thoughts of a deviant
  entry created: Tuesday 26 July 2005, 10:26pm (NZ time)
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Location:  Märjamaa, Estonia
Local time:  Tuesday, 1:25pm

The roads of Poland were even worse than those of the Czech Republic. We had been previously warned about them, and, true-to-form, they were full of ruts, holes and patches. The car would run along the road with its wheels in grooves, which made moving in and out of lanes a challenge. And then we'd hit a road made of concrete slabs, which would slow the thick traffic to 40kph. Frustrating after so many hours of driving from Prague. We all just wanted to get to Krakow and our hostel. That day turned out to be the longest day of driving on the whole trip, and actually, the longest single day of driving I'd ever done in my whole life. Although covering only about 400km, it took us about 10 hours (including getting lost several times, thanks to the infuriating Polish signposts).

It had absolutely poured down for most of the journey, but the weather had caused us little trouble until we crossed into Poland. Barely 30mins into the country, we stopped at a gas station for a refill. Pulling out and seeing no cars around me, I made an illegal U-turn in the other direction. However a speeding vehicle came screeching up to us and slammed into my left-rear corner, bouncing our car around a few metres. It sounded like a helluva whack, but upon inspection, turned out to be no more than a few superficial scratches behind the wheel arch, thanks to the wet, slippery road. The other guy informed me that he'd called the Police (oh great), so we sat there and fretted until they arrived. His car had received very little damage (the licence plate was drooping). I stood there with a blank expression on my face (but very pissed off inside) while he and the three gun-toting police officers jabbered to each other in Polish - arranging some kind of shady deal, for all I knew. The guy finally turned to me and stated (in very broken English) that either I pay him €100 now to make the problem (and the police) go away (this was sounding very similar to an incident I had in the Caribbean), or I pay the 500 zlotych (€120) traffic infringement fine (but the other guy was speeding and had hit me from behind - it was his fault too dammit!) plus the cost of repairs to his vehicle. After some discussion with Dad as to the possible alternative ways out of this (ie. rotting in a Polish jail for doing a U-turn), we decided to cough up the €100 and wash our hands of this ****hole. The police stood there like idiots and watched the exchange of money, then simply turned around and left. Amazing, really. I was laughing on the inside however, when the guy's licence plate fell off as he drove away.

We were up early the next morning and off to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp that featured in Spielberg's Shindler's List. It was my second visit to a German death camp, but no less shocking. Standing alone in a gas chamber that killed hundreds at a time sent shivers down my spine. The enormity of what those Nazi bastards did is really difficult to comprehend.

Later, road map in hand, we tried visiting the Wieliczka salt mine, but, thanks again to the terrible road signage, got tragically lost in outer-nowhere so had to return defeated to our hostel. We then visited Krakow's old town (not nearly as impressive as Prague's), and settled on Indian for dinner (num num!). The local Polish beer we tried was actually the best brew so far, and far exceeded the quality of their coffee.

The following morning we again tried to visit the salt mines, this time managing to conquer the Polish roading system to get there (I only once drove the wrong way down a one-way street). The Wieliczka salt mines are over 700 years old, and up to 300m deep, spread over 9 levels. There are over 300km of passageways cut into the rock, and much of the wooden logs used to support the tunnelling have fossilised into stone.

One intriguing thing about the visit was the car-parking system. Upon arriving at the (approximate) area of the salt mines, we were waved into the nearest carpark by "uniformed" attendants. We piad our parking fee and all was seemingly kosher. But upon walking to the mines themselves, we noticed that we had to pass another 3 or 4 competing parking areas, all with other attendants trying to wave in cars. The salt mines were actually (annoyingly) quite some distance up the road, and we'd just been a victim of Polish capitalism at work. Afterwards I tried some traditional Polish soup for lunch, but it was a bit like ham floating in a heated oil slick.

We drove through more bad weather on our way to Hungary, having to cross through eastern Slovakia, over the Tatra mountain range. It was here I learned that the Slovaks are by far the craziest, stupidist (is that a word?) drivers I've ever had the misfortune to share a road with.

Crossing into Hungary, we purchased a giant map, found the street our hostel was on (one of six with the same name), and proceeded to drive to the completely wrong end of Budapest, ending up in the very outer 'burbs. Some local lads finally got us on the right track, and 50 mins later we were driving down the pock-holed road of our hostel. The following day we checked out both sides of the city - the older and more residential Buda on the west side of the Danube river, and the more cosmopolitan Pest on the east side. At this point the girls decided it was again time for more retail therapy - well-timed to shelter from the afternoon's driving rain. We had dinner at the "Rollin' Rock" restaurant (how original), on the same street as our hostel, yet somehow managed to get lost trying to find our way home - thanks again to the confusing and irritating one-way system.

The next day we were to return to Austria. Vienna was the final city I would spend time in with Mum and Dad, before they flew off to Turkey.

Krakow's Rynek Glowny - the largest medieval town square in Europe (about 800m wide and 1200m long).

The Poles like to parade through the square in their formal attire after a wedding -
this little girl was part of one such group.

The obligatory handstand. I had to attempt this one a few times and embarrassingly drew a little crowd
(some guy even clapped). Notice the shoe on the ground - always the same shoe comes off!

The Poles have had a go at building cars too, and there were hundred of these mini-sized
midgets disappearing into the pot-holes.

The imposing barbed-wire fence lining the perimeter of Auschwitz.

A visitor to the camp takes some time out from the horror of it all.

Brain-washing seems to work.

Here's the gang enjoying the best coffee we had in Poland, 130m below ground level in the salt mine.

Rather than mine the salt like he was supposed to, one worker chose to carve images into the rock.

A Slovakian wheat field. (ok, so not particularly exciting, but I liked the picture)

Hungary seems to be quite a religious place. Here one merely has to take the motorway to get closer to God.

Looking through an arch of the Fisherman's Bastion (defense installation) atop the hill of Buda.

The impressive parliament buildings on the Pest side. Inspired by London's Houses of Parliament,
it is the largest building in Hungary, with 691 rooms.

A woman plays the huge organ inside Budapest's largest cathedral -
St. Stephen's basilica - one of the most amazing cathedrals (on the inside) I've visited to date.

The handstand-of-Hungary.

Mum, Dad and I taking time-out in Budapest.

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