Saturday, November 24, 2007

Logbook: Torun (and Bydgoszcz, By Gosh!)

Torun1One of these days I'll write something special about Polish trains, but for now I'll just paraphrase Forrest Gump and say that they are "like a box of chocolates... You just never know what you're going to get!" With that little teaser in place, I will report that my ride from Gdynia to Torun was a pretty typical mixture of confusion, stress, uncertainty and boredom. Nevertheless, I arrived in Torun more or less unscathed mid-afternoon on Thursday. The train station is located across the Wisla (Vistula) River from the town, so I got my first real glimpse of the city as I walked across the bridge. Once one of the most important Hanseatic capitals -- with history dating back to at least the 13th century -- Torun has had the good fortune of never having been destroyed in any of the many wars that have raged throughout the region. As a result, centuries of architectural evolution can be seen -- intact! -- in its many, many impressive buildings. The weather was pretty lousy, but I took advantage of the fading twilight to take a pretty long, brisk walk around town before surrendering to the dark and gloom. Because it was Thanksgiving, I made a little game out of trying to find some turkey for dinner but ended up, of course, with the usual plate of meat and potatoes. There are some excellent Polish dishes such as Zurek soup -- which is not to be missed! -- but the mainstay of the diet around here is pretty basic. Fatigued from my day of train travel, tired from my long cold walk and with my belly full of grub, I hit the rack pretty early.

Friday morning I got in touch with my friend Krzysztof -- who was part of the staff at the Acarsaid Hotel in Pitlochry, Scotland back in July -- and he invited me to visit him for the afternoon in nearby Bydgoszcz where he is now a student. After making my way to the bus station in Torun, I stood in line practicing what I was going to say to the ticket-woman. Okay, see if you can picture this: I could see that she was an older woman, so I knew it was unlikely that she was going to have much English to add to our communication. With this in mind, I wanted to be sure I said "Bydgoszcz" properly and clearly so as to improve my chances of getting the right ticket for the right bus to the right place. Now, Polish spelling and pronunciation are still virtually impossible for me to handle, so I try to come up with homonyms -- or whatever you call them -- to help me out. For example, to help remember "Bydgoszcz" -- which is more or less pronounced "Bid-gosht" -- I had plugged "By Gosh" into my brain. As you might imagine, the first words out of my mouth to the ticket-woman were, in fact, "By Gosh!" She looked at me just as you also might imagine and I quickly went through my mental conversion process, eventually spitting out "Bid-gosht." In exchange, I got not a ticket but a slip of paper with the number "6" written on it and accompanied by a hurried, dismissive wave of her hand. This, my fellow voyagers, is the universal communication for "Hurry to platform number six, the bus is about to leave and you can get your ticket from the driver." So, off I went to find the platform and hop on the bus just as the driver was about to close the door. I spit out the word "Bid-gosht" and held out my handful of change from which the driver selected the appropriate fare of 9 zloty -- about $3.50 -- then took a seat next to a bundle of overcoats also known as a Polish woman on a local bus.

Torun2About 40 minutes later the bus pulled into the station in Bydgoszcz and I hit the streets. The only GSM chip which currently works in my phone -- at this point I have a real collection of them -- is one from T-Mobile with a UK number, so when I called Krzysztof to say I was in town he had a good laugh at the +44 number that showed up on his caller ID. Anyway, about 15 minutes later he and his girlfriend Paulina arrived at the station and we went on our way. Bydgoszcz is a pretty large polish city with a concentration of commerce and universities, so Krzysztof was quick to point out that it is not much of a town from a historical or tourist perspective. Nevertheless, we walked around for a while to view a few interesting sights and get the gist of the town then found a nice place to have lunch. Krzysztof and Paulina are both very bright young people and I enjoyed our free ranging conversation. Like many of their generation, they believe things are getting better in Poland and are hopeful that progress will continue, but they are also eager to explore opportunities beyond their borders. It is a story I have become very familiar with and, as you know, I hope all the best for them and Poland. A quick tour of his school and a quick cup of coffee at his flat later, we went back to the bus station where I was just in time to catch a ride back to Torun. It was a brief but very nice visit with Krzysztof and Paulina, and I very much appreciate their hospitality and friendship. Thank you!

Torun3It was once again very dark -- and have I mentioned cold? -- by the time I got back to Torun, so I had dinner then huddled in my cozy little room before calling it a day. Yesterday was a bit clearer in the morning so I hit the streets in earnest and pretty much devoured the little city of Torun. To be in a Polish city where the old, original buildings so outnumber the new, concrete variety is a real treat. You get a real sense of the wealth and importance that the region once had and it gives you both a better sense of history and more hope for the future. Besides enjoying the architecture, there isn't that much to the town. It was the home of Copernicus and that is a pretty big deal, but the museum in his honor is only so-so. Most of the Old Town is pedestrian-only, so it is a treat to walk around and it is a very popular place to be not only for locals but for many Polish people who visit for weekends and mini-breaks. One of the things I especially enjoyed was the variety of statuary, ranging from typically serious and elegant to more whimsical and casual. There are a few pictures in the Photo Log that you may enjoy. If you visit Poland, a stop in Torun is more than worth it even if only for a day or two like I did. Actually, a day or two is just about perfect.

I was up early this morning, had coffee and a bite to eat then made my way back to the train station. While making my rounds yesterday I had stopped by to get my ticket, so I didn't have to deal with that and was able to concentrate on "train track roulette" instead. (I promise, I'll write something about the trains soon!) I am now on the train to Warsaw where I will connect to Krakow for arrival there mid-afternoon. Although I am definitely heading south, I can't say that the weather is any better or warmer... At least not yet. Stay tuned!

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