Sorry about the delay
I am in Vienna at the moment. We just arrived at 4pm this afternoon (3pm UK time) so I haven't got too much to say about it right now but I am sure I will form an opinion tomorrow. I do however, not like this hostel. It is crowded and, while not unclean or unsafe or in a bad neighbourhood or anything, just has an air of 'scummy' about it. Oh well. It is only 1 night.
Warsaw was interesting and I got talking to a local Polish student studying at the university down the road from the hostel. However, our enthusiasm was damped somewhat but the horrible cold (-25!). We did however, brave it and get out and about. We even made it to a local restaurant once the cold night really settled in and tried some local food and drink - Polish dumplings and a hot fruity local drink. The dumplings were described on the menu as "light". They really weren't. They were however, very good.
It got much warmer as we left Warsaw and headed to Krakow. We did prefer the old capital of Poland to the new (apparently one of their kings just decided Warsaw would make a better capital one day). Krakow has some very interesting buildings, wonderful parks which looked very 'winter wonderland' in the snow, and something called the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, which has a beacon lit and is guarded at all times in tribute to all the Polish soldiers who have given their lives fighting for their country. Krakow had a more old-worldy feel to it then Warsaw and was much more of an inviting and vibrant city compared to the capital. Plus, they had a statue of a dragon and it actually breaths real fire over your head. Of course we also ended up in a hostel dorm with a girl from Doncaster and really what are the odds? She and Laura were very northern together.
Krakow is also near Auschwitz-Birkenau and we went off to see the camps for ourselves. It was a very intense experience and the sheer scale and industry of it just never really computed before. Even being seen it cannot really be believed. The guide who showed us around was extremely knowledgeable and, let me tell you, the films and the books do not really ever reveal the true level of horror of that place and the appalling conditions the people endured. There is a monument there that reads "For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945".
It was a very sobering day to say the least.
After we had decided to move on we discovered that Krakow to Prague in the Czech Republic was a nice 8+ hour train journey. It was alright though as we planned to catch up on some sleep. How wrong we were. Standing at the platform at Katowice waiting for our train (the route was Krakow-Katowice-Prague) I decided to ask a local to double check we were at the right platform. I asked the only American tourist in the crowd. He was however, going to Prague himself and so asked if he could sit with us on the train, as he was travelling by himself. Usually he spent long train trips in silence as no-one spoke English. We agreed. It would have been rude not to and he was a nice enough man: a bit boring we thought, but nice enough. His name was Ken and he was from Michigan. He was on a 4 month break from his job as a civil engineer because of a lack of work (recession is fun worldwide). Upon boring the train we quickly (and you need to be quick on Polish trains, believe me) located a carriage with a single gentleman in and summarily invaded. We never, found out that man's name but he was perhaps the single coolest man I have ever met. At 50 years old and having spent his working life (we'll get to that in a bit) in the mid 70-s in Eastern Europe (i.e. communist country) he had his own Stasi police file. Apparently they felt he was a threat to the regime. This is because he was, among other things, a founding member of the Netherlands chapter of Greenpeace. The guy has actually been on the original Rainbow Warrior (he just wandered on to see what was happening!). He currently works as a energy consultant in the Eastern European area but also works with members of governments in the Scottish and English Parliaments in a bid to tackle the issues around nuclear waste and nuclear power stations. He was funny and interesting and knew many facts and amusing stories from across the EU (not least of all was the story which found him placing soil samples from the so called 'safe zone' surrounding the edge of the Chernobyl disaster into the office of the government agency that was trying to get people to repopulate and settle in the area. They did not appreciate the gift as said soil samples were highly radioactive and hazardous to the health of human beings....
This guy also spoke Czech (one of his 8 languages) so when the train broke down a few stops from Prague he helped us get to where we needed to be. In comparison he made Ken, our American platform friend, even duller. Until Ken told us about his travels that is.
That man was insane. Who bribes their way in to the war torn cities in Africa?! Apparently boring Americans call Ken do. They also promptly get arrested and only get out due to a daring 1 story jump and a quick dash to the American Embassy by a UK citizen who had decided to join in the road tripping fun. If that wasn't bad enough, Ken decided to take a quick detour into the Congo, that was after he had gotten out of the original African prison he had been in. By all accounts rebels don't have prisons but they do have guns and it is apparently more difficult getting out of the Congo than it is getting in! I should point out this was about 15 years ago too. So yes, Ken was American, but no, he was not boring. 8 hours later we got to Prague. We didn't sleep on the train but who needs sleep?
Prague is an amazing city. There just aren't words. The local food is brilliant (the Czech man on the train was also a veggie and pointed out some dishes I should try) and I even liked the beer! The girls in our dorm were funny and easy to chat to (a Brazilian Pilates teacher living in Portugal, an Indonesian girl living in Holland with her friend from Spain) and the whole city is lively and astonishingly beautiful. The Charles Bridge was breath-taking and the Cathedral astonishing. The castle is enormousness and we saw the noon changing of the guards at the castle - complete with brass band playing from the 1st floor windows. Prague is famous for its glass work and the stuff they had to sell in the local shops was exquisite. I will most defiantly be coming back!
Tomorrow we are going to explore Vienna and then board a sleeper train to Venice. I am actually quite looking forward to the trip as I really like sleeper trains.
Bye for now x