Somewhere Between Krakow and Budapest

28 05c

(Time to go…)

Right so, we’re in Budapest. It was very late (well, 8.30pm) when our train arrived into Budapest Kel station. But in spite of the lateness, the ten-hour train journey and our tiredness we managed the transfer from diesel train to underground metro to city tram very efficiently. Our new host met us at the door (just around the corner from a McDonalds… so if the wi-fi doesn’t work we’ll know where to go… of course we won’t) and when we understood the door code and the previously mentioned wi-fi code we set off to eat. We took the first easy to understand restaurant… we had pizza.

28 05b

(Part of Market Square, Krakow)

All that means we didn’t see Budapest yet, but I’ve been scanning the multiple guidebooks left for us on the coffee table and if the photos are anything to go by Budapest is beautiful. We’ll get a chance to confirm that as we’re planning to go on another walking tour later.

28 05d

(They do like their meat)

Meanwhile, I feel like I’m in a travelling zone between one country and the next where I’m the same as I was yesterday but the place has changed. When we get to a new place we immerse ourselves as completely as possible in that place. You can’t help but eat the food, use the money, try the language, connect (even superficially) with the tour guides, the ticket sellers, the waiters and waitresses. But added to that you hear the history, the history of the living. There are people living here who have lived during a terrible war, through a communist take over, through communist ruling, through the fall of communist rule. And they continue to live through the emigration of their children. So I’m still emotionally still in Krakow (even though the history is probably very similar in the Czech Republic and in Hungary.)

28 05g

(Shade and a coffee, sigh)

As we walked around Krakow we often saw little groups of school children walking in twos after their teacher. They usually had matching peaked caps, bright yellow and orange are popular. The first time I saw them I was struck by the thought that they may grow up and move to Ireland and I felt really sad. Even as I write it makes me feel sad again. Not because I don’t want them to come… I don’t want them to leave…

28 05e

(Not the hammer of safety this time… probably the electricity of death)

And I don’t want to leave Krakow either, Mairead.



So Long, Farewell!

27 05b

(Last night’s storm ( and our drain pipe) on the balcony)

Another Tuesday, another train journey. We’re off to Budapest today and we’re sad to leave Krakow. It’s really beautiful. It’s also friendly and easy-going, and they have great food. And great weather, well it was this week. We got caught in a spectacular thunder and lightning storm last night. Very beautiful and only a little damp. But still great.

27 05h

(Last night’s storm in the Market Square)

Before we got here we noticed a ring of green on the map of Krakow and wondered what it was. It’s a park where once there were walls and a moat and now there are trees and paths. It’s shady in the sun and provides some cover in the rain. There are always people here, walking or running or skateboarding or cycling or sitting or sleeping. It’s an easy route to find your way around the old town and it’s the route we’ll be taking to the train this morning. It passes churches, restaurants, the university. Through the trees you can see and hear the blue trams and when you get to the street intersections you can see all the way to the huge main square.

27 05g

(A small section of the park around Krakow before the storm)

Speaking of street intersections, when you get to a pedestrian crossing point the traffic stops to let you cross the road. Everywhere we’ve been in Krakow crossing the road has been a joy. It’s almost like the pedestrian is king not the car (or bus or tram) We stand at a zebra crossing and a car, which up to that point is moving, just stops. We’re crossing a road and there’s no zebra stripes, the cars stop. Sometimes we’re about to cross but think the car is too close to stop, the car stops. It’s good to be the king.

Goodbye beautiful Krakow, Mairead.


Free Tea! Free Coffee!

25 05a

(Art on the old city wall)

Before we got here I was researching Krakow (with help, thank you Magda!) and one of the things I found was a free cafe, called Cafe Fińska. Well, almost free… in return for a cup of coffee or tea you add some art work to the paper tablecloth. I was very interested. Imagine having a place where people could get together, share a tea or coffee and do some art…. it’s probably not surprising I was interested. So I searched for more information about this place and as it wasn’t too far from our apartment, I thought it might be nice to go visit.


(The old (city gate)… and the new (McDonald’s arches)…)

I wasn’t sure what to expect and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to communicate with only one word of Polish. But nothing ventured… so on Friday with a map and google directions (really miss data) scribbled on top we started walking in the direction of the (former) Jewish Ghetto. It took nearly an hour and the weather was very warm so we were a little flushed when we arrived. Denis made sure I went in first…


(A sign…)

The cafe is on the ground floor of a triangular-shaped building at the junction of two streets and it is tiny inside. The walls are covered in art, as is the (paper) table-cloth. There are mugs and a tea-making area in one corner (do you call it a corner if it’s a triangle?) There’s a six seater table down one side and a two person sofa on the other. When we walked in there were two men playing chess at a small table in the middle and one man on his iPad on the sofa.


(Low flying helicopter)

Not knowing the etiquette for this situation I decided to go ahead and announce myself. I spoke as slowly as my nervousness would allow, hi I’m from Ireland and I heard about your cafe, would you be able to tell me something about it, please? Silence. Oh, do you speak English? The older of the men at the chess board pointed to the two others and they laughed sheepishly and said yes. In the end the older man explained the history of the cafe while the younger one translated. The third man made our tea.


(See the bugle peeping out the top window of St Mary’s Church? Every hour on the hour, 24 hours a day (yes someone gets up in the middle of the night to do this) the bugle sounds over Krakow. To commemorate the bugler who was shot with an arrow to the throat as he warned the town of invaders)

It started last year when there was an art festival in Krakow. A guy called Michał Mioduszewski, an artist all the way from Warsaw created it as an art installation in the Grolsch ArtBoom Festival, June 2013. His working title: Revolutions happen in cafes. It was a great success and then the art festival was over and it was time to close everything down. But it didn’t close. The locals loved the cafe so much that they decided they wanted to keep it. They have been paying the rent ever since. They are also donating their time, their tea, their coffee and sometimes their baked goods. It opens six days a week from 4.30pm and sometimes they have concerts and classes. Everything is run on a voluntary basis with donations going towards the rent. No one makes any money out of this venture, except maybe the landlord!


(The foot bridge over the river covered in locks declaring love)

We left after our tea and I thanked the men (in Polish – thank you, Kinga!) All the way back to town I wondered…. is this only possible in Krakow or in Poland?


(Tram tracks through the park)

Maybe… maybe not… Mairead.

P.S. A link to more information about Cafe Fińska.

In Search of Hope


(Barbed wire and electric fencing everywhere)

We went to Auschwitz yesterday. I was steeling myself for the experience but I needn’t have. The numbers of people murdered here is very difficult to imagine, so I couldn’t. The cruel punishments that were carried out were difficult to understand, so I didn’t. The lack of water, food, privacy, kindness was difficult to imagine so I can’t.


(Bricks in the wall of one of the woman’s dormitories)

And at some point I stopped trying. I couldn’t make it make sense. I disconnected from the experience. There wasn’t even the smallest scrap of hope to cling to, so I gave up.


(Wall covering outside the commander’s office in the punishment block)

So I wandered behind the tour group and started taking pictures of close up normal bits and pieces. The bricks, the wood, the wall covering, the barbed wire. When we went inside I saw tins of shoe polish and face cream so I took pictures of that. And then I saw a grater, a normal everyday grater.


(The grater. I didn’t realise there were two until I was adding this picture, the one I am referring to is on the top)

When the people were deported to Auschwitz (or other concentration and death camps) they were told they were being relocated. The Polish had heard rumours and began to doubt that it was that simple, but people from occupied countries further away (like Greece) believed. So when they were allowed to bring 25kg of their belongings with them they brought all they might need to set up a new life. On their backs.


(Detailed records were kept of every prisoner)

When they arrived at the camps, everything was taken from them and they never saw their possessions again. I began to imagine the grater was owned by a woman from Greece. And over seventy years ago she had thought it important enough (probably to feed her family) to carry for hundreds of kilometres to her new home. And they stole it from her. And she would never need it again anyway because she never got to cook for her family. She probably died from starvation or she was gassed.


(In among all the tins of shoe polish there was a tin of Nivea cream)

And that’s not fair. I’m reconnected again. But it’s way too hard to be there and be connected to even one person who was brought here, even in my imagination. And then our guide tells us to turn around and see the old man in the suit slowly walking with two people on the other side of the barbed wire to us. He tells us that this man is a survivor who escaped from Auschwitz. He has returned for a visit. And the old man notices our group of fifty turn to look at him and he slowly lifts his arm to wave. And slowly, tentatively fifty arms rise to wave back. We’re on one side and he’s on the other and in that moment I find a scrap of hope and a small enough connection to cope with for now.


It is much easier not to imagine what happened here, Mairead.

PS Here’s a link to Kazimierz Piechowski’s (the old man on the other side of the barbed wire) story.

Top Floor in Krakow.


22 05a

(Our little balcony)

We’re going on a tour today so this will be short. When I was choosing a place to stay in Krakow I used Airbnb again and our host did mention five flights of stairs and no lift, but I thought by the time we had arrived in Prague we would be well able for five flights… We shouldn’t have used the lift so much in Prague… and maybe not the metro either…. and that time we got the tram we should have walked…

22 05c

(Our view west)

When we arrived the first evening from the train with all our bags I realised I had forgotten to tell Denis about the lift. or lack of it. So it was a bit of a surprise for him when the stairs went on and on. Since then it’s been getting easier. And being on top of the building is worth the effort, for one thing I have a great view of a stationery shop (fancy paper, ribbons, potential craft supplies) we spotted on the first evening. I keep forgetting it’s there when I’m on the ground so it calls to me when I up top. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be on the ground when I remember.

22 05d

(That little window on the ground floor is my stationery shop)

One of the reasons the stairs is getting easier is that I know what to expect now. I know there are ten landings to stop on if I need to. I know on the second last flight of stairs there are two bikes chained to the bannister (how I love when those bike come into view) I know it doesn’t last forever, I will soon reach our door. It’s reassuring to be so convinced of the outcome.

From the fifth floor, Mairead.

The train to Krakow.

21 05a

(The first train – we had a two-seater version of this arrangement. Can you see the coat hooks? The power sockets? The adjustable seat lever? The folding table, concealing a little rubbish receptacle?)

We have arrived in Krakow! Our train journey from Prague was brilliant. There were three trains journeys to be precise. The first one was like going by plane, the old-fashioned kind of going-by-plane. With free bottles of water and free newspapers. Yep. And the conductors wore nice uniforms and rolled little overnight cases behind them when they got off the train. There were hooks to hang your coat, adjustable seats, power sockets and free wi-fi. The tea-trolly had Starbucks coffee and green tea.

21 05b

(That was a different train, going to Budapest – and that’s the dining car. See the cute globe lights? I don’t think we had a dining car.)

We settled down for the three-hour journey coding, crocheting and reading. The names of the places were a little confusing as was our ticket but the journey progressed and we began to understand more. Like the booklet provided on each seat as we arrived onboard. It was completely in Czech but eventually it became clear that it was a timetable for the train and any connections we might need to make. At one point there was an announcement in English and Czech but all we could hear was …delays due to technical problems on the line… We did wonder what delays? as the train was travelling at 160km per hour (did I mention the signs proclaiming station names and speed?) is it possible the train could go faster? Anyway, the specified time to disembark arrived and the train stopped at a station with a name very, very like the one mentioned on our ticket, so we gathered our things and got off.

21 05c

(Told you we had Starbucks!)

Then we saw our conductor, I was about to give him a friendly thank-you-wave but he was looking very worried and moving very fast in our direction… and we were back on the train faster than you could say, the wrong station! Back on the train now we wondered if we might miss our connection to the second train, as there was only a ten minute difference between arrival of this one and departure of that one. As we descended, at the right station (Ostrava Hl. N.) our conductor was helping a lady down from the train but he stopped long enough to look me in the eye and enunciate very clearly, go up, platform 1. while nodding towards the stairs. Long story shortened, we made it, that train was delayed too.


(Our compartment on the second train)

This second train was more old-fashioned, there was free water and even juice but no wi-fi or Starbucks. It travelled slower than the first one, but, as there were no displays I can’t be specific about the actual speed. Also, we realised there might still be a chance we would miss our next connection so we were a little less relaxed than we might have been but it was a very comfortable train. We were lucky to have our little six-seater compartment to ourselves so we could spread out our bags and food supplies (apples, seeds, nuts, biscuits, free water) all the way to Katowice.

21 05f

(That’s the conductor on the phone, she had a little compartment to herself where people bought their tickets. And past her there’s the driver’s window and the tracks beyond)

Our next train, the one that would deliver us to Krakow was the most relaxing, not because it was new (it wasn’t) or because it was fast (it wasn’t) or because it had wi-fi (it hadn’t) or because it had more free water (it didn’t.) I think I was relaxed because it was familiar. It reminded me of the Dart. An older version of the Dart that was red and had a conductor and travelled as far as Cork. It had the same seats, the ones you’re not supposed to put your feet on? But you feel drawn again and again to putting your feet on them? We resisted. I have identified my two favourite things about this train: 1. the windows – they slide down to open so that you have half a window full of air coming in – it was very warm. And 2. the train driver kept his door open the whole time so you could see the tracks. I like knowing where I’m going. That’s probably my third favourite thing, I definitely knew where we were going this time.

21 05g

(We probably wouldn’t be needing the Hammer of Safety because the windows were already open and big enough to climb through, but I like that we had one. It feels like a metaphor for something bigger. Already, I like Poland)

Krakow is waiting, Mairead.