My Travels

My Favorite Places in Poland

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So this may come as a shock, but back in the summer I completed my teaching contract and subsequently decided to return to my homeland, aka the Great White North!

I regret not posting as much about my time in Poland as I would have liked, though I did touch on the city I was living in, which was Radom. IMHO, it wasn’t exactly ‘top’ of my favorites list. So now I’m going to focus on some of my favorite Polish locales I encountered during my time there. Hopefully, you will be inspired to visit these places!

Warsaw

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Ah, good old Warsaw, or Warszawa as it is called in Polish. The capital and often the starting point to any Polish travels. Since Warsaw was a two-hour bus ride from Radom, I was there A LOT! Like almost every weekend. Because of the frequency of buses between Radom and the capital, it was the perfect day trip. Now most people I met said they preferred Krakow over Warsaw (Poles included), but Warsaw held a special place in my heart. It has great restaurants, chic coffee houses and a growing craft beer scene! My favorite place happened to be the Old Town. I was dating a Polish girl, who lived in Warsaw, and we had our second date there (great romantic spot FYI).

There was always something going there all year. And if you’re a fan of green spaces, there’s this neat park in the south end of the city. I like to call it Poland’s version of Central Park but on a smaller scale. I will always remember all the times I spent in Warsaw.

Toruń

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Now your average tourist wouldn’t think to include Toruń (pronounced ‘tor-in‘) in their travel plans. And I think that’s a shame! This little medieval town, located about a two-hour train ride from Warsaw, is actually the birth place of Nicolaus Copernicus. You will hear his name a lot there. In fact, there is a statue of him near the main cathedral in the center of town. I only visited Toruń once on a weekend trip, but it was well worth the journey and money! I met some locals there in a bar and ended up dancing with them in a nightclub! When you visit some of the lesser known places in Poland, it is really easy to get noticed by the locals!

I definitely recommend stopping by Toruń if Poland is on your travel bucket list!

 

Zakopane

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Pronounced ‘zak-o-pa-nay‘. This little town, which lies in the extreme south of Poland, is dubbed the Winter Capital of Poland. Polish winter enthusiasts flock to this town during the winter months, especially during Christmas and the first week of February (kids have a break from school during this time). Because it is nestled at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, it provides opportunities for skiing and winter hiking. Of course, Zakopane is a great place to visit all year round; summer hikers would love the opportunities here. However, many Poles will tell you that to truly experience the richness of Zakopane, you must visit it during winter. And that’s exactly what I did! One chilly, snowy weekend in February, I made the trip here. Being a winter enthusiast myself, I had to. I did a mini hike through the national park that straddles the Tatra Mountains, and it turned out to be one of the most memorable Polish experiences for me!

Another interesting thing about this town is the folklore. It isn’t long before you notice the locals wearing traditional clothing, especially the staff at restaurants and hotels. It almost felt as I was in a Polish version of Bavaria. Zakopane is also famous for its cheese-filled pastries. No trip here is complete without sampling one!

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Be forewarned: the closest airport is Krakow, so the only practical way of getting there without renting a car is bus. You can catch one from Krakow, which takes three hours. There is one from Warsaw as well, BUT add five hours to the journey. Since that bus stops in Krakow anyway, it’s better to just start from there unless you’re a fan of long bus rides.

 

Honorable mentions go to Krakow and Wrocław. The former is especially wonderful during Christmas when the main square becomes a giant Christmas market. The latter is a neat university city, offering a authentic taste of Poland. But I think I have bombarded you enough with information already.

Sadly, I didn’t make it to Gdansk or Auschwitz. I was not able to include either in any weekend trips, nor was I able to extend my time in Poland after the teaching contract. So many things to do, so little time! However, I may not be living in Poland now but it doesn’t mean I won’t ever be back.

So with this I close the chapter on my posts about Poland. The experience there was one of the best in my life and changed me forever. Will I go back to teach abroad? Perhaps. But this moment, I am happy on home soil.

If Poland is on your travel radar, be sure to include the places I have mentioned. If Poland isn’t on your bucket list, well…maybe you should consider it!

 

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Cuban Homestays

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Alright, you’re probably wondering why I’m blogging about Cuba when I’m currently in Poland. I meant to blog about this earlier in the year, but life happened, and I didn’t have the time. But now I do.

As winter is on the way, it’s time to start planning vacations in the tropics. For a lot of fellow Canadians, you’ve likely got Cuba on the radar. But instead of doing the traditional route of package holidays at resorts, why not consider doing a homestay in Cuba? I’m not suggesting foregoing the resorts, but rather include a homestay before or after your resort stay.

Myself and a good friend from Spain traveled to Cuba last Christmas and we stayed in three different homestays in Havana, Viñales, and Pinar del Rio. We absolutely loved it, and we felt as if we were experiencing authentic Cuban life! We experienced authentic culture, and discovered places we wouldn’t have otherwise. For example, our family in Havana introduced us to this dive bar serving the cheapest beer in town!

Cuban homestays?

In Cuba, they are known as Casas Particulares. The idea is you stay with a family that is officially registered with the government. The family can range from a traditional family or a single, divorced or widowed home owner. They provide daily breakfast and your own room with shared or private bathroom. The Casas are typically found away from the resorts. Since they are registered with the government, their homes are labelled with the surname of the family, family members, and the services they offer. Every casa also has a logo on their homes which looks like weird anchor in either red or blue. Blue means the house allows foreign guests to stay, while red means only Cubas can stay there. Very important to be aware of this!

So you say you get breakfast?

Yes. Now, breakfast is called desayuno in Spanish. Families will serve coffee or juice. Tea and milk is available upon request. Don’t expect bacon, eggs and waffles. A Cuban breakfast usually consists of mangoes, guava, bread with butter, montaditos with ham and cheese, and pineapples. Montaditos are small sandwiches. I actually enjoyed having a selection of fruit every morning.

Do the families speak English or other languages?

This depends on the family you end up staying with, but generally no. Having said this, it is a good idea to learn a few basics in Spanish before staying with them. If the language barrier becomes an obstacle, you can always use gestures to get the message across.

Will the families socialize with me?

Again, this depends on the family. However, you should not expect this. While they will be more than happy to help make your stay pleasant, they have their own lives to attend to. I found the families I stayed with to be cautious with foreigners for fear of saying something that might land them in legal trouble. While I’m on this subject, refrain from discussing politics with Cuban families. Cubans revere the Castros, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

Sounds great! So how I find a Casa?

This is not an easy task, simply due to the Internet situation, which is very difficult for ordinary Cubans to get. You could do a Google search, but be prepared to spend a lot of time researching. I recommend going with an organized tour to Cuba such as G Adventures. Tours such as these arrange stays in Casas, removing the labor work of finding them yourself. If tours are not your thing, I would suggest searching for a Casa in Havana since there they are plentiful there.

Cuba is truly a fascinating and beautiful country. One should go there at least once in their lifetime. And a stay in a Casa will be an experience you will never forget – in a good way!

 

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South America Here I Come!

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In just over a week, I will be heading off on a month-long trip to South America – 34 days to be exact! It seems like only yesterday when I first booked the flight back in September, and now the days are numbered until I set foot on a new continent. Rather than bombard you with countless paragraphs, I thought I would give the nitty gritty through a Q&A panel:

So where are you going exactly?

Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. I fly into Lima and fly back from Buenos Aires.

Alone or with friends?

I’ll be joining up with a small tour group in Lima where we will begin our South American odyssey.

What will be the highlights of the trip?

Visiting Machu Picchu, crossing the Salt Flats of Uyuni in Bolivia by 4×4, exploring the lake districts of Chile and Argentina, and getting lost in the metropolises of Santiago and Buenos Aires.

How will you get around?

A mix of using coach buses, trains, car rentals and internal flights.

Did you have to get any shots?

Yes, five of them. Three in one day, I might add, ouch!

What are you looking forward to the most?

Obviously Machu Picchu! But I’m really looking forwarding to seeing Chile and Argentina as well, since they are both such fascinating countries rich in history.

What will be the most challenging?

I would say when we journey through the Salt Flats, where I have been told can get really cold. We’ll also be camping there for three nights, and I’ve never camped before! That, and adjusting to the altitude when we get to Cusco; it’s 12,000 feet above sea level, which is four thousand feet higher than Machu Picchu! I’m hoping I don’t get Altitude Sickness.

What about the language barrier?

That’s the beauty part, there won’t be any! I speak almost fluent Spanish as I hold a degree in it, and I lived in Spain for over a year.

Will you get any writing done while you’re there?

Unfortunately not, unless one counts writing in a journal. I’ll be constantly on the move, and any free time will be spent relaxing, doing laundry and keeping friends and family back home posted.

What souvenirs do you hope to bring back?

Lots of photos and memories of course! I do collect fridge magnets, so I’m hoping to bring one back from each country I visit.

Why South America?

It was a toss up between this, Japan, or Australia and New Zealand. I made my choice and I stick with it! I’ve always wanted to go, and I figure it’s now or never. I wanted to visit other Spanish-speaking countries. I’m fortunate enough where I will have a month off work as it is a slow time at the school where I teach English. When will I ever have this opportunity before retirement?

 

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