To England! (via Kraków)

The school year has ended which, for the European EFL teacher, tends to mean that there is a need to go back to Blighty. This is part will to see family and friends, part the culmination of a whole academic year of withdrawal symptoms from “proper” bacon, and the largest part, because you have to work in a UK based international summer school to make your modest salary stretch for the year. It ain’t glamorous, but it’s the reality. Now, as those of you familiar with the city of Bydgoszcz will know, the city is a simple, short Ryanair sardine can flight away from London. But, on this occasion, I decided the best route was via the overnight train to Kraków. This is not simply because I’m a madman, but rather because I wanted to see a band who were playing there, and catch up with a friend.

So it was that on the 28th of June, I packed up all my worldly junk (that I couldn’t leave behind) and climbed aboard the late running 7:30pm, 9 hour train to the old capital of Poland, Kraków. Spotting the sleeping cars as the train pulled in, I jogged to the front of the train with my 20Kg of personal affects. Of course, there was another sleeping car at the back, where my bunk was located. After a brisk walk past 17 carriages of TLK express train, I finally found myself at coach 41 (don’t ask about the numbering, the coach adjacent to it was number 4!). I climbed on and fished out my printout with my berth number on it. I got to the door of my bunk, popped my head in and found a 40 something Polish lady. “Dzień dobry!” I greeted her. She looked a little flustered and asked me if I was aware that I’d be sharing my cabin with 2 women. I was pretty confused. During the online booking process I had been asked 3 times to state my gender, to ensure that exactly this kind of thing couldn’t happen. I used my best Polish and my most emphatically apologetic facial expression to tell her that I was sure this was not supposed to happen, but that if they didn’t mind, I wouldn’t make a fuss, or be any trouble to them. With a big smile, she assured me it was no problem and I hefted my luggage onto the shelf near the ceiling of the cabin.

Within moments a small train attendant had appeared behind me and began speaking to me in lightning fast Polish, advising me that I was to sleep in a different cabin. I said ok and began to fetch down my bag. “Deutsch?” he asked me. “Nie, jestem Anglikiem” (I’m English) I replied. Nevertheless, he had decided the way forward was to talk to me in German from here on in. He showed me to a cabin, with an older gentleman, who was settling down with a huge sandwich and a can of beer on the pre-bed-arrangement sofa of my new cabin. As I walked into the cabin with my rucksack, the two forty-something women made crying and kiss blowing actions in my direction – perhaps it had been a lucky escape after all! I greeted my travelling companion, ditched my bag on the same roof-level shelf, and then went to the window to wave goodbye to my lady.

We set off quickly and the old fella began to explain to me, in Polish, with gestures (this guy could definitely be a language teacher!) how to assemble the bed, how to use the magical sink in the cupboard and that I got one free cup of tea or coffee, to be taken at the time of my choice. He also thrust into my hand a pre sealed bag with a complimentary towel, soap, ear buds (I can’t use these any more – doctor’s orders!) and some other general looking-after-yourself paraphernalia. ‘This is alright,’ I thought to myself, sitting down and tucking in to my own large sandwich. After my sandwich, rueing my decision not to grab a beer, as the old fella supped his cold Kasztelan Niepastoryzowany, I ordered a tea from the efficient little train man, which came with a strange toffee croissant. Naturally I ate it, in spite of the strangeness. After a few hours, not long before the train was due to arrive at Łodż, around 11pm, my companion helped me fashion the sofa back into a second bed. We unrolled our ingenious roll-mats with pre-prepared bedding and each went off to different bathrooms to brush our teeth. We came back, got into our beds and switched out the lights. The bed was remarkably comfortable and I remarked to myself internally that I would be able to get a good amount of sleep. And then he started snoring. In my life, I have known and shared hostel dorms with a variety of snorers, some relatively quiet, some louder than a brown bear with no lunch. This fellow beat them all, and also beat the sound of the train engine as it whistled through level crossings in the Polish countryside. If I said I had slept for 2 hours, I would be hugely exaggerating.

When the knock on my door came at 4:45am and the still-cheerful conductor put his head round the door to tell me we were approaching Kraków, I felt like I had been at a festival for 3 days. Sleepless and with zero motivation to move myself anywhere. But, not wanting to end up in some distant mountain village, I dragged myself up and out to the door, with my belongings. It was an overcast, fresh morning in Kraków, but I decided that the first priority had to be finding a coffee. Standing, gleaming in the booking hall of Kraków Głowny was a Lavazza machine. I ordered an extra strong cappucino from the machine and went to sit in the waiting area with 4 travellers and about 35 tramps. I sipped my coffee while I watched successive security guards walk around in circles, tapping sleeping homeless people every time they dropped off to sleep, to wake them up, occasionally asking if they were train travellers, to which they of course gave the pre-planned lie “yes, of course.”

Once the coffee was gone, it was time to dump my things at my hostel. I wandered across the square in front of the big, old station through a haze of fine rain and then through the underpass to ul. Westerplatte, where my hostel was located. I walked in and helped the sleepy attendant find my booking on his computer. He advised me that my bed would not be available until at least 12pm, so I duly left my belongings and, with only my camera, I crossed the road to the walled garden park and decided to attempt to find breakfast.

On arriving in the main square, I found the place almost totally deserted. I passed a group of German or Austrian guys who were on their way from a club to a kebab shop, in a stagger and then, naturally, I heard – from a full 80m or so away – the British party troop striking up with a verse of “God Save the Queen.” I can’t help but think that Liz would not have been impressed. Finding that nowhere was open for breakfast, I tried to focus on the positive thing, that I was all but alone in Krakow’s main square on a Saturday in mid-summer. So I decided to make the most of the opportunity and took some tourist-free photos.Image

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Finally, when I thought I was just going to have to join the pigeons and sleep in the giant head sculpture, the scourge of modern food – McDonalds – opened its golden arched doors and I rushed in to request still more coffee and any kind of bread-filled-with-pork-products that they saw fit to give me. I stuffed my face thoroughly and read the day’s news on my phone. By the time I was finished, it was 9am. I had wasted a lot of time, very effectively. But I still had 3 hours before I could get my head down for a nap. So I wandered some more, happening upon new sights (as you always tend to in a city as littered with them as Kraków is!) One of the most beautiful was the coutryard at the front of this convent. Strangely located amongst a whole raft of basement dancing clubs, it still managed to have a certain order and peace about it.

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From here, I went back into the old town and found a cafe where I could order a vat of coffee and charge my telephone, which I would need later on. I sat and quietly read, and drank and forcibly held my eyes open. At 11:30, I returned to my hostel, paid for my stay, put myself in a horizontal position and had a very deep 2 hours of sleep.

I woke up fresh and decided that the best thing for it was a late lunch/early dinner at my favourite burger restaurant on earth: Moaburger. Those who know me in real life will know that I am on the mailing list for their burgers of the week, even though I live 600km from the nearest restaurant. It’s fair to say that I like this place. I went inside and had the week’s special burger – beef tandoori, with a spiced patty, Indian salad, a slice of fresh fried onion bhaji and a side (bucket) of chips. I filled my face and drank an ice tea and, finally, felt ready to go to the concert venue. I went to see Solefald – a truly insane Norwegian avant garde metal band. They didn’t disappoint, in excellence or weirdness. I met a couple of really nice and interesting people from a tiny town in the mountains, who were at the show and spent time with a friend. All in all, a great night. I meandered back to my hostel at about 1:30am and crashed into a deep, satisfying sleep.

Waking up on Sunday morning was one of those glorious times where, after a sustained period of shattering tiredness, you finally feel rested again. I got out of bed, showered, shaved and felt like a human being, as I sat down to breakfast in the hostel. I decided that today I was really going to do some exploring of the city, in particular the eclectic, eccentric Jewish quarter. So, after breakfast, I packed away my things and left the hostel with my camera. I had been looking at the map and realised that one of the places I had never seen properly in my previous visits to Kraków was the huge Wawel castle. Time to correct this situation. So I walked to the end of ul Westerplatte and veered right to the huge red brick building. As I came down the side of the entrance and main tower, I managed to get a few photos.

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Just around the corner from this tower (beyond the 24 hour fast food joints, opposite) is the mighty Wisła river (Vistula). This river really is everywhere in Poland and here it strikes a great curve along the edge of the castle itself. On the riverbank, next to the Tourist Information Centre, are some advertising hoardings but, in keeping with the castle theme, they’re all in the shape of turrets, of various colours. It’s a nice effect.

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A little further along the bank, past a market of touristy junk stalls is a “rock dragon”. It really does look quite authentic and potentially quite scary but, on this occasion, the toddler climbing on it detracted from the fear factor.

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After the dragon and passing the southernmost turret of the castle structure, I walked on down the main path to the boundary of the Jewish quarter. As you turn in, you realise that the polish of the old town is absent here. Everything is a little more run down, but the place feels so much the better for it. The view that greets you as you enter via one of the main streets is a great example:

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But once you’re here, you find yourself in a world of interesting graffiti, quaint antique cafes, people with stupid hair (I’m a fine one to talk!), communist relic cars, and so much more. It’s a vibrant lively place and, despite the sense you get that things are in a state of some disrepair, you can’t help but be moved by the charm of the place. You’ll also find some of the best food and coffee in the city. So it was that I parked myself at this cute little cafe (that seemingly has no name).

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What a great, atmospheric place it was; piping out French 1920’s cabaret music with a host of interesting pieces of (unmatching) antique furniture. The coffee was also excellent. From here, I just wandered, taking snaps where I could, trying to capture some of the essence of this fascinating place.

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I had decided to resist the extraordinarily tasty zapiekanka in the Jewish quarter this time. This Polish classic – simply cheese and mushrooms on sliced, baked bread, with a variety of mouthwatering toppings – is a real specialty here. I had tried it on my last visit and been left salivating about it in my dreams for weeks. But this time, I wanted to go somewhere different. So it was that, opposite the New Square, amongst all the hubbub of the secondhand clothing market, I found a window spot in the intriguingly library-esque Alchemia. Specialising in street food, I ordered some meatballs with a flatbread, salad and tatziki and a cold glass of Książęce Ciemne Łagodne, for me one of the best black beers around. I sat and watched the goings on at the market while I ate.

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The food and drink were superb and I decided, after this, to head back into the city. As always seems to happen when I’m going anywhere, I found this little fellow watching me from a window.

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Just as I was nearing the old city, my phone buzzed and one of my colleagues from Toruń had got in touch to tell me she’d be arriving in Kraków that afternoon. So I hurried back to my hotel to get in touch and arrange to meet.

By the time I got hold of her, she was already ordering food at a restaurant. As a bit of time had passed by since lunch, I decided it would be a good idea to join. So I went along to Sioux and ordered some kind of chicken and bacon kebab thing. The important thing here was the inclusion of two different types of dead thing. Delicious. There was also some salad.

So we sat on the edge of the rynek, ate well and discussed life, her time in her new job in Opole (just north of Kraków) and her impending CELTYL training, which was starting the following day. Having done it the previous September, I felt able to pass on warnings and scaremongering about mountains of work and relearning everything you though you knew, etc.

From here, we moved on to the House of Beer, one of my favourite pubs in Kraków. I like this place, not only because of the exhaustive selection of beers, but also because it’s 2 streets back from the rynek and yet manages to have a beer of the day (Piwo dnia) for 5 złoty, which really is an extraordinarily small amount of money and it will usually be something great. I also felt, as Ann was to spend 2 weeks here, it might be best if she know about this great beer emporium. After another hour or so of chit chat and a couple of swift pints, we decided that we should probably head back to our respective accomodation. She was up early for training and I was up early for the airport. I headed back to the hostel, feeling like I’d had a great day and seen a lot more of the city. Within 15 minutes, I was snoozing.

The alarm started buzzing in my ear a little too soon for my liking and the four beers of the previous night had left my head feeling a little heavy. But, surprisingly quietly, I got my things together, showered and disappeared off towards the station, picking up a pastry and a coffee on the way. I got on the futuristic (by Polish standards) train to Kraków Balice (where the airport is) and sat down ingesting pastry and caffeine. I immediately started to feel much better. On arrival at the airport, after just 20 minutes of super smooth travel on one of PESA’s finest locamotives, I grabbed a bottle of water and joined the huge queue for Easyjet’s bag drop. It seemed that I was travelling to London on the same day as the “indoor hard court bicycle polo” squad. Apparently that’s a thing. It was too early to either attempt to figure out, or ask what the hell that meant.

I got aboard the plane with the relative luxury of a pre-reserved seat (a new time saving policy by Easyjet, which is just brilliant!) which had me near the back of the plane, by the window. Once in the air, I switched my phone on, opened my Kindle app and started reading. I had a cup of tea from the in-flight service people and was having a great flight. As we came in towards Southend to land, I even spotted the offshore windfarm, which made for quite a sight.

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Sadly, this was where it all went a bit wrong. The “Fasten Seatbelt” signs came on for landing, so I belted up and waited. We came down over the sharp coastline and all was well until, just after the captain had said “Cabin crew, seats for landing,” we began to climb at a rapid rate. Lots of tannoy announcements about how normal this was followed, until finally the captain came back on, to announce that a flock of birds had been spotted seconds before landing, which could have caused critical damage to the aircraft. He hoped they would move. Evidently I and all the other passengers hoped so too. Eventually, we landed smoothly and escaped unscathed, but I admit to feeling a little unnerved by the experience. What unnerved me all the more though, was stepping off the plane into a Great Britain soaked with… summer sunshine!

Adventure in Malbork: A Really, Really Big Castle

So Easter and Spring were upon us, so it was time to don T-shirts and short trousers and head out for another adventure. Ah, but wait, in Poland, sadly, Spring has been lost for some time. Missing posters were up everywhere, while my winter coat was increasing its value for money score daily. But the Easter holidays were here all the same, which meant that we could not be held back – another adventure had to be had!

Once again, many of my colleagues & friends had disappeared off somewhere – this time to Vienna – so it was just Pam and myself that ventured off to the train station and onward thence to Malbork! Before the station, we visited Bydgoszcz’s finest purveyor of sandwiches in Canapa, where we feasted on baguettes, panninis and decent Italian coffee. After this, we were prepared and made our way along Dworcowa, to buy tickets.

A small few moments and ticket & provision purchases later and we were aboard the train on platform 3. Our compartment mates on the TLK InterCity express were some giggly, but seemingly pleasant, teenage girls. We stashed our coats and other belongings and stretched out in the warmth of the train cabin. Then, just as the clock hands were about to show our departure time of 10:13, the door slid silently open and in walked a penguin. I mean, of course, a nun – not a real penguin. As with all religious entities, I felt a tightening in my throat and a general sense of unease, as I offered to help her stow her bags. She accepted my kind offer and sat down with no sign of fright at my heavy metal band t-shirt or surprise at my Jesus-esque features. Perhaps this would not have any effect on proceedings at all, I mused to myself. The train set off on its journey out into the snow covered countryside of Kujawsko-Pomorskie and we all continued our light hearted chatter while sister whatever-her-name-was maintained her vow of silence. After a few minutes though, she began to make cross actions in the air, fairly wildly, muttering under her breath the Hail Mary in Latin and then fidgeting with her rosary beads, accompanied by Our Fathers. Travelling in the presence of a fruitcake – can’t beat it! Needless to say, I ratcheted up my casual swearing and looked out the window at the pretty snowscapes, so as not to catch her creepy gaze.

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Relief came when we arrived at Tczew (non Poles – try saying that one!). This was where we changed for the onward journey to Malbork. We jumped off the train and went for a refreshment break and to stretch our legs. It looked like a pretty nice place, with a cute little shopping centre and a reasonably smart station, complete with a far-too-tempting-smelling bakery!

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It was a good thing we had decided to stretch our legs as, when we returned to the platform for our connecting train, it was packed. So we all piled in to the overcrowded Malbork train, and had to stand in a very sweaty, cramped area. Luckily, we were getting off at the first stop, after just 22 minutes. So, after wobbling about for a bit, here we were:

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The first thing that strikes you about Malbork, is that this place is going to be pretty grand. Right from the buildings at the train station itself, everything screams “look at me!”

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After marvelling at the ornate station building, we took the short walk over to the main event, the castle itself. The town/village of Malbork itself is essentially one shopping street, with a number of cafes and restaurants and a Pepco (who sold me a new set of sunglasses for 10 Zloty & which I’m sure I will have broken before Spring properly arrives).

Just after the shopping street there are 3 interesting things to see. First there is a lifesize statue of some king or other, on horseback, with a scepter, a sheathed sword and (typically) a powerful moustache! Next is a strange underground river waterfall-weir-thing. Secondly, there is a really nice scale model of the castle itself, complete with a helpful plaque explaining the significance of the Virgin Mary on the eastern facade. Lovely.

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In the background, you could already see the castle, which absolutely dominates the town. As you can see, the model is a really good job. From here, we took the short walk around to the church opposite the castle. The church has some really interesting, very modern stained glass which sadly didn’t photograph well at all, without a flash. It of course came complete with the customary JPII statue outside and had some really interesting architecture, being as it was made almost entirely of red brick, to match the castle, except for a quite beautiful, wooden bell tower.

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From here, we walked around the dry moat walls, slightly awestruck by the scale of the fortress. Malbork is Europe’s biggest brick castle and you really get the sense of this as you walk around it.

ImageWe walked around, staring at some of the details of the facade, until we came to the ticket office, where we paid a very small sum of 19 Zloty for a winter, post 13:00 ticket and went in to the castle, over the wooden gate bridge.

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Once across the gated bridge, you are faced with the enormity of the wall of the castle itself. Not only is it colossal, it’s also armed with 2 sharp-toothed portcullises and any number of solid metal gates, with guard doors so small that Pam was suited to them. Not an easy place to burgle then.

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ImageAfter all this, one might be forgiven for thinking that you were in the castle. But no, this is the beginning of the citadel. The initial fortified area, where castle staff and the like lived. Here, we found a number of places where you can get food or drink, an amber workshop (the main trading commodity of note in this part of Poland in the middle ages) and various defensive units, such as cannon! This is also the area of the castle where I befriended a cute little feline. First he buried himself in my huge winter coat to protect himself from the wind. Then, when I went to put him down, he claw-poked my chin, before climbing onto my shoulder and perching himself there for a good 5 minutes. As you can see from the photo, I really didn’t mind!

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From the citadel, we walked across another gated bridge, this time made from stone and brick, into the central castle complex itself. Here, we found an ornate central courtyard with a beautiful carved bird, atop a huge well. This was surrounded by 5 stories of corridors, leading into individual chambers, kitchens, storehouses, chapels, alehouses and so on. It’s a really stunning place.

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After looking around all of the intricate rooms (besides the armoury, which was unfortunately closed for renovation), we decided we ought to pay a visit to the architecturally ingenious toilet. In Teutonic castles, these were wooden seats, over an open hole which dropped all of people’s… “stuff” directly down into the wet moat. It meant no-one had to deal with the human waste and made the wet moat even less appealing for would-be attackers.

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ImageFrom here, we realised that the castle was soon closing, so we decided to return to the outer citadel, where there was a restaurant, which sold food based on traditional recipes from the time of the Teutonic knights. We arrived and were quickly told by the head waiter, in excellent English, that the mushroom soup was all that was left. So we ordered one each. When the mushroom soup arrived, it was well stocked with mushrooms of different kinds, as you’d expect in Poland, but also with chicken and chicken bones, which we found a little more surprising. It then became apparent that, in those days, there were no vegetarian soups. My kind of era! The soup was delicious and provided exactly the warmth and energy required on such a cold day. We also received rather excellent crowns!

ImageAfter this light appetiser, we were still feeling pretty famished, and so elected to find somewhere else to eat something more substantial. We went quickly to the souvenir shop to acquire some postcards and then walked around the sprawling perimeter of the castle, towards the river. When we arrived at the river bank, we saw our lunch-based saviour in the shape of a floating pub/restaurant. Readers of my previous stupid adventure blog will remember how much excitement this generated in Gdynia. So, we took a couple of snaps of the castle walls and hurried across the (very bouncy) bridge to inspect the eatery.

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When we got inside, we were confronted by a waiter who closely resembled Prince Adam from the original He-Man cartoon. With biceps as thick as my waist and an unimaginably deep voice (not to mention a severe-looking pudding basin haircut!), he showed us to the seating area and then came along to take our orders. As he did so he stood well within my half metre of British-culturally-acceptable distance. There was something macho-camp about the whole episode. I ordered the schabowy, which came in such a huge size that it required its own plate (there were boiled potatoes buried underneath) and my fried cabbage and surowka were each served on small side plates. This was my kind of meal. Pam ordered a very exciting looking zapiekanka ziemniaczana (a kind of oven baked potato dish, involving most of a chicken carcass, veggies, mushrooms and half a kilo of cheese). We staggered through our meals, aided somewhat by the cold beer and the imposing view of the castle across the river. Occasionally we were interrupted by the grunting of our burly waiter, but it was, in all, a great meal, good value and – all importantly – on a boat.

Once the meal was gone, we decided to be on our way back to the station and a small bar that we had heard good things about and whose sign promised a huge selection of local beers – always a good thing. Time for one last shot of the castle, from across the river then.

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We arrived at the charming Spizarnia and were immediately taken with the place. It was like the living room in a fun old aunt’s house. Nothing really matched, there was wicker furniture mixed in with dark wood, doilies on everything, huge pumpkins adorning the windows. Then there was the bar. On it were stacked tens of bottles of the many different types of beer they sold in this tiny establishment. Pam and myself pulled some chairs at a table in the corner and began to inspect the myriad beer menus that they had. As we did so, we noted that there were English, German and Polish speakers, all dotted around in this quirky little place. We regiestered too, that there was a genuine familiarity and fondness between the clients and the straightforward looking man in the overalls, behind the bar. I went over to him and ordered a dark beer for myself and an unpasteurised light beer for Pam. The barman asked me, very politely if we might speak in English (I always try, at least, with my Polish). He told me that he had a better light unpasteurised beer than the one I had ordered, that it was from just 4km up the road in the next town and that it was cheaper, to boot. As any of those criteria might well have sold me, I inevitably gave in. Pam confirmed it was a fine brew. We sunk into our chairs and enjoyed the gentle soul, blues and jazz music that came from the old record player in the atmospheric bar and began to understand why the place had received such high praise.

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It was then that I decided, finally, to look for when our next train was, as we had regrettably missed the one we had initially intended to catch, even before coming to this place. Then we realised it was a four hour wait. Drat.

So we decided to drink up and take ourselves back to Tczew, where we might find a bar in which we could relax and wait for the 2 to 3 hours before the train home to Bydgoszcz. After some kerfuffle with the ticket office, we had our tickets and boarded the slow train. We jumped off at Tczew and made our way out to the “town”. Beyond the shopping centre, seemingly, there was nothing. And we were stuck here for 2 and a half hours. It didn’t look good. I quickly consulted google maps, which gave me a choice of 2 local bars. As the name reminded us of the fine hotel of our hometown, we chose Pod Orłem. We found it, opposite this unfortunately named supermarket:

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Once inside the bar, we noted that A) we might be the first ever tourists in the place and B) that the guy behind the bar was a decent bloke who was only too happy to serve us beer. Fact C,  that the table next to us was full of insanely drunk tramp-people only came to light later when they tried to walk. Pub Pod Orłem proved to be a fine place to sit and chew the fat, at the end of a long day, over pints costing less than a quid in the Queen’s money. After that we headed to the train and slumped in the corridor, reflecting on a fine day’s adventuring!