Here I’m speedily jettisoned off the No. 210 bus – 33 Zloty and 35 km from Warsaw Modlin Airport. The Ryanair cheapie from Edinburgh was booked well in advance for a cheeky £20. As is tradition, I insouciantly drop-kicked my one carry-on bag into the measurement apparatus to the aghast look of the boarding attendant. I’m very proud of that.
What a welcome Plac Defilad is. Stood in its epicentre is the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science, an art deco building designed by Lev Rudnev in the socialist realist style. Only later am I told that it’s wholly despised, sixty years after its completion. Passers-by tut and scowl as I take photos. I see it now – it’s a highly contentious structure, an immovable reminder of Soviet oppression and Cold War stagnation. With no plans to demolish it, the adjacent buildings all compete for prestige. Poland’s very own Tour Montparnasse, I rather like the nonchalant anachronism of it all.
I find Warsaw a citadel of cubistic form, a Jackson Pollock-splattered architectural morass. This style, that era – any vine sprouts on the city grid. This haphazard approach to urban planning I appropriate as an inspirational theme for my trip. I discard any notion of consulting the Rough Guide and opt to instead ‘go with the flow’ – which essentially comes down to wandering in all directions, apropos of nothing. It’s also piercingly cold, but I have a hat, scarf, and gloves.
A pub crawl kicks off from my hostel abode, and what a ubiquitous tipple vodka appears to be, the hostel bar, local supermarket, and all drinking dens on the decadent trail hosting archipelagos of ‘wódka’. It’s verboten in the streets and this bamboozles me for it’s the national drink, omniscient in its consumption. I can’t handle the stuff straight up, opting for Żubrówka with apple juice every time. I ask a buxom barmaid why the locals don’t seem to sip their treasured ethanol, instead preferring to down it. “Why would we burn our mouths many times over, stupid?” is her reply. That’s me told, and amateur that I am, “lightweight” Chupa Chups shots fortify me in subsequent bars.
The exact number of establishments escapes me, and I remember little save that I was borderline freezing and figured alcohol would warm me up. Lost on my return to the homely Oki Doki Hostel on plac Dąbrowskiego, I weave in and out of Warsaw’s high-rises. Barely discernible shouts emanate from up above, disco tunes (I detect La Roux’s ‘Bulletproof’ at one point), and intermittent zany screams. I eventually hail a cab and for a mere 20 Zloty I’m driven back to the hostel. The driver speaks impeccable English. He politely enquires why we all litter Eastern Europe with stag events and associated mayhem. “Because it’s cheap,” I reply. The evening concludes with an absurd 3:00 a.m. jog around the park, a 20-minute sweat session draining a barrel of spirits from my equipoise.
The Warsaw Uprising.
The Warsaw Uprising museum, completed only in 2004, is located in the Wola district. An exhaustive and chaotic topography of 1944, the Uprising’s remnants and accompanying text are seemingly thrown around the interior space at random. I meander through the inferno lost, trying to make narrative sense of the exhibits – a rusty Panzerfaust used in the revolt seems the most apt totem on display. Therapeutic order is found afterwards in the nearby supermarket, where I’m presented with yet more neatly stacked pillars of tatanka possibilities. Security guard: “This one, good (points to vodka on bottom shelf). This one, good (points to vodka on top shelf). This one, very good (points to vodka on middle shelf).” Oh, no ….
Max never leaves Oki Doki Hostel. When I first arrive at 9:00 p.m. he’s sat in bed; when I leave two days later he’s slumped face down on the table by the window. I spot him in the hostel bar one evening maniacally typing away on his laptop in the corner. Max – who doesn’t drink alcohol – waxes lyrical about Polish post-war history, talks non-stop of the Warsaw Pact, and even the role of Pope John Paul II in smashing the Iron Curtain. I surmise he’s a student of Polish history, such is the passion of his delivery. A bloke in his mid-30s, of medium height and build, with thick Ray-Ban glasses and a shaved head, he’s perpetually decked out in a white t-shirt and green khaki shorts. There’s not a moment for reflection in his staccato monologues, never a comma or full stop. Heralding from Krakow, he’s easily the oddest, dare I say it, most interesting hostel character I’ve met in quite some time. All the best, Max, wherever you may be … in the hostel.
To Gdańsk on the Polski Bus.
The bus station adjoins Mlociny Metro station, the most northerly stop on the single north-south line. I hop on board and find a seat. A woman pushes in front of me and I sigh; she reciprocates with a prolonged grimace. The website and the bus conductor proudly proclaim the existence of plug sockets. I can’t find them; after a nine-minute scour I am nonplussed. And the free Wi-Fi is rubbish. Is last night’s vodka compromising my cognitive abilities? I’m crestfallen. But at 32 Zloty it’s a bargain ride, and the seat is comfortable. We depart at 12:30 p.m. for Gdańsk. The sights – cars and fields – are unremarkable. What did I expect? I take a few snaps, count the number of salted peanuts dropped on the floor by the guy opposite, and then nap for five hours. I have an amusing dream but quickly forget it.
Happy Seven Hostel.
This hostel is situated on Grodzka Street a 20-minute walk east from the central bus station. It is a delight, with every dorm-room elaborately themed; I’m staying in a room called ‘Construction’ chock-full of rusty building-site materials hammered to the walls. The receptionist, Agnieszka, bestows upon me a token for the bar next door called Degustatornia. I nip over with the intention of savouring a few local delicacies and end up sampling a surfeit of Polish beers – the Dojlidy Porter, Okocim Palone, and Zywiec Krakus linger the most.
Captain Phillips (2013) is showing on the Widescreen TV when I arrive back. Another Tom Hanks vehicle. The bloke is forever restricted to the ’90s for me; I’d like to keep him there. I find the movie an utter snore, and see I’m not alone as a few guests are napping on the sofas. We travel and we watch films; the act is somehow made more exotic because it’s done abroad. I’m duly invited back to Degustatornia by Agnieszka, who introduces me to a hazelnut-flavoured vodka shot. All plans for a civilised late-night trek around the city cancelled, I spend the next several hours in the bar discussing World Cup 2014 and the popularity of alcopops in Britain with a group of native students drinking Tyskie. Upon exiting, an elderly lady with a pet ferret informs me that Poland possesses more coal reserves than most of Europe combined. I don’t know if this is true, but she says it with conviction. My head aches, my cheeks are perpetually flushed, my legs are stiff. I fear I’m beginning to physically decompose.
I wake up – still shattered – at magic hour, and the first thing that strikes me about the port of Gdansk is that the seagulls there aren’t afraid of me. My run along Motlawa river produces no frenzied reactions – only indifferent squawking. This sounds extremely trivial, but seagulls typically scurry off when I approach. Anyway, regarding the make-up of the port itself, I see cargo and cranes, trucks and vessels. I’m immediately reminded of The Wire season 2. Is that silly?
Jogging into the dense crowds, I contemplate the city’s former reverence as the free port of Danzig, the subsequent WWII ruination, and its extensive rebuilding by the Soviets. There is indeed an odd medieval feel to the place, as if a strict architectural style has been stipulated by committee. The only snaps I can muster are from my Android; they are terrible, blurry, scream the amateurish. I’m quite crafty with a camera, but not on a hungover ramble.
Darkness descends, and I’m the most kinetic human within a two-mile radius. I think this is essentially Gdańsk – relaxed, understated. Though heavy-eyed and very groggy, I am happily content to explore its quarters and take in the Baltic air. I pass shops, restaurants, pubs, a few churches. I reflect on nothing; no profundity of thought arises. I am concrete, being-in-itself. Sometimes it just happens.
A train from Gdańsk Glowny to Sopot sets me back 4 Zloty and takes 15 minutes. I wander through small forest enclaves and plush detached houses to the nightclub area, where I’m greeted with a sparse array of modern light-techno establishments. Most are empty. The milieu is deserted. Consulting Sopot on Google images, I see a charmingly art nouveau seaside town. Perhaps I should have arrived earlier. After a four-hour reconnoiter and a 45-minute chat in a nightclub smoking area with two locals about Breaking Bad, I depart in darkness, as I arrived, from the train station. Drifting off into wanted dreams, I consider a life of travel and wonder if I’m capable – if I can push myself, ride the shattered moments and pursue the serene. I don’t know. The inspector wakes me up at Gdańsk Glowny and I crawl like an inebriated snail up the street back to my bunk.
The No. 210 bus from Gdańsk Glowny to the airport is a mere 4 Zloty. It’s a witheringly long journey (30 mins) after yet another evening of vodka. I spend the ride gormlessly staring out of the window for my first sighting of a Lidl; in almost every city on the continent I’ve spotted one. I pass only anonymous buildings, though, and more bus stops. Disappointing. At the airport I grapple with my credit card in Duty Free. Żubrówka dominates the store. Deep breaths, an emerging pool of sweat by my feet. I compose myself and repeat: “No more alcohol. Enough.” It’s Ryanair so the usual scramble ensues, my priority-boarding envy kicking in once again. I reach my seat, put in my headphones, and plonk my head against the window as some soothing Enya speeds up my slumber. I certainly overdid it on the vodka, but it felt like the right decision at the time. Farewell, Poland. You’ve been nice to me. I may return one day, and behold your treats in daylight.