J.J. Mortensen enlisted her friend M.K. Ruminer to accompany her on a two-week trip to her grandparents' village in the Carpathian Mountains and the cities of Kraków, Warsaw, and Gdańsk.
Great local meal... Traditional Polish fare at the Polskie Smaki (Polish Tastes) restaurant, a block from Kraków's central square. We drank tea and ate zurek and barszcz (soups), golabki (stuffed cabbage), and pierogies(Polish pot stickers) with a variety of fillings, including my favorites: sauerkraut and potatoes with cheese. Our total bill was less than $15.
My favorite part... Finding the time-capsule village of log cabins where my grandparents once lived. It's called Polany and is about 100 miles southeast of Kraków, near Magura National Park and the border with Slovakia. We visited a local heritage site, the Sądecki Enthographic Park, where we learned about the daily life of the Lemko-Rusyn people more than 100 years ago. On our three-day drive through the surrounding countryside, we saw small farms, storks' nests, and beautiful wooden churches called cerkiews, some of which are 500 years old. [PHOTO]
Worth every penny... Prices in Poland are so reasonable, just about everything is a bargain. But the hand-embroidered table coverings from the Kushubian Art Gallery in Gdańsk are our most treasured souvenirs. The owner's daughter, who was embroidering when we entered the shop, let us take her photo while she was holding her beautiful handiwork. [PHOTO] I also recommend the free walking tours of Kraków and its Kazimierz district, including a stop outside the newly opened Schindler's Factory museum. The college-student guides are licensed and conduct the tours just for tips. [PHOTO]
Fun surprise... Seeing newlyweds having their wedding photos taken outdoors, [PHOTO] particularly in the rain at Malbork Castle. [PHOTO] We were also surprised at how very helpful and courteous people were whenever we asked for help. People took the time to try to understand our questions and point us in the right direction—even this elderly woman who was picking mushrooms in the countryside. [PHOTO]
Moment when things got tense... When driving through the countryside, I decided to take a "shortcut." After we had to ford three streams to reach our destination, I realized I should have stuck to the roads shown on our map. It also reminded me that parts of Poland had suffered from severe floods the previous spring, which washed away many bridges.
Lost in translation... The symbols of restrooms! Some still show only circles and triangles—like the outhouses near one of the old wooden churches we visited. [PHOTO] We later learned from our walking-tour guide in Kraków that women use restrooms marked with a circle and men use ones marked with a triangle.
Total rip-off... The Wi-Fi fee at our Marriott hotel in Warsaw was steep for budget travelers like us. We avoided the fee by using the free Wi-Fi at the mall (Złote Tarasy) across the street, under a big glass bubble dome; we found that many businesses offer free Wi-Fi throughout Poland.
I'm still laughing about... Running through the underground maze of tunnels at the Warsaw station during rush hour to catch a train. With suitcases in tow, we struggled to keep track of the man who was kind enough to lead us to the correct platform. Otherwise, we might have been lost forever in the labyrinth of confusing passageways.
Hotel I liked... The Venetian House apartment/hotel [PHOTO] on the huge town square in Kraków (Rynek Główny 11) is brand-new, and the rooms include a small kitchen. It also had an elevator, so we didn't have to drag our luggage up the stairs! The location is superb for tourists—by the old Cloth Hall [PHOTO] and the new high-tech underground museum that details Kraków's history. We were just a few steps from the Polonia House, where we heard a passionate Polish pianist play Chopin études and mazurkas during an evening concert.
Wish I'd known that... All the trains we rode actually accepted our seven-day rail pass. I could have saved a $7 fare. Unfortunately, some employees at small train stations are not familiar with the passes and may say that you need to buy a ticket. You may be better off just hopping on board with your pass, as the conductors are more knowledgeable about them.