Dan and Marta’s lune de miel trip through Poland and the Czech Republic.
On April 26, 2014, Marta and I got married in Lake Tahoe. Instead of taking our honeymoon right after, we decided to hold off until our Polish wedding with Marta’s family the following year.
Second day of the second wedding.
Americans may make a big deal about weddings these days, but so do Poles—in a different way though. The emphasis isn’t so much on proving your individualism, but rather on pleasing and entertaining your family and friends through constant spectacle. Like something out of a fairy tale, Polish weddings last for two days, and you put everyone up in a hotel for the night in between. Although our wedding was indeed entertaining, suffice it to say that by the second day, we were pretty exhausted and ready to head out on our trip.
To complicate matters, the day before we were planning to leave for the trip, we drove to drop Peter off to see his family in Kamieniec Zabkowicki and I made the fatal blunder of leaving my iPhone cable—the only one I had brought for both of us—at his grandparent’s house. It wasn’t till we got back in Lisięcice, 60 miles away, that I noticed it was missing. Going in the opposite direction of our first destination was not something I was open to doing. On the bright side, we had the chance to see the sublime Kamieniec Palace as well as the abbey and medieval church while we were visiting his family.
The charger missing, most of the day before of our voyage was spent trying to find various ways of finding a replacement, especially since we were going to rely heavily on battery-draining Google Maps to help us navigate the backroads of Poland and the Czech Republic. Marta’s family, in typical Polish fashion, ran around the house, to stores, and through all of their supplies, trying to find us a different one, but we just couldn’t seem to get one to work. Apple’s disabling “non-genuine devices” really screwed us over. Eager to get on the road, I said that I had enough battery to get us to Krakow—dubious though that was—and that we could pick up a new one there. There would be no postponing the trip, that much was certain.
The Fiat Doblo – 1.9 L diesel, manual beast.
So with the whole extended family worried, we took off the next morning in the green diesel Fiat Doblo, and started our way to the bustling city of Krakow. As we drove out of town, I felt an initial elation to be out and on our own again—there’s nothing quite like that feeling of roaring off into the distance in pursuit of adventure and the unknown and away from the comforts of home life.
On our way, near Katowice, some light rain fell as we arrived at our first waypoint to meet Jacek and Dominika, a nice couple who came to the wedding, Dominka being an old friend of Marta’s. They served us good coffee, cake, and a full meal of spinach crepes. Truth be told, we were both still full from the constant eating of the wedding, but the food was so good that we powered on regardless. Dominika was pregnant then and Jacek was working from home. After good conversation, we said our goodbyes, knowing it’d be a long time before we saw each other again.
First Stop: Krakow
Great place in Krakow!
An hour later, the rain cleared as we made it into Krakow. I had booked us an Airbnb near Old Town for two nights, which included parking. In the end, this place would turn out to be the best one we had during the whole trip: the bed was comfortable, the place was spotless, and we were in walking distance to everything. After checking in and relaxing, we wasted no time in heading to see some of the sights.
We walked past the university and to the main square, explored the marketplace, and went up into one of the towers. Storm clouds started to form and it was nearing dinner time, but we were too excited and wanted to get a quick view of the town and its offerings.
Krakow Town Square.
In Krakow, I already felt back in old Europe, with its rich history and architecture. This city already embodied everything I love about Europe: medium-sized cities of medium-density, somehow the ideal balance for human creativity and progress, not too sparse and barren and atomized as American cities and small towns, nor too dense, crowded, overwhelming, and coldly modern as Asian cities. There is something in Europe that always is on the human scale, a legacy of humanism, itself an outgrowth of Christianity’s human God. From the Renaissance onwards, everything in Europe—up to, of course, modernism—speaks to our natural human senses. The music is orderly and beautiful, as are the cities, the fashion, and the societies themselves. There’s a brisk, robust health to everything, and the fact that every town in Europe worth seeing is from this era, speaks of a universalism apparent in Renaissance humanism. That Europe decided to turn on itself and throw out its great civilization and traditions is one of history’s great tragedies.
These thoughts must have come out while pondering the middle age tortures as we climbed the Town Hall Tower. Despite that, my hunger continued to grow unabated. By the time we got out of the tower, we were ready to search for some food. On the way back to the room, we dined on fish at a small, underground place with odd, risqué paintings—which somehow blended the medieval with the contemporary—and then we headed in for the night.
First dinner in Krakow.
The second day in Krakow we set out to conquer the city, with no plans to use the car at all. After a quick detour in which we set up a bank account and got the wedding cash out of our hands, we went to Old Town.
Marta in front of Wawel Cathedral.
We hijacked a tour a couple of times and got some of the details on the Jagiellonians and other royal lines. The deep link between the nations of Lithuania and Poland interested me, since my last name is Lithuanian and I’m also partly of Polish heritage.
After all this, we strolled through the Jewish quarter some more, and I came across Zamoyski’s Poland: A History, which I assumed I could get elsewhere and did not purchase at the time. (For some reason, I always make this mistake.) In the end, I had to purchase it online back in America. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but wished I’d got it in Krakow. All I can really say about for now is that Polish history is a lot different than what I expected.
We learned about the German occupation and near destruction of the city. And then we walked over to the Jewish quarter and the Jewish cemetery, two areas of town filled with dark, sad memories of the occupation and holocaust. On a moderately bright note, the Jewish quarter had started to see huge renovation projects and was filling with youth and life. We dined in a small place here for lunch, then made an obligatory trip to the mall for the iPhone cable. We got a knock-off at an exorbitant $10 USD, which was to work about 60% of the time before breaking completely, barely managing to get us through the trip.
If you look very carefully, you can see Korwin’s bald head (left of the other bald guy).
After a break at the room for a while, we headed out to a nice Italian dinner back near the main plaza, where we both enjoyed excellent risotto. After that, we walked through the plaza and caught sight of a rally at which the controversial Euro-skeptic Korwin-Mikke was in attendance.
We then headed over to a local brew pub for some of the craft beers. Although Polish craft beer has a long ways to go, it was nice to see it up and coming in Krakow.
Second Stop: Zakopane
Our second waypoint was a bit out of the way of our final destination, but I was eager to get a taste of the Polish mountains, so we headed there in full force to a small hotel in Ząb, the highest place in Poland, which promised the respite of a sauna.
The Fiat had no trouble making it in the hills, but we barely managed to find our way around the confusing mountain town to the small inn. Although the chalet was cold and empty, we had a great view looking out at the mountain ranges.
Overlooking Zakopane, before taking the tram down.
Wasting no time, we drove off in search of the tram to take us into Zakopane. We had a tough time finding our way around the mountains. We had to ask some locals where we were going, but finally ended up in some strange area with a parking lot and a mountain tram to take us into Zakopane. And . . . oh my! What a tourist trap it was. I did enjoy the local cheese, but I really was not expecting so many miles of trinkets and junk. The town looked kind of like a section of Disney World. Really shocking. Fortunately, we did get to try some mountain-style kasha (hearty buckwheat) and then we headed back in for a nice evening of beer and relaxation in the sauna.
The next day was a big one. We planned to hike Morskie Oko, the “Sea Eye” deep in the Tatra Mountains along the Slovak border. Although it was early May and we knew there’d be some weather to deal with, we still assumed it wouldn’t anything extreme. The hike itself was 8 kilometers in and 8 back—not too much for us seasoned hikers, but still a full outing hike. So out we went with our Converse sneakers and a standard urban jackets. Umbrellas, yes, but nothing much else for weather. Anyway—what could happen in May in the mountains?
Morskie Oko in May, 2015.
At the start, the sky was a bit gray, but I couldn’t help relishing the views and the freshness of the air. Mountain air, in Poland or America or anywhere else, is always refreshing and enlivening—there’s something holy about it. The path was paved, so it wasn’t too extreme of a hike and we were moving along quickly, until about halfway in the rain began to fall heavily. We carried on for another 4 kilometers through this rain, passing waterfalls and seeing more and more snow on the ground. Then at last, completely soaked, we made it to the great lake, the Eye of the Sea—frozen solid amid the snow-capped mountains, our hands and extremities frozen and wet.
Standing on Morskie Oko in May. Life is great.
Most people like to spend their honeymoons in some hot, touristy location. In America, they go to Hawaii or the Bahamas, depending on the coast they reside nearest to; in Europe, they may go to Spain or Italy—or better yet, to Tunisia or Egypt. Often, people “don’t leave the room,” as the joke goes, or if they do, they just go down to the pool to relax, drink, eat and spend hours on end in the sun. We met people who visited north Africa but stayed in the hotel or resort the whole time, even failing to get out and see some of the major sites. But a Bablinskas honeymoon? That’s not for us. We’ll go to the mountains—covered in snow if they happen to be, no matter cold or storm, no matter if we only have an old Fiat diesel to get around and that the only place we have to stay is a random chalet in a tiny mountain town. We get out day and day again, exploring new haunts and never letting anything get in our way.
On the way down from the mountain, we were pretty damn tired and wet, so we shelled out the money to take the horse cart back down. The Poles sat there with us, smiling and soaked. When we got to the car, we popped across the border to Slovakia for a quick picture, and then headed back in for food and a relaxing night at the hotel. We ordered a giant pizza for dinner, whose leftovers (along with some mayonnaise for Marta) were to become an interesting part of our next leg of the journey.
Third Stop: Brno
The next morning we got up early and packed up the car. It was damn cold and we were at a high altitude so the engine took some time to roar to life. This was the first time I was worried the little beast might not last the whole trip. The day was to be rainy and we had quite a lot of ground to cover: we were finally going to get into the Czech Republic. After winding our way through the hills of Poland for a few hours in heavy rain, and over numerous potholes and rough roads, we made it to the Polish-Czech bordertown of Cieszyn. Here we stopped for a coffee and saw a giant Rubik’s cube some ancient relics from the Swedish invasion of the area.
Rubik’s Cube in Cieszyn.
As we were getting back on the road and preparing to enter the Czech Republic, I fired up the Fiat and told Marta to get the map ready so we could get going. At the time she was trying to eat her pizza that she had covered in mayo. She couldn’t see why I was in a hurry to get out of the parking lot (our ticket there had expired, and I didn’t want to have to dish out any more money), so I kept going and kept asking her to get the map started on the phone.
There was a verbal altercation about the status of the map and let’s just say that the pizza and mayo didn’t exactly end up where I hoped they would. I pulled off to clean my face and clothes while Marta now prepared the map at her speed.
Finally we entered the Czech Republic and were soon on the vast, beautiful highway heading towards Brno. Not long after we got into the clean, sleek town and made our way to our modern-looking hostel. As usual, we headed right for downtown to check out the city, since we’d only have one night here.
Doing what I do best – this time in Brno.
Despite being cleaner than Poland, there was something a bit colder about the Czech town—maybe it was the lack of religion, or maybe it had just more fully integrated into the Western sphere (the two could be related). It was nice, but there wasn’t really anything very characteristic about the city itself. There was a good-sized, open square, but very few cafes or eateries sat against it, unlike in Krakow, where the square bustled with life and character. There weren’t many Medieval or other historical landmarks either. Well, what can I say I expected… Brno isn’t much covered in guidebooks, probably for a reason. But we did get some good food and beer. I was glad to have a real Pale Ale—I’d been missing the kind of beer that the Czech Republic could provide me.
Last Stop: Prague
The next day we started off toward Prague, crossing most of the Czech nation in the process, moving along the beautiful highway again. Marta had long had the opinion that the Czech Republic was Poland’s smarter, more sophisticated older brother, always beating the latter by just a hair—better roads and cities, a higher standard of living, more integrated into the West, and so forth. In general, she thought that the grass really was greener in the Czech Republic. She remarked at the quality of the roads, but also of the countryside, which was cleanly groomed and had more of a gentle roll to it, as opposed to Poland’s bleak flatness interspersed with shabby towns and unkempt forest. I did notice a bit of a difference, but I didn’t find it to be so great, and I did like that Poland seemed to have a stronger identity than the Czech Republic, but to be honest, I liked them both about equally and for different reasons.
Beer, sausage, bread. We’re not hard to please.
As we got close to Prague, we saw a sign on the highway for a castle in a small town in Central Bohemia, so we took our chances and pulled off the road. Marta expertly navigated me toward the castle, which was on a hill in the center of the small town. There happened to be a marathon going on at the time, and the finish line was passing right through the castle. We didn’t think we were intruding too much, so we sat with the people at the finish line and had ourselves some grilled sausages, beer, and bread. It was about as perfect as a meal can get.
A couple of hours later we sped into Prague and managed to find our way to the agency downtown that provided our key to the Airbnb. The flat was in a protected building with German writing all over it. It had a parking garage, which solved our main concern and would let us keep the car out of our minds for the rest of our time there. Inside, the room was very poorly cleaned—which irked us quite a bit. It was a Russian agency, and I called them up and they said that the cleaning lady was on her way. To our chagrin, she didn’t clean the place very well. Oh well, we were just there to sleep and see the city. It would do.
Only in Prague.
Only in Prague (part 2).
That afternoon, we took a long detour through a park, then made our way down to Old Town for some dinner. What can I say about Prague that hasn’t been said? It was great to be back in this Bohemia. The town appeared richer and cleaner than my last visit, also less Eastern and more Western. At heart it’d become “just another Western European city,” which is in many ways a good thing, given the increase in prosperity and variety, but in other ways a bit sad.
The following morning we a went on one of Sandeman’s free walking tours back in Old Town. Our guide was a witty Bavarian who took us through a crash course in the ups-and-downs of Czech history, writ-large all over the city of Prague. Despite the aforementioned, this is truly the best time to be alive in the Czech Republic. Europe survived the religious wars of the Middle Ages and the Reformation, survived the wars of the colonial powers, of Nazism and Communism, and at last came out of it all with a reasonable standard of living and the framework for a successful civilization. This was a very long, painful process, costing the West millions of lives, so it’s sad to see now, at this pinnacle of progress, that everyone is losing their belief in Western values and the elites are working overtime to undermine their societies. In any case, it’s not a bad time to be alive in Eastern Europe—and it may end up being one of the freest parts of the globe in the not-so-distant future.
Marta in front of the Estates Theater.
The next day, we saw a good deal more of the city, including the Charles Bridge, where jazz music played and artisans worked on crafts. We finished up some shopping, getting gifts for family and friends, and had more good local food. That final evening, we ended with a trip to the Mozart opera in the Estates Theater, which was a perfect way to bring our honeymoon to close, despite Cosi Fan Tutti not being a very honeymoon-esque opera. Afterward, we stepped out into the night—the black brick of the city was all lit up orange and a light rain was falling. We hopped in to a bus, and it felt good to be in the warmth among the evening commuters.
And it was over. The next morning we packed up and started the car, and headed all the way back to Lisięcice, Poland.