Friday, 17 April 2009

Trip Blog - Central European Train Trip


Sitting on a rather crappy and distinctly slow international train from Berlin to Prague with David. The décor is in various shades of dirty grey, the speed alternates between about 30mph and freeway speed and the other passengers are a mix of American students, European families of various sorts and sundry weird types. The child across from us has spent the whole time playing loudly with his action figures and then eating what sounded very much like small rocks. Yay – it’s the first day of our great European train journey!

We set off yesterday at the crap of dawn to Berlin – schlepped all the way to Heathrow for an hour delay, then spent yesterday afternoon/evening with Rogger and Frank. Actually, we mostly ate yesterday, it seems. Stayed at a hotel not from from where Paul and I stayed with a similar number of hookers working the street out front – I do know how to pick them! And not much sleep occurred, given that the room had no A/C and no air flow as we had to close the window to blot out the sirens. Sleep? Who needs sleep? Anyway, we are now streaking across the flat and rather boring east German landscape – the occasional tumbledown factory or large wind turbine adding the occasional bit of interest. It’s a bit like driving across Illinois. Think I need to go for a walk – this seat is killing my poor posterior. Ooh, and we seem to have reached the outskirts of Dresden, which looks like it might be improved by another visit by the British!


On the road again, or, rather, the 0930 from Prague to Breclav, which is somewhere in the Czech Republic (on the way to Vienna). Passing through rolling, vaguely Midwestern countryside with multi-story, very stout looking farmhouses and random towns consisting of the selfsame houses, Soviet blocks, half dead looking industry, and an inordinate amount of construction – all in one happy bunch. Prague was excellent – my third time there and David’s first. Came into Praha-Holesovice, which I found slightly amusing – a station yet to be blessed with EU funding that felt a bit like coming into Tijuana – complete with ruffian-looking police officers tearing out of a dusty police station in wind-up cars. We were outlaws and took the Metro without paying. The ticket machines took only coins. There was no change machine, no change given when I bought a bottle of Coke from a newsagent, a massive queue at McDonalds and a surly ‘no change!’ from the ticket booth person. Service with a smile. Oh well. We stayed at actually a rather grand hotel on the edge of the city centre – at the not so quiet intersection of a freeway and two train lines. David and I found it with the aid of not one, but two GPS devices. How nerdy. The room was a bazillion degrees – the A/C was not yet working, as the air flow was centrally controlled for our ‘comfort’.

We walked all over Prague, which is insanely beautiful and sponsored by Disney, except for the horrible office blocks popped in by the Commies before UNESCO told them they were being very naughty. I managed a happy run from our hotel up to the castle – the highest point I could find, of course. Prague was also the last stop where I knew anyone – Jiri. We hung out with him both nights. The first night we had drinks at his apartment – a really cool, large and airy place in a questionable looking building on a secluded street next to the old castle. H gave us the (rather longwinded) history of the place over wine (as well as gushing over Obama’s speech he had just come from), then we walked up to the grounds of the old castle where he waxed lyrical on the history (he guides tours as well as doing gynecology and acupuncture), and pointed out the various scenic outdoor spots he’d had sex. We had beer and sausages at this very sort of granola-type, pot-smoke-filled bar in the middle of essentially an empty lot on the old castle grounds, and sat outside and looked over the city. Then dinner at a ‘traditional’ restaurant in an old Cubist building (who knew?). That was my first, and hopefully last experience with the mixture of ham, horseradish and whipped cream.

Yesterday was a lot more walking, including through the very concrete suburb of Nove Butovice, where I stayed when I visited in 1996. Hung out with Jiri again last night – shared a joint while looking out over the city next to the castle and its rather beefy and heavily armed guards (would have been impolite to say no) – and learned more history. We had veggie dinner at the strangest restaurant I’ve ever seen – a very ‘hip’ establishment done up in pink and green velvet, lights of sundry shapes, and complete with a very international set of cool people, weirdos and possibly a drag queen (we weren’t sure). So, all in all a fantastic time – and now a brief sojourn back to the West before plunging into Poland.

Interestingly, when we crossed the rather insignificant body of water separating Czech from Austria, the Germanic fondness for organisation took over immediately – evident in the neatness of fields, tightness of brightly coloured yet pastel tile-roofed houses in towns (all of them with privacy screening) and smoothness of the railbed.


Seated in a six-person compartment in the rather dusty-looking Czech border town of Bohumin with two older Polish women who have been talking absolutely constantly since Vienna, a guy plugged into his MP3, and David, who is reading the Guardian. Very very tired – we went last night for ‘traditional’ Austrian food in a 14th C wine cellar. I have schnitzel and potato salad. David had some part of the ass end of a pig – ‘Carroway Roast’, and we had Austrian wine served up in glass coffee mugs, which of course meant I didn’t sleep worth a crap.

Vienna was very stately, and, I thought, totally impenetrable (perhaps b/c I didn’t know anyone there?). Tuesday afternoon we just walked – David taking about a million pics. We had dinner at a gay café type place – nice though a bit dull. No ham with whipped cream and horseradish this time! Yesterday we looked at official ‘pretty buildings’ and gardens, as well as gymming and running – was very nice to do something active.

The funny thing about Vienna is that, while a very nice city with some impressive architecture, good food and excellent bike lanes/trails, etc., it just failed to make a big impression – it was ‘nice’ (probably why it is supposed to have such a high quality of life!). I was quite impressed though by how large was the Danube, and the fact that Vienna sits at the edge of a large plain – I had no idea…

It was also interesting crossing back into the Czech Republic – the uber-neat towns and fields gave way instantly to a rather hodgepodge mix of factories (many no longer in use), houses of various sizes and states of repair and random collections of crap. And this train is perpetually late – we seem to keep waiting for other trains to connect… We need a little German hyper-efficiency.

Crossed into Poland and everything is neat, orderly and looks comfortingly familiar. Who would have guessed that the Czech Repub would be a low rent zone amongst its neighbours? The state of the tracks seems to have gone to hell in Poland though – train is bonka bonking along slowly.

So much for neat. We changed trains at Katowice – a large, decrepit and slightly chaotic station in need of some serious paint, to a more local ‘Express’ train that must be at least fifty years old and is struggling to keep up with the coal-laden freight train on the opposite track. The landscape is trash-strewn, picked over and littered with the carcasses of dead industry and (not dead) Soviet-era housing.


On the Krakow – Warsaw Express, whizzing northwards through Polish farmlands at a dizzying 75mph. Actually, given the state of the tracks, it is pretty dizzying. I fi can read my own writing I will be doing well. Lots of farmhouses with fields – long and narrow fields tilled straight up and down the hills for maximal erosional effect. I wondered if Poland might feel like a spiritual homecoming, but it most definitely has not. This is by far the most foreign-feeling place I’ve been, much more so than Prague. That is though, I suppose, one of the reasons we travel.

We stayed for three nights in Krakow, or, rather, in a shiny new box of a Best Western in a very Soviet northern suburb of Krakow, as someone biffed this particular hotel booking (not me, of course). I fired up my GPS at the station and was rather horrified to find the address listed as over two miles away. After a minor disagreement and being unable to make heads or toes of the tramway (which didn’t go there anyway), we decided on a taxi, and my heart sank as we pulled into a parking lot off a six lane road, surrounded by hulking Soviet apartment blocks. It was actually fine – only about 15 minutes on the city bus. The first night back, however, we discovered that the bus took a different route back out of town. WE had a slight panic, thinking we had missed the stop, but actually managed to get off at the right one.

The first two days we just walked around the city – taking in extreme cuteness. David got calluses on his finger, I think, from the number of pictures he took. I had a lovely morning run through Soviet greyness the second morning we were there, and after a full day of walking, eating, gym and hearty (and heavy) dinner we missed the last bus back and opted to walk. I set my GPS and we followed it about two miles out into the night, out through the concrete neighbourhoods, past streets I couldn’t hope to pronounce or remember. I don’t think the route it chose was the shortest, but it did get us there in the end. So – I think it has earned its keep. Ooh, we’ve hit 90mph and the track is smooth – hello EU money and (slightly) clearer handwriting!

Yesterday we took the bus to Zakopane, a ski town in the Tatras on the Slovakian border. They are building a highway out in that general direction, which replaces the narrow, bumpy, two lane road, crowded with buses, trucks, cars and the occasional tractor. The Tatras themselves are beautiful – Alplike grandeur and all that. Zakopane is, well, different. It’s a mix of steep-roofed, dark coloured, very uniquely Polish (I suppose) looking Alpine type buildings, befitting an old town in the mountains, as well as Soviet monstrosities, grand mountain hotels, an innumerable shacks with people selling bread, kitchy knickknacks, doilies (a lot of doilies – a veritable doily bonanza), and, I would imagine, gypsy children if you looked hard enough. The main street was crowded with après-ski shoppers and sported all the usual expensive brands. The only slight difference was the overexuberance of the signs and advertising. It looked, to me, like the street had thrown up. There is capitalism and there is tasteful capitalism. Zakopane seems to have fully embraced the former, but not yet quite grasped the latter.

The town had a park, of sorts, which was really more of a field with benches and a few drunks, including one who decided to add to our view of the Tatras by relieving himself on a lightpole. Charming.

We then took the funicular up for a view of the valley. The view was magnificent. The area around the top of the funicular, however, was not. Rather, it was a tatty mix of bars, a fun fair, trash (human and the type on the ground), what looked like a Flintstones-themed picnic area, mud, several rusty ski lifts, a few random houses and a radio tower complete with very large fence. We wandered away from the schlock into a spruce forest and discovered ourselves alone. Apparently, tat has a bigger draw than nature. Britain, or, I imagine, Germany, would be full of families hiking off into the woods, with the obligatory (in England anyway) tea-room at the start of the journey. Not, apparently, in Poland.

So, I’m back on the train, hurtling northwards through Poland towards Warsaw – the last stop on the trip. Tomorrow it’s back to London. I think I need a vacation now.

I forgot to mention Easter. Today is Easter, so everything is closed. Yesterday, people were bringing little baskets of food to be blessed at church, and the churches were packed last night.

Also forgot (how could I?)… the salt mine. We went on a tour of a salt mine south of Krakow. It was a guided tour through about 2km of tunnels (out of 300), down to about 400 feet I think. The tunnels were well lit and the various caves full of sculpted statues (of salt), several chapels with chandeliers (also of salt) and a few underground lakes, not to mention a restaurant, snack bar, banquet room (wifi enabled), all under several hundred feet of ground. It was definitely up there with the strangest places I have ever been.

One last thing I forgot… We took a bus to and from Zakopane (about 65 miles each way) because the train somehow took 3 ½ hours. The bus down was a fairly ordinary bus (sans toilet). The bus back, however… We’d waited around for our supposed bus, which arrived at the appointed time, parked, and then just sat with the doors closed. Two announcements in Polish eventually said something important, I’m sure. Then another bus pulled in. I can perhaps best describe this bus by making a reference to the bus on the Muppet Movie. It was decked out in red and white (Polish colours), complete with a sort of bulletin board inside with a Polish flag attached, as well a number of red flowers. It must have reached a top speed of 50mph, downhill, and stopped at just about every little pissant little rundown bus stop on the way. It was fabulous – took 2 ½ hours.


Ah yes – back to reality. Today was the first day back at work after our grand adventure. It’s been the perfect day back. I got out of the house late for my bike ride, had to piddle around with the brakes, decided to shorten the ride, got a flat tire (2nd time in just a few weeks), then discovered that my pump didn’t seem to work on the new inner-tube (seems to be a crap pump). So, I used the GPS to find the nearest gas station, wheeled the bike there with its new but very flat tube, then had the great pleasure of farting around with the gas station air pump while two motorcycle cops stood there and watched, finally offering helpful advice on how to use the hose. Did I feel like a complete numbnuts? Possibly.

First thing when I get to work – Ewa asks me if I can help edit one of her interminably boring essays (me being the only one, besides her, with any teaching experience, and her being El Jefe. Ewa is taking a Master’s course for Management and General Boringness. Her essays are on various local government subjects that would bore an accountant to tears. Her first language is not English. I’ve spent most of my day on this, even though I’m so tired I can barely tie my shoes without crying. Just sent back the 2nd version to her. Granted, her essays have improved the past few months, but it’s very difficult going through essays for one’s boss, though I did tell her that I was going to be a hardass and essentially grade them. The funny thing is that she gives all the same excuses for bad writing that my 18 year old students used to.

Anyway, we just got back from Warsaw last night. Warsaw is a strange place. Granted, the entire city was blown up by the Nazis, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place with less of a defined center – even LA. Yes, there is a rebuilt ‘Old City’ (‘lovingly rebuilt’ and recognized as fabulous by UNESCO, but still feeling a bit too Disney to me). Problem is that the Old City is surrounded on old side by Communist concrete scariness, with the occasional large new shiny skyscraper poking through, all of it crisscrossed by ginormous boulevards full of insane drivers in cars of various vintages and road safe-worthiness. We stayed at a very swank Radisson that turned out to be right in the middle of the old Jewish ghetto (which was completely and totally razed, and which is entirely comprised of concrete squareness), and walked as much of the city center as we could muster in a day. Lots of monuments. Granted, the Polish have had lots to make monuments about, but my God, one could go into monument overload (not to mention that by the time we got there, David and were well on our way to cuteness overload – ‘Oh look, it’s another gorgeous street full of quaint little buildings – how nice. Ooh look, a Starbucks!’). I had one minor misadventure. I went for a run, and, rounding a corner, happened upon a large group of teenage girls. Trouble, I thought. Sure enough, one of them jumped out and tried to trip me – managed to pretty seriously bruise my shin, but I didn’t fall. My initial instinct was to grab her hair and kick her in the ass as hard as I could, but not really wanting to go against 20 girls, and really not wanting to get the police involved, I settled on a string of obscenities. I’m sure she went home and cried, that naughty girl. Hmph. Then when David and I were walking up behind the uber-kitchy Palace of Science and Culture (something like Zzcuebczzcski wombasckovaorother in Polish), two very scary, military-esque policemen stopped us (not pretty, don’t even think…). They said something in Polish, to which we responded that in fact no, we didn’t speak any Polish. This perplexed them greatly and they finally just waved us off and walked away. Yay for being the ignorant American! I have to admit I had all sorts of scary thoughts run through my head about being taken to horrible Eastern European prisons for having impure thoughts or being a rampant homosexual. Fortunately, our innate charm and total inability to relate to the locals prevailed.

So, Poland was lots of fun and the food was unbelievably yummy, but I don’t think I’m going to be clambering to move there – just a little too foreign…

1 comment:

Katherine Plumer said...

I demand pictures!

(and the word verification is "fightedu" for whatever that's worth)