Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Pope Sighting in Krakow

When we booked our stay in Krakow, we had no idea it was the host city for the bi-annual World Youth Day (actually a week-long event) for Catholic youth from around the world culminating with a huge outdoor mass celebrated by Pope Francis.

When we learned we would be sharing this captivating city with well over 400,000 young people we were actually excited. It seemed just the sort of Senior Nomad experience that we love. It also explained why Airbnb’s were more expensive that week than we expected - and also why many denizens fled the city for an early vacation.

Nothing like rain and an invasion of teenagers to clear out a town.
 Pope Francis arrived in Krakow on what the Italians call the volo papale, or “papal flight” which actually is an Alitalia charter. We, on the other hand, arrived on Ryanair Fl. 7751 from the Netherlands. Our Airbnb host provided detailed instructions on how to get from the airport to her apartment avoiding any challenges caused by WYD. Here is what Oliwia said in her email:

"I usually recommend taking a bus from the airport as it stops close by, but this time I think it will be best for you to take the train - bus routes have been changed in the area for the WYD."

Just to double check, I decided to stop at the information desk in the arrivals hall to get their advice. They heartily recommended we take bus 292 which would drop us off right in front of our apartment. Looking back, we should have followed our hosts’ advice and taken the train. The key phrase I ignored was “bus routes have been changed in the area for the WYD”.

Once on board the 292 I went forward, with map in hand, hoping the driver spoke English and he could tell us where to get off. That would be no. And no. Imagine the poor man driving a huge articulated bus with me standing next to him trying to “talk” every time we came to a stoplight. It became apparent using sign language and jabbing at the map that the bus was not going to take its normal route and he was very stressed out about it - and the closest we could come to the apartment was about a mile away! Oops.

Now we like to walk, but it had already been a long day and we had both our large REI suitcases plus day packs and no Polish SIM card, thus no Google Maps…just a paper map we got at the Information Desk which showed the major streets and landmarks. Our apartment was on a little side-street deep in the city.

That’s when a young man sitting next to Debbie on the bus overheard our distressed conversation and asked in English if he could help. If there is one constant throughout our journey, it is the abundance of guardian angels, apparently on standby that appear whenever we have a challenge. Turns out,  this latest angel, named Matthew was a first year law student in Krakow not only helped us get off at the “temporay” stop closest to our apartment, he got off with us and helped haul our luggage for the mile-long walk to the apartment and left us at our front door. Once again we were reminded of the kindness of strangers.

Our Guardian Angel Matthew and one tired Senior Nomad
Why didn’t you just a taxi you might ask? We don’t often splurge on taxi’s when public transportation is easy and under any other circumstances this bus journey would have been a piece of cake. It also turned out that not just buses were being rerouted - the entire center of the city was blocked and barricaded at every turn and car traffic was even more curtailed, so in the end it couldn’t have turned out better.

World Youth Day was a sight to behold. Thousands of young people from all over the world were waving flags, singing, praying, and exchanging badges and hugs with kids from other countries and their own. There were concerts on every square, outdoor masses and picnics. And nuns - lots of nuns in every sort of habit, as well as some pretty hip young clergy. Debbie even saw the Pope drive by in his Pope Mobile.

Debbie just managed to catch the Pope driving by.
The atmosphere in the city was contagious. So many happy kids joined by faith.
We saw hip priests, backpacking nuns, and scenes like this everywhere.
Krakow is a wonderful city. Full of history and the must-see city in Poland. Spared by WWII the buildings are stunning and the Wawel Castle and Cathedral are well-worth a visit. We took two Free Walking Tours. The first focused on Old Town, the second on the Jewish Quarter. Both were educational and informative.

A rare moment away from the crowds. Krakow is beautiful.
We were thankful to have a great apartment in a perfect location close to the Old Town - Here is a link to our Airbnb https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/351091. It was just around the corner from a great second hand book store and coffee shop that sold only American books. Debbie took over a quiet corner as her office.

 An American bookstore that served excellent coffee, brownies and apple pie.
The shop offered three rooms filled to the ceiling with English books. Heaven!
I’ve mentioned before that we depend on Rome2Rio to plan travel between cities. The app is absolutely amazing. I still wonder how they have managed to find bus, train, flight information from any city in the world to any other city with incredible accuracy.

While we were in Krakow, I needed to decide how to get 200 miles away to Lviv in Eastern Ukraine, our next destination. I searched and searched all over the site but could never find a bus or train leaving at a reasonable time - most left very late arriving in Lviv before dawn. Or they took a very circuitous route - I couldn’t understand why it would take 9 hours to go 200 miles. Mostly because there is low demand. Poles want to go to EU destinations, and Ukrainians cannot travel to Poland without a difficult to get visa.

That’s when I saw Rome2Rio’s option for “Ride Sharing”. Something we had never considered before. Since nothing else made sense, I clicked on the option and it took me to a website call Bla Bla Car. Our daughter Mary had told us about the site but I’d never check it out.  The site offers rides from A to B and you can pick your ride based on how much you want to talk during the drive. One Bla means the driver isn’t into chatter. The more Bla’s the more the driver and fellow passengers are looking forward to passing the time in conversation.

Thanks to Bla Bla Car we found a new transportation option for our travels.
The website is based in the UK and I was surprised and thankful to see that someone was looking for passengers from Krakow to Lviv on the exact date of our departure with a civilized departure of 10:00 am. The driver’s name was Artem and he was the only person listed within a two week window going from Krakow to Lviv. So I quickly created a profile and filled out the background check information on the website and signed up. Now that I was a “member” I could send an email to Artem asking if we could join him. If you want to try it some time Here's a link

Later that day, I got a reply but he did not answer my key question. Would there be room for our two large suitcases plus day packs.  I worried that we might not fit in his car. We traded emails over the next couple of days and to make a long story short, “just to be safe” I booked all three seats he had available since he really hadn’t responded to my question about our suitcases.

Team Bla Bla. Artem and his wife Yulia who thankfully could bla English.
On the morning of our departure from Krakow, we did our usual pack n’clean and then waited out in front of our apartment at 10:00 AM hoping and praying that Artem would show up in his Peugeot 203. Shortly after 10:00 Artem pulled up with a woman in the front seat. We had thought that was one of our three seats plus two in the back. Instead we had bought the three back seats. If there had been another passenger we would not have been able to fit since the trunk was already ½ full. Another oops!

Artem, and his wife went to work shuffling and stuffing things in various corners of the car making room for both our suitcases. Of course that meant that we had one of their small suitcases on the seat between us and we had both day packs and our red bag of snacks in the back seat with us but heck, for $40 USD and door to door service to Lviv I was feeling good about BlaBlaCar. Off we went.

Road food including this hotdog in "tube" - and excellent invention!
Turns out, Artem is Russian and spoke no English. He didn’t speak much Russian either. Definitely a one-Bla-man. Thankfully his Ukrainian wife Yulia spoke English. They are both in their late 20’s and live in the South of France where she is a chemical researcher at the University in Aix-en-Provence. They are regular users of BlaBlaCar and we we caught them on the last leg of their 1,200 mile journey from Aix to a small village east of Lviv where they would stay with Yulia’s family for their summer holiday.
Leaving Poland and entering the Ukraine. More on that fascinating country next time.
In the end, it was a great experience and we felt part of the global community as we crossed the border into Ukraine with our new found Russian and Ukrainian friends. Meanwhile the political leaders in the Ukraine and Russia seem to be on the verge of starting WWIII. We didn’t Bla about that.

We arrived safe and sound 6 hours later in Lviv thankful for the enriching, albeit cramped experience. I have already found another opportunity to ride-share in a few weeks when we go from Tbilisi, the capitol of Georgia to Yerevan in Armenia. From Lviv we will fly to Kiev, the capitol of Ukraine. 

It was fun to mix with the American kids. God bless them all.

Stand by for the news from the Ukraine.

Thanks for following along,



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  4. I really enjoyed reading about this particular adventure, with even more guardian angels showing up right when needed! :-)

  5. I love reading your travel stories. My wife and I travel extensively and I must say that the Airbnb hosts we have stayed with in Europe have all been fabulous. But I would be careful in Ukraine- especially at night. A friend was assaulted outside a bar in Odessa late at night while another friend was robbed and beaten by what appeared to be Russian mafia thugs at a road side stop in central Ukraine.

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  7. I have enjoyed reading your blog. We are hopefully about 2 to 3 years from doing something similar. I lived in the UK, Europe and the Middle East for many years and hope to return to many of those places and more with my spouse. I am so ready to get started. I love your blog