Saturday, December 28, 2013

Eurotrip (Chapter 1): Poland - Krakow and Auschwitz

Some holidays are break from monotony, some are a learning experience, some are just too much fun but only few trips are all this and more. The east Europe trip that we did last year was one such amazing trip.

The three protagonists – Tauseef, Rohan and Me. All three are boring bankers, tired of their daily office routine and looking for a break in the most literal sense.

Prologue – For Tauseef and me, this was not our first brush with Europe and we both had seen a lot of the west European countries. So we decided to go off the beaten track – an East Europe trip, covering Poland, Czech, Hungary and Romania. But Romania visa turned out to be an issue. Considering the hassle of flying to Delhi for interview at Romanian embassy, we dropped Romania from the itinerary. Now suddenly 5 days opened up in our 15 days plan.

After poring over political map of Europe for hours, we were still undecided. We picked Istanbul for two days, the reason was our cheap flight to Europe with a transit at Istanbul. This meant that we just needed to take our Istanbul to Mumbai flight 2 days later and spend two days in Istanbul. Also, Turkey provided Visa on Arrival for Schengen visa holders. But 3 days were yet unaccounted for.

Then Tauseef's boss, troubled by his googling in office for “European best places to visit”,  decided to assist. His suggestion - Croatia. We googled and were impressed in minutes. Dubrovnik, Zagreb, Hvar, Split and Plitvic – all perfect places to go. Also, while he was talking to his boss, a colleague (Rohan) of his overheard and came asking to join. He checked with me and I thought – the more, the merrier.

Flight – Turkish Airlines (Go - Mumbai to Vienna via Istanbul; Return – Zagreb to Mumbai via Istanbul)
Plan – 2 days in Krakow, 3 days in Prague, 3 Days in Budapest, 3 days in Zagreb/Dubrovnik and 2 days in Istanbul

Visa – Initiated through VFS. We had selected Austrian Embassy for our Schengen considering it was our port of entry but turned out that visa application has to be processed through the country with longest stay – Czech Republic in our case. We had to show a longer stay in Vienna (thanks to Hostel Booker, we booked cheap stay for the same) to get the process done through Austrian Embassy. This was important as Austrian Embassy is in Mumbai. Though later we realized, we were not even required to visit the Embassy for the 15 days tourist visa. The visa came in ten days and we were all set to go.

Chapter 1: A blast from past – Krakow & Auschwitz

After a long flight to Istanbul, a five hours break and then another flight to Vienna, we were in Europe. Rohan wanted to do bungee jumping, and we didn’t, so we had booked his train to other end of Austria (Switzerland Border). While me and Tauseef had to travel to Krakow, Poland. So after landing, Rohan went towards Wien Westbahnhof for his train and we went to Wien Meidling.

It was already late evening and when we reached the ticket counters, they were closed. We were tired and cold (somehow the evening was much colder than we expected in August) and we were not sure if we will get seats on the train. And then the train kept getting delayed (yes Europeans train are also late, esp if you are in east Europe). I was so tired that I just took one corner of the waiting room on the platform and slept.

After 2 hrs delay the train finally arrived. We got in and asked the ticket collector if there were any seats for us unfortunate souls. Turned out that there were lots of available seats (This is why I love Europe, more often than not you get what you want). We booked the sleeper.

The cabin was similar to III tier coaches in Indian train.  Two seats were already occupied by a petite Polish girl and a broad-faced Argentian guy. The guy seemed annoyed as his flirting attempts were interrupted by us walking in. I went in and slept. Tauseef spent some time trying to find out good places to visit in Krakow. The girl suggested few museums and art places. The Argentian guy was getting restless with him butting-in, so he too decided to give it a rest.

Both of us woke up fresh with a view of beautiful dense woods besides the track.

We lost some coaches and were greeted with this view in the morning

Also, apparently in night we had lost some coaches.

Turns out the coach behind us went to Belarus, the one behind that went to Berlin and the third one went to Moscow. So in the end, we were two coaches being pulled by an old engine through forests of Poland.

When I tell people, Krakow was the first place we went; the usual reaction is where the hell is this. Krakow, in words of our train companion (the Polish girl), is the cultural capital of Poland. The place is typical European - beautiful, slow paced with brilliant architecture.

We were staying in a small cozy place called Cinema Hostel. True to its name, all the dorms where named after a movie – we were put in Dirty Dancing dorm. There was a living room with a TV and VCD player and collection of English and Polish movies for guests. 

The city center - sun shining on the buildings in overcast conditions
After bread, butter and olives breakfast, we had our first outing to the city center. The day was alternating between being sunny to being overcast and that made all the brightly colored buildings shine in contrast to the dark sky. As with old culturally rich European cities, we found performers entertaining the crowds with their dance, music, acrobatics etc. in the city center.

We then had a nice lunch at there. After that it started to drizzle. Tauseef had to buy an umbrella and I also decided to do some shopping and bought a wooden sword. We walked up to the riverside in the drizzle, gawking at old cathedrals, random statues and walled forts. Vistula river side was beautiful, though bit gloomy with heavy clouds and still water.

We walked into the common room of our hostel to the sound of John Travolta and Samuel Jackson arguing. Four young British guys were chilling with chocolates, vodka and Pulp Fiction. We joined them in the common room and spent some time watching the movie.

Second day we took a train from Krakow station and went to Auschwitz concentration camp. Auschwitz camp is split in two – the original Auschwitz, a Polish barrack that was converted to concentration camp and the extension that was built in later in the war, called Birkenau. A guided tour can be taken that is meant to make people aware of what monstrosity happened there in the Great Wars.

The day was a solemn one. We saw small barracks that were converted to prisons, old bags & belongings of prisoners strewn behind a glass wall, clothes weaved from hairs of prisoners, and a gas chamber for genocide. The memory that stayed with me for that day was a pair of small, fancy pink shoes– surely a prized possession of some kid turned into a reminder of human atrocity that was WW2.

The original Auschwitz camp
Then we went to Birkenau camps where our guide informed us that the rail tracks were laid there in 1944-45. This was the time when Nazis knew that they were going to lose the war and yet the tracks from Oswiecim station to gas chambers were laid so that faster executions can happen. This left me wondering at the level of hatred a human can have for another.

The rail lines in the Birkenau camp built to take the people directly to the gas chambers
We had a nice evening back at Krakow with a group of French guys whom we had met in our Auschwitz trip earlier in the day. Thus ended our trip to Krakow, that is unfortunately not famous for its beauty and art but for its proximity to the site of million deaths.

Next day, we had train for Prague – in my humble opinion, easily the most charming city of East Europe.

Things to do in and around Krakow
1. Take a walk around the city center and take a tour of all the historical buildings
2. Spend some time at the city center with its restaurants and shopping options
3. The Schindler's factory/ museum (The famous Schindler factory of Schindler’s List fame is in Krakow. Today it is converted into a museum)
4. And of course, a visit to Auschwitz

Photo Gallery


Anonymous said...

Hi,I saw your trip report on flyertalk. Here is a note about the train you took from Vienna to Krakow:
The train name is Chopin and it is mainly Vienna-Warsaw but has a few carriages to Berlin and two to Krakow. No carriage goes to Moscow or Belarus.

You check train composition here:

All the best

Abhijit Raja said...

Actually it does - Check the first train on the link shared by you. It has carriages to Minsk as well as Moscow.