Arriving at ten past three.
We had slept the sleep of the dead on the train up from Vienna, and now had to bundle our groggy selves back to the Vysočany suburb and up 9 stories of brutal ex-Communist architecture to the warm waiting home of the Greek-Czechs.
Despite us crashing in on them uninvited, the Plesnikova-Papadoupolos family welcomed us with open arms. The Greek mother again chucking out her hated Czech son-in-law to go and stay with friends. One huge pot of Greek food, one huge pot of Czech goulash put on the stove for us.
A Czech friend of the mother was visiting too.
They had both been dental students together over 40 years ago in Communist Prague. As tall and thin as the Greek mother was short and fat, the friend had travelled over 300km to visit. She told us she comes once a year, always around Christmas, and it was sweet and touching, if a little comical, to see this mis-matching pair kiss and hug with such love.
The friend listened to our stories of travelling down through Europe, from London to Thessaloniki. She sat and nodded and smiled, and told us with a sorrowful voice how she was envious of our youth and our travels.
She asked us where we will catch the next train to on our way down Europe.
On a whim, and thinking to avoid the route we had just taken down through Austria that had proved such a dead-end, I replied “Poland.”
My travelling Passepartout looked up, a little startled at this. Lida, the old Czech dentist looked a little sad and said quietly “I never travelled when I was young. We were never allowed to. Not even to Poland…”
After sleeping the day, we left for the remnants of ornate splendour at Praha Hlavní Nádraží station. The mother insisting on us having one more, last, huge, meal before we left.
“Echeis dromo makry…” she told us, with warning, as she served up – the road is long.
We boarded the Prague-Krakow sleeper train early and I took a walk down the carriages to see who we were sharing this long Czech Rail train with.
A solid train, but not exactly in the first flush of youth. And one that appeared to be using Russian carriages too – unreadable Russian Cyrillic signs on the walls and the sides of the train.
The seating areas were crammed and overflowing. People sat on the seats, sprawled in the aisles.
The dark corridors revealed the cheaper sleeping cabins, which had complete strangers, unknown to one another bunched in 3s or 4s or 5s, sat warily and unhappily together on their bunks.
I was pleased to see in our carriage the compartment had sleeping berths for just two people.
I passed a cabin a few doors down from us and looked in.
A fat Czech lady with blonde curly hair, bright red lipstick, stood up in just her unmatching black and red underwear. She danced and swayed with a bottle and a plastic cup in her hand, laughing loudly. Her small, seedy-looking, bald, large nosed husband on the edge of the bed, watched, grinning at the old seal in front of him, sat just in his boxer shorts and a vest. The woman’s loud whooping laughter followed me along the corridor.
Next door were a Japanese couple. Silently preparing their bed. Both of them already in silk pyjamas. The man stretching and doing some gentle pre-sleep exercises.
We hunkered down in our own comfortable-enough compartment – sink, little wardrobe space, curtains – and dimmed the light.
Our first night in a sleeper on this great European rail trip.
We were heading east again, not south, probably a mistake, but I was sure we could get another connection pretty easily down to Budapest from Krakow.
I hadn’t really let the thought of it being New Year’s Eve tomorrow cross my mind…
I was happy just to be on a sleeper train really. Pulling through Europe on our own Orient Express journey.
Though not heading exactly to the Orient. And not necessarily travelling at express pace.
The Czech lady guard in peaked hat and epaulette shoulders came in to check our tickets and take our passports.
I warily handed mine over. Was this necessary? Aren’t the Czech Republic and Poland both in the European Schengen Accord? Hadn’t I read of conductors taking passports and then demanding money later to get them back?
“Don’t worry,” she said – a vice-like grip on the passport, trying to twist it out of my suspiciously clamped grasp – “This just is what is done.”
We wrestled a bit back and forth before the passport was snapped out of my fingers.
So when would we like waking up, she asked with a smile. What would we like for breakfast?
A ludicrous scene played out with Passepartout asking for coffee and in her very particular Greek way checking how good the coffee was.
“It will be proper coffee, yes?”
“Ja ja, Arabic. Good coffee. Best coffee. Arabic. For you.”
Shortly after the 11.09pm advertised time, the train gave a jolt, a stutter, and fell back silent on the rails.
Then a sudden final heave. And we were off.
Prague city passing, a smear of darkness, outside the window.
The sway of the train lulled us to sleep on this very first night on the rails. The dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk of the tracks as central Czech Bohemia turned into eastern Czech Moravia and crossed the border into Poland, gliding us forward through steady darkness.
“Your station stop is in 5 minutes. Here is your coffee.”
The Czech female conductor, not smiling this morning, harassed, turned as she was going through the door of our compartment.
“Oh. And here is these…” she threw our passports on to the bed.
Passepartout started an almighty row on how bad the coffee was. The conductor, forgetting her work, turned her attention instead to fully argue her side, standing in the middle of the corridor.
“Well you drank it…”
“A sip. How else could I tell how bad it was?”
“It was good coffee. Czech coffee…”
“You said Arabic!”
“No, no. Good Czech coffee. You want something else now, you pay”…
Krakow station drew in and I bundled the bags out down the steep metal steps of the old dirty, mismatching, blue and red carriaged train onto the platform.
The guard hadn’t had the chance to wake up many of the others in our carriage and I caught a glimpse of a panicked-faced Japanese leaning out from his compartment door, still in his silk pyjamas, as the train moved off and we moved too, into another city.
But first, into another chamber of a grand station.
Kraków Główny station has been refurbished to ‘aid the passengers’ experience’.
Clean lines and well lit walkways, shops, escalators. It took us over half an hour to work out where we were and where we wanted to be going.
We finally found the stored luggage lockers. It was 7.30am on New Year’s Eve in a closed Krakow. Where to go now?
First I checked the time of the train to Budapest from here that I was confident we could get. So confident that I had dragged us 600 kilometers the wrong way, east, to be here.
There wasn’t one.
No direct train to Budapest until the night sleeper that was leaving at 10 o’clock that night.
We had the whole day to kill.
I saw a train advertised to Oswiecim. This place name stuck out. I recognised it from somewhere.
I asked at the sleek ticket window booth and was a little shocked, a little unsettled, to be told by the girl behind the glass:
“Yes, you’ll probably know it by its German name…”
We caught this 8.08am to Oswiecim, unsure if this was the right thing to do, very unsure of what we’d find, but drawn by the magnet of such vast, obscene history just 2 hours down the rail line.
The small, 3-carriage, old brown train creaked and moaned as it trundled us slowly forward.
The ancient heaters under the tired brown plastic foam seats seemed broken and let out an incredible heat.
It was just us, a few Polish commuters travelling a stop or two, heavily coated and scarfed, in this uncomfortable, prickling, sweltering train.
The sun shone on a marshy hazy scene, frozen golden wheat fields, outside. A silence seemed to be sat everywhere. Just the trundle of the old train.
Forests of silver birch then took over. The sun struggling through the deep rows of the thin trees, as if underwater. The feeling of melancholy here more than just the playing of the mind as to where we were headed.
We got out at the shabbily broken down Oswiecim station. Caught a single decker bus through a threadbare town and were dropped off somewhere I felt couldn’t be right for the Auschwitz camp: neat roads, a park with goal posts, a mini market, pre-fab apartments blocks.
But no, this little humdrum Polish suburban world sits next to, carries on its life, right alongside the terrible dark spectre of the last century. It’s the first shock.
We entered the Auschwitz camp and were immediately surprised by the huge numbers of people here, queuing, milling around. Stacks of modern coaches with tour guide slogans down the side lined up alongside each other. The silence of the train ride here, the quiet town, the previous heavy mood, shattered.
Once under the iron ribbon of “Arbeit Macht Frei” and through the gates though, and a personal quiet descended. Lost with our own thoughts.
This spot was where a German camp orchestra would stand – almost tragically comically – playing waltzes or oompah to march the prisoners out to the work camps and then back in again each day.
Me and my Greek Passepartout walked into the main grounds.
More Greek Jews died proportionately in Auschwitz than any other Jewish community. Over 80% of all Jews living in Greece died here. Effectively ending thousands of years of Jewish presence in Greece.
A third of the whole city of Thessaloniki – where we were aimed for at the very end of our long European train line – was sent here.
The paths, neatly divided between well-kept grass plots, run alongside long low blocks of red bricked huts.
Ordered rows of almost old fashioned holiday-camp buildings, or little industrial workshops, where the most unimaginable horrors took place.
Imagining is what is required though.
The whole camp has been preserved as a museum and so parts have been remade, refitted. But I stood in the yard where executions took place and looked at the wall, the trees, the sky and thought how this was the last view of so many. I closed my eyes in the cold and thought of just what happened here, tried to feel what people felt stood on this ground.
The terror is over now of course – and perhaps unnecessarily recreated in parts here – but it’s still all around us, in the air. The plague that died away, but the infection that still lingers.
But then there are the bits that don’t need to be imagined. The suitcases, the possessions, the hair of the prisoners kept behind the long panes of glasses. The pile of shoes.
Amongst the old leather shoes – aged and worn, from a different time, old styles with nailed soles that made me feel, ashamedly, that perhaps all this was from some different age, an ancient history – I saw a woman’s shoe.
Startlingly it’s a fashionable shoe. Brightly coloured blue. It wouldn’t look out of place today. I felt a stab, thinking of the owner once picking this shoe out in a freer time, proud of the look. And now it lies here on the vast pyramid of the dead’s items.
The pots and pans and cups and implements piled in another room reminded me of the previous summer when Passepartout and I had passed through Idomeni in Greece where the refugees from the war in Syria had been gathered in their thousands looking to enter Europe, trying to cross the borders.
They had been moved on by the time we passed through, but the old cooking utensils were still scattered on the floor. Ripped tents, old sleeping bags. The tragic sight of child’s toys in the dirt, one small girl’s pink shoe…
At the end of this Auschwitz trail, after we’d walked the double perimeter razor wire fences and past the look-out towers, there was a low building with its tall brick chimney, grass growing up the raised sides.
The location of the gas chambers.
On the 7th October 1944 the Greek Jews in Auschwitz led an uprising here. Attacked German guards. Gunpowder smuggled from the Greek women working in the munitions blew apart one of these chambers. Prisoners briefly made it out beyond the fences, running into the forests that we could now still see here. Defiantly singing the Greek national anthem in their few moments of freedom.
Before they were all gunned down.
The remaining conspirators – the gunpowder women – hanged.
We entered the gas chamber. It was too much for me.
The crowds that I had been ignoring as I walked round – a solitude could only really be found on the edges, by those death fences – were crowded here.
School trips and bunches of Italian students taking selfie photos. Grinning. A group giving V signs, tongues stuck out.
I wondered why I had come. What exactly had I expected to see, to feel?
Of course Auschwitz should be preserved, to stay as a reminder of what happened and can never happen, surely, again. But should I be let in to see it? To wander and gawp. Should the Italian students? Should anyone?
We walked back to the station.
I knew we had to catch the 14.29 back to Krakow. I knew this, I had been told the time, I had written it down. But we were so lost in involved thought, not really talking, just walking, thinking, that we didn’t register the train clattering over the level crossing ahead of us, drawing in to the station.
Belatedly we put on a spurt, a dash for the train as it whirred awhile on the track, and then wheeled away in front of us.
We were left on the empty dilapidated station. An hour to wait. Krakow three hours away from us. The dead town of Oswiecim more closed than it usually was, if that could even be possible.
We sat on the bench on the platform, starring miserably at our feet. I was furious. Furious at our stupidity. Furious at the train guard who had seen us but had smilingly rung the bell for the train to move anyway. I couldn’t stop feeling annoyed.
And I thought of the story I’d once heard of the great Jewish actor Walter Matthau who had come over from America to visit Auschwitz. He was obviously very moved to be visiting the place where members of his family may have been sent. The significant history of his heritage. Perhaps the most significant history of the 20th Century. An emotional day.
But the taxi he had booked to take him from his hotel was late.
Half an hour he waited. 45 minutes. Matthau was infuriated, waiting, pacing the lobby. Eventually, after nearly an hour, the driver showed up to take him to the camp.
“I just want to tell you,” said Matthau as he got in to the car “You’ve completely ruined Auschwitz for me…”
We had the evening in Krakow, but the city didn’t really have any time for us. It was busy fussing and fretting and getting itself ready for its big New Year’s Eve celebration.
A stage was being erected in the main market square. Lights flashing on and off. Fat men booming into microphones. Speakers popping and blasting into life. All under the renaissance sumptuousness of Krakow’s old trading hall and the gothic 13th Century Saint Mary’s Church.
The lone trumpeter stood at the open window at the top of the tallest tower of the church playing the traditional sad tune that gets played every hour, on the hour.
I listened as the trumpeter broke off before the end of his piece, as is always done, in tribute to the trumpeter who played this same trumpet call as an alarm as the Mongols invaded the Krakow city gates, but was shot in the throat before he finished.
The trumpeter looked out on the cityscape. Krakow was uninterested, preoccupied, intent on its fiddling preparations for its end of year intoxicated knees up. He retreated inside, wondering, I guess, why he’d even bothered this evening.
We took solace in an old, dark restaurant, Bar Smak. Groups of grumbling overcoated old men, with no interest or no idea what evening tonight was, looking up from their soups with rheumy eyes and spoons hovering at their mouths at the party scenes starting to come out onto the streets outside.
Bellies fed with good heavy Polish food, we walked the streets, past the appropriately named Lost Souls Alley, gazed at the buildings of Krakow that – because it was the home city of the Nazis in Poland – were not bombed and so, unlike Warsaw or Gdansk or others, remained unharmed and the great sweep of architecture all still stands, genuine and quite startlingly beautiful.
The Catholic Wawel Cathedral – as grand, imposing and important as Rheims and Canterbury. And the groups of locals, and British tourists moving around underneath, getting fully into their night of drinking.
We called in at a corner shop and I asked for a bottle of something sparkling to open on the sleeper train for when midnight clicked over and the new year came in.
“This is very good…” said the moustached man, a red gleaming face looking as if he frequently washed it with excess vigour. Like a polished apple.
“We drink this on big days. Very good…”
The wrapped bottle under my arm we made our way back to Kraków Główny station to pick up our bags and board the sleeper train towards Budapest.
The Budapest train had a big heavy duty engine, and was very long. Carriage after carriage after carriage flowed away down the platform.
We found our sleeper compartment and unloaded our stuff.
I thought this train would be busy. Even perhaps have a sort of ‘party train’ feel, this being New Year’s Eve after all…
There was no one else in our carriage.
I walked down the other carriages, still no one. Finally I came across the guard, lurking in the train’s dark vestibule. I asked him if there was a dining car or a buffet.
Oh. Am I able to buy any alcohol? You know, it’s New Year’s Eve after all…
The guard wrinkled his nose, pulled a puritanical face, straightened into an offended posture.
“That way,” he nodded down the carriages “That’s the Czech part of the train down there. Maybe they’ll sell things like that there…” And with undisguised disgust, he walked off down to his empty part of his train.
The Czechs certainly had plenty of alcohol to sell in the train last night.
The train is going to explode like a firework.
At some stage this train would break up and fly to all points of Central Europe. All places we’d been to.
At Bohemen the front cars of the train would separate and go to Prague. At Bratislava the next set of cars go to Vienna. We, at the back, would carry on, following the Danube river as it suddenly drops plumb south across the map of Europe, to Budapest.
I got out before the train set off to take a photo. The Czech contingent of guards gathered by the doors of their section shouted angrily at me to get back on.
I saw in the middle of them the woman conductor from this morning, from the Czech sleeper train we’d caught from Prague. The conductor who’d had the blazing row with Passepartout over the coffee.
I raised a hand in greeting. She glared fiercely at me and I decided perhaps not to ask her if the Czechs had any beer to buy.
The train set off as soon as I stepped back on. But five minutes out of the station it stopped again with a heaving thud.
The train was stuck, not moving, the electricity had died and we were in darkness.
We waited in a cutting next to a dark block of flats where I could see all the lit windows running up the dark heavy-outlined building. I could look into the rooms above me: a family enjoying their New Years’ Eve together. An elderly couple in armchairs next to each other, touching drinking glasses together and giving each other a small kiss.
It reminded me of Christmas Day back in Amsterdam when I had sat in the raucous Greek’s apartment in the south of the city, and looked out at the dotted scene of quiet Dutch families spending their Christmas evening across the street from us in different windows, like an advent calendar.
It all seemed an age ago now.
The train finally got going again, and I was surprised and a little befuddled to see we were drawing in next to Oswiecim station again. The train was running slowly west from Krakow, and we passed the very platform we had sat on for an age this afternoon.
And then carried clanking on into Lesser Poland.
As midnight approached and the large, long, seemingly deserted, quiet train rolled on and everything was pitch black outside the window, I fiddled with my tiny battered portable radio.
The train, which had been going for mile after mile at a crawling pace, heaved with a great sighing stop just as the static cleared and, over the airwaves on Polish radio – as if chasing us all the way down from where we’d travelled from – came the sound of a recording of Big Ben’s chimes.
At the final bong I opened the cheap bottle of wine and suddenly from the complete blackness outside came a huge explosion, lighting up our small sleeper cabin with a flash of bright pink.
Then another. The cabin turned blue.
A burst of falling yellow lights. Another. Another.
Across these lost fields of Eastern Europe, Polish villagers were setting off countless fireworks. The sky filled with rockets and blasts. Phosphorescent celebrations.
As the train began again its snail progress along the line we saw more and more dark fields, a few shacks, a nothing land, illuminated by the most incredible firework show.
The Polish sparkling wine was quite the most disgusting thing we’d ever tasted, but still we clinked toothbrush glasses happily and toasted in the New Year. Took a sip or two. And then poured it down the sink.
As we approached tiny, run-down villages along the line, we had a moving view, portraited by the train window, of families running down roads cut by the railtracks holding sparklers aloft. The fireworks overhead bursting for mile after mile as we travelled along.
Finally the train picked up speed. We left the rural lands. We hunkered down on the hard beds – worse than the Czech sleeper, not even a pillow provided.
The border with Hungary was coming. Budapest was waiting for us in this new year. And wherever else the rest of the journey would take us as we travelled down towards Greece.
We didn’t want to be late.