We’ve all seen mirages on film. A lonely, dehydrated soul lost in the desert sees an image of salvation or beauty, usually in the shape of an expanse of water. A little research tells me that mirages are an optical phenomenon as opposed to the onsetting hysteria caused by heat and dehydration that I previously assumed them to be. This was the illusion I was under on a sweltering, packed Polish train as it slowly pulled into one of the many stops on its journey between Prague and Warsaw.
I rubbed my eyes, it couldn’t possibly be. After two weeks of travelling to thus yet uncharted territory for me I could see familiar sights. I leant forward. My sweat soaked t-shirt less willing to leave the chair than I was. I really was seeing a familiar sight. The city of Poznan. Or more precisely the Sheraton hotel in which I had stayed with my grandad two years previously. Which is a blog post in itself for a later date. A warm feeling spread through my body. Not helpful given the temperature of the train. Happy memories of our trip came flooding back and I wished I had the opportunity to hop off and go take a look around again for old times’ sake. My reserved seat wouldn’t be waiting for me when I came back to the station however, and as the thought flittered through my head we began to move again anyway.
Poland was the first and only country on the interrail trail that I had previously visited. In fact the entire three weeks riding the rails had been tailored around a single event. The Speedway Grand Prix in Warsaw. As I was in the area there was no way I could miss this event. In the area being a 10 hour train journey away in Prague.
It was early that morning in Prague that I knew the journey was going to be a long one. My first act when boarding the train was to play a game of Tetris. Games, podcasts, music, films, books etc. it’s important to keep entertained while on the train. It isn’t all beautiful scenery out of the windows. Sadly this was a real life game of Tetris involving trying to find a home for my suitcase in the luggage rack among those of an entire school. And this wasn’t just any game of Tetris
this was an M&S game of Tetris this was Tetris meets Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater as we departed Prague while I partook in a light spot of playing the bellboy. No I didn’t get a tip. Just a dirty look from the headmistress.
The train became steadily busier and busier as we got deeper into Poland. Outside of the six seat cabin in which I was ensconced it was standing room only. Following relatively calm spells in Ljubljana, Zagreb, Vienna and Prague (yes I’ve linked my posts on them all, shoehorn alert), this journey was preparing me for the change of pace that was Warsaw. A city of high rises and skyscrapers. A marked change from the other capital cities I had been used to on the trip.
Warsaw was certainly an appropriate location for the Speedway Grand Prix. For those not in the know, Speedway is four motorbikes with no brakes hurtling round an oval track going sideways around the bends. It is fast and furious. Warsaw drift. The sport is a huge deal in Poland and the opening event was to be held at the national stadium. The reigning world champion was British rider Tai Woffinden. As a fan, there was no way I could miss this. Even if Eurovision was being held on the same night.
I have taken Poland to my heart and one of the best parts of visiting the country is its immense affordability as a traveller from Western Europe. While looking into accommodation for the trip I had fleetingly flirted with staying at the Hilton during my time in Warsaw. The Hilton was somehow in my budget. I even checked the website on numerous occasions to check there hadn’t been an error. Common sense prevailed eventually and I went for a cheaper option, slumming it on the top floor of the four star Leonardo Hotel. The bathroom alone was bigger than a couple of my hotel rooms during the trip and the view across the city was incredible. The couple in the room next door seemed to be enjoying the view quite vociferously when I checked in. That and jumping on the bed by the sounds of things. It takes all sorts I guess… All that panting made me hungry so it was time to grab some food before turning in to recharge the batteries in preparation for a busy Grand Prix day.
I looked down at the bill for my breakfast just as a big drop of water hit the paper where the price was printed. Tea, pancakes with eggs and bacon all for the equivalent of £2. There must have been a mistake, maybe they wanted to shuffle the drenched foreigner out of the door as quickly and quietly as possible. Manekin, it turns out, is the place to get breakfast in Poland, with restaurants dotted around the country. As with most eateries in Poland I left feeling like a highwayman having just robbed the joint. I was well fed and weighed down with the loot I had plundered, or perhaps that was the water that my clothes had soaked up when I was caught in a thunderstorm on my way out for breakfast. I was too cool to pack waterproofs. I am cool. Seriously.
The day was given to mooching around the old town and imbibing plenty of beer. Which is better, Zywiec or Perla? I’m not sure, I’ll have another pint of each and get back to you. The rumble of thunder had given way to a cacophony of air horns and face painted fans singing songs about their favourite Speedway rider or team. The sun was playing its part, shining down on the old town square so I plotted up at a table and soaked in the atmosphere, sipping on Polish beer and nibbling on Pierogi when hunger struck. Excited conversations in Polish and English melded together around me as my own anticipation levels grew. Soon it was time to head towards the stadium, so I joined the swarm of fans and let the current sweep me in the right direction.
The pockets of noise that had been bouncing around the streets of Warsaw all day like red and white blood cells all finally converged in one place. Stadion Narodowy, Poland’s national stadium. The air was charged in a way that only really happens before big sporting events. All that remained was for 16 of the best Speedway riders in the world to do battle for championship points. Home hopes were on the shoulders of Janusz Kolodziej in the opening race and as the riders came to the start line the crowd waited with baited breath for an eternity. Exhalation didn’t come until the four competitors hit the first bend. It came in the guise of a roar of horns and wild shouting. Unfortunately for Kolodziej it wasn’t to be his night, nor that of his racing compatriots. Denmark’s Leon Madsen took the spoils after 23 hotly contested races. A Speedway Grand Prix is an incredible spectacle, a Speedway Grand Prix in Poland is the pinnacle of this particular motorsport.
As spectacles go, another one was happening as I returned to my hotel room, having admitted defeat in my attempts to carry on revelling in Grand Prix day. The Eurovision song contest. Situated in my top floor room, looking out across the city of Warsaw, I half expected Graham Norton to pop up via video link and ask me for Poland’s scores for the event. Great Britain, nil points. Naturally.
Walking on Sunshine was certainly not the theme song for the interrail trip but my final morning in Warsaw greeted me with sunshine. With this in mind jackets and jumpers were abandoned as I sought to make the most of the T-shirt weather for once. You know what comes next. On my way to the metro station, intending to ride to the old town, the heavens opened. Stubbornness won the day once more and the soaked man of Warsaw climbed aboard a carriage full of bone dry passengers. Naturally when I alighted the sun had returned, smiling a mocking smile at me as I dried off in its heat. Damp on the outside and slightly tender on the inside (medical terminology: hungover), it was a day of sight seeing and purchasing souvenirs for the family at home. The lowlight came as I entered a bar intending to watch some more Speedway on the television and was greeted by the overwhelming stench of the men’s toilets. On a hangover this isn’t the greatest sensation that can assail your olfactory glands. For a moment I thought I was going to be sick. This would have meant running into the toilets. Towards the smell. You don’t run towards danger unless you’re stupid, a hero, or a combination of both. Somehow I managed to hold the bile down and escape to the street. I like Speedway but there are only certain lengths I’ll go to to watch it.
As I boarded the train the following morning feeling fresh as a daisy it was with a sigh of relief at having plenty of space to stow my bag and settle down for the trip to Berlin. And there wasn’t an angry headmistress in sight!