My trip to the eastern parts of Europe had certainly been a true backpacking trip, using a lot of buses and train connections between the 11 cities and experiencing all kinds of different Couchsurfing situations. The farther we traveled, the crazier it became – ultimately climaxing in Russia. I actually used this trip as an inspiration for my Huffington Post CS-article; feel free to check it out if you promise to come back here afterwards ;-)
First Stop – Vienna, Austria
Having had Bratislava as the start destination for this trip in my mind, I decided to do a quick stop-over in Vienna first since it is just about 50km away and even though I visited Austria before, I actually never made it to their capital. Prior to the trip, I sent out Couch Requests for the first three cities and decided to handle the rest on the go. Getting a couch for the two of us in Austria – I was joined by Anna, a polish girl – had been pretty easy and we ended up staying with Sandra, who really made sure that we had a great time in the city.
We only had one day to see Vienna and fortunately, the weather was really nice. Starting in the first district of the town, we quickly moved over to the second, also called Leopoldstadt. Visiting the Prater amusement park and it’s famous Ferris wheel there was certainly a highlight of the day, even though most of the attractions were made for young kids and the only ride that looked a little bit scary at least could not live up to the expectations. To be fair, after a few Skydives and other crazy stuff, it will be hard to find any amusement parks to get a thrill outside the United States. But we did not go there for that reason anyway and making Sandra happy to join her for this ride was good enough since none of her friends ever wanted to do it with her!
Moving on after that, we decided to relax for a while at a small river a bit outside the city center and even though it was not without a hassle, we managed to find a great spot to chill in the sun, relaxing our feet in the cold water. Returning back to town, we came across some architecture that reminded me a lot of Antoni Gaudí’s work in Barcelona. Before the day slowly faded away, we visited the Schönbrunn Palace and climbed up the hill looking down at the city to enjoy the last pieces of sunshine. Some drinks in the evening rounded up a perfect day before we would move on to Bratislava the next day.
Second Stop – Bratislava, Slovakia
Arriving at the main station of Bratislava was a pretty strange feeling as the complete town seemed to be empty, which was actually due to a Public Holiday. The temperature was still rising and Anna and I both had a strong wish to go out for a swim now, but being in a capital without any beach close by seemed to make this task quiet challenging. However, when we met up with our Greek Host Nikos, we could not believe our ears when he actually asked us if we would be keen to go out for a swim with him and his other guests! Turns out that there are two huge lakes within the city, something I did not expect at that time at all :)
Nikos had a lot of other Couchsurfers staying at the same night, a total of eight to be precise. All sleeping in his living room eventually. Some of them joined us to sunbath at the local city-lake while others preferred to stay home. We had a great time and the lake, not only enjoying the sun but also the good beer and food! The lake itself was a bit dirty but who really cares in the end?
Our evening in Bratislava turned into a five hour cooking session deep into the night. While I was getting some super expensive beer from a store, Nikos used the time to prepare his famous Gulasch. Coming back, I did my best to integrate myself into the cooking group by cutting onions and other ingredients. Others, such as a guy from Gran Canaria, preferred to not do anything and when he started to talk about Couchsurfing as “a great tool to not pay any hotels”, I quickly realized that is sadly one of the few people actually abusing the hospitality of the community.
It was already 3AM and we were long done eating Nikos’ Gulasch, when the french duo were finally able to serve their potato bake. However, it could not compete with the Gulasch at all, which was simply the best I have ever had in my entire life. Did I mention that Nikos is actually taking part in Gulasch Conventions around the world…? Finally going to bed around 4AM, sleep was a very precious good in the presence of all the snoring people in the room.
Third Stop – Budapest, Hungary
Hungary brought us right back into the tourist masses after the very quiet Bratislava. The city has a lot of them for a good reason, it is just an amazing city with some very fine architecture. The river Danube splits the west (Buda) from the east (Pest) and is flanked and dominated by the impressive Hungarian National Parliament.
The city has much more to offer than just architecture though. There are a lot of young people around and our new Host Jazmin wasted no time taking us straight to an open air concert with some of her friends. We then spent a good portion of the next day in the amazing Széchenyi Spa, which is one of many around the city but supposed to be the nicest of them. Even though I am not generally a fan of Spa’s, I have to say that I enjoyed this one as it was just a great location and certainly a cool place to play a round of chess in the water :-)
Anna and I spent the remaining hours of the day to wander around the city and it’s many great places. I enjoyed the Buda side including the castle and royal palace so much that I decided to come back here in the following morning to see the sunrise from the Fisherman’s Bastion, a pretty amazing view point looking down to the National Parliament on the other side of the river.
Nobody believed me when I told them that I will wake up at 4:30 to get ready for the sunrise, but I did it and climbed up the hill to the Bastion, which was only about 10 minutes walking distance away luckily. It was actually forbidden to go there at that time, but I just stepped over the barriers and made sure that the guards would not see me. It worked out very well in the end and I really enjoyed sitting in a corner of the Bastion and waiting for the sun to rise, however the clouds prevented anything close to a good sunrise.
We had one more day in Budapest and spent the first half of it checking out the remaining parts in the north including a nice park. A friend of Anna joined us for that and we also had some traditional food, which name I unfortunately can’t remember now after three years but you can see the toasty thing in the pictures and let me know in the comments. I gave the girls some time to catch up and wandered off on my own until the night, making friends with some strangers along the way. Our visit to Budapest of course was not complete without a detour to probably one of the coolest bars on the planet: Szimpla Bar – which you NEED to check out if you get there on your own. Words can’t describe how cool it is there! Before we left Hungary in the next morning, we stopped by at a Restaurant to have some traditional Gulasch and compare it to the one Nikos prepared for us in Bratislava. Nikos, you should open up your own Restaurant as it was much nicer for sure!
Fourth Stop – Krakow, Poland
We had a nice change for our next stop, as Krakow is Anna’s Hometown and we could substitute a stranger’s place with her home. I just had a few things on my ToDo list here and the first one was visiting the Wieliczka salt mine, which we could easily reach by local buses. Anna obviously had seen them before and we decided to meet up again once I was done with them. Visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site was nice for sure, but nothing astonishing either in my opinion. Considering the amount of sights in Krakow, it is definitely a “must-see” anyway.
The old town, however, was really interesting and nice. We visited all parts I believe and had a very special event waiting for us afterwards: The Dachshund Parade 2011! The complete city center was filled with people and a good portion of them proudly presented their little sausage dogs in all kinds of fancy dresses and costumes. Quiet and interesting and funny event indeed :-) There was not that much more going on in Krakow and we moved on the the next polish city, Warsaw.
Fifth Stop – Warsaw, Poland
Warsaw was actually the one out of 11 cities that I was the least looking forward to. But being on the way to our next stop in Lithuania, I decided to have a quick stop-over here anyway. Anna and I did what we’ve became good at during that trip – walking around city centers. This time, it did not offer as many great places as the previous stops, but the good weather still made it quiet enjoyable. At some point you just get to the realization that a lot of cities can’t really hook you anymore after experiencing many great places before. That was what happened to me in Warsaw.
We even made it down to the river to look for interesting stuff, however sitting on an old tree trunk was as exciting as it would get. In the end of the day, we eventually spotted a very cool place after all: Lazienki Park. The park has an interesting setup with the various lakes and is a great place to hang out. After a few hours there, we went back to the center and started an attempt to get up to the Russian-style Skyscraper for a nice sunset. Anna told me that it would not work as it is full of offices, but I was trying my luck anyway and could actually talk my way through all the way into a office room. Unfortunately, the sight was not really good and the sunset itself disappointed as well. At least I tried though :-)
In the evening, we met up with Anna’s friends in a pretty cool bar, had some drinks (aka vodka), food and a good time in general. It was actually the last day in Poland and also the end of the first part of the trip. Thinking ahead of what would come next, I had no idea what to expect from the Baltic countries and their cities Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. Stay tuned for the second Part of this Trip report, as it was actually pretty amazing over there and I would never had expected it to be that good!