I have the pleasure of being able to say that I have spent a few weeks in Poland now, having driven from the North to the South culminating in spending a few days in Krakow – a city steeped in medieval history and architecture but more recently synonymous with tragedy. Yet it has adopted this past and surged on to create a bright future. I will talk more about this in another post, but today the post revolves around Warsaw, the mighty capital of Poland.
Having been to others places in Poland first, and enjoying everything they had to offer I had high hopes for Warsaw and I was left a little… underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong I am sure many of you have been there and loved the experience, but to me it didn’t match up to Krakow in the south, or even the larger towns and cities in the neighbouring Balkans.
It did have a few redeeming features, in that Poland still holds its own currency the Zloty and even with the British pound being the same value as a bag of used tissues (post Brexit) you still get bang for your buck here. Not quite the standard of South-East Asia, but enough that Poland should feature on your European tour, and for us it made a refreshing break from the expense of Berlin!
I also found a gem of a hostel, Hostel Lwowska; walking distance from the main train station and through a dodgy looking gated alleyway and staircase but an amazingly clean and modern hostel with keycard access, friendly staff and an affordable price tag. For those of you who haven’t had the experience of hostels they also accommodate double rooms, it’s not all about the bunk beds!
All this being said, Warsaw had some pretty special looking bars and restaurants, even a burger bar just around the corner offering a burger proudly titled ‘Double Death by Cheese’. Overall all I am pretty give or take about Warsaw, but if you are using it as a hub to head to other places in Poland, go for it!
From Warsaw we took our first overnight train into Minsk, Belarus. And what a train it was. It set a standard that has not been beaten so far on our travels, the train was a brand new Austrian built carriage of comfort. We were lucky to have a 4-berth compartment to ourselves that had everything you could want in a modern hotel room. The journey itself was a pretty comfortable overnight trip, however you have few big interruptions. Firstly, with the Polish Border control and then a more stringent check at the Belarusian one supported by full German Sheppard K-9 contingent. Belarus is the first country on this leg of our journey where we have needed a visa, we planned the trip to only spend the day in Belarus allowing us to apply and get the less complicated transit visa. I say less complicated, but this is simply compared to the Russian and Chinese visas (which deserve their own blog post).
The other big and much more exciting break in travel is where they change the bogies. A throwback of the Russian war machine is that they built their entire railway system on a five-foot gauge (track width) compared to nearly every other country in the world being four feet, eight inches, that’s 152cm and 142cm respectively for our metric cousins. By having a different width railway line it meant that any invading army was not able to use their railway systems and carriages to easily invade Russia – not a bad proposal after all, considering that war machinery got larger throughout the Second World War, most of it requiring train transportation to the frontlines.
Back in the present, this means that any train crossing into or out of the Russian and Belarusian Borders has to have each and every carriage lifted about 7 feet off of the floor by hydraulic ramps and the axles changed over to a larger size. No mean feat of engineering and interesting to watch, it is so smooth and efficient that you don’t even notice it happening whilst you are on the train, as long as you ignore the fact that you are being driven into a massive abandoned looking shed on the edge of the Russian border….
To squeeze our visit of Minsk into a single day meant that we arrived about 5am and our train out to Moscow was not due to depart until nearly 11pm at night, a long day after an interrupted sleep. After the obligatory snooze on some chairs in the train station-waiting lounge whilst waiting for the sun to rise we checked our bags into the luggage storage a grand total of £1.21 for three bags for a whole day, rip-off prices I tell you! We headed out into Minsk and were greeted with my first taste of Russian austerity, there are two reasonably impressive buildings straight outside of the train station which looked much better lit up at night. Other than those it comes across as quite a bland city, which is to be expected considering the majority of it was destroyed in recent history and has found itself as the frontline of battle over many previous centuries too.
Although wandering through the street we did discover a square with a red brick church that was full to the brim with people attending Sunday Mass, Russian Orthodox Christianity holding a large sway in the area, the churches are a sight to see compared to usual much less colourful English churches.
Tumbling back outside into the -10C weather we took warm in a 4 Floor underground shopping centre that spanned the entire square and sat underneath several roads. And we discovered another reason why the rest of the world is storming ahead of the UK; vending machines with prescription contact lenses in, something Suzie got genuinely excited about having the vision of a mole.
The time came to head back to the train station and I am happy to say that the whole city had taken on a wonderful transformation. Being nearly Christmas it did something the UK rarely ever does: snow. Not halfhearted snow either, full flurries of pure flakes drifting in front of a Christmas tree, the first time in my life that it actually felt Christmas to me, yes I know comment with your Grinch jokes below!
Little did I realise those few inches of snow and -10C temperatures were only a taste of what was to come…