Assignment in Poland

I had planned to travel due North from Nyiregyhaza through Slovakia and into Krakow during my penultimate day of “Interrailing” but the four rail connections involved looked far too tight for safety and I didn’t fancy ending up stranded on a remote railway station somewhere near the Ukrainian border in the middle of the night. Instead, taking care that I should arrive in the city at the correct station for my onward connections, I said my goodbyes and climbed aboard the 1326h train to Budapest. For the second time in my life I found myself sitting in the cold on Kaleti station, digging around in my rucksack for additional layers of warm clothing and raiding one of Susanna’s bountiful travel picnics as I waited on the only available bench for my overnight train. Truth be told, I was tired and a bit fed up by now; getting home in a few days time was beginning to look more and more inviting.

A young couple in my designated compartment on the 1925h to Krakow had already installed themselves on the lower bunks, obviously with every expectation of having the place to themselves. I had no choice but to heave all my luggage and supplies up to the top bunk and squash myself just under the ceiling in an attempt to get as comfortable as possible. Every trip to the bathroom was a complicated piece of athletics as the only ladder was on the side away from the door and I then had to negotiate the obstacle course of their piled-up luggage. I really am getting too old for all this. Unsurprisingly, I slept badly and well before dawn I had already packed up, descended and was waiting impatiently in the corridor. A hot drink would have been nice but at sometime during the night the long train had been broken up into sections, parts of it heading off to Vienna or Prague and only two carriages remained of the part still bound for Krakow. The Austrians must have got the breakfast car.

Since my last visit in 2012, Krakow Glowney, the city’s central railway station has been turned into an enormous mall. As ghastly as this sounds, I was really in the mood for some good coffee, free wifi, comfortable wash rooms, a proper pharmacy and a human being manning the left-luggage store. It may have been difficult to determine which country I was in but these facilities were just what I needed. This was a very important stop on my itinerary and, after a good wash and a double espresso, I did my level best to overcome my fatigue and make the best of it, if only for a few hours. On my previous visit, I’d spent a whole day wandering around the picturesque old town in the sunshine so this time I was able to take a brisk walk for the two miles around its circumference to the ancient palace perched on a hill on the far side of town

The name Wawel (pronounced Wavel) refers to the collection of buildings, some more than a thousand years old, which crown a limestone outcrop on the bank of the river Vistula. This complex of royal palaces, grand administrative buildings and ancient cathedral survived the Second World War only because it became the headquarters of the occupying forces. Most of the royal treasures were long ago removed; the capital of Poland having been transferred to Warsaw in 1596 and the country becoming a Republic in 1918 but the ancient mound, with its prodigious history and legendary sleeping dragon, has a central place in the Polish heart.

The earlier history of this part of the continent is no less dense than the more familiar (to me at least) regions of Western Europe. I struggled to follow it, even when my pleasant young guide was actually relating it: conquests and alliances, wars against Sweden and liaisons with Lithuania, it seemed as if the only way hang onto any of it was to focus on a few colourful characters and some of the most distinctive objects on display. If I could grasp something through the swirling mist of battles and treaties, of monarchs and nobles (the greater number of whom appear to have all been named Casimir or Stanislaw) then I might be able to do justice to it all.

I would certainly like to learn more about Boleslaw the Chaste, who took a lifelong vow of chastity after being married to a five year old bride at the tender age of 13 or his ancestor (not his descendent of course) Mieszko Tanglefoot. Casimir the Great married four times, possibly bigamously, but failed to produce a male heir. He attempted to adopt one of the sons of his many daughters but was thwarted by nobles with other ideas for the succession. Although better remembered for his complicated domestic life he should perhaps be afforded more credit for the upholding of peasants’ rights and his protection of Jews from enforced conversion to Christianity. Then there was Jadwiga who was crowned “King” in 1384. Born in Hungary and uniting much of central Europe by her marriage to Lithuanian prince Wladislaw Jagiello, she became such beloved a monarch that she was subsequently canonised.

One of the most romantic love stories in Medieval European history is that of Zigimantas and his Lithuanian queen Barbora. The King’s mother was vehemently opposed to his union with this legendary Northern beauty but their passion for one another was so great that they made use of secret tunnels for their clandestine meetings until in the end the dowager queen was forced to relent. When Barbora fell dreadfully ill a year after the wedding poison was suspected although nowadays the evidence suggests she may well have succumbed to cervical cancer. Nonetheless, however horrifying her condition became, the loyal bridegroom refused to leave her side and nursed her to the end. As well as displaying such a parade of fascinating characters, Krakow was sacked several times by the Mongols and lays claim to one of the oldest Universities in the World. The Wawel treasury houses memorabilia of both the golden period of the Middle Ages and the much loved Pope John Paul II, Carol Wojtyla, so I was very glad not to have missed at least a taste of this city’s historical riches.

This being the last day of validity for my Interrail ticket, I was determined to use it to get all the way across Poland and as close as I could to the Baltic States where my travels up and down Europe would finally come to an end. I had deliberately allowed the permit to expire thinking that the final part of my journey would have to be undertaken by bus but, actually, it turns out that I could have made the journey to Vilnius by rail after all. It’s just that it would have taken more than 36 hours, multiple changes and a detour through Belarus. So: sticking with Plan A, I took the 1650h to Warsaw and changed onto the 1949h to Bialystock, an industrial town close to the border, where I arrived at 2250h in search of an onward bus connection.

There have times during my travels where I have questioned the wisdom of some of situations I have gotten myself into and crossing these deserted railway tracks at the end of the line while following the little blue arrow on my phone to the poorly signposted Monte Casino bus garage may well have been one of them. I looked up at the electronic signboard to see that no buses were scheduled until the following morning and wondered whether the on-line ticket that I’d purchased with an outfit called Flix-bus had been a total scam. There was no-one around but a couple of drunks and a security guard who had come to close up so I headed over to the only sign of life, the lights from a McDonnalds cafe opposite. Here I nursed a hot chocolate and re-charged my phone while wondering what to do next.

My bus wasn’t due in until 0100h and, since the bays had been left open when the rest of the station was closed up for the night, I tried to convince myself that Bialystock might be just a stop along the route and that transport would be coming after all. Turned out into the cold after midnight and more than a little worried, I headed back to the bus station where I saw to my relief that a couple of other travellers had turned up with their suitcases giving me at least some companionship for whatever ordeal lay ahead. It seems that there are lots of private bus companies that operated in this part of the world and, since they are under no obligation to share information, signage at the bus stations is haphazard in the extreme. Nor was the situation helped when when the phone display of my ticket decided to show my booking Russian and refused to turn back to English. The harridan checking the tickets (Yes, my bus did turn up) searched her list and eventually begrudged me a seat squashed up next to a shaven-headed chap whose scruffy clothing gave off the sour reek of the chain smoker.

Any plans I might have had of rising refreshed in the morning to take in the sights of Lithuania’s capital had pretty much melted away by then and the first order of business at Vilnius bus garage was an onward ticket all the way to Tallin. I’ll spare you the stories of the smokers’ breaks at Kaunas, Riga (capital of Latvia) and Parnu but I’m afraid I crossed all three Baltic countries in a day without more than a fleeting sense of regret. My travelling companion of the night before turned out to be fairly typical of the people I encountered along the way. The “bullet heads” might have been mainly attired in worn out anoraks and track-suit bottoms but they had no problem discarding half-finished cigarettes when called back onto the bus. And they were smoking branded filter tips too: where were the carefully hoarded roll-ups that are all most smokers can afford in the UK these days? The Euro is now the currency of these countries and apparently everything else besides tobacco was also dirt cheap so goodness knows how much the EU is subsidising the economy out here. I’d have to stay a lot longer to find out but I’m not sure I could do so without losing the will to live.

Categories: Europe

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