Although we’re currently planning our next cycling trip, we couldn’t resist a ski holiday in Europe with some friends before we left on our next adventure. It was cheaper to travel from London to Krakow so we decided to combine it with a three day city break before we spent a week in the Slovakian mountains.
Krakow, Poland is synonymous with cheap weekend breaks from the UK, usually catering for stag and hen dos. Luckily for us we got an exceptionally cheap deal on flights and we didn’t encounter any of these drunken parties during our time there (Probably due to how bitingly cold it was in January!) Krakow turned out to be an amazingly relaxed city with beautiful architecture and delicious food so naturally we fell in love with the place.
There is a lot to like about Krakow. It is very cheap, easy to get around and feels incredibly safe. Like many countries in eastern Europe, Poland hasn’t adopted the Euro instead they use the Polish złoty (which is currently around 5 zł to 1 GBP) and when all buses and trams cost 4,6 zł for a 50 minute trip, you can see a lot of the city in a short visit. Coming from the UK where public transport is expensive, doesn’t run 24/7 and is often delayed, we were pleasantly surprised when Krakow’s transport system is cheap, punctual, runs all night and they don’t charge extra for airport buses.
It was a different experience to our recent city breaks because we didn’t have the bikes to worry about and all the planning that requires. We booked a cheap AirBnB on the third floor to the south of the old city and using the extensive bus and tram network, we saw many of the touristy attractions Krakow has to offer. From ‘Rynek Glówny’, the main square which is the biggest Medieval plaza in Europe to ‘Wawel Castle’ and ‘Kazimierz’, the Jewish quarter of Krakow, there are a lot of places to explore on foot and that are free.
The massive head sculpture in the photo above, found in Krakow’s main square, is entitled ‘Eros Bendato’ by Polish artist, Igor Mitoraj. The head belongs to Eros, the Greek god of love and desire and the bandages covering Eros’ face symbolise his imprisoned desires.
We also wandered around the less-touristy suburb of Nowa Huta. This is one of only 2 fully pre-planned socialist realist settlements ever built and the other one is in Russia. Built in the 1940s by the Soviet dominated Polish government it is so different to the UNESCO world heritage site which is Krakow’s walled old town, both in architecture and atmosphere. In Nowa Huta the buildings are brutalist in design, there is a lot of grey and everything is symmetrical as was the nature of a fully planned settlement.
We walked around the Administration buildings of the Vladimir Lenin Steelworks (Renamed in 1990 after the collapse of communism and after the scientist and engineer, Tadeusz Sendzimir) which hired 40,000 people in the 1970s and produced almost 7 million tonnes of steel annually. Ironically the local demand for steel was low and with limited nearby resources coal had to be brought in from Eastern Poland, and iron ore had to be transported from the Soviet Union! In the 1980s Nowa Huta went full circle and became one of the most important centres of anti-communist resistance in Poland with strikes and demonstrations being held here.
Another lesser known, free tourist attraction within spitting distance of Krakow’s city centre is Krakus Mound. This man-made “hill” dates back to the 7th Century, is a mere 16 metres in height and legend has it that the mound is the tomb of Prince Krak, founder of Krakow. From the top you have panoramic views over the city and down into the Liban Quarry.
We both love abandoned buildings and exploration of these is always really interesting, especially as the quarry was part of the set for the film, Schindler’s List. A replica of the Nazi’s Płaszów Labor Camp was built here (the real one is just down the road and is now a memorial park) and we walked on a path made of Jewish tombstones running through the center of the quarry. These were actually just prop headstones, but the inmates of the real Labor Camp would have had to walk over a similar road made of their ancestors’ graves.
Unfortunately we were unable to go up either of the towers in the main square (they were closed for renovation over the winter) or visit the Auschwitz concentration camp located a few hours west of Krakow. It was commemorating the 75th anniversary of its closing and the tickets were fully booked. The Wieliczka Salt Mines are another tourist attraction close to the city, but with such a short time in the city and on a limited budget we didn’t make it there this time. These are just one of the many reasons to come back to Krakow and Poland in general.
After a few days in Krakow we were ready to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and took the 6:30am bus to Ždiar in the Slovakian High Tatras Mountains. We spent 6 nights in the Ginger Monkey Hostel, an amazingly sociable place where we made a lot of new friends and ideally situated to enjoy the many hiking and winter activities in the surrounding mountains. Since being at home we’d forgotten just how fun it is meeting similar minded folk and sharing travel stories, and this reminded us how much we love the traveller lifestyle and got us excited for our upcoming cycling trip.
Five years ago, Steph bought Ben skiing lessons for his birthday but until now, the only snow that he’d skied on was on the indoor snow domes in the UK. Whilst these are a great place to learn and practise, you can’t beat the real thing. It didn’t take long before he was carving up the pistes on the number of red runs at Bachledka ski resort and by day four he had ridden the black (most difficult) piste too. We rode the first two days with some new friends from the hostel from France, Germany and Australia before our friends from home, Matt, Laura and Ian arrived for a further two days of skiing.
We took a lot of video footage of our snowy adventures and will post our sick edit when we have created it. Keep an eye out for that on here and our social media pages. You can find us @unscriptedride on Facebook and Instagram if you don’t already follow us.
So, the blog title… that’s a funny story. We didn’t take any ski equipment with us as we had heard that the rental equipment was incredibly cheap in the town so when we first went to get our gear, the lovely Slovak man that owned the local rental asked us if we spoke any other languages as he didn’t speak English. “Russian, Polish, French, German?” he asked. “Spanish?” we replied. He laughed and solemnly shook his head. We resorted to the basic words he knew in English along with hand gestures, it seemed to work. Strangely he repeatedly advised us “No Rocks! Only snow!” We assumed he was very precious of his gear and assured him that we’d only be using them on snow, wondering why he was so insistent. Later an Aussie guy from our hostel rented gear and had the same experience. When we found this out we joked that maybe that was the local slogan, like Hang ten and Cool, man! “Have an awesome day! No rocks, only snow!”
It turns out that a while ago some Ginger Monkey guests rode their skis along the village road (a sealed road regularly covered in gravel to aid grip in the freezing weather) and destroyed two sets of skis. Now he takes to telling all of us English-speaking guests that we are only to use the gear on snow. You’ll be glad to know that we didn’t ride on the road and the pistes were suitably covered in snow as to not damage the rental gear.
We were lucky with the weather in Ždiar. On our first day there was poor visibility and cold temperatures so without being able to see the views, we concentrated on remembering how to ski. The rest of the week the skies were clear, the sun was out and the snow was soft and fluffy. We even had a flurry of fresh snow on a number of nights. Although it was a relatively small resort, Bachledka had wonderful views, great hot chocolate and quick lift queues. It is definitely a place we would revisit and with more time and money, there are a lot of other ski resorts in the area that you can get to either by public transport or taxi.
We didn’t just ski in Ždiar, our days and nights were busy and we definitely made the most of the short time we had. The hostel regularly organised evening activities for guests to get the most out of their stay. Activities like movie nights, going for a traditional Slovakian meal, pizza nights at the local pizzeria, Rustika (a real local institution), or even visiting a local club were great for getting to know the other guests and keeping things super fun.
Matt and Laura have been to the GM several times and know some of the local attractions that not even the current staff had been to. After our final day skiing they organised a trip to a hot springs just outside the nearest city. Four full days of doing an unfamiliar and moderately strenuous sport had taken its toll on our legs, a good soak in the hot pools was about best way to unwind.
The other great way to unwind is with a taster of the local alcohol. Tatra Tea is a tea-based herbal liqueur, it comes in 14 different flavours with alcohol content from 17 – 72%, but the 52% is the original. Ben only tried 5 of the flavours so he has 9 more reasons to go back to the Slovakian Tatras!
We hope you enjoyed our slightly different, non-bike related blog and we do apologise for the lack of updates over the past few months. We’ve not been very exciting with work and real life temporarily taking over. However that will all change over the next few weeks and the next blog (now up: here) will spill the beans on the next chapter of our Unscripted Ride.
Steph and Ben