Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania!
I arrived to the Nairobi, Kenya airport at 5am to depart for my flight to Egypt at 8. Tired from a long few days in Nairobi staying at the worst hotel you could possibly imagine (no water, mosquitos, flickering lights to name a few), I was excited to get to Egypt to stay in a hostel, meet backpackers, try some falafel, and see the only original old wonder of the world remaining. My dreams came to a quick halt when EgyptAir informed me my ticket had been cancelled. How? I showed them my confirmation number through travel2be, a Spanish third-party budget ticket website. In their fine print, however, it says, “Your ticket can be cancelled at anytime.” After years of booking through third party websites, I finally was faced with the horror I have heard so many times before me.
“Can I purchase a new ticket?” I pleaded.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, the flight is sold out.”
Trying not to let a bad situation in which I had no control over ruin my mood, I decided to grab an airport beer and play a game. I jumped on SkyScanner, typed in Nairobi to Everywhere, and alas, was given a chronological order of cheapest to most expensive destinations to travel that day. The options were fairly limited; if you look on a map, you will see that Nairobi isn’t near many ideal travel destinations. Don’t get me wrong, I have every desire in the world to see Rwanda, Uganda, even the Seychelles, but going to places like those on a whim with no planning is not ideal. And frankly, they’re expensive (I have found Africa is, by a landslide, the most expensive continent to travel through). Several flights were headed to Dubai, which I have already seen and had minimal desire to go back to, but I knew flying there would be a good connecting hub to almost anywhere else. And at this point, I just wanted to get out of the Nairboi airport (if you’ve ever had the pleasure of traveling through Kenya, I’m sure you understand). $200 out of my bank account, and I had a ticket to Dubai.
Sixteen hours later and I’m now in the Dubai international airport at 2am with no further plans. Jumping back on SkyScanner, I see now my options were much more vast. Dubai basically connects to anywhere in the world. I could have even flown back to New York City if my heart desired! I first looked up flights back to Egypt, but marked with an $800 price tag, I had to let that one go. I wanted to go somewhere random that I had never been before, so I skipped over the dirt-cheap tickets to Paris and Milan. Krakow, Poland. Hm, Eastern Europe. Other than Czech Republic and Croatia, it was an area I had seldom explored but have always wanted to. Before I knew it, I was on a flight to Poland.
I decided to make what was supposed to be a week in Egypt into a sporadic Eastern Eurotrip with the help of Flixbus. Here’s my journey.
As you can imagine, after the hassle and hours spent traveling, when I arrived in Poland I was exhausted. But it was only noon and I had a new city with no clue what to do in it, so I chugged a double espresso and went off to explore.
The first thing I did was grab some pierogis. Sure, it’s cliché, but sometimes the typical things are the most fun. And in this case, it ended up being the best thing I ate in Eastern Europe. I quickly learned, unlike its Western counterparts, that Eastern Europe eats a lot of game meat; goose, venison, duck, turkey, even rooster. Trying the food native to a country is often the best way to feel a connection to those that live there. For ten goose and cabbage pierogis, it cost me somewhere around $5 from a 24-hour spot right outside of the center square.
After getting my Pierogi fix, I walked to the city center, lined with colorful buildings, and more pigeons than those at the Milano Cathedral. I sat near the fountain, people-watched, and bought an amazing flower crown. Half-fighting my exhaustion and half-being exhilarated from this sporadic trip, I grabbed a beer (which ran me about $1), headed back to my hostel, and slept for the remainder of the night.
The next day, I was torn between heading off to Auschwitz or the UNESCO world heritage site of the Salt Mines, but still feeling both the mental and physical exhaustion of having to remind myself where in the world I currently was, I decided to just take it easy and explore Krakow on my own terms. Though I didn’t “tick off” seeing some of Poland’s major sights, I had an incredible experience finding my own way. I tried some smoked cheese from the northern parts of Poland with cranberry sauce, which can apparently only be ordered in the summer. It tasted like tough halloumi; not my favorite thing in the world, but when in Poland.
I walked around the Jewish Quarter and visited a synagogue as to not stay completely ignorant toward Poland’s dark history. From there, I headed toward Wawel Castle, before doing what it is I inevitably do best: eating more. I grabbed some potato pancakes and goulash, followed by some Polish vodka and Ukrainian cherry liqueur. I wandered through some parks in Krakow, and feeling ready to move on, sporadically booked yet another adventure: a 10 euro overnight bus to Budapest.
I arrived to Budapest too early to check into my hostel, so I dropped off my bags and headed straight for the thermal baths. I decided to take the forty-five minute walk instead of the twenty-minute metro ride and stopped for an espresso and a fresh orange juice on the way. I quickly learned Budapest is similarly priced to Poland, meaning it’s fairly inexpensive.
I paid the 17 euro to enter Svechenyi Thermal Baths which gives you full access to the outdoor pools and the locker rooms / changing areas. I was happy to get there when I did; it was around 8am, and the place was totally packed by 11! I was mainly sharing the pool with older Hungarian locals and my selfie-stick of course. Each pool has a different temperature, ranging from 86 degrees Fahrenheit to 104. You are able to purchase coffee, soft drinks, beer and food on location, but the prices are naturally jacked up.
After the baths, I walked through a park to try langos; a traditional deep-friend Hungarian bread, topped with sour cream, cheese, and other toppings. I added sausage and onion. It’s like a Hungarian pizza, and it’s tasty.
I had no outward travel plans of Budapest but ended up staying for three days because there’s SO much to do there. I checked out the famous ruins bar Szimpla, headed to the Budapest Castle, rode the metro which is the second oldest in the world (first being London), and tried some Hungarian goulash. Hungary loves to add heaps of paprika to their dishes, so it’s much different than the goulash you would find in Poland.
Budapest felt like living in a fairytale while still having the luxury of the modern world at my fingertips. In three short days, it became one of my favorite European cities. I opted on taking another night bus outward, this time to Sofia, Bulgaria.
Sofia was the most random place I’ve ended up in. I knew almost nothing about the country or the culture going into it, but I’m always up for a spontaneous adventure. I arrived in Bulgaria early in the morning, like Budapest. I grabbed an espresso and the man working asked me where I’m from. I declared, “Brooklyn,” to which he said, “Isn’t that dangerous because of all of the black people?” So while I hate to base an entire country’s standpoint off of one ignorant comment from one sole person, it just was a reminder that I’m privileged to be a white traveler, and perhaps is a destination POC should be weary of.
I jumped on the tram to get to my hostel, but wasn’t sure if I was on the right one. I tried to ask the driver before the tram took off, and he barked at me in Bulgarian, closed the doors, and the tram began to move. I quickly learned I was not on the correct tram. I got off at the next stop and found my way to tram 7 (the right one). The public transportation in Sofia was quick and convenient, but it’s not a huge city, so it’s also walkable. This ended up being the only time I used the tram system.
I checked into my hostel, in the same boat as Budapest where it was still too early to check in. I walked around and headed toward Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Sofia was nice and quiet, with minimal tourists, so it was nice to observe the locals going about their day.
After the church, I decided to take advantage of the city’s Free Walking Tour. Almost all major European cities offer a free walking tour, and this would be my first time partaking in one. It ended up being an educational experience. I learned about a little mint candy which is popular amongst Bulgarians, and was used as a form of currency during communist years. I was able to see the statue of Lady Sofia, and learn the story of how her three daughters were tortured to death for being Christian, and how she died three days later due to grief. I was also able to stand on a corner where I saw a mosque, an orthodox cathedral, a Catholic church, and a synagogue. Most major sightings and beautiful buildings were based around religion. I even drank out of a few of the fresh thermal springs which can be found all over the city.
After the walking tour, it was time to try some local Bulgarian cuisine. I got a lamb skewer, some Bulgarian yogurt, and grilled veggies. I paired it with a local beer and ended my meal with rakia, a famous Bulgarian liqeuer.
One day was enough time to get a decent feel for Sofia. I hardly spent any money (my espresso was less than $1 and my meal with drinks was around $6). I realized I need to take more advantage of the free walking tours offered in each city. It was a great way to get out and learn a bit about the country’s history.
The next morning, I decided to hit one more European city and set off for Bucharest, Romania.
Romania was a place I had always been interested in visiting due to the country’s history on withcraft. I’m not exactly superstitious, but I have watched so many documentaries throughout my life on these witches that live in Romania and cast spells. In Romania, witchcraft has become so popular that it is now a government job, and if they predict your future wrong, can be sued! Bucharest, I learned, is probably the worst place in the country to dig deep into witch culture, but I decided to do some research and see if there was anywhere I could get a little witchy.
I arrived in Bucharest later in the day, and opted to take a metered taxi. I quickly learned my lesson to stick with Uber in Bucharest; I got royally ripped off. The meter said 7 euro and the driver demanded 40. Scared in the front seat of a taxi with a man yelling at me in Romanian, I handed him over my money and sobbed. 40 euro out, Romania and I were off to a bad start. I decided to get some takeout food and stay in for the night.
I woke up to a brand new day and had decided to go to witch’s pond, about a forty-minute drive outside of the city. The Uber only cost me around $6. Witch’s pond is a small body of water in the middle of a forest, and it is said that the water is so cursed that they say animals won’t even drink out of it and would rather die from dehydration. It is said that any spell cast near it is bound to be successful due to the energy of the pond. While I have never practiced witchcraft, I had been reading a bit about it and decided to try to cast a spell.
I walked through the forest and was getting bit by gnats and mosquitos to an unbearable point. I saw old dolls, toys, and … bones (of which animal I’m still not sure). There was absolutely no one else around and it was an eery experience to say the least. I found a little area to stand where I was still getting eaten alive, but decided to cast my spell! It was oddly freeing to be doing something in which I had no clue how to, in the middle of this eerily quiet Romanian forest. After my spell was done, I walked through the forest and ended up on another side where there was a parking lot, meaning I never actually found the pond.
After my forest experience, I headed back into the city and walked through the square. The city square was nothing exciting, but I was able to catch a little water fountain show outside of the Parliament building. I ended up grabbing dinner at a quiet little restaurant, which ran me about the same price as my meal in Bulgaria (under $10). I got a cheese plate, some local wine, and a roasted duck and cabbage dish.
In total, I saw:
- Krakow, Poland in two days
- Budapest, Hungary in three days
- Sofia, Bulgaria in one day
- Bucharest, Romania in one day
If you are looking for something different than overpriced and been-there-done-that London and Paris, trying out Eastern Europe and using FlixBus is a great way to see a lot of new places in a short timeframe. I would recommend the overnight busses as opposed to the day trips as most bus rides are at least six hours long, and the seats are not too uncomfortable. You’ll save some cash, see some stunning architecture, learn some unexpected history, and eat and drink delicious food without breaking the bank.
Kaitlyn spent one week traveling Eastern Europe.