Day 09: The Borscht Incident and Escape to Krakow

Our alarm went off at 3:45 am, as we had a 5:35 train to Krakow.  You see, our only other train option to Krakow that day left at 16:00, which would not only get us into Krakow much later than desired, but we were tired of and anxious to leave Loooo-bleen so we chose to leave at this ungodly hour.  The overnight desk clerk knew we were leaving early and had very graciously put out some breakfast for us.  She also called us a taxi and it picked us up promptly at a couple minutes to 5.

It was a short ride (15zl/$4.70), as no one was about because it was still quite dark outside.  The taxi dropped us off right in front of the train station and we then had what can only be deemed as The Borscht Incident.  It all began when we started up the stairs to the station house and immediately noticed they were covered top to bottom, side to side in vomit.  We carefully picked our way inside, where all I wanted in the whole wide world was a cup of coffee from the Nescafe instant coffee machine since I’d not had any yet that morning.  We walked in the door and started to head to the coffee machine situated in the waiting area, vaguely noticing a couple people sitting on benches nearby but assuming they were also passengers waiting for their train.  As we neared the coffee machine, the imagery of vomit burned freshly into our brains, we noticed the growing stench of urine.  It was a full-on assault to our senses and no way to start a morning, any morning.

We soon realized these people on the benches were not waiting for a train, they were drunken derelicts who were the likely source of the vomit out front and apparently had been urinating and who knows what else on the walls all night.  Jim reached into his pocket quickly for change, as even in our sleep-deprived state my eyes were like a tractor beam on that coffee machine and vomit-and-urine-be-damned, I wanted some.  As soon as the sound of jangling money rang through the station it was as if the zombies had been awoken and we were quickly surrounded by those derelicts demanding money.

By that point Jim had already managed to get the right amount of change into the coffee machine and I stood there pounding the button for the coffee I wanted but nothing was happening.  Nothing.  I tried hitting a few other buttons for any type of coffee, all to no avail.  Desperate, we hit the button to return the change and while it came out I said quick, put it into the machine next to it because it, too, looked like a coffee machine – there were faded pictures on it of what looked like coffee cups with a dark substance inside  – so Jim shoveled money into it.  By this point, the ringleader was getting more aggressive and in a moment of weakness, Jim handed him a zloty coin thinking he’d go away.  Well, this was like putting a quarter into a machine because the guy just stood there, snarling louder and demanding more.

We needed to get out of there, the stench of urine was making our eyes water and trouble was the only thing brewing because the coffee certainly wasn’t.  Completely unnerved and in a last ditch effort, I pressed the button next to what I thought was the picture of coffee.  But it wasn’t coffee at all.  It was a cup of borscht.  As in beet soup.  From a vending machine.  As if in slow motion, the paper cup dropped from the machine and next came a whirring sound as it prepared to produce a beet soup that I’m pretty sure was made fresh back when the associated pictures had color.  We should have just left right there and run for the hills, but the good citizens in us didn’t want to leave that mess for the next guy so we waited the few seconds until every last drop of the thick red mixture had poured into the cup.  Unsure of what to do with it we offered it to the ringleader, but even he seemed a bit surprised by our selection and, in spite of his alcohol-induced state, had the good sense to turn it down.

Now the proud owners of a cup of borscht, we juggled it and our luggage and bee-lined through the trackside door to gulp in some fresh air that now held the vague aroma of beets.  It was only marginally better than the urine or vomit.  As we stood there, trying to get a handle on what had just happened and how it came to be we were in possession of borscht before the sun was even up (which Jim actually took a sip of but immediately regretted), we remained vigilant should the derelicts follow us outside.  About 2 minutes later, springing out of the shadows came two girls dressed like prostitutes with their hands extended, asking for money.  Behind them were some other shady sorts lurking in the darkness.  What is going on here and where, oh where, are any sort of train station personnel?

Fresh from The Borscht Incident, this look says it all

Fresh from The Borscht Incident, this look says it all

It was about that time we noticed a train parked waaaay down the tracks and from the dim glow of a lamppost we could make out what looked to be an actual conductor standing there.  We chucked that dreadful borscht into the trash and hot-stepped it his direction where we learned this was our train; it had been parked there the entire time, lights off and hidden under the dark sky.  We quickly found our car and seating compartment, where we were the only ones on the entire car.  It was Shangri-la.  No beggars, no drunks, no prostitutes, no lurkers, no vomit, no urine, no borscht, just us and miraculously all of our belongings.  Now get us the hell out of here.  It was time to put Lublin (‘scuse me, LOOOOO-bleen) into the rearview mirror.

The new mall (left) and old Krakow train station (right)

The new mall (left) and old Krakow train station (right)

The 4 ½ hour ride to Krakow was mercifully uneventful.  The countryside was pretty, with rolling green hills and farmlands that got hillier as we approached Krakow and we saw deer and pheasant from the window (and possibly a stork).  The train pulled into the Krakow station a little after 10:00, we disembarked, and immediately I was struck with how different things had become since I was last here almost exactly 8 years ago.  For instance, there is now a giant fancy mall adjacent to the train station with over 270 stores (Galeria Krakowska).

Krakow was one of the least bombed and physically damaged cities following WWII and it is readily apparent as to why it is the most touristed city in Poland.  It’s beautiful.  The architecture in Old Town is visually stunning and full of so much detail that you could walk up and down the same street hundreds of times and notice something new every time.   And it was every bit as alluring back during my 2005 visit but now, in addition to the mall, we would later see high-end stores like L’Occitane found on the Main Market Square, and overall it seemed much more cosmopolitan and polished.  It was the antitheses of Lublin and we soaked it up.

Because it was too early to check into our lodging, we headed straight toward the Kazimierz neighborhood to drop off laundry at Frania Cafe (26zl per load/$8).  The transaction couldn’t have been easier, as within minutes of arrival the super friendly and spunky girl running the place got our dirty laundry and we got a ticket and instructions to come back 3-4 hours later.

Cloth Hall on Main Market Square

Cloth Hall on Main Market Square

It was now about 11:30 so we headed toward our lodging, the Nordic House Apartments, in the hopes maybe our room was ready.  Because it wasn’t a proper hotel with a front desk, and because it was a weekend day, the instructions were to pick up our keys from the sushi restaurant next door (Sushi 77), which opened at noon.  We walked around the Main Market Square for a bit, passing the time until the restaurant opened.  During this time Jim was in absolute awe of the beauty that is Old Town Krakow and I was fondly remembering my previous visit, equally enamored.  Shortly after noon we returned to Sushi 77, but the waitress had no keys or instructions for us so I ran into the Nordic House building and up to the second level to see if anyone was, by chance, in the office.  As I knocked on the door a man popped his head out from one floor up and it turns out he was the manager, although he was a bit miffed we were there so early and pointed out numerous times that check-in was at 14:00.  Our room, understandably, wasn’t ready but he said to come back at 14:00, that it would be ready then and he’d be there waiting for us.  In fact he repeated several times we were to come back at 14:00 and we assured him over and over we’d be there.  I think the Nordic House was somehow affiliated with the Consulates of Denmark, Sweden, and Finland that shared the same building and I was getting the sense that Scandinavians are sticklers for precise promptness, not tardiness and certainly not earliness.

More of Main Market Square

More of Main Market Square

Our next stop was the TI for our map and to suss out an internet café (4zl/hour/$1.25), which we found and spent a good while checking emails, news, weather, and whatnot before sloooooowly strolling back to Nordic House because it was only 13:30, getting there around 13:40.  We were in luck, however, in that the room was ready and the manager only meekly and resignedly pointed out few more times that we were early again.  This room was one of the most awesome rooms we’ve ever had and certainly the best on our trip (even handily beating out the 5-star Sofitel in Warsaw).  It was huge with super high ceilings, wood floors and furnished with comfortable Ikea furniture.  The giant windows faced a courtyard and it was quiet as a library the entire time we were there.  The bed was large with individual duvets which meant a ceasefire was immediately declared on the War of Covers.  The bathroom was over-sized, too, with a towel warmer, full sized hair dryer, and nice lighting.  The whole shebang was clean as a whistle and we loved Krakow and this room so much we wanted to move in.

Entering the Wawel Castle complex

That’s my man, staunchly guarding the castle gate

Unfortunately, we couldn’t rest in the room for any amount of time, as we needed to get back out and pick up our laundry.  That was a quick round trip 40 minute errand and we could finally get settled into our new digs, where we reveled in clean-smelling clothes and a big bed in our Nordic oasis.

Us and the Wawel complex behind us

Us and the Wawel Castle complex behind us

Although it had been a very long day ‘til this point, filled with high-highs and low-lows, we weren’t in Krakow to lie about.  It was decided through unanimous vote to head up to the big castle on Wawel Hill for a look around, which is exactly what we did.  The Wawel Castle complex is pretty cool, especially once you consider a castle in one form or another has stood on this hill since the dawn of Poland.  Although we didn’t go inside any of the buildings (and the cathedral was already closed for the evening), we spent some time eyeballing this and that and taking in the views over the Vistula River.  However, our energy and enthusiasm for sightseeing was starting to wane so we headed back down onto the Main Market Square where we found a place called the Castor Coffee Club selling the most heavenly hot chocolates.  Oh, they were amazing, almost more like pudding topped with lots of whipped cream that we got all over our faces and didn’t care.

Inside the Castle's courtyard

Inside the Castle’s courtyard

It was nearing dinnertime and we thought for sure the hot chocolates would power us up enough to find suitable eats.  Well, it turns out our bodies had enough energy but our minds had completely shut down after 3 nights of not sleeping well, being up at 3:45 am, The Borscht Incident, and the marathon we’d run since we’d gotten into town.  After painfully going back and forth a good long while with, “What kind of food do you want tonight, honey?” “I dunno, what would you like tonight?” we both numbly wandered the streets without focus or vision, half-heartedly looking at menus and envious of people who were confidently filing into restaurants.  We drifted aimlessly in a daze until one of us faintly murmured, “Food court, new train station mall, let’s go.”  That 15 minute walk seemed so far away geographically but was the best possible plan at that moment.  A short time later we arrived to the food court, completely spent and exhausted on having made it this far.  Jim headed straight for the kebab counter (which he loved – it was very, very spicy) and although I really wanted a salad from one of the neighboring vendors my mind literally could not face trying to piece together what was on each one by looking at the pictures and the menu was (quite naturally) in Polish.  It was far too insurmountable so McD’s it was, for which I make not one single apology.

Thrilled to pieces with our chocolate and whipped cream smeared faces

Thrilled to pieces with our chocolate and whipped cream smeared faces

After dinner we walked around the mall a bit, poked our heads into the Jack Wolfskin and Adidas stores just ‘cuz (no Neos yet at this Adidas, it seems Torun was cutting edge), and at almost 21:00 made our way back to that wonderfully quiet room, showered the rest of Lublin off of us and crashed hard, getting the best night’s sleep we’d had in days.

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