Taking the Train to Poland

Glasgow to Krakow

No one who claims to have an interest in European history can fail to be fascinated by the story of Poland. Its strategic position at the crossroads of western and central Europe made it the repeated target of powerful, invading armies.  Yet, Polish culture, traditions and identity were never subjugated and the spirit of its people never crushed.  So, the centenary of the establishment of the Second Polish Republic at the end of World War One made 2018 as appropriate a time as any to visit.

One lovely spring morning at Glasgow Central.

As usual, I happily forewent the ordeal of an anonymous ‘low-cost’ flight and took the train instead. Glasgow to Krakow, via Dresden and Wroclaw was set to be one of my longest and most intriguing train journeys. I couldn’t wait.

After the Beast from the East transformed March into the early spring from Hell, our bipolar climate treated us to a late spring of dreams. And, on a benign, cloudless, mid May morning, as an infant sun gently asserted itself through a misty watercolour sky, I left the Victorian splendour of my second favourite station, Glasgow Central, for a ride down the West Coast mainline and an eagerly awaited day in London.

A sun-kissed Trafalgar Square.

Blissfully, the sun  kept company through the day and even the racket of the Euston Road seemed slightly less intrusive than usual. My timetable was tight and there was barely time to pick up a flat white at The Attendant before I arrived at my slot at the National Gallery, with only minutes to spare.

Excellent as the Monet and Architecture exhibition was, the highlight was outside, not inside, the gallery.  The dazzling sun provided the perfect backdrop to the statue of the Lamassu  on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. The creative artistry of Michael Rakowitz’s 14 foot model of the mythical winged bull with a human face, made out of syrup tins, takes the breath away, but it is also a moving monument to the senseless destruction of more than 7,000 priceless objects from the National Museum of Iraq in 2015 by Isis militants.

The Lamassu adorning the Fourth Plinth.

4.30 next morning and the Gothic splendour of St Pancras was already visible as I  collected my luggage and headed across the road to my number one favourite station. Still sleepy, the extra for Standard Premier on Eurostar was well-spent, given the roomy seat and half decent breakfast (including drinkable coffee) included in the price. Bang on time, a leisurely stroll then took me through Brussels Midi to await the ICE for Frankfurt.

St Pancras at sunrise.

I’m not a train spotter and know nothing, technically, about locomotives, but the power and beauty of a state-of-the-art train as it pulls into a platform always induces a sense of excitement.  A no-hassle embarkation, seat found, luggage fitted perfectly behind seat without the need to lift overhead, German dictionary out and a decent macchiato brought to my table within the first 10 minutes. What’s not to like?

Eurostar awaits.

But near Aachen we began to slow down and were soon running late – yes, an ICE! – to much consternation amongst the largely business-type passengers in the surrounding seats, who raised their heads from their MacBooks, pointing critically at their watches. We crawled along for the next half hour or so, with regular updates giving the reason (as far as  I could understand) as engineering work; so familiar, indeed, that apart from the language, I almost felt  I was back in the UK.

Leipzig’s striking station interior; definitely the most attractive Starbuck’s I’ve ever seen. Shame about the coffee.

Fortunately, as we arrived around 30 minutes late and, as my next ICE to Leipzig started from Frankfurt and was already in situ and I had a 45 minute transfer window, there was no problem.  However, unbelievably, this ICE  also started to slow down and, after an hour, it was obvious that I would miss the connection to Dresden.  Again, DB’s staff were incredibly helpful, particularly  the train manager who was translating instructions into English.  In the event, we seemed to make up time over the last 20 minutes and, although slightly late, the regional service to Dresden was waiting  – although the dash across the station concourse was not to be recommended. 

One of DB’s comfortable regional trains.

Ironically, after looking forward to travelling across Germany by ICE, the highlight of the day was the little regional service to Dresden: roomy, with plenty of accessible  luggage space, comfortable, with refreshments served in situ and good air conditioning. It was a chilled end to what had been, at times, a stressful day.

The impressive facade of the Hauptbahnhof, Dresden.

After a couple of pleasant days in this stunning city, Dresden was to be my starting point for a journey further east; out of Saxony and into Poland.  Previously, I had travelled across Central Europe to Vienna and Budapest, but that had been at night.  Today, on a beautiful spring day, I left the Hauptbahnhof early afternoon, again on a small regional train. This time destined for Wroclaw.

Part of an interesting display in the concourse of Dresden Hauptbahnhof, outlining the important contribution of famous LGBT figures through the ages.

It was a stopping train, timetabled to take several hours, but again, the comfort, space  and visibility made the journey a pleasure. Gorlitz, favourite of Goethe, and regularly touted as the most beautiful city in Germany, took around an hour.  It wasn’t possible to see anything of its famed Altstadt from the train, but its reputation and easy accessibility from Dresden definitely puts it on the tick list for the future.

As the train chugged through of western Poland, stopping at villages and what often seemed little more than road ends, it was clear how important this railway is, particularly for elderly passengers and also for students travelling to college and school. The UK’s train operating companies should also be forcibly made to examine and copy the commodious and ingenious bike storage that uses minimal space, but accommodates dozens of cycles.

Comodious bike storage on Polish Rail: UK train operating companies take note please.

The landscape itself was fascinating, seemingly little changed from a century ago.  The line passed orchards, allotments and little farmsteads; all evidence of the continuing importance to this region of small scale agriculture and self-sufficiency, despite Poland’s modernising economy.

But uppermost in my mind was a feeling of privilege at the opportunity to journey across central Europe without boundaries or checkpoints;  a freedom that died with the First World War and has only been re-opened to us since the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the expansion of the EU over the last two decades. And one that, tragically, looks likely to be closed to UK citizens after  2019.

Wroclaw, approximately half way between Dresden and Krakow, seemed the obvious stop off, en route.  But this city of churches and myriad  architectural styles is well worth a visit for more than its geographical location. Wroclaw’s eclectic and often bizarre mixture of public architecture can be glimpsed as soon as you leave the train: the original station building looks more like a medieval castle than a railway station.

The unusual architecture of Wroclaw Glowny.

Three days in Wroclaw (see Blog) were enough to whet the appetite, but not satisfy it, so I’ll be back.  

Wroclaw to Krakow was my first experience of an exclusively Polish rail service.  I had heard several horror stories regarding the apparent hell of taking the train in Poland, but preferred to keep an open mind and experience it for myself.  

Wroclaw Glowny, although spacious with good facilities and information boards, did expose me for the first time to the particular method of platform numbering used in Poland. Platform 1, for example, will have two adjacent lines, numbered 2 and 3. Platform 4 will have adjacent lines, 5 and 6, and so on.  It’s logical when you get used to it, but confusing when you are not expecting it.

A landscape of poppy fields and wildflower meadows.

I had plenty of time to acclimate to that, as well as to panic that I wasn’t in the right place, as the train was 30 minutes late. When it finally arrived, I gave thanks (not for the first time) for booking a first class seat, as the crush to board the train here was considerably less.  The compartment was an old-style six seater, with minimal leg space, even for me, but cramped conditions were outweighed by the kindness and helpfulness of my fellow passengers . During my travels, I lost count of how many times people, some elderly, helped me with my luggage on and off trains and overhead storage ledges.

Indeed, kindness is the main memory I take from my train travels in Poland.  Both journeys between Wroclaw and Krakow were late and, although I had no idea whatsoever what the announcements said, there was always someone, eager to practise their English, who translated for me.

An insight into Polish culture is also near the top of the list. People shared food, offered to bring back coffee from the buffet, seemed genuinely interested in my visit to their country and were extremely generous with their information and advice.

Back from Dresden, via Leipzig and Frankfurt, to St Pancras in one day.

A vital component of a  long train journey is a sense of humour.  Perhaps the most enjoyable leg of my journey was the return from Krakow to Wroclaw.  I must have looked like a bewildered soul early that morning and was ‘adopted” by an amazing lady on her way to a spa holiday somewhere west of Wroclaw.  In perfect English, she advised me not to bother about announcements or departure boards, as they were always inaccurate. She then ‘captured’ a wonderful young man, who she agreed to keep the train waiting for as he had forgotten to get a ticket, in return for him lifting our luggage off and on the train. Priceless!

Would I do it again?  Absolutely. Two wonderful destinations in Poland, a country I had always wanted to visit; an excellent excuse to re-visit Dresden, a city I love; and one of my best-ever travel experiences across territories I had first become captivated with in my adolescent history lessons.  Travelling through other countries by train gives an unique insight into  people and  cultures. One you certainly don’t get on Ryanair or Easyjet.

As a well-travelled relative is fond of saying: “One airport concourse is much the same as another, whatever continent you happen to be in.”  It’s not the same on a train.

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