I’ll go right ahead and say it, I think I prefer Central-Eastern to Western Europe. I know, I know maybe this sounds like blasphemy but for a history nerd like me, Poland has it all. Obviously, it has stunning medieval city centres, full of all the little laneways that North American’s love so much but since WW2 was far more serious here than in the West (5.7 million civilians dead from German occupation and most cities, aside from Krakow, reduced to 90% rubble) and communism was the ruling ideology until only 1989, the sense of history seems to weigh more heavily on you as a visitor; not to mention the fact that, in addition to all those twee little streets, Polish cities also have a wide range of styles ranging from communist planned neighbourhoods to steel and glass modern towers. I can’t emphasize how interesting all of this is when just wandering on foot, although in Warsaw especially, some roads are as wide as you might expect from someplace like Dallas……fascinating from an urban development perspective.
Enough of my nostalgia for the place after one one week back in Canada, time to talk about buses! If you know anything about me, you’ll know that I travel by public transport even when on holiday; how better to get a feel for the place than to ride with the locals? Poland was no different and in Warsaw and Krakow I was very impressed with local transport; the streetcars in Krakow even have little maps that show you the route and next stops, very handy for a tourist!
Even handier is the choice available for intercity transport. Poland has an excellent passenger rail network and until very recently a nationalized coach company as well. This has since been privatized, with many firms taking up portions of the network. As I was only in the country for little more than a week, I only had a chance to ride a few operators but hopefully, this gives you guys some idea of what it’s like to ride the bus in Poland.
As the bus between Warsaw and Krakow was by far the most direct route (apparently there is a high speed train between the two cities, in existence since 2014, but since I’m cheap……nuff said) I booked a ticket on polskibus.com. Polskibus (I think the “.com” is actually part of their name!) was attractive as its yield management ticket system can potentially lead to ticket prices being absurdly low; depending on how many seats are left in a given category. I ended up paying the equivalent of $4.50 CAD for a 5 hour bus journey…..not bad!
To take a bus from Warsaw is an interesting experience, to say the least, there does not seem to be a central terminal. Instead, there are a number of suburban terminals that you need to get to. As I was heading south to Krakow, Polskibus was leaving from the Wilanowska metro station/bus terminal, quite south of the city centre as you can see from the map.
Once you exit the metro station and make your way towards the bus terminal, you will need to pass through a large informal marketplace with vendors selling everything from fruit to clothes. Once through that gauntlet, you’re greeted with a view of what must be the most modern, upgraded bus terminal in Central Europe; truly, the pride of Poland.
See, while you’re waiting for your bus you can get a drink from the fine establishment…..errr… yellow shack. You can even buy a, hopefully not stolen, phone or tablet! Just an inspiring example of the free market in action post communism.
I’m being a bit harsh here, the terminal, in all its informal glory, is very interesting in that, unlike another suburban bus station like Scarborough Town Centre, there is actually space for small businesses to operate. Whether they are technically allowed there or simply tolerated is another story altogether. The terminal also was functional is it not only was connected to the metro but Warsaw city buses also use the platforms next to Polskibus as you can see here. (I did not take this second picture, as I had to board my bus!)
Far better from a transit rider’s standpoint than the big box plazas Canadian bus riders are often dropped off at! Also, from an urban standpoint, having the primary intercity bus terminals in the suburbs offer the advantage of keeping highway coaches out of the city core, although with the downside of not having many destinations within walking distance of the drop off point. Contrast this with North America, where intercity buses will often use a central terminal, with suburban stops being very secondary and only used by a few routes.
Five hours later, the bus dropped me off in Krakow, where another bus adventure was to begin! Along with exploring this fascinating city (no fighting there during WW2, so the medieval core was never destroyed) I wanted to see Auschwitz; a dark reminder of what humanity can do but something not to be missed nonetheless. As a major tourist destination, there are TONS of tours run by hostels and companies but since you are getting guided through the site anyway with general admission, I figured that you’re paying a premium to be shuttled around with a bunch of other tourists…….so public transit was (as always) the better way to go. Unfortunately, I missed one of the trains out from Krakow by 5 minutes, so it was off to the bus terminal to figure out another way. Since the deregulation of bus services, there are so many small regional operators in Poland, something fairly unknown in Ontario, with its dominance by Greyhound and Megabus. The most convenient route for me was run by Lajkonik, which runs coaches from Krakow to nearby smaller cities and towns. Although the bus was a highway coach, much of the route was on local rural roads, making stops in small cities like Chrzanow and small towns like Libiaz. Rural Poland seems to bear the scars of the communist era more openly, with less prettied up for the tourists.
It is experiences like these that make taking transit so interesting in other countries. Not to mention the frequency of service, which even for a small regional operator like Lajkonik means 16 round trips from Krakow to Auschwitz daily.
Nothing really needs to be said about the evil place itself, much has been written about it elsewhere and you’re all here to read about buses rather than the depths of evil the human race is capable of…….was trying not do depress you there, guess that failed.
Polish public transport is fascinating, with its slightly run down bus terminals, a multitude of operators, communist era train stations…..definitely, the best way to travel! I could rant about how much better all of this is than Ontario’s infrequent, expensive VIA trains and rattling Greyhound coaches but you’ll get lots of that with this blog in posts to come, so that finishes this post for now. Vincent signing off.