Central Europe was really cool. My agenda was slated to have time, albeit not enough, in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Austria.
Following Prague, I spent three days in Krakow, Poland — it is an amazing place and one that I’d definitely come back to just to relax.
It was perhaps the most backpacker-friendly city that I’ve been to in Europe. It’s easy-to-navigate, compact yet scenic and outrageously friendly. I stayed in two hostels which was necessary because the occupancy rates were high (I’m apparently not the only one who has a high opinion of Krakow) and I didn’t give much notice. These two hostels were my #1 and #2 favorite places to stay so far in the trip: Greg & Tom Hostel and Mosquito Hostel. Both had all the usual amenities but added free dinner (as well as free breakfast), awesome staff topped off with activities. They also liked to give out free vodka.
When I showed up at mosquito there was a booking issue where somehow I wasn’t on the list. This is never an issue as the hostels always have space to roll out a cot. Not here — I instead got an awesome single room. It even had a private deck.
Well, it turned out the deck was not totally private. I was up early for my trip to Oświęcim and poked my head out to make sure I didn’t leave anything on the deck. I didn’t, but someone had been violently ill on it since I was last there eight hours prior. I was really confused. More than I should have been perhaps, but it was 7am and the coffee was not on yet. There was no one above, or even who could have come from below. There was some sort of fishing net across the entire open space, to keep perhaps extremely large bats out. I was getting worried, it was like the Hardy Boys and the Mystery of the Vomit Covered Balcony. I don’t think that made it out off Franklin W. Dixon’s desk.
Extra incentive: if I couldn’t crack the case I’d have to clean it up. I couldn’t subject the staff to something that looked if the evidence by default pointed to me.
Finally, vindication! Well, for me at least. There was a second small window for another room that evidently got to look at my balcony but not use it. Well, except for very poorly judged fits of nausea. Perhaps the the Polish bars’ habit of selling drinks for about $1 Cdn this might have had something to do with this. Hopefully they made the kid tidy they mess up. I was so unaccustomed to a balcomy that overshoots a room, but then again this was not built as a hostel/hotel so of course it makes sese.
That day the trip to Oświęcim was to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is about 75 km from Krakow. I didn’t know what to expect visiting a death camp where 1.5 million people were murdered. It’s somber. The extreme cruelty practiced there — needless, wanton and endemic — struck me perhaps the most. A day after I saw in the news that the Simon Wiesenthal Centre had launched Operation Last Chance which was offering rewards to try and find and try the last surviving Nazi war criminals. Hopefully it will succeed.
Auschwitz-Birkenau also extremely busy. The crowds and queues were significant. It’s heartening that people experience it first hand.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Remembrance is a strong theme. Auschwitz-Birkenau is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Holocaust memorial is has a very prominent location in the middle of Berlin. Schindler’s factory is a museum (closed when I arrived on a Monday) in Krakow.
After Krakow, my next stop was slated to be Hungary. I’d previously booked a bus from Krakow to Budapest, then a departure to Vienna. It turned out the departure was the wrong day, so enter one more ticket. Dodgy logistics all around. All seemed well in my hat trick of emails form Orangeways, the bus company Well, I read one of the three and assumed it was all good.
Yet one of these was not like the others. I belatedly opened all three for confirmation the day before I left and one, the newest, turned out to be a receipt for a botched booking. It was very cheery and enthusiastic. As it should be, I suppose, because it’s a high probability the mistake was on my end and not theirs.
The cool part about buying a bunch of nonrefundable pre-paid bus tickets that were unusable (and unrefundable per my follow-up), asides for the learning experience, was that this put me on a last-minute night train to Vienna. This was where my flight to Istanbul left from a few days later. I took off to the train station to try and buy a ticket in person as it was closed to online sale and my only other option would be an oppressivly expensive airfare with that seemed all be indirect and total 10+ hours.
In the station was a case where having a phone connected to a network would have been appreciated — i.e., if it was possible to get roaming rates from the Canadian telecos that weren’t an arm and a leg — because I suddenly had an unexpected name scrawled on scrap paper in front of me. I had asked for Vienna but this was a little odd. I could hear the Jeopardy music playing in my head. The lady behind the desk had a little bit of English and a little bit of patience (likely related to my inability to utter one word in her language) and there was a long line behind me. I made the quick decision / gamble that a place called Wein Meidling was where I wanted to go. I ponied up €80 and that was that. Most cities have a fairly direct translation… and a Germanic W pronounced as a V seemed legit, but I a little apprehensive until I got back to the hostel and found out this was in fact Vienna and Meidling was just a station.
This was during the time that I was at the Greg & Tom Hostel. I’d checked out a noon and was storing my backpack there until the 10 pm train. I took off in the day to do a walking tour which was interesting. The poor guide was pretty tough to understand as she was very soft spoken and had a strong accent. I made up for it by enjoying the scenery. What was not soft-spoken however was the burly Polish man driving the tourist golf cart when a guy in an SUV backed into him and his passengers. If I was a quicker study linguistically I’d probably now know many Polish swear words. It good that nobody got hurt, but it made be question the wisdom of running plastic-framed golf carts on main roads. At least I have a fighting chance to avoid getting run over on my walking tours, unlike the gold cart crowd.
I returned to the hostel later thinking that I would law low and and stay out of the way for my remaining four hours and go find dinner in town. Not happening! The lady on duty at the hostel insisted that I have (another) free dinner there despite having been long checked out. I also got some chess in with a Canadian girl and her German boyfriend who were on the same train as me but headed to Prague. Fun times.
Taking the night train was a blast. I was worried that I’d be in a chair but I had a six-bunk sleeper. It was a tiny compartment on a very warm evening that with four English girls and an Austrian guy.
I had a middle bunk which was right by a huge window which was all too necessary. My photography leaves much to be desired but it was a full moon and really a scenic trip.
All of a sudden the fellow panicked about mosquitoes. They were allegedly infiltrating the cabin that was oddly seemed to be a buzzing and biting free zone. I was skeptical about the physics behind this raid because mosquitoes do not move fast. My counterpoint was they can’t go faster than walking speeds. I looked it up later and it was a huge overestimate because it turns out they max out at 1.0 to 1.5 miles per hour. Before any sort of democratic showdown (the window was a populist favorite) I offered up some Canadian-strength DEET if the jetpack-wearing beasts continues to make it into a train doing somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 80 times their top speed and offered to shut the thing if the train stopped. Problem solved and the trip was long and claustrophobic (there were no seats or even a dining car) but it was at least not hot and smelly. Plus, I was desensitized to the worry of mosquito after the eponymous hostel in Krakow has charming paintings of an intrepid mosquito doing cool things all over the halls.
I arrived in Vienna somewhat disheveled and tired. I had finally got to sleep on the train but hadn’t thought to close the curtains because of the great full moon. I paid for this a few hours later when I caught a laser-beam of sunshine sometime around 5ish. That was it for sleeping.
Shortly thereafter I found out Vienna had a lovely transit system. I was squinting groggily at a metro map one of the staff came and sought me out and pointed me in the right direction which was very kind. Vienna also had perhaps the most tranquil airport. The announcements were done at a volume barely above conversational, so there was no blaring bullhorn effect. Vesna and I were in the Dominican in the spring this was Punta Cana International Airport, the loudest little airport ever. Not a good claim to fame. There were two PAs so rather than waiting for an announcement to finish the next one would just start over top, but louder. Much louder. It seemed unnecessarily risky because after all Brock Lesner was there. I would not want to be a Dominican PA jockey who agitated him.
I had one day in Vienna and got to catch up with a friend from undergard, Brendan, and we roamed the city attempting to drink Vienna out of espressos. No such luck. My hostel was in the Naschmarkt area which was something that would have been fun to have a few more days to explore.
Much of Vienna was the standard picturesque European capital.
Even a statue that could not crack the main square, and was tucked away around a side street, was probably 25′ tall and absolutely amazing:
I left the next day for Istanbul. When I touched down I got to use a new word I learned in Prague: Kafkaesque. Urban Dictionary’s best bet is here as this is most relevant to me.
The Istanbul Ataturk airport sucks. They have perhaps a dozen customs agents. They signs flash either “Turkish” or “Foreign” or something to that effect. The split was about half and half. There were perhaps 50 Turks and 500 foreigners. This is plus or minus a lot, but it was roughly about 1:10. I made it though the labyrinth to the gate after about 20 minutes (while the Turkish-only agents have literally nobody and are sitting around chatting with each other.) I get to the desk finally and the guy asks where my Visa is. I was hoping to buy it there, perhaps naïvely, and started fishing out cash. Out of the line and back into a new one for visas. Here, everyone from any country listed pays about $20 US, $30 tops. Canadians pay $60 US. It’s probably a reciprocity thing, which is unfortunate all around, but it was fun to read the anguished online forums afterwards bemoaning Why does Turkey hate Canada? Well, it was cathartic because I was not impressed having to pay so much… and came one bad ATM read away from not pulling it off. And for the record the Turks don’t hate Canada, they have all been very kind. I linked to the dumb and juvenile forum just for fun.
Interestingly, it was not just me with visa issues– I saw about a half-dozen folks get turned away when I wasn’t reading or reading archived Wiki articles on my phone. Seems like such a waste of the agent’s time dealing with people twice when one sign would…. naw, the status quo is much too entertaining to change.
My planning was a little off on this one. They do not take credit card and I did not have a good wad of cash. I had not planned this and had hoped for Visa. I had $20 US, a pile of Polish Złoty (~$60 CDN) that I really should have changed in Poland because it is not happening in Turkey and €30 Euro on me. More than enough cumulatively… but that was not on, currency hodgepodges are not allowed. Where the Kafkaesque thing comes in is that I had some spare USD hidden in my big bag (more hiding spots and harder to steal) but I could not get to the baggage carousel without paying for the overpriced visa and could not pay for the overpriced visa without getting to the baggage carousal….. My one hope was one lowly ATM. These have been very hit and miss for me. It worked, luckily, which was good news. This meant I got to take out some Euros, in Turkey, with the usual $5 international fee, pay for the visa, wait in the huge foreign line for another 25 minutes while the other half of the customs guys socialized, and then swap my newly acquired Euros for Turkish Lira at a 4% commission plus a bad rate.
When I said the Turks were very kind above, I meant it. By the time I was done with this gong show I got to my baggage carousel, now picked clean and not even running, and found by bag all by itself. But the fact it was still there was most appreciated!
Anyway, that about catches things up.
I did manage to get one decent shot of Istanbul just now too, as a way of winding things up: