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Trip Report Late fall 2015 visit to Poland, Budapest and Amsterdam

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Trip Report for our visit to Poland, Budapest and Amsterdam. This trip was born of my husband's interest in all things cold war and iron curtain. He is also 50% Polish. Though he has no tangible connection to that heritage I do think those "roots" were a contributing factor to his interest. I also have some Polish but really I am a mongrel.

Our fist plan was to take award flights to Amsterdam, then hop on a Lot flight to Gdansk. However the Gdansk service was discontinued. The only way then to visit Gdansk would require us to back track which wasn't very appealing so we decided to save it for a future visit during the mild weather months. Now that the trip is behind us I can confidently say that we will definitely be back, we LOVED Poland.

Our itinerary:
2 Nights Warsaw
4 Nights Krakow
1 Night Train
4 Nights Budapest
4 Nights Amsterdam

*I warn you and apologize in advance that I'm long winded and a real crap proofreader*

On Thanksgiving day we flew from Detroit to Warsaw via Amsterdam. After landing on Friday we took a taxi to Hotel Bristol, seeing some gloomy beat up looking communist architecture along the way. As we approached the hotel the commie Warsaw faded behind us as Old Town Warsaw ushered us in. What a contrast to see.

After arrival we unpacked, opened a bottle of wine and while relaxing we ended up napping until around 6:30. Then up, showered and off to find dinner. DH had selected Podwale 25 for dinner so we set out for it on foot. It was packed with a line out the door so we decided to go back to an interesting looking bar we had passed to get a drink and let the crowd thin at the restaurant. Somewhere along the way we saw the Little Insurgent monument.

The bar was Bar and Books and it was fantastic. Great atmosphere, great music, great drinks. I was glad the restaurant had been packed or we would have missed this awesome little bar. After two drinks we went back and got right in with a table in back at Podwale 25. A major revelation was had: Bigos. How did I not know about Bigos before? It was so delicious! We also had pierogi and duck and my husband got some insanely big entree that was served on a 2 foot wooden plank. Our table looked like it was set for an eating contest. But I didn't care. The restaurant was really casual and festive and kinda gimmicky but in a good way and our food was delicious. We were off to a very good start. Back to the hotel for a nightcap and off to bed.

Sight seeing Saturday. We walked to the Palace of Science and Culture and went up to the observation deck. Then we walked along the Royal Route and went into Holy Cross Church. I loved this church, it's my favorite of any church any where so far. Next we taxi'd to the Warsaw Rising Museum where we spent 2-3 hours. Back to hotel to get ready for dinner at Różana which was another perfect hit. DH was on a roll. Another major revelation was had: Bison Grass Vodka, wow, so good.

Sunday we wandered around old town a bit and had lunch at a cozy little spot called Ceprownia. Then we caught a taxi to make a pit stop at the Uprising Monument before continuing on to the Gestapo Headquarters Museum. This is a serious and grim museum. It does a fantastic job of transporting you to this dark time and place as well as recognizing some of the many heroic people that were incredibly brave in the face of threats, persecution, torture and death. I'm very glad we made it to this museum, it makes quite an impression.

After this we stopped for some pierogi at one of the restaurants we'd been seeing that seemed to be like a pierogi bar of sorts. Then we trained to Krakow.

Sleep, Eat & Drink recap:
Hotel Bristol in Old Town. Beautiful place, historical building, excellent service & location. Nice wine bar, good selection.
Bar & Books
Podwale 25
Restaurant Rózana
Zapiecek Pierogarnie

See & Do recap:
Rising Museum
Gestapo Headquarters Museum

Arriving in Krakow we took a taxi from the train station to Hotel Wentzl, which is right on the main square. After unpacking we went out and got some soup from one of the market booths and had a couple beers at one of the outdoor cafes and off to bed.

We had a lazy Monday morning before joining the free walking tour of old town. I was happy with the tour, it was a great orientation and the guide had lots of humor and charm. We headed to Kazimierz for dinner at Starka, where we had one of our best meals. Highly recommend this restaurant for ambiance as well as food/service.

Since we liked the free old town tour on Monday so much we decided to take their Kazimierz tour on Tuesday. A different guide this time and also very good. The tour ends at Schindler's Factory with an option to join a tour of the museum inside. We just went in on our own. I had no idea how big this museum was and how much content there was to cover. Between the walking tour and the museum visit it made for a full day of sight seeing for us. For dinner we were in the mood for Italian and headed to Mamma Mia for pizza which was good, but the pasta dish we ordered was not.

Wednesday we went to Auschwitz, we arranged the tour through our hotel the day before. A minivan picked us up along with 4 others to drive us out and put us in the hands of our guide. She was very good. This day happened to be the most miserable weather of our entire trip and I was glad that I bought a new coat and good boots for the trip. It was incredibly muddy and slippery, I was worried for a few older folks that weren't as easy on their feet in that mud but thankfully everyone did okay. There isn't much to say about Auschwitz that hasn't been said already and better than I could. I learned before going that many people do the tour from Auschwitz to Birkenau and then return to Auschwitz on their own to see the content that the tour doesn't cover. And it is true, you do miss quite a bit on the tour. We did not return though, as it was getting dark after the tour concluded. If you are on the fence about going while you are in the area, go. It felt as relevant as ever in current times and would do us all well to have the vivid reminder.

After getting dropped off back at the hotel we went to the square and browsed the Christmas market stalls. There were a few things I would have liked to buy for myself and as gifts however I just didn't want to be bogged down with stuff moving through the rest of the trip. Kraków had the best of the markets we saw in my opinion.

Back to Kazimierz for dinner at Introligatornia Smaku. Very good herring appetizer but the rest of the meal was unmemorable. After this we went to Alchemia for drinks, I really loved this bar. There was a lot of hype on TA/Yelp so I had my doubts about it but this was one time that the hype was fit for the place. Great spot.

Thursday-last day on Kraków. The plan was to pack up, checkout, buy & print our train tickets to Budapest on the hotel guest computer/printer and head to the Wawel Castle for an hour or two before returning to the hotel to meet our Nowa Huta guide.

We were unable to buy train tickets online, I think because we were too close to departure & they cut off online sales at a certain point. I thought nothing of this and wanted to just buy them on the spot later when it was time to travel. I really wanted to still head off to Wawel castle. DH did not agree so we walked to the train station to buy the tickets instead of visiting Wawel castle. Our first hiccup of the trip, not bad for 7 days and two cities in, IMO.

Tickets in hand we returned to the hotel to meet our guide (from Mike's Crazy Guides) and head off to Nowa Huta in a clay colored Trabant. My goodness are these things death traps! She took us first to the main road leading to the factory in Nowa Huta and stopped for us to get out at a big map of the city and explained the design and general story of the city and factory. The tour continued on to an old disco where we had vodka shots, looked at a "then and now" photo album and heard about the Solidarity movement, the time of martial law and Lech Walęsa's political career. A visit to a commie apartment followed, where we watched propaganda films, caught a glimpse into home life during communist times and discussed current politics in Poland all while snacking on pickles and vodka. The last stops were to the church for a quick duck inside to see the arc of Jesus and we ended the tour with dinner at a traditional milk bar. This was a fantastic, unique and fascinating tour. Our guide was spectacular, a very bright young woman. I cannot recommend it enough. I can't think of a better way to end our stay in Poland.

Sleep, Eat & Drink recap:
Hotel Wentzl. Convenient location right on main square with great views out over it. Nice, clean, big room, huge bathroom. Very quiet hotel.
Trattoria Mama Mia
Introligatornia Smaku

See & Do recap:
Free walking tours
Nowa Huta tour
Occupation Museum

Up next: Bewitching Budapest!

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    The overnight train from Kraków to Budapest was a 10 hour hell ride. Not because of the stops, I actually liked those, it reminded me of being rocked to sleep as odd as that sounds. The problem was that the thermostat was set at precisely raging hellfire inferno degrees. It was HOT. Relentless hot, dry, forced air blasted us with no escape. My husband hardly slept at all which was lucky for me because with him awake he could keep our compartment door open to the hall to at least get a little more circulation.

    We arrived on time in Budapest and our prearranged driver was waiting at the train station holding a sign for us. We had been advised not to take a taxi from the station by our tour guide so I arranged the driver and after the crappy overnight train ride I was sure glad I did. He whisked us off to the Brody House hotel, near the Hungarian National Museum. There was some construction on the street so we had to park far away and negotiate our way through the broken pavement. Once in the building there was some confusion over where the reception was in relation to our room and our poor, dear driver ended up hiking up & down several flights of stairs with our suitcases! Better him than us, he was a godsend and key to me not having a minor meltdown that morning.

    Finally in our room I showered while DH rested for a few minutes. He was really struggling. We were running behind for our meeting time with Anna of Our Budapest tours. I texted her to ask if we could push it 20 minutes later but she was already at our hotel, having arrived a bit early. She was very sweet & told us to take our time & get some coffee/pastry and she would wait. So that's what we did.

    I had hired Anna for a Budapest communism tour on Ginnyjo's recommendation. It was another excellent tour. We started off at the Magyar Radio Building which was very close to our hotel. Then to the epicenter of the 56 revolution fighting. We continued on to the parliament & embassy area, several very interesting monuments and finally to a little old fashioned bar. We got something to drink & continued to chat about the more recent history as well as the current state of politics in Hungary. I was less familiar with Hungary's history and figures than Poland, so I was glad to have read Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain before the trip, it gave me a helpful frame of reference for following along with Anna. She was great, she was patient with our grogginess and she shined a light on some things that surely would have been missed by us without her. Loved this tour, definitely a highlight.

    By the end of the tour DH & I were hitting a wall. Tired & a bit out of sorts we took a few wrong turns trying to find our way back to the hotel and we were turning irritable. We decided to stop somewhere for a drink to use wifi & find someplace to eat an early dinner. We decided on Vidam Etterem, a very traditional no-fuss place not far from our hotel that was supposed to have very good goulash. We split goulash & fried chicken which was just the warm & comforting meal that we needed. A revelation was had: Eros Pista ("Hot Steve" a hot paprika spread). Salty as hell, so a little goes a long way but oh is it good. Another revelation: the Hungarians are very kind. When we first entered the host was visibly pained to tell us that he was full and didn't have a table for us, you could tell he felt terrible not to be able to seat us. Upon seeing this a long table of 6 people said we could sit with them. And they interrupted their meal and conversation to get up and let us squeeze into seats at the end of their table that was tightly wedged into a little cove in the wall. I had my fingers crossed neither of us would have to use the restroom & make them get up again!

    Back to the hotel. We were so tired but in that weird way where you're over-tired but not sleepy. So we watched a couple Sopranos episodes on the laptop before falling asleep.

    The next morning brings us to the second hiccup of our trip. We overslept and missed the meeting time for our Taste Hungary tour. I blame the person in charge of the thermostat on that train for this. Fortunately the company was very accommodating & let us reschedule for Monday. I had put the food tour in the front of our stay purposely so that we'd know what & where to eat & drink for the following days, so I was a bit bummed but life goes on.

    We decided to head over to Buda to check out the Castle District. On the way we stopped at the Bronze Shoes Memorial and then walked the chain bridge. Even on a grey day these buildings, monuments, ornamental structures are really something. I enjoyed just being there and taking in all the different vantage points.

    I found a lady's wallet in the public restroom at the Fisherman's Bastian. My husband became obsessed with tracking down the owner down & saving her trip. I wanted to turn it in to a secure authority but DH really went to task with it. We sat down to get a drink & wifi at a little tourist cafe. We opened the wallet & learn the owner is Italian, from Campania. We checked Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. for her name & nothing. I spotted a group of Italian tourists (all with basset hounds, some kind of club or something-we'd continue to see the basset hound gang all over the city during our stay) and approached them to see if they could help at all. They looked in the wallet, told me she is a lawyer & that I could try contacting her bank to let them know & they would contact her. We finally took it to the Italian embassy. Not the big serendipitous and heroic tale that my husband was hoping for.

    Back to our hotel for the first of many cocktail hours at the Honesty Bar, which was the self serve bar in our hotel where you just record what you consume. We got ready for dinner and set off on foot to find something, which proved to be a challenge with no reservation on a Saturday night. I had thought that DH had a reservation handled, so after being turned away for the third time I got a wee bit hangry. DH pulled me towards a totally depressing pizza counter and basically forced a few bites and a Coke on me to stabilize my dwindling spirit. Truly horrible "pizza" but mission accomplished. I took a minute to refer back to a thread here and review Ginnyjo's restaurant suggestions to me. I gave a call to Nightingale and they tell us to come on by. Nightingale was nice and warm, good home-style food, very friendly people. It felt a bit like eating in someone's home. We started with a goose crackling appetizer which totally reset the palate after that pizza-like product we ate. I can't remember our entrees exactly but it was essentially like going to Grandma's for your favorite casserole on a cold day. That good and that warm and cozy of a feeling. After dinner we tried a ruin pub but they were just too packed on a Saturday night, so we found a low key place called Garzon Cafe for a nightcap.

    The next day we headed straight to Momento Park via taxi. We started inside the trailer, we read through the material hung on the walls and watched the secret police training video that was playing in the side room. We stopped at the gift stand to buy a guide of the park and a few pieces of kitsch memorabilia then walked through the monuments. So cool to have these saved for revisit, we loved it.

    Next we head to the House of Terror museum. We did the audio tour and I'm very glad that we did. Another fantastic museum, very informative, very touching. I appreciated the ending, which I had not read about before the trip. A down side of being the sole trip planner is not much comes unexpected and sometimes you can't help but be primed for disappointment. So it was nice to experience the last part of this museum in an unexpected way.

    I had a big and dirty appetite by evening, I think from all the Saturday cocktails and the time spent outside in the cold icy mist at Momento Park combined with not eating all day. We had walked by a food truck court called Karavan a few times on previous days and I could not get it out of my head, I HAD to have it. I had to have pad thai and lángos and a hamburger and pierogi and tacos and kielbasa and whatever else they were slingin' in that food truck park. I had to have all the food from all the stalls. This is so not DH's thing, he doesn't like this style of dining but he thew me a bone and agreed to go. I walked in with my big eyes and rumbling tummy, did a quick reconnaissance and decided to start with pad thai. Half my dish of pad thai and one beer later I was full and sleepy. So much for my smorgasbord dreams.

    Our last day and our best day in Budapest. We start the day with our food tour with Taste Hungary, finally! We met at Central Market Hall and began with shots of Unicum and traditional pastry. We begin our walk upstairs, our guide telling us all about traditional Hungarian food and specialties. We sample several different dried sausages, one made of horse meat which was the one I liked best. The guide told a funny story of a pervious tour member that was vegetarian so she did not want to sample the meat, except for the horse because a horse had kicked her once when she was young. We continued downstairs, walked the spice and produce counters and got some info on how and where to buy quality products to bring back home. We left the market and headed to a soup cafe for a hot cup to go, then to an artisan chocolatier called Rózsavölgyi which was excellent. Next comes the centerpiece of the tour, lunch a Belvárosi Disznótoros. Holy smokes is this place good. We had a huge assortment of food. Sausages, duck, pickled vegetables, beets, breads, condiments and the best horseradish I've ever had. Everything was incredible. Next stop was at one of the oldest cafes in Budapest, Auguszt Cukrászda. And finally we end at the Tasting Table for a wine tasting which was another highlight. The manager/sommelier Ferenc was a nice guy, happy to answer any question. The owner of Taste Hungary, Gábor stopped in towards the end and he was also incredibly nice, teasing us for oversleeping and missing our first appointment. And of course I cannot remember our main tour guide's name but she was also awesome and very interesting. Fantastic tour run by fantastic people.

    Now that we'd wet our whistles we kinda felt like keeping it going a bit so we had some wine back at the Honesty Bar, which was just a stones throw away from the Tasting Table. After the wine break we decide to go check out hero's square, we take off on foot but end up catching a taxi at some point. Next we go by the opera house but did not go inside. Back to hotel to rest for a while then shower and head out to the river for our farewell cruise on the Danube that our hotel booked for us the day before. It was kinda boring and very touristy but sometimes there is a lot of comfort and happiness in that. And we had not seen the Parliament building lit up at night from the river/Buda side yet, which is something that must be seen when in Budapest. Such a magnificent sight.

    Dinner tonight is at Borkonyha Wine Kitchen which I was super excited about. Timing was just right coming off the cruise, we walked into the restaurant 2 minutes before our reservation. The goose liver appetizer and the dessert along with the wine parings stole the show for me, they were just divine. The salads and entrees were also very good. Very good service.

    Back to our hotel for the last night cap at the Honesty Bar which was kind of sad. I loved Poland just as much as Budapest but Budapest left me feeling that I barely scratched the surface. Lots of layers there. I didn't feel quite ready to go yet. But that is the best, isn't it? That is what you want out of a great meal, to be left wanting one more bite. And we did miss a lot, we could have used at least 3 more days for just a first visit, there is a lot of ground to cover there. Knowing what I know now it would have been better to take a couple nights from Amsterdam and give them to Budapest. But no regrets. We will be back.

    Sleep, Eat & Drink recap:
    The Brody House Hotel. Fantastic place. Great location. Beautiful building, full of art everywhere. Great breakfast. Sweet people. Well stocked Honesty Bar and good music. No elevator.
    Vidam Etterem
    The Nightengale
    Karavan Food Court
    Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé
    Belvárosi Disznótoros
    Auguszt Cukrászda
    Tasting Table
    Borkonyha Wine Kitchen
    Garzon Cafe

    See & Do recap:
    Transfer Service
    Commie Tour with Anna
    Momento Park
    House of Terror Museum
    Culinary Walking Tour

    Amsterdam is coming up next. This was a rather uneventful few days but that is how I planned it.

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    Nice report!

    It's a shame you couldn't make it work to start in Gdansk. I did exactly what you might have done a few years ago - took a Eurolot flight directly from Amsterdam to Gdansk - and it worked out well for me. Too bad Eurolot has folded.

    Which did you prefer - Warsaw or Krakow? I enjoyed Krakow (didn't visit Warsaw), but I also found it very touristy, especially around the old town. In some ways I liked Wroclaw better, but Wroclaw isn't "original" because it was bombed/rebuilt after World War II whereas Krakow is well preserved, plus Krakow is so historically important to Poland's history.

    Your story about the overnight train to Budapest reminds me why I have never wanted to take an overnight train! It's a shame there isn't an easier, more affordable way to connect between the two cities.

    Budapest is a big, complex city, harder to get your arms around in a short time, I felt, compared to places like Krakow and Prague.

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    Thanks Andrew!

    Hard to say which I preferred. It's a bit apples & oranges, plus we were in Warsaw for such a short time. Warsaw definitely felt like a real, working city more than Kraków-which is touristy indeed, but we had more conversations with locals in Kraków (mostly because we had more time to) so that helped ground it if that makes sense.

    I've seen a fair amount of people talk negatively about Warsaw but my short stay showed me nothing negative. And the history & the fight there is endearing to me (of course Kraków too). I'd probably return to Warsaw sooner than Kraków. We loved the visible contasts in Warsaw and the story it tells.

    "Budapest is a big, complex city, harder to get your arms around in a short time.." Yes, exactly, good way to put it. I would also return to Budapest sooner than Kraków.

    Yes it's a bummer not to have service between Amsterdam-Gdansk. But I try to just look at it as a reason to return to a country we loved. I'd like to do a Baltic trip starting in Estonia & ending in Poland the next time we visit, it would be nice to see it during the mild months.

    That train! We'd probably fly if we had to do it over.

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    I'm planning a trip to the Baltics right now, probably for May-June. I considered re-visiting Poland too but I just won't have time. I'd love to return to Poland as well.

    I think there may be a bus between Krakow and Budapest a few times a week - a long ride, no doubt, and I don't like bus rides, but I'd probably prefer that to a night train. I'd fly if there were direct flights that weren't outrageously expensive.

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    Well I will be keeping an out for your Baltic recap in that case. I visited your Poland reports and pictures which were helpful to me. It actually made it hard for us to pass up Wroclaw on this last trip. Anyhow I owe you a thank you!

    I personally would try the night train again but I know my husband would not. If my second try was as bad as the first then I'd probably give up on it for a while. I'm not to keen on long bus rides either.

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    Thanks - glad my report helped! Although I decided to visit other cities instead of Warsaw on my Poland trip, it's always kind of bugged me that I missed it. A reason to go back!

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    Nice report, thanks, limmy. I also liked Warsaw a lot and wished I had had more time there. Krakow I loved, though, yes, it's crowded with tourists because there is so much to see and do, and so much that is quite beautiful. I really enjoyed going for runs in the morning in the Planty and by the Castle and into the outlying neighborhoods. Had great food throughout Poland, too!

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    Thanks leely2. I loved Kraków too, it might have sounded like I didn't so much. Since we stayed so much longer than Warsaw I had more of a sense of "mission accomplished" and don't feel drawn to return soon. Not that we saw everything, we didn't, but I was satisfied with what we did.

    Oh man, I miss the food in Poland! I got a bigos recipe from a Polish coworker but I haven't made it yet.

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    This is fantastic! Even though your time in Budapest was "uneventful" it is still great to hear your experience. I'm most excited about Budapest on our Christmas Markets trip coming up, so your input is so appreciated! Did you travel first or second class on the train? Would you recommend second class for a trip from Prague to Budapest, roughly 4 to 6 hours?


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    Hi Tiffan - Re: train class. As we purchased our tickets at a counter in the train station with virtually zero shared language between us and the clerk (we really did use hand gestures and other non verbal aides to do this) I am unaware of a first/second class option even existing. I just hopped on the polerail website to double check and I don't see any first vs second class sleeper ticketing. What they call second class is a seat, instead of any type of bed. Couchettes are automatically in shared compartments and sleepers can be booked privately (but also shared if I understand correctly). Sorry I'm not of much help! You're traveling between Prague and Budapest so your train & options wouldn't necessarily be the same anyway. Go to seat61, you'll be able to suss it out there.

    Souvenirs though- I can comment on that! Food and drink. Very little Hungarian wine is imported to my home country (US) and I tasted some really nice and unique wines. I wish I brought some home. Also Unicom, paprika, Pista (maybe other regional condiments that I'm forgetting now) and art. From what I gather there is a pretty young and dynamic art scene in Budapest. There was one particular piece hung at our hotel (Brody house-highly recommend) that really made an impression on me. That hotel is also a bit of an art gallery and most or maybe all of the print art is available for purchase through a sister company called Brody art studios. At the time, I couldn't figure out where in my house I might put this print. But I haven't stopped thinking about it since and I regret not just going with my gut and buying it there.

    We only visited the Christmas stalls near to St. Stephens Basilica, nothing of great uniqueness there that I saw. But we were past our Christmas market intrigue by then, there's probably better xmas marketing to be had elsewhere in Budapest.

    Budapest is really layered and fascinating, I hope you enjoy it :)

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