French style exist around the city.
Sadly, with decades of communism came rot and ruin. The majority of the different structures I saw where in some state of advanced disrepair.
Happily, the city also seems to be becoming aware of the value of these old gems. Although it will be a slow and laborious process, I have faith the conservation efforts will begin to prevail as money is infused into their economy.
Definitely get out and walk around the side streets. I found numerous structures that made me believe in the previous splendor of the city. The architecture, even such as it is, is quite amazing.
Some Cultural Highlights.
I confess that I’ve been beating the place up. It does have a real depression about it in some areas. That being said, it also has some real gems. Here are just a few of those.
The Kretzulescu Basilica is a small but otherwise completely over-adorned church, just down the street from the Royal Palace of Bucharest. The church is free to enter (or it was when I visited) and is a good look at past religious representations.
Every inch of its interior surfaces are covered in paintings or reliefs. Even the inside of the exterior entryway is completely covered. The works are almost completely intact and well-maintained. It’s a lovely distraction while you’re out exploring, and I would suggest checking it out.
Directly next to the Royal Palace of Bucharest, and sitting inside the same courtyard, you’ll find the National Museum of Art of Romania.
I found a tour of the art collection to be a wholly satisfying experience. The collection, laid out over multiple floors in the museum, is a mixture of painting and sculpture. The exhibit is quite enjoyable, but not exhaustive. I toured it in an hour or so.
Unlike museums in the west, there was no line to queue in. I walked straight in to the ticket agent. She was warm and welcoming. The museum was also sparsely inhabited, which gave it a very intimate feeling. I enjoyed the stop very much.
The Romanian Athenaeum, up and across the street from the Palace is a lovely and magnificently well-maintained concert hall. It is also where you will get your lingering post-communist welcome. The man working as the ticket seller and security enforcer has no sense of humor that he knows of. Just kidding, I’m sure he’s a likable old dude, but he’s a little stiff.
The concert hall is amazing in its architecture and decoration. The quick tour is well worth your time.
Directly adjacent to the Athenaeum is a restaurant called Trattoria II (I think). Anyway, you can’t miss the signs. It’s worth stopping in the outside courtyard for a cool down beer, if nothing else.
Though I confess I was a little harsh on Bucharest, I am truly happy that I made the trip there. Travel, to be truly rewarding, shouldn’t always be easy. I think we forget that, at times.
You should make more time in your travels for places more remote, wether that be in location or economy. The lack of ease adds to the experience you take away.
I would recommend a stop in Bucharest. I would also recommend you follow it up with a stop in another Eastern European location. This way, you will get context. Without context, you can’t form an accurate opinion of a place. (Or, that’s my opinion on the matter.)
Now, go somewhere and do something. Have a new experience!
The vast majority of people who do not live in Jerusalem are primarily coming to the city to see, pray, or be in one of these three places. The literal focal point for the majority of the worlds faiths, these sites draw staggering crowds.
Even with sometimes crushing crowds, these major holy sites can be warm, welcoming, and inspiring. The people of Jerusalem who administer them will be found to also be warm and hospitable, if approached with humility. (They deals with ridiculous crowds of people)
Saving the big stuff for last, let’s take a look at the major holy sites located inside the walls of the old city.
The Western Wall
The Western Wall of the Temple Mount is a remaining section of retaining wall from the second temple period. It was used to encase the Temple Mount and provide extra space for construction of the temple. It is the holy site for people of Jewish faith in old Jerusalem.
Considering it’s a major holy site, it’s not particularly easy to get to if inside the city. From the outside, there is a gate that accesses it directly (The Zion Gate), making it easy for the bus loads of pilgrim tour groups that descend upon it. From inside the city, one must follow a winding maze-like route to its internal entrance.
As with the Dome of the Rock, situated above it, don’t plan on getting in without a thorough scanning. The Israeli defense force takes security around the area seriously. Also, picture taking isn’t really approved in the area of the Western Wall’s prayer section, as it’s deemed to be quite rude.
(If you want to take good pictures, there is an observation area behind and above the open area of the wall. You have to access it from outside the security area, but it’s easy enough to find.)
Independent of your beliefs, a stop by the Western Wall is a must. No other place is as quintessentially Jerusalem as here.
The Temple Mount
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is crowned by one of the most beautiful mosques I have seen, The Dome of the Rock. Believed to be the spot where Mohammed ascended into heaven, it is a major holy site for people of the Islamic faith.
The Temple Mount area where the Dome of the Rock stands is also believed by many to be the location of Solomon’s Temple, which makes it a holy site for Jewish people as well.
The courtyards and areas around the mosque are open and airy. The whole place has a calming effect that I cannot adequately put into words. You will leave your visit there feeling different than before you went. It’s true.
There are a couple different ways to approach the Temple Mount. I took the covered walkway connecting it to the Western Wall. There is also an entrance on its other side. Like the wall, be prepared to get checked and scanned before being allowed entrance. With all the tensions in the land, this security effort should be expected and appreciated.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
If you walk around lost in old Jerusalem for any amount of time, you’ll end up in the courtyard for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m not sure why all paths seem to lead there, but the do.
The otherwise unassuming old building, according to tradition, contains both the site of the crucification at Calvary and the site of the resurrection in Jesus’s empty tomb.
The church is considered one of, if not the, holiest site in the Christian faith. As such, it receives an overwhelming amount of tourists. The interior of the church is large and multi-stories, but somehow still feels like it will burst at the seems if any more people try to enter. Groups (think slow moving bus tour groups) come and go in waves.
When you are going to attempt the church, draw a deep breath, and calm yourself before you start. Remember, this is a holy place, act accordingly.
Otherwise, you’ll definitely enjoy a stop here. The inside of the church, and it’s many side-areas, are absolutely stuffed with paintings and iconography. The site, if approached in the appropriate manner, is quite moving.
Though I’m not particular religious in any fashion, I found visiting the holy sites to be quite a moving experience.
Standing on the Temple Mount, surrounded by the large vistas of the holy land, left me with a deep moving feeling that didn’t let go of me for many hours afterward. History and religion radiate from every rock and tree on the Mount. Being there, and absorbing that, was as close to a religious experience as I have ever had. I left the Mount with a profound sense of being.
The experience of visiting the big three holy places is greatly worth the trouble that it takes to do so. Most of the planet is trying to do what you are doing. Be the deliverer of peace in this setting, not the instigator of misery. Being calm and patient will increase your experiences here immeasurably. Trust me on this one!
As soon as COVID lets the world travel again, consider Israel and the Holy Land. An experience I wanted to have for decades was more than worthwhile on every level. Definitely visit Israel.
Go. Explore. Learn.
Jerusalem is a city that, I think, defies description. How you choose to try and describe it completely depends on the point of view you bring with you. Ancient, storied, troubled, and revered; the city is a gathering of cultures, treasure seekers, religious zealots and pilgrims of every type. That statement is true even today.
In this overview of a couple days in Jerusalem, I am intentionally not covering the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They will be touched on separately in the next post.
I think I’m like most people in the world when I say that I’ve always wanted to go to Jerusalem. I’m not religious in any particular way, so a draw toward the holy land isn’t what modern social media would call spiritual. If I’m honest, I think it’s the blood soaked sands. So much history has happened, and is still happening, in such a confined area that it has a draw on me to go there and see for myself.
I am happy to report that the city and its surroundings were everything and much more than I hoped to experience. The city is truly amazing. Even with all of the problems that swirl around it, and the heavy policing presence, the city has a calming factor that is hard to explain. I had an incredible experience exploring the narrow alleyways and congested streets, never once feeling (overly) uncomfortable or out of place.
Where I Stayed.
I found a hotel on booking.com outside the city walls that allowed me easy access to both the city gates and the local tram system. The Christmas Hotel was a nicer experience than what I had paid for online, and much less expensive than the over-priced hotels inside the city walls.
It was a lovely little hotel inside an old stone building, across from a church, on a quiet side street. I walked from the hotel down into the city and also across to the Mount of Olives, never feeling insecure in my travels. (I should say once again, I have a pretty good level of situational awareness when it comes to traveling, you should never work outside your comfort area just because someone else says it’s okay.)
The hotel was great. The staff was great, as was the breakfast! I liked staying there a lot. (I’m not affiliated with either the hotel or booking.com. I’m just passing along info.)
The Layout of the City.
The city is a warren of overstuffed small alleys and congested narrow streets broken infrequently by congested open areas. Most of the open areas holding a major historical item of interest (church, mosque, or the like).
Where the city is broken down into quarters, they are really only of use to the locals. For tourists, you are going to find countless orientation signs when you enter though any of the gates that lead you off toward whatever. You’re going to end up following the signs most of the time. It’s okay, that’s why their up there.
Most all the navigational signs lead you in toward a particular religious site or out toward a gate. All the gates are named. You definitely need to know what gate you enter, as walking around the outside of the walls when you exit the wrong gate isn’t a real option.
If you’re really in doubt, ask one of the Israeli security forces. They know the place better than anyone.
The city of Jerusalem is one of the most completely walled cities that I have been in while traveling. It gives a much more palpable experience than any of the half reconstructed European walled cities I’ve been in. When you walk around it, you can literally feel what it was like to be living here in earlier times.
Congestion Inside the Walls.
The Corona Virus travel hiatus aside, Jerusalem is a congested place. The old walled city of Jerusalem is even more congested than the rest.
Where the modern city of Jerusalem is much more than the what you see in pictures of city walls and old stone buildings, what almost everybody goes to see is inside and adjacent to the walls of the old city.
Since the area of the old city is fixed by the ramparts and gates of antiquity, it gives no room for the ever-increasing number of people to expand out in to. The small streets and alleyways are almost constantly congested with people (both local and tourist). The open areas and cafes are also nearly always full. There are definitely more people inside the city walls than the area will hold.
The big three holy sites are the same. Waves of people come and go, more coming than going. There are basically always multiple people around you. It’s life inside the walled city. But, if you take a deep breathe and pause, an opening will always appear to let you see what you want to see or to take a picture. Everyone is doing the same thing, so just pause and breath. It will help you immensely!
New Jerusalem City.
There is a large area of Jerusalem that isn’t the old walled city or the Mount of Olives area. The city is an expanding, modern place. It has all of the layers of government and infrastructure that any city has.
That being said, there isn’t much out there that a traveler is going to get excited about, especially if you’re on a religious journey of any kind. The one thing I would solidly recommend is a trip across town to The Holocaust History Museum.
The museum is an easy tram ride away from the old city area. The museum is deep, and moving. You will leave there will a profoundly different view of things. It is absolutely worth your time and effort to visit.
Getting Around Town.
Getting into Jerusalem is easy. Take the bus from about anywhere in Israel. You’ll need a Rav Cav card to utilize public transportation, which is easy to obtain.
Getting around Jerusalem is pretty much the same. There is a tram system that runs through the middle of the city. There is also a bus system to get you around. There are cabs and such, but everybody seems to go after public transport.
I used the bus to get to/from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I used the tram inside Jerusalem, or I walked. You can walk pretty comfortably around the old city area. The tram is timely and clean. I never used the local bus, as I couldn’t figure out the bus system routes and timetable.
Some of the Other Holy Sites.
You go in the Jaffa Gate, past the alley shops and on to the t-shirts sellers, and then on to an open square. In the triangular shaped square (I know, it’s a paradox) there is a huge church.
The church is a cathedral or Basilica or church of some variety (I’m honestly not sure what it is, or it’s name for that matter) which has a large tower with a spire. Seriously, you won’t be able to miss it. And where the church is nice in a spartan kind of way, the view from the tower is what you go in for.
From the observation ring at the top of the tower you get a 360-degree view of the old city. A good look-see allows you to get bearings and decide on landmarks before getting lost in the warren of congested alleyways.
The church also has a subterranean section which allows you to view ancient building foundations. It’s all a good starting point for what’s to come.
The Mount of Olives seems like a daunting walk when you look at it from the ramparts, but it’s really not. The religious sites start right at the bottom of the hill, and meander their way up the hillside. It’s an easy walk from one site to the next. As long as you rest a little bit at each site, you’re good to go.
That being said, the grade going up the Mount is steep. Wear good shoes and drink ample water. Otherwise, enjoy your time.
Some of the numerous things to see and experience are the many cemeteries, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Mary’s Tomb, along with a host of churches and shrines.
The Via Dolorosa is believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. It’s the path that hosts the stations of the cross, which are identified across the city by identifying numbers set into the walls at each location.
The route is extremely popular with tour groups who stop at each of the stations and generally cause chaos for everyone else trying to walk around the city.
Even though biblical scholars seem to have agreed upon the idea that this route isn’t the real route Jesus took, the tour guides don’t seem to care. Just give them a minute and they’ll move on. Once they’re gone you’ll have a minute or two to take each place in before another tour group comes along. Just smile, and accept that it is the way it is.
Jerusalem was everything that I wanted it to be. It was old. It was religious. It was chaotic. It was a simmering cauldron of cultures, not completely coexisting. It was exotic smells. It was exotic tastes. It was (almost) overwhelming in its complexity.
I have to say that I took way more away from the experience than I had initially planned on. That, for me, is the truest sense of what travel is all about. The city is simply magical.
Now, stop listening to me, and go explore for yourself. Get out there. See the world!