In Krakow the hostel had been a chaotic, strange place. Dormitories were filled with long-term Australian residents who vetted a new arrival like me. They seemed unwilling or unable to move on. One especially odd individual had purchased some website domain names he was sure would make him his fortune with no effort on this part at all. The rooms were musty and the corridors echoed with noise day and night. Krakow was that kind of magic backpacker town. Like Prague a few years before, it was somewhere the world’s budget travelers came to drink and dance, as carefree as the thousand of students who had piled in at the same time I’d arrived. On my first day I sat in the huge main square and stared happily at this parade of youthful optimism laughing its way around the city. What a joyful place this was. At night it revved up a notch further, if my one night out with an awkward international group was anything to go by. It was made stranger that the day trip of choice here was to Auschwitz, arguably the one place you’re least likely to feel like going and and having fun after visiting. For those studying here, or remaining here for indeterminate period as their funds eked away of course, that didn’t apply.
Warsaw was a different proposition. On first arriving, late at night, I checked into a room which was part of a sports complex, utterly alone. I fled early the next morning, buying an astonishingly cheap week’s rail pass and boarding the first train to Gdansk. I was eager to begin traveling so didn’t linger in Warsaw, saving it for the end of the trip.
Then again, I had reckoned without my own plans taking me through Warsaw Central station twice more, once on the way south, to Krakow, Zakopane and the Tatras, and once on the way back to fly home. On each occasion I found the station as fearsome as when I’d first passed by. From outside, a concrete monolith planted by one of the vast boulevards I’d imagined were carved from the wreckage of WW2 that looked neither promising nor romantic. I love lingering at stations, from Barcelona Franca to Prague Hlavni, but all there was to do here was struggle to find a platform and flee the incessant smell of urine. Later, when writing for the Observer (yes, I once wrote once a week for the Observer, I did, and I shall not forget the odd mix of terror and excitement of my views and advice being published every seven days) I ventured forth my view that WC was not nice. I received several letters chiding me, and reminding me that Warsaw was raised to the ground and the station was all they could afford. I felt bad and never wrote another critical word. After all, stations are essentially functional and plenty of people love modernism and brutalism. Sorry Warsaw Central. I have recently learnt that this, too, was incorrect. In fact the station was designed to be something of a bold statement of intent for communist Poland, but a scheduled visit from Leonid Brezhnev has forced cutbacks that led to the station ending up in its current state. So I claim some deliverance from my earlier shame.
The station has, I gather, been spruced up for the European Championships a few years ago. Some people call it a classic. So maybe it too has achieved salvation.
Either way, when exploring Warsaw I didn’t hang out at the station. I did after the oddities encountered in Krakow give the main hostel another go. Hostelling International places aren’t generally the party places. I pitched up during a rainy night either this century or at the end of the last. After one of the rubbish dinners my travels are famous – pace the city in increasing agony at being unable to settle for somewhere, then plump for something foul and unhealthy that doesn’t involve interacting with a waiter – I’d retreated to the kitchen area. The whole place was silent, and accessed by a staircase above some shops. There were no staff there and few guests, and I expected to have the place to myself. Slowly the room filled up. First with a small group of Aussies, who invited me to join their card game provided I brought along my transistor radio and stuck some much on, and a group of Russian young men who plonked themselves down next to us and proceeded to drink. They passed a bottle round and did shots from it, and occasionally offered everyone else some, which I politely declined. The evening wore on in this fashion, with an increasingly absorbing card game and easy patter punctuated by drunken shouts from the next table. At one stage the cheesy Polish pop on the radio (the phrase tickled my Australian companions, which I found flattering that they noticed) gave way to Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ which sent our companions into a frenzy of almost Viking-style chanting and banging the table, roaring ‘Kylie! Kylie! Kylie!’. This also went on for some time. At some forgotten point I ambled off to bed, and the next morning flew home. Warsaw, too, was wonderful in its own way.