Czech Republic / Hungary / Poland / Travels

Lessons of travelling in Eastern Europe: Budapest to Krakow

I learnt some important lessons about travelling in eastern Europe during this trip, the most important being that it is not as straight forward as travelling in western Europe. Why did I think it would be?? I don’t know. I looked up train routes before making accommodation bookings but obviously just didn’t pay quite enough attention. Because when we turned up at the Budapest train station for our trip to Krakow, we were basically told the only train running was an overnight one.

Aaaarghghgh noooooooo! I did not want to have to cancel another night’s accommodation. I tried to explain to the lady behind the counter (who seemed to understand English better than she spoke it) that I had found one online. It had two changes, but it should get us to Krakow that evening.

She found it, but it required a special ticket because it used two different national rail carriers. She explained that it would get us on any train along that route. It struck me as a bit expensive for that part of the world, but I wasn’t going to argue. We got onto our train just in time… and then sat there. And crawled for over half an hour to get out of Budapest.

Suffice to say, we missed our first change, and couldn’t see on the timetable another train taking the same route for the rest of the day. We went to the information desk to ask for assistance, and the lady there kindly printed out a different suggested itinerary for us. We would take a different train, this one to Ostrava in the Czech Republic, and from there we could get a bus which would take us to Krakow. Fine, great, no worries. We can do that.

We got into Ostrava at about 8pm, and virtually everything in the train station was closed. All the bus offices were closed. The tourist information office was closed. We had no idea where to go for this bus. We found a bus arrivals/departures sign outside, but none listed were for Krakow. We googled the company (whose name was listed on the itinerary we’d been given) and found a website listing arrival times, costs etc. The website, to our chagrin, seemed to imply you have to pre-book tickets and cannot buy them from the driver. We thought, surely this isn’t right if the tourist information lady at the last train station had recommended we get this bus?

We asked at the train station ticket counter if they knew where to go. They pointed out the bus stand where this bus arrives, so there was nothing for it but to wait and see if a) it turned up, and b) it had space and we could buy seats on it. We had no backup plan if this failed. There was a train going to Krakow at about 3am, but who wants to sit around in a semi-dark train station for seven hours in the middle of the night?! Maybe we would be able to find a nearby hotel for the night? I was despondent. This was my fault. If I’d just paid enough attention in the first place, I would have realised the changeover times were cutting it too fine and just taken an overnight train. It would have been an experience! We’ve never done that before. But no, now we are stuck in this semi-deserted train station in some random czech city I’ve never heard of with no idea if we’re actually getting out of here tonight. I emailed our hostel to explain we would be arriving late, but that hopefully we’d still be there that night. We noticed another group of tourists sitting around too, and wondered if they were waiting for the same bus.

Then our bus – more like a shuttle van – arrived! Andre went to speak to the driver about buying seats on the spot. He phoned his supervisor, who said it was fine. PRAISE. GOD. This had been scarier than being stuck in Zagreb. At least that was the middle of the day and things were open and we had the opportunity to find a backup plan.

So we piled into the van with the same group of tourists we’d noticed before, with Andre and me in the front seats, and off we went. It was about a two hour trip with, bizarrely enough, a border check, which is highly unusual between Schengen countries. We theorised the increasing numbers of asylum seekers were causing extra caution, and while I don’t think the guards could have turned us away, they had a quick look at our passports (perhaps just to check we were in the Schengen zone legally) before we continued on.

We arrived in Krakow about half past midnight. It was one degree, but we were there, and had an easy walk through a park to get to our hostel.

Which was closed, and dark. Not to worry! There was a sign on the door with a phone number to call after hours, so call we did. We were met with someone speaking Czech on the other end, who then hung up on us. We thought maybe they just didn’t speak English and were coming to open the place for us? We waited about fifteen minutes, but nothing. Tried calling again. No answer. No answer. We gave up. We were sitting on the patio, in one degree at 1am, and decided to start looking up nearby hotels (smart phones are life savers!). Fortunately – thank you God – we found another hostel literally just around the corner with 24 hour reception and vacancies, so off we went.

The girl on reception was very kind when we explained we just needed one night’s accommodation because we’d arrived too late to get into our pre-booked accommodation. She showed us to a comfortable double bedroom, and after brushing our teeth we basically passed out for the night.

Then the next morning, after a complementary breakfast, we were off to our pre-booked hostel to figure out if we still had our room. Once we arrived and gave our names, apologising for not arriving the night before, the lady behind the counter’s face lit up. She said she had waited until 11pm for us, but when we didn’t arrive she closed up and went home. We explained that we’d tried to call her, but the only person who answered hung up on us. Puzzled, she pulled out her phone and said she didn’t have any missed calls. We checked the number we called.

Which we didn’t do the night before.

We got one digit wrong. We always check numbers. One of us reads it back as the other person checks the original. But that night, at 12:30am after 13 hours of travelling, we’d forgotten to. We had called the wrong number. I wanted to bang my head against something hard.

The receptionist was lovely. She apologised – for our mistake! – and said our room was definitely still available.

I look back and cringe. I’d got blasé because of all our other experiences travelling around Europe. But travelling in eastern europe isn’t the same as swanning around France, Belgium, Germany or the UK where I’d got used to having two or three options for every trip we wanted to take. But, lessons we learnt, and stories we collected to tell… although it took over a year before I wanted to remember them again!

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