The Schengen Scramble

When the Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985, it was a way to allow travel between the initial 5 member countries without visa requirements. But as more countries have joined (now up to 26, more or less the EU with the exception of the UK, Ireland, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria), the regulations around the 90 day time limit in the area have not increased. And no, you can’t just leave the area and come back to reset – you need to be out of the area for 6 months before returning. I did a lot of research before we left to see if we could find a loophole or exception, to no avail. And so, after 1.5 months in Spain and Portugal, plus a month in Sweden, we were left with less than two weeks to reach safe harbour in Croatia. Thus begins our Schengen Scramble – whirlwind city visits and lots of time on buses and trains.

We spent the first two days in Tallinn, Estonia after our ferry crossing from Stockholm. It is an amazing city, a mix of industrial brick, wooden 2-3 story apartments, stone fortress, and Art Nouveau mansions. Hipster, Soviet-era austerity, culture, innovation – Tallinn has it all.

We visited the Museum of Occupation and Freedom, and learned more about the complex history of the country, from Danish invaders in the 13th C, forced deportation to Siberia under the Russians, Nazi occupation, Soviet control, and finally to Estonian independence brought about during the Singing Revolution and the Baltic Way – a chain of 2 million humans holding hands across 675 km of the 3 Baltic states in 1989.

The Museum makes great use of stories and artifacts.

All of this leaves a mark on a place, and it was fascinating to consider how this history has shaped the urban fabric, culture and politics of the area.

It was feeling chilly (both weather-wise, and the Baltic reception we got) so we decided to get further south ASAP, and save more of our remaining days for Czech, Slovakia and Hungary. And so, we spent 15 hours on buses to Białystok, Poland, slept a few hours, then hopped on a 5 hour train to Warsaw.

We were ready with a bag full of food for bus snacks, audio books, and pre-bus back stretches.

A short 4 hour stopover in Warsaw, and then 5 hours more on a train to Krakow.

Scenes from Warsaw

We had lined up a Warmshowers host there for a few nights, and again it was a wonderful experience to be taken in by our hosts, Maciej and Magda and their two young daughters for a few days. Travelling at this pace doesn’t let us learn as much about a country, culture and people as we normally like, and so having evening conversations over dinner with the family was super great to at least get a window into (one family’s) Polish life.

We spent a morning exploring Old Town Krakow and the Jewish Quarter, both filled with incredible architecture. The Jewish Quarter got quite a boost in tourism after Steven Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List there; we’ll have to watch it again, to look for some of the buildings and parks.

In travelling even for such a short time through Poland, I was struck by how much more intimate the holocaust feels here. Though we didn’t visit Treblinka and Auschwitz concentration camp museums, there are many other artifacts and reminders of this horrific historical period throughout the country. Of course we learned about this in school, and through books and movies, but something about being in the cities and places where this actually occurred makes it strike home in a more intense way.

These metal chairs form a memorial in Plac Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square) in Krakow. Following deportations and the final liquidation of the ghetto by the Nazis, this central plaza in the Jewish Ghetto was strewn with furniture, clothes, luggage and other belongings that the victims had been forced to abandon.

The forecast for the afternoon was a huge thunderstorm, so we rode 15 km south of town to take shelter and explore the Wieliczka salt mines. An ancient saltwater sea created massive salt deposits in the region, and the mine covers over 300 km. It was operated as a commercial salt mine from the 13th C until 1996. Now, it is a major tourist attraction, and we joined a group of 38 other tourists on a guided tour down to 130 m below the surface, to see the salt chambers, carved-salt sculptures, salt chapels, and lakes. Though we didn’t enjoy the large group herding, it was a super impressive site.

Horses were used to operate counter-balanced winches, hauling 200 kg salt chunks up to the surface and bringing enormous wood timbers down to be used to reinforce the walls and chambers of the mine.

All this travel could have certainly been worse – we reminded ourselves that six months ago in Guatemala we took 6 hours to cover 150 km by bus; here we covered 2000 km in 24 hrs by bus and train through the Baltics and Poland. But we are looking forward to being able to do some bike touring again in Czech Republic, even if just a few days worth as we continue our rapid journey south.

My first plate of Polisg pierogis

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