Sandomierz (Poland) to Vienna (Austria), September 2013

From the old town of Sandomierz we drive further southwestwards to Poland’s most famous tourist destination Krakow. But before we arrived there, we first visited the castle of Krzyztopor in Ujazd. Some argue that this is Poland’s most bizarre building. It is built in the 1630s by local governor Krzysztof Ossolinski, who was fascinated by magic and astrology. His dream castle was built in this fascination and had 12 halls, representing the 12 months of the year. It also had 52 rooms to represent the weeks and 365 windows for each day of the year. The 366th window was only used during leap years. The cellars accommodated his 370 white stallions and the rumor goes that his castle was connected to his brothers’ castle by a 15 kilometer long underground tunnel. The tunnel was completely covered in sugar, so that the brothers could visit each other by horse sledge with the imagination traveling over snow. Isn’t it great?

Krakow is indeed a beautiful city and we definitely understand that it attracts hordes of tourists. But the city is still a living city, and that makes the city still very nice to visit (see also our photo impression about Krakow). The next step in our journey through southern Poland was the horrifying former Nazi-camp Auschwitz/Birkenau one of the darkest pages in the European history (see our photo impression). From here it’s only a short ride to one of Poland’s most scenic areas, the Tatra Mountains. Local people warned us for the huge number of visitors that are attracted by the mountains, and indeed, we were not alone. It was still a beautiful weather period in September, and many Poles joined us on the trails of the beautiful national park. We had to queue for two hours before we got the ride up the mountains in the cable car, where we started our day hiking. The landscape is fabulous and the paths well-defined. But it was busy. On some stretches, where hikers need to use iron chains to hold themselves while climbing up or down a steep path, we had to wait for hikers who did the hike in opposite direction. But the atmosphere was good and Polish hikers are well-mannered hikers. But this delay during busy times means that the hikes take longer than mentioned on the maps.

Terrific views in the Polish Tatra's

Zakopane is the main town in the Polish Tatra’s and from here it was only a short ride to the Slovakian side of the Tatra’s. We pitched our tent on a camp site in Tatranska Lomnica and it was a completely different world in comparison to the Polish side. The village was boring, the camp site basic and the people much less friendly. Also the landscape was different. The Polish side has still many forests, while the Slovakian side is completely developed for ski tourism. Most forests disappeared to make place for ski runs. We planned to hike also in the Slovakian part of the Tatra’s, but the heavy winds caused the cable car to suspend operation. And walking all the way up was too much for us; we still had muscle pain from the hikes in the Polish Tatra’s. We traveled further eastwards in Slovakia and visited some of the wooded churches that make this area interesting for visitors. Our guide book mentions that the far eastern part of Slovakia is intriguing because of the old traditions and architecture. Probably we weren’t long enough in the area to notice this, but for us the eastern part of Slovakia is mainly a less-developed and ‘louche’ area. Villages and towns are still mainly grey, roads are often bad and many towns have ghetto-like suburbs where the Slovakian Roma live.

But the eastern part of Slovakia is a perfect starting point for a side-trip to the Bieszczady National Park in the southeastern tip of Poland. The park borders similar national parks in the Ukraine and Slovakia, but the part in Poland is best designed for hiking-tourism. It is well of the beaten track and that means that it is not yet overrun by mass-tourism. Facilities are basic, but it is a wonderful place to hike (see our combined photo impression about the Tatra’s and Bieszczady NP). Back in eastern Slovakia we visited Slovakia’s second city Kosice and we brought a visit to the country’s most dramatic castle: the Spis Castle. The further west you go in Slovakia, the more developed it is. Especially the roads are impressive. Great highways, completely with full-service parking spots (free toilets and playgrounds for children), take travelers through the hilly countryside. Big billboards with European flags remind the Slovakian people that this is all paid for by the European Union. The western part of Slovakia is especially famous for its high density of castles. But for some reason these castles didn’t really impress us. Maybe it was the fact that most castles are over-restored and/or the fact that most of the castles were overrun by bus loads of older-aged tourists that took away all the magic. However, what was interesting in the western part of Slovakia was the former mining town of Banska Stiavnica, a medieval town with still a lot of atmosphere. The weather changed and rain forced us to go south; we drove to the Hungarian capital Budapest, approximately 180 km south.

Our Toyota in front of the Spis Castle in Slovakia

We eventually stayed 8 days in Budapest. We had a great little city camping, on walking distance from the metro and enjoyed good weather, Wi-Fi, a free to use washing machine and a student restaurant at the nearby Central European University where we enjoyed tasty local staples. Besides that, Budapest is a great city. It was not easy to say goodbye. Our next stop was another Danube city: Bratislava. The Slovakian capital city is not as famous as his Austrian (Vienna) and Hungarian (Budapest) sisters, but it is still a beautiful city. The old town is impressive and the town has still some interesting Soviet architecture, like the futuristic New Bridge that bridges the Danube. We enjoyed the city very much and decided to do another Danube city: this time Vienna in Austria. For many people Vienna is the romantic city of old buildings, horse carriages, Sissi, classical music, the Spanish Horse School and of course the Wiener Sängerknaben (Vienna Singing Boys). We do still not know if the rumor is true that there was a time that they were castrated to keep their high voices (or is it just a joke?). And indeed, Vienna is exceptionally beautiful. But it is also an ultra-commercial city where everything is designed to earn as much money as possible from the tourists. Old-aged and Chinese tourists are jumped-over by commission driven young men in Mozart-clothes to sell them classical music tickets for one of the many tourist-oriented concerts that take place every day of the year. And if you got rid of them, there will be a next one: this time a Big Bus ticket seller who tries to convince you that the best way to see the city is the hop-on hop-off bus. We would say: Fuck off bus!

An old wooden (Unesco listed) church in Eastern Slovakia
The Parliament Building in Budapest (Hungary)
The New Bridge in the Slovakian capital Bratislava
Do you think there is still a market for this and for these prices? Yes there is ... in Vienna

The Votiv Church is temporarily sold to H&M ... this is possible in very commercial Vienna

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