Poland part two: Slow Travel

Slow travel_47Last week Sarah told us all about her visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Now, in her second blog post about going to Poland we hear how important it was to her to travel there and back relatively slowly by train.


I went to Poland last week, by train, to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial which was an incredible experience. But equally, so was getting to Poland.  I’ve never really liked flying, and with the increased security we face at airports now I find the whole experience unpleasant. So I realised, I have a choice, Europe is well served by trains. And so train it was, well quite a lot of trains in fact.


And an awfully big part of the adventure is ‘The night train’. I arrive in Cologne at teatime, after a train to London, Eurostar to Brussels and then ICE (Inter City Express) train to Cologne. I have a meal in Cologne, a quick look at the cathedral, and then wait on the platform for the 23.13 to Warsaw.

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So it’s time to find out what sleeping on a train is like.


This is my cabin, yes, my own cabin, with private bathroom – this is a deluxe single. There is a full size towel on the bed and very nice sheets, the pillow is embroidered with ‘WARS’ who must be the company who run this service. It’s all perfectly acceptable. I even have a shower in the morning, arriving at Warsaw at lunchtime. However, the breakfast was rather small and basic – some rye bread and and two tiny sachets of jam and soft cheese, and a black tea. Hobbits generally require more food than that for their adventures.

Although it’s hard to tell what time it is when we arrive at Warsaw station. It’s definitely a different place. Not least because I can’t understand anything that’s being said over the railway tannoy.

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For my trip, Ronnie has give me a gift, a book about slow travel, called ‘The Idle Traveller’ by Dan Kieran. Dan, like me, hates flying and for the last two decades has travelled only by train, and has also made this same trip to Warsaw for a wedding. His friends, who all flew, are bemused by his trip taking much longer – but as Dan says, ‘now that we can move so quickly around the world, most of us don’t actually travel any more – we only arrive.’ He makes the observation that when we fly, we ‘become a piece of cargo’, and that’s exactly how I feel on a plane.

He goes on to say that he always takes the slower route when possible ‘because it gives the journey and the places I visit a much greater sense of meaning’, and that ‘boundaries between nations are revealed as the transitional ideas they are’. This is true, I have travelled through France, Belgium, Germany and into Poland, but didn’t formally cross any borders after we’d left London. I was just aware of the view from my window and the voices and different languages I could hear.

I find being in the cabin is great, Dan says you are ‘delightfully self-contained’, and I get into my pyjamas and drink the little bottle of wine I bought at Cologne station, and congratulate myself on being properly on an adventure. In the morning I have a few hours just looking out the window before arriving at Warsaw. As Dan says, ‘The railway carriage window is surely the original TV.’

After I arrive in Warsaw, it’s another city to city train to Krakow, and then a tediously slow train to Oscwiecim, where I am staying. My first day in Poland I visit Auschwitz – and I’ve written about that here.


The next day I don’t really have anything to do, which is one of the great joys of holidays and time alone. That sense of having nothing to do. So I take a leisurely breakfast. At my hotel they have an amazing spread of food, it’s like a banquet. When faced with ‘different’ breakfast options, my initial reaction is to head for the cornflakes and have a cup of tea, to not indulge in difference. But today I’m ready to indulge myself and have a four course breakfast of fruit, a bowl of cereal, followed by various cheeses and ham and bread, finished off with a pancake filled with cream cheese smothered in raspberry sauce and a cup of cocoa! Well Hobbits on adventures do need good breakfasts.

After I have recovered from my breakfast and the hottest part of the day has passed I decided to spend some time later on exploring Oswiecim. This is my hotel, the Galicja Hotel, a renovated 19th-century building – that’s what it says on the website and although that seems like an odd thing to say, I realise when I visit the rest of the town that a lot of the buildings are 20th century.  The old photographs are displayed on the stairs – but with no explanation. The hotel is (1) on the map.


(2) Housing around the hotel is mostly in blocks of flats. Some of these are painted in bright colours, with a sort of new-ness to them. But it’s pleasant and the blocks have outdoor spaces, children’s playgrounds and space with benches.

(3) I turn away from the centre first and am soon on the edge of town,  going towards the outskirts.

Noticing a sign to the chemical factory – Chemikow – and remembering the huge space on the map when I looked at Oswiecim, which I realise now is the chemical factory. I don’t walk any further as it’s become main roads now, but cross back towards the town centre.

(4) Across the road I notice this large block, it looks new at first, but it’s not, it’s recently renovated.

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Signs give a history of the Chemical works, don’t know if this is some sort of school or academy.

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There’s an old photograph of the chemical works with the names of the companies.

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I know from my trip to Auschwitz, that during the war the Nazis used labour from the concentration camps to work in this factory, and they had a camp near here, Auschwitz III, known as Monowitz. About Oswiecim, from Wikipedia

After the territorial changes of Poland immediately after World War II, new housing complexes in the town of Oswiecim were developed with large buildings of rectangular and concrete constructions. The chemical industry became the main employer of the town and in later years, a service industry and trade were added. Tourism to the concentration camp sites is an important source of revenue for the town’s businesses. In the mid-1990s following Communism’s end, employment at the chemical works (former IG Farben, renamed Dwory S.A.) reduced from 10,000 in the Communist era to only 1,500 people.

I continue my walk.

(5) Observations on gardening. I’ve noticed that in Poland they seem very fond of conifers generally, but also like to create lines of upright conifers as hedging.

(6) Mostly newish blocks of flats, but a bit of ‘old’, looks like an old barn.

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A familiar sign, although in a different colour way.

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And a stereotype of English people!

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(7) This is the old town.

And it’s time for me to wander back to the hotel, for my last evening in Poland.

(8) From my bedroom window, I’ve seen this pipe.

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So I go and have a closer look – it’s obviously connected with the chemical factory, but why is it above ground like this? Anyone know?

Slow travel_36And so ends my stay in Oswiecim. The next morning I have a few hours in Krakow before my train.

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The station is part of a huge complex containing lots of shops – shops just like you can find in any big city. So this is what post-communism is like? I leave the station and head for the old town.

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And am delighted to find this lovely place.

The market square is exquisite. And in St Mary’s church there is a mass in progress.

In the Cloth Hall, the central building in the main square, there is a lovely arcade of shops.

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Selling glass, amber, jewellery, wooden crafts, boxes and babushkas…

This little dragon figure features a lot – he’s the Wawel Dragon, famous in Polish folklore.

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And I buy a present for my niece in San Francisco – a wooden box and some little glass and brass figures, including the dragon and a frog with a one piece groszy in his mouth…

And then it’s time for me to return to the station, leaving the square behind.

I’ve noticed lots of these sort of ‘booths’ on street corners, that sell as much as a small supermarket.

When I get to Warsaw, I leave the station to find a post box – it’s my last chance to post my postcards, with Polish stamps, in Poland!

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And then I am back on the sleeper train, and will arrive in Cologne at 7am. While I am on the platform I notice a woman with a microphone in her bag which she is checking. She is making a recording of the sounds of the station. She comes up to me and asks if I am getting the night train, and tells me she is making a radio programme about this service, as it is planned to stop running later this year. We do a short interview on the platform and have a chat about slow travel, and I tell her about Dan Kieran’s book.

And then it’s time to watch the scenery and soon time to snuggle into my bed, I have to be up early as arrive at 7am in Cologne.

After the meagre offering of breakfast on the journey here, I am more prepared for my breakfast, I’ve brought a pastry and some juice with me which I bought in Krakow station. In fact I am only offered a tea or coffee on this train – no milk again.

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And when we get off the train, I meet Nora again, and we do another interview. My shower didn’t work on the return trip, and there was no towel… We both wonder if this service were more luxurious whether more people would use it? Nora thanks me profusely and then offers to buy my breakfast, and finds me a ‘proper’ cup of tea and a chocolate croissant, which is delicious.

Next train is the ICE again and back to Brussels.

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Not so slow actually! (About 150 mph). And then from Brussels back on the Eurostar, and my third breakfast of the day! The Eurostar catering was easily the best of the whole trip.

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Eurostar breakfast

Some final thoughts from Dan Kieran.

‘There are no more compelling travelling companions then the inescapable thought and feelings of your own soul.’

Time spent alone is always good for my soul.

‘The most important parts of any trip – how you felt and what you learned – only seem to collect in your mind many years later. If it was truly important, you’ll remember it.’

I’ll remember this trip for a long, long time. And, finally, here is my niece Noa in far away San Francisco opening her box from Krakow, with her sister Tess and their mum Naomi.



Join the Conversation


  1. I couldn’t agree more with you, Sarah. I’ve flown into Europe, and looking out of the window and seeing the land below, I’ve thought to myself “I wonder what it’s like down there?” So I much prefer travelling by train when I can. Mind you, I’ve only ever been on a couchette, which was less comfortable than your cabin and which put me into a strange state – travelling sideways, with the white noise of the rails meant that my body went to sleep but my brain didn’t – a most unpleasant state of affairs!

    I’m not too keen on travelling independently in countries where I can’t read or speak the language, though in the few days I’ve spent in Poland I was beginning to pick up a few words and phrases. Tannoy announcements in another language are always a problem – after nearly twenty years I can just about pick them up in German, and oddly enough I can understand them in Dutch perfectly well!

    Breakfast in other countries is always an experience. On my second day in Poland, breakfast was provided by a boarding house landlady, and in contrast to the meagre breakfasts offered by some hotels, this was a veritable cornucopia! Food just kept on coming out, and much of it was accompanied by a running commentary – the apple juice was pressed from apples in our own orchard, the eggs are from our own hens – and so on! I did notice that milk with tea and coffee is not standard in Poland, and some hotels I stayed in didn’t offer it at all.

    Street kiosks are a big thing in Europe, but in former Communist countries they seem more extensive and more common than in Germany or Austria, where they tend nowadays to be restricted to street food (though quite often some of the best street food you’ll get). I see you got the trick of buying food from local shops to make up for the shortcomings of the on-board catering.

    WARS is a division of the Polish State Railways, PKP, and they operate both the sleepers and the dining cars. Sleeper trains have been badly hit by the cut-price airlines and are mainly being withdrawn across Europe, though there are some areas where they are hanging on; the Austrian state railways ÖBB have just taken over all international sleeper services between Vienna and other parts of Europe, on the grounds that the cheap airlines don’t have so many services into and (more specifically) out of Austria, so they still see a market for it.

    Looking at the clock on the station, you just missed the Krakow trumpeter – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Mary%27s_Trumpet_Call .

    If more people had made the sort of journey you did, experiencing Europe as it really is and the way most Europeans live their lives just like us, then perhaps there wouldn’t have been so much rubbish talked about Europe in the run-up to the June vote. And things might have been very different.

    1. Thank you Robert. I’m glad you enjoyed the travelogue. And thanks for the observations.
      Yes I missed the trumpeter… it was such a short visit to Krakow.
      And the German journalist I spoke to mentioned that (some) governments subsidise cheap flights, and potentially that makes these lovely long train journeys seem expensive, but they are so rich in experience I wouldn’t have done it any other way. A real way to experience Europe, as you say.

  2. Thank you. This brought back lots of memories of travelling to Poland in late 70s early 80s. Taking the car and sleeping on a train seemed the most glamorous thing to me as a child. Back in 2012 I took the boys from a dark chilly Newcastle to south of France by train. Not quite the same as we didn’t sleep but an exciting introduction to train journeys and appreciating different people and places. You both write about these things beautifully so again, thanks for sharing.

  3. Have you come across the Man in Seat 61 http://seat61.com for planning rail journeys, etc?
    As a child I lived in Switzerland and my one and only visit to Italy (Rimini) was on the sleeper, went to sleep in Switzerland and after tunnelling under the Alps woke up in Italy probably in the summer of 1962. Then during the teachers strikes of the early 1970s our rather eccentric headmaster, we also had a headmistress, managed long afternoons by handing out Cooks travel timetables from the 1930s and asked us to plot rail journey across Europe. Alexia Sayle’s first volume of memoirs involves a lot of European rail travel in the 60s visiting behind the Iron curtain, his dad was a railwayman and a communist so it helped. It is funny and poignant too. I’ve always loved train travel, and often find myself changing trains at Crewe or Stoke and looking at the options of going somewhere exotic like Leuchars instead of where I’m supposed to be heading.
    Thanks for posting.

  4. I’m also a train (and tram) anorak. My mother, aged 17, left the U.K. To work as a governess in a tiny village 80 miles north east of Warsaw having just left her boarding school, and told me how shy she was having to use a sleeping car for both sexes.That was in, I think, 1911. Brave girl! Some years ago, visiting the area, the Polish friends car I was in followed the train she took from Warsaw to Lomza. She would have used horse and trap after that in order to get to her destination. Now, I’m too old to do such things but wish I’d used trains more when I was younger.

  5. Great post. We are heading to Krakow at the end of the year, so great to get a little insight.
    Can’t beat train travel – a wonderful way to see different parts of the world and slow down a bit. Thanks for referencing the book too – looks an interesting read.

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