For the European leg of our round-the-world trip, I wanted to take my husband to see some of the great sights in Central and Eastern Europe. We were committed to doing as much as we could by train. Our trusty Eurail flexipass was a great purchase, and we definitely got our money’s worth.
Starting out in Budapest, we took the train to Vienna on an Austrian express train. The Austrians, like their German cousins, know trains. Fast, clean, and efficient. Other than a few industrial wasteland blips, this is a beautiful train trip, passing through some nice countryside.
From Vienna, we took the train to Krakow. Poland is where everything starts to fall apart on train trips in this part of the world. In its post-Communist boom, Poland has unfortunately invested in building shiny new airports rather than improving their antiquated train systems. This makes train journeys requiring any changes really confusing and nearly all trips really damn long. A nice Polish girl from Gdansk who worked in Krakow confessed that she didn’t see her family in Gdansk that often since the train trip took up to 16 hours if things didn’t work according to plan. She astutely pointed out that things involving Polish rail never work according to plan.
I concur. Just plan on being stuck in the unpleasant, dark, coal-stained train station in Katowice for a while if you’re trying to train around this lovely, must-see region of Poland. At the Katowice station, you will be in good company as the Poles seem equally confused by the inaccurate departure boards and equally outraged when the random announcements requiring you to sprint across the station also turn out to be incorrect. I’ve done this trip twice, and this exact experience has happened to me twice. (Yes, I am a glutton for punishment.)
Furhermore, each time I have taken the trip to Krakow (once from Berlin, this last time from Vienna), I have traversed much of the countryside at night. Curiously, each time, I have seen hundreds of large unattended fires burning in the fields around the train tracks. I mean hundreds of fires. So many fires, in fact, that on the night train from Berlin, my normally calm college buddy became mildly alarmed. It looked like we were taking the train right into the set of some old spooky 1930′s black and white horror movie where the villagers burn monsters and witches.
When I inquired about what agricultural practice this may have been related to, my Polish interlocutors shrugged. Either the fires are not related to agricultural practices or their rationale is known only to those dwelling in the fields near the train tracks. (If anyone has a clue, please let me know.)
Though all these cautionary tales may scare you off taking the train around Poland, you definitely want to get to Krakow somehow. If you do take the train, on arrival, you find yourself in a busy station in the midst of one of Europe’s busiest shopping malls. It’s supremely confusing. (Note: Somewhat counter-intuitively, even though you aren’t underground when you arrive, you go up to catch a taxi.) However, the nice folks at the tourist office in the train station are really helpful, offering you guidance on how to find taxis, how to get to your hotel, and where to eat their favorite kielbasa and pierogi.
After a few wonderful days in Krakow, we left for Prague very early in the morning. Because it was daylight and because there weren’t hundreds of unattended fires burning spookily beside the tracks, this was a more pleasant train trip than our journey to Krakow. Some Communist-era blight is definitely visible, but its an interesting juxtaposition with the lovely countryside.
On arrival in Prague, the station made sense, and we easily navigated the station’s signs pointing us to the taxi rank. These taxi signs are official. They are made of plastic, mounted in an illuminated box, with very substantial screws anchoring them to the train station ceiling. They look like any other official taxi sign you see in any other city in the world.
Except this is a taxi rank like no other. It is actually a queue of criminals in cars looking for their next mark. Which is you.
We entered the taxi, telling the thick-necked, mustachioed driver the name of our hotel while also showing him the address. The driver proffered a dirty map of Prague over his faux-leather jacketed shoulder, grunting “20 Euros.” As it had been a long time since I had traveled to Prague by train, I assumed I had arrived at the station on the outskirts of town and agreed to the fare.
Precisely two minutes later, after leaving the circular station exit, we arrived at our hotel, which was across the street from the Central Station. The driver cheerily demanded his 20 Euro fare for taking us approximately 50 feet.
My husband, quite understandably, went berserk. As I attempted to place myself between my raging Jesus-lookalike life partner and the shouting thuggish brute of a taxi driver, the kindly (and blessedly strapping) porter of our very nice hotel approached.
After a few words of fairly pointed delivery in Czech from the porter, the mustachioed taxi driver looked sheepishly at his feet, still growling slightly, but clearly broken. Though the man had tried to bilk us out of $30 in a failure that was both professional (taxi drivers should be experts at showing you their towns) and personal (any human should give honest directions to any other human), I felt bad for him as he had clearly been shamed by the porter’s words.
In spite of this minor tinge of pity, I was still fairly angry myself, so threw 5 Euros on the ground in front of the dejected taxi driver. (It probably sounds strange that I paid any money at all, but I like to remove ammo from any cheat’s complaint arsenal about Americans who don’t pay their way, etc.) My husband and I grabbed our suitcases and entered our hotel, leaving the driver to pick up his “hard-earned” cash and wheel briskly away.
On asking the porter what had transpired, he shook his head, shamefaced. In a confessional tone, the porter advised us that the majority of Prague’s taxi drivers are not reputable. He advised us that we should only take a taxi when it had been arranged by the hotel or by the establishment we were trying to leave. When I asked whether this was true of the official cabs, he accurately pointed out that it was an official cab that had just tried to cheat us.
Then, I asked him what he said to the taxi driver to get results so quickly. Apparently, the porter pointed out that, were the taxi driver ever lucky enough to visit America, the porter doubted that anyone in America would shame the nation by cheating its guests.
Though I informed the porter that this might be an over-estimation of American hospitality and honesty, I had to admit that it was hard to envision such egregious abuse of tourists back in the States. I’ve had American cabs try to take me the long way to add a buck or two to the fare, but I’ve never had any other cab in the world try to charge me 20 Euros for 50 feet.
Though this incident constituted my husband’s first hour in Prague and was thus not a great first impression for him, we had a lovely time in the city and met some amazing Czech people in one of the world’s best beer bars, the illustrious Golden Tiger. On departure, we drove toward the station on the outskirts of Prague where a shiny German train would take us across some lovely countryside to Berlin. We left our hotel in a town car arranged by the kindly porter, of course.