Well, it had been a very eventful 24 hours. We left Vilnius on a night bus at 10:00 on Wednesday (4-13). The bus went over pretty well-- I was really tired so I fell asleep really quickly, then we didn't have to get off of the bus for the border crossing. A nice Polish man simply came on the bus, looked at our passports for about 2 seconds, then moved on. Apparently, it's not even required to stop at the border of the EU countries. They just randomly pick vehicles to stop and check.
They also don't give out stamps, which is a little bit sad because sometimes the stamps are really cool, but it is worth it to not have to go through immigration hassle. I also found out that all of the EU countries are now in the Schengen zone, which means you can only stay in them for 90 days without getting a visa. My trip is 97 days long, so thankfully it is sandwiched between Russia and the UK (neither of which are in the Schengen zone). I wish I could say that I planned it that well, but it worked out accidentally. Good thing too-- the Russian visa was a big enough pain, I don't think I could do it again so soon.
We arrived in Warsaw at 6 AM, which was actually 7 AM because we've gained another hour! So we were temporarily 8 hours ahead, but don't get too excited because Ukraine is an hour behind so we are right back where we started.
But we will be back in Poland in a few days, and will be 8 hours ahead until we get to London in July, which will make skype calling a little bit easier. Anyway, it turns out that about 1/4 as many people in Poland speak English then in the Baltics. By writing out train stations in Polish spelling (Warszawa instead of Warsaw, Lwow instead of Lviv) and ample hand gesturing, we managed to get tickets on the night train to Lviv.
The train was scheduled to leave at 4:30 PM to go to Krakow, then we needed to switch to a connecting train that leaving at 10:00 for Ukraine, which gave us approximately 10 hours to check out Warsaw's Old Town. We decided to leave our bags in lockers at the train station, rather than lug them around town for 10 hours. Every time I've left backpacks at train stations, the lockers have let you use your own padlocks.
This is comforting, for obvious reasons, but this station made you use their built in keys. So we paid 14 zloty (about 4 bucks) to shove both of our packs in a giant locker and take it on faith that they would be there when we returned.
Warsaw was about a millions times cooler than I expected it to be.
The guidebook warns of impossible traffic and hordes of pickpocketing bums, and the entire city was flattened during World War II. But the people of Poland really rallied together to rebuild the town, and it was absolutely beautiful! We walked down the "Royal Way" to the center of Old Town.
It looked like a postcard, and we did our usual routine: take pictures of the square, take pictures down some streets, look inside some churches, eat, and do it all over again! I expected the Old Towns to start to blend together eventually, but each place has been markedly different.
Different architecture, slightly different food, different lighting/weather, different religions/church interiors... it has been really neat to see the different cultures!
We climbed up about 10 flights of stairs to get to the top of the tower in the main square to take pictures of Warsaw from above.
We seriously lucked out again with the light-- the weather has been really interesting. It seems to drizzle for a few minutes in the afternoons (like Colorado), but this makes for variable clouds throughout the day. We've been getting a few minutes of sunlight on part of the town, then the clouds change and it switches to another part, and so on. Its make for really interesting pictures!
Plus, the clouds are nice and Grey, so you get patches of Grey and patches of sunny blue. Excellent-- hope it lasts.
The tower was part of Warsaw's Royal Castle, which was a huge red structure flanked by beautiful red walls that enclosed part of the square.
It didn't seem like we had time to do the museum justice, so we went to a little market next to the castle to get snacks for the train. We sampled a bunch of homemade Polish cheeses, and bought a big chuck of wonderful smokey soft cheese and half a loaf of bread to go with it. Bread and cheese, my favorite!
Speaking of cheese, we had a really excellent lunch-- it was basically my ideal spread of antipasti meats and cheeses, but with a Polish flare to it.
So instead of salami and procuttio, it has pickles, horseradish, beef, onions, smoked salmon, and things of that nature. All of Aaron's favorite things :-) Then we had the most unbelievable chocolate gelato. Gelato was another dish that I thought resided predominately in Italy, but there were little gelato shops all over Warsaw. It was definitely the best gelato I've ever had. Maybe I'll have my mind completely blown in Rome or something.
Speaking of mind-blowing, there are so many tourists in Warsaw. Not just normal tourists either-- huge groups of French, Italian, and Jewish school children running around in hordes (screaming). How are they all getting here?
I understand the educational appeal of bringing school groups to Poland: WWI, WWII, Holocaust hell, Soviet hell, so on. But really, how do they get here? There must be some fabulous bus/train/plane service direct to Warsaw from Paris or Milan. I never went on any school trip that extravagant or interesting.
By this point, it was about time to head back to the station to figure out the train to Krakow. On the way back, we poked our heads into a cathedral that had Chopin's heart built into one of the pillars. Yes, I said his heart. Like, his dead heart.
Poland is very proud to have produced Chopin, but you would think they would build him a statue or something. Right next to the train station was one of our old friends-- a concrete Stalin tower! These towers were all over Moscow, and you might remember that our hotel was even inside of one.
We decided to check out the inside of this tower, which was half used as a museum and half as a movie theater. But the inside was really neat. It looked like the inside of some of the train stations in Moscow, which we were not allowed to photograph because of the recent subway bombings.
It's amazing how far the Soviet Union's power reached. Then we saw another Hard Rock, so I took another picture for Jeremy :-). Wish I could bring those glasses back for your brother, but they would most certainly break.
Now the real excitement began. We retrieved our luggage from the lockers (so far it all seems to be there-- off to a good start) and tried to figure out where our train was departing from. The Warsaw Centralna station has a handful of different platforms, and each one has a few different tracks. There was a display of the platforms the trains would be leaving from, but there was no mention of the track. We shoved our way into the very crowded platform 3, hoping that it would become clear where we needed to go.
Our train was supposed to leave at 4:30, but 4:30 came and went, and so did 4:40 and 4:50. It finally showed up nearly at 5, and we foolishly got on at the closest entrance. BIG mistake. We got on around car number 14, and we thought we only needed to move three cars to 17, but 17 is apparently at the front of the train. The cars count down 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 17. How the HELL were we suppose to know that?! So we were squeezing past people in this tiny 2 foot wide hallway, body checking them with our giant backpacks, pissing everyone off, and nearly killing ourselves trying to pull the backpacks between people. Won't make that mistake again, although I'm not sure how we could have known. Unless it's common knowledge that car 17 is at the front and we are just dumb Americans. Very possible.
So now we are on the train to Krakow, at the Polish countryside is beautiful and green.
Looks quite a bit like Ireland in the winter. The trees have started budding new spring leaves-- finally, spring is on the horizon!! I'll probably be eating my words and wishing for cold come June in Spain. But for now, we are ecstatic to feel some warmth. Will post from Ukraine in a few days-- we are crossing our fingers for another easy border crossing. Ukraine is NOT part of the EU, but relations seem to be good so we are optimistic. It can't possibly be as difficult as Russia (knock on wood). 'Do widzenia' for now!