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Last updated : Nov 2009
Camel toes, cheap wine and a bad joke
Pros: amazing city, many interesting sights, cosy hotel, intelligent and friendly local population
Cons: none

Krakow, Poland

Sunday, Oct 05, 2003 15:34

ive just left krakow, and i can honestly say i think i have found the perfect european city, but more about that later...sorry but this ones a long-un

my last log was left in Graz in Austria where i flew back to london for a few days before returning and heading north to Vienna.

after a long train journey and faced with a complicated underground system (its not really) and with two rejections from full hostels i finally dumped my bags at around midnight. luckily the next day was superb, vienna was all that i had imagined with a lively town centre and a wealth of ornate buildings including the exceptional St Stephens Cathedral with its patterned roof tiles and the imposing Habsburg palace seemingly surrounding the old town. after a quick look at all the mainstream sights, i managed to find a lesser known series of buildings inc. one called Hundertwasser House which was designed in a contemporary and very abstract manner somewhat like Gaudi's work in Barcelona...the highlight for me was the Toilet Of Modern Art, where u pay 50 eurocents to have your own artwork displayed for a short period..har har!

the afternoon was gloomy and by nightfall the heavens had opened, so there was not really a chance to see vienna by night, most cities i believe look better at night. Given the rain and my limited time i was keen to escape the western european feel and head into Hungary and peak behind the old iron curtain. The next morning i headed to a town called Sopron (pron Shop-ron)just over the hungarian border and the change was immediately apparent. The magyars as the hungarians call themselves are a proud race that is the one exception in this region that does not descend from the Slavs, hence the language is entirely different, even an accomplished linguist would struggle with this one! after finding that sopron couldnt keep me entertained for too long and with the added crappy weather, i decided to cancel my accomm. for that night and catch the evening train to Budapest..luckily i convinced the owner that i shouldnt pay half the cost of accomm. and instead bought a couple of pints at the bar to help me on my way!

the trip on an old rattler, complete with the smells of thousands of cigarettes, body odour and god knows what else, was fantastic, a carriage to myself and sweeping views of the hungarian plains, complete with the stunning colours of sky you see just after a storm at sunset..ahhhhh the romance! the train eventually wobbled into Budapest...

id heard so many good things about Budapest and i was especially keen to spend some quality time just exploring aimlessly, with a few museums and sites mixed in...my decision to head straight to Budapest was rewarded with great weather and revealed a bustling historically rich city divided by the Danube into Buda (mostly older) and Pest. the first day i ventured out with the intention of getting to know hungarys history..i began at the national museum (a logical place i guess). what i was most interested in and I guess this is one of the fascinations about eastern europe that alot of travellers seek out is what things were like under nazi and communist rule. The House of Terror(one my sister Nat recommended)was just the thing. its within the famous building Andrassy 60 where both the Nazi and Communist regimes had their hungarian HQs. v high tech displays, with authentic memorabilia, almost too much information! videos of elderly people recalling the brutality, hundreds of real personal files kept by the socialists etc the tour takes you up to the top level and then in a lift right down to the basement where both regimes kept political prisoners and dissidents...it was quite morbid, many of the rooms used for torture inc. an authentic padded cell, standing cells, cells with 2 inches of water so prisoners could not sit without getting wet, gallows and electric shock room...as you exit the building the mood lightens though as the eventual moves towards democracy are displayed..all in all a great experience, one i can thoroughly recommend!

after getting to know some of the other guests at our cosy hostel, and realising that alcohol was ridiculously cheap a few brews were sunk that evening and in the wee hours..hence the next day only one thing was on the agenda..Thermal Baths. Budapest, well hungary i guess is famous for its underground thermal springs which supposedly cure your ailments..mine was a severe hangover on the local beer Dreher. We picked a bath and headed down only to find that it must have been an open day for retirees, invalids and assorted freaks of nature, no bikini-clad beauties here. luckily for us, patrons are required to wear swim suits..phew! the thermal bath system takes you from a 32 deg bath to a 36 then on to 40 eventually which is quite relaxing. though the hangover went i was still feeling queezy at the sight of 70 yo grannies in two piece swimwear...ever wondered what an already wrinkly person looks like after being the in water for an hour?? hooheerrrr...

after a bit of a steam room and sauna it was off to the massage table, where i lay out before a very suspect male masseuse...after a couple of touches on my exposed behind, my suddenly it wasnt so enjoyable but thankfully it was over fairly quickly, my mate Brett though wouldnt have a bar of it and promptly took off! classic.

the next day more sightseeing was on the cards and after a leisurely late start we bounded off for Parliament and massive gothic building up against the banks of the Danube..supposedly modelled on the British houses of parliament. the tour led us through the house of reps an amazingly ornate room, the guide told us that until very recently massive blocks of ice placed in underground vents cooled the building during summer, outside the chambers were lines of cigar holders with numbers, each for a member who if only attending a short session could place his cigar still lit and return to continue the cigar afterwards..the story goes that an especially long speech in the house was called a Cigar Burner!

after a few days in the city, myself and other travellers dubbed the city the Land of the Camel Toe. those who now this term, would be amazed at the number of women who must misread labels on underwear or worse still dont mind having a front wedgie!

another night was spent getting to know a larger array of eastern european alcohol including the local wine from the Eger region including the famous Tokaji a sweet wine with the smoothest of smooth textures, local Vodka (not so smooth), i think its cheaper than water and later on though probably not local several tequilas at a bar called Old Mans Music Club. As the university term has started again the city is brimming with students, our hostel was smack bang in the middle...

knowing exactly how to cure the hangover the next afternoon we headed to the baths yet again this time the much cleaner and flashier Szenchenyi baths (see pics), mostly outdoor. these baths also had a giant whirlpool, ahh the memories of spending endless hours making our own in that shitty aboveground pool!

and gaining a decent hunger..we decided to head to a place recommended by some other travellers i met..the Mongolian BBQ. 5 of us rocked in at about 7.30pm for the feast. All u can eat and drink for 3600 Forints, thats around 10 quid, superb. contrary to what we thought the manager actively encouraged us to down as much alcohol as possible, remarking "this is only your second beer?" we left there in a very jovial mood at a quarter to 1...the poor little hostel only had one toilet...it wasnt to know!

nursing another hungarian hangover i ventured out alone up to Mt Gellert where the statue of freedom stands, a woman with outstretched arms looking over the city..quite cool. the afteroon was set aside for a more active pursuit, caving under the city. thousands of year of underground thermal flows has carved out caves in the limestone and as the water table has dropped many of these are now accessible. with a group of 18 or so of us,we headed in fully garbed with overalls, helmets and headlamps. the basic idea of caving is to explore and contort your body into foetal like positions to squeeze through tiny gaps and holes, two of which were called the Wedgie and the Birth Canal! being slight of frame i managed fairly easily but some of the larger people would simply not have fit, luckily alternative routes were there. this was great fun and a good group, though some of the other aussie boys were keen to find out the effects of farting in confined spaces! classic.

after a quick jaunt up to Szentandre (St Andrews in English) (near the famous Danube Bend north of the city) and some touristy shopping, and another trip to mongolian bbq the next night, my week in beautiful budapest was up..though sad to leave i was keen to head up to Poland, deciding to bypass Slovakia given that i only had a week left of the trip in all.

the night train through slovakia to Krakow left at 7pm and would have us pulling into Krakow at 6 the following morning. Id heard a couple of stories about polish thieves on trains who flog stuff from your bags while you sleep..but being fairly consciencious in this area i made sure i lay ontop of my bag, locked it etc unfortunately the american girl who i was travelling with was not so lucky...although i literally only slept for half hour spurts, someone had managed to pull open our squeaky door, climb above her, grab the bag and steal about 90 US dollars worth of hungarian money...thankfully all my stuff was accounted for but its still a bit unsettling that these guys do it so easily

so now Krakow, and as i said an amazing city. arriving in the morning i had plenty of time to acquaint myself with the city. a number of things set this city apart i believe, firstly its significance as part of the Piaste bishopry and medieval poland, the home of one of the only non-italian popes, the largest town square in europe Rynek Glowny, a rich but now almost forgotten jewish history, the funkiest of funky bars, an intelligent and friendly local population, mostly very confident english speakers, a splendid old town overlooked by Wawel Hill and castle, the sharply bending Vistula River surrounding, the fact you can walk into almost any restaurant and be guaranteed of a filling, inexpensive and uniquely Polish meal but most of all its probably the cheapest city in Europe!!, a half litre of beer cost you around 220 Zloty (around 40p - the only cheaper i think is Prague)

next day we almost missed the bus to Auschwitz, this is where the bad joke came in im sure you can guess what it was..anyway after a long bus ride, the tour started at 11 and went for 3.5 hours, very good for aroudn 4 or 5 quid! the tour started with a short movie, which though blunt brought our minds to the horror of the place we were about to see. Auschwitz itself was more a labour camp, though many thousand of people were starved, overworked, shot or tortured here. The buildings actually look fairly modern, well built three storey brick structures. Each contains a museum of some kind, some with restored rooms but most filled with evidence of the atrocities committed. Rooms of shoes, human hair, suitcases, clothes, toothbrushes and combs all kept by the SS and Nazis to send back to Germany..none ever arrived. then we were shown some smaller gas chambers and the incinerating room, much of which is still intact. the stack above these rooms is located a mere 100 metres away from the residence of the camp commander whose family including 3 kids played happily in the backyard.

A bus then takes you to Birkenau where the majority of mass murder was carried out, the vastness of this place is amazing over 3kms long with thousands of blocks which were full of Jewish, Gypsies, german criminals and many more. it is simply too hard to describe exactly how bad it must have been, living in the conditions they did. A particular point called the Unloading Point along a straight railway line is significant. here a photo stands of a nazi doctor, who based on physical appearance is deciding whether people go left or right..life or death, well at least a slim chance of life, its quite spooky walking over this very spot. the tour eventually takes you to the 4 massive gas chambers, where over 1.5 million people were lead to "take a shower and disinfect before going to work" after gassing an electric lift raises the bodies into an incinerator above. these building were destroyed by the fleeing nazis, but much of the structure is still there. A monument although im not sure what its meant to represent, stands closeby.

it was back to the city though. although the weather for the 3 days i was there was not the best, Krakows (pron, KrakoV)many underground bars kept me out of the rain. i met a belgian student in a diner and he said hed show me some good clubs/bars etc, i was hugely impressed by the place as once again all the pubs, clubs and bars went off..on hearing my accent a couple of people made sure that i tried the local vodka, this somewhat more potent than the hungarian type. somehow midnight became 05,30 in the morning and i needed some sleep! thankfully poland turned out a freezing rainy day, perfect for a hangover and some much needed catch up on the travelogue! and finally some pics which youll see above...

am in a town called Wroclaw (pron. Vrots-wav, go figure!)another great little town in western Poland, but unfortunately its raining and cold yet again...so im heading to Berlin tomorrow afteroon, for a few days before i fly out to London..stay tuned, there should be one more youngieonsafari!