2014 Hitchhiking Tour Through the Balkans

As I was planning the travels through the Balkans I got this “crazy” idea of hitchhiking all along. Most of my friends and family weren’t aware of my plans. I am sure that if I told people in advance, they would simply try to talk me out of it. “Oh it’s too dangerous”… It’s rather “Oh it’s too adventurous“.

Hitchhiking to Sarajevo

Hitchhiking to Sarajevo

I always wanted to try hitchhiking and as I am not getting any younger, I thought this could be my last opportunity to hitchhike great distances. Before starting this journey I have met quite a few people who had a hitchhiking experience and they all loved it and recommended it. Well, it was my turn to try the good-old-hippy way of traveling.

Why the Balkans?

For some years I’ve been intrigued with the whole ex-Yugoslavia and the Balkan region. I like ćevapi, I wanted to try real rakia and I was curious about turbo-folk. The Balkans are not limited to these three items, however the region is known for it. There are many more obvious reasons to travel the Balkans now. First of all, many of these countries are still underrated and aren’t extremely touristy. The prices are low for the most part, people are friendly, history is rich.

Schengen Area Issue

It’s worth mentioning that one of my main reasons for visiting the Balkans: most Balkan countries are not in the Schengen zone yet! Most European Union countries are part of the Schengen zone. Countries in this zone abolished the borders and passport control between themselves and strengthened the border control with countries excluded from Schengen. All the countries in these zone are now acting as one single country. This poses a problem for many travelers. As a Canadian I don’t need visas to visit most countries however there are some limitation. For example I am only allowed to stay in Schengen zone for a maximum of 90 days within a 180 days period. If you get caught overstaying the allowed period – you become a subject to a hefty fine and a ban from entering the EU for a year or two.

Alex Traveling

Well, I stayed in Poland for 83 days or so and decided to move on to Ukraine in order to leave the Schengen area. This is when I also decided to travel through the Balkans. Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia are all in the European Union but they haven’t signed the Schengen agreement yet. Yey for me!

So, Let’s Travel!

While in Poland for almost 3 months, I got a chance to live in Warsaw, visit Krakow, Gdansk and Sopot. I also made sure to visit Berlin, Germany for a week or so since it’s so close to Poland. Eventually I decided to go to Ukraine. I was born in Ukraine and I still have many relatives there, including my father. On June 1st I traveled from Warsaw to Lviv and then on to Kyiv. I strayed in Ukraine for a few weeks, awaiting my girlfriend’s arrival while she was finishing up some studies at a university in Poland.

From Kyiv we made it back to Lviv and decided to stay in that amazing city for a week. We met Liliia, an awesome couchsurfer who hosted us and helped us explore the city. Lviv deserves its own blog post, which I will do later. From Lviv we took a train to Solotvyno which is located at the border with Romania. We crossed the Ukrainian/Romanian border by foot and started hitchhiking for the very first time in our lives.

Our Hitchhiking Map for Balkans 2014

Our Hitchhiking Map for Balkans 2014

It all started at Sighetu Marmației, Romania. Here is a list of some of the cities that we visited on this hitchhiking trip:

  • Bucharest, Romania
  • Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
  • Sofia, Bulgaria
  • Belgrade, Serbia
  • Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Podgorica, Montenegro
  • Budva, Montenegro
  • Shkoder, Albania
  • Tirana, Albania
  • Herceg Novi, Montenegro
  • Dubrovnik, Croatia
  • Zagreb, Croatia
  • Ljubljana, Slovenia

We were dropped off in many other cities however it was more of a transit, not really a visit. The cities I listed are actually the ones we got a chance to stay at. Unfortunately we didn’t stay enough in some of them and some other ones should have been crossed out of the list since they were not worth visiting.

Anyways, in the upcoming months I will be sharing details of the trip, sharing experiences from specific places and sharing tips on visiting the countries listed above.

If you have any questions about these countries, cities, traveling or hitchhiking – please DO comment below 😉

 

Alex

 

Tips for Visiting Auschwitz Death Camp

Writing about Auschwitz-Birkenau is hard, visiting the death camp is even harder.

auschwitz barbed wire

Barbed wire fence in Auschwitz I

While in Warsaw I have decided to spend a week-end in Krakow. A beautiful city in Southern Poland. I have been to Krakow in December 2010, when the city was cold and full of snow. The warm days of late spring promised a lot more. So off we went. After getting in touch with Michał on BlaBlaCar and arranging a ride to Krakow I had to figure out some activities for the week-end… besides going to bars.

Most people who visit Krakow will do 2 things: Salt mines and the infamous death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. To be honest I didn’t care so much about the salt mines, since I’ve heard it wasn’t all that impressive. Auschwitz, however, was a must-see.

Getting to Auschwitz

visiting auschwitz I

The city of Oświęcim (renamed to Auschwitz by Germans) is located 67km away from Krakow. Nazis built 3 concentration camps there: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau and Auschwitz III–Monowitz. Most tourists will book a guided tour to Auschwitz directly in Krakow. Most tours cost 100-150zł ($35-50USD). This includes transportation from Krakow to Oświęcim and back. However, you can make that trip on your own, for a lot less.

One way train tickets from Krakow to Auschwitz costs 9zł ($3) and bus ticket is 12zł ($4). This website will help you find the schedule for the trains and buses. I recommend taking a bus since it’s faster (1h15-1h20) and the local train takes over 2 hours to reach the city of Oświęcim. Some buses from Krakow will drop you off at the train station, others will take you to the Auschwitz I gate. If you need to get to Auschwitz from the train station you can catch a cab for 10-15zł or take a local bus (numbers 1 and 24-29) for less than 3zł. There is a free shuttle that runs every 30 minutes (sometimes more often) between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Entrance to both sites is free, however they have “donation boxes”, so feel free to leave some money which will help maintaining the museum. Remember that access to Auschwitz I is only open to organized tours from 10am until 3pm. If you are coming alone, make sure you enter the museum grounds before 10 or after 3, You can also join a guided tour at the museum for 40zł. You can also buy a brochure for 10zł at the museum kiosk, this brochure will explain a few things about the site.

I should mention that buses back to Krakow are running until 5-6 pm or so, last train is departing around 7:30pm. I might be wrong but that was my experience (on a weekend). Before going there I suggest you check the schedule on the website I mentioned earlier and plan your return trip so you don’t get stuck in Oświęcim for the night… unless you really like very small towns.

The Auschwitz I

sign on the gates of auschwitz

“Arbeit macht frei” – “work makes (you) free”

When planning to visit the Auschwitz museum I was expecting it would be a sad experience. To be honest – it wasn’t sad. It was heart-breaking, it was disgusting, it was painful and very touching. Walking through that territory and imagining the suffering of Poles, Jews, Romas and many others is simply devastating. Then, I walked into the gas chamber. I can’t really explain what I felt. All I can say is that within minutes I had to walk out as I got dizzy, sick to my stomach and holding back tears.

Auschwitz I gas chamber

Auschwitz I gas chamber

After a relatively brief tour I walked out from the museum grounds since I planned to visit Auschwitz II – Birkenau. This second site is located about 3km away from Auschwitz I. You can walk if you feel like it but I suggest taking the free shuttle.

Another tip: look at the shuttle schedule before entering the museum. This way you will make it to the shuttle stop and wouldn’t have to wait for 25 minutes till the next shuttle. Just make sure you get to the shuttle stop a few minutes before the departure.

Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

As I was approaching the second site I couldn’t believe how huge it was. Barracks after barracks after barracks.

Visiting Auschwitz II - Birkenau

This second concentration camp had a capacity of 200,000 people at a time. Millions of people were sent to this site, most didn’t make it out of there alive.

Birkenau Railway

The railway tracks inside Birkenau split in different directions as camp was divided. Some parts were exclusive to men, some to women, some to Gypsies, some to Russians, etc. The rails that go to the right were probably the scariest, although most prisoners didn’t know about it.

Birkenau Road of death

Jews selected by SS for immediate death were headed along this road upon arrival to Birkenau. On the left and the right side of the road you can see ruins. Nazis tried to destroy the barracks and crematoriums to hide the evidence of their inhuman actions.

Birkenau memorial

 

I probably would not visit Auschwitz any time soon. It is a very difficult experience. Besides understanding how many people died there and how they were killed a lot of other things seem to be happening. Maybe my mind played tricks on me but I could swear I still smelt like something was burning near the destroyed crematorium. The air around the camp was heavy and the atmosphere was just… different.

If you ever get a chance – please do visit Auschwitz because no one will ever be able to explain what’s it really like.

I spent a lot of time deciding if I should publish this post since writing about it brings back the sadness and some other feelings. I hope this post will help you get prepared for the visit to Auschwitz – Birkenau.

 

– Alex

 

The Cheapest Way to Travel Across Europe

You don’t need to be a millionaire to travel through Europe, however money helps. If you are on a budget, there are several things you can do in order to travel without breaking the bank.

Cheap flights in Europe

Flying in Europe

Flying is actually one of the cheapest ways to get around Europe. Especially if you don’t have a particular place to go to and if you are traveling light. You can fly from Warsaw to Oslo for less than 15$, from Frankfurt to London for $30. $30 will also get you from Milan to Paris. However, flying with these “low-cost” carriers may be difficult at times. You are only allowed to bring a small carry-on because checked-in luggage will cost you more than the flight itself. You also must be careful when booking a ticket. Some of these companies try to impose a bunch of extras on you which significantly increases the price of the ticket. Some even require that you print your ticket in a specific way, otherwise they fine you. Be careful.

Most known European low costs are Ryanair and WizzAir.

Ridesharing in Europe

Another cheap way of traveling around Europe is rideshare (aka car pooling). As I mentioned in a recent post (Traveling from Warsaw to Berlin) I used carpooling to get to Poland from Germany. I also went from Warsaw to Krakow and then back to Warsaw. I have also used this method in 2010, going from Berlin to Prague.

There are many ridesharing websites but BlaBlaCar seems to be the most popular one at the moment. It’s often cheaper and faster than buses and trains. The down side of carpooling is that you might not be able to find a ride exactly when you need it. A lot of site’s users offer a ride within a week of departure. If you are not time-limited, ride sharing could be a great idea but it could be hard to plan a trip in advance.

carpooling europe

Hitchhiking in Europe

For the most adventurous there is hitchhiking. The fashioned “thumbing” on the side of the road seems to be making a comeback. In most countries this method of traveling is free, however Ukraine and Romania you might be asked to pay small fee. In order to prevent a misunderstanding it’s always a good idea to make sure the driver understands that you won’t be paying for the ride. I have been reading quite a lot of articles on HitchWiki about this method of transportation since I am planning to use it in the near future.

Unfortunately don’t have much experience with hitchhiking. In 2010 I traveled through Ukraine with my own car and I picked up quite a few hitchhikers that were going my way. This year I am planning to become a hitchhiker myself, when I will be traveling through the Balkans. I guess after that trip i will be able to share quite a few stories on this blog.

Got anything to add? Comment below!

– Alex

Free Walking Tours in Warsaw

The best way to see any city is by simply walking through it. Especially when you have a knowledgeable guide. This is exactly what I did in Warsaw: Free Walking Tours.

Walking Tour Warsaw

photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

I actually attended 3 of the 4 possible tours: Old Town Warsaw, Communist Warsaw, Alternative Warsaw. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to do the Jewish Warsaw tour. The guides were great, friendly and they knew the history of their city in great detail. Our guide, Agnes, not only knew lots of cool stories and details about Warsaw and the world history in general, she also made us laugh quite often with her great jokes.

– The Old Town Warsaw walking tour takes you through… well, the old town of the city. On this tour you will learn lots about the city, how it was destroyed and how it was rebuilt, mostly from looking at 18th century paintings of Warsaw. That’s the tour that will make you understand why the residents of Warszawa are so proud of their city. Everyday at 12 pm. and 6 pm. (summer schedule).

– The Communist Tour concentrates on the USSR influence and another part of Polish and Warsaw history. A lot of historical facts will be told by the guide so you could understand why the communism was not the most favorite regime of the people. Of course you will be making a stop at the infamous Palace of Culture and Science and a few other “key” locations. Wed. Fri. Sun. at 10:30 am. (summer schedule).

– The Alternative Warsaw tour is brand new. I think we were one of the first groups (if not the first) that went on that tour. This tour takes you away from the central Warsaw all the way across the Vistula river, to the Praga district. Praga has been the ghetto of the city but is now turning into a hip district. I could probably compare it to Berlin’s Kreuzberg or Montreal’s Plateau. Hipsters are starting to take over because the rent is cheap and the district is getting more and more artsy and fun. If you want to see bears practically walking on the street, if you want too see where “The Pianist” was filmed, if you want to see what many tourists won’t see – I highly suggest this tour. Mon.Thu.Sat. 10:30 am. (summer schedule).

The free walking tours in Warsaw are free and the guides earn their “paychecks” with money that attendees contribute at the end of the tour. The cool thing is that you are not obliged to give them any money. This makes the tour accessible even to the tourists on very low budgets. However, if you can – please do contribute as much as you think your guide deserves.

The same foundation offers free tours in other cities of Poland, such as Wroclaw and Krakow. I can only imagine these tours are as great as the ones in Warsaw.

Check out their website here for the tours schedule or like their Facebook page. I like their FB page because they constantly posts cool facts and stories about the city.

Got anything to add? Comment below!

Invisible Exhibition – Warsaw, Poland

How much money would you be willing to pay for an exhibition that you can’t see? I paid about $8 and it was totally worth it!

NIEWIDZIALNA WYSTAWA Warsaw

photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

The Invisible Exhibition (Niewidzialna Wystawa) in Warsaw offers just that: a tour into the world “without sight”. They asked us to not reveal too many details about this great exhibition so I will keep it short.

Before entering the exhibition rooms you will be instructed on how to behave. These little rules and hints will be very useful, so listen carefully. After the instructions your guide will take through a very memorable experience when you will use all your senses, except the sight. Your guide will be either blind or almost and you will not see anything for about an hour, while going through the exhibition.

It is highly suggested to contact the folks at Niewidzialna Wystawa a day in advance (especially if you want a tour in English). When I went there they told us that sometimes you might wait a while for a tour and someday they are sold out for the day. If you are a big group – you should also contact them in advance and reserve a tour.

If you can’t visit this exhibition in Warsaw – you can also visit it in Budapest and Prague.

One last tip: bring a few złoty with you for the tour, they might come in very handy at the end of the tour 😉

The regular tickets cost 24 zł on weekdays and 28 zł on weekends. You will pay 3 zł less if you buy the tickets online. Lower prices are also offered for students, elderly, families and groups.

For more info: Niewidzialna Wystawa Website (EN and PL)

 

– Alex

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