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Trip Report Trip Report (long) Krakow, Zakopane, Paris, London

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My mom and I took a ten day trip to Paris, Krakow and London in September 08. Here is an account of our trip. It's long! My thanks go out to fellow Fodorites who provided me with helpful information as I prepared for this trip.

Sept. 9, Today is my birthday and our day of departure from Houston. Hurricane Ike is looming out in the Atlantic, but his path is unknown at this time and we decide to go ahead with our trip. We will end up spending a lot of time in internet cafes during this trip to get updates on the storm and check in with family members as it turns out the storm has a direct hit on our city. We have an uneventful flight to Paris.

Sept. 10, Arrive in Paris, a beautiful day! We decided to splurge on a taxi because we were both tired. Some of you may remember my posting debating taking the train, shared ride, etc. I must say it was a treat to take the cab. Fare from CDG to Hotel Andrea was 48 Euro.

We checked into the hotel, the same place I stayed at during a previous trip to Paris 7 years ago. This hotel has a great location. We each had our own separate rooms. The rooms are tiny and a bit grim(fresh paint would do wonders), but clean nonetheless. My mom was tired from the sleepless flight, so she opted to take a nap. I loaded up on film and hit the streets of Paris to visit a couple of churches that I missed on my last visit. Right behind my hotel is St. Merri, so that was very convenient. I followed street signs to St. Eustache and really enjoyed that church and area. Tons of people were hanging out in the park outside and it felt like a spring day. I also visited St. Gervais-Protais and decided to wander around leisurely for the rest of my time before going back to the hotel to pick up my mom.

We set out to visit Notre-Dame and it’s good that we made this our first visit because the church was going to be closing the next two days for the Pope’s visit. The city was very crowded, much more so than my October visit years ago. After enjoying the cathedral, we went to see the deportation memorial. This is easy to get to from the cathedral and I recommend checking it out. From there we went to Isle St. Louis. I wanted to see the church over there and wander around. Found a great little chocolate shop and picked up a nice block of chocolate.

From there we crossed the river to head into the Latin Quarter. We ambled the streets, visiting St. Severin and some other churches, walked by the Sorbonne. I can’t remember what else we did! I know we made it an early night since we were both tired.

Sept. 11. We headed to the Louvre to get our museum pass. Nightmare line!! Don’t go here to get your pass!! It was hot in there too. The problem was that only two clerks were working and they moved at the slowest pace you could imagine. It was pretty darn bad. Finally we got our passes and proceeded on to see some of the Louvre. My favorite part of the museum from my previous trip was Napoleon’s apartments, so we went there first. I still love it. We visited Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, etc and just wandered around. When it was time to move on, we found it hard to get out! The exits pointed this way and that way and I’m embarrassed to say, it took us a while to find our way out. I think I got my 10,000 steps in the Louvre alone! I did not have trouble the last time I had visited the Louvre, so I have no idea what was in the water that day.

The afternoon was spent randomly wandering around, visiting churches, popping in Galeries Lafayette, etc. and trying to go inside the Garnier opera house. Unfortunately, we got there at 4 pm and they had just closed. I don’t know if it was because of the Pope being in town, but the city seemed cleaner than my last visit and fewer beggars. I normally ignore beggars, but near Galeries Lafayette, there was a woman sitting on the sidewalk with a cup, not calling out to people, but just sitting there and in her lap was a tabby cat that looked just like my cat back home. That’s all it took for me to break my tradition of ignoring panhandlers. I put some money in her cup and told her I liked her cat (probably couldn’t understand English but figured out the source of my attention). She thanked me and blessed me and on I went, thinking of my little cat back home.

In the evening, we headed to the Eiffel Tower. Halfway there, a big rain storm let loose and we got soaked. At least by the time we got to the tower it had stopped and there was no line to buy tickets. We enjoyed the night views of the city.

After leaving the tower, we took a cruise on the Seine. I highly recommend doing this. The city is so pretty at night and even more so from a boat.

September 12. We got up promptly to have breakfast and then head to St. Chapelle to get in line before it opened. When we had walked by the day before, the line was huge. This was my second time in the church and it amazed me just as much this time. It is just so beautiful. My tip to offer up is if you go when it first opens, immediately go upstairs and do the ground floor chapel second. It’s a real treat to be in the upper chamber before it gets packed. We visited the Conciergerie afterwards.

My mom and I split up for the afternoon because she wanted to go to Versailles and since I’ve already been, I wanted the time for other things. She ended up going to Chartres because the afternoon tours had sold out. She couldn’t go on her own because the some of the metro and train stations were closed because of the Pope’s visit.

I ran all over Paris like a bit of a maniac. I went to the Arc D’Triomphe and went to the top. I visited various churches including St. Sulpice, St. Germain, St. Paul-St. Louis and others. I went back to Isle St. Louis to get more chocolate from that nice little shop. When I went in this day, salsa music was playing (my favorite) and I struck up a nice conversation with the store clerk who turned out to be from Peru.

I must share a funny story. I decided to call a friend of mine back home in Houston to see what the latest report was on the hurricane, so I stepped into a phone booth, closed the door and made my call. When done, I proceeded to pull on the door to open it, but it wouldn’t budge. I tugged and tugged and became a bit alarmed that I had managed to lock myself in a phone booth in France. I looked out on to the sidewalk and made eye contact with a man and gestured wildly to indicate the door was jammed. He kindly came to my rescue. He was quite handsome and it’s a darn shame he continued on his way after helping me.

I really crammed things in that day. I hunted down the Bon Marche department store, which in retrospect wasn’t worth the effort, but since it’s so famous, I thought I needed to check it out. I spent about an hour at the Carnavalet museum, 40 minutes or so at the Rodin museum, and about 45 minutes at the Orsay. My feet were hurting so bad by the time I got to the Orsay that I didn’t do much. I sat for a while in the big hall, wandered a couple of rooms and then went up to the roof. I felt like a greedy traveler that day, trying to have a sample of many things.

I really enjoyed the gardens of the Rodin Museum and had I had more time, I would have spent longer just chilling out on a park bench. It was a beautiful day for it.

For our final night, we moved from the Hotel Andrea to the Ibis Hotel at the airport as we had an early morning flight Saturday morning. We picked up the luggage we left at the Hotel Andrea and took the train to the airport. Our hotel was very conveniently located by the train terminal.

It was late when we got there and the hotel was very busy. We wanted to get something to eat, but the hotel restaurant was in chaos. Very disorganized! We decided to go into the airport to find something to eat, but the choices were very slim. The few places that were open were sold out of most items. We ended up just getting baguettes and butter in a little store back in the hotel.

I thought the price for the Ibis was high for the quality (99 Euro), but you can’t match the convenience of an airport hotel, especially when you have a very early flight. The bathroom was very small, which was no surprise, but the funny thing was that the hair drier was installed in the wall right in front of the toilet (very close) and every time I used the toilet, I would bang my head into the drier, knocking it off the holder and turning it on!

Sept. 13, 6:50 am flight to Krakow on EasyJet. We were terrified of oversleeping (no alarm clock and never trust wake up calls), but we got up in time and made it to the checkin desk early. EasyJet is very disorganized. They didn’t start boarding until a few minutes before the flight was supposed to depart. In the end, we did make it to Krakow pretty much on time. By the way, I have always packed an alarm clock on my previous trips but never needed them, but this time when I actually forgot it, we had some rooms that didn’t have clocks.

It was a beautiful day in Krakow (the only good weather day in Poland). Too bad we were so very tired and we were also very worried about the hurricane in Houston as it was hitting by this time. After getting breakfast at the airport, we took a cab to our hotel, Guest Rooms Maria, just outside the Planty (about a ten minute walk to the main square). The fare was 71 ZL.

Our rooms were not ready, so we left our luggage and walked into the market square. We found a wonderful and cheap internet café, which was to become our second home. We checked Houston news websites and emailed family. We wandered around the town center until time to check into our rooms for much needed naps. Again, we had our own separate rooms and they were huge. The bathrooms were very big compared with the average European facility. I loved that we had heated towel racks, a first for me. After wasting a few hours of a beautiful day sleeping, we headed back out. Popped into St. Mary’s. What a beautiful church! The town square was very lively. I was surprised at how many people were there. There are so many inviting cafes surrounding part of the square.

When hunger struck, we went back to a restaurant that had looked so enticing next door to the internet café. In the evening, it seemed like all restaurants had candles lit and the effect is wonderful. I got a pizza and my mom got soup and something else. The food was really good! The cheese over there is really much tastier than here in the US. I don’t know why, it just seems to be! We found food prices to be very reasonable here and we indulged in more restaurant meals than we normally do while abroad (usually we get to go things from grocery stores and bakeries).

Sept. 14. This was my day to visit Auschwitz. My mom stayed in Krakow to rest and relax. I took a 9:30 bus from the main bus station. The ride from Krakow to Auschwitz is bumpy and trafficky in parts with bland scenery, but it was under two hours and I had my seat to myself. The clouds had rolled in and the weather was cold and dreary, rather appropriate for visiting a death camp. When I first caught sight of the camp, I got the creepy chills.

It was busy at the camp, with visitors from all over. I thought everybody would be somber, but that was not the case in the visitor center, just the grounds. I watched the movie and then proceeded to wander the camp, going in and out of the barracks. As a military brat, the building layouts felt just like other military bases. If you didn’t know what went on here, you would never dream such evil happened. The displays were very moving. The building that honored the child victims was heartbreaking.

I then took the bus to visit Birkenau. The magnitude was just staggering. The limitless capacity for human cruelty is frightful.

Anyways, I am very glad I went as it was an experience I’ll never forget.

I took the bus back to Krakow and finished off the day just wandering around the city and checking on the hurricane in the internet café (our second home).

Sept. 15-Wawel Hill. This was a rainy, cold day, bummer. We took the tram down to the complex and toured the different components. I have to say, I did not want to go see the tower bell. The stairwell was extremely crowded and small and I felt trapped. I’ve climbed plenty of ancient towers before, but not with an endless army of people before me and behind me.

Wawel Hill is an important Polish sight and it was full with native visitors. I think the only time I heard English in Poland was at Auschwitz and in a Krakow café. There definitely weren’t a lot of Americans on the loose!

Sept. 16- Another rainy day. We walked down to tour Collegium Maius. We took the French tour, not knowing the English tour was just thirty minutes later (dope!). This is a really neat historic building with lots of interesting objects inside.

After completing the tour, we headed to the bus station to see about going to Czestochowa. We had lunch in the station while waiting and during that time my mom decided she didn’t want to sit on a bus for three hours and pretty soon I decided I didn’t either, even though I really did want to visit the monastery with the Black Madonna painting. If I go to Poland again, I will rent a car to visit such towns because the bus is just so slow and less than comfortable (more to come on this subject). So, we spent the rest of the day leisurely wandering the town, went down to the Jewish quarter, had a snack at Bagel Mama, and visited lots of churches and shopped. Relaxing day.

In the evening, we went to a classical concert at St. Giles church. It was very enjoyable. There are an abundance of opportunities for classical music concerts at several Krakow churches. Prices are very reasonable.

Sept. 17- Zakopane day! Time to head to the mountains! The weather was crummy, but I didn’t want to miss visiting Zakopane. I took a bus around 9:30. It was a minibus. NEVER AGAIN! Every seat filled up and I felt like a sardine. I made the mistake of sitting in a row in which the inside seat had obstructed leg room. I’m 5'6" with long legs and I could not sit with them straight in front of me. I had to angle them in the direction of my seatmate, a burly man. It was not a good situation. He was not pleased with me, but my legs were numb. I have never been so miserable in my life and was on the verge of freaking out from claustrophobia. Two and a half hours into the drive, the bus let several people off at a stop and Mr. Burly moved and I moved too. The total drive was more than three hours. Transportation is not a speedy thing in Poland, let me say!

It was such a tremendous relief when I finally arrived in Zakopane. It was cold and drizzly, but those are the breaks. I went into the visitor center to get a map and use the bathroom of the cafeteria. As with most public toilets in Poland, you must pay for the privilege. I don’t mind if that means the facility is kept clean, but this was filthy.

I wandered the town enjoying the ambiance. It’s very much a vacation town. There was a big market going on, with various vendors selling crafty items, winter mittens and hats, etc. I took the funicular up one of the mountains and that was really cool. The weather was so foul though, that you could see nothing at the top, just clouds and fog. They have a toboggan run, but it was closed. It was sleeting up there. I was so freezing without any winter clothes! I was wearing jeans, sweatshirt and raincoat and that was not sufficient. I would love to visit this town again in good weather. I’m sure the hikes would be spectacular.

When I decided to call it a day, I headed back to the bus station. To my delight and relief, the bus was not a mini, but a maxi bus (in between a mini and a regular) and only a couple of people boarded. I sat right behind the driver, lots of leg room and a great big window in front. It was almost as if I were driving. The scenery was very nice, unlike the bland section between Krakow and Auschwitz. Since I wasn’t freaking out about being squished, I was really able to relax and enjoy the drive. I had my Coca-cola and chocolate and all was well.

Upon return to Krakow, I met up with my mom and we had our last dinner in Krakow. Krakow is a very nice city and the people are friendly and pleasant. The city was very clean, no sign of litter or graffiti and no beggars. I highly recommend visiting.

Sept. 18 Time to say goodbye to Krakow and head to London. We took a private car to the Krakow airport as arranged by our guesthouse. The driver was very punctual. The fixed price ride was 60 ZL.

Krakow Airport is a small facility. After we checked our bags, we leisurely sat around. We met a nice woman from Zakopane who was there to send her son off to the States for a visit. The son was headed to Los Angeles, but was ultimately going to Round Rock, TX to visit a friend. My brother lives in Round Rock, so it was one of those “it’s a small world” scenes. They were both very pleasant and the woman gave me her business card as she owns a b&b in Zakopane and was telling me to give her a call if I return to Zakopane.

Much to our horror, when we went to get in the security line, we found it to be enormous. Seriously! I’ve never seen such a long line in all of my travels. I was inwardly freaking out that we wouldn’t get to the gate in time. If you ever fly out of KRK, please go through security immediately.

We were taken by surprise when we reached the immigration counter and the official balked when he didn’t see an entry stamp in our passports. He asked how we got into the country and we told him we flew in and nobody stamped our passports. We hadn’t thought anything of it upon arrival because other places don’t stamp either, like Paris. Anyways, he fussed and fussed and then somebody else came into the booth and he threw down our passports in a huff for that person to deal with. This person stamped our passports and sent us on our way, phew!

The British Airways flight was something else. In the back of the plane, about 6 rows from us, were about 10 rowdy soccer hooligan types. They were yelling wildly and chanting and pounding their feet as the plane took off. Throughout the flight they were singing and being tiresome. I found it amazing that the flight crew didn’t do anything to get them to settle down. Perhaps because they were outnumbered? The men seemed intoxicated, yet were still served alcohol. I personally would have thought a paddywaggon would have been waiting for them upon arrival, but they arrived without being approached. At least they were smart enough to quiet down in the immigration line.

We arrived to fantastic weather in London. We took the always easy Gatwick Express to Victoria Station and walked from there to our hotel, the Days Inn Westminster. This is a plain Jane hotel, but it’s clean and conveniently located between Victoria Station and the Pimlico tube station and within easy walking distance to Buckingham Palace, Parliament, etc.

We freshened up in the room and then took off at a brisk pace to get to Parliament to catch a tour. Luckily we made it in time to catch the 4 pm tour. I highly recommend this tour. It’s fantastic to see the inside of this historic place and the tour is very informative and I’m always in awe of the beauty of the exterior.

Once we were done with the tour, it was shopping time! Our favorite store is Marks & Spencer and we went to the one at Marble Arch to stock up on our favorite edible goodies. I looked like the chocolate fiend, purchasing 6 tubs of “Extremely Chocolatey Mini Bites,” among other things.

I escorted my mom back to the hotel and headed back out to go to Harrods. Since it was a Thursday, usually the late shopping night, I thought I could make it. Turns out it closes at 8 and by the time I got there, with tube delays, it was 8:20. Darn! I was tired by this time and went back to the hotel to call it a night.

Sept. 19. Windsor day! We indulged ourselves with sleeping in a little later this morning. We went to Paddington Station, had a nice English breakfast before taking the train to Windsor via Slough. The other choice would have been to go to Windsor direct from Waterloo Station. I had read that the riverside station in Windsor was farther than the central station, that’s why I chose to go by way of Paddington Station and Slough. After seeing how close the Riverside station was, I would recommend going that way so you don’t have to bother with the change. I remember reading that the riverside station in Windsor was a 15 minute walk to the castle, but it’s just a 5 minute walk.

It was another gorgeous day! We felt so happy, especially after the rainy, cold days in Krakow. Our time in the UK was blessed with the “happy to be alive” kind of weather. We could not have asked for better. I think the high was around 70 F and the sky blue.

We enjoyed touring the castle. The castle and town were busy with visitors, but it was not overwhelming. Next time I go to England, I think I will plan on staying a night in Windsor town.

We returned to London in the afternoon. I split up from my mom and wandered all around town. I went down to Covent Gardens, Picadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and then a final visit to Parliament, Big Ben and the Thames. I was really sad to head back to the hotel. I love London so much. I always feel so comfortable there and am always enchanted by the historic buildings.

Sept. 20 Time to fly home to Houston. Our flight home was long, cramped and normal. Time to face the aftermath of Hurricane Ike!

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