Slovakia, Czech Republic & Poland - heading east into the snow
Once upon a saga - a stranger is a friend you've never met before
How do you like rhetorical questions? Well, I was in Prague in my teenage years when my school decided that we should make a class trip to Czechoslovakia. Back then Prague was the capital of Czechoslovakia. But as you may already know, since 1993 it has been 2 countries: Czech Republic and Slovakia. The question is: have I already been to Slovakia? Have I already been to the Czech Republic?
I boarded a train in Budapest and left Hungary heading toward Bratislava in Slovakia. Again I did not really know what to expect. My memories of the region dated back decades and my only prior encounter with anyone from Slovakia was from a military camp in Eritrea while I was still a United Nations Peacekeeper. That too was long ago but I do remember receiving great hospitality and good food :)
The hectic train station in Bratislava looked like a Hollywood parody of an Eastern European bazaar. Walking out of there I saw a number of broken benches along the road and that road led me into a less flattering area of typical worn down concrete jungle. I was not very impressed.
I found my way to the Red Cross office by borrowing a wifi signal from a nearby building. Sometimes you still get lucky and find unlocked wifi signals while standing on the street. It was late when I arrived at the office but in spite of that I still managed to find life. Quite lucky because I was treated excellently and had a great talk with Silvia about up and down and in and out. I am still trying to catch a picture of the sunset in every country and I was told that a nearby bridge would make for an excellent spot. So I left the office and got a fairly good picture. Granted a lot of my "sunsets" are more cloudy than sunny and because of the time of year many of them are also quite wet.
Again I located some wifi and got online to book a place for the night. This is pretty much where it all turned around. Because my route through the city took me up some amazing streets in a maze of old buildings and charming town squares. Bratislava was busting of life and it was evident from the decorations and general spirit that Christmas was getting near.
The amazing Christmas spirit in Bratislava
Bratislava is amazing...if you stand in the right part of town. I mean...from the area where I got off the train to the area of the old town with all the stores and restaurants - two different worlds! Completely!! Silvia recommended a nice little basement restaurant which served me the local dish and after that I walked around and enjoyed the high spirits watching young and old alike skating to the sound of familiar Christmas tunes.
I have so much more to explore so I will be back one day.
Now then; through Couchsurfing I had been offered a place to stay in Brno (in the Czech Republic). But the person I was writing with was in Germany so he would technically not be my host. However he lives with his brother so shortly after arriving to the very elegant city of Brno I spoke to his brother and we agreed to meet at the end of a tram line. But not before I had a look at the towering cathedral and also after I filled myself with sushi.
Cathedral in Brno
A very friendly brother escorted me up to their apartment which was pulsing with life. Because in fact the brothers also lived together with a few other young souls and on this very night a small group of students from Spain would also be couch surfing for the night. Great company!! After getting acquainted we went out to have a look at the city. It was after all weekend and the city was alive.
I think one of them was a gardner or something...
Brno is very much a city of young people since a very large part of the inhabitants are students. This naturally shapes the environment and we had a good night out. Some of us returned to get some sleep around 2am while others just couldn't get enough of that great local beer. And who can blame them? But I had an early Sunday morning appointment with a fellow from the Red Cross.
Beer, cheese and great company
We met quite early in the morning and went out to a local community center to talk a little about my journey but also about what the Red Cross does in the Czech Republic. And as I found out we were also heading to church?! Sooooo eeeehhh...I'm not very religious. I guess some would say that I am not religious at all. However I am curious and I did get a choice to stay away if I wanted to. The ceremony was hard to follow being in a language I did not understand and I tend to start yawning even when I do understand. At some point all the children that were present ran out all of the sudden. And later on they returned like a stampeding buffalo on a grand open plain. There was a choir which would, on and off, prove their talent and at some point it was all over. Oh...and on and off the priest would say stuff too :)
Suffice to say; I had a good time in the Czech Republic and I am happy to have made new friends again. People are great!
There was no real need for me to make a stop in Krakow other than because I wanted to. Anyway, I knew I would be waiting for some time in Warsaw once I got there so I made an extra stop in Krakow. What is so special about Krakow you ask me? Well, it was once the capital of Poland and a centre of spirituality and knowledge for several centuries. This has been imprinted in the architecture which luckily more or less made it unharmed throughout both World Wars. But it was also very important to visit Krakow because I have been wanting to go for a long time and before I started this journey my girlfriend and I debated where we should go for a short vacation. She opted for Paris while I pushed for Krakow. Naturally we went to Paris because as a man I really don't have a say in anything...
Krakow is worth a thousand pictures
What a pearl on our planet! Walking around in Krakow I immediately feel in love. I have not seen a city like that before. The giant beautifully decorated buildings towered high into the sky and statues and monuments spoke out of centuries long gone. In my view Krakow is a powerful statement to a time that has come and gone. Because we no longer build like that...definitely not on such a massive scale. Pack your bags...go now :)
A view of Krakow market square and my train TV dinner
And then the next day I continued by train to Warsaw. The current capital which by far did not dodge the grim bullets of the Second World War. Actually there is a little thing called the Warsaw uprising...and it is quite an important story. Because during Second World War many people all over the world found themselves under foreign domination against their will. And in Warsaw much like in many other cities Nazi Germany met resistance on different levels. In Paris, in Copenhagen and many other cities a number of brave men and women would stand up against Nazis - but mostly secretly and with discrete acts of sabotage.
Warsaw saw themselves in a different situation. Because in 1944 when the war went bad for the Germans and the Russians started pushing their front, Warsaw realized that the time was right and the resistance lifted itself from an underground movement and waged an actual war against the Germans. The idea was to liberate Warsaw themselves before the Russians arrived and it was a very tough battlefield. Very tough! In the end the Germans won against the uprising and Warsaw was completely destroyed. Massively destroyed!! We are talking about a city that held about 1.3 million citizens before the war and a mere 1.000 citizens after the war. Yes...I will spell that out for you: only one thousand.
So it was clear, from a military point of view at least, the uprising was a failure. But it started a fire throughout many cities which heard and were inspired about it. And who can say...perhaps the many uprisings that followed had an impact on the turnout of the war. Who can say...but it all started in Warsaw.
The day ends and the sun sets over Warsaw
Poland, of course, then went on to become a part of the Communist Soviet Union and it took many years before Warsaw again looked like a city. I don't think anyone can imagine how much time it takes to rebuild a city of that size. In comparison I remember it took New York about 3 years before they were done removing what was left of the World Trade Center. One building...3 years. And that is when you have money.
So, Poland is today no longer a communist country. And it has come immensely far since my last visit of more than 20 years ago. So much so, that I felt I was back in Copenhagen, which by most standards is a modern city I guess. I had parked myself in a hostel of the kind with a great staff. And from there I would do whatever I could to get my visas for Russia and Belarus.
I was initially told I could expect 2-3 weeks before I would receive my visa for Russia. And then they told me that the visa for Belarus would be even harder. Warsaw Red Cross helped me a lot and it was soon clear that Moscow Red Cross would not be helpful regarding an invitational letter. So I started smiling, and smiling, and smiling. Not so uncommon for me...but an absolute necessary for this part and after some magic from a few new friends I managed to produce a Russian visa in only 4 working days. With the Russian visa at hand I could apply for a transit visa at the Belarusian embassy and that is the short story of that.
Damn skippy I got my visas! :)
What did I do in Warsaw? I walked around a great deal, I joined the free city tour, I enjoyed a musical, I went to the cinemas 7 times, I had sushi a few times, I went for a run, visited the cathedral, the zoo, the Warsaw rising museum, spoke to people, spoke to more people and tried a local dish.
Warsaw is a very large and modern city. And it did not have the same immediate effect on me as Krakow did. But it quickly grew on me and it is a great city which I am looking forward to seeing again...in the summertime.
Funny thing about Poland (based on Krakow and Warsaw), they must really love sushi and kebabs. Because you can find it everywhere.
Now, the following is the most important thing I will tell you this time. And it happened in Poland before I entered Lithuania:
My hostel in Warsaw helped me make arrangements for a bed in Suwalki. Suwalki is jokingly referred to as the coldest place in Poland and is the closest I could get to Lithuania by train. From there I would need to get a bus. Before I left the hostel I was advised that I needed to have cash ready and that the place in Suwalki probably would not be very friendly apart from that they also knew no English. Great :)
Suwalki at 11pm: I leave the train and quickly find myself alone in a beginning and dark snowstorm. So far so good. No map, no wifi, no real sense of direction. Just walking for a while. Nobody in sight. Getting late. No one to ask for directions.
Then a door opens and the magic begins. A woman comes out of her house in order to move her car away from the trees because of the approaching storm. I ask for directions. She asks what I am doing there? I give her the short story...she invites me in to sleep in her house...I hesitate for a moment...she insists! A few minutes later I am inside a comfy warm home and I have already been warned that the daughter upstairs will probably not approve of me being there.
At this point I get to tell the woman that my name is Torbjørn. That I am traveling to every country in the world and that this hospitality is overwhelming. Maria, which is her name, now insists on preparing a nice meal for me. We are getting closer to midnight now...
Maria doing her thing - lovely!
The daughter comes downstairs and is very surprised to see that her mother has invited this strange man into their home at this late hour. But the situation is quickly defused and we all have a nice chat before I am given a very comfortable bed in a room of my own. The next day I have scrambled eggs and bacon with my coffee. And then I am given assistance regarding locating a bus to Vilnius in Lithuania.
Now tell me that I am not right??! A STRANGER IS A FRIEND YOU'VE NEVER MET BEFORE :)
Apart from the amazing hospitality shown to me...particularly in this example...but also in many other situations, then take a second to think about this:
- what if I had gone in a different direction that night?
- what if Maria had moved her car 5 minutes earlier?
- what are the odds?
Okay now; let's round this up with a few stats because I will be writing you soon again:
Boats: 5, Buses: 43, Metros: 34, Trains: 70, Trams: 13, Bicycle: 1, Airplanes: 0!!! ;)
Torbjørn C. Pedersen
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