I caught the 10:05 train with Jolanda and another guide friend of hers to Krakow, though it didn't show up until about 30 minutes after that. Which was good considering we had the slowest ever cashier on the planet. She's in Poland. Who knew? On the train ride there, they told me a bit about Krakow and what I should see, including the Wieliczka Salt Mines, and gave me some stuff to read about on the city and everything. I checked out a hostel called the Strawberry which looked quite unfriendly and was in the middle of nowhere, so I instead went to Kadetus hostel and checked in. Much more friendly, smaller, and a nice place, albeit more pricey. But for the location it was worth it.
It was hot. And my hair had days ago become what we engineers like to call 'unmanagable'. So my first order of business was to finally get a hair cut. I walked into the place and asked the woman if she spoke English. A little. Good. I sat down. Then, inexplicably, she flagged someone else over to do my hair and scurried out the door. Leaving me with a very bored/angry looking girl who spoke no English at all. She didn't smile once. At me. She did smile finally when the other girl came running back and said something, but immediately after that, she bolted out the door, leaving me with half a haircut sitting in the chair awkwardly. She finally came back with no explanation whatsoever and finished my haircut. If you can call it that. Well, it's definitely a cut, and I guess that hair was what was cut, but it's not exactly pretty. It is short, at least, so it's not like it can be too bad, but I think this girl is part of an international chain of hairdressers who give tourists bad haircuts as some sort of diabolical plan to keep people from travelling.
I left the place and discovered immediately the reason she'd left mid-haircut... there was a fire four doors down from us - from the looks of it, a grease fire from the Sphinx Restaurant. I walked past the place as the fire engines arrived and into the market square, on which it sat at a corner. So I watched the fire a little more and it got quite large before they finally got things under control, and smoke occasionally filled the square, so I left and strolled around the city the rest of the afternoon, grabbing some perogies and white borsch soup for dinner and then I went out for a beer with two Scottish girls from the hostel before calling it an early night. We had to be at the salt mines nice and early, after all.
So the next morning, we left for the salt mines, and though it was nice, it wasn't exactly early. We didn't get there until 11:00 or so. The salt mines are quite old, having been used since the 1200s, and were quite important to Poland at the time. Salt was rare then, in Poland, and in the world in general. So rare that it was worth more than gold at times. We descended the staircase (there were a LOT of stairs) into the mine, about 130m deep with our english guide, and he showed us around all the carvings and everything. There was an underground cathedral, ballroom, lakes, and all sorts of stuff there that was quite impressive. All carved right out of the rock salt. Aside from the carvings and massive ballrooms, this is much more what I imagined a mine like than the Potash one I was in back home. Small walkways, low timber beams, that sort of thing.
Afterwards, we came back into the city and I strolled around again, though it was too hot for this. 32 C today, supposed to be 35 C tomorrow, so I made my way back to the hostel. I was feeling quite wiped out and sort of in recovery phase from the sick, so I took it easy in my sweltering room, read a bit, and wound up asleep quite quickly. I woke up the next morning and discovered Jess sitting at the table eating breakfast, which, though I knew she was coming, was still sort of a shock. It's always so cool to run into someone and hang out, and I was quite sure we'd have a Jesstacular (tm) Time. Which we did, but more on that when I get to Sat night.
Jess & I went to Auschwitz that morning and spent a good part of the day there. I had been to a concentration camp before, so it wasn't as depressing as I was afraid it might be, or maybe it was just because we didn't have a guide. Jess & I did buy a guide book though and work our way around Auschwitz I, and while I've said it wasn't as depressing as I was afraid it'd be, it was still horrible. The things that people do. They had rooms full of possessions of the Jews, Poles, political prisoners, and POWs which they kept for resale, not to mention their glasses, toothbrushes, and hair. Most of which was still there on display and quite disturbing to say the least.
We caught a cab to Birkenau, with a very unintentionally hilarious Polish driver in a yellow shirt who we couldn't understand at all. The odd words here and there, but a lot of it was over our heads. He did point out some things of significance on the 3km trip, but, to give you an idea how long he talked to us, it took about 20 mins. He talked about his travels to the US and Canada (after learning I was a Canadian), then about his family, and then... he brought out his photo album. And showed us his wife, kids, grandkids. Jess & I were smiling broadly and it was about all we could laughing whenever we could. We exchanged a lot of, "I can't believe this/This is hilarious" looks and finally left the cab. Well worth the price over the bus (which we would've had to wait 30 mins for), the guy was great.
Birkenau was massive. The scale of people they brought there and killed was incredible. Just acres and acres of row houses where people were crammed in. It was largely still in ruin, which I think is good, certain things you don't restore. We walked along the tracks and saw what there was to see, and made our way back to the hostel. We did have a nice Georgian meal, except our steak looked like, tasted like, and definitely was chicken, even after I'd showed her that one menu said a #7 was chicken and the other steak. Also, after insisting the cheese was on the side, it wound up right on my chicken. But it was good. We also came across a really out there but quite cool Polish ... band... I guess? Check out the video here (right click, Save As). I assure you it was even more hilarious and awesome in person, and we stood transfixed. It wound up being 38 C today, so again, we took the evening a little easy. I still wasn't feeling tops and Jess hadn't really slept in some time, so we called it an early evening in preparation for Saturday night.
Saturday day, we headed to the grocery store, built what may well be one of the most massive but tasty sandwiches ever created (we had people later asking us where we'd bought it), a couple beer and oranges, and took a bus to the lake where the locals all hang out, Krispynov. It was very busy but cool, and definitely refreshing after the heatwave we'd been having. It was 'only' 32 C today, and it was nice not to be sweating and soaking our clothes. We went for a swim and ate as much of our sandwich as we could (Jess has pictures of this momentous occasion) and actually fell asleep on the beach for an hour or so I think. Oh, I almost forgot that that morning, Jess was supposed to head to the salt mines and I was going to sightsee, and I did get a little sightseeing in but Jess ran into some problems with the guy insisting there was no bus to the mines and didn't end up going.
Then, Saturday night. Dinner consisted of the remains of our massive sandwich and a really tasty watermelon we'd bought. I spent an hour on my first ever VOIP phone call home, but it was great, I got to talk to everyone a little bit. Even Denise at the restaurant. Though, being that it was long distance, I was perhaps not as chatty as I might have been. I didn't even get to insult her. They were getting ready for Con & Tara's wedding, which it really was a pity to miss, especially with all the family that was back in Saskatoon for that. Anyway, we ate our dinner and watched the more than welcome thunderstorm pass by from the balcony. It was a nice evening in the hostel.
Then, we went out on the town with an Italian guy and another Aussie. We started at a place called Carpe Diem, which is great, I imagine, if you go as a couple. The music is rocky but the beat is still a 2/4 type of swaying/slow dancing beat, and it was quite funny to dance to. We had a few drinks there and got to talking/joking around a bit with some locals (it might even have been flirting), but we wound up leaving rather soon for a place around the corner with much better music. The people here weren't quite so good as at the other place, but we all had a great time anyway. Jess got up and dancing in the DJ booth, we all had a few more drinks and stumbled home sans the Italian at 3 AM (he stayed out until 6), where Jess & I chugged one of our two litre bottles and called it a night.
Today, I'm off for either Zakopane in the Tatra mountains or else taking an overnight train to Budapest. Jess is off tonight for Vienna. Wherever I end up, I'm sure you'll be hearing about it all too soon.