Train to Warsaw
I'm on my way now to Warsaw, continuing on my diagonal line south east through Czechia from Prague to the south of Poland and Katowice. Hills, flat plains and more hills, the fields covered in David Hockney style rolled hay bales. The churches still have tall thin spires, but small onion domes are creeping in below. There’s an area of small lakes.
The train is even more decrepit than the last one. And I’m in a carriage with compartments. At the end, a tiled toilet that looks as if it was built in the 1950s. It’s a six hour journey, but there’s no dining car. A guy in the end compartment has a rickety trolley with crisps and wafers and coffee that he pours into containers that people have saved from Starbucks and the like. He also has a few packets of sandwiches he’s enterprisingly picked up at the local supermarket.
Someone is playing a video so loudly that you can hear it through the whole carriage. I go to investigate but it’s a burly security guy with a flak jacket and a gun in a holster, so I retreat quietly.
Over the border into Poland. We have to wait while they change locomotives. I’m the only passenger in the whole carriage at this point. The steward with the food says that this route is very quiet nowadays. The electricity has gone. And so has the Wi-Fi. It takes them over an hour to sort out the transfer. I’m not sure what’s happening -we’re shunted backwards and forwards several times. The steward doesn’t know either – he says the crew all speak Polish and he only understands Czech.
The upshot is that I’m half an hour late into Katowice, but that’s still enough time to find the right platform for the next leg to Warsaw. Surprisingly, this train is in complete contrast to the last one. It’s a smart Pendolino with waitress service and free food - mini buns on china plates. We whizz along – the views outside as far as I can tell through the blur are mainly farmland and birch forest.
Warsaw has changed more than Prague. The first sight that greets me as I exit the (relatively) new station is the Soviet monolith - the Palace of Culture. It remains majestically awe-inspiring and still the tallest building in the country. But now it’s surrounded by other skyscrapers, including the Marriott where I’m staying. I’ve got a great view over the palace from my bedroom window. In fact it's better than the view from the bar on the top floor. Though the bar provides better cocktails.
Warsaw Old Town
The old town is much the same, but extended and cleaned up. Like Prague it’s now full of tourist cafes and restaurants with outside tables. The houses are copies of the original medieval merchants houses, replaced after the Second World War. They are pretty and they’ve done a good job, restoring them further over the years. They’ve also created the Royal Route, a road which links the old town to the new and is lined with palaces, churches, statues and parks. It’s an interesting affair, mostly grandly baroque, though I would have been happier if it were easier to find on a map. It’s over two miles from the Marriott to the Old Town and I accidentally manage to circumvent the royal route entirely, walking parallel with it most of the way. So I have to walk the same distance again, once I’ve found it, on my way back.
The streets are quiet, for the most part. The dusky red roofed Royal Castle above the Vistula River is closed. I clamber up the steep, urn bedecked garden paths and peer in the windows. There are panoramic views across the river to the National Stadium beyond and to the parks stretching either side. In normal years they feature fountain displays. There is no-one in those at the moment and the main square that showcases the nicest merchant houses is empty of visitors when I arrive. They're arranging the tables under the awnings in the cafes and an organ grinder is setting up in the centre. A surly girl refuses to serve me, but a more kindly young man across the cobbles is amenable and a few other tourists drift in and reward him with more custom. It's the same picture along the spanking new barbican walls and the lines of tavern restaurants in the remainder of the Old Town. It’s very sleepy.
The churches - there are just as many as before and at least three cathedrals - are mainly shut. Though the door to the church housing Frederic Chopin’s heart is ajar and I slide in. The vessel containing his heart seems to have disappeared, but there’s a commemorative plaque on the wall. And very good ice cream in a little cafe opposite. Just up the road is Chopin’s house – a white porticoed museum.I double back yet again to check out the Military Cathedral with its twin towers (closed) and the imposing palace opposite.
The Modern City
Then there’s the theatre and the opera house and some more museums and more pretty gardens, with fountains. Endless statues of course, especially outside the various palaces – Marie Curie and Copernicus feature heavily, as do various kings and generals.
The mode of transport of choice here is the e scooter; these are rented out like Boris Bikes and zip along the pavement without warning, frequently cutting me up. The riders, it has to be said, are not always fully in control. Nevertheless, it's a rewarding if exhausting day. It's been a very long walk.
Back to Berlin and then Slovenia.