Vrots-wahf

Wrocław (pronunciation above (I bet that’s not what you were expecting)) was a very different stop compared to my previous destinations. The first place I have not stayed in a hostel, I instead booked an Airbnb for three nights. I could pretend that this was because I wanted to treat myself; stretch out in a double bed, do yoga in the comfort of my pyjamas, be free from the incessant snoring / door slamming / alarm clocks of fellow travellers. I could. But that would be a lie. (And, in the infamous words of Jeremy Atkins (daddy dearest for those who have not yet had the pleasure), “I never lie”.) Truthfully it was because I left it until my last day in Kraków to book a hostel, and there were absolutely none available (not even with my rating and price filters well and truly out the window). So an Airbnb it was. I was very much looking forward to some luxury and privacy. A movie night, perhaps, or maybe even a full on pamper evening with face mask and cucumber slices – why the hell not?! (Obviously my backpacker budget would not permit buying a whole cucumber for two measly eye patches, but it adds a flourish to the story so…) But this was when I thought I had booked the whole apartment. Ohh no… Definitely misread the blurb. I arrived to a nice enough flat in a great location, but with 4 separate bedrooms and a shared kitchen and bathroom. Definitely wasn’t going to be doing downward dog in the nude in the entrance hall.

Nice cobbled streets, large main square, interesting buildings, multiple churches / museums / baroque architecture, hundreds of cafés / restaurants / bars, etc., etc. Wrocław ticked all the boxes of a good small Polish city, and did so with ease. And the added extra? Scattered around the city were over 300 little dwarves carrying out day-to-day activities (posting letters, checking oneself out in the mirror, chilling on a bench), posed outside hundreds of doorways and entrances, just waiting to be spotted. Maybe I was suffering from a lack of social interaction; I made it my mission to meet as many of these gnomes of possible, and obviously introduce them to the art of the selfie. (Unlike real people who can be who can be fiercely opposed to this modern form of photography, the dwarves didn’t give me any grief about my selfie stick.)

Unfortunately for the blog, not a lot of momentous events took place during my time here. I mean, I can tell you about the food (always). I treated myself to sushi (solo) on my first night, after two failed attempts to eat at a recommended sushi bar in Kraków (attempt 1: I took us to the totally wrong building (I blame maps.me); attempt 2: fully booked (agh)), and it really was deliciouso. Five pieces of sashimi; five pieces of uramaki (inside out sushi roll) filled with aubergine (totally my favourite vegetable), spring onion and turnip, topped with raw tuna; about a dozen different dipping sauces; a glass of sweet choya = very happy girl. One lunch I tried out a vegan burger joint and it was the best burger (vegan, vege, cow (or buffalo)) I have ever eaten. Magnificent portobello mushrooms, creamy coleslaw (still vegan), sensational sauce… just trust me on this one. If you ever go to Wrocław – try it: MO. And last night I celebrated cooking my first ever baked sweet potato (filled with spinach, red onion, cherry tomatoes and cottage cheese: yum.

Now my time in the land of the Poles is over and I am currently en route to Prague. Never (ever) thought I would say this, but… I can’t wait to return to staying in a hostel!

A Krácking Time

My second stop in Poland beat its predecessor hands down. Kraków was lively, interesting, historic, authentic. I had been recommended the city by a number of friends and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Arriving early afternoon, my first day was spent wandering aimlessly (a pastime I would definitely recommend for your first day in a new city), making my way through the Old Town and stumbling across the Wawel (which I like to pronounce with the British ‘W’ because… well, it’s just more fun that way). The grand castle consisted of numerous paid rooms and exhibits (I wasn’t willing to pay for anything), so I wandered around (aimlessly) and took in the magnificent grounds. It was like a real life fairy tale castle with beautiful brickwork and stunning greenery, and quiet enough by this time in the afternoon that I wasn’t swamped by herds of children on school trips (a daily occurrence in Poland, from my little experience). I was beginning to tire and headed back to the hostel, via a bar for a glass of wine, naturally. This cheered me up and brought back my razzmatazz. (Can you tell I’ve had a beer before writing this?)

The hostel I was frequenting was very social and like a great big family, with home-cooked dinners, team games and a group night out each evening. A bit too much ‘organised fun’ for my liking, but it did make it very easy to meet fellow travellers, and the ones I met here were second to none. Both in quantity and quality. They really were great. Harriet from Melbourne (I think?!) (defo Australian) was LITERALLY the funniest person I have EVER met. EVER. I swear I must have lost weight just being in her vicinity due to constant hysteria. I wish I could take her in my backpack for the rest of my trip. (I would have a banging body come November.) California-based Sophie (Kate Upton lookalike) was a total sweetheart. Just graduated from college (in American accent) she was travelling around Israel (a fellow Jew-by-default), Asia and now Europe before starting her career. We shared a bottle of red wine post-Auschwitz (we needed it) and anyone who is up for sharing a bottle of red wine has got to be a friend for life, right? Intimidatingly cool American newly-graduated interior designers Ayla (A-luh not I-luh) and Meave turned out not to be intimidating at all, but quirky, creative and brainy. (We had a wonderfully intelligent discussion about world politics over dinner, and a bottle of red…) And not forgetting Justyn (not a typo) who fooled Hilarious Harriet into believing he was 37 (he is 26) and who did his back in sharing my umbrella in the rain (he is about 7-feet tall). So, all in all, a great bunch of lunatics!

Along with a plethora of cafés, restaurants and bars (serving, among other delights, a large array of wódka), Kraków was a base for lots of cultural and historically important sightseeing and trips, most notably to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Nine from our hostel went on the day trip together which started out, ironically, rather comincally. Our minibus driver was a middle-aged, rotund Polish guy who insisted on telling each and every one of us (one at a time), in broken English, the exact instructions for what was going to happen once we arrived at the concentration camp (which was a two-hour drive away). This tickled us all no end. We finally set off (once we were all well versed in the afternoon’s itinerary) in two separate cars (Ayla & Maeve missed out on the party bus (my bus obviously)), and the two driver’s proceeded to call each other semi-frequently (we knew they were talking to one another as we could see the other driver on his phone out the rear windscreen), talking a whole lot of Polish that we did not understand. A little dubious as to what was so important that needed to be discussed continually, while the journey seemed to be taking far longer that expected, and worrying whether we would ever reach Auschwitz, we did eventually make it and made our way to the entrance (not before being told the afternoon’s itinerary). (I figured the drivers must have just been catching up on last night’s TOWIW (The Only Way is Wódka).)

Auschwitz itself was not what I was expecting. It was very much a tourist spot which I feel lessened the impact it could (and should) have had. Without doubt I think it is vitally important for us to be knowledgeable about our history and learn from past mistakes (monstrosities), but the sites were so well set up for hoards of visitors and guided tours that you immediately felt detached from the stories and the people whom the memorial is for. It was very interesting and shocking to see the appalling conditions and hear about the horrific treatment the prisoners were subject to while standing in the very rooms, courtyards and pathways within which the unforgivable events took place. A huge glass display case filled with deteriorating hair cut from an estimated 140,000 victims was an overwhelming sight which I think would struggle to leave any visitor unaffected. But the headsets that we had to wear to hear our tour guide speaking through a microphone (when stood two metres away) and the constant photographing (me included) took away from the solemnity that those who suffered at these camps truly deserve.

Along with Auschwitz-Birkenau I visited Schindler’s Factory (a bit of a let-down as I was hoping to explore and learn more about Schindler’s Factory (too presumptuous?!) and it was in fact a museum about the war in general (and rather over crowded); followed by next-door MOCAK (the museum of contemporary art) which was super duper (positively overbalanced the disappointing morning); and on my last full day Kościuszko Mound which was, literally, a big grass mound that we paid to climb up, but was actually a really good and different trip which gave great views overs the whole of Kraków (and great selfie stick opportunities).

I have now left Kraków (but totes gunna go back) and am in Wrocław. Pronunciation (not what you expect) and my take on the city to come…


Warsaw: A Series of Mildly Infuriating Events

I arrive in Warsaw on a grey Thursday afternoon, and am surprised by my first impressions. What stands out to me the most initially is the urban landscape scattered with fantastic architecture. I’m not sure if Warsaw is famed for this or not, but it certainly drew my attention, and intrigued me to what other gems the city might have to offer. My hostel was right in the centre of the Old Town, next door to a very traditional looking Polish restaurant – Zapiecek – with waitresses (no male waiter’s – slightly sexist) dressed in rather comical fancy dress style red floral frocks with navy corsets (gorsets) and a big red flower slapped subtly in their hair. (See more in penultimate paragraph.)

The hostel itself was good (bar the funky (used negatively) smelling toilet which one did not become accustomed to), and the series of aforementioned events did not commence until the following morning…

Equipped with my Lonely Planet guide for Warsaw, a city map from the hostel and maps.me at the touch of a button (tap of a screen), I planned my first full day with fervour. The ‘alternative’ Praga called to me; the ‘gritty’, ‘bo-ho’ and ‘up-and-coming’ district, home to the ‘artistic’ Soho Factory. Sounds great. Waking up to a super sunny morning, I decided to walk the journey rather than take the bus (half true…half because I didn’t have a clue where to get the bus to and this conundrum of which bus to get and where to alight stresses me out, mightily). The walk was actually very pleasant; along it I topped up my tan and listened to the WHOLE latest Ed Sheeran album (it was quite a walk) (but I do love Ed Sheeran). As I arrived into Praga I realised the tantalising description of the suburb was a little…optimistic. More hobo than bo-ho. I reasoned perhaps this was just the outskirts, and that the fabulous Soho Factory would well and truly knock my socks off. As I entered the factory complex things did begin to improve. I tracked down Kofi (a pre-existing pin on my map after my research session) the ‘cool cafe’ at which I was going to refuel following my trek. Approaching the counter it looked very much like a cool (don’t get me wrong) cafe, but serving coffee and only coffee. “Do you serve food?” I asked tentatively, after ascertaining that the guy in charge of the coffee beans spoke ‘a little’ English. His answer? “No.” Fabulous! “Apart from sandwiches and cakes.” Phew! Talk about making me sweat. I chose my sandwich (teeny tiny filled roll), egg mayonnaise, and ordered a flat white – the first time I had seen this on a menu since departing from St Pancras. While he was making my coffee I tried to engage in a little conversation, you know, to get some local tips about the area and the best places to visit. “So where are the best places to go around here?” “ONE MOMENT!” came the curt reply (clearly the heating of my milk required such a depth of concentration that any small talk was totally out of the question). This better be a bloody good flat white. Once he had artfully (and arrogantly) poured my coffee, creating a nice, but not spectacular, milk leaf, he was ready (able) to talk. “So where are the best places to go around here?” “There is nowhere around here worth going to. Except us.” Fabulous take two! I can’t believe I had just walked an hour for an egg roll.

As I savoured my morsel of lunch, I went back to the drawing board. There must be something worth seeing in this district. I had already planned a visit to the Neon Museum (a few buildings away), but wanted to see if there was anything else to make this trip worthwhile. After a quick Google I found, relatively nearby, the artistic centre Fabryka Trzciny and the vodka factory Koneser. Aha! Screw you coffee guy.

I visited the nearby Neon Museum (receptionist – unwelcoming; exhibition – quite interesting) and then headed to my newly found spots. Well. The Fabryka Trzciny? Couldn’t find an entrance for the life of me. And Koneser? I’m not sure if it was yet to be built or recently demolished, but I’m pretty sure you weren’t allowed on site without a hard hat and fluorescent jacket. (I didn’t have either.) So I made my way back to the hostel, another  l e n g t h y  walk, cheering myself up with a Magnum (almond) for the road. First series of infuriating events: complete.

The following day was a bit of a write off (starting the previous evening with Beer Pong was never going to end well). I attempted the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews but my brain wasn’t really in the right gear to make the most of the exhibition, although I did appreciate the craftsmanship that must have gone into its creation, and I would recommend a visit (after a good night’s sleep). In the evening I attempted a sunset wander along the river but – now maybe I was just having a very off day on the navigation front – I couldn’t work out how to bloody get there! So after a noisy wander along a very main road, peering hopefully towards the water, I decided to call in a night. Second day of infuriating events: complete.

My last full day in the Polish capital was full of…yet more infuriating events. I walked all the way to the central station (again half good weather / half foreign public transport anxiety) to buy my ticket for Kraków and exchange some more money. Both cashiers were exceedingly unfriendly, which improved my upbeat mood no end. I then got totally ripped off buying a smoked salmon baguette in the station, and I wasn’t even freaking hungry. I was determined to improve my day, and set off for Łazienki Park (by foot – lol) for a free open air Chopin concert at 4pm. How very civilised. I arrived at three and set myself up on the lawn, now peckish and ready to embark upon my extortionate baguette. It turned out to be pretty damn tasty – things were finally looking up. After lazing in the sun for half an hour or so, I sat up and prepared for my afternoon of classical piano. But as soon as I engaged those abdominal muscles and peeled my dusty pink cap adorned head from the grass my hopes of a nice, peaceful, relaxing (read: non-infuriating) afternoon were dashed. The most infuriating couple had placed their backsides on the most infuriating fold up seats infuriatingly right in front of me, scuppering my view of the piano ahead. (Now let me just set the scene: the park is HUGE and there was ABUNDENT seating provided around the ENTIRE area, with grass in the middle for people to SIT OR LIE DIRECTLY ON THE GROUND). Why would you do that!!!!! I gave their infuriating backs evils for the entirety of the recital.

For my last night I decided to treat myself to my first solo evening meal out on this European escapade. I was keen to try pierogi (traditional Polish dumplings) and so where best to go but the traditional ‘Grandmother’s country cottage’ pierogi kitchen next door to my hostel. I went for the spinach and cheese pierogi with warm blue cheese sauce and a local beer on the side. The beer was good. This was promising. The pierogi arrived and I had high hopes. But, unfortunately, and maybe controversially after all the recommendations I had received, I wasn’t that taken! They were slightly overweight versions of the gyoza you get from Wagamama, but not as tasty, and, unlike being served as an appetiser, here they are the main event! So my dinner was a pan full of stodgy dumplings with a seriously over-seasoned sauce with which to wash them down. A little infuriating. Kind of appropriate for my last memory of the city.

Kraków is my next destination (in approximately 90 minutes), and during this stop I promise I will not: walk one hour for an egg roll; try to absorb any hard-hitting historical knowledge on a hangover; order dumplings for dinner.