Thursday, 17 February 2011

Poland (09/02 – 14/02)

My experience in Poland has been mixed, ecclectical one can say, surely short but unequal.

This was my first time in this country and sinceresly I had never been before because there wasn’t anything in it that attracted me especially.

Anyway, I was pretty excited getting at last into a unknown country for the first time in my Asian trip (and I’m still in Europe, yes).

The thing is that I hadn’t prepared anything about Poland, as I do before every trip, and with that I mean informing myself a bit about its history, culture, society, learning the basics of the language and reading about what to see in some of its cities.

But given that Poland was going to be only a temporary destination I didn't make the effort at all.

I had my train ticket from Berlin to Warsaw before I knew that my visa to Belarus had been denied, so I had no choice but going there.

The fastest route to Moscow was clearly Paris > Berlin > Warsaw > Minsk, and that was what I was planning to do.

Incidentally I made up my mind to visit Krakow, because everyone was telling me that I couldn’t miss it if I went to Poland (most of them also told me NOT to go to Warszawa).

When I found out that Ukraine was going to be my route to Moscow then Krakow was a compulsory stop strategically located. Inmediatly afterwards I realized that Slovakia is so close that I couldn’t miss it before I quit Europe.

As I wrote on the previous post the chilly wind was one of the first highlights in Poland. Apparently, I had had pretty mild temperatures even in Berlin (where it was blissfully sunny) but I had the full winter’s blow in Warsaw. I had to quickly adjust my clothing habits to work against it.

I confessed that I wasn’t interested in Poland, but in the end I found it quite appealing.

As soon as I got on the train in Berlin I was confined to a compartment with 5 Poles, not understading a word of what they were saying.

Two of this guys had a menacing appearance, weighing many more kilos than what they ought to, skinheads, and hiddenly drinking vodka on board. One of them had a sweater that said “Zero Toleransji”.

Somehow I could tell when we crossed the border because the nature seemed a bit more lifeless (?) than what winter weather causes. These borderlands looked very unhospitable, but finally we stopped by the industrial Poznan.

Later on, Polish people told me that the Poles who live close to Germany still feel someone will come and claim these territories, for they were relocated after WWII with people from Eastern Poland.

We arrived later than expected to Warsaw and because I couldn’t see any sign showing that that was Warszawa Centralna, I had to ask to be sure I wasn’t hopping off at some distant outskirt’s station.

I found myself in the middle of an underground web of corridors, with occasional stairways to the surface. I tried one of those and the daylight blinded me and all I could see was a concrete street and lots of cars on a wide alley. It didn’t look anything like any central point of reference to me so I got downstairs again. Back there I had to go with the flow, for thousands of people seemed very aware of their destinations and walked fast in these underground corridors.

Boardsigns in Polish didn’t let me know much.

I was hungry so I ordered a kebab but when I paid with Euro they told me that not so much was necessary for prices were in zloty.

Great. I had no idea Poland still had a strange currency.

I had supposed that Poland was going to be a little more in accordance to its location in Northern Central Europe, but I had thought wrong, and despite of where it is and that Slavs elsewhere consider themselves Central Europe (in Czech Republic, Slovakia or Slovenia, for instance), Poland is an Eastern European country with social and economical problems.

Beggars asked me openly for zloty in Polish on the street, which is very unusual in my hometown, to say.

Once I got upstairs and I saw the high Stalinist skyscraper in the middle of the Warsawian Centrum and thought it was beautiful. They illuminate it with greens, purples and yellows by night.

I was taught later that locals hate it because it was built by Stalin and because it was chosen among other projects that could have benefitted more the general population.

It was freezing cold outside soI headed to a modernist shopping mall nearby, where I could wait in the warm and commercial atmosphere till I could meet my CS host in Warsaw.

My host lived in a far from the centre (20 minutes by metro) new neighbourhood, full of recently constructed residental areas surrounded by high metal fences and watched by security guards. You even had to type codes twice on a numeric keypad. I just wondered what was so scary outside to be isolated from it.

My host took me to a cool gaming bar (people were playing board and card games there) and I had the chance to try a delicious ale with chocolate and coffee syrup. Not to forget the popular beer with honey. There I met a couple of two other couchsurfers: a girl from Vienna who studied History of Art, and a French IT from the Pacific colony of New Caledonia.

I thought that I had travelled pretty fast and intensely between Bilbao, Paris and Berlin, and I needed to slow down and relax, and enjoy the experience now that I was finally in a new country. And so did I.

Next morning, I didn’t bother to wake up early to visit Warsaw, and started writing and publishing to my blogs instead.

When I got finally to the centre I walked to the rebuilt Old Town. This part of Warsaw was completely destroyed during the WWII so the Communist Regime had to reconstruct it entirely, in an appraising effort to restore the history of the capital. The whole nation contributed and in the end the outcome is impressive. They based the reconstruction on 17th and 18th centuries paintings, so it is not the exact appearance of the place before the war.

In front of the Old Town, across the Vistula river, is the quarter called Praga, the same name of the Czech capital, were the Russian troops were stationed before the liberated the city from the Nazis.

There is a statue of these soldiers in front of an Orthodox Church there. Locals call this statue the Sleeping Soldiers, because Russians first forced the Poles to rebel against the Nazis before grabbing the city themselves.

Later that night I attended a kitchen party of a couple of friends of my host, who had just come from a trip in Vietnam, so I was able to learn a bit about what they saw, and their opinion about the country, some pictures, etc.

I felt lazier next day because the day was quite gloomy and rainy, so I only had like a couple of hours of sunlight in the city, which I used to walk in the southern part of it, including the Royal Park.

The best thing of the day was the pierogi I had for dinner at a cosy and traditional place.

They had an English menu for these dumplings but they didn’t speak any English. I ate a Russian one and a sweet one made of apples.

There was a Japanese girl who was a lone traveller too and barely spoke English. I had to communicate with her using my poor Japanese. She told me that she had done the opposite trip from Vladivostok to Moscow.

Saturday morning held an unpleasant surprise for me.

Snow covered the streets early in the morning, but it was quickly melting away under the sun.

I knew that a train was departing at 10:20 to Krakow but what I hadn’t realized is that the ticket I had bought previously was unnumbered, so I could have taken any train.

The problem was that the most convenient for me was that one in the morning, and loads of people had had the same idea. So the platform was crowded and we had to fight to get into the train. Many people were heading to the Southern mountains of Poland (Zakopane), with skiing and snowboarding stuff.

I was about to be left behind at the station, but finally I pushed myself into the train.

I had to stand with my backpack by the door of the wagon for nearly 4 hours, and side by side with a multitude that filled up every possible space inside (as far as I could see, the train’s seats were occupied when it arrived to Warsaw).

Everybody was having a hard time because when it arrived finally there was a loud applause from the travellers.

It was bad, and I couldn’t avoid getting angry for a while, but I forgot about it when I got to Krakow.

For the first time since I started I got no CS host, so I stood alone in Krakow, but thanks to CS I met this girl named Asia and had some chatting over Polish beers in the Jewish quarter.

I took my time in Warsaw, but because of the lack of CS contact in Krakow I regained speed, so I just spent one day and a half there.

Mainly promenading around the beautifully preserved Old Town, all surrounded by gardens and above it the castle of Wawel and its Cathedral.

It was sunny during the day, but at night the cold was hard.

Sunday was quite a lonely day and I didn’t do anything special. It was probably the lowest day so far in the trip.

I didn’t want to stay out in the cold so as soon as it got dark I stayed indoors at a local mall near the station. My thought that afternoon was that Poland was “Western enough to be hateable but not Eastern enough to be exotic”. It was unfair but I was kind of pissed off, and in a way it was positive as I still felt like near home (thanks to things I don’t like as commercialism, catholicism, etc.).

I had my train to Bratislava late at night on Sunday, which meant that it was going to drop me at an unknown station at 5:40 in the morning.

(I doubt I will be able to write with this level of detail further on, but will keep on trying!)


  1. How strange your experience of Warsaw! So different from mine! I found it a fascinating city with extremely interesting and educated young people, many, many cultural evenings of literature and music events that were free - I went to a student theatre night in a tea room there, in three languages with live music and paid nothing! - some totally crazy punk pubs and bars that were far more exciting than the average in London - especially in the Pawilony area, amazing food and the very daunting, heavygoing, but important museums of Pawiak prison (WW2 prison where many Polish resistance fighters were tortured and detained) and the Warsaw Rising museum... Its a shame that you spent so much time in a boring shopping mall which could be anywhere in the world... Another great thign I did in Warsaw, was dinner in a Serbo Croat restaurant with live traditional serbian music! travelling is such a funny, personal thing, so many different ways to see a country, so many perspectives!

  2. In Warsaw or in Poland in general?
    I had some good time in Warsaw, but I was being hosted by a couchsurfer so during the day I explored the city by myself following the indications of my host, and then she took me out twice with her friends, which were very nice people, and as you say, polyglot, cosmopolitan and cultured.
    I just spent a lot of time in a mall in Krakow because I had to wait for a late night train near the station and it was freezing cold outside, when I waited in a mall in Warsaw it was just for one I hour because my host was going to pick me up from Centrum.

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