Lacking Polish in Poland

Coming from the great hostel in Prague to a fairly average one was a bit of a let-down. This was to be my last hostel of the first leg of my trip and I’d been stupid enough to believe the reviews that said it was “like a hotel”. My friend, I think you need to pick better hotels.

There was nothing wrong with it as such — it was a little smelly, the shower on my floor always ran cold and the walls were so thin you could hear your neighbour coughing, but all in all it was an average hostel. My problem probably was that I believed some of the reviews which were glowing, a mistake you would think I wouldn’t make any more. You can usually tell when a hostel isn’t going to be great if in the reception there’s a sign saying “NO REFUNDS”, and this one did. At least the roof had some cool beams.

I did enjoy my dorm mates though. The first couple were in fact a couple, a young American couple who amused me greatly. The girl had an oddly endearing voice that sounded quite sad and had a bit of a drawl and the guy just didn’t care about anything. When I bid them goodbye as they were leaving the girl said “have a good day!” but it sounded as though it was Eeyore saying it. I loved it.

After that it was just me and a lady. I’d heard her being shown the room through the thin walls in the bathroom and she sounded English so I was excited — it had been some time since I’d met a real life English person at this point — but when I came in and spoke to her she said she was from New Zealand which I was a little disappointed about. One of the things you notice about travel is that nationalities tend to gravitate towards one another and I suppose this is because of a shared cultural background.

Anyway, I forgave her for me mishearing her accent. She was nice enough but didn’t really engage in conversation or start it, and after a couple of days I got bored of making the effort and limited myself to a smile and friendly “hey” which became a little awkward.

It was especially awkward when an American guy was supposed to join us, but took a look at the room and said in a whiny voice “oh no, I don’t want a 4 bed room, do you have anything larger?” with the attitude of someone whose penthouse suite wasn’t up to scratch. It’s just as well he didn’t stay or I’d have been tempted to smother him in his sleep.

Karma rewarded me for the lack of English people, because on the now obligatory walking tour we were joined by a couple from a prestigious university. It wasn’t too long before I was wishing they’d go away. They were annoyingly chirpy and more than a little shallow, leaping without pause from talking about the Holocaust to how they were looking forward to the wine tasting that evening. One kept pulling a face whenever she was listening to the guide and I kept having to restrain myself from asking if she was in pain. Anyway I did the old town and Jewish Quarter tour and both were excellent but goodness me Poland has some sad history.

I also went on the tour to view the Auschwitz concentration camp. This was, as you can probably imagine, pretty heavy going. It’s a horrible place, and I’m not certain people should be allowed to take photos at all. There’s something quite sickening about people smiling for selfies in front of barbed wire fences, and there was one guy who was going round grinning at everything and taking photos all the time that I wanted to give a good jab in the ribs to. It’s not something to be taken so lightly, in my opinion and I couldn’t bring myself to take photos.

All in all, it was deeply unpleasant and I’m not altogether sure I should have gone. It’s one thing to read about it but it’s quite another to see where it actually happened. It had a horrible atmosphere and I just wanted to get out of there.

But of course I’m lucky enough to live in a time where I can and so I did, and went off to cheerier climes.

The area around the castle provided some nice scenery, although it was a little blustery. There’s a statue of a dragon that breathes fire every 10 minutes or so which I wanted to see, but for the life of me I couldn’t find it. I did spend some time looking and found a sign saying that the dragons’ den was closed and took that to mean the whole thing was closed, which I was later told was wrong.

I really wanted to do the Alley of Lost Souls experience too. It’s supposed to be really scary and I’m a sucker for horror. Sadly I couldn’t find a group to go with so I had to give it a miss, but at least it gives me a somewhat flimsy excuse to go back some day with people.

From Krakow I headed north on a Polski bus to Warsaw. I’m not a tall guy, but even so my seat was severely lacking in legroom and even though it was only a four hour journey by the end I was desperate to stretch my legs.

Bus travel is quite good because you can see the countryside at a more sedate speed than a train (as well as being substantially cheaper) but after about an hour we went through a load of dust and then I couldn’t see anything more out of the window which was a disappointment because what I saw of Poland looked nice. A journey of a similar length in the UK would see you pass through countless villages and towns but here there was much more open ground which was nice.

I eventually arrived in Warsaw and was very kindly met at the bus by my friend Helen, who you might remember (along with Oli) from Oslo. They had very graciously agreed to let me stay a couple of nights, and for which I would rate them a full and deserved five stars on TripAdvisor, if only I could find their listing.

Food, like much else in Poland, is amazingly cheap but also really nice. Helen took me for a belated birthday meal in which I had roast duck, potatoes, apple sauce and all the sauerkraut I could handle (admittedly not much) and this was at least half what you’d pay in the UK, and in a nice and friendly atmosphere.

I struggled quite a lot with the language, eventually giving up and just using English. I love the sound of Polish, but I don’t have the first clue on how to speak it. For example, “thanks” translates as “dzięki” which causes me so much trouble. I would love to be able to speak it and understand it, but I think it’s probably too late to start now.

We started the walking tour in Warsaw, but bailed partway through because it was so cold. I grew up in the north of England and to my mind there can’t be anywhere colder, but I was to be proved wrong. It feels like a different kind of cold, in that it seems to creep up on you. At first you’re thinking this isn’t so bad, and then it starts to hit you. Fortunately it gave me an excuse to have a delicious hot white chocolate with mint flavouring.

We visited the Museum of Caricature, which was great. It’s quite small, just a couple of rooms but it has some really interesting and skillfully executed drawings. It was nice to have a quick diversion that didn’t take ages to see everything and that didn’t have a billion zloty interactive display, instead just doing a job simply and doing it well.

It was quite a contrast to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. This is a museum dedicated, unsurprisingly, to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 where the Polish people tried to overthrow their occupiers. The museum itself was huge and sprawling and quite difficult to follow, with lots of information about the people during that time. But sadly, despite the bravery and heroics of many, ultimately it failed, and after it was over to set an example the Nazis demolished the city.

I’d had no idea the destruction had been so bad. Here’s a simulation of the aftermath and it’s just terrible how much was destroyed. To the eternal credit of the Polish people though, they did reconstruct a lot, in particular the Old Town which was recreated from paintings and photographs of the area. It’s certainly something to behold. Just from looking at it you’d never guess it had been rebuilt just over 70 years ago. In fact it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to it being “an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction”, and deservedly so.

In the morning before I had to leave Poland and return to the UK for Christmas I had time to see the Palace of Culture and Science, with is huge with a capital H, U, G and E. I didn’t go up to the top because I’m not great with heights or for spending money to go up them, but it was certainly something to behold.

I really enjoyed Poland, on the whole. The people were friendly, the food nice and everything was cheap, and the museums really interesting. Krakow remains one of the highlights of my trip so far and I hope to go back one day.

But first, I had the little matter of returning home to the UK for Christmas, and the associated shopping, horror of horrors!

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