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Times Article: Poland in two weeks

Poland in two weeks

Steeped in the memory of its recent history, Poland has plenty to offer the intrepid backpacker from unpredictable rail journeys to lively nightlife

The brakes squealed as the heavy-duty night train lurched to a stop in the mountain railway station, sending bleary-eyed travellers after their rucksacks and excited conductors waving flags in all directions. Tired and hungry, I was only dimly aware of the general confusion of the scene as I raced on to the platform and the train that would return me to Warsaw. It felt like so much longer than just two weeks before that I had commenced a journey across Poland on a similar diesel locomotive, footloose and fancy-free but wholly unprepared for the challenge ahead.

I had been sent to this nation on the edge of Europe by Rough Guides travel-books to write a chapter for their new European edition. The dream summer job? Yes, I admit it, but surely not one for the faint of heart. A mere fortnight to explore the famous towns, indulge in the local food, and embrace traditional customs before then encapsulating the workings of an entire nation into 5,000 glib words, something to be perused by the bored backpacker as they flipped the pages between “Norway” and “Portugal”. How can one come away from such an experience not feeling woefully inadequate?

I had crossed from the Baltic port of Gdansk in the north, through the rich Medieval trading towns and grand Teutonic fortresses of Silesia, past the pristine former royal capital of Krakow and the haunting Nazi death camp of Auschwitz and finally to the spectacular Tatra mountains that line Poland’s southern border. Now I was on my way back to Warsaw and England, my notebook crammed with a daunting string of disparate thoughts and impressions on a nation that, I now realised, had entered the 21st century on the cusp of momentous change.

Images of striking ship workers at Gdansk flooded the world media in the 1980s and acted as the harbingers of the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe. After almost two centuries of foreign domination, the nation's return to democracy at the end of the decade had brought new freedoms and an economic revolution, but the adjustments had proved difficult for many and contradictions abounded. Looking out from my train window on my travels across the countryside, I would see new cars vying for space with tiny, communist-era models and horse-drawn carts. The role of the Catholic Church was clearly as important as ever, with its presence visible in Baroque buildings, roadside shrines and the many images of the late Pope John Paul II, the former Archbishop of Krakow.

As this final train noisily lurched out of the station some minutes after midnight, however, any reasoned thoughts on the Polish landscape and psyche were far from at the forefront of my weary mind. I opened the door of the first compartment I could find, threw my rucksack on the luggage rack and, without a second thought, lay down and shut my eyes. It was only after a couple of minutes in the closed carriage that the pungent smell of stale “piwo” beer and shag tobacco became overwhelming. I was not concerned enough by the prospect of a five-hour trip with a chain-smoking companion (not uncommon on the Polish rail network) to end my slumber, but soon after I was rudely awaken with a sharp shove and the foreboding call: “Hey Englysch!” I opened my eyes to see a man sitting opposite - red-faced, sweating, moustachioed, wearing threadbare camouflage trousers and long military boots. Holding a vodka bottle in one hand, a rolled cigarette in the other.

My two-week crash course in the Polish language had not brought me to a ripe enough understanding of military expletives to fully gather what he was saying, but the anger in his tone was clear enough. English travellers (was I so obvious?) were clearly not the flavour of the day. I was just about to leave when a smart lady, bedecked in business suit and carrying a laptop entered. She took one look at me and my new companion and snapped something in Polish, before turning to me, “this is a non-smoking train and alcohol is also not allowed!” I was so surprised by her bravado in confronting the drunk that I could only swiftly murmur "djenkuye" in reply as she sat down and calmly began typing. Thoroughly chastised, the drunk retreated to the corner and looked glumly out of the window for the rest of the journey. Welcome to the New Poland, I thought as a blissful sleep closed my eyelids.

Waking on my final day to the gleaming office skyscrapers and grey, fifties apartment blocks that compose Warsaw, I felt how representative these buildings were of this dynamic new nation rising under the stereotypes of Eastern European greyness. As with much of Poland, the capitol initially draws uneasiness from travellers, but it rewards exploration. North of the lively business centre are stunning Baroque palaces and the meticulously reconstructed Old Town, to the south are some of Central Europe's finest urban parks, and towards the east lie reminders of the rich Jewish heritage extinguished by the Nazis.

Hitler’s determination to exterminate the Jews and the resistance efforts during the war had left 90 per cent of the original city in ruins and 850,000 Varsovians dead by the end of the war. Rebuilding had been a continuous process and grandiose Communist state buildings and modern towers now made the city an intriguing collage of old and new as I walked by. Even my brief exposure to Warsaw’s nightlife, packed with sophisticated city-bars, vast nightclubs and a lively gay scene, suggested that a modern hedonist lifestyle just as compelling as the city’s defiantly independent past.

Yet it was this incongruous mix of a lively clubbing scene and the sombre memories of a war that had left Poland with unimaginable physical and psychological scars that also cast the longest shadow over my journey. It is Kraków in the south, the ancient royal capital which rivals the elegance of Prague and Vienna, that is Poland’s real crowd-puller and party capitol. As I arrived late in the ten-bed dorm room that would be my temporary home in the city, I found the nine other occupants in a frenzy of activity, preparing for a night’s revelry in the central square. “Oh, by the way, we’re going to Auschwitz tomorrow”, one Mancunian girl shouted, in a lightness of tone inappropriate to say the least, as she slung on some heels and breezed out of the door.

Just some sixty kilometres to the west of Krakow lies the small town of Oswecim, site of the Oswiecim-Brzezinka concentration camp, better known by its German name of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the many camps built by the Nazis, this was the largest and one of the most horrific, the final destination of nearly two million people, the vast majority of them Jews. I arrived early, entering the barbed-wire encampment through the steel gate inscribed with its notorious message “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work sets you free). The hours passed in a blur as I moved through torture-rooms, horrendously cramped living quarters and dank cells; through the halls crammed with the shoes, suitcases and even human hair that the Nazis extracted from their victims in a gruesome distortion of the “waste not, want not” philosophy.

I returned to Kraków pensive and strained, with thoughts of the Central European backpacker trail far from my mind. Yet the scene as I re-entered my room was almost a carbon copy of a day earlier. I heard the same Mancunian accent – “Hey love, where’ve you been? Fancy a Smirnoff?” Half of my fellow backpackers had not even managed to wake up to reach the camp and the others were off for another night’s partying.

Three years after joining the EU, Poland is still far from the finished national article. Unemployment remains high and young workers, faced with the option of emigrating to Polish cities or the West in search of work, too often choose the latter to not have an adverse effect on their home economy. It is this emigration that has produced to some of the most popular national jokes:

Pole 1: “Statistics show four out of ten young Poles live in stress. Where do the rest live?” Pole 2: “London”.

On my flight home, packed with Poles seeking work in Britain and even further afield, it was impossible not to appreciate the dynamism of this people, renowned over centuries both for their fierce independence and their warmth. Even on the most whistlestop of tours, I had seen that Poland, lying far from the easy tourist routes of Provence or the Spanish Costas, offers an insight into another Europe. After centuries under foreign control, it is a country now rising to a new eminence, politically and economically. Those joking workers on the plane may have us all enjoying cabbage dumplings with a sharp “Goldwasser” vodka before long.


Re: Times Article: Poland in two weeks

"Thoroughly chastised, the drunk retreated to the corner and looked glumly out of the window for the rest of the journey"

Most amusing. Some Polish women can be quite formidable when they lose their temper....

Re: Times Article: Poland in two weeks

faced with the option of emigrating to Polish cities or the West in search of work, too often choose the latter to not have an adverse effect on their home economy.


Absolute rot

Re: Times Article: Poland in two weeks

A snobbish, down-the nose looking piece worthy of some of the more Holier-Than-Thou posters on this forum.