I don’t know about Europeans, but I would hazard a guess that most North Americans think of Poland and Hungary (if they think of them at all) as nothing more distinct than a couple of biggish countries somewhere east of Germany. Stephen and I had very little idea of what to expect from either, which is, of course, exactly why we wanted to go.
Both have a rocky history of being conquered, having revolutions, and being conquered again. They both lost huge segments of their populations to Nazi Death Camps, and they both ended up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain after WW2. They suffered under the reign of Stalin, and emerged into a slightly less brutal Communism afterwards. In 1989, Communism ended in both countries, and they both joined the EU in 2004. They are both largely flat countries with much of their land dedicated to agriculture.
And yet, they are not the same.
So, in our third instalment of International Smackdown, we try to avoid offending and alienating our friends, while also being honest about our experiences in both countries.
Poland has pierogies. Enough said.
Well, not quite. But for a couple of vegetarian cheapskates, you can’t beat a nice big plate of pierogies and a mixed salad (fresh grated carrot, beets, and cabbage). There’s also borscht (beet soup) which I absolutely adore. Polish potatoes are also pretty great, and we had some of the best fries, roasted potatoes, and potato pancakes there.
Restaurant fare in Hungary was somewhat less enticing, with fried cheese and breaded deep-fried veggies being about the only thing we could eat.
Hungary did have giant Tesco stores wherever we looked though, and most of these has a least a few tofu and soy products. Since we camped and cooked for ourselves a lot in Hungary, having a good variety of supplies on hand was a huge bonus. In Poland, we didn’t find any tofu until one of our last days, when we visited Kaufland (a German supermarket) for the first time. We wish we’d gone there earlier, as they had a better selection of food than any of the other stores in Poland.
Bakeries in both countries were pretty poor, but Poland’s were worse. We stopped eating pastries altogether there, because they just weren’t worth the bother. Cafe culture in both countries was also lacking, so our habit of stopping for a second breakfast and a cup of coffee completely dried up.
In Hungary, the accommodation was hit or miss. Campgrounds were OK, with basic facilities, reasonably clean. Nothing memorable though. Just a place to lay your head for the night, where you probably wouldn’t want to stay for a second night. They all provided stoves (usually just a plug-in electric burner or two) which made camp cooking 100 times easier. We stayed in a few small hotels which were clean and comfortable, but not cheap at around 30 Euros per night. We also had our worst sleep of the trip so far at a youth hostel in Pécs, though I think that was just an anomaly, no reflection on the hostel itself.
In Poland, we stayed at a lot of guesthouses and hotels because campgrounds were thin on the ground and mosquitos were thick in the forests, making it impossible to wild camp. Hotels ranged in price, but tended to be a little cheaper than their Hungarian equivalents. When we finally got to the Polish lake district, we found that camping was offered, but usually on the lawn of a hotel or in the yard of someone’s farmhouse. Some of these set-ups can be quite nice and inexpensive, but again, you wouldn’t want to stay a second night.
Hungary was a cold country. There, I said it. We had the most rude interactions there of anywhere we’ve been (well, maybe Slovakia was worse) and had trouble drawing a smile from almost everyone we passed. We also found the language just impossible. People we tried to communicate with were unwilling or unable to play the foreign-language guessing game, so if they didn’t speak English, we were out of luck.
Having said that, we met some really sweet people in Hungary, including the guy who ran the hostel in Pécs, our host in Budapest, the guys who fixed our bikes in Budapest, and Stephen’s old friend Attila.
So we’re going to assume Hungarians have a tough outer shell, but if you crack that you’ll find a melty chocolate centre.
In Poland, people seemed to smile a lot. It was kind of a culture shock to be met with open faces and welcoming grins, since we hadn’t really seen that since Croatia. We had so many people bend over backwards to be hospitable, helpful, and kind, that I can’t even count them all. This friendly openness made us feel more comfortable asking questions and for things we needed, even if we didn’t speak the language.
In general, neither country really seemed set up for welcoming visitors. Although we did have the best internet access in Hungary, with almost every restaurant and accommodation providing free WiFi. Poland’s access was good until we ventured north of Warsaw, where access became a little spotty.
In both countries we only visited two areas where tourists seemed expected. Let’s start with the cities.
Budapest vs Krakow
It would probably be more fair to compare Budapest to Warsaw, but we didn’t go to Warsaw, because several people told us not to bother, so this is what you get.
Budapest is beautiful. Just a magnificent city when seen from the water. It also has a great cool factor, in the ruin bars that make up much of the nightlife there. It is also giant. I mean, really really big. Buildings are bigger, streets are wider, and distances are further than almost anywhere we’ve been. It’s on a scale with Rome in this regard. So you need to have great walking shoes, or learn to use the tram. The size and bustle was a little overwhelming, especially since we’d come straight from a few weeks in the slow countryside. We easily filled our five days in Budapest and could have quite happily spent more, and we were completely exhausted when we left.
Krakow is also beautiful, in an entirely different way. It has none of the majesty of Budapest, but makes up for it with an bohemian charm. The main square crawls with tourists, people trying to sell you tours, and expensive cafes, but we spent most of our time in Kazimierz, where people who actually live in the city go.
There are countless hip little bars and tasty restaurants in Krakow. You’d have to live there for years to figure out which ones were best and which to avoid. Luckily, we managed to stumble upon a few great ones while we were there. Krakow is much more manageable on foot, though we did hop on and off the tram a few times to save our soles.
If you could just visit one, I’d say go with Krakow. It’s a friendly little place, but with enough variety to keep you interested for a week.
Lake Balaton vs The Mazury
It’s only natural to compare Balaton in Hungary to Mazuria in Poland, since these are they are both lakeside holiday destinations. Except it’s not really fair. Balaton is Central Europe’s biggest lake, but it has seen better days as a tourist destination, probably when communism prevented Hungarians from taking a cheap trip to Croatia. To be honest, it was sort of depressing, and I wouldn’t recommend it.
We were sort of wondering if The Mazury would offer a similar experience, but it couldn’t have been more different.
It really is a beautiful region, with thousands of lakes, dotted with plenty of wetlands and wildlife. There are boating opportunities galore, including a 10-day kayaking route that I’d love to take some day. It’s not overrun with people, but there is enough life around to make it interesting, and to ensure that there are a good selection of places to stay and eat. We had a great few nights here, and should probably have stayed a few more.
Roads And Traffic
From the time we entered Hungary until the time we left, we saw very little in the way of traffic. I don’t even remember what the drivers were like, because there were so few of them. Roads were mostly in great condition, and when you reach the great plain, hills cease to exist. This means there’s lots of wind, of course. Cyclists just can’t win. In and out of Budapest, the EV6 cycle path takes care of you, so you don’t even have to deal with cars in the big city.
Almost every Polish person we met commented that cycling in Poland must be awful, because the roads are bad and the drivers are worse. We didn’t experience that at all.
Yes, we had to spend a lot of time on busier routes sincere there weren’t many alternatives. It would have been nice to have a little less traffic and a few cleaner cars, but we never experienced anything truly bad. Nothing like the Italian highways, that’s for sure.
Road conditions were some of the best we’ve seen, though there were a few that had us bumping along badly paved over formerly cobbled streets. Riding through The Mazury was just lovely, with perfect roads and very few cars to disturb us.
And The Winner Is…
Sorry Hungary, but it’s gotta be Poland. Better food, better riding, better sights… but maybe skip the mosquitoey middle of the country and just visit north and south. Or, if you’re into Hungary, spend a week in Budapest, which is an amazing destination in its own right. ♥