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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Krakow, Poland
POLAND Warsaw Sept 16-17 Krakow Sept 18 Sept 19 Sept 20 Sept 21-22

CZECH REPUBLIC Prague Sept 23 Sept 24-25 Cesky Krumlov Sept 26 Sept 27-30

AUSTRIA Vienna Oct 1 Oct 2

HUNGARY Budapest Oct 3 Oct 4 Oct 5-6
Krakow, Poland, September 20, 2003

Polish Flag POLAND

September 18. KRAKOW The train ride direct to Krakow was quick.  We shared our compartment with an elderly Polish couple.  They took the two seats facing each other by the door and we had the two window seats.  There were six seat total in the compartment, three on each side, with a sliding door to the hallway.  The climate control was a bit off so we all got hot within the first 15 minutes.  We tried to keep the window down a bit but there was no friction to keep the top window from sliding all of the way down and blowing our heads.  We struggled with opening and closing it until we finally wedged magazine in between the two pieces of glass.  The scenery was vast and green with farmhouse decorated with wooden window flower boxes.

Exiting the train station in Krakow we headed directly for the tourist information center.  They were only moderately helpful and actually directed us to the wrong trolley stop to get to our hostel.  There was actually one quite a bit closer, we found out later.  Anyway, we didn't have much trouble finding the hostel.  It was a detached university hostel for the Jagiellonian University.  It was a good ten minute trolley ride away from old town but direct and frequent.  We had made a reservation ahead of time and were glad that we had.  It was a good set up with a two room apartment that shared a bath and kitchen.  Our neighbors changed but our room was pretty much always quiet, if pretty cramped.  My bed was clean but had sort of a backbend thing going on that I had to rectify with some extra bedding.  But, we had a room on the fourth floor that gave us good light and fresh air.  And, Rob got their IT to come up and get us hooked up to the university network.

Visiting old town in the afternoon we made straight for massive and impressive town square, Rynek Główny, measuring 800 meters by 1200 meters, the largest medieval town square in all of Europe.  Even the tourist masses could diminish the sight of the magnificent square.  The grand old 16th century Renaissance Cloth Hall dominated the center with the imposing St. Mary's Church positioned at an angle in the north-eastern corner, its asymmetrical gothic towers reaching high into the sky.  At the south-west corner of the cloth tower stood the 15th century Town Hall Tower.    Cafes and restaurants lined all sides and a queue of carriages lined up along the northern side, ready to take tourists for a nostalgic trot around the old town. 

It was all very touristy but the sheer size of the square allowed for everyone and everything without it looking like too much.  Traditionally dressed musicians vied for tourist attention in one corner, a person selling bird seed sat in an ocean of pigeons with nearby patrons feeding and harassing the endless population of birds.  Kids drew attention to their break dancing on one side of the square while a vendor marketing dog food was positioned on the other.  And the cafes were bursting with people drinking beers or coffee and enjoying the late afternoon sun.  An old mail carriage served as the square-side post office while a couple of colorful souvenir carts moved around from place to place.  A small St. Adalbert's Church snuggled itself in the south-eastern corner, totally eclipsed by the massive St. Mary's Basilica on the opposite side.  It was a fairytale on a large scale, very lively and entertaining.

We walked around the square to peek inside St. Anne's, meander past the souvenir booths the lined the ground floor of the Cloth Hall.  Florianska Street led to a large Barbican in the north wall, past the McDonald's, souvenir shops and kebab stands. The south-east, via Grodzka Street, led to Wawel Hill, where the self enclosed palace complex peered out over the city.  We settled into a packed cafe on the south side of the square, unique for its selection of large gooey sundaes, and indulged in two heaping deserts while we watched the people go by.  And, just to make sure we did things in the right order we got dinner on our way to the trolley - kebabs.

We guarded ourselves well for the rest of our subway ride and even walked from the transfer point to avoid another crowded train (the most common place for a being robbed).  Rushing our way back to the hotel we arrived out of breath.  While Rob went to see if the hotel would let us use a phone I changed some money to get us a cab.  We had less than an hour until our train left.  I started to feel the tears swell up in my face and hoped it would solicit a bit more sympathy but my red eyes yielded little results from anyone except the baggage woman who sincerely looked sorry when I had to explain that I didn't have her baggage tokens anymore because we had been robbed.  In retrospect there wasn't much to be upset about since the loss had been minimal but the stress of coping with it all within the space of a hour when we were already chomping at the bit to leave was enough to put me near the breaking point.  It was like running to leave a place that you didn't want to be in and having the door swing and hit you in the backside - HARD.  Fortunately the hotel let us use their business center to call our banks and we were able to head off to our train without worrying if the fat foursome were charging their way to heaven on our credit card.  

Now that had successfully been able to call our banks and we had our bags we were faced with the unexpected task of finding a cab!  Every day we had left the hotel a queue of cabs tried to give us a ride but now that we needed one to catch our train in a half hour there were none in sight.  I scurried back into the hotel to get the information desk to call us a cab.  They were indignant at the request and were slow to get to it and by the time she had the cab company on the phone I heard Rob yelling for me.  He had flagged down a gypsy cab, i.e. hitchhiking.  I didn't feel all that great about hopping into a strangers car, as common as it is in Russia, after our pickpocket fiasco.  But, Rob had managed to get a single guy in an old but neatly kept car who seemed plenty eager to get us to our train in time.  With a six dollar incentive he broke numerous traffic laws to get us through the traffic and at the station in no more than five minutes flat.  We now had plenty of time to make our train but that didn't slow us down.  We were the first people on the platform and parked ourselves outside the appropriate carriage.  Within a few minutes the carriage attendant opened the door and with a smile let us board the train.  Was this for real?  She opened the carriage early, willingly, and with a smile?  We proceeded with cautious optimism.  Perhaps this wasn't a Russian train.  As we settled in a young woman joined us.  She and I chatted while Rob dashed to the station to grab some food.  She was a Lithuanian woman who had just spent her first two weeks in Russia on business and was plenty ready to leave as well.  We asked if the carriage attendant was Russian and she said that she was Lithuanian and the train was as well. It was like a heavy weight had been lifted.  A heavy set Russian-looking fellow opened the cabin door and gave us a disappointed look.  We returned with a blank look of our own as we eyed the two liter bottles of beer he had wedged under his armpits.  He turned to speak to the carriage attendant and then moved cabins.  Things were just getting better and better.

It felt so good to be saying good bye to all of the snotty cashiers, snippy subway attendants, staggering drunks, greedy vendors, insolent ticket sellers, sleazy militia, booze breath at 8am, and wretched thieves.  In the course of our time in Russia the genuinely friendly people had been few and far between.  We had been extraordinarily lucky with our cabin mates on trains and are eternally grateful to the few people that took the time to go out of their way to actually help us.  We are even grateful for the ones that at least saw fit to not hate us upon sight!  We won't feel inspired to come back to Russia anytime soon.  From the time we were ripped off for our visas to the time we were robbed right before we left there were a whole host of other times when we felt totally taken by the Russian experience - totally overpriced hotels, ridiculous foreigner pricing for sights, unreasonable ticket prices for trains, laughable prices from souvenir vendors, and more.  And, good bye to resounding "Nyet, Nyet, Nyet"! 

We have been told that another side to the Russian experience exists and that once you penetrate that crusty exterior the Russian people are very hospitable.  I had that experience when I visited Russia several years earlier with a host family in St. Pete's.  Our host family in Moscow was during this trip was also very pleasant as well but sadly these experiences are limited and the percentage of people you come into contact with on a daily basis don't leave this impression.  To be fair, this is not behavior that is exclusively for foreigners and cultural differences are part of the travel experience but at the end of the day you have to ask yourself if it was worth all of the trouble and in this case we lean, quite heavily, towards "No".

As the train started to get going we had an even greater feeling of ease and relief.  If only the Russian border check went smoothly we were home free.  We were prepared for the worst with bribe money set aside.  Since we were toting a laptop, shortwave radio, and a set of walkie talkies there were a few things they could hassle us about if they were so inclined.  The train rolled along and it was into the earlier hours of the morning that we stopped at the border.  The immigration check went fine. That was one down since we hadn't been registered for most of our stay in Moscow.  A while later a man opened the door and said something to the women traveling with us. She responded and he  moved on.  We still waited with trepidation for the customs people.  Eventually the train began to move again. Surprised we asked our cabin mate what had happened to the customs and she said the man who had come by earlier was customs.  He just asked if we had anything to declare and she just answered for all of us.  It was done!  We were out of Russia!  Throughout the night we had a border check into Latvia, back out of Latvia and into Lithuania which allowed for almost no sleep.  We were too elated to even care.  We were already in love with Lithuania!