Bring on the Zubrowka
Trip Start Apr 23, 2005
63Trip End Mar 31, 2006
Show trip route
Having not ventured into Eastern Europe before, I didn't really know what to expect. I had vague impressions of countries struggling to emerge out of the grey oppression of communist rule which left them a bit in the dark ages. My time in berlin set my expectations for what the cities would look like - bland utilitarian architecture completely lacking in soul.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
The weather was clear on the flight to Krakow and I saw a rural landscape of giant strip farms layed out before me. It's like an Australian suburb packed with houses on quarter acre blocks except that the backyard is about a mile long. All the fields were growing different crops giving a cool striped effect. I got off the plane and quickly realised that I had absolutely no grasp of any of the language. No problem - many people spoke english. I got a bus and headed into the centre.
It was now that my preconceptions were completely demolished. The centre (old town) of Krakow is a wicked walled city full of beautiful buildings, amazing walls and gates and the largest medaevil square in Europe all presided over by a massive castle and church perched on a hill on the southern end of the town. A mass of horizontal and vertical streets buzzing with people, shops and cool old houses. I knew instantly that I was going to like this town.
I found my hostel in the old jewish quarter just south of the old town. The jewish quarter was where all the jews lived before WWII. There are now less than 100 jews living in Krakow. The area was a bit of a paradox. Fairly run down with many buildings crumbling, some almost collapsed, but also up and coming with heaps of cool bars and restaurants. My hostel was on a small square which had about 10 bars packed around it. Cool.
The hostel was pretty quiet so I decided to check out one of the local bars to see how friendly the locals were (very, as it turned out). Not usually one for rocking into bars alone (although getting more so as my travels progress), I did a couple circles of the square to checkout the bars on offer. I found one with some good bar space, summoned up some courage and pulled up at the bar. I made some small talk with the barman about polish beer. He asked me where I was from. On saying I was Australian, that was it! He excitedly started telling me about an Aussie guy who used to live their and was a local at the bar. Then he poured me a free beer and introduced me to everyone in the bar, started feeding me free shots of Zubrowska (polish vodka flavoured with bison grass - goes great with apple juice). Then the locals started feeding me shots as well. I think I bought one drink that night and got to know everyone in the bar.
Understandably, I was fairly impressed with Krakow at this point. Great city, fantastic people, good drink and really inexpensive. Only one thing missing - food? I saw these sub looking bread concoctions that some people were eating on the street and managed to work out that they are called Zapikanka. I went to a place near the hostel and gave one a go. It's a half french stick topped with a mushroom puree, cheese and tomato sauce (other toppings such as ham are optional) and its delicious. One of the best fast foods I've ever had - I can't believe its not taken off everywhere else. Where is McZapi???
So thats it. I've fallen in love with this country. In just a few days it has completely won me over.
Next day I headed out to the Salt mines which have been in operation for over 500 years (only as recently as 1970ish were they closed down. It's an amazing complex of chambers that go down to 150metres underground and include heaps of art, mind blowing engineering and an amazing cathedral carved out of the salt and full of statues and carvings. This place has got to be seen to be believed.
Relief of the Last Supper carved in salt
Back to Krakow that night for a fairly quiet one as I was still a bit worse for wear from the previous evening. I went and saw Auschwitz the following day. I won't write too much about it except to say that it was a real important but harrowing experience and a frightening reminder of what we are capable of. It was such a mix of thoughts and feelings that I don't think I have the time, or even ability to express it in words. It has to be experienced.
My time in poland was over. Sadly I bade farewell and caught a train to Prague to meet up with Seans stag do. It was a mixed day - a bit sad to leave poland and also the realisation that this was the end of my European travels. Tomorrow I'm back in the company of friends and no longer travelling alone on my own adventure. It's been an amazing time of experiences, emotions and growth. Sometimes its been hard hard work and all I wanted to do was go back to the cosy, familiar world of London and just surround myself with friends. But at other times it was the biggest rush meeting new people, experiencing things I had never imagined and finding myself bursting with a confidence I never knew I had in me. Also into the mix that day was the fact that most of my friends (blokes anyway) would be at the stag do tomorrow. After having not seen anyone for 2 months, I get to see them all at once. It made me happy as a pig in shit just thinking about it.
But before I met up with my friends, there was one more task to complete - Get myself to Prague. It was then that the legacy of Polands period under Soviet rule first became evident - Their train system sucks! Big time! I had to catch a local train to Katowice and then an internation connection to Prague. The local train arrived 2 hours late and I completely missed the connection. I also discovered that Krakows ease of use for tourists is not universal in Poland. In Katowice no-one speaks english and everything is confusing. I struggled to find the information line which eventually led me to the ticket line so I could make a reservation on the train leaving at 10pm that night. I finally got to the end of the ticket line only to find that I was at the local train desk and needed to go somewhere else for the international ticket desk, the location of which they couldn't really communicate. A local nearby caught my attention and kindly led me to the international desk and then demanded payment. I paid and got in line. The girl at the counter didn't speak English, but pointed me next door to a girl that did (but of couse I had to line up again). Half an hour later I got to the front again only to find that this girl didn't speak English either. We struggled through and she told me in a mixture of words and pointing that I didn't need a reservation - I just had to get on the train. Sounded dodgy, but I didn't have much choice. I stored my backpack and spent the next 6 hours wandering around Katowice (which is decorated in that grey communist oppression style I love so much) and read a book with a couple of beers which improved my mood remarkably). Prior to the beers I had this sickening feeling in my guts that I was going to miss the fellas tomorrow and if anything could make me cry - that would be it.
930pm - I got onto the platform and wait for the train to pull up. They were all sleeper carriages and each carriage seemed to have its own guard. Not knowing exactly what to do, I jumped on board. The guard came up and indicated 'No'. More words and pointing and tickets did nothing to convince him that I could get on the train and 2 minutes later I was standing on the platform watching the train roll away with a horrible mixture of frustration, anger and a real need to hurt someone or something.
I made myself calm down, went outside for a cigarette, regrouped and went through the process again. The ticket office was thankfully still open and I doggedly went through the process of explaining and pointing again and did not leave until I had something more solid to go on. The last train left at 1230am and I was damn well getting on it. Lots of words and gestures later, she managed to tell me that I needed to find the conductor of the whole train who I needed to pay a fee to for a reservation and he would arrange a bed. I got myself up to the platform and as soon as the train pulled in I started asking for the conductor. I found him, showed him my ticket and he gestured me onboard where he gave me my reservation and a sleeper cabin. Relieved, but so wound up, I took a moment to congratulate myself on my greatest achievement in my life to date, and then settled down to a fitful sleep before arriving in Prague at 7am the next morning.