. The polish guys I've met here have all been relatively good lads and were very excited that I was going to take a look at their country. See, Poland has just started to clean itself up and dust off the grime of communism to become, hopefully, yet another EU success story. Admittedly, I had some preconceived ideas about the place, but knew absolutely nothing of what it would be like and what to expect. As per usual I waited till the very last minute to book my tickets and had to pay a small fortune just to get there. A few days before I was about to leave, Ruan's mate who was going to be out local tour guide had to fly over to the Philippines for work and we were going to have to take on the East by ourselves. No problem we thought - Ruan's been traveling Western Europe flat over the last few months and we did pretty well getting around Barcelona together - how difficult could it be. We were about to get a rather rude awakening.
I flew in to Berlin on the Friday and Ruan took me a sprint tour of the city he's called home for the last 4 months. We went and saw all the main sites (the Reichstag, the Berlin wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenburg Gate, the holocaust memorial and everything in between) I can remember watching the fall of the Berlin wall on telly when I was a kid (didn't know what all the palava was about at the time - They were going mal tearing down a wall - so what - our guys do it at home all the time!) but I could never have imagined what it was actually all about
. It's quite amazing as you walk along the way to Checkpoint Charlie (one of the gates where East Berlin met West Berlin) and notice all the amazing, beautiful old buildings on the West side, and the completely kak, Soviet, communist matchbox apartment blocks sprawling all over the East side making it look like a rash on Stalin's bottom. Can you even fathom what it must have been like back in the day - one minute your all part of the same city - the next moment your in East Berlin and part of communist Russia and may never see your family and friends in West German every again. It's like putting up a huge wall straight through JHB or PTA. Crazy. I really enjoyed Berlin and was very intrigued by everything that has happened there over the last century or so - It's where a little German man with a short temper and a bad moustache orchestrated the greatest war of all time - where the Yanks and Ruskies scared the bejeesus out of oneanother all throughout the cold war - and where a nation stood together and rebuilt a city from bombed out rubble. Pretty damn cool. I love Europe .
There are parts of the wall all over the place, but we only cruised around a small piece of where it once was - awesome to be there in the midst of a major part of modern history. We headed over to Ruan's apartment to meet the Polish guys we were going to get a lift with. We had to walk past his office block to get there - the original Siemens building which was also used during the war to build tanks and stuff - looms over the small suburb of Siemens Dam like a lurking brown brick bully - poor computer engineers having to slave away in the belly of the beast! We hooked up with Pawel and Lukas and headed out of Berlin towards the Polish border. Berlin is surrounded by huge forests and lakes - the central park has a perimeter of 21km - and that's just the baby park! - so there was plenty to look at as we drove. We got through the Polish border with only a small hiccup - thanks to the glorious Saffa passport that no-one trusts - not even Poland who specializes in illegal immigrants and dodging border posts
After a long trip we eventually arrived in Wroclaw - now I didn't expect anything of Poland before I booked my flights - but what a surprise it was when we rolled into their 4th largest city and student hub (kinda like Stellenbosch, but NOT) I was amazed at how disheveled and poor everything looked. The tram system and buildings heralded from the 1950's and the roads and pavements were mucky and dirty. Fine, maybe I have been spoilt in Western Europe and was expecting much of the same - but then again, I have never been exposed to the legacy of communism. Wroclaw has been owned by 4 different nations (Germany, Poland, Czech Republic and Russia) during the last 600 years - and believe me, it shows. Fortunately for the wide eyed Saffas (who were beginning to second guess their adventurous spirits), Pawel took us under his wing and went with us to the train station to help us by train tickets to Krakow the next day. We would have been screwed without him - any polish person older than 25 does not speak English and will make a concerted effort not to understand you. Pawel and his wife then took us around the old town - which is really nice and rebuilt - a complete contrast to the rest of the city - and gave us a guided tour of all the main attractions - at 12:30 at night! Ruan had not known Pawel until we met him earlier that same afternoon - but only a few hours later, he was taking us around everywhere treating us like his best mates and making sure we were cool - what a fine gentleman and an awesome guy
! The next morning we were due to catch a the 6am train to Krakow. Now, I ask you - how difficult could it possibly be to find the right train to take you to one of Poland's most famous cities? The answer? Damn near impossible. There are NO English words anywhere that you'd be able to kinda make out what to do or where to go - the only thing on our ticket that either Ruan or I could recognize was the word 'Intercity'. So after a few feeble attempts at trying to get on a train and being shouted off it by one of the conductors, we finally grabbed seats in a train that said 'Intercity' on the seats and apparently was headed for Krakow - 3 hours after we were supposed to depart. The train was very nice and newish looking and everything was going hundreds until the ticket guy pitched. We handed him our ticket, he took a look at it and started shaking his head and blabbering away at us in polish. Crap. Now, normally you can kinda rely on using hand gestures and pointing at things to explain yourself, but we realized quite quickly that the polish aren't so keen on that sorta stuff. Double crap. Ruan and I stared at the poor ticket man in utter helplessness and disbelief. Eventually Ruan was able to figure out that we had the wrong ticket for the type of train we were on - even though it was an intercity train and we had an intercity ticket - and that we had to buy a new ticket and get a refund at the train station for the current ticket we had (hey, don't ask me how he did it - he's the genius engineer - I'm just around for ad hoc comedic relief)
. Fine - sorted - and on we went.
After 4 hours we arrived in Krakow - got kakked on in polish by the lady at the ticket counter (also an intercity counter mind you) as she clearly couldn't help us with a refund - and headed out into the city to find our hostel. Now, just for some background on Krakow - Auschwitz, one of the most notorious German concentration camps, is a few km's outside the city, and there's also a massive salt mine that has been in use since the Middle Ages just outside the city - plus it's also an old city and has something to do Pope John Paul II and has an awesome old castle. As our time in Krakow was severely limited (thanks to Polish rail), so we decided to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines (they're a world heritage site) - which were pretty cool. They've got a wedding venue carved out of the rock 300m below the ground, as well as convention centers, a few chapels, a few pubs etc - all of which can be hired out - all of which are underground - pretty crazy. We then headed back into the city to try and catch the city bike tour. Now, I should mention that in the process of walking to the hostel earlier in the day, my impression of Krakow was that of yet another run down, post-communist ghetto, replete with buildings in disrepair and dirty streets - but when we headed to the 'Old Town' I was yet again pleasantly surprised with the beautifully revitalized old buildings and churches - pretty much the same as Wroclaw
. Krakow boasts the largest city centre square watchamacallit (even bigger than the one in Venice and Florence...methinks) - and everyone was out there chilling and catching the last few rays of evening sun. It was really pretty and lifted our spirits after a really trying day that was still far from over. As we got to the bike tour meeting point we found out the idiots cancelled it at the last minute without telling anyone - ah bollocks - so we decided to pick another tour - a vodka tasting tour. Cue learning experience #2. When we bought our tickets, we were told we could pitch up anytime for the tour thing. Sure enough, when we pitched up, the barmen looked at our tickets, laughed and said sorry it's over. Thankfully, as we skulked out of the place we bumped into 2 Canadian backpackers we met earlier when we bought the tickets. The girl somehow wangled it that we could do the 'tour' - awesome - things were at last looking good....right. So we did four shots each of some really good vodka (it's really smooth and palatable - especially the cherry one) and had a little chat with our 'guide' through some broken polish/English. 2nd round pls bar-tender! yeeha - this is great - chat chat - OK, we're gonna leave now - what - pay for everything? But we bought tickets? They're invalid? Ke? So we tried to leg it - only to be stopped at the door by some rather large polish bouncer types. Crap crap crap! Things got a little moody, so we decided to pay AGAIN and get the hell out of there. So after R300 each for 6 vodkas and a Tshirt we were well pissed...off! Thieving feckers. They knew we were tourists from a mile away and took us for a good ol ride. Bastards. Anyway, we ended up hanging out with the Canadians for the rest of the night and saw Sunday morning in from the depths of an Irish pub in the middle of old town! The irish will never let you down - te be shure! We legged it back to the hostel to collect our things (yes, expensive baggage storage) and headed off to catch the 6am train to Wroclaw
. We got kakked on again by the ticketing tannie who blatantly refused to help us - caught a few zzzzzzz's at the train station and then finally, after asking some polish kids, caught the right train back to Wroclaw. Ruan orchestrated an amazing refund feat at the ticketing desk (yay for refunds) and we headed back into the old town to get some well deserved grub. They were setting things up for a huge concert in the town square and we were treated to a live soundcheck performance by Porky Spice (Mel C) while we wolfed down our polish fare. We met up with another of Ruan's Polish work colleagues (Adam) who took us around the town again and showed off all the old cathedrals and churches - the city has over 100 massive churches - and also has the 4th most bridges and waterways in the world - after Venice and a few other places I cant remember. Pretty cool. As with Pawel, Adam was an absolute gentleman and very knowledgeable host - and played our designated tour guide for the afternoon. He was bitterly disappointed at the problems we encountered in his country and was genuinely upset that we didn't have much of an enjoyable time.
This became the main topic of thought on my epic 6 hour journey back to Ireland via Germany that evening. The weekend was an incredible challenge and personal learning experience for both Ruan and I - maybe we didn't quite have the European travel thing sussed just yet
. I was blown away at the effect communism has had on the country and the legacy it has left behind. Poland is now part of the EU and more and more people are starting to take notice of it. There are more and more tourists flocking through the borders every year, and even though the young generation is trying to lift the country out of it's poverty and bring it into the 21st century, there is still a long way to go before it becomes a 1st class European nation. They need to change the general perception of everyone being thieving feckers and generally unaccommodating nasty bastards - I'd love to know how many unwitting tourists have been screwed over by the vodka tasting bunch. We had amazing experiences with all the young people we encountered - some of them deliberately going out of their way to help us and make sure we were okay (I dare any of my fellow Saffa's to say they've gone out of their way to help a tourist in our country.....nope...didn't think so....we normally just let them flounder) and Ruan's mates were absolute and complete legends and I will be forever thankful for everything they did for us. If Poland could instill the ethic and goodwill possessed by Pawel, Adam and Co. into all the rest of it's citizens, they truly would be able to make a great success of their country and become a gleaming beacon of hope in the new EU. But until such time, there is no way in all hell that I'm ever going back there without a polish person firmly in tow. So much for Eastern Europe.
So, after a quick trip to the immigration department and some superior posterior kissing with the powers that be at the big blue K, I sorted myself out with an additional 3 months in the Emerald Isle! Alright! I still love it here and adore the Irish - so much so that I hope that if I work hard enough I may be reincarnated as one of them in my next life - that'd be grand! Anyway, my mate Ruan (the guy I went to Barcelona with) was planning a final trip with some of his polish work colleagues to explore the wonders of their motherland before he headed back to big bad Africa. I jumped at the chance as I would NEVER make the trip to that godforsaken country of my own accord (as a result of past experiences with a certain polack from my HS days) and it'd be good to check it out with Ruan and some of the locals. There are sheloads of polacks working in Ireland and UK since they joined the EU 3 or so years ago (1 million of the buggers), and I've heard some interesting things about the place