Culture-Vulturing in Krakow

I’m getting ready to move onto Europe next week – and it’s been fun and games getting it all organised. When I ran through my travel schedule with Mum, she remarked that it seemed a bit punishing. It probably is a bit. However, living so far away in Australia, I’m hell bent on immersing myself in all things European and making the most of every minute.

The organisational challenge started with the luggage. I always vow to pack lightly and never do. To get my luggage down to Ryan Air’s strict 20kg, I’ve already crammed a jiffy bag with shoes and clothes and sent it home via sea mail, left a bag, two more pairs of shoes and other ‘stuff’ in a cupboard at Mum’s house (too bad, I will simply have to come back and get them), and promised my father that I won’t bring so much next time. Star that he is, he helped me pack, carefully protecting my bone china cups in bubble wrap and scarves. Thankfully, I am allowed 10kg of hand luggage as well but both cases are straining at the seams. No room for anything more – it’s a bit like that scene with the fat man in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – one more wafer thin mint and it would explode!

Up until now I’ve always been ultra frugal when travelling and battled around – luggage in tow – on public transport rather than take taxis. One time I stopped off in Japan on my way back to Melbourne. I flew in, jet-lagged and a bit hazy, from Manchester and got lost in Kyoto Station ending up in a beeping and flashing electronics store. I finally found the right bus, hauled on my cases and mustered the right change, but was universally unpopular with my fellow travellers who sighed, shot me angry looks and tut-tutted at the amount of space I was taking up. Even the unfailingly polite Japanese struggle to maintain their dignity in the rush hour!

My airbnb host in Krakow recommended MEGA taxis as they are apparently much cheaper than the taxis at the airport. I tried calling them but they put the phone down on me, either because they didn’t speak English or were put off by an overseas number. So we went down the road (I’m in London) to my sister’s Polish builder’s DIY shop, and his sister Annette called them for me. To cut a long story that won’t work but at least I tried!

I’ve got a magazine commission and am writing about some of Krakow’s most interesting museums. Poland’s cultural capital boasts more than 40 museums and galleries – after extensive research I whittled my hit list down to seven. Working out when to go to what museum was as complicated as organising a business trip.  Not surprisingly they are all shut on 11th November as it is Independence Day, which, I have now learnt, commemorates the anniversary of the restoration of the a Polish state ­– the Second Polish Republic in 1918.

Luckily several companies run tours to Auschwitz that day so all is not lost. The company recommended by Trip Advisor was crazily expensive making me wonder if the tour was running just for me in a stretch limo! So I rang the Tourist Information Office and found a much better deal including a free lunch.  This was more like it!

Some of the other museums on my list – I’ve chosen an eclectic mix from a stained glass workshop to a pharmacy museum, a town house, an underground archaeological museum, Schindler’s factory and more – have strange opening hours. One is only open from 12-7, one has guided tours in English on Thursdays and Saturdays at 12, others have erratic winter opening hours such as 14.00 to 15.20 and so it goes on. With a bit of luck and organisation, I should manage to see at least five out of the seven!

I’m sure I’ll get time in between all this culture-vulturing to sit in cafes and watch the world go by or catch a few notes of a Chopin drifting out of some ancient church or concert hall, peruse the markets, chat to the locals, perhaps dine in a Jewish restaurant in the old town or take advantage of whatever other opportunities come my way. I doubt I’ll be up to much nightlife; after three days of running around, my flight to Vienna leaves at 6.25 in the morning. But I’m not complaining as I’ll be in Vienna by 10am and ready for the next adventure.

Taking off and unplugging

I’m about to take off back to Blighty and I’m nearly – but not quite – ready. However much I plan in advance, it always builds up to a pre-trip devil-in –the-detail whirl. I tend to sweat the small stuff first – decanting lotions and potions into small bottles, loading up my Kindle, wrapping presents, buying and packing my favourite herbal teas which, ironically, are made in England. Yes, it’s definitely a case of ‘Coals to Newcastle’ but my mother’s local (rural) town definitely won’t have them. I’ve taken some recipes to try out so I can cook for friends and relatives, loaded up my USB stick with photos, documents and work-related stuff, sorted all my hard copy travel documents into folders, made up my regulation plastic bag of toiletries for the plane, cleaned out the fridge, given my indoor plants to a friend, measured out 72 cups of Bertie’s food (he’s off to a homestay place and I’m already welling up about the thought of saying goodbye to him), and tried to fix my garden sprinklers so my pots don’t dry out and die. I’m flying out tonight so better get some clothes in the suitcase sometime soon. ..

At a time of heightened fear in the media and amid all the rhetoric being spouted by our politicians, It’d be easy to succumb to worrying about security on the flight, Ebola, terrorism, mechanical failure – or even losing my luggage. Who hasn’t had troubled dreams about losing their luggage?! But I refuse to be infected by all the negativity and am planning to get on the plane and RELAX. Long haul fights can be mini holidays in themselves if you can get into the right headspace.

It may be the most unnatural thing for the body to be cooped up in a pressurised cabin full of recycled air, in uncomfortably close proximity to other people, with limited opportunity for movement and far too many rounds of heated-up food and stewed tea, BUT when else do we get the opportunity to do NOTHING but read, doze, watch films and doodle? Well,that used to be the case. What bliss when you couldn’t use your electronic devices during the flight. You could well and truly SWITCH OFF. That’s all changed now. I am not flying Qantas but have just checked their website, which states:
“There are plenty of ways to keep in touch while you are flying with Qantas. You can now use your personal electronic devices such as smart phones, tablets and music players in flight mode, for the duration of each flight, providing uninterrupted access to work and entertainment. On all A380, B747-400 and A330-300 aircraft you can send and receive text messages, make inflight telephone calls and perform seat to seat calls all from the comfort of your seat.”

What a shame! Is there no respite from the frenetic round of communicating, commenting, chatting, texting and tweeting? I’m happy to have uninterrupted down time and to enjoy the freedom that comes with being in a cyber-free cocoon.

My mother’s house is a technology free zone, which again, is no bad thing. I’m going over to spend time with her and Dad, not to be glued to electronic devices. I’ll have to ration my time online for blogging and emails as I’ll be hot-spotting via my phone. Mind you, however much I rant and rave about the joys of unplugging, I also recognise that access to the internet is vital for researching new destinations and travel arrangements. In 1985 – or thereabouts – I spent half a year in Spain during the third year of my language degree at Bristol. I had phoned ahead to book into a three-star hotel for my first few nights, there being no email or online bookings in those days. I arrived in Granada in mid-October about ten o’clock at night, loaded up with four months of luggage. The hotel claimed to know nothing about my booking – they were fully booked as it was a fiesta weekend – so they turned me away.

The Plaza Bibarrambla, Granada

The Plaza Bibarrambla, Granada

I met a fellow student, who had also just arrived from England, and we lugged our suitcases around knocking on hotel doors getting the same response everywhere. It was now getting towards midnight and a park bench was looking like our only option. Finally we found a cheap hostal residencia in the Plaza Bibarrambla. Run by a woman who seemed to spend all day in her dressing gown sweeping the steps, the beds sagged in a well worn banana shape, a bare light bulb in the ceiling flickered and crackled, and the communal bathrooms had chilly concrete floors and strict rules about not putting paper down the loo. It was super basic and the other guests could have stepped straight out of a Picaresque novel, but the place nevertheless had some charm, and offered fabulous views over the square. I wonder if it’s still there?