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Poland & Slovakia

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The act of exchanging one currency for another should be fairly straightforward. Prior to my trip to Norway, I had ordered euros to my office; unfortunately Norwegians use Norwegian Kroner. Apparently they've used Kroner for a while now too, which was slightly embarrassing.

This time around, I attempted to exchange euros for "the Slovakian currency" at the airport, only to be told that "the Slovakian currency" is, you guessed it, euros. The attendant took my euros, looked at them, and then handed them back to me in some form of mock currency exchange transaction, perhaps to make me feel slightly less stupid. It didn't work, but what I witnessed next did.

It really is comforting that there is always someone more clueless than you, just itching to demonstrate a truly baffling level of incompetence when faced with the simplest of tasks. A small, timid Irish lady approached me in the queue at Burger King and asked whether this particular queue was the queue for the departure gates. It may have been apparent to everyone else in Burger King that the queue in Burger King would lead to a burger, but this lady just couldn’t quite work it out. I stared at her in disbelief and just about managed to mumble a “no” before pointing out of Burger King and towards the gates. My younger brother and travelling companion for this trip, Steve, could really have been forgiven for packing it in there and then and heading home.

The Kraków region is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the historic centre of Kraków and the Wieliczka Salt Mines, both of which were granted such status in 1978. Our guide mentioned that no Italian sites were recognised in 1978, to which an Italian tourist quipped that UNESCO must have been run by Poles. I’ve been to Rome and the Wieliczka Salt Mines and I think that there may be something in this.

The mines are a cavernous subterranean maze of tunnels and chambers dating as far back as the 13th century. The salt deposits are no longer mined, yet the passageways and shafts chart the development of mining techniques in Europe through the ages, while salt sculptures and underground chapels keep the punters entertained. Predictably, the tour channels tourists through underground, salt-themed gift shops. I mentioned to Steve that I couldn’t quite understand why they were not also selling that big, yellow one-eyed cuddly minion toy that every shop in Europe seems to stock. There is never a reason to sell it anywhere, but it is sold everywhere, so why not in a salt mine? I told Steve that it would also be a good idea to set up a shop selling pepper grinders over the road, as the salt mine only sold salt shakers. I think Steve was half listening to me by this point.

Poland is very cold in December and January. Our walking tour of Kraków’s historic centre was very cold as well. I didn’t ask any questions during the tour as I couldn’t feel my face, although we learned about Pope John Paul II, Kraków’s medieval heritage and heard numerous local anecdotes, all of which were told, before we were then told that they were all complete nonsense.

Southern Poland is across the border from Northern Slovakia, so I decided to hire a car and head south. Two hours later, we were trundling along at 5 mph behind farm traffic in the Tatras Mountains. This was another moment in which Steve could have been forgiven for packing it in and going home. Late December is ski season in Slovakia’s many alpine resorts, except there wasn’t any snow in any of them. Plan A had been to snowboard, so we had hastily cobbled together Plan B which in the absence of anything other than empty ski resorts, happened to be a visit to a provincial Slovakian waterpark. Thankfully, the park is located on a thermal spring and also boasted a large amount of saunas. I passed on the cold plunge pool, as well as a freezer-like room; this “snow room” reminded me of when we used to lock one another in the walk-in freezer at Sainsbury’s for a laugh. After our swim, we left Slovakia and drove 150 km back to Poland. Box ticked.

Steve and I joined a large number of foreigners in two of Kraków’s many bars for New Year’s Eve and drunk beers. Unsurprisingly, my resolution for 2016 is to visit an unhealthy amount of increasingly obscure European countries.

Until next time then x

Posted by Peter.Moules 12:47 Archived in Poland

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