Kraków: Of Kings, Castles and Pierogi

After a goulash-filled week in Prague, my newfound travel buddy and I decided to make moves.

Three trains, one transportation mishap (we got off one of the trains a stop early, but it worked out!), many cat naps, and seven hours later, Andrée and I made it to Kraków, Poland!

Once the capital of Poland for more than 500 years, Kraków is now a bustling city of nearly 800,000 people and the cultural hub of the country. But Kraków is old—unbelievably old.

Stone tools dating back to 50,000 BCE were found on Wawel Hill, and the city’s name originates from Krakus, a mythical ruler who supposedly slayed the Wawel Dragon. The city was a bustling trade center in 965, and the castle was built in the 1300s.

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As an American whose country’s oldest buildings date back to the 1700s, this kind of history is hard to wrap my head around! All of Europe (and especially Israel) has been blowing me away with the ancient architecture!

The heart of Kraków is the Stare Miasto, or Old Town. Smack in the middle is Rynek Główny, the largest medieval town square in Europe.

Filled with vendors and local craftspeople, the square is surrounded by historic houses, palaces, towers and churches.

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Prague Finale: John Lennon Wall and Charles Bridge

December 8, 1980: Beatles rocker John Lennon was shot to death in the entrance of his New York apartment building.

A pacifist hero in the eyes of many young Czechs during a time of political revolution, Lennon was soon memorialized in Prague. His image was painted on a wall in a secluded square near the Charles Bridge, and political graffiti and Beatles lyrics were soon added.

Despite the best whitewashing efforts of the police and the property owners, the Lennon Wall has been continuously evolving for the past three decades: layer upon layer of lyrics, wishes for peace and sketches of the man whose voice guided a generation.

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Prague II: Czech Food and Street Eats

Prague was my first stop in Europe after spending a few weeks in Israel eating mostly veggies, hummus and falafel.

When I got to Prague, I gorged myself on all the rich traditional cuisine. It’s hearty stuff that helps soak up all the cheap pivo (beer) you’ll be drinking!

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On my free walking tour of the city, I met a nice lady from upstate New York (hi Beth!) and we got lunch together. Beer battered deep fried mushrooms, a thick vegetable soup, and potato dumplings! The food was surprisingly flavorful for being so hearty, and the innocuous looking potato dumplings were my favorite part!

We also put back a few pints, as did everyone else at the place! Needless to say, Europe really doesn’t judge you for day drinking!

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The beer of choice in Prague is Pilsner Urquell. First brewed in 1842 in the Czech town of Pilsner, this especially hoppy beer is found all over the world, but I was lucky enough to have it in cask condition in Prague: unfiltered, unpasteurized, and naturally conditioned like it was made in the 19th century.

There’s something else that Prague does especially well…

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Prague: Bohemian Wonderland

Though Israel was a sunny paradise, I decided to break the cycle of my Tel Aviv lifestyle (beach all day, party all night) and head into Europe.

The cheapest ticket I could find using Skyscanner, my favorite airfare app, was Prague!

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Two of my favorite Prague buildings are located in Old Town Square: the astronomical clock tower and the Church of Our Lady before Tyn.

Both were built in the 1400s, and are impressive feats. The church is a classic example of gothic architecture and dominates the city skyline. The clock is the oldest functioning astronomical clock in the world. Who cares about the latest iPhone?

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The Prague Castle, Pražský hrad, is officially the world’s largest castle and dates back to the ninth century.

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This is a breathtakingly beautiful city. Twice the capital of Europe, the historical capital of Bohemia, and now the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague is a city of two million people that feels like the place Belle would call home.

The architecture is an array of styles that span the history of time. Romanesque, baroque, gothic, art nouveau, cubism…it’s everything at once, but it works.

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Silly American

My bff in NYC this summer is Yvonne, an award-winning journalist from Switzerland with a blazing mane of curls. She decided to take a few months to travel in America, and came to New York without much of a plan. We met through Airbnb—she stayed in my apartment for a few nights before moving to her permanent sublet down the street. We instantly hit it off, and have been inseparable buddies even since, living a summer of “solo yolo” in the city.

The luxury apartment building Yvonne ended up in was much nicer than my grimy Alphabet City walk-up. I’m not picky—I feel blessed I had a relatively affordable apartment in the East Village with an accessible roof, my own room and a bathroom with a door (New York really teaches you how low you’re willing adjust the bar on your standard of living).

Yvonne’s rooftop however, is in a league of its own.

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Perched 14 stories up on the corner of 7th and Avenue B, this rooftop towers above the wash of four- and six-floor buildings in the area. The finished patio has a party-sized wooden picnic table (we’ve crashed many birthday/office/guacamole parties), lounge chairs, and the most incredible view of the city I’ve seen from lower Manhattan.

During our frequent rooftop talks, we chat about everything from our careers (and the future of journalism), to relationships (why is everyone getting married?), to the importance of using your 20s to figure it all out. Something we’ve been discussing the whole time is travel—how to do it, where to go, and why you have to.

We both agree traveling is absolutely essential for growth/personal discovery/seeing how others live/your soul. Both of us took a huge leap of faith to put our careers on brief pauses so we could take off to a foreign country without a plan. We’re both leaving behind a boy, and not sure what the next steps will be after we return. Both Yvonne and I are curious, passionate, whip smart, and bold enough to make big moves.

Where we differ though, is in what to pack.

Before I booked myself on a Birthright trip a week ago, I didn’t own much travel gear. Through the power of Amazon Prime, I’ve acquired a hefty supply of things that travel blogs told me would be necessary: a sink stopper, a quick-dry towel, a plug adapter, packing cubes, an eye mask, a padlock, a money belt, a toiletry bag, a spork.

10313498_10202717374028924_7148503805386865049_nYvonne’s reply whenever I tell her about a new travel gadget I bought?

“Silly American.”

She travels light. For her three-month trip to the USA, she brought a few of her favorite outfits (literally, just a handful of light dresses, a romper, and one pair of pants), her laptop, and little else. She bought bathroom supplies here, a pair of sandals when her heels broke, and has picked up a few shirts along the way. A true minimalist, she still somehow manages to look like she always belongs on the runway!

While I aspire to pack like Yvonne, the Girl Scout in me wants to be prepared. I’d rather have a padlock than have my backpack stolen at a hostel. I’ll pay for a money belt now if it keeps pickpockets away from my credit card. I’d rather have the Pepto Bismol packed and ready to go, instead of frantically looking for a pharmacy in Portugal.

I’ve done one trial run pack, and my backpack is already quite full without adding my shoes, toiletries and technology. Having a 40L pack is going to be a challenge for me, a chronic overpacker, but I’m hoping this trip as a whole will teach me that I can get by with a lot less stuff than I think.

Besides, hundreds of millions of Europeans survive with what they can buy in their own countries. I think I’ll be okay.