Unfortunately I didn’t have very much time in Warsaw at all; I arrived at about 4.30pm and was due to be leaving again at 7.25am the next morning. My first priority on arrival was to navigate through Warsaw central station to the International Ticket office to buy my ticket to Vilnius, a simple enough transaction but one I knew I wouldn’t want to be doing just before having to catch the train in question! The ticket was valid for a month, so I just had to make sure I turned up on time the next morning. A quick visit to a Tourist Info booth netted me a map of the town centre and directions to my hostel. It wasn’t far away so I walked there, picking my way cautiously around the major road works that seemed to be going on throughout the area. I couldn’t tell if all this activity was because of or in spite of Poland’s hosting of the 2012 UEFA Euro cup, but it definitely made route-finding a bit more of a challenge. I dropped off my rucksack at the hostel, a nice enough place with a distinct Hollywood theme, and headed out to have a squint at the old part of town while it was still daylight, dodging yet more construction work on the way. When I did manage to find the main street leading towards Warsaw’s old centre, however, it was lovely – plenty of old buildings and churches to ogle at, and at one point I heard some chirpy, bouncy, folky sort of music. Curious, I wandered over to find a small stage with a band and a group of people all dancing enthusiastically. I couldn’t tell if it was a competition or just entertainment, but they all looked like they were having huge amounts of fun.
Heading on, I walked past more lovely buildings and through an old square with a fountain and some very decorated houses, and wound up eating dinner at a nice little restaurant that seemed to have a Jewish slant on Polish food. I have no idea what I had, but if it hadn’t claimed to be a Jewish dish then I would describe it as hashed pork filled with raisins and mushrooms. As it was I had no idea what the meat was, but it was quite tasty nonetheless. Then, given that I’d been silly enough to think that the blue sky and sun meant I’d be warm enough without a jumper, I hurried back to the hostel before the warming effect of dinner and a beer wore off. The folk dancers were still hard at it, bless them. I bet they weren’t feeling the chill…
I didn’t sleep well in Warsaw – the bed seemed to ripple and bounce alarmingly every time I turned over, making it hard to settle and making me feel somewhat seasick, so I was weary even before my alarm went off at 6am. I dragged myself out of bed, threw on some clothes and downed a fairly awful cuppa that I threw together in the hostel’s kitchen, then thrust my key at the staff member who’d just shown up to set out breakfast and scurried off to the station. It wasn’t far, but I’ve found that it pays to over- rather than underestimate how long it will take to get anywhere while travelling. Even so, I barely had time to charge into a coffee shop and grab a bottle of water, some breakfast and some lunch (the trains between Warsaw and Vilnius have no buffet car or food trolley service) and gallop to the platform to catch the train. It was a pretty laid-back journey, though I did spend part of it worried that I’d somehow got on the wrong train (one of my pet fears is getting on the wrong train and ending up somewhere utterly random – remind me why I’m taking a train trip across the world again?). For most of the trip the trains (you have to change twice to get to Vilnius – at Sestokai and Kaunas) puttered through the farmland of Poland and Lithuania, and I noted with interest that, in the absence of any serious fencing, cattle were tethered to graze, usually by a rope looped around their horns and attached to a stake in the ground.
Vilnius station is a confusing maze, and it took me a little while to find my way out of it and orient myself. Unfortunately the Tourist Info had already closed, but I found a money exchange and got hold of some litas to tide me over, then picked up a bottle of water from the station supermarket so that I’d have change for the bus to the hostel (and also something to drink – I was quite thirsty). The hostel was through the centre of town and out the other side, and I’m quite sure my rucksack and I didn’t make any friends on the rapidly filling bus. However, I got there in one piece, if rather tired. The hostel seemed to be more of a hotel in reality, but I didn’t mind that at all, and was thrilled to find that I had a private bathroom. There was a potential point of awkwardness, however; the confirmation email I’d received had given the price in Euros, so I’d assumed that they’d take Euros in cash. However, the receptionist brightly informed me that they accepted only litas or credit cards. I didn’t really want to use a plastic card, and I’d got 100 litas on the basis that that would be plenty for food and some sight-seeing the following day if I paid for the room in Euros. I pondered, then handed over 71 litas for the room, which left me just enough to nip to the “China and Pizza” restaurant next door for a bite to eat. Then I headed back, had the most wonderful shower and went to bed with the intention of having a really nice lie-in. Annoyingly, my internal clock had other ideas and woke me up at 6.30am. I resisted until 7, then gave up and sat in bed finishing off some work until it was time to get dressed and check out.
The hostel receptionist had helpfully provided me with a map and indicated a route to the centre, which wasn’t actually as far as it had seemed on the bus the previous evening, so I strapped on my rucksack and set off to examine the sights of Vilnius. It’s an odd place, is Vilnius. It seems to lack the serious bustle of most capital cities, and the overwhelming impression is of a place that’s been a little bit passed by, even by its own people. However, the centre was nice enough and I managed to get some more cash and find some breakfast. I even popped into the local branch of Marks & Spencer in a fit of curiosity; alas, it didn’t have an M&S food hall… My train to St. Petersburg wasn’t until 6.18pm, so I had plenty of time to have a look around, but I couldn’t shake the edgy feeling I had. Partly it was the knowledge that I had a deadline later in the day, but on closer analysis I realised that most of it was nerves about Russia. Until this point, my noodling around friendly eastern Europe could be passed off as a somewhat eccentric holiday, and if I’d needed to flee home for any reason then it would be simple enough (though I’d have felt like a total wuss for doing so). Russia, and the famous Russian bureaucracy that I was about to go head-to-head with, was another matter entirely. It would be the real start of my travels and the first test of my visas, and I was nervous. Realising this didn’t make the feeling go away but did make it a bit easier to rationalise, and so I spent a quiet afternoon looking around the remains of Vilnius’ castle, photographing various churches and having a decent lunch before I headed to the station to wait for the train to St. Petersburg.