Visiting Sopot and Gdansk, Poland

In mid-March our friends Klaudia and Marc invited us to visit Gdansk and the known seaside town of Sopot, on the coast of the Baltic Sea.

GdanskandSopot

Gdańsk, Poland – 2014

Sopot is mostly known as a “resort town”. With only 40,000 residents the city is very small yet always attracting tourists, even during the cold season. Sopot is also known for it’s 515.5 meters long wooden pier, the biggest of its kind in Europe. The pier goes deep into the Bay of Gdańsk. I think it costs about 6zt to go on the pier, however we were there on a off-season evening and no one asked us to pay anything.

Unfortunately it was rather cold (around 5*C) when we went to visit so there wasn’t much going on. On the positive side – there weren’t many tourists, so it was easy to walk through the pier, the beach and the main street.  I am sure during the summer months this little town is packed with Polish folks, international tourists and the infamous stag-party dudes.

Sopot in 2014

Enjoying the salty air of the Baltic Sea.

My favorite thing about Sopot – the sea. I have loved the sea since I was a little kid and there is something magical about it that still seduces me. The familiar smell, the calming sound, the: “let me try to see the other bank”. I love the sea. Even the cold Baltic sea in winter.

As we were taking a walk on the beach we have noticed a few people looking for amber in the sand. Well, we’ve decided to find some amber as well and here is the first result:

Sopot amber picking

Small amber on the beaches of Sopot

I have to warn you: amber-picking is addictive. First you find a few small pieces and you get all excited. Then you find a tiny bigger one and get more excited. Then you actually start ignoring the tiny ones and only take the slightly bigger ones. An hour passes without you realizing and all you are thinking is: “Just one more bigger piece, then I stop”. Cool activity and the amber can be used as a good souvenir or gift. Here is our final result:

Amber-picking Sopot

Amber: Just one more piece…

Monte Cassino Street is the street that goes from the railway station all the way down to the Sopot beach. This is THE place where you can find loads of shops, cafes, bars, clubs and a lot more. Younger people should know that legal drinking age in Sopot is 21 and not 18 like in the rest of Poland. Yes, they will check your I.D. at the entrance.

Sopot Accomodations

The original plan was staying at the hostel. However, Klaudia suggested we rent a flat instead, since it wouldn’t cost more. I am quite sure the apartments go for a lot more money in the summer but in mid-march we were charged 160zt per night. That’s only 40zt per person – same or cheaper than a hostel. The place was located in a residential neighborhood and 10-15 minute walk away from the Monte Cassino street.

On the second night our heaters stopped working – however it didn’t get any colder in the apartment (gotta love the cement walls). The next day when we were leaving we were reimbursed half of the night’s fee for the “inconvenience”. Later that day we also received a call from the owners of the flat who wanted to make sure we heard their apologies. To be honest I was very surprised by such level of attention and care for customer. I guess if I come back to Sopot I will stay at the same place.

 

Visiting Gdańsk

 St John’s Church in Gdansk 2014

St John’s Church in Gdansk

Unfortunately our visit to Gdansk only lasted a few hours. It was cold, rainy and late in the day. The city is beautiful with its cobbled streets and numerous churches. From my own experience I can suggest to spend some time in the Old Town, enjying its beautifully restored renaissance buildings. Take a walk along the canal and wander into some of Gdansk’s churches.

Gdansk also has a variety of great museums and I hope I’ll be back to this city to explore it a little more.

Have you been to Gdansk or Sopot? Share your experiences in the comments!

 

– Alex

The Frying Pan Scam – Warsaw

When you rent an apartment (a flat for my European friends) for a short time – you normally want to find a furnished apartment. However, a sofa and a chair is not enough and you might end up buying a few things.

frying pans

 

The Warsaw flat that I rented for a few months had most things: a bed (actually a sofa), a table, chairs, stove-top, fridge and even a washing machine. Quite a few plates, small coffee cups, a pot, spoons and forks were here as well. However – there was no frying pan. Sure, boiled is good but at some point you get fed up of boiled. Making a good sauce of some sort requires a frying pan. Making eggs in the morning requires a pan. Making pancakes requires a pan. I also needed a frying pan to cook some sausages – I am in Poland after all.

As I mentioned a few lines earlier, there was a stove top but not an oven, so oven-made food was also out of the question. At this moment I am starting to realize how much I miss oven-cooked food!

 

The Hunt For The Pan

Well, a frying pan was a must. I headed to a small supermarket nearby to only find out that most pans cost 150-200zt ($50-70). Quite too much for a pan that would only be used for a few months then left behind. A flea-market came to mind. There must be some people selling cheaper things, right?

Next day my girlfriend and I headed to a small flea-market but didn’t see any kitchen supplies… until the last moment. I spotted an older man sitting on an empty plastic beer crate, selling a single frying pan. We approached him:

– Ile to kosztuje?
– 70 złoty
– Nie, nie, nie…

We smiled and walked away. Then man then screamed at us: Ok, 60! – but we kept on walking. As we turned around the corner , the “salesman” actually chased us and offered that pan for 45 złoty. We showed him 30 zloty in bills and 2 zloty in coins, of course he accepted. On the way home I was proud of finding such bargain; 32 zloty is about $10 and it’s 5-6 times less than in a shop!

 

And What’s The Scam?

Finally I was able to make some real Polish sausages. I washed the pan very thoroughly before using it and put it on the stove. While cooking the sausages I was very surprised by the amount of smoke. When the food was ready I was even more surprised that the inside of the pan looked badly burned. I was even more surprised when I washed that pan and every drop of water turned into a rusty trace while the pan was drying. Yep, a real bargain. Should I say that I haven’t touched that pan after that?

frying pan scams frying pan scam

Fortunately it only cost $10. I tried to imagine a reason for this pan’s existence (ex: it must be some special pan for some very specific cooking) but I knew I was fooling myself. It was just a very low quality cheap pan that was probably found in some warehouse abandoned by the Russian communists in the 80’s.

The New Frying Pan

A few days later I ended up at Carrefour supermarket. This is where I saw frying pans at 20-30-40-100 zloty. They also sell pots and pans by weight! For about 3 zloty you can get 100 grams worth of pans/pots. How cool is that? Finally less than 30 zt I walked away with a good non-stick frying pan.

fryingpots

So there you go. If you need to buy any home supplies in Poland, go to a big super market. Chances are they are offering the best products for your dollar… or zloty.

Anything to add? Don’t be shy, comment below!

Warsaw Clinic Squat – Przychodnia Skłot

On Friday, March 21st we were walking around the night streets of Warsaw, looking for something fun to do.

Przychodnia Sklot Squat

photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

The night started at “Plan B”, a known bar. The beer was rather cheap (7-8zt for 0.5L). The coolest thing about Plan B is that the square right in front of the bar is considered as a terrace, so lots of people outside. However, after an hour spent at Plan B (or should I say outside of Plan B) we headed to the center of the town.

On the way to the center we decided to walk through some smaller streets and alleys, this is how we ended up on the Skorupki street, right at the corner of Marszałkowska. Although the street seemed rather small and quiet, I noticed lots of people standing in front of an obscure, non-lit building. When we got closer, we noticed that many folks looked like punk rockers; mohawks, ripped jeans, and leather jackets with patches of The Clash, Nirvana and Sid Vicious. Then I heard music coming from that same building.

We proceeded to the entrance and found out it didn’t cost much “see the show”. Inside we went.

There was a Polish punk band “Upadek” playing in the basement, not everyone’s cup of tea but I enjoyed the alternative vibe. Probably because I was in that kind of “underground scene” in Montreal some 10 years ago.

Then there was a post-hardcore band, “Guantanamo Party Program”:

And a local ska band, Skadyktator:

I was surprised to see such a variety of musical styles mixed into one single show.

Later on, when we met some cool people at Przychodnia we found out that on that day the venue was celebrating its 2 years anniversary. That was the reason for all these bands playing there on the same night. However, we also found out that Przychodnia was not really a concert venue, it was a lot more than that.

Przychodnia, literally translated as “clinic” is a squat. This clinic in the center of Warsaw was abandoned for many years and finally it was occupied by squatters in 2012. Przychodnia now serves as a cultural center, with discussions, concerts, photo exhibitions, film projections and a lot more.

In November 2013, the neo-fascists movemevent organized the so-called “March of Independence” and attacked the squat, setting a neighboring building and a car on fire. The motives are not “official” but everyone knows that the residents of Przychodnia Squat are ANTI-fascists. Make your own decision on that matter. People of the Clinic Squat say it’s just the beginning of their struggle and they say it wasn’t the last attack from the neo-fascists.

Przychodnia Sklot Outside

photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

Back to March 21st. Besides the live show, the squat offered a ping pong table, baby foot table and lots of fun people. The basement of the building is a long hallway with a bunch of separate rooms: the bar, rooms with chairs and sofas where people can sit and relax, baby foot room and many other that I don’t remember.

Przychodnia Squat bar

photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

Przychodnia Sklot Hallway

photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

Przychodnia Sklot Concert

photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

Upstairs you can find more rooms, ping pong table, and the exist to the backyard.

I would definitely re-visit Przychodnia Sklot and I would highly recommend this place to everyone. I really hope this squat is here to stay but unfortunately we can’t know for how long it will stay open.

Check out their Facebook Page for updated schedule of events.

– Alex

 

Where to Stay in Warsaw, Poland

Just like most cities in the world, Warsaw offers a huge variety of accommodations. And as usually, it all comes down to the price you want to pay.

Warsaw Accommodations

Staying at Hotels

I don’t like hotels. I don’t like hotels because they are expensive. I don’t like hotels because they are boring. I don’t like hotels because they are the worst place to meet new friends.

However, hotels usually will have available rooms when all the other options fail. In short: if you are not on a budget and if you don’t mind to spend your time “alone” – hotel might be a good choice for you.

Warsaw offers a big selection of hotels, many start at $75-$85 per night.

Staying at Hostels

Hostels are preferred by students, young people and folks on budget. I would rather stay at the hostel simply because it’s a lot more fun than a hotel. In fact, choosing a hotel instead of a hostel was my biggest regret when traveling in Germany in the past.

Hostels are fun because people tend to stay outside of their rooms and in the common areas. Hostels also set-up outings, pub crawls and city-tours. This is a great way to make new friends, wherever you are. Sure, most of these people will be your “short-term-buddies” but some will become your long-term friends.

I haven’t stayed at a hostel in Warsaw yet, however my girlfriend did.  She really liked the place and the staff and highly recommends it: Oki Doki Warsaw. A bed in the shared room costs about $15 per night – and that was in a well-located hostel, between the center of the city and the old town. If you prefer a private room in a hostel, prepare $50-$60 per night, breakfast included. The hostel asks its guests to book directly through their website – this way it will cost You a lot less then booking through an agency or a booking site.

Renting a Flat in Warsaw

Renting a flat (apartment) could also be a great choice, as it’s usually a little cheaper than a hotel room – yet you are getting a full apartment, with a functional kitchen. There are lots of offers for small furnished flats that you can rent for $50-$70 per night, many of them are conveniently located in the downtown Warsaw area.

I needed a place for a mid-long term (4 months) so I had to find an apartment that is not targeted to weekend tourists. At first I contacted those “short term” places and they quoted me $2,000 per month for a small studio.

I kept looking online, my girlfriend was already in Warsaw and we were able to find a small furnished studio for about $300 per month + utilities (that’s another $75-100 for natural gas, electricity and internet). It’s located in Stary Mokotów, a desirable neighborhood, 5 minute walk from metro and 5 minute walk from my girlfriend’s school.

The search of a flat revealed a few interesting points…

  •     Gumtree.pl is probably the best site to find an apartment. You can filter the offers to only see the ads posted directly by the owner. If you go through an agency, they will charge a very high fee.
  •     It is a very wise idea to have a Polish-speaking friend when looking for a flat as older people tend to not speak English. Our Polish friend also negotiated the price for the flat a little.
  •     Apartments go FAST (as least the ones located in the center and near the center). If the ad was posted in the morning, it’s probably rented out in the evening. This is simply incredible.
  •     Many people will not want to rent for less then few months, some will not rent for less then a year. Be ready to pay a little more if you want a place for 2-3 months.
  •     You will be required to pay a deposit, in the amount of one month’s rent. The deposit will be given back to you at the end of the lease.

Renting a furnished apartment is the optimal and cheapest way to go if you are planning to stay in the city for few months.

Couchsurfing in Warsaw

Almost 25,000 people are registered as hosts in Warsaw. I have done my fair share of couchsurfing in the past and I loved the experience. It’s a great way to meet awesome people, and CS in itself is free. However, if you chose this route – I’d recommend cooking for your host and taking them out for a drink.

I will surely couchsurf this year when I will be visiting other cities!

AIRBNB in Warsaw

Airbnb.com is the new “hot” thing – however I haven’t tried it yet. Airbnb is a mix between couchsurfing and short-term apartment rentals. Most people on this site will offer to rent out a room in their flat or house, usually for less than a hotel room. This alternative seems interesting and I might try it – however, I would probably still prefer couchsurfing or a hostel.

Have anything to add? Comment below!

How To Get Around Warsaw (Without a Car)

The public transportation system in Warsaw, Poland is great – or at least that’s my experience. It’s safe to say that you do not need a car here and can easily get to any part of the city by metro (subway), tram or bus.

Inside the Warsaw Metro

Inside Warsaw Metro – photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

First of all, Poland uses złoty (PLN) and not euro, so make sure you have zloty to pay for the cab or buy a bus ticket. Money exchange counters at the airport will rip you off (like in most countries) so bring a small bill with you; $5 will be more than enough for a few bus tickets and $30 will be enough for a cab.

Warsaw Airport to City Center

So the first and probably most important question: How to get to Warsaw city center from Warsaw Chopin Airport (WAW)? You have 3 choices: taxi, bus or train.

Of course, taxi is the most convenient way and also the most expensive. This route will set you back 40-50 PLN, which is about $15-$20USD. At the arrivals hall you will be approached by many men, almost whispering “taxi-taxi”. I am not sure if these are legit taxi drivers but I wouldn’t bet on it. As soon as you walk out the door you will see a line-up of official cabs and their drivers standing next t them. If you need to take a cab – I would recommend these cars.

 

Option #2 – the train. You can take the train to the central station or to a few other stations in the city. Some people suggested this route was not convenient at all so I decided not to take the train and opted for the bus.

Taking a bus. The directions to the bus stop are clearly indicated from the arrivals hall and the actual bus stop is a few meters away from the door. Walk out of the airport and cross the street, there are also signs pointing to the bus stop. If you are going to the center of the city you can take 2 different buses; 175 or 188.

The 175 takes you directly to central station (Centrum metro) and comes every 10 minutes or so. This bus is usually full. The 188 comes every 20 minutes or so, a lot less people take it (so it’s easier to find place for your luggage) and it goes to Politechnika metro, one station away from Centrum. I chose the 188 as I needed to get to Pole Mokotowskie metro.

Warsaw Center

Warsaw Centrum – photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

Where To Buy Bus/Train Tickets?

You can buy a ticket from the bus driver, however it is highly recommended to buy the ticket from the ticket machine in the airport or at the small newspaper shop inside the arrivals terminal. The machines do offer English interface so it will be quite easy to get the ticket. These machines can also be found at all metro stations (since there isn’t a booth with a person selling tickets).

ticket machine in warsaw

Ticket Prices

A one trip ticket will set you back 4.40 złoty (75-minute ticket).  A full day pass is 15 złoty and a monthly pass is 110 złoty. You must validate the ticket once you enter the bus/tram. Inside the bus you will see yellow machines where you have a slot for that ticket. I have been in Warsaw for 1 week so far and I have taken buses and trams several times a day and I am yet to see a single ticket controller. However, the risk of riding without a ticket isn’t worth it because the fine is pretty steep at 266 złoty. That’s the cost of a 3 months pass!

Ticket Recap:

  • You can buy a ticket in the machines at every metro station. It accepts coins, bills and credit cards.
  • You can buy a ticket at most tram stops. The machine is located outside.
  • You CAN’T buy a ticket inside the tram.
  • You can buy a ticket from the bus driver, or from a ticket machine in the bus. However, the machines in the bus only accept cards.
Tram in Warsaw

Tramway in Warsaw – photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

If you want to buy a 30-Day or 90-Day pass (Warszawska Karta Miejska), you will have to buy it at the ZTM Passenger Service Center (Punkt Obsługi Pasażera ZTM). You can find one of these service points at metro Centrum (underground), however more service centers can be found around the city. You need to bring an ID with your name and date of birth as well as a passport photo. You can make the photos at a photo boutique across from ZTM Center for 25 zloty (6 photos) and it takes a few minutes. However, if you already have a passport style 3,5 x 4,5 cm photo, bring that with you. They will print the image on your card and give the photo back to you. Don’t forget the 110 zloty, you will pay on the spot.

Ratusz Arsenał Station

Ratusz Arsenał Station – by Elizabeth Viatkin

It’s worth mentioning that Warsaw offers several night buses. The metro is usually open until 12:30-1 a.m. 5 days a week and it’s open until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. So even if you go out late at night you can avoid paying for a cab. By the way, taxis charge 8 zloty for you to get in, then an average of 2 zloty per kilometer. Make sure you ask the driver to turn on the meter.

I would also like to suggest an app for your smartphone (iOS and Android), JakDojade. This app will help you plan your itinerary around the city by telling you which bus/tram/metro you need to take and when.

Another tip! Although Warsaw Chopin Airport claims to have free WiFi – it’s password protected. In order to get the password you need to scan your boarding pass (and of course there are no check-in machines at the arrivals). So if you need Internet before heading to the city you will have to buy an overpriced drink at a cafe/bar at the arrival hall.

Till’ the next post,

EDIT: After 2 months in Warsaw I have finally spotted the ticket controllers at the Centrum metro station. It was Saturday, 2 a.m. It seems like they caught a lot of people who didn’t pay the fare. Just two days later more controllers were checking people on the bus (Monday 6p.m.). Even though the controllers are not common, the risk is not worth it as the fine is about $100 (and a ticket costs $1.50)

 

– Alex

Traveling in 2014

New traveling adventure took a lot longer than I expected but it’s finally here. In 2014 I will be away from home (Montreal) for almost 6 months.

On March 5th 2014 I flew to Warsaw, Poland to join my girlfriend who will be studying in this beautiful city until June. Although most of the time will be spent in Warsaw I will be visiting other cities around Europe whenever I can. From June to August we’ll be traveling to other countries.

 

alex travel blog

Getting to Europe

As it often happens, I ended up buying airplane tickets from CheapTickets.com – they usually offer the cheapest tickets. I had a 2 hour layover at Schiphol airport (Amsterdam) which gives just enough time to walk around, browse the duty free shops and buy some cheese. I don’t mind layovers in 2 cases: when they are short (less than 3 hours) and when they are long (12 hours +). A long layover gives you a chance to visit the city. I am lucky to have a Canadian Passport so I can visit most countries without a visa.

My flight was operated by KLM (I love ’em) and somehow KLM gave me the “Economy Comfort” seat for free (usually an extra $150). They say that an economy comfort seat offers 10 more cm of leg room and the seat’s back reclines twice as far. Well, I was quite comfortable and a little bit of extra leg room does wonders.

KLM Econmy comfort seat

I should also mention that even though you are offered a wide variety of entertainment during your flight (recent and classic movies, music and even the snoring of the person in the next seat), you should plan your own entertainment.

Charge up your iPhone with your favorite songs, make sure your favorite movies are on your laptop or a book. Remember that in some cases you might be able to charge your electronics during the flight, however, a book will never run out of battery. This time I bought a book right before flying: Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook by Gary Vee.

Gary Vaynerchuck  Right Hook

I prefer to learn something I am interested in rather than reading Fifty Shades of Gray or whatever is the new hot bestseller. I also had my iPod with 400+ songs to keep me entertained.

Almost 7 hours in the plane can be pretty uncomfortable, even with the extra leg room – so getting up and moving around at least 3 times is highly recommended. I was very happy to land in Amsterdam because walking around the airport for an hour or two feels kind of incredible after a long flight.

Once in the airport, I had to go through the security check once again which is kind of annoying (take off your belt, watch, jacket, sweater, empty your pockets, take the laptop out, etc) but it took a total of 10 minutes. Then passport control where they inform you that as a non-EU resident you are only allowed to stay in the Schengen Area for a total of 90 days in a 180 period but I already knew that and it’s a big issue for people who want to travel Europe for more than 90 days. I will be writing a detailed blog post on this subject when the time comes.

So, after the security and passport control I was in the duty free zone, looking for the right terminal to catch my flight to Warsaw, Poland.

AMS – WAW flight was also operated by KLM; friendly crew, clean plane, smooth flight. The flight was delayed for some 10-15 minutes in Schiphol and another 10-15 minutes while flying over the Chopin airport – nothing major. The Poles happily applauded the captain, which was kind of cool, although I thought that landing a plane was a normal thing to do :)

I also noticed that I was the only (on both flights) who didn’t actually print tickets. KLM sent me the tickets by e-mail and I saved them on my iPhone. The folks at both boardings (Montreal and Amsterdam) scanned my phone screen with a bit of surprise. I am far from being a hipster environmentalist but I don’t understand why in 2014 we still waste paper when we really don’t need to. Using a phone as a boarding pass is also more convenient because there is less of a chance of losing the phone than of losing a piece of paper. Oh, make sure your phone is charged 100% before you leave to the airport.

Well, I am in Warsaw now. Got my luggage and went on, looking for my way to the city. More details in the next post.

– Alex