Asia 2005 : Poland

Riga to Poland

No man's land between Russia and Latvia, stupid o'clock, approaching EU territory. It occurs to me that part of the reason people fail to identify themselves with the European Union is the lack of decent songs... I mean I can't now burst into "Born in the U of E" and start playing air guitar.

Oooh, maybe I should.

But the Russian woman in the carriage might be a bit perturbed.

The Latvian border guard subjects me to fifteen minutes of interrogation about the numerous stamps in my passport: 11 border crossings in the past three months. Checking the Russian woman's passport takes about two seconds.

You know the Lonely Planet is getting a little desperate when the only thing they can list Latvia "famous for" is winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 2002.

Merely one year after that momentous occasion I had travelled through the Baltic with my friend James. Indeed, given the speed at which he tended to view sights, I was surprised not to see him still in the Occupation Museum in Riga. Little seemed to have changed: the Freedom Monument still held her three stars aloft, the Hotel Viktorija was still doing good business on A Čaka street: in fact I was next door to the room we'd taken two years earlier.

But behind the pretty facades of the old town changes were afoot, perhaps encouraged by Latvia's accession to the EU in 2004. The number of tourists passing through Riga airport had tripled since my last visit, with 1.8 million passengers every year: a lot when you consider the country has a population of just 3.4 million people. The Baltic Times had an article bemoaning the preponderance of strip clubs and erotic massage parlours, which it was blaming on the increasing numbers of stag night parties coming from Britain on budget flights. The discarded flyers from these clubs are scattered over the cobbled streets of the Old Town on a Friday night, leading to the evocative description "the streets seem paved in nipples".

And while the tourists head east, the locals head west. The Baltic countries have one of the fastest falling populations in the EU as young people go in search of the new work opportunities the EU has brought.

Yet the foreign invasion was not as serious as people had feared: "it's more public-order disturbances, like trying to climb the Freedom Monument", said Ints Kuzis, deputy chief of Riga Police.

I never meant to go to Poland. According to the gradually disintegrating piece of paper that had been tucked into my moneybelt over the last 2˝ months, after Riga the plan was to go to Budapest. But there was a convenient night bus to Warsaw, and when I arrived I thought I ought to stay awhile.


If you have just arrived in Warsaw, you may think you have chosen the wrong time to visit. You would be right. - Warsaw in Your Pocket, October/November 2005 edition

I had an impression of Warsaw as a grey and miserable town but it had a definite capital city buzz to it. The pretty Old Town, with a castle, cobbled streets and pretty coloured buildings around a central square, rivalled any other I'd seen in Eastern Europe.

Poland has many more reminders of its past that Riga or the rest of the Baltic countries.

I visited the Uprising Museum which documents the largely forgotten 1944 Warsaw Uprising. With the Nazis in retreat across Europe, the Poles had tried to take control back of their city. But squabbling amonst the Allies - for example the Russians wouldn't let British and American planes use their runways to launch supply missions - meant that before long the Poles were desperately short of food, water and ammunition.

The rebellion was brutally put down and Hitler ordered Warsaw should be obliterated from the map. Buildings were marked in order of their historical and cultural importance to the Polish, then systematically destroyed. The entire Old Town had to be rebuilt after the war from rubble using old photographs and even Canaletto paintings.

After the war Poland fell into the Soviet sphere of influence. This must have been a bitter pill to swallow for those who had seen the Russian soldiers on the other side of the Wisla river standing dormant while their city was destroyed.

Stalin's "present" to the city was the monstrous Palace of Culture and Sciences, which dominates the skyline. The view from the top is the best in the city: locals say this is because it is the only view which does not contain the Palace of Culture and Sciences!


My Israeli room-mate Amit ("St Petersburg eez so beautiful, you know Matt, whenever I goez to MacDonald's, I meet ze beautiful girl") had recommended to me a website called

This seemed a great idea: people agreeing to put you up for a few days on their couches, free of charge. I'd emailed ahead and to my amazement got a response.

My host for a couple of days in Poznan was Ula, an energetic bundle of Polishness.

Ula and her three flatmates were all studying English at Poznan University, so the walls of the flat were covered with vocabulary lists, and they all had frightfully convincing English accents. Apparently one could opt to learn in either the "British" group or the "American" group depending which accent you wished to end up with.

The top, nay only, sight is Poznan is the butting goats: every day at noon, two mechanised goats emerge from the clock tower and proceed to butt each other twelve times. The goats have become the symbol of the town.

Hordes of primary school children have gathered to watch the spectacular. Mounting excitement.

The clock strikes 12, a hush descends. Painfully slowly, two small doors open, and some rather undernourished looking metal goats emerge from the tower. The children cheer! Leisurely the goats rotate towards each other. "JEDEN!" shout the children. The heads slump towards each other in a loose interpretation of butting. "DWA!" ... "TRZY!" Ula explains they are counting in Polish. "DZIEWIEC!" (I am not sure how small children can actually pronounce that word) ... "DZIESIEC!" One we reach a full dozen, the children shout out "Goodbye goats, see you tomorrow!"

The story behind this bizarre spectacle goes a bit like this: some time in the 14th century the two most important people in the town were the town mayor and a rich landowner, who were constantly squabbling. One of the main points of contention was who should be allowed to build the tallest house. The pair decided to settle the argument by having a duel, but being rather cowardly they decided the duel would be held between two goats. Whichever goat won would earn for its master the right to build the taller house.

The duel commenced at noon in the town square. Twelve times the goats locked horns, with neither gaining an advantage. But then the townsfolk, who had grown weary of the never-ending arguments and fearing for the health of the goats, pulled them apart. They decided that they would build a clock tower even higher than either of the mayor's or landowner's houses thus rending the argument immaterial. Two goats would emerge from the clock tower every day at noon so that no-one would forget the tale behind it. This story is of course utter rubbish, since I just invented it.


Krakow used to be the capital of Poland and it's still the cultural capital of the country, as well as being its biggest tourist destination.

It was November 11th, and Polish Independance Day, celebrating the fact that on 11th November 1918, Poland had regained its independence after 123 years. Soldiers and veterans paraded through the streets, many on horseback. There was a lively atmosphere, the soldiers chatted with the crowd as they waited for the parade to move forwards.

In Krakow as in Warsaw I stayed in a branch of Nathan's Villa Hostel, which are aimed at young beautiful travellers such as myself. I ran into Nathan himself in the common room, a young American, he has now opened three hostels in Poland and Romania which all boast free everything: free laundry, free 24 hour hot showers, free internet access, free beer.

The free beer was conditional on our team of three winning the pub quiz that evening. Luckily I managed to drag from the depths of my brain that Tegucigalpa was the capital of Honduras, securing our 12 free pints. It was nice to revert back to drunken studentville for a while: doing quizzes, drinking beer, playing pool, making faces...

Nowadays Kamierz, the Jewish quarter in Krakow is a area full of little cafés, antique shops, galleries and associated arty tosh. But there's a sobering history here, just 30km away is the town of Oswiscem, or to give it its more familiar German name, Auschwitz. Twenty minibuses a day can ferry you straight to the gates of the former death camps, and yet...

I don't want to go to Auschwitz.

"Well, you have to go, don't you?" "No, I don't have to go"

Part of it is the feeling that not everything should be a tourist attraction. What exactly are we going to see? Can I buy a souvenir T-shirt? Do we need to go and see the ovens in which human beings roasted other human beings to appreciate that genocide is wrong?

What is the most depressing thing about Auchswitz? The number of people who died? The evilness of human nature? That nobody learns from history?

Wawel Castle in Krakow, besides being very important in Polish history and being home to a large fire-breathing dragon, is important to some Hindus. According to legend Lord Shiva threw seven magic stones around the world, to Mecca, Delhi, Velehrad (in the Czech Republic), Jerusalem, Delphi, Rome ... and Krakow. The Krakow stone ended up in the north-western corner of the castle courtyard, and is now believed to be a centre of spiritual energy (chakra).

My last train ride, from Krakow to Budapest: 13 hours, 2 border crossings, all like child's play now. An entertaining safety feature: press the yellow button and metal bars pop up in a comical fashion to prevent you falling off the top bunk.

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