Eastern Europe 2015

  • Kraków and Poznań

The first day of the holiday was a leisurely affair. I pottered around the apartment tidying, cleaning and packing, and even when I shouldered my backpack and headed into town, well fed, I was in no rush. The 747 bus took me to the airport, security was minimally invasive, and I was soon in the Ryanair queue. Which is where things started to glitch. Knock-on effects from an airport fire that morning delayed us for 45 minutes, most of which I sat out. The flight was mostly okay in the end though, and my Lonely Planet guidebook provided serviceable reading material.

In Krakow, we landed at the shed-like Terminal 2 and I spent a little time figuring out how to catch the shuttle to the under-construction Terminal 1. From there it was just a matter of following the crowds onto the bus to Krakow Glowny station. The attached Galeria Krakowska was massive and mostly empty, but I eventually emerged and found my way into the Old Town and Greg & Tom’s Beer House Hostel. A quick walk around the Old Town (and three invites to strip bars) later, it was time to head to bed.

Bed didn’t equate to sleep though, due to noisy British tourists (the perils of hostel life). Even so, it wasn’t too much of a hassle to get up and shower at 6.15am. I’d booked the early tour of Auschwitz, and I caught the bus with the rest of the group at 7.05am. A trip through the Silesian countryside brought us to Oswieczm, where the remains of the camps stand.

The tour seemed sanitised at first, but the enormity of what had been done there slowly crept up on us. It was a silent group who headed across to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where the relics of the Holocaust are even more evident. The crematoria, the barracks, the ash pits – we saw them all.

On the way back to Krakow, most of us slept off the effects of the sun and heat, and I was no different. Back in town I availed of the cheap lunch (meatloaf and potatoes) and booked a salt mine tour for the afternoon. There’s no doing it like overdoing it, after all.

The bus that took me to the salt mine at Wieliska was shorter than that to Oswieczm, and I fell into the company of Mike the Aussie and Luke the Kiwi, my hostel roommate, both of whom had also been on the Auschwitz trip.

There was time when we arrived for an ice cream, and then once our tour group was sorted we were off, heading down, down, deeper and down into a mine that seemed half salt-infused rock, half wooden supports. (Wooden supports that were often salt encrusted.) There were lakes, caves, tunnels, and, near the end, wifi. We handled it all with aplomb, surviving until our poor little feet gave out, at which stage we took the fast lift back to the surface and a stunning sunset.

Once back in Krakow, Luke, Mike, and I went in search of a 24hr pierogi joint Mike had heard of. We found it too, and I enjoyed not only the tasty pierogi mix but also some sour wheat soup with a hard-boiled egg. After that though, there wasn’t much energy left for anything else, and we all headed back to our hostel beds. In theory, I could (should?) have gotten up and gone out for a pint. In practice, I didn’t.

This did mean that I got up early the next morning though, and faffed around online until it was time to for a shower (with actual hot water) and breakfast (fruit-stuffed pancakes). Then a day of walking awaited.

First up was the central square of the Old Town, with its craft and souvenir stands. Beyond that lay Wawel Hill, with its massive castle. I wasn’t much in the mood to look at royal apartments, so the only tickets I bought were for the S**** Tower and the Dragon’s Den. The former offered a fine, if cramped, view of the River Vistula, and the latter was dank and atmospheric, if somewhat scaled down from the salt mine of the previous day.

A quick walk across the river brought me to a balloon ride I’d spotted the previous day. The queue didn’t seem too large, but that proved misleading. Thanks to a stiff breeze, they were only taking four people up at a time. Still, I bided patiently and was eventually allowed on board.  The views from the heights were well worth it, and the rocking of the gondola not too problematic. The next group weren’t as lucky though – I saw the wind almost ground them before their ascent was abandoned.

Back in town, I circled Wawel Hill again and headed up through the parks that line the western side of the Old Town. This brought me to the Collegium Maius, where I watched the old clock strike one before taking a well-timed English-language tour. The old buildings seemed half-Hogwarts, half-Unseen University and were packed to the brim with knickknacks both scientific and more frivolous (an Oscar beside a Nobel Prize, for example).

Having spent an hour and a half well, I headed for the main square once more, seating myself outdoors at the P***** to enjoy lunch. The pierogi stuffed with chanterelle mushrooms were good, but the main course of pike had a few too many bones for my taste.  Still, cheesecake for dessert rarely fails. Having sated myself, I decided to try and sort out travel. I headed to Krakow Glowny first, then took a troll through the Galleria Krakow. After that I decided to see if I could make my own way out to Krakow Plasztow station, so I headed southeast, following the tram tracks.

It was a longer walk than I expected, through some sketchy areas, but I did detour to see the Schindler Factory Museum (I didn’t go in though). Eventually, I reached Plasztow, via a brand new and almost completely unused tramway bridge. Once there, I deciphered the train timetable and developed something resembling a plan. To get back into town though, I had to freeload on a 24 tram. A tasty ice cream restored my sunbaked and footsore energies, then a quick visit to Glowny solidified my plans. After that, I made a quick trip back to the Beer House for my bag.

I met up with Luke in the bar, and we shared some rugby talk over a couple of beers before I had to depart. Once at Glowny, I found a train to take me to Plasztow, only to find on making it to Plasztow that it was the very same train that was due to take me to Poznan! I found my seat, only to be ushered out of it by a couple who colonised the compartment, and found myself an empty compartment to sit in instead. Tired, sweaty and slightly inebriated, I relaxed as we sped off through the darkness, joined as we went with some other travellers.

The first of these, whose name was Martin, chatted with me after a while. He’d just flown into Krakow from Liverpool and like me was taking the train all the way to Poznan. As the night wore on though, we closed the window against the rain, the door against the security guards, and our eyes against the hope of sleep.

In the first light of the pre-dawn, we reached Poznan Glowny, another recently rebuilt station. I had five hours in the city to explore, so I headed out as soon as I’d found my bearings. I headed first into town, past the 1956 monument and through the Old Square, aiming for the river and the cathedral on the island. I reached it just before the doors opened, and while the two priests tending to the place may not have been too happy to see me, I took a thorough wander around before leaving.

Back to the Old Square then, still empty, and I grabbed some water and an egg salad roll for breakfast. My route back to the station was circuitous, but it wasn’t warm enough to be uncomfortable, and by the time that I got back some shops were opening, making a stroll around the attached mall more worthwhile. After that, I sat down for a while, checked my messages and charged my phone, before I spent the last of my zloty on water and a crumbly croissant.

My last act in Poland was to head downstairs to platform 1 and get on another train. As I had no seat booked for this one, finding a free slot took a little while, but eventually I got settled on a train that proved much less rattly than the previous one, headed west towards Germany.

  • Berlin
  • Prague
  • Vienna and Bratislava
  • Budapest
  • Belgrade
  • Sofia
  • Veliko Tarnovo
  • Bucharest
  • Chisinau, Cluj or Constanta?
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