My Wandering

 

Jumping over the Fence (Slovakia, Poland, Czech Repubic)

July 2000

After facing a suspicious customs officer in Lysa Polana (he was obviously not used to see a Romanian crossing the border there), I noticed the only choice to make in that very place: the bus to Zakopane, a mountain resort in Poland. I hate that kind of "mountain resort" that usually lies down in some lousy valley, it is the same everywhere, with swell hotels, plenty of shops and artifacts sold in the street, a basic village where they build a tourism industry. Go and meet such things in the Alps, the Balkans, the Carpathians or the Rockies. Plenty of people, plenty of noise, plenty of cars and roads, and absolutely no tranquility or mountain feeling. I prefer one thousand times better a poor hut on a mountain top during winter, or a tent, where one needs a winter sleeping bag for extremely low temperatures, rather than such resorts. There was nothing to do there, except for walking on the commercial streets and admiring the traditional outfits on some locals that I guess the authorities were paying to hang around in the most crowded street. I found myself an unofficial host that lived - yuck - in a block of flats (I live in Bucharest in a block of flats and I am sick of it, but one needs sleep anyway and that seemed to be the cheapest option). After spreading my wet clothes all over the place to make them dry and after hiding the smelly boots as well as I could from the host's nose, I went to sleep and woke up in the same bad weather, foggy and drizzly. So, my decision couldn't change and the 08.00 bus to Krakow seemed the right one. Accordingly to the EuroDomino train ticket, I had three days of free traveling by train in this country, so using one of them for such a short trip did not seem wise. Besides, the bus proved to be much cheaper than the train ticket (and I thanked God for buying train tickets from Bucharest, as in Poland they were expensive like hell, actually only in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia train tickets were cheaper than at home). The cloudy weather outside, and the warm bus, with very comfy seats, made everyone sleepy. The nice hills and meadows, with farms spread all over the place and forests bursting of the pastures every now and then generated a very interesting scenic trip, and I struggled to survive the nap temptation. Krakow was getting closer as the landscape changed, becoming more and more industrial-like. At a certain moment I was nicely impressed to see a Dacia dealer, which is a Romanian car producer. However I think they were selling sewing machines or ice cream or something, as during the following days spent in Poland I could see no such car in the streets.


Making almost a city tour (for which we did not pay, he he), the bus eventually stopped and I went off. The same gloomy day made the old buildings look even more interesting. But my backpack didn't seem to enjoy a sightseeing walk, so I had to find a place to throw it away, and, as it was far too big to fit in any of the recycle bins there, I took my notes I had printed from the internet at home and looked for a youth hostel: "Oleandry Street", that seemed to be the cheap one, and the closest to the old centre. I asked some people about that place, yet all that I got was a kind of begging for money. I don't speak Polish, but they certainly needed money for "da booze". So, the best next thing was to buy a map. Then the mystery was cleared and Oleandry Street was not that far. While waiting for the youth hostel keeper, I met this Japanese guy that kept on telling me about some Nazi camp close to Krakow, that he wanted to visit the following day. Such sad memorials are not and will never be on my list, and the same goes with the communist things (I have never visited even the palace that was built under Ceaușescu in Bucharest, the world's second biggest building).

The owner arrived soon with good news. The hostel was very cheap - about $3.5 - and in the evening I was to discover that it was very badly maintained also.


However my shoulders were very happy that they got rid of the heavy load, and my logo says that cheap things are always good, only free things can be better that that. So, from the two options, I was facing the first one; anyway I slept in far worse places, like some huts, sheepfolds, or shelters in Romania; not to talk about the nights spent in train stations or close to some God knows what road, under the blue sky.

Besides, I don't travel to sleep at Ritz or to eat at Planet Hollywood, but to "go places and meet faces".

The drizzle seemed to be as stubborn to as I was. Neither of us gave up. It kept on falling, I kept on walking until night came. The city proved to be awesome, with a very interesting central square, a tower and some gothic cathedral and churches, as well with a very interesting bunch of old narrow streets around that square. Although rebuilt, the former entrance to the fortress (Barbakan) looked very nice and gathered many groups of tourists. It was very nice to attend in the central old square to a rock concert, in that bad weather, it was very welcome, to warm the tourists' souls a bit. The Wawel Castle was very good-looking on the shore of Wisla River, and it depicted, together with the old times' charm, a very good sample of the way people can turn a single travel destination into a real gold mine. Tourists were supposed to pay a different ticket for each of the separate things to visit. A single ticket for each of them was cheap, yet, when I made the total of only half of them - which I visited - I reached a pretty high amount. But it was worth, as the castle was beautiful. I unsuccessfully tried to shoot a "cool" picture on the Wisla quay, as the evening caught me while I was walking and admiring the beautiful scape. Another day was over, a day that had also been marked by the contradiction in this world as there isn't either an absolute beauty or ugliness on Earth. I seemed to be on the ugly side, together with the drizzle that I thought I had brought there, while Krakow was on the beautiful side, together with the beautiful places I saw there...


"You always must buy a seat reservation before getting into all fast trains in the countries you travel to" the clerk from the Romanian railways office had told me when buying my EuroDomino ticket. Despite all information on the net, that specified that only a few trains in all Europe are subject to previous compulsory seat reservation, she had been pretty stubborn in telling me that. Romania is probably the only country in the world where such stupid thing like previous seat booking ticket is a must one has to buy together with the normal ticket, except for the local trains. This is just another way of saying "we're stupid" and - for sure - a means by which the conductors in the international trains get rich, by asking the foreigners to pay for something they don't understand. There are things that, no matter how much I love the trains, even I find hard to understand, but that is another story.

Therefore, on the next morning, I sadly crossed the central square in Krakow that used to be so alive during the last night, yet was so silent now (it was a Monday morning), and headed to the train station. The lady beyond the ticket wicket hardly understood what I wanted. I think I was the first - and probably the only - fool to ask about a seat reservation.

"Platze karte?!" she asked with the most stunned face I have ever seen. I thought that I had horns, beard and a tail, asking her whether she wanted or not to join me down, in my kingdom, to boil the tar. But eventually she said "gut, 6 Zloty".


The UK was too far away from Krakow for her to speak English, and as far as my knowledge of German is concerned, I speak it as well as I speak Chinese. The seat reservation was more than a dollar and my bad habit of playing Mr. Rightfulness was to cost me even more in Warsaw, Prague and Budapest. However the InterCity train arrived promptly and soon the joy of traveling with a Polish train for the first time covered up any sorrow. I am fascinated by trains, and I feel good in any of them, whether we are talking about a local, dirty and uncomfortable double-decker Romanian train, a narrow-track ancient Bulgarian one, a crowded Slovak one or a fast, comfy and fancy Hungarian one... It took about 3 hours or so to reach Warsaw. The good thing was that I had searched the net at home and found the Polish railways timetable, knowing the station where I was to get off in Warsaw. Otherwise it would have been a bit of a problem, as the Poles have cut the city in two, building the railway under the major avenue, and making several train stations every now and then. It is a very wise way of avoiding to overcrowd the public transportation with the people arriving in the only train station, so everyone can get off the train closer to his/her home. The train was about half an hour late to Warsaw and it did not stop where it was supposed to, in Waszawa Srodmiescie, it went straight to Warszawa Centralna. Luckily an old man, noticing that I was totally lost looking on a timetable sheet, told me something in his language and showed me the way out, otherwise I would have reached the end of the line, Warszawa Wschodnia, which would have meant quite a nice walk back to the centre. I went upstairs from the underground station, just to be totally taken away by a mad crowd of people that was hurrying God knows where.


At a certain moment I thought that maybe they were heading to a football match or so, yet I was to notice soon that this was the way things were in Warsaw. It took me a few minutes to get out of the crowd and to go to a newspapers seller, to ask for a map. And it took me again some minutes to find a quiet place where I could lay down and look for my youth hostel on Smolna Street. That was located on the top floor of a building not very far from where I was. It was very well maintained, clean and neat, and hence the price - about $6. I told the lady in charge that I had a tent and therefore I could sleep on the roof, yet she either did not understand or just pretended so. Anyway, it was the high time to stop looking like Tarzan and I made the best use of my stay there, shaving, washing up and arranging my stuff. Then, as I saw everyone eating in the hostel's kitchen, and also remembering that I hadn't eaten anything for ages (meaning since the day before), I thought of having a feast and therefore opened a fish tin.


Never caring of the fact that I had become a tourist attraction for those people that had probably spent half a day cooking good-smelling dishes, I leisurely ate and then headed to the "old city centre". As Warsaw was bombed during WW2, there wasn't much left of the city afterwards. That is why the Poles, a very committed people, even under the communist rule, rebuilt the city as it had been before, following the original designs and some old pictures, drawings etc. That made them so different from the Romanian people that, instead of preserving the beautiful old cities, destroyed and bulldozed half Bucharest - during the 70-80s - to build ugly-like-hell blocks of flats just following a madman's crazy wish to turn everything into a "socialist capital".


The wide avenues, the high and massive hotels, the cute old centre, together with the Wisla River and the bunch of palaces, made Warsaw look not as nice and touristic as Budapest or Prague, but original and very capital-like. The royal palace looked however very weirdly, as I knew it wasn't genuine, and a rebuilt palace has lost its "mysterious touch" that it should have... I am proud to say that, after a quite desperate rush all over the old centre, I discovered one of the few public fountains with running water, close to the Curie Museum, it was exactly what I needed, as I hate paying for water, whether it is mineral or not. If there are good things in Bucharest, the fact that there are drinking fountains is one of them. In the evening, trying to go once again to the old city centre, on my way, as I was trying to pass by the luxurious Bristol Hotel, I meet this big mass of people gathered there. It seemed that Margaret Albright was lodged there and these people - most of them young - were against her, or rather against the politics of the country she came from, acting quite loudly. It was a sad image when two police vans arrived in silence and policemen arrested some of them. It reminded me of the times when - just for telling a political casual joke or for trying to say anything against the bloody system - one could have been arrested in Bucharest. It is sad to see that there are still people that try to rule over others' minds and destiny without caring that there could be a better way of doing things. I turned and walked away, refusing to witness such a disgusting show. After calling my friends in Gdansk to settle a meeting for the next morning, I went back to the hostel that night with a very pleasant impression about the city and with a strange feeling about the last happening I had experienced.


People were still sleeping tight when I woke up. "What the hell is wrong with you???", all my friends ask me when we go camping in the mountains, as I am the last one to go to sleep and the first one to wake up, at 5.00 - 6.00 AM. Of course, it is not the fact that I wake up that bothers them, but the fact that I get bored being awaken in the sleeping bag and I start bustling and moving around, until I eventually go out of the tent. It was the same in that hostel, I woke up and started packing, as I was totally bored and wanted to go and see a park that I had noticed on the map. Like in some "Laurel and Hardy" comic series, I dropped - by mistake of course - the camping alluminium pot on the floor and made enough noise to wake even the dead from the graves. I think I heard curses in all languages of the world, as there were people from the US, all over Europe and Asia in that big room. Therefore I hurried up and left the hostel like an outlaw, hoping that none of them had a gun or connections within the local police.


This way, after a long but refreshing walk to Lazienkowski Park, I got there at 8 in the morning or so, when the public guards were just doing the morning round. They curiously looked at me. Just to answer their curiosity, I gazed them too, then I took my camera to make some pictures and they left, noticing that I was no MI6 agent looking for some damn microchip, but a tourist that wanted to enjoy the few hours of cool weather before the sunshine was going to make the walk to the park and back a living hell, due to the heavy backpack I was carrying. After heading back to the centre, I felt some fighting in my stomach and noticed that - again - food was needed. Looking at the ancient bread I had brought from Bucharest, and also to a baker's window close to the Centralna station, I had to admit that the tempting smell from the last one won over any reasonable arguments.


Besides, after a proper market research, like I had been taught in the stupid faculty I had attended, I noticed there was a certain something (I still don't know what that was, though I ate it) - a quite big something - that looked somewhere between a plum cake and a bread, also being cheaper than any other thing, at about $0.2. That was the best choice - as there obviously was no "perfect" (therefore free) one. It proved to be a weird kind of a sweet bread (a good thing, as bread and sugar contain quite a lot of energy) that gave me an occupation until 10.00 when I met my friend. She was quite sorry that I had already visited the city and - when she was trying to tell me something about a place or another, I used to say "been here, done that". And she was obviously scared when she saw what I had with me and proudly called "food". However we had a good time. It is always nice to meet people that belong to a different culture than ourselves, to exchange views, opinions, to try to understand that every other man has another thing that he / she calls "reality". And I once again noticed the big difference there was, is and will always be between a Balkan country and another one, be it Poland or else. However people are the same, no matter the surface differences that seem to take them apart.


As I was far too early in Warsaw, than I had settled in my trip schedule, due to the bad weather in the Tatras, I thought it was a good option to head to Gdansk for a day or two. The city rang some bells in my head, probably due to the history I had been supposed to learn in high school. Yet I couldn't remember anything, apart from the thing that there was a big harbour, in either Gdynia or Gdansk. The whole WW2 story was just a mess in my head, as I am very stupid, if not always, at least when it comes to numbers, dates, places and so on... So I left under the pressure of my friend's words: "it is highly unrecommendable to travel in the Polish trains, especially at night time; they're robbed quite often". I wish she hadn't said that. However I never believe things until they happen to me, and nothing happened to me at that time. I met "plain" people on the train that did not care - or at least they seemed not to care - that I was a foreigner. Then one of the things that I shall never forget happened.

Over those glacial meadows and hills, the sun shone like a fire ball, and eventually melted down on the horizon line, in one of the most incredible sunsets I ever witnessed, with the dying rays overwhelming all the scenery, and the train wagons mysteriously reflecting them...

All that I remember from that trip after that is falling asleep at a certain moment and waking up when the train was very close to the final destination. It was to happen the same when I travelled to Varna. I don't know why, but when I go to the seaside, all my body feels that and immediately I feel bored, just thinking about the sea that I hate, and then sleep is just minutes away... It was dark when the train reached Gdansk and the lights from the harbour were fascinating. It seemed that there was a more intense activity at night than at daytime.


I felt very badly when I looked at the watch; it was almost midnight and I made my friend's father wait for me in Gdynia station. We exchanged a few words and then headed to their house, where a table full of the most delicious things on earth was waiting for me. I will never be able to thank those people as I should, for their generosity and cheering spirit. After calming down my raging hunger, I went to bed, although that the curiosity to see what the Baltic looked like was killing me. I woke up the next morning and, after breakfast, I saw it; it was the same water, the same breeze, the same killing sun. With one exception: the clouds seemed to move much faster, there were few beaches, and the temperature was definitely - to my extreme pleasure - lower. The city was far from being as crowded as the Romanian or Bulgarian ones, with the blocks and houses spread on the hills. A desolate and deserted field looked quite out of the place here, yet the answer came briefly: it had been an amber field, but now the amber is gone, and the same goes for any efficient use of that place. This reminded me of something I had once read: "Man is nothing but a grass-hoper; he focuses on a place and uses it until there is nothing left". I had no time to reflect on the absolute realism of that quote, as there was a whole city to visit; and Gdansk proved to be a very interesting one, with very well preserved German - like streets, old gothic churches in the hall style, an old quay used for bringing the goods ashore, as well as a WW2 memorial: "never to happen again".


It was very hard to explain to my host that I had to refuse his invitation of going to Sweden, that was, as he said, about 2 hours away by ferry. It wasn't that I did not want to go there, dear God, but that I needed a bloody visa for that, visa that is hardly granted to Romanians, after the bad reputation that the gypsies that go everywhere succeed to make. I had to say something that I always hate saying: "Maybe next time", knowing that there wasn't probably a next time. Anyway, after visiting a museum-boat and another charming evening in their house, the following day we got into the car and started for Warsaw. It was good that this very nice man also had some business there, otherwise I was to take a train from Gdansk to Prague, train that travelled for more than 24 hours. This way, I saved about 10 hours, as the trip from Warsaw to Prague took me less than half this time. I saw the Polish capital for the last time in the twilight, getting off the car and going into the underground station.

The train was far from being full, and - if I started in Warszawa Centralna with some 3 people in the compartment - I reached in the Polish / Czech border alone not only in the compartment, but, by the fast time in which the customs officers arrived, almost in all train. And they always take advantage of that. So, when the customs officer came and saw my passport, he asked me to show him the money. As I had learnt the lesson by now, I did show him that, yet obviously that was not what he actually wanted and, after I clearly specified to him that there was no way for me to bribe him, his English vanished, he pretended not to speak it any longer, he took my passport all of a sudden and said: "Transit", put the stamp and made me fill in a form saying that I was to spend in Czech no more than 24 hours. Well, as far as I was concerned, that was OK with me, it meant less money spent on the hostels, but it feels bad when one knows that he/she is perfectly legal and right, to face such stupid authorities.


I reached the quite big station Praha Hlavni Nadrazi at 6 or so in the morning, I dropped my backpack in the luggage room and headed to the so very famous city. Well, like everyone had told me, it was like a piece of jewelry. Yet still a piece of crowded jewelry. There were more tourists than inhabitants, I guess. However, luckily at 7 in the morning there were few people in the streets and for a few hours I could enjoy the city, before the couches started arriving from nowhere and the avenues started to be overcrowded. Japanese, Americans, Germans, Dutch, Poles, Hungarians, Italians, all people in the world were there. It felt good, after studying tourism for 5 years, to see how things really happen in a place where the authorities know how to take advantage of the tourism business instead of ignoring it. St.Vit Cathedral, Karluv Bridge, Loreta, they will all remain in my memory as some parts of that stunning city. The clock tower, the romantic Vltava River, as well as the impressive view from Belveder Palace, such things are hard to forget. At a certain moment my attention was drawn by a building where some tourists were shooting pictures. It had some interesting statues in front and a very appealing architecture. But that wasn't the only thing that made me look at it.


There was a Romanian flag on it; it was the Romanian embassy. Like everywhere I went and saw my country's embassy, it was one of the official buildings with the best location, the most interesting architecture and the biggest surface. I can never understand where does the foreign affairs ministry of a poor country have enough money to pay for them; anyway, as I was there, I thought of asking about my small problem. And it felt good to hear Romanian after so many days. The clerk that came to open the door assured me that I wasn't going to have any problems, as I wanted to leave Prague with a night train that left the Czech Republic at 03.00.

"They are just as red as we are, and they love exploiting people" he said with a calm voice, as if he was telling me about some God knows what Renaissance painting. "But don't worry, they just wanted money from you, if they did not get it, they won't cause any other trouble, it's just a 3 hours delay and nobody is stupid enough to take you off the train and to bother calling the embassy. After all, our officers do the same, you probably know that".

And I sadly admitted that I had heard some stories from foreign friends. However it felt good to listen to that man, his calm - that in any other circumstances would have made me angry - was a good thing after a sleepless night and a day of walking all over Prague. I ended my trip through this amazing city going up towards Strahov, the students' city, where I had a rest watching the local people doing "normal things", out of the madding crowd of tourists. That is one of me eternal targets while traveling: apart from the noisy well-known destinations, I look forward to meeting the real life in the places I go to. When going back to the station, I stopped close to a kind of local fast-food and bought myself a winnie and some bread, as well as a small sample bottle of wine to take home. Yet I had the surprise of seeing in the window something that looked very familiarly: a bottle of Gambrinus beer, that was Romanian to the bone. It was weird, as the Czech beer is well-known. Besides, that Romanian brand is far from being the best one, maybe it was the cheap price that made them import it, otherwise it is hard to understand. I got in the station when everyone was heading to the touristic centre of the city in a big party-like meeting.


I was to take R375 Pannonia, the train that went straight to Bucharest, via Bratislava. However I was to stop in Budapest, to visit the city. All that I remember is the impossible to sleep on bench in the compartment. It looked as if it had been built in order to do some advertising for the sleeping wagons: "hey, people, this is a seats wagon, go to the sleeping one and pay more, to sleep!". However I got some sleep before the customs, then I fell asleep again. I woke up for a bit in Bratislava, exactly when the train was stopping there, and I went to sleep again, to wake up in the next customs, between Slovakia and Hungary. Then - as I felt Budapest getting closer - I could not do anything, I was too curious and anxious; it was a city about which I had heard so many contradictory opinions. "Vienna of the East"; "nice girls"; "old-fashioned"; "nice girls"; "very nice Palace of the Parliament"; "nice girls"; "dirty station"; "nice girls"; "good food"; "nice girls" and so on.

After I got as soon as I could far, very far from Keleti Station (which was dirty and bad alright), Budapest proved to be all of the things above and much more. Many buildings built in totally different architectural styles, many stunningly beautiful facades, many monuments, then the royal palace on the other bench of the Danube, these things made my last destination a never - to - be forgotten one. The huge line of people waiting to enter the Palace of the Parliament reminded me that I was in a very touristic European capital, in the place where "you go no further to the east" like most travel guides seem to say.


Then, in the old town across the river, I walked and walked in delight until I almost fainted of thirst; when I looked for some water in a shop, I found out that it was like 10 times more expensive than in a regular shop down the hill, so "thanks, but no, thanks". I kept on wandering and, when I felt that I had already seen all that was worth, I went down like a maniac, entered the first supermarket, grabbed a basket, rushed to the mineral waters place, threw the first bottle that I could notice in it, then did the same thing with a slice of bread, and rushed to the cashier so nervously that the woman that was in front of me went away, allowing the madman to pay for his shoppings (probably they also called the madhouse ambulance, but I was already gone, looking for a place to sit down and enjoy the feast). After that it was the high time to go back to the station and start the trip back to Bucharest. I realized that I was dirty, unshaved, tired, and dirty again. The R371 EuroNight train left Budapest Keleti at 18.10 and was to reach Bucuresti Nord at 08.35. I was very sorry to see that, in the same compartment with the stinky bear there was an elegant lady traveling back to Bucharest. The first thing she said was: "where is the restaurant wagon?". She hardly had any luggage, so food or water was out of the question. And there wasn't any restaurant or bar wagon. I offered her some of my water, yet she kindly refused. Then she said "I should have taken the plane, this trip is too long for me". And she looked better at me, however never saying anything - probably she was too damn scared. 3 hours later we reached the customs station, I don't even remember when they came for the passports, but I remember that we told the Romanian conductor to confirm the whole compartment full to the headquarters in Arad, so that they sell no tickets for the seats there to others. Then we locked the door and went to sleep. We were to wake up some 6 hours later, when the train was crossing the Carpathians towards Bucharest. The weather was sunny and it was going to be a very hot day. No clouds whatsoever over the Carpathians. The clouds in the Tatras, the heavy rain in Lysa Polana, the drizzle in Krakow, the windy Gdansk, the hot summer night while crossing the border to the Czech Republic, they all seemed unreal now. Maybe that was it, a dream. However a nice one. And therefore a worthy, hopefully a never ending one...


THE SLOVAKIAN SECTION

THE POLISH SECTION (you are here)

A very strong and powerful person, this is the first image one gets when talking to a Pole. Everything comes in hand, everything is easy, possible and reachable. The way to touching that final point will show however that people are far more sentimental than they want to show, stories are longer, roads go in curves and not straight. But actually this is what makes life worth living, therefore everyone should have the chance for a taste of Poland.