Belgium, Holland & Poland March 2016 (Bruges, Amsterdam & Warsaw)
Having never been to Bruges or been outside of railway premises in Amsterdam, Easter seemed like the sensible time to visit both; while the ultimate destination was Poland. Having booked flights back from Warsaw it wasn’t until I began looking at the trip properly that I realised just how long it would take to get from Warsaw to Krakow and on to Auschwitz so a bit of re-planning followed.
Unfortunately the week leading up to or trip saw dramatic events unfold in Brussels with the airport & metro bombings; these put pay to a lot of transport in and around Brussels for a few days. Thankfully Eurostar were back running the following day but there was no train service to Brussels Airport; even during the time we were in Belgium some 5 days later.
Our destination of Warsaw would be reached solely by train, starting in Doncaster, and an interesting few days or travelling it would be.
Booked through British Airways direct
BA847 1150 Warsaw Chopin – Heathrow
Bruges – Hotel De Goezeput – is a straightforward 10 minute walk from Bruges train station and technically is on the outskirts of the old town in a quiet lane. Staff spoke fluent English and were helpful when checking in. Our room was No.10 on the top floor and while it looked very oldie worldy with wooden beams, and had great views, it was cold, draughty and a bit dangerous in some respects as one side of the bed had very low beams at the end of it. Unfortunately during our stay it was wet, windy and cold and we were glad to be moving on when we did as the wind and rain kept us up at night and the single radiator in the room was useless and barely heated up! Breakfast was good and cost 9 euro’s per person, with plenty to choose from, albeit continental style with nothing hot. For the price we paid I’d have expected better, in fact way better. During the summer there’d have been no issues at all. The room was clean and very spacious though.
Amsterdam – Ibis Amsterdam Central – the Ibis Amsterdam Centre couldn’t have been much closer and even overlooked the station at the rear of the hotel. Waiting to check-in took a great deal longer than it did to walk to the hotel itself and we were glad to get checked in and relax for a bit, in what turned out to be a very small room, by Ibis standards, on the 7th floor, which overlooked the city. Breakfast at the Ibis wasn’t included in the room rate and was a very pricey €18 add-on; which is just ridiculous, even for Ibis!
Warsaw – Mercure Centrum – which is almost immediately outside one side of Centralna station; but for a rather large shopping centre in-between the two; it’s easy to walk straight through it, or even round it to get to the hotel though. The Mercure itself was of a way better standard than I’d expected and for three nights at a little over £100 it was a relative bargain. The room was very spacious, spotless and included decent toiletries and most importantly a kettle with tea/coffee making facilities. Breakfast wasn’t included.
Krakow – Ibis Stare Miasto – despite the Stare Miasto Old Town) nametag it was quite a way from it, although relatively close to the station; just in the wrong direction from the old town! If you walk straight out of the station, through the subway, up onto the first floor of the shopping centre, straight out of the front doors and turning right you’re heading in the right direction. The red Ibis sign can be seen in the distance; beyond the end of the shopping centre. The Ibis Stare Miasto and Ibis Budget are one in the same building and first impressions were good, with the reception being spotless and the reception staff very helpful. The room was better than the miniscule one we’d had in Amsterdam and was a bit more like you’d expect from an Ibis. We used the hotel restaurant to have a spot of lunch before we headed out for the afternoon and the food was very good and freshly prepared in the restaurant’s spotless open-plan kitchen. Breakfast the following morning, included, was plentiful and had a good variety.
Interrail Global Pass (7 days in 1 month) – £243
Booked direct online through Interrail
Eurostar tickets London to Brussels Midi – £39
Booked direct through Eurostar over the phone using vouchers
Overnight Sleeper Reservations Dusseldorf Hbf to Warsaw Centralna
Booked through Rail Canterbury in the UK by e-mail
Saturday 26th March 2016 (Doncaster to Bruges)
As it was the Easter Holidays our railways were subject to a lot of engineering work and limited trains services ran into Kings Cross on the morning of Saturday 26th March; and those that did ran via Cambridge. Had you opted to do the 0626 from Doncaster to London you’d have arrived at 1020, or if you’d done the 0915 like we did you’d have arrived at 1050; the 0915 ex Doncaster being the first train direct up the ECML to Kings Cross. Unfortunately due to said fact the train was full when it arrived into Doncaster, at which point I was very glad I’d asked “my man” to reserve some seats from Doncaster to London; which randomly the system wouldn’t allow so they had to be reserved from York. Of course people were sat in them when we boarded but there was no issue moving them when we boarded. From Peterborough it was carnage on board with the train being full and standing down the aisles; which in coach B was quite dangerous as there’s only an exit at one end with the set being a HST and the guard’s office being at the rear. There was certainly no getting to the toilets en-route!
Despite having 2 hours in London before our 1258 Eurostar to Brussels was to depart we opted to get through security and passport control just in case there was extra security and things started to turn into a farce. As it happened they didn’t and with only the 1224 Paris and our 1258 Brussels during the time we were there things looked pretty much like business as usual.
When the 1224 to Paris was advertised the waiting area pretty much emptied, leaving plenty of room to maneuver. When the train departed however I heard nothing as it passed by overhead and had forgotten that Eurostar had some nice shiny new, crap, trains to play with; and was hoping our Brussels set would be a conventional set and not a new EMU!
Having kept an eye on the Eurostar staff it wasn’t hard to figure out which barriers would be opened next and we were first up to the platform when the doors opened automatically for people to access platforms 5/6. Thankfully our set was a conventional Eurostar and was still in the original grey colours as well. We were reserved in coach 17 at the front, to save the legwork when arriving into Brussels. The journey was routine, although there were no ticket checks throughout, despite picking up at Ebbsfleet and stopping at Calais and Lille en-route; arrival into Brussels Midi was spot on time at 1608.
Due to the heightened security in Brussels there was no direct access from Eurostar to the Thalys and TGV trains at Brussels Midi and there was definitely an increased security presence roaming around the station premises; including army personnel with rather large machine guns! The news had been reporting that people using Brussels stations were being subjected to bag searches on entry but as we didn’t exit the station we didn’t see any evidence of this.
The next train to Bruges was IC1538 1508 Genk – Blankenberge and it whisked us towards Bruges as we relaxed in the upper deck of the train; admiring the very flat surroundings as we glided through the dull weather outside.
The sets off IC1538 were split at Bruges to head their separate ways, the leading set going to Knokke and the rear to Blankenberge. Armed with ME maps for guidance we headed straight out of the station and walked to the Hotel De Goezeput; which took about 15 minutes at a steady pace. The De Goezeput is on the outskirts of the old town in a quiet lane. Staff spoke fluent English and were helpful when checking in. Our room was No.10 on the top floor and while it looked very oldie worldy with wooden beams, and had great views, it was cold, draughty and a bit dangerous in some respects as one side of the bed had very low beams at the end of it. The room was clean, spacious and had toiletries provided so we’d see how things went.
As it was already starting to get dark we didn’t hang around for long and went to get our bearings on Bruges. What we ended up doing was walking into the old town and when we came across the Bhavani Indian restaurant we couldn’t resist a decent meal; having not really had one all day! The Bhavani had been recommended by a work colleague and did have good write-ups. We managed to bag a table upstairs and had a window seat overlooking the square down below. Unlike most Indian restaurants the Bhavani has a set menu, from which you choose a starter and a main course and included in the €40 price tag are rice and Nan breads along with a salad and raita, with a small glass of dhal that precedes the meal. Veg dishes are cheaper at €35 and of course drinks are on top of that so the place is quite costly in that respect. The food was very good though and surprisingly some of it tasted just like it would in India especially the dhal and baji.
Pleased with our choice of food, although somewhat lighter in the pocket and not as stuffed as we thought we might be, we ambled back to the hotel taking in some of the sights Bruges had to offer on the way; with all the prominent tower structures of the numerous churches and the bell tower being well lit at night and they actually look better than they do during daylight hours; one of which, The Church of Our Lady, was perfectly viewed through one of the windows of our hotel room.
Tired from a long day of traveling we didn’t really make any plans for the morning, other than to set an alarm so we didn’t miss breakfast. The only question being when I got into bed was, would I or would I not bash my head on the low beam during the night, if I got out of bed?
Photos from Saturday 26th March 2016
Sunday 27th March 2016 (Bruges)
Indeed the alarm did wake us up at 0900 so it was a good job it had been set; and no I didn’t bash my head on the beam during the night, having remembered to duck when I went to the bog! Breakfast was nothing special at the De Goezeput but it did the job.
A late morning stroll around Bruges revealed quite a lot of people milling about and there were plenty of full tourist boats plying the waterways. The drivers of which seemingly had no care whatsoever for the army of swans that gathered in one of the parks where the boats turned round and one poor swan only just got out of the way before being hit; not cool! Our aimless walk round the old town didn’t really have a purpose at all and my map reading skill had us going in the wrong direction more than once during our attempts to try and make a purpose for the day! Unfortunately the only purpose we ended up having was to walk the eastern edge of the old town to have a look at the windmills that line the water’s edge there; the strong winds making it quite hard going at some points but at least it wasn’t hammering down like it had been during the night and the sun did at least make the odd appearance through the clouds.
The windmills are perched atop of purpose made mounds and are quite well kept, they’re not oldie worldy brick built ones but even though they’re wooden they still have that grandeur look about them; and offer a half decent view across the roof-tops towards the old town, with all the prominent buildings making their own bid to stand out above the rest.
We couldn’t resist a good old portion of chips and tomato sauce for lunch, something that seems to be a staple food source throughout Belgium, before finishing off our aimless walk and returning to the hotel by 1430, just as the weather was starting to turn.
A short afternoon trip out to Bruges station had me arriving back as the heavens opened quite dramatically the moment I set foot on the platform at Bruges! The rain was that heavy that it was bouncing off the floor on the large expanse of space immediately outside the station front; where a large number of people had taken up refuge beneath the station front to shelter. Despite the rain, the sun was trying to get through and a quite spectacular double rainbow spanned from one side of the city to the other; unfortunately I didn’t manage to get my camera out in time but Danielle did manage to snap it though the ceiling window of our hotel room at the De Goezeput.
While I managed to make it back to the hotel relatively unscathed by the rain, getting out for food that evening was a rather wet affair and a rather annoying affair too; especially when we’d chosen a nice Thai restaurant, got soaked getting to it and found out when we arrived that it was fully booked for the evening! Second on our list turned out to be closed on Sundays so we ended up in the Da Mario Pizzeria in the market place (Markt), opposite the bell tower. It was quiet, the food was good and the staff were very attentive.
As we ambled back to the hotel afterwards we struggled to understand what all the hype was about that had earnt Bruges such a good name. Yeah it was a “lovely” place but that didn’t make it somewhere that everyone must have on their wish list. Other than the churches and bell tower, which is nothing that other cities in Europe don’t have, I don’t actually see what Bruges has going for it other than the fact you can amble around quite a “nice” old town to your hearts content; but that’s it. There is nothing historic to see in the city itself and as European cities go its very expensive, especially the food and is mainly just full of chocolate shops and “tat” shops for tourists to peruse; all of which sell exactly the same things.
I can see the attraction for those that want to slow life’s pace down a little but I can do that in my front room at home in my PJ’s, so why spend hundreds of pounds doing it elsewhere in world, in a bustling city? For me Bruges is one of the most disappointing, and expensive, cites I’ve been to in Europe and I can’t say as I’ll be rushing back any time soon. Little did I realise that I would not be leaving my disappointment behind in Bruges!
Photos from Sunday 27th March 2016
Monday 28th March 2016 (Bruges to Amsterdam by train)
Having paid the hotel bill the previous night, as there is nobody in reception until 8 o’clock, we slipped out of the hotel a little after 7 o’clock, attempting to be as quiet as we could when creeping down the creaking old wooden stairs. Thankfully the very high winds and hammering rain that had pounded the roof overnight had died down and it was a fresh morning outside but still quite wet.
We were at the station in time to do IC507 0740 Oostende – Eupen to Brussels for IC9227 0945 Brussels Midi – Amsterdam Central forward, which was quite empty to Antwerp, where it filled up a little but was never a full train all the way to Rotterdam; where we got off to use the Intercity Direct route towards Amsterdam. This route is quicker as it uses the high speed route but also attracts a supplement on top of your ticket to use it; which doesn’t apply to Interrail tickets! The supplement is applicable from Rotterdam to Schiphol and is €2.40 but €10 if bought on the train! It’s easy for locals to pay the supplement as they just tap a machine on the platforms, just like using an Oyster Card in London, and that’s them sorted.
With only 7 minutes before ICD1027 1209 Rotterdam Central – Amsterdam Central departed we had to get ourselves some food and were quite disappointed when we came across a Pasta place downstairs as we didn’t think we have time to get something sorted; it took 3 minutes from ordering to having our freshly cooked penne arribiata in our hands, which was consumed en-route to Schiphol where we alighted to do ICD927 1157 Breda – Amsterdam Central into Amsterdam. Both ICD927 and IC9227, which we’d got off at Rotterdam, were sat in at Schiphol at the same time with ICD927 winning the race into the Dutch capital.
I’d picked a hotel very close to the station and the Ibis Amsterdam Centre couldn’t have been much closer and even overlooked the station at the rear of the hotel. Waiting to check-in took a great deal longer than it did to walk to the hotel itself and we were glad to get checked in and relax for a bit, in what turned out to be a very small room, by Ibis standards, on the 7th floor, which overlooked the city. Breakfast at the Ibis wasn’t included in the room rate and was a very pricey €18 add-on; which is just ridiculous, even for Ibis!
Keen to get out and explore Amsterdam, before the weather turned on us, we set off into the realms of the city and made the mistake of expecting the Royal Palace to be something spectacular; like most other Royal Palaces around the world are. First impressions of Amsterdam sort of continued where we left off in Bruges and then went a little downhill initially when we came across the less than impressive Royal Palace, having walked down packed, dirty streets to get to it. Intrigue then took us towards the red light district, through the narrow streets of the old town, which were lined generally with “tat” shops; and to be honest the streets could have been in a run down town in the UK and definitely dragged the image of Amsterdam down and that was before we came across any red curtains at all. Behind which the sights were just hideous but each to their own I guess! At that point I was a little glad that rain stopped play and I struggled to figure out what to do later that afternoon, as we walked back to the hotel and admired what I’d consider to be the best feature Amsterdam has as we walked by; Amsterdam Central railway station!
The answer to pass the afternoon by hit us as we approached to hotel and passed by the many sightseeing boat departure points. Options are so plentiful that we didn’t know which to pick and had to get some leaflets and peruse them back at the hotel. The result being we chose to use Gray Line for our boat trip as they appeared to be the only one offering headphones with audio commentary throughout the 90 minute journey.
All the conventional ferry trips are around the same price with Gray Line’s being €16, with the earphones being included free. Tickets can be purchased at the ferry terminal and are valid for whichever departure you decide to get on to; the one waiting when we bought ours was almost full so we boarded the next one, beside it, and chose the seats we wanted to sit in as a result. The journey was at a leisurely pace and the audio commentary is quite informative and explains a lot about the history of the area and how it developed through the ages.
Once out of the grasps of the main tourist area, and pottering along any one of the main arteries that skirt the city and form its outskirts, the area becomes a lot more tranquil and you can appreciate the city for what it actually is/was as opposed to what it has become with the “dancing houses” being appreciated a lot more when the audio commentary explains that they’re so narrow due to regulations imposed limiting their width; but randomly not their depth! Regulations also limited how far they could lean as well and their higgledy piggledy appearance isn’t helped by the fact they’ve been built on foundations sinking into water. Still they’re definitely photogenic.
Towards the end of the trip the route took us by Anne Frank’s house, where the queue wasn’t very big at all, which gave us an idea for the following morning; as other than doing another boat ride we’d pretty much done Amsterdam in the afternoon we’d been there.
With Amsterdam having redeemed itself after the boat ride, which was predominantly in glorious sunshine, it redeemed itself even more with an evening trip to the Mandarijn Chinese Restaurant, where the food was among the best Chinese food I’ve ever had and to add to that the portions were huge! The staff were very friendly as well and despite the place being almost completely full we managed to end up with one of the best seats in the house as a couple were just leaving as we walked in.
Having had a decent late afternoon, and stuffed our faces well and truly a relaxing evening back at the hotel was welcomed while we tried to find something to do the following day; Anne Frank’s museum seemed like the favorite but everything online pointed towards the fact that queues during the day could be lengthy and waiting times to get in would be long. A quick look at online tickets on the museum’s website revealed they were sold out completely for the next week at least, although there aren’t a great deal released for advance sales, but it seemed our plan could be scuppered by queues!
Photos from Monday 28th March 2016
Tuesday 29th March 2016 (Amsterdam; or not…….)
Rather than disappear for the morning we opted to take a walk in search of breakfast and returned to the hotel with some nice fresh stuff from a bakery, after a McDonald’s breakfast! As we had to check out of the hotel by midday, and didn’t have anywhere to reside until we departed Amsterdam for Düsseldorf at 2031, we made the most of the room and literally checked out at 1200 on the dot, depositing our big bags in the hotel’s storage room as we did.
An amble to Anne Frank’s museum revealed queues than must have stretched for about 300m from the entrance and didn’t seem to be going down at all as we assessed the situation right outside the entrance; so as it began to rain we walked back towards town, hoping that the queues would be a lot smaller after 1700, as the had been the previous evening.
As we had little to no interest in doing anything more in Amsterdam, and were merely passing time before we departed that night, we decided to get on a train to Den Haag for lunch and what a cracking idea that turned out to be. IC9240 1252 Amsterdam – Brussels Midi was our train of choice and en-route ME Maps showed a few places right outside the station to eat at with the Phad Thai being our chosen place; where the menu’s were in English, the staff were great, the food excellent and tasty with the price-tag not being hiked like city centre food places. As a bonus there was a cracking WiFi signal throughout the place, which came in handy while we were passing the time of day.
After a nice meal we planned to head back to Amsterdam via Rotterdam, to complete the loop the long way round. So we did IC9248 1452 Amsterdam – Brussels Midi and as ICD1043 1609 Rotterdam – Amsterdam was cancelled for some reason we ended up on ICD943 1557 Breda – Amsterdam when it rolled in; with the hoards all having tapped their cards on the supplement scanner to allow them to do the Intercity Direct route before boarding; it was amazing how many only did it at the last minute as the train was arriving.
Expecting a smaller queue at Anne Frank’s museum after 1700 we took a stroll back there, only to find the queues no shorter at all so gave it up as a bad job and went in search of some bits and bobs to take with us overnight to have for breakfast the following morning as out overnight train wouldn’t get us to Warsaw until 1215 the following afternoon; it was a bit of an endurance as we couldn’t find anywhere suitable initially but we got there in the end! Our bags were retrieved from the Ibis storage room and we abused the waiting area for a while to re-pack them; before heading to the station to get some food before our lengthy journey to Warsaw commenced.
Having used the place before, which I still can’t remember the name of, there’s a pizza place in the main subway at Amsterdam Central station which rustled us up two great pizzas; which were better than most produced in Italian restaurants and are prepared freshly by the very friendly staff that work there.
The stock to form CNL419 2031 Amsterdam Central – München Hbf was soon along, the seating coaches of the IC60419 portion are right at the rear of; and were virtually empty on departure from Amsterdam. Despite the lack of loco change at Emmerich CNL419 was 25 late by Duisburg Hbf.
As it was late we didn’t waste much time trying to get into our berths when EN447 Koln Hbf – Warszawa Wschodnia arrived, but sleep wasn’t something that came easily at all thanks to the PKP coach being in a bit or a rickety state with the connecting door between our compartment and the next rattling away nicely when the train started away; this had to be plugged with some tissues and needed a bag leant against it. Then as we picked up speed the bunks in the opposite side berth started to shake quite badly and it sounded like the coat hangers in the other compartment were rattling about in the small closet; what a fucking racket and even my earplugs didn’t give any respite from the crappy PKP coach. A very, very crap night’s sleep followed!
Photos from Tuesday 29th March 2016
Wednesday 30th March 2016 (An afternoon in Warsaw)
A stroke of luck had me heading to the toilet when EN447 was at Berlin Wannsee; it was the slow stagger, which felt like a shunt move that actually prompted me to get out of bed and investigate. What I found, our train propelling into the opposite platform to which we’d arrived and the stock was marshaled with the set that formed EC41 0637 Berlin Hbf – Warszawa Wschodnia in Wannsee station.
After departing Berlin sleep didn’t seem to want to come back to me at all, although I did notice that the berths and hangers seemed to have stopped rattling at some point during the night; probably when the berths became occupied? It was probably about 0830 when we both gave up on sleep and spent the rest of the journey trying to get comfortable in the berth, which was about as easy as it had been to sleep overnight! Not one of the best overnight journeys I’d ever done and a definite note for the future to try and avoid PKP stock on overnights where possible!
We arrived into Poznan Glowny a little late but as EN447 was booked to stand there for 16 minutes it departed right time. I half expected it to follow TLK83106 0648 Szczecin Glowny – Prezmysl Glowny, which was due to depart first, but as the loco for it had only just been detached to run round when we arrived there was no danger of it getting in our way as we headed away from Poznan. When I’d first discussed going to Poland with someone I’d been told that it took time to get around the country as trains just staggered around the place at no great rate of knots at all; well EN447 wasted no time at all in getting to Warsaw and hammered along at a very respectable pace indeed, arriving into Warszawa Centralna a couple of minutes early.
We were booked into the Mercure Warszawa Centrum, which is almost immediately outside one side of Centralna station; but for a rather large shopping centre in-between the two, which sufficed for a quick snack at KFC on the way though it. The Mercure itself was of a way better standard than I’d expected and for three nights at a little over £100 it was a relative bargain. The room was very spacious, spotless and included decent toiletries and most importantly a kettle with tea/coffee making facilities. It was a shame we wouldn’t be enjoying as much as we’d have like to when we headed to Krakow the following morning. As I’d booked the Mercure in Warsaw, before realizing how long it would take to get to Krakow, I’d done so on a non-cancellable rate but as it was so cheap it didn’t really matter when I booked the Ibis in Krakow for the following night and at least it meant we could leave our big bags in Warsaw while we headed south.
While we didn’t have any grand plans for our afternoon it would have been nice to take a walk to Warsaw’s old town but we simply couldn’t be bothered after the shocking overnight we’d endured; which resulted in us both flagging a bit in the afternoon. The fact that the early afternoon sun gave way to cloud and ultimately a bit of rain resulted in our late afternoon walk basically being one round the perimeter of the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science before taking up residence in the Hard Rock Café and stuffing ourselves stupid!
It was almost 2 hours after we first arrived when we walked out of the Hard Rock Café; and I felt almost 2 stone heavier! The food was fantastic and the portions were definitely not light ones. We were ultimately beaten by our deserts but I highly recommend the twisted mac & cheese, despite the fact the waited told me it contained over 3000 calories when I’d finished it; which is more than the recommended daily intake for a male! Having had a three course meal, including drinks, the £36 bill seemed miniscule in comparison to what we’d eaten so not only was the food excellent, the atmosphere nice and the music right up my street, the cost made the visit well worth it.
A much needed slumber on the hotel bed followed the food marathon, which was disturbed somewhat by the racket coming from the rowdy lot in the next room. A complaint to the hotel reception almost had us changing rooms until I was told we’d be no better off as there was a large group arriving on that floor the following day. Thankfully the noise just stopped completely about an hour later and peace prevailed. Randomly the hotel staff said they couldn’t really do anything about the noise until after 2200, which was quite what I wanted to hear but they did eventually agree to ring the room and ask them to keep the noise down; whether that actually happened or not I don’t know. Either way, as we were exhausted after our crappy overnight and stuffed after our food marathon earlier, sleep seemed to come very easily that night; and apparently I even had a bit of a snoring thing going on within seconds of closing my eyes!
Photos from Wednesday 30th March 2016
Thursday 31st March 2016 (Krakow – Wieliczka Salt Mine)
It wasn’t an early start but we left plenty of time between leaving the hotel and our train’s departure from Warszawa Centralna to Krakow so we could muster up breakfast from somewhere on the way. Unfortunately the shopping centre was closed, although we did manage to get through the doors to it as someone walked out and were immediately thrown out by the security guard once we had. That left plans A & B completely out of the window and the only option we found for breakfast was a Paul’s bakery on the main station concourse; which was more than sufficient.
Despite having Interrail passes we had to make reservations on our train from Warsaw to Krakow, as is the case with all PKP Intercity trains throughout Poland. These were easily obtained in seconds at Warszawa Centralna, when we’d arrived the previous afternoon. Unfortunately though, once we’d boarded EIC1323 0849 Warszawa Wschodnia – Krakow Glowny it became apparent that out seats were one behind the other as opposed to side-by-side; with the seat numbers not being in any sensible order at all so it’s pretty much impossible to figure this out until you’ve boarded the train. We managed to swap seats with someone who boarded at Warszawa Zachodnia; and then suffered another of those slow PKP Intercity trains I’d been warned about! It’s booked to cover the 289km from Warszawa Zachodnia to Krakow Glowny, non-stop, in 2h23m; which is a very respectable average speed of 121kmph or 75mph. So not really that slow at all and there was no slowing down at all en-route, as we arrived into Krakow 5 minutes early!
Shopping Centre’s right outside station entrances in Poland seemed to be a “thing” as Krakow Glowny had one to negotiate as well at Warszawa Centralna. We were staying at the Ibis Stare Miasto (literally translated as Old Town), so naturally followed signs in the shopping centre for the Stare Miasto and ended up at completely the wrong end of it, to where the Ibis was, as a result. Despite the Stare Miasto nametag it was quite a way from it, although relatively close to the station; just in the wrong direction from the old town! It was a harmless walk though, and had we gone the right way first the sensible way to get to it is walk straight out of the station, through the subway, up onto the first floor of the shopping centre, straight out of the front doors and turning right. The red Ibis sign can be seen in the distance; beyond the end of the shopping centre.
The Ibis Stare Miasto and Ibis Budget are one in the same building and first impressions were good, with the reception being spotless and the reception staff very helpful. The room was better than the miniscule one we’d had in Amsterdam and was a bit more like you’d expect from an Ibis. We used the hotel restaurant to have a spot of lunch before we headed out for the afternoon and the food was very good and freshly prepared in the restaurant’s spotless open-plan kitchen.
The afternoon plan was to head out to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and I’d booked the tickets for their 1500 tour, with an English guide, online weeks previous at home. Train services out to Wieliczka Rynek-Kopalnia are operated by KML and their nice shiny new EMU’s run every 30 minutes from Krakow Airport to Wieliczka Rynek-Kopalnia, via Krakow Glowny. The station at Wieliczka Rynek-Kopalnia is the end of the line and as the trains arrive evidence of the Salt Mine can be seen. There are two entrances to the mine; one is caller the tourist route, which is the entrance for general tourists going on the guided tours. The other entrance is known as the miner’s route and is for those that have booked the mining tour; as explained on the mine’s website. There are maps right outside the station and the tourist entrance to the mine is only 200m away so takes no time at all to get to.
We had an hour to kill before our venture down into the depths and had a quick walk around the town at Wieliczka before heading to the mine’s ticket office where I had to exchange the internet booking reference number’s for our tour for tickets. Worth noting is the fact that there are signs all over the place showing that rucksacks and cameras are not allowed in the mine (this doesn’t apply to handbags) but there is a small fee you can pay that allows cameras to be taken inside the mine; for which you get a sticker to put on so people know you’ve paid. The left luggage room for bags is at least free and you get a token to exchange for your bag when you return. The place is more of a garden shed behind the ticket office but is kept locked at least. Despite doing the right thing and paying for my photography ticket and leaving our bags in the left-luggage, it was a complete and utter waste of time as nothing is policed before entry to the mine, or during the trip and there were plenty of rucksacks in our group as we headed down into the depths; and not once was I asked to produce my photography permit, which I’d hidden in my pocket!
If you don’t like stairs, especially in spirals and made of wood, then don’t waste your time in heading to the mine; immediately upon entry the descent to 100m is via 56 levels of stairs that spiral down to the bottom, each of with a minimum of 15 steps to each level, which is a significant number of stairs compared to your average staircase. Our tour was with an English speaking guide and because the group can be spread out behind each other during the tour everyone is given a headset to wear, which is programmed to the guide’s master set so only they can be heard in the earpiece. This audio commentary also speeds things up a little and allows the guide to talk while moving from one location to the next.
The tour of the mine itself takes about 2 hours, at the end of which the guide’s assist people back to the surface in the speedy lifts; which only hold 9 people maximum and are rather cramped with only 7 people in! Along the way an explanation of how the mine came to be in existence is given and how ultimately it ended up how it is now; as a tourist attraction. There are full scale models to show how the salt was mined, how gas within the mines was overcome and how animals were used to aid the process. In various parts of the mines the old railway tracks remain in place, that were used to transport the salt around the mine before it was lifted to the surface. There are various underground lakes within the mine and there are statues sculptured from the salt; which you can lick at any point in the mine to get a taste for if you like! By far the most spectacular place though is the Chapel of St. Kinga, which is a large chamber that was created 109m below the surface and turned into a Chapel. Incidentally this chamber seems to be the reason why charges are made for cameras as there’s a person selling camera tickets at the top of the stairs that lead down to it.
Having ventured 135m into the earth it was good to get back to the surface and into the fresh air. Having collected our bags we headed back to Krakow on the same EMU we’d arrived on, with the same guard checking our tickets; who must have done two return trips to Krakow Airport since dropping us off earlier!
As we had time back in Krakow we took a walk into the old town, to the main square to briefly admire the St Mary’s Basilica before the sun disappeared for the day. It was busy so we didn’t hang around for long and took up residence in the rather empty The Mexican restaurant on Floriaknska, near the St Florian’s Gate. This place seems to get very poor reviews online but the service was good and food we had was tasty and spicy; and certainly didn’t have any complaints when we left to walk back to the hotel.
Having had a relatively relaxing day really we retired early as we had and early start and long day the following day; a day that should have provided the highlight of the trip when we visited Auschwitz.
Photos from Thursday 31st March 2016
Friday 1st April 2016 (A Fool’s Day to visit Auschwitz……)
Breakfast was served in the Ibis from 0630 and we were downstairs, having checked out, waiting outside the locked restaurant doors for it to open at bang on 0630! By 0645 there were quite a lot of folk in the place and there was plenty of food to choose from so we didn’t go hungry for the morning.
Most people visiting Krakow do Auschwitz on an organized tour from the city but we were doing it on our own accord and opted for getting the train out to Oswiecim and surprisingly we weren’t the only two doing it either. Trains on the Oswiecim line are worked by old EN71 EMU’s and the 0739 departure from Krakow Glowny was wedged and standing on departure; it couldn’t have stopped in any worse a place for us as regards getting on and we ultimately ended up standing out of Krakow Glowny until the train almost completely emptied at Krakow Business Park and was virtually empty for the whole journey to Oswiecim.
Heading out to Oswiecim was a slow affair and was pretty much how I’d been expecting the Intercity trains to run after the conversations I’d had with people before my first venture to Poland; very slowly indeed. As we ambled through the countryside though, deeper into rural Poland, the drizzle that started made it feel like we were in Eastern Europe and it was a far cry from the impressions Krakow & Warsaw cities gave; which is one of prosperity and progression. The atmosphere outside would certainly add weight to a wander round Auschwitz, which I’d always envisaged to have a bleak and damp outlook even at the best of times, and once off the train we walked the 1.8km from the station to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum; in the morning drizzle.
Drenched we sought a bit of refuge by the museum entrance before going to the information kiosks, where upon presentation of our pre-booked tickets, we were given stickers with the time of our tour on and advised to head into the museum entrance to see the 15 minute movie prior to the tour commencing. While entrance to the memorial is free you can pay for the services of a guide and be included in a group tour; all of which is bookable online but computer displays show the amount of places remaining on group tours and what languages they are in; so they can be bought on the day if availability allows. From April 1st through the Summer, entry for individual tourists is not permitted after 1000 without going in with a tour guide so be sure to book your place if you don’t want to miss out.
Our initial attempt to get into the museum, through what seemed to be a bit of a free-for-all type queuing system in the car park, failed on two accounts, one we were 6 minutes too early to be allowed entry and two because my rucksack was too big to take into the site. The result of that was my rucksack being left in the left-luggage place on site, for which a charge of 3 zloty is made. As Danielle’s bag was within the size limits, just, she didn’t need to leave hers but her bag was ultimately the reason we said “fuck it” and walked away from the museum in disgust!
Entry for those on the 1030 tour was permitted at bang on 1000, which only transferred people from a queue in the car park to a queue to get through security. When we got to the front the security staff took their makeshift size chart to Danielle’s bag and randomly the guard checking it asked for a second opinion; his ignorant mate just took a look at it and dismissed it straight away, which prompted us to question why. When put down on the counter by the x-ray machines and measure it was clearly within the size limit but both guards proceeded to stretch it out and basically pulled it upwards until it was outside their measurements; and dismissed it again, despite our protests. The some ignorant bitch on the gates at the side of us told us “I don’t have time for this”; which basically meant fuck off; so we did! And there ended our tour of Auschwitz; before it had even started.
After collecting my bag from the left luggage, 5 minutes after paying my 3 zloty to deposit it, I attempted to get a refund on our tickets but was point blank refused in quite a rude manner as well; which pretty much summed up our Auschwitz experience. It was a miserable day, which as I say should have added to the Auschwitz experience, but all it did was dampen our spirits as we headed back to the station in the rain. This was the last day of our trip and had basically been spoilt by ignorant staff, of which the security staff would have been well suited to processing people into the site during WWII and not processing people into a memorial museum, who have chosen to attend the site and paid money to do so. It was a highly disappointing experience, involving arrogant and ignorant staff, with very little evidence of order or organization outside the entrance to the museum; and what’s more it had completely wasted a morning that could have been put to far better use in Krakow itself.
Unfortunately the next train out of Osweicim was over an hour after we got back to the station but at least it had a waiting room for us to attempt to dry off in and the booking office came in very handy to get some reservations back from Krakow to Warsaw on an earlier train while we waited. Again the wet and cold atmosphere, along with the utterly run-down look Oswiecim station had, gave a real sensation of how far east we were and more to the point just what conditions the poor people inside Auschwitz had to endure. The first heat we were treated to was when the EMU dropped into the station to form the 1135 Osweicim – Trzebinia, which we’d figured out connected into a train forward to Krakow at Trzebinia. The guard on board the empty train managed to tell us in English that we had 7 minutes at Trzebinia and that the train forward to Krakow would depart from platform 2; which was very helpful of him and probably because I’d already filled our Interrail passes out for both journeys all the way back to Krakow.
The transfer at Trzebinia was relatively straightforward and we headed for the only platform that had people waiting on it. Soon enough a shiny new EN63 EMU rolled up with the 1127 Katowice – Krakow Glowny service, which was very cramped inside and had less legroom than Class 170’s in the UK! The journey would have been better on the ancient EN71 EMU we’d just got off, without all the mod-cons of on-board TV screens and air-conditioning. Still it delivered us back to Krakow on time so we had no complaints.
After a quick meal from KFC in the shopping centre I’d managed to figure out from the EU Rail app that there were a couple of PKP IC trains that could be done, both of which involved EMU’s to and from; which actually turned out to be the same KML EMU but the moves to Krakow Plaszow involving EU07-244 working IC37102 1030 Przemysl Glowny – Krakow Glowny and EU07-052 working IC73103 1414 Krakow Glowny – Przemysl Glowny worked a treat.
As booked our reservations for EIC3522 1433 Krakow Glowny – Gdynia Glowna, to Warszawa Centralna, weren’t together but as the train wasn’t full there was no issue and as it was right away to Zachodnia from Krakow it was even less hassle than it could have been. Despite being brought to a stand on the outskirts of Warsaw the train still delivered us bang on time into Warszawa Centralna; where Danielle went back to the hotel to deal with some trip advisor write-ups and I played out for a bit.
When heading up to our room in the Mercure’s lift, the doors opened on the 3rd floor and revealed a rather large group of teen’s veging about on the floor in the corridor; and generally making a bit of a racket while they did. I did wonder if this was the large group that the receptionist had warned me about when we’d almost changed rooms two nights previous?
With no plans for dinner we couldn’t quite resist a return visit to the Warsaw Hard Rock Café, which was a lot fuller than it had been on our previous visit but the waiter serving us remembered us and the food he brought out was just as good as it had ben two nights previous. The unfortunate events and situation from the morning’s escapades did feature in our topic of conversation that evening but rather than dwell on the fact we enjoyed our last evening away and discussed the better points of the trip instead. It had seemed to be a very strange trip indeed, with more disappointments than anything else but either way we’d enjoyed it and had plenty to talk about when we got home; all we had to look forward to at this point though was packing our bags when we got back to the hotel room.
Having already checked in for our British Airways flight home, using PKP’s WiFi on board the train from Krakow to Warsaw, there was nothing left to do other than get up the following morning and head to the airport; and back to the grind at home.
Photos from Friday 1st April 2016
Saturday 2nd April 2016 (A delayed journey home)
We headed out to the airport aboard SKM’s 0853 Sulejowek Milosna – Warszawa Lotnisko Chopina; with airport bound services being every 30 minutes from Centralna and even more frequent from Wschodnia and Zachodnia there really were plenty of trains to choose from.
There was hardly anyone going through security when we arrived, which might, or might not of course, explain why the security staff wanted everything electrical out of my bag and in the trays. Which basically was everything but my clothes and I ended up having my stuff spread across three trays as it went through the x-ray machines; I might as well not have bothered packing at all the previous night and it seems the security staff on our particular set of desks may well have been to the same training school as those at the Auschwitz Memorial had!
With only just over an hour until our 1150 flight to Heathrow departed everything looked ok, until an announcement 30 minutes before departure advised everyone that the plane was delayed and a further update would be given 30 minutes later. We eventually found out, from the pilot himself, that when he’d landed the No.2 engine had stuck in reverse; which would prevent him taking off. Fitters had been called and were working to rectify the problem but they couldn’t give the pilot an estimate. A look out of the window, towards the plane a short while later, revealed a few fitters looking over the faulty engine, which had both doors fully open and another fitter basically inside it trying to find the problem.
The result of the problem was 1h50m late departure from Warsaw, which followed a bit of a free-for-all when it came to boarding; which had no decorum to it at all as a result of the plane’s late boarding. Despite the lengthy delay we were on stand at Heathrow only 55 minutes late, which was unfortunately late enough for us to miss the 1603 from Kings Cross back to Doncaster but as a result of the late arrival we dropped nicely into the 1703 & 1710 departures north. I’d been possibly expecting some form of questioning when our Interrail passes were produced on the journey home but there was no issue at all using them in our own country. I was armed with the relevant details from the Interrail website but didn’t need to even get them out; so a nice relaxing journey it was as the fastest Class 91 in the west delivered us home to Doncaster. Which is a fact by the way after it reached 162mph back in 1989 on Stoke Bank; there’s even a plaque on the side to commemorate the fact!