Retro Travel Post: Krakow, Poland

I think it’s been pretty well-established that I enjoy living in Europe. I particularly enjoy the various opportunities for travel that this offers. Just this week, tickets were booked for a trip to Rome next month, so I’m quite excited about that.
But, to be honest, not every trip goes as planned. So, in the interest of fairness, I’ve decided that the time has come to share the story of the slightly disastrous trip I took with my old roommates a few years ago. Click away…

Once upon a time, in a city called Prague, three girls lived in an apartment near the center. They had been living and working in the city for almost a year, and decided the time was ripe for a trip out of town. Unfortunately, despite the low cost of beer in the City of a Thousand Spires, they still had very limited funds for this trip. All of them had some previous experience travelling in Western Europe, so they decided to head east, where they could hopefully stretch their Czech Koruna a little further. They had heard good things about Kraków, Poland, and decided to head there while it was still on the Zloty and not the Euro. This is their story.
It was a chilly morning in late November when the three of us (myself, J1 and J2) donned our backpacks and headed to the train station in Prague to board our train for the seven-hour trip to Kraków. We thought we were already ahead of the game as we had bought our tickets early and therefore wouldn’t have to risk waiting in line at the station. Czech customer service is not the most fast-moving thing in the world and we didn’t want to risk missing our train. As it turns out, that’s not what we should have been worried about. What we should have done, was get to the train an hour early so we could have a seat. If we had gotten there two hours early, maybe we could have even sat together! Ok, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but the fact remains that the train was massively over-booked and there were no seats to be found.  We had definitely underestimated the Friday morning commuter traffic leaving Prague. We wondered, “Do people not work on Fridays?” Who knows. Strike one. 
J1 and I enjoying our luxury seats.
 After we climbed awkwardly over people already camped out in the aisle through half the train, we resigned ourselves to floor seats and found a spot at the end of one of the cars. The advantage to this was that there was slightly more room than in the hallway, but people were constantly coming and going between cars and to the restrooms. Luckily those were in the next car over… there was no way we were sitting right outside the toilet door for seven hours! We settled in as well as we could and figured that we would be able to grab a seat when the train started emptying.  
When we did finally get seats, the compartment smelled funny.
We had also underestimated the rate at which people would leave the train. As I said, the trip was about seven hours in total; we got to sit on the floor for the first half. Finally we pulled into the Ostrava train station in the north-east corner of the Czech Republic and the train emptied. And I mean, emptied. We excitedly threw ourselves into a comfy compartment and were happily settling in when a conductor came by and rattled something off in Czech at us. Huh? After a brief exchange, we understood that the train would actually be separating and we had to move up. Ok, no problem. We picked up our stuff again and moved towards the front of the train. However, she had neglected to tell us where exactly the train would be separating, so we moved up to a place we felt was safe, and settled in again. Happily, the rest of the trip was fairly uneventful.
We arrived in Kraków mid-afternoon, swung by our hostel to drop off our things and went out to see the city. We didn’t really have much of an agenda beyond walking around and eating pierogi, so we happily wandered about the city. We got some dinner, went out for a few drinks, and went to bed pretty early with the plan to get going early on Saturday.
Saturday morning we got up and went back out. Our very-unplanned plan was to get through the city center and castle in the morning, head to Auschwitz in the afternoon, and be back in the evening to have dinner with a friend of J2’s from university, who was now living in Kraków. The first half of the unplanned plan went pretty well. We checked out the market in the town square, saw about a thousand churches, climbed the Wawel castle hill, watched a fire-breathing dragon, and invented a new game that involved counting nuns. There are a lot of nuns in Kraków. Please enjoy some photos of our wandering…
Heading towards the town square.

St. Mary’s Basilica
Dragons, dragons everywhere.
Church of St. Peter and Paul
The beer truck is always important..
Cathedral at Wawel Castle.
They ♥ JPII
Super-dramatic dragon.
J1 admires the pierogi in the town square.
I don’t know about you guys, but I always do my metal-working whilst wearing leather pants.
Parents: It is not cute for your kids to hold pigeons. They are flying rats. Gross.
Flowers in the market.
J1 and I getting in on some nun-spotting game action.
So we were feeling pretty accomplished by the time we made our way over to the train station to try to get out to Auschwitz (Oświęcim in Polish).
You might be asking yourself, “Why the hell would you want to visit Auschwitz? It’s a concentration camp, and probably the most notorious one at that! Why in the world would you want to visit that kind of place as a tourist?” The answer is that I don’t know. People go there all the time, it’s a terrible piece of history and now people take pictures together in front of that awful gate that says “Arbeit Macht Frei.” It’s weird and uncomfortable and a piece of history that can’t/shouldn’t be forgotten. So I guess that’s why we were going.
Our information was that it would take around one hour to get there from Kraków, as Oświęcim is about 70 kilometers away. Now, if you visit Kraków, there are no shortages of tour options to visit the old Nazi camps. But as I mentioned, we were on a budget and knew we could get there on our own just fine. We were independent, resourceful, and had the ability to read a departure board.  We found a ticket window, tried to communicate to the woman what we wanted, and purchased our tickets.

J2 and I before the train was tainted.
We found our train and selected a car at the back that was completely empty but for us. It was an ancient car and it looked like a relic from the old communist days with the artificial wood interior, grimy floor, and oddly bright red metal seats. We were chattering away, taking pictures and enjoying having the car to ourselves, especially after the Czech train the day before. We were still sitting in the station and at some point a man got on and sat down a few rows away from us. Again, we were chattering and joking away and all of a sudden, one of us looked up and went, “Oh my God, he’s jacking off.” That’s right; the guy that had joined our compartment was staring right at us and playing with himself. Delightful. Just delightful.  We grabbed our bags and ran a few cars ahead to a place with other people. Sadly, that was no help. We were still sitting in the station, so the guy just got off the train, walked along the side (with bits still hanging out), and came to the doorway of the car we moved to, and proceeded to stand in the door and continue. Other people saw it, and no one did a thing. Luckily, the train was about to leave and he got off. (Pun not intended.) So I guess he had no problem playing with himself in public, but he had a problem riding without a ticket. Strike two.
After we recovered from the horror of our uninvited peep show and were on our way to Oświęcim, we started to look at our tickets. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly what the problem was, or how we figured this out, but it was something like the woman had sold us two tickets when we only needed one. So the train trip cost double what it should have. Strike three.
This was kind of annoying, but it’s just something you have to deal with sometimes as a tourist. People know you don’t speak the language or can’t read things properly, and they take advantage of that. The tickets weren’t tremendously expensive, so doubling the price wasn’t the end of the world by any means. We would live. At that point, I was more concerned about the fact that we hadn’t left Kraków until after noon, and we had wanted to get to Auschwitz earlier than that.  As the trip wore on, it became obvious that this was going to take more than an hour. By the time we finally got to the Oświęcim train station, we had been on the train for two hours and fifteen minutes. All the information we had was that it would take one hour, so we were a bit annoyed that it was more than twice as long. Strike four.
Outside the train station, we found the bus stop that would take us to the camps. We had no idea where the camps were in relation to the bus station, so we had no idea if we could have walked there or not. But after taking a look at the bus schedule, we finally had to admit defeat. It was about 2:30pm, the next bus wasn’t until about 3:30, and the camps closed at 4 in November. So it was pretty much pointless. Next time, maybe we should plan a little bit better. Strike five.
Since we had plans to meet J2’s friend for dinner at about 6:30, we decided it was in our best interest to get back to Kraków as soon as possible. We hung around the train station and grabbed a beer to kill some time, as the next train wasn’t for almost an hour. The Oświęcim train station is, perhaps fittingly, about the most depressing train station I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t even take any pictures of it; that’s how depressing it was.
German Agilis train
But finally our train arrived, and we were excited to see its bright-yellow color and tram-like appearance. We thought, “well, it looks faster than the other train, this trip must be quicker!” Today, I would recognize this style of train as being similar to the AG trains in Germany, which travel shorter distances and stop in every village and at every cow-crossing. But, we were young, foolish and didn’t know those things. The deceptively fast-looking yellow train took just over three hours to travel the 70 kilometers back to Kraków. Strike six.

At one point, the train stopped for around 20 minutes, for no apparent reason. This stop occurred just outside a train station, not even at the station to allow the smokers to get off and suck down a cigarette to calm their nerves. Luckily, J1, J2 and I are all pretty laid-back girls, and we were all really happy that we could have a sense of humor about it all. We took advantage of our nice, long, train ride to make an extensive list of all the modes of transportation faster than that train. The list included: snowshoes, cart and donkey, unicycle, Razr scooter, dogsled, rickshaw, and an assortment of others. We also had to call J2’s friend and reschedule our meeting time twice, since there was no way we were getting back, getting to the hostel, getting changed , cleaned up, and meeting him at 6:30. Just wasn’t going to happen.
Back in Kraków, we dashed to the hostel, made ourselves presentable and ran off again. Luckily J2’s friend was understanding about our afternoon of horror, and took us to a tiny restaurant tucked way back in the streets of Kraków to have the most fantastic pierogi known to man. Afterwards we went to a few different bars to sample the Polish beer and vodka, witness a bar fight, and generally try to forget about what happened that afternoon. We half-heartedly said that maybe if we were feeling up to it in the morning, we could try going out to Auschwitz again (I think at this point, we actually felt kind of guilty about the lack of regard we had for actually visiting the place), but the amount of vodka we consumed that evening pretty much ensured that there was no way that would happen.
Vodka-fueled bar fight.
Vodka (and kebab)-fueled boot mockery.
Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny. We had until our 1pm train to hang out, so we went to have a fantastic brunch, and walk around the city some more. We saw some interesting sculptures, and wandered into a church that had the Shroud of Turin on display. We spent quite a bit of time in the church going, “But this isn’t the real one, is it? I thought it was…. well, I don’t know where I thought it was but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in Poland!” Both the J’s attended a Catholic high school, J2 went to Catholic University in D.C.; I studied a lot of Art History and have watched a lotof History Channel/NatGeo in my day, and none of us were sure if it was the real one or not. It wasn’t.
The fake Shroud of Turin!

Just before 1pm, we got to the train station. We boarded our train and were happy to find it much less crowded than the train from Prague had been. We were also happy to find it masturbator-free. At this point in the trip, it was really the little things that counted. Our trip back would take a little longer because we had to switch trains in Katowice, Poland, but we were scheduled to get back into Prague by 9pm. Can you see where this one is going? No, well, let me tell you.
The train left Kraków a half an hour late. This meant we missed our connecting train to Prague and were stuck in Katowice. We got to Katowice just before 4pm and the next train we could get wasn’t until 10 or 11. Fantastic. What strike are we on now? Seven? Strike seven.
Katowice “sculpture.”
Katowice might be a very lovely town for all I know, but at this point, it looked like the biggest dump we’d ever seen. Not to mention that the area around the train station was crawling with seedy-looking types who were just a little too interested in the three girls walking past with backpacks. And I love the J’s dearly, but they’re not the quietest people I’ve ever met in my life. Three girls, backpacks, speaking English a little too loudly; everything about us stuck out. After walking around for a bit and thoroughly surveying the menus of every restaurant in the center, we decided to stop for beers. We milked a few beers at an Italian restaurant, and then relocated to a less-than mediocre Tex-Mex place for dinner.
Slowly, we made our way back to the train station, eager to get ourselves onto a train and get back home as quickly as possible. The train pulled in and we ran to a door, where a conductor stopped us for tickets. What? They never check tickets outside the doors! Well, they do on sleeper trains, which is exactly what this train was. Guess what train we weren’t getting on without special tickets? You guessed right. Strike eight.
In the not-at-all shady Katowice train station.
 The next train option was in two hours, so we found a bench in an area that looked rapist-free and well-lit, and tried to stay comfortable yet alert. Finally, at about 1am, a train arrived that we could actually get on. We jumped on, grabbed an empty compartment and prepared to get comfortable. But no, we would have one last delight on this trip. The train was oddly full, so when two burly, middle-aged, sweaty, and already very drunk Polish men got on the train, where did they decide to sit? If you guessed with us, congratulations, as you are a genius! Yes, the smelly, drunk, mouth-breathers  joined us in our compartment, complete with a backpack of beer (no other luggage) for the trip. Strike nine.
Just as the train was pulling out we were joined by another gentleman in our compartment. Happily, he was around our age, not drunk, and didn’t smell like an ashtray, so we welcomed his addition. After a round of introductions, we learned that this guy was Norwegian, and a med student in Prague with another of our friends. At this point we were truly delighted to have him with us, as a trustworthy witness can be quite handy in these situations.
The final leg of our trip was around five and a half hours, and for the whole trip our Polish friends drank, talked, went  into the hallway to smoke (they didn’t even bother with the bathroom like most people do), and fell on us almost every time they got up or sat down. Needless to say, this was not a restful train ride. We rolled back into Prague around 7am, so the grand total of our return journey was a fantastic 18 hours. We got back either just in time for (me and J2), or late for (J1) our Monday lessons. So that was a great start to the work week. But the good news was that the trip was over. And I think this photo really summed up our feelings about it….
Yep. I *rectangle* Poland.
I have been back to Krakow since then, but only for one night. For the second trip, we were able to drive, and that does make life easier. For example, in a car, you can get to Auschwitz in an hour. Why the trains take so damn long is just beyond me. Krakow is a really nice city, and there is some more stuff I would like to see there, but there is no way in hell I am getting on a Polish train ever again. Ever.

13 thoughts on “Retro Travel Post: Krakow, Poland

  1. beware the combination of Polish vodka and boot mockery.. one friend came back from a trip to Warsaw with a pair of hideous moonboots decorated with rhinestone buckles after she went bootshopping under the influence.

  2. I'm sold. Just getting the credit card out to book up now. Rapist-free benches, you say? Sounds divine. Loved the quaintness of the masturbating locals too. Through in an 'almost' visit to a death camp, and wow, it's sounding like Disneyland.

    or, um, maybe not.

  3. @ECS: As much as we were tempted by the shiny-red-faux-snakeskin stiletto heels, there was no way we were coming back with those. But I would love to see those moonboots!

    @Fiona: Unfortunately I cannot guarantee that the bench you choose to sit on will remain rapist-free. It's an every man for himself kind of situation. And I think there's a bad joke in your post somewhere about Disneyland and masturbating but I'll stop there. I don't want to cross the line into R-rated territory.

  4. Hello fellow Expat in Deutschland! I was in your neck of the woods at the weekend, and very nice it was too! 🙂

    I am glad that you went on this trip, because it's raining and it's Monday, and this made things better by making me laugh out loud! It sounds like quite an eventful trip! Hardly suprising that you have only been back to Poland once since then!

    Love your blog, thanks for joining us over at LoveallBlogs Travel this week! Emma 🙂

  5. I love Krakow Poland. Just got back from Poland. The most amazing people on this earth, could not ask for more freindlier people ever. The food was out of this world. The history was sad, Poland has been hit a few times by sensless people but this is what makes them stronger. Will go back in a heartbeat.

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