A Polish winter

There’s a reason people don’t backpack Europe in winter – it’s too bloody cold.

Poland was where I learnt that lesson, being here on the first official day of winter, which coincidentally coincided with the first day of snow.

Winter was an inevitability I chose to ignore backpacking, so I had to make an emergency mall visit for socks, gloves and gumboots – the latter of which I soon discovered are not as flexible as my Converse Chucks for running up my communist-themed hostel’s concrete slab stairs.

They do fulfil their purpose of keeping my feet warm and dry though and I’ve been intentionally walking through ice sludgies ever since, given my first two days here were spent on walking tours in canvas shoes.

I ended up losing all feeling in my feet and inherited little white marks on both my big toes, though I did come away with an encyclopaedic knowledge of where all the Schindler’s List scenes were filmed (it would have been helpful if I’d actually seen the movie beforehand) and utter love for the 11th century Church of St. Wojciech, nestled in the corner of the old town Market Square – the largest medieval town square in Europe, measuring 200m by 200m.

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As for the Jewish quarter, it was this particular piece of graffiti street art near the World War Two Jewish ghetto that got me the most.

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But truth is on both walking tours I ended up being so mind-numbingly cold all I could think about was soup.

Luckily Poland does a pretty mean beetroot soup with dumplings and sour barley soup with sausage and hard boiled eggs, which goes to prove to a former boss that soup is indeed a meal.

I also have those walking tours to thank for my newfound friends – and the first Safas of my trip – a brother, sister and friend combo from J’Burg, travelling Europe after a season slaving on luxury yachts in the French Riviera.

Before them I wasn’t having a good run of people in Poland, particularly the locals, like the two guys who smacked into me walking down the street without apologising, the woman who kept arse ramming me in the line at the bus station, the train staff who were hysterically laughing at me at 6am in the morning for some reason I have yet to determine, and the old mute at my hostel who staunchly stood in the doorway to my room with arms folded, clearly unimpressed I had yet to move rooms by 10am and it was now 10.02.

Back to the Safas… we bonded over mulled wine and polish baguettes half the size of our bodies and I’ve grown to love their accents and colloquialisms – with all food being ‘delish’ and weather conditions ‘chilly.’

For a short time there we also inherited two American backpackers, who I will forever remember for trying to convince me to couch surf Russia, which I was put off altogether after receiving a good 50 ‘come stay at my house’ invites from Turkish, Greek and Italian men within an hour of signing up for the website.

The Americans’ said they felt perfectly safe couch surfing, in the same breath as recalling the time their Russian host proclaimed – ‘now we go party’ – before driving them to what turned out to be a sex party at a cottage deep in the forest.

I think I’ll just stick to paying for hostels, though the one in Krakow they should have paid me for staying at – with the omnipresent smell of warm wet dog, mattresses so sunken I got two dead arms from basically sleeping on the wooden base and skody shower cubicles reminiscent of the vagrant halfway house I lived in Auckland during those dreaded internship days of ‘earning one’s stripes.’

But there were some cool travellers there, including the ex-Apple designer I spent a night drinking liquid chocolate with while we both waited for the entire contents of our packs to be washed and the London wanderer I later found out was financing his travels from the compensation he rightly won after having the shit kicked out of him by some youths who thought he was a ‘paki.’

I misappropriated some of that money the next day though, convincing him to come on a tour of the 13th century to 2007 operational salt mines.

I was envisioning stalactites and stalagmites of glistening white salt, lickable walls and almighty mounds of the white stuff, instead I got – cave churches.

I blame this somewhat cryptic sign.

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We turned right for the tourist tour of the hollowed out cave churches, when we should have turned left for the hard hat donning industrial tour.

I honestly nearly cried, particularly when I learnt the tour was three hours long, double what I thought, though I’ll admit being 135 metres underground in a cave cathedral, with chandeliers carved out of salt, was pretty special.

But taking photos of one of the original 1978-listed UNESCO World Heritage sites comes with an added price tag – hence this cheap backpacker, flash-less, covert photography.

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After surviving the tour we opted for a big night out in Krakow, given it was my last night with the Safas.

It started out badly – instant 100 zloty ($40 NZ) fines for drinking in public.

The night later redeemed itself, stumbling across a nightclub hosting a Halloween party which was a lot like walking into a teenage ‘because the parents are away’ house party, with the DJ playing the backlist of the Rhythm Volume 21 through 24.

At one point I even found myself ‘battling’ a really fat English guy on the dance floor, despite his size he did have some sweet moves.

But all too soon the night was over and I was back at my hostel trying unsuccessfully to eat my feeling on the fact I had once again lost my travel buddies, with the hostel locking up the kitchen as if backpackers are children with Prader-Willi syndrome.

So I went to bed on an empty stomach and felt a bit hollow the next day too, I will miss the Safas – particularly brother Safa who over the past four days went out of his way to ensure I felt included, always enquired about the state of my frozen feet, and always made sure I got home to my dodgy side-alley hostel.

But like most of the travellers I meet, they always seem to be going in the opposite direction to me and to places I’ve already been, leaving me back where I began – with me, myself and iPad.

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