Trip Start Mar 05, 2008
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Settling into the bus trip to Warsaw I was somewhat surprised to discover that my driver for the journey was going to be Avram Grant. Id heard that he got the sack as Chelsea football manager but I could never have imagined he would be back in the hot seat so quickly. As we exited Vilnius bus station I was hoping that Mr.Grant's driving talents were prettier than the style of football he presided over. If I was ever going to feel totally comfortable on buses again I need the trip to Warsaw to go as smoothly as possible. It was already getting dark by the time we hit the road so I wasn't going to witness much entertainment looking out the window and foolishly I made the schoolboy error of forgetting to charge my ipod before leaving the hostel so the journey was in danger of feeling quite a bit longer than the scheduled 9hrs. Of the many countries ill be visiting on this trip, Poland is perhaps etched into my mind more so than any other. The first time I ever heard words like war, Nazi, concentration camp, genocide, gas chamber, the word Poland was always uttered in close proximity. They are all words that are inextricably linked with Poland's history, a checkered past that has seen Poland involved in some of the most defining moments in Europe's history. On 1st of September 1939 German bombs rained down on Poland thus marking the beginning of World War II. The Germans then used Poland as a base to invade the Soviet Union. By the time the red-army had ousted the Nazis over 6million Poles had died including the country's 3million Jews, who were brutally murdered in death camps. The country then had to endure nearly 4 decades of Soviet dominated communist rule before finally achieving independence in 1990. Poland has since joined the EU and things appear to be on the up. However, this period in Polish history has seen a mass exodus of its population to all corners of Europe, with so many living and working in Ireland alone I wondered if there was going to be anyone left, could it be a case of last one out turn off the lights.
At the first major stop on the bus route out of Lithuania I was joined in the spare seat next to me by a Polish guy called Jan. With his skin head and numerous tattoos on display I was praying he would sit at any one of the other free seats available, no such luck. He may have looked a little on the scary side but the outward rough exterior hid a soft centre and he turned out to be a real nice guy. He was living and working in London and was on his way home to visit family for the first time in over 4yrs. He had left home originally some years ago to attend university in England but while he was there he met an English girl and fell in love. Unfortunately it didn't work out for him and they got divorced a short time after marrying. He is reluctant to return home as he feels life is better for him in England and he can earn a much higher wage. Perhaps in a few years when he has earned enough so he could buy a house or set up a small business he might return but for now his life is in England. His visit home was going to be a surprise for his mother, only his sister knew he was coming home so he was pretty excited about the prospects. Unbelievably it was cheaper for him to fly into Lithuania and then get a bus to Warsaw, a long journey to say the least. As I was sitting there listening to his story I had a thought, it never ceases to amaze me how open and honest people can be with total strangers. Traveling the world on Public Transport has provided me with some of the most amazing stories, more often than not I've got the entire life story of the person sitting next to me. On a personal level I love these interactions and on this occasion the chat with Jan, although not a wild story, would help to pass the time. While talking to him I was able to get some information on Warsaw, although most of it I could probably have done with not knowing. He was pretty scathing in his remarks about Polish people saying that I was to be real careful of my belongings in the station and not to hang around as there are lots of gangs about the place. In his opinion I was better off getting straight out of Warsaw and going to a nicer city like Krakow. Whether he is right or wrong it's not the kind of information you want to hear when you're on your way to a new city. I might not have fully appreciated his advice and I doubt the Polish Tourist board would be looking for his services, but as id run out of cigarettes I was very grateful to him at the various rest stops for the lone of a smoke, especially when we arrived at the border checkpoint. The usual passport checks took only a short time but the bus had to be practically ripped apart before it was cleared for entry. We were all standing out in the cold night for nearly an hour before we could get back on the road. In the second leg of the journey I managed to get a few hours sleep. At one point I made a complete fool of myself, it was so embarrassing. At a truck stop Jan woke me to ask if I wanted a smoke but I was too warm and snug to be getting out into the cold so I stayed on the bus while he got off. I was dozing lightly when the bus got underway again but awoke with a start when I quickly realized that Jan wasn't beside me. Shouting at the driver to 'stop the bus' while also running down the aisle, I was sure we had left the guy behind. With the driver not sure what was happening and me trying to explain in a language he didn't understand that we had to turn back, it was developing into quite a scene. Just then a voice I recognized came from down the back of the bus, it was Jan shouting at me to relax as he was present and correct. With nearly every eye fixed on me I was mortified and bright red as I quickly made my way back to my seat. Slumping into the chair I wished for the arrival of Warsaw.
The Dworzec Zachodnia bus station is 2km from the city centre. With the warnings from Jan ringing in my ear I wasn't planning to spend any time hanging around the station. My Japanese friend , from the hostel in Vilnius was heading in a similar direction so for some reason I was keen to make sure he got where he was going ok, even though he probably had a better track record then me. It has to be said I haven't exactly been assured in finding my way around Europe thus far. Crossing the road outside the station you take the bus no.127 to Centrum. After dropping him in the area of his hostel I jumped on another bus that would take me in the general direction of my own hostel, 'hostel tamaka' for Pln30 per night. It was hitting 7am by the time I arrived at the door but thankfully the reception was open and I was able to drop my bags but I couldn't actually check in till 12.00pm. I had pre-booked one night but had been thinking on the coach journey that I might stay two, but with not being able to check in I would be spending quite a long day around the city and figured that one day might be enough. I made arrangements with the guy at reception that if I felt I needed another night I would be able to inform him later in the afternoon. In fairness he was sound and allowed me to avail of a free breakfast even though I wasn't entitled. I was dying for a shower and lye down but I forced myself to get out and explore the sights. Even though it was barely 9am the heat of the day was already stifling.
If I was going to use one word to describe Warsaw it would have to be 'phoenix' because having been completely destroyed by the end of World War II the city has managed to rise from the ashes like the bird of flame. In the aftermath of the 1944 uprising against the Nazis Warsaw was completely obliterated with nine out of ten buildings crumbling to ruins. By the end of World War II the city was virtually uninhabited yet a tremendous reconstruction effort had much of the city rebuilt as early as the 1950's. I think this fact says more about the resilience of the Polish people than any other and exemplifies their strong sense of national identity. The communist-era (1945-89) has contributed significantly to the cities architecture with the most notable being the 'the palace of science and culture' which was a personal gift from Stalin himself but since the fall of communism Warsaw has been developing rapidly if not chaotically at times. Warsaw is divided into two parts by the river Vistula, which crosses the city vertically with the separate parts normally referred to as the left and right banks. The area left of the river includes the city centre and the 'old town' and it will be here that most travelers spend their time as most of the major attractions are located here. Having been reconstructed with great care after the war the old town is the most attractive part of the city and has been honored by UNESCO putting the historic centre on its world heritage list. The gate way to the old town is through Plac Zamkowy, castle square, a large open square that is made recognizable by a tall monument to Sigismund Vasa, the man who is credited with moving the capital of the country from Krakow to Warsaw. The square is outlined by the massive 'Royal Palace' but perhaps the most poignant sight of the old town is the 'Monument to the Warsaw rising', a striking set of statues depicting the heroic revolt against German rule in 1943. While strolling through the narrow backstreets of the old town you come to the magnificent 'Rynek Starego Miasta' (old market square) where stylish cafes provide perfect places to rest and take a break from all the sightseeing before continuing further to view the remnants of the medieval city walls. To the west of the old town is the quarter of the city that was once predominantly inhabited by Warsaw's Jewish community. About 400,000 Jews lived here and during WWII the Nazis converted this area in a Jewish ghetto and from here they were transported on a large scale to death camps around Poland. In April 1943 the German soldiers decided to liquidate the ghetto and erase the Jewish community from Warsaw completely. A resistance was fought and lasted for almost a month but eventually the out numbered resistance fighters fell and most of all the inhabitants of the ghetto murdered. Around 20,000 Jews managed to escape and hide out in the 'Aryan side' of the city a feat which is remembered in the Roman Polanski film 'the pianist'. By the end of the war around 6million Poles and Jews had been killed and the Warsaw Jews are remembered by the 'Warsaw Ghetto Monument' on ul Anielewicza. A visit to the Jewish Cemetery on ul Okopowa is evidence to the scale of destruction of human life suffered by these people. The 'Warsaw Rising Museum' is a place I wanted to visit but for the life of me I couldn't find it anywhere. I would be walking ul Grzybowska and see a sign saying 400meters and an arrow pointing in the direction to go but id then walk what I think was 400meters only to come across a sign saying the museum was 800meters back in the direction I came from. It was starting to drive me demented so I had to give up. The museum recounts with photographs and audiovisual displays the events of the Warsaw rising. If I ever find myself back in Warsaw ill be sure to give it another go. The old town is linked with the modern city centre by 'the Royal Way', a 4km thoroughfare along historic parks, gardens and notable buildings. Places of interest include the 'Saxon Gardens' and the 'Tomb of the Unknown Solider' erected at the gardens gates. The Tower of St.Anne's church provides excellent view of the city while the Church of the Holy Cross has the heart of classical composer Frederic Chopin preserved in one of its pillars. Coming to the end of the way I was back at my hostel and confident I had covered all the sights of interest within the city. I would leave in the morning for Krakow and a two night stay there before traveling onwards to the Czech Republic. Stopping off in one of the many cafes along the route I sipped a few beers while watching the sun go down. It was an appropriate end to a very pleasant day around Warsaw.
In an attempt to set myself up for the day, and to save on lunch I filled my boots with another hostel breakfast. When you're on a budget you try and cut corners wherever possible, all the little savings can add up after awhile. I was fairly tired from a poor nights sleep, most of it was spent in the corridor. I was sharing the room with this French woman in her fifties and every time I left the room she would keep locking me out. At one point I went to the bathroom and had to spend the next while standing in the corridor, in my pajamas and banging on the door for her to let me back in. When eventually she did answer she was muttering something to herself in French, no doubt giving out about me. I wished I had paid more attention to my French teachers in school and I might have been able to understand what she was saying; even better I would have been able to give her a suitable response. The first time it happened I had gone out to brush my teeth and the door was locked when I returned, I thought it was my fault and felt really guilty getting her out of bed. It was after I realized the there was actually a double lock on the inside and anytime I went out of the room she was jumping up out of bed to lock me out. There really are some lunatics in the world. When I left the hostel is was another ridiculously hot day where even the 100yard walk to the bus stop had me in need of a change of clothes. I had to let the first 3 buses go by as there wasn't enough room for me and my ruck-sac. When eventually it started to look like I was in danger of missing my train I had to squeeze my way on hoping that I didn't take the head of someone. Once I was safely on my next problem was trying to get off at my stop. I didn't manage it and went a further two stops then I wanted. I made a mental note to try and find out what excuse me means in Polish. It was inconvenient but not disastrous as I made the station with time to spare. For Pln43 I was sitting on the train and watching the Polish countryside roll by, estimated journey time to Krakow 3hrs.
The train station, Krakow Glowny, is in very close proximity to the city's 'old town', all you have to do is exit the station and walk under the nearby road underpass and you're in the old town. I was staying in a hostel called 'the Goodbye Lenin' on Berka Joselewicza, Pln30 per night, and about 15min walk from the old town along Starowislna. I was planning to stay for two nights but as I was checking in the girl at reception advised me that it was unusual for people to stay in the city any less than 3nights. Thinking that she was giving me the hard sell I stuck to my guns and paid for only two. After checking in I decided that I would try and get organized and make arrangements for Prague, which would be my next stop. Train travel in and out of Poland had a very bad reputation for being unsafe so for this reason I was going to stick to the bus being my preferred mode of transport. The bus station is located on the opposite side to the train station and is accessible by another underpass. When I arrived at the station doors I was about to walk through as another guy approached. As I put my hands out in front of me to signal for him to go first he did the same. Walking through I said thanks before he spat on my back and started walking away. I couldn't believe it; I didn't know what to do. The only thing I could think of was to picking up one of my flip flops and throw it at him. It was probably a good job I missed; you never know what type of nut job he was. It was the first bit of agro or negativity id encountered since leaving Ireland. It appeared to me that he only spat when he heard me speak English so maybe he was anti foreigners or something. I was still angry but trying to put the event out of my mind when I reached the counter. I was telling myself that I couldn't let the stupidity of one idiot spoil a stay in Krakow, especially when the guy at the eurolines desk told me that I would have to stay longer than expected. There is not a regular bus service linking Krakow to Prague and the next one wasn't for 4days time. Hearing this I couldn't resist a little smile, now I know why the receptionist in the hostel said that most visitors to Krakow stay for at least 3 nights. The hostel didn't look all that busy and I figured she wouldn't have tried to sell me an extra night if they were full so I booked the ticket but went back to the hostel straight after to make sure. As I exited the station I had a keen eye searching around for the spitting gentlemen, I was planning to give the other flip flop a go and see if my aim was better. He was nowhere to be found, he probably went underground so he could avoid my wrath. You might not believe it but I can be pretty scary when I want to be ;0). In a rather flirtatious manner the receptionist expressed her delight at the news I would be bunking with them an extra night and as she gave me a guided tour of the hostel she introduced herself as Zuzia. I was warning her that she had better not have put some kind of jinx on me as I was definitely leaving after the 3 nights. The hostel was really cool with a cheeky Polish People's Republic theme. With every bed labeled with a motto, the whole ambience is a real tongue and cheek swipe at communism. With free tea and coffee, free laundry, free internet, it was already looking like it would be one of the best hostels I've stayed in and that was before the tour ended up in the downstairs bar. The layout of the bar was quirky and very cool. There were both pool and fuzzball tables and on one of the walls a huge mural reminiscent of the communist era with the slogan 'coca cola is evil'. On arrival Zuzia had given me a voucher for a free welcome drink so there was no better point to jump off the guided tour. Sitting up at the bar I introduced myself to the barman but no sooner had he placed the free shot of vodka in front of me I was wondering if maybe I should have suck with the guided tour. If you start the night in that manner there is only one way it's likely to finish, on the floor. With a good Irish name like Michal I knew that the barman was somebody I was going to see a lot of over the coming days. While sipping on a beer I couldn't help but notice a frenzied and passionate game of fuzzball being played out by 4 girls and when they finally broke for the full time whistle I got chatting to them up at the bar. They were all in their final year studies to become drama teachers and were over on a class party, a week long class party no less. Angela, Sarah, Rebecca and Violet, it was an introduction of tremendous significance to my stay in Krakow. They were only a party of 4 that night but had come out to Krakow as a five some, Fran the fifth member was in bed with a throat infection and I would have to wait till another night to meet her. They were all studying in Manchester and since I went out with a girl in Manchester at one time it was not difficult to find some common ground. They were wild, raucous, and fantastic fun. As we chatted we were knocking back the drinks and to say it was a late night would be a huge understatement for the sun was up on a new day by the time we hit our beds.
Rather surprisingly I was up and about by lunch time and although a little tired I was brimming with enthusiasm for a spot of sightseeing, something that I had been severely lacking over the last number of days. Krakow is Poland's 3rd largest city and is considered to be the jewel in the Polish crown. For over 500yrs it was the country's capital until the 16th century when it was replaced by Warsaw. It is something of a sore point and thus relations between people in the two cities are not great and Krakow is still considered to be the intellectual capital. Unlike Warsaw, which was raised to the ground during WWII, Krakow came through the war relatively unscathed retaining one of the best preserved medieval city centers in Europe. As a result UNESCO has included Krakow's old town on their world heritage list. Actually the region now boasts 3 UNESCO listed world heritage sites within close proximity, old town, the Wielicza salt mine, and Auschwitz, which draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The heart of Krakow is the old town and its marked by a magnificent market square called Rynek Glowny and its one of the largest and best preserved medieval squares in Europe. It dates back to the 13th century and has remained relatively untouched since then. At the centre of the square is the 'Sukiennice' or cloth hall built in the 14thcentury. I don't know what its original purpose was but it now plays host to a great number of souvenir shops on the lower floor and the national gallery is on the upper floor. Over looking the cloth hall are the twin towers of St.Mary's church, one of the cities most famous religious landmarks in a city that gave birth to a Pope, Pope John Paul II. On the opposite side of the square to the church is the town hall tower. Every now and then a trumpet will sound over the square which ends as abruptly as it started. The story goes that in a time long ago the city came under attack by marauding hordes that were conquering their way across Europe when the town trumpeter ran up the tower and began to sound an alarm. Unfortunately he was shot with an arrow, the music died and the marauding army was able to take the city. The short trumpet call is how the city remembers this moment. Quite an amusing tale I thought. The old town is surrounded by a tree filled area known as 'the Planty'. In medieval times the old town was protected by a defensive wall but over time it has largely been demolished and the green belt of the public park has replaced it. In fact the only remaining part of the wall is 'the Barbican' a defensive bastion accessed by walking up ul Florianska and passing the 14thcentury 'Florian Gate'. At the southern tip of the old town and situated atop Wawel Hill is Krakow's most iconic symbol and the main draw for tourists, Wawel Castle. The 10thcentury castle was the seat of Polands kings for over 500yrs but it now houses a number of museums. Entry to the grounds is free but a ticket and guide are required to visit any of the museums. The castle itself is architecturally beautiful having incorporated Medieval, Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque styles. The castle looks out over a picturesque bend in the Vistula River, where the stunning view attracts many relaxing Krakovians and tourists alike and the perfect place to bring an end to my first day proper. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the girls were organizing a night on the town that was going to begin where the previous night had finished, the bar of the goodbye lenin. As the girls were taking their time getting ready I got chatting to the owner of the hostel, Andrzej, down at the bar. He and Michal were getting prepared for the start of the euro football championships with Michal expertly designing shots that would represent the flags of all the competing nations. I've never been one to shy away from a challenge and with the help of Andrzej we got down to the business of naming and drinking most of the competitions participants with Portugal being the most rancid. With Andrzej being of a similar age and mindset as myself we hit it off straight away. He himself had traveled a great deal of the world so was keen to discus my planned trip. It's great when I get to talk to someone like him about the trip. He understands the magnitude of the undertaking and the difficulties I will encounter but at the same time is so supportive as it's something he would love to attempt himself. I guess it's a mutual respect or something. Anyway by the end of the night we were calling each other our brother. When the girls arrived we had a few more drinks in the bar before hitting the town. With Krakow being home to Poland's largest university it has essentially become a bit of a university town therefore giving rise to a young student life with an expanse of bars, restaurants and nightclubs all over the city. We hit this club called 'midgard' on Szpitalna, with an intricate design and a sprawling basement of dance floors its got a cool vibe and with a mix of music it cant help but please. By the end of the night our merry little group had grown at least twice in size and strangely everybody seemed to know my name even though I didn't recall introducing myself to half of them. Getting back to the hostel Andrzej made the mistake of opening up the bar for a little night cap and again it was by the light of a new day that I was making my way to bed.
I wish I could say that I woke up as fresh this morning as I did the previous one but I'm afraid it was no such look. Not the best frame of mind to be in when deciding to visit the Auschwitz museum, even the bus trip I was going to have to get didn't have any appeal never mind the actual museum. However with it being my last day in Krakow it was my only chance to get to see it and I felt it was important that I visit. While sitting outside the hostel, smoking a cigarette and summoning up the energy to get on the road, I bumped into this guy from Holland. His name was Robert and apparently I had not only been talking to him the night before but I had also played a few games of pool with him. The alcohol must have clouded over that bit of memory. He was driving around Europe before going down to Spain to start a new job and he was planning to drive out to Auschwitz for the day. What a stroke of luck, luck of the Irish you might say. I nearly bit his hand off in accepting his offer but had to spend the entire journey uncomfortably trying to pretend that I remembered him from the night before. From the way he spoke you would have sworn he had known me for years. There can be fewer place names in the world that when uttered conjure a more sickening feeling than Auschwitz, the location of the most heinous act against all of humanity. Auschwitz was the largest of Nazi Germany's concentration camps and its remains are located approximately 50km west of Krakow in the town of Oswiecim. The drive there is actually quite beautiful but it's hard to relax and enjoy it when you can't stop thinking about where you are going. The sense of foreboding just seems to increase with every passing mile. I found it difficult to justify my wanting to see the camp, its not as if it's like any tourist site I've experienced thus far. With an estimated 1.6million people having died there, paying my respects to these dead seemed the only way I could defend my interest. The camp was built in 1940 and originally consisted of three main parts, two of these Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau still remain and have been converted into museums not only to commemorate the dead but also to document the atrocities inflected upon them. It was with a great deal of unease that I found myself at its gates, perhaps the closest thing on earth to the gates of hell. Under the sign 'Arbeit Macht Frei' meaning 'Work makes (one) Free' you enter the camp making the same walk that many hundreds of thousands made to their eventual death. At first it was the Poles that were imprisoned in the camps but soon they would be joined by Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies and when in 1942 it became the site of the greatest mass murder in our history committed against the European Jews. The camp consists of a number of prison blocks with the incoming railway line separating the women's camp from the men. With the majority of people having arrived at the camp by train I was filled with an eerie feeling while looking down the tracks, for so many it was a one way journey. For the incarcerated it must have symbolized the last remaining connection to the outside world, a world that they would never get to see, and a freedom they would never get to experience. The state museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau is now housed within the majority of the remaining blocks. The displays and photographs that highlight the plight of the Polish, Jewish and Gypsy communities are at times difficult to witness. What amazed me was the attention to detail with which the German army documented their atrocities. It's almost as if they believed so much in what they were doing and recorded their exploits in such detail so that the future generations could applauded their vision. I found it chilling to the core. The quotes from Hitler and his army generals would make you almost physically sick. He wanted to wipe the very existence of Poland from the history books and his 'final solution to the Jewish question' was to exterminate them completely. Housed in one display is a mass of hair that was cut from the prisoners and used to make sacking and wigs. There are other wall to ceiling displays of personal belongings like shoes, glasses, and suitcases with the names of their owners etched into the sides. All these things were found when the Soviet red army eventually liberated the camp in 1945. Between blocks 10 and 11 is the execution yard where prisoners who were thought to merit individual executions as opposed to the gas chamber, were shot against a reinforced wall. Standing facing the wall, and the memorial, you are standing on the very spot that witnessed the execution of so many people. In the basement of block 13 were a number of cells, differing from one another in method of punishment but all designed with the same cruelty of mind. The 'standing cells' where 4 men would be forced to stand in a cell about 1.5meter squared for days on end. The 'starvation cells' where as the name suggests, prisoners were denied food or water until their eventual death. There were also 'dark cells' which had a tiny window and a big solid door leaving prisoners to slowly suffocate as they used up all the oxygen in the air. Sometimes the SS would light a candle in order to use up the oxygen more quickly. The gas chamber in Auschwitz I operated from 1941 to 1942 and it still exists today along with the associated crematorium. It was used mainly against the Polish and Soviet prisoners of war during this time. Auschwitz I was built as a workers camp originally and was later converted to house gas chambers whereas Auschwitz II-Birkenau was an extermination camp built specifically for the mass execution of Jews. Its 3km between the two but I'm afraid I couldn't stomach going to Birkenau, so everything outlined above is within the confines of Auschwitz I. While taking the tour of the gas chamber I felt at one point that I was struggling to breathe. It was all in my head but I felt like the air was so thin and laced with a stench of death that I couldn't handle the experience anymore. To stand in the chamber along with the ghosts of all these people was just too much. As I walked outside I was sick to my stomach witnessing an Italian couple getting a photograph taken by the gas chamber door, the two of them arms wrapped around one another, smiling wide. One for the mantle piece I think you will agree! As we drove back to Krakow I was trying to come to terms with everything I had both witnessed and read over the course of the day. I returned to my original question about the current purpose of Auschwitz and came to the conclusion that it stands as a reminder to the world, to future generations, of the crimes and cruelty that humans can inflict against one another. It exists so we can learn from these crimes thus ensuring that these events are never carried out again. Deep in my thoughts I began to ask the question, what has our society, man kind, really learned from Auschwitz?? Can we honestly say that it is not happening in our world today?? Have we forgotten the ethnic cleansing and mass murder of Albanians in the Balkan conflict. The mass extermination of people at Auschwitz may have occurred in the 1940's but the war in the Balkan's was at its height a little over 10years ago. Have we also forgotten about Darfur where it's estimated between 200,000 and 500,000 people have died, buried in mass graves, and as many as 2.5 million are thought to have been displaced. It is nothing short of genocide and on levels not seen since the time of Auschwitz yet the governments of the world don't do anything about it. Some governments are too busy fighting a phoney war in Iraq to be bothered with trying to solve a real conflict within Africa. How can we call ourselves a free, just and educated western society when we allow places like Guantanimo bay to exist, where people can be detained without charge or proof, and are in all likely hood tortured and with no prospects of release violating the all of their human rights. For Hitler it was the 'creation of a German master race', for Mr.Bush and Mr.Blair it was 'was on terror'; because it's given a name doesn't mean it becomes a just cause. Getting back to the hostel for what was my last night I met up with the Manchester girls and Andrzej and we drank the night away. It was as much an attempt to forget some of the things that id seen over the course of the day as to enjoy my last night in Krakow.
As I awoke in the morning I was lying in the bed staring at the ceiling when I suddenly remembered that I had a bus to catch to Prague. Jumping down from the bed I was horrified to discover it was 10.55am meaning I only had 5mins to get packed and get to the station. Immediately I started running around frantically trying to stuff things into my bag but as I packed I knew deep down it was a fruitless task, there was no way I could make it. I was really annoyed with myself as it was the first time I can remember ever missing a bus or train while I've been on my travels. It's also the first time I ever remember sleeping-in, no small feet considering that while fruit picking in Queensland I was often up at 4am for work. As I looked down at the clock I cursed myself for being so casual in not setting the alarm. It wouldn't have been a problem if I hadn't already paid for the ticket and the accommodation in Prague. It's these unforeseen events that have me not wanting to plan things in the first place but I bowed to advice on Prague from other travelers. My head was still foggy from a vodka haze but as it slowly started to clear I was hit with the memory that my camera had gone missing the night before. The camera was a leaving present from the guys in my last job so it was really important to me but add to that the fact that all the photographs id taken so far were on the memory card in the camera, I was distraught. I went down to the reception in the hopes that somebody might have handed it in but in my heart of hearts I knew somebody had nicked it. I remembered leaving it down on the table the night before for what seemed like only a few minutes and when I looked back it was gone. I was so angry at myself for being so careless with something so sentimental. My next move was to start pulling the bar apart in the hopes that it might have fallen behind a couch or under a chair. When I was in the middle of my search I was greeted with boisterous laughter coming from Andrzej who seemed to appear out of nowhere. I had said goodbye to him the night before so he was somewhat surprised to see me. When I explained that I had missed my bus he was nearly wetting himself he was laughing so much. As he started to pull a few pints of beer for the two of us he asked me for the ticket so he could hang it behind the bar. I didn't understand why but when he started laughing uncontrollably again and I was beginning to feel a little offended, I mean it wasn't that funny. When he explained, by pointing to the ticket, that my bus was at 11.30am I was still a little unclear as to the funny side when all of a sudden it hit me, like a slap in the face with a wet fish. I have this habit of rounding things down to whole numbers, the cost of things, the time of things, basically anything involving numbers. In my mind I had rounded off the time of my bus to 11am but unfortunately when I woke up at 10.55am I had completely forgotten this fact if I had remembered I would have made the bus in plenty of time. To say I felt stupid is a complete understatement. It took the influence of half a beer before I could eventually see the funny side but I was able to have a laugh at my new brother's expense as he had slept last night behind the bar while sitting on a keg of beer. With me not knowing what else to do it was decided that I would be spending another night in Krakow. As Andrzej placed a beer in front of me he said that he had a proposition he would like to discuss with me. I was more than a little intrigued as I took a wee sip from the glass. Over the course of the last few days Andrzej had been observing me interacting with everyone staying in the hostel. In his opinion, I was helping everyone have a good time and because people thought I was good fun they were staying in the hostel every night and spending their money in his bar rather than any of the other bars around town, in other words my presence was good for business. It was for this reason and also because I was now his brother that he was offering me a job as a 'bbq entertainer'. I was completely taken aback; the offer came completely out of left of field to me. He said that he wouldn't be able to pay me but it would be free food, accommodation and more importantly free drink and my role would be to provide entertainment in the hostel for the summer months. I was really chuffed with the offer and to be honest if I wasn't making my way down to Athens to meet Boyce then I would probably have taken him up on the offer but as it was I had to politely refuse. If I took the job there was a good chance I might not survive the summer, especially if the last few nights were anything to go by.
I wasn't sure if I was going to tell this story or not, it's not one that fills me with pride but I've come to the conclusion that it's important I give an honest account of my travels. So here goes.....I awoke in the middle of the night to the sight of 8 massive Geordie lads surrounding and aggressively shouting at me. I had no idea what they were saying, why they were shouting and for that matter I had no idea where I was. I began to get very worried and really scared as they dragged me from the bed and across the floor, slapping me as I went. Before I had time to think I found myself sitting in the hallway of the hostel trying to piece together what had just happened and also trying to regain my composure. The right side of my face was killing me so I went to the bathroom and discovered, to my complete horror, that I was bleeding from a cut on the top of my nose and worse still the whole right side of my face completely swollen. 'What has happened to me?' is all I could think, 'what the hell is going on?'. The last clear piece of memory I had was drinking with Andrzej down in the bar, I had no idea how I come to be in bed, I had no idea what time it was and I had no idea what had happened to my face. Needless to say, I was starting to get quite upset by the time I made my way down to reception. At a speed of about 90miles an hour and a pitch that only dogs could here I was trying to explain what had just happened to me when Andrzej came out of his room and we were joined by Violet a short time later. As we sat on Andrzej's bed with Violet trying to take the swelling in my face down with some ice I tried to calmly explain what had happened, well what I knew of what happened. Andrzej was able to tell me that he had left me in the bar some time ago so he had no idea what had happened to me and while Violet and the girls had gone out to dinner with their class mates she had no idea either. I was starting to get really distressed by this and was starting to think that I might have been beaten up by the Geordie lads or something. Under advisement from the two guys I tried to relax and eventually drifted off to sleep. When I woke the next morning I was in a complete panic. I don't mind telling you, I don't think I was ever more scared in my life. I didn't know where I was going to go but all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there. After I grabbed all my things I was making my way out the door when the receptionist called me to say that Violet and the girls had left instructions for her to say that if she saw me she was to let me into their room as they had something inside to give me. I thought this was odd but I followed the instructions and when I went into the room on one of the spare beds I found some magazines, an apple, a bottle of water and a note from Violet. She wrote that they weren't sure if I was going to stay around but if I wanted I could use their room to have some time to myself. She said she had left the fruit and magazines for me to chill with and that they hoped they would see me later. Guys, I will never be able to describe fully what that note, that gesture meant to me. I was holding back the tears when I read it. I didn't come out of the room all day but in the evening Andrzej came looking for me to come out and watch the football for it was the opening games of the euro championships. I was reluctant as I didn't want to run into the group of Geordie guys again. He assured me that I had nothing to fear and proceeded to piece together what he had learned of events during the course of the day. The story he divulged still gives me a shiver when I think about it, even to this day. If I haven't mentioned it already I need to tell you that the bar was located in the basement of the hostel and was linked by a marble staircase. As I was making my way down the stairs one of my flip flops got caught in the lip of the step and I lost my balance, landed face first onto the marble steps and tumbled the rest of the way to the bottom. Although I have completely no memory of this, Andrzej got the story from the receptionist on duty that night, I imagine that as a result of the few drinks my reactions were slow and I wasn't quick enough to either prevent the fall or protect myself and thus felt the full force of the fall on my face leaving me half unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. Earlier in the night the Geordie guys had been making a nuisance of themselves and security had been called to sort them out but by the time they arrived the lads had moved onto a strip club. The security then saw me half unconscious, thought I was drunk and carried me to the only open bedroom they could find. This bedroom happened to belong to said Geordie lads. These guys were in the Territorial Army and had just come back from a stint in Iraq so needless to say they were a bit warped in the head from the experience. Tanked up with booze they retuned back to find me in one of their beds and didn't appreciate it. Now I cant blame them for that, I would be pissed off too but with the drink and the pent up aggression they were carrying around from their experiences they dealt with the situation with a great deal of force rather than any kind of diplomacy the result of which was me getting dragged from the bed and slapped across the floor to land in a heap in the hallway. Guy's, to this day I still have no memory of events but when I think about them I'm not only embarrassed and still a little scared but I also feel a little lucky. From what I've been told I was lucky that I came out of it not just with my life but in the very least without any permanent damage. I don't think I had very much brain cells to lose in the first place so I doubt the fall will have any lasting effects on my intelligence. As for my rugged good looks, the swelling just makes me look tough for the moment but I'm quietly confident that once it begins to recede ill be returned to my former glory. Although it was a much calmer and docile night for me I was still persuaded by Andrzej to stay in Krakow for the start of Poland's euro championships. With their first game being against the old enemy, Germany, I didn't need much arm twisting. My planned 2 night stay in the city was rapidly morphing into something akin to an expedition.
While the girls from Manchester were in Krakow they were meant to complete a project for their final exams. They had the idea of going around the city with a camcorder and making a short film of lots of different people saying 'dobcher', the Polish word for cool. It sounded like good fun so I joined them in their endeavors. Starting in market square and making our way to Wavel Castle we stopped random people asking them to smile for the camera and with thumbs up say 'dobcher' down the lens. It was hilarious; some people were so enthusiastic about doing it. When they were all finished I took them on a stroll through the 'Kazimierz' district of the city while on our way back to the hostel. Kazimierz is the old Jewish quarter and has housed Krakow's Jewish community for over 500years. The area is no more famous for a thriving café scene but there are still some tourist sites worth a visit. 'Plac Nowy' is the main square in Kazimierz that at weekends is full of street vendors selling all sorts of goods, fruit, fresh meats, books and clothes to name just a few. The whole area is dotted with synagogues but the most notable is the 'Old Synagogue' which was originally built in the 14th century but during the last world war it sustained a lot of damage but has been reconstructed and now houses the 'Jewish Museum' containing art and artifacts from the history relating to the history of the Jewish community in Krakow. During World War II the Nazis exterminated the Jewish community in the nearby Plaszow concentration camp an episode portrayed in the film 'Schindler's List'. Incidentally you can visit Oscar Schindler's factory on ul Lipowa, you can get inside to have a look around but you will have to bribe the guard. Unfortunately when I was there the guard must have had a day off. I'm not sure what there is worth looking at but I thought it might have been interesting. It is certainly one of the more uplifting stories of World War II and shows the good side of human nature. It might have been a leisurely day about the town but the night was anything but. Andrzej had a big crowd in for the match and although Poland lost 2-0 the party continued well into the night. The bar even ran out of beer at one point so Andrzej pulled out what seemed to be an endless line of bottles of vodka. Mixed with a little cinnamon it's a very easy shot to drink. It was a wild and raucous night with people dancing on the tables by the end of it.
With us all waking up with filthy hangovers we were in need of something of a comforting nature. It would be the girls last night as they were flying home the next day and although I was planning to get a train to Prague that night I managed to get persuaded to stay for another last night. I'm telling you my arms are like jelly they can be twisted so easy. This was going to be my third attempt at a last night. Avoiding the call of alcohol we went for a feel good, civilized and mature, goodbye lunch. Unfortunately, even though the food was excellent I couldn't really enjoy it too the fullest as every mouthful I took tasted like vodka. Forcing it down I told myself that if I never had vodka ever again it would be too soon. This was before returning back to the hostel for another night's vodka consumption. When I was leaving for my train the next morning it was with a tinge of sadness that I left the hostel but with some relief too. I had met some great people, been offered a job as a bbq entertainer, had my camera stolen, fallen down a marble staircase, and was by all accounts lucky to be still alive. I think you will agree it was a lot to pack into 5 days. Andrzej and the guys at the hostel were fantastic hosts and the goodbye lenin hostel will go down as one of the best hostels I've ever stayed in. It would not be the prettiest place but for fun it could not be beat. If I was going to give it a name it would have to be 'hostel california' because I tried to check out many a time but couldn't actually leave. Meeting the girls from Manchester was also a wonderful experience especially Violet, for whom I owe a great deal of thanks. She saved my sanity while also restoring my confidence after the events with the Geordie lads and the marble staircase. The kindness they showed by allowing me to stay with them, in what should have been an all girl dorm, was incredible. It was actually christened the 'harem of mark' for the few days I was there. Walking to the station to get my train I was tired, sore, worn out and severely run down. My taste buds were so messed up that everything I ate or drank tasted of vodka. It would be detox and healthy living for me from here on in ;0).