When I first thought about going on the European Train Odyssey©, all sorts of potential itineraries started floating around in my head.
Adding the Greta Thunberg element of trying to do the whole travel thing in a slightly more sustainable way soon put paid to a Scandinavian leg, as there apparently wasn’t a way to go to Oslo and Lofoten and Helsinki and the Baltic states by train, because there were mountains and seas and other inconvenient geographical features just lying there, getting in the way.
That’s why I decided to start things off in Poland, a European crossroads, freighted with historical and cultural significance and at the same time, considerably less costly too.
Warsaw had been a fascinating first stage, but Kraków now loomed large in my mind, given its proximity to some of the most awful sites in recent human history.
Places that had to be seen, but that were to be feared too.
Before all that, I had some time to explore the gorgeous Old Town of Kraków (it’s actually pronounced Krak-oof – who knew?) and take in some of its highlights.
Wawel Castle was an obvious starting point, high on a hill overlooking the Vistula, but I was foiled by an officious ticket sales clerk who refused to let me in, as she claimed the “castle was full”.
This seemed rather unlikely, but I wasn’t really in a position to argue – it was her castle, after all.
Also, it looked just as nice from the outside and who wanted to see another Royal Bedchamber anyway?
Stymied, I strolled towards Krakoof’s majestic Rynek Glówny, which is allegedly the largest medieval town square in Europe.
Here I was foiled once again.
Attempting to have a look at the interior of St Mary’s Basilica, a sign told me to “cross the square” to find the ticket office.All the way over here.
It wasn’t there.
It was actually right next to the church, in a little courtyard (otherwise known as the square) and really quite logically placed.
But the sign had led me astray.
Krakoof and I weren’t getting off to a very good start.
These initial grumbles soon melted away once I’d seen the interior (beautiful) and with the first beers, I quickly fell in love with this wonderful and beautiful city, spared as it had been from the worst of the wanton damage wrought across Europe 75 years ago.
Once the capital city of Poland, losing that position to Warsaw and with her geographical position being less strategic, Krakoof suffered only limited damage, which meant most of these glorious structures had been standing for centuries.
After a first day of general wandering, I booked a trip to the salt mines at Wieliczka, a few miles outside the city.
A visit to this enormous human endeavour also had the benefit of offering cooler conditions, with an average temperature of 14 degrees rather than a roasting 30.
In the company of our guide Ewelina, we learned how salt miners had found the time to make astounding sculptures and carvings from the rocks, as well as chapels and other nooks.
It was barely believable that here, more than a hundred metres below ground, these men had created great works of art in their spare time – every minute underground was money, as they earned by the kilogram of salt they’d bring to the surface.
This salt crystal chandelier was my personal favourite – the intricacies involved were simply staggering.
Back in Krakoof, I decided to go on another vodka tasting experience, to compare with the one I’d taken with Bartosz back in Warsaw.
I sat quietly as our host Anna asked who we thought had invented vodka in the first place – no one likes a know-it-all…
Scott and Teresa from Scotland, Anna and Via from Denmark, Emily from California and I all had the benefit of Anna’s great knowledge and enthusiasm, excellent Polish food at both ends of the night and a mesmerising array of vodkas, including one at 72% proof.
It was actually petrol, I think.
Scott thought so too.
It was a very good evening, somewhat proved by the fact that I actually agreed to drink a Long Island Iced Tea at the end of the night.
The following day was the one to dread – a visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau.
Having been to one place where man’s ingenuity and craft had been put to great artistic and industrial use, here was a place where it had instead been turned to the mechanics of murder.
There can be no words for this – many have tried and some have come close.
Mariusz, our educator, did an amazing job of turning the appalling numbers and details into something slightly more possible to grasp and to comprehend.
But to stand in a place where over a million were murdered and attempt to convey something of the horrors involved is beyond me.
These pictures will have to do.
To visit such a place can sap the human spirit and make you question many things about our supposed humanity.
Thankfully, Krakoof also contains a small antidote in the shape of the Oskar Schindler Factory, whose forced Jewish workers would eventually escape the gas chambers because Schindler finally grasped the enormity of the crimes that his society were engaging in – and he saved them, at great personal risk and massive financial cost.
Wherever you go in Europe, it doesn’t take long to find the echoes of those terrifying and terrible years.
But there’s always a Schindler, or a Wallenberg or a Winton there to save the day.
Trains taken: 1 (6)
A quite cool Pendolino – look at it!
Distance traveled – 1250 miles
Number of times asked about Brexit: 3
Defeats by local signage: 1
Defeats by local food: 1 (Pork Knuckle)