Central Europe 2008: From The Czech Republic to Poland to Austria to Croatia to Slovenia to Italy
Day Eleven – Breakfast In America, Worth Its Salt, Shocking Development, The Kids Are Alright and Très Magnificent Dinner
Our group does not usually pass on places of historical significance, but we decided to forgo Auschwitz in favor of the salt mines. The three of us have all visited concentration camps (I have been to a couple), and although Auschwitz is definitely deserving of a visit, on this day we opted for a more cheerful experience.
For breakfast, we stopped in to a spot that reminded me of being back in Los Angeles (well, except people were speaking Polish and not Spanish). We sat down to our breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast while perusing our USA Today.
After picking up our clothes and depositing them at the apartment, we walked over to the bus that would take us to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. We detoured one more time through the lovely Planty that surrounds the Old Town. There were a lot of people enjoying the sunshine by strolling the grounds or just relaxing on one of the many park benches.
As we walked into Old Town, it was very crowded and we dodged a few bicycles along the way. Bicycles are a primary mode of Krakównian life, so be on the lookout for wayward cyclists who might make you a spokesman if you’re not careful.
The preliminary reports I had read online made the salt mines out to be a very touristy thing to do, but on this blazing, hot day, we were happy to go under the earth’s surface for a few hours. Plus, damnit, we are tourists! Obviously, chivalry was dead on this day (as it is many days that I am involved), because as I started to get in the bus, I turned around to see my two companions trailing me by almost 100 yards and the bus getting ready to leave.
I looked like a mixed-up football referee waving my hands and arms around in a disjointed manner that neither Mary nor Tracy could quite comprehend. Fortunately, the bus waited and, as Tracy got on board, I heard the phrase that all husbands worldwide can relate to, “What the hell were you doing?” “I was waving you both to hurry up,” I replied. “ Did you not see we were stuck at a red light? Did you want us to get run over by a bus? Don’t you know the damned bus runs every ten minutes?” Tracy said.
Looking at her not-so-happy countenance, I decided not to give the flip answer hanging precariously at the end of my tongue. Mary just watched, now missing her husband more than ever. Tracy was a little hot under her collar, but soon Mary and I joined her, because on this scorching day the bus was a makeshift sauna. By the time our 25-minute bus ride had concluded, the sardines inside were fully cooked and ready to be served. I only weighed 90 pounds by this time (okay, I made that up).
Our tour guide was terrific, and her banter with all of us was entertaining. The temperature in the salt mine was a constant 57 degrees, which made it incredibly comfortable, even though I was in shorts.
I had paid the ten extra zloty for photo privileges (I don’t think they enforce that rule, but I never have a problem shelling out money to help these places keep preserved). Unfortunately, those privileges don’t make me a smart photographer. As I zoomed to take a shot of the hall with the salt chandeliers, I forgot one small detail. The lens cap was still on.
As I zoomed the camera, the lens cap flew off and fell on to some seats where worshippers occasionally come for services. Fortunately, today their prayers were answered, because the seats below me were empty.
After alerting our tour guide of my mistake, she let me in to this area to retrieve the lens cap and a little of my dignity.
There are even chandeliers made out of…what else…salt.
In an effort to keep tourists from keeling over dead, the salt mines does not make its visitors walk 800 steps back up to exit. That is taken care of by an elevator that swiftly (and I do mean swiftly) transports you back to the surface.
Somehow, Mary, Tracy and I got in a grouping with a bunch of precocious Polish school children. These second and third grade kids all spoke English, and they were a bit on the precocious side. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the boys offer Mary a piece of gum. Another kid warned her that it would give her an electric jolt.
Always the kind traveling partner, Mary whispered to the kid that I would be happy to take a piece of gum, and then she quietly asked me to be a “volunteer” as the “unsuspecting” foil to this young rascal. The boy reached over and asked me if I wanted a piece of gum. Playing dumb (one of my easier roles), I took hold of the “stick of gum” and, sure enough, I was presented with a very strong shock.
In an act that Curly of The Three Stooges would have been proud of, I went though my fake gyrations much to all the kids’ amusement. It was only a moment later that I realized, “Geez, I really have no feelings in my fingers.” I don’t know the voltage of the gum, but that kid has a future in a Correctional Center somewhere. Finally, we squeezed into the elevator with about ten of the kids, and when it began its ascent to the top, the kids screamed at the top of their lungs. Their teachers tried to look angry with them, but even they could only laugh at their funny antics. We were glad we chose this UNESCO site. It was fun, it was educational and, thankfully, it was cool.
Back in Kraków after a much more comfortable bus ride, we had an afternoon snack at Café Botanica, just off Rynek Glówny. Mary had chicken curry in a tortilla with a small salad. Tracy’s eyes lit up at the coffee with ice cream, while I, being the real man that I am, enjoyed my quiche.
As we walked around town, we saw a place that looked cute, and the menu looked great. I went in, asked for eight o’clock reservations, and they pointed at a table near the door, “You have the last table,” he said, and I am so glad now that we were able to reserve it. The restaurant name is Guliwer, ul. Bracka 6, and it turned out to be one of the best restaurants of the trip. When we arrived, we were shown to our table, and true to his word, it was the only empty table in the house. As we sat there dining, many others were turned away.
This is one place where I will describe the dishes. They were that good! Mary started with a wild mushroom soup (Polish specialty) and went on to Provencale-style chicken liver with onions and red peppers along with roasted potatoes. I had a scrumptious veal cutlet with herb garlic butter, fried apples paired with some delicious pan-fried potatoes. It received a “Wow” rating. This would be a night for “Wows.”
Tracy’s first “Wow” dish was a refreshing, cold cucumber and watermelon soup. Her duck filet with a pepper sauce and celery salad with raisins and nuts was great, too. With dishes like these, we could not stop. On to dessert! I had a Crepe Suzette, which was fabulous, but Tracy’s second “Wow” of the night came in the form of vanilla and chocolate crepes filled with ice cream, an orange-chocolate sauce, whipped cream and lots of orange zest. We were told the orange-chocolate sauce is made in-house. All this and a bottle of 2004 Chateau Pertignos Bordeaux made this dinner most memorable. I highly, highly recommend Guliwer for dinner. Simply tremendous!
We walked over to the Rynek Glówny trying to shed a few of the calories. For the umpteenth time we walked next to a gigantic statue of a head that lays sideways on the square. You could even walk inside of it, but after our big dinner we might have become stuck.
Before Mary headed back, we found a small bar where the three of us had a final drink together to toast Kraków and its charms. After Mary departed, Tracy and I bade farewell to the Metropolitan bar and its wide array of delicious martinis.
Over one last round of cocktails, Tracy and I tried to figure out where the “old people of Kraków” reside, and we decided we could turn this in to a Stephen King-type novel. The plot: “People over 40 are locked in Kraków basements all over town while their good looking, tall children roam the streets at night dining on great food and drinking potent libations.” We all decided that Kraków would be a fun place to visit in ten years to see the further renovation of the city. If anyone is planning a trip to Poland, Kraków is well worth your time.
We needed to get to bed, because tomorrow would be the driving day from Hell. In order to get to Dubrovnik, we needed to catch a flight from Vienna, about a six-hour automobile ride from Kraków. Can a guy drive and survive six hours with two women (three if you count Lady Garmin) and no other guys in the car? I would find out in only seven hours.
Day Twelve – The Drive To Vienna, Something About Mary, It Takes A Vienna Village To Help A Tourist, Church Or Sailboat And Dinner At The Grocery Store
When I had originally mapped out our trip, I had us flying directly from Kraków to Dubrovnik on SkyEurope. Yes, I had the perfect plan. Well, almost. Unfortunately, I received an email a few months after booking our overseas flights that SkyEurope was going to discontinue that route. It was back to the drawing board for me.
The good news; in the ensuing months we booked a flight on Croatian Airlines to Dubrovnik. The bad news; it was from Vienna. I had enjoyed my previous visit to Vienna, but the thought of the six-hour drive from Kraków didn’t thrill me, especially because I knew we would only have one afternoon and evening to explore. However, that was my only choice, and this was the day we were scheduled to make the drive. We had said out goodbyes to the Cracowdays’ folks (I recommend this for an inexpensive and convenient place to stay in Kraków – just a short 10 minute walk to the Rynek), and we were on the road by 7:15. Tracy (who was dubbed “Back-seat Tracy” on our first trip with Kim and Mary to Italy in 2001) took up her customary backseat position (sort of like Fred and Ethel when they came to California with Lucy and Rickey), allowing Mary to be up front with Lady G and the maps. Mary loves maps! Tracy likes to read (although if you have ever seen any of my other trip reports, she is a top-notch navigator).
As Tracy sat in the back reading a book about love, an elephant and water (not necessarily in that order, I guess), Mary began asking questions about my life, loves, work and anything else that came in her head, and there is a lot in her head, let me tell you. My one and two word answers didn’t seem to be going over very well, because the less I answered, the more she asked. By the time we had reached the Czech/Austrian border (4 ½ hours later), Mary had obtained more information about me than Dr. Phil could ever imagine (Dr. Mary…I like it). I felt like laying down in the back seat to answer some of her questions, but that makes for unsafe driving tactics, and I’m a bad enough driver sitting upright.
I looked in the rear view to get some verbal respite from Tracy, but she was weeping over something she had read in the elephant book (I think the trainer had run out of peanuts or something terrible), so I was on my own. Actually, she had been reading Water For Elephants, a book she now highly recommends, especially for those who like to weep. T o tell the whole truth, all that talking made the trip seem shorter than the exactly six hours it took us from Kraków to Vienna. Suddenly I was having a Vienna flashback (although there was no Third Man or a Ferris Wheel involved).
My initial driving experience in Vienna in the 1990s had been a disaster. Trying to find our hotel became a quest, and it took us more than an hour to find the correct route into the center of town. There was no GPS in those days. With Lady G, Mary and now Tracy guiding me in, we found the rental car agency easily. The car rental guy showed me on the map where our hotel was and said to just take the nearby U-Bahn to our nearby destination. This was going to be a snap. Yes, you know better than that. When Tracy asked me if I knew where the subway was, being a guy (a somewhat over-confidant guy), I stated, “Yes, I do.” In reality, I didn’t really have a clue, but the rental car person said it was very close. Well, we walked this way, then that way, and then every which way until Tracy’s and Mary’s exasperated looks could only mean one thing. “Ask for directions,” they said in unison. Hey, at least there was no “idiot” in their vernacular. Yet. We asked one woman (not a local, but she seemed to know what she was talking about), who gave us partial directions that lead us into a shopping area. We asked another person who gave us a couple of platform choices. After hitting a dead-end, we asked a lady with a baby-stroller, and she pointed us across the courtyard. “That’s where you want to be.”
After descending the escalator, we were once again pointed (by someone who really seemed like they knew what they were talking about) in a direction that led us to, what we thought, were our platforms. They were platforms, but just not our platforms. Our bemused looks caught the attention of a kindly, older woman, who took pity on the stupid Americans wandering aimlessly in a Vienna U-Bahn station. She said she was going in the same direction as we were going, and to just follow her. We asked her about buying tickets, and she shrugged and said to keep following her. We followed her right onto the train taking us to our destination. “Umm, what about tickets?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” she said and walked away. (She had a nice, honest face. I was sure she would visit us in prison). The three American felons then rode to the next stop, which was (fortunately) our destination, and quickly got off. As the train pulled away, there was the nice, old lady waving to us from inside the car with a big smile. Sometimes, it just takes a village. Vienna’s hotels had been very full when I tried to secure reservations, but luckily I had found Pension Nossek, with a great location on the Graben in the heart of the old city, near to yet another monument to the Plague. The location was great.
On the negative side, the rooms are in desperate need of some tender, loving care. To say our room was worn was an understatement. It was also very muggy on this damp day, and the fan in the room ran very slow (it’s not good when you can see the individual blades going round and round) and provided no relief.
“Oh well,” I said to Tracy, “I’ll take a refreshing shower,” which we all needed after lugging the luggage on the subway and over to the hotel. From the bathroom, Tracy heard a “Holy (Expletive To be Named Later)” from the shower. Knowing that I was not re-enacting a scene from Psycho, Tracy ran in to see what the commotion was all about. There was no shower mat, so I had calmly stepped inside the shower and turned the water on. How I stayed upright when I took that first slip is still something I am amazed I was able to do. Now I know how Peggy Fleming (yes, I am dating myself, but she was my first true love) felt during the 1968 Olympics.
“Nobody’s breaking a hip on my watch,” Tracy said and she stayed with me during the duration. Finally, Grandpa Maitai got out of the shower unscathed. “Just get my walker and let’s go out to lunch,” I said. We found a quaint Italian restaurant in a nearby alley, and since it was already after 3 p.m., the three of us were famished. Afterward, during a little downpour, we ducked inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and became a bit perplexed. “Is this the inside of a church or a sailing regatta?” I asked.
The interior of the cathedral had a very odd display of giant, white sails and bright, blue lights. It was like we were visiting a place of worship, and The America’s Cup had broken out. We never did find out what this exhibit was all about. I thought about going up the stairs to the top of St. Stephens, but Vienna was getting socked in with clouds and rain, so there would be no view, and fortunately for my traveling companions, no stairs. Our next stop was the Crypts of the Imperial family (4€ each). We saw Franz Joseph and some other Hapsburg tombs, and then, tired of dead people, we headed back to the Graben for a little vino outside, since it had stopped raining.
We also found a restaurant that we had gone to in 1996 when all we wanted to eat was any dish that did not have schnitzel and contained some sort of green vegetable that we had been craving during our Germany and Austria vacation. The Lucky Chinese was still in business, but we did not eat there.
Mary told us about a specialty store in Vienna called Meinl am Graben, and since it was early in the evening we decided to explore the store before finding a restaurant for dinner. Wow, what a store! T he three of us walked around the entire place that included restaurants, a wine cellar and specialty foods in different sections that beckoned us to buy. Reluctantly, we walked away, looking for a dinner restaurant, but our minds kept drifting back to the store we had just visited. We were in love with Meinl! Let’s see, we all like wine. Meinl has a bar that serves wine. What should we do?
We hurried back to the Meinl Weinbar (photos from website), where we plopped our butts down for, as it tuned out, the duration of the evening. We sat in a non-smoking area (what a change from my first Austrian visit in 1984 when you couldn’t even see inside many restaurants due to the thick cigarette smoke) amongst a vast array of wines. Our server was knowledgeable, showed us a litany of wines, and we were very happy to partake in a few glasses…apiece. This was a comfortable setting, and after chatting with a U.C.L.A. alumnus for a bit, we decided to see if they had some food to go with the wine.
Leaving that to the server’s discretion was a good choice. He came back shortly with a bountiful platter of prosciutto, various cheeses, capers and crunchy bread, which was now our dinner on this evening. The bill was 89€, and the night turned out to be quite fun and relaxing. Plus, since Mary had asked me everything about my life earlier in the day, it was the patrons and server at the wine bar who were peppered with inquiries about their lives. They never knew what hit ‘em. She asked our server where he was from, and he said, “Croatia.” We told him we would be flying to Dubrovnik the following morning. He informed us he was from Trogir, a place we would visit after Dubrovnik. He said, “You will love Croatia. It is so lovely.” Tracy added, “We are looking forward so much to seeing your beautiful country.”
Mary was also hoping her husband, currently somewhere between Los Angeles and New York on his whirlwind journey to join us back in Austria, would also be able to join us on our journey to our next destination.
One thing I was sure of; Mary would have many questions for him.
Next: Day Thirteen – Will Kim (And His Luggage) Make The Dubrovnik Plane, Rooms With A View, Mirror Image, Cruise (Out-Of Control), The Eighth Wonder Of The Modern World and A Peaceful Dubrovnik Night