Follow the Fun – A Eurail Detour to Poland

Poland was never even on my radar. Berlin was, and that’s where I found myself after two months of Eurailing across the continent. The German capital had been a key target from the very beginning of my trip. But several spontaneous detours, a few new friendships, and multiple extended stays in new favorite cities had delayed me.

A message from a friend I’d made in Florence pinged on Facebook. The message said she was in Warsaw. I had to pull out my rail map to find out exactly where Warsaw was in relation to Berlin. “Have rail pass, will travel” I replied, embarrassingly, when I saw there was a direct connection between the two.

Berlin to Warsaw

On paper, the two capitals are miles apart. 356, to be exact. Given Europe’s diminutive size, that’s quite a distance. Warsaw is almost as far east of Berlin as Amsterdam is west. It seemed a daunting distance to cover, and it was taking me dramatically off my original itinerary. A friend back home put me in my place with a trite message that still somehow resonated: “Forget premeditated plans,” he said. “Follow the fun.”

I discovered that there’s a direct EuroCity train, called the Berlin-Warszawa Express, that cuts the travel time down to just 5 hours. And like that, my itinerary shifted east to Poland.

A few hours into the journey the train ground to a halt. I gazed out the windows and saw nothing but brown fields and dead trees. Seconds later the smell of something burning floated down the corridors, and then smoke billowed past the windows. Fellow passengers looked around bemused but unconcerned. “Poland,” said a German man sitting opposite. “Typical.”

Wandering Warsaw

Perhaps it was the new currency, the curious mismatched architecture, or the sight of a familiar face after weeks of anonymity afforded by solo travel, but I was immediately in awe of the Polish capital.

Targeted bombing all but obliterated Warsaw during World War II. As a result the reconstructed Old Town feels more like a carefully considered movie set than an organic urban development. Still, there’s something miraculous about just how much work had to be done to restore it to its former glory. And though much of the Old Town is about open-air cafes, cheerful buskers, street artists, and the good life, I felt a kind of sadness still hanging over parts of the city.

Subsequent days allowed for more exploration of the Old Town and its various attractions on foot. An awkward encounter in a Milk Bar ended with me pointing at the incomprehensible Polish chalk board menu and hoping for the best. Fortunately, even the most mediocre meal in a Polish Milk Bar is decent, or at the very least nourishing. Better yet, it will seldom cost more than a fistful of Zlotys. Pierogi (stuffed dumplings) and hearty mystery soups (usually peppered with sausage) rule these staple dining establishments, which date back to the late 1800s. Actually, many feel as if they haven’t changed at all since, but that’s precisely the point.

It’s tempting to cast Warsaw as a capital struggling to keep up with her western neighbors. But that would be doing her a great disservice. There’s a youthful vibrance shining through. You can see it in its popular hostels, bustling coffee shops, hip bars and restaurants, dynamic bike share network, and informative, energetic walking tours. When you combine all of this with a fascinating, albeit somber, history, the critical role the city played in the musical world (it was the birthplace of Frédéric Chopin, after all), and her stunning urban parks, it’s a city difficult to leave behind.

Livable Kraków

Eventually my limited time had me marching on. I boarded a train in Warsaw, and 3 hours later was in Kraków.

Legend has it Kraków was founded after the defeat of a dragon. Skeptics may scoff at this myth, but there’s a medieval charm that floats down from the castle on the hill and through the city’s cobbled streets. Kraków is crammed full of soaring church steeples, one of Europe’s largest market squares, dozens of noteworthy museums, and a seemingly endless collection of underground bars serving some of Europe’s cheapest alcohol.

Still, the city’s tragic history and proximity to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp underpins all of the modern day beauty and revelry. Day trips to this site are a common part of any trip to Kraków. The near-silent walks through the Nazi concentration camp provide ample opportunity for reflection on Europe’s tragic past. It’s thoroughly moving and unnerving.

If Warsaw is a vast, sprawling, bustling city hard to pin down, Kraków is compact, instantly charming, and extremely livable. Two nights turned into four. I suddenly realized I was falling well behind the schedule dictated by my rapidly expiring visa. After days wandering the streets until the early hours, reflecting on the country’s harrowing history, and in general not wanting to leave, I boarded a train south for Zakopane — the only small town I could find that had a train station.

Mountainous Zakopane

I knew very little about Zakopane before I arrived. I checked into the town’s only open hostel asked the receptionist what there was to do in the area.

“You’ve obviously heard about the Valley of Five Lakes,” she said, pulling out a map. “This is how you get there.”

I hadn’t heard about the Valley of Five Lakes, but the name alone was good enough for me. The next day I boarded a small bus for the start of this famous trail into the High Tatra mountains.

Some time later I reached the summit, which overlooks a dramatic high altitude lake. After taking it in, I rounded another to see one a few hundred meters lower, and then eventually another and another. After a day of walking through pristine wilderness I made it back to the main thoroughfare and back to reality. Once there, I walked a quiet path back accompanied by the clip-clop of horses’ hooves and the swishing of rapids alongside me.

The hike offered a lot of time to reflect on an unplanned trip to Poland, and to also appreciate the true joy and spontaneity that traveling Europe on a rail pass can bring. I was now several hundred miles off course from my original itinerary, but as I boarded a small bus early the next morning to take me across the High Tatras to Slovakia, I couldn’t have been any happier.