I arrived at Nepliget bus station in Budapest about 30 minutes early for the bus. Almost immediately an Aussie girl approached me and asked me if I was going to Krakow. Then she asked if I already had a ticket. Turns out they weren’t able to book online and were worried that they wouldn’t have a ticket before the bus left at 6:15, when the ticket office only opened at 6. I reassured them that everything would be OK, even though I wasn’t quite sure that they’d make it.
After a while, I saw the two of them talking to another traveler, who pointed at a bus that had parked at our platform and they all started getting up. I asked them if the bus had arrived, since I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting, but the Aussie girl said that he was just joking, and it seems a mini-bus had parked in the spot. I later saw that a ‘Krakow’ sign was on the windshield and realized that the tiny 15-seater would be our transport to Krakow.
Which was fine, because other than me, there were only 4 other passengers, not including the two drivers! The bus left, and even though we only got a couple 10-minute stops, the 7-hour journey to Krakow was uneventful.
Now before I left Budapest I took down specific directions from the Stranger Hostel’s website and even sketched out a crude map of the area, noting the exact address of the hostel. Walking out of the bus station, however, I was completely confused. The area was a maze of tunnels, walkways, stairs and platforms, and I just couldn’t seem to escape it all. I was looking for the stop for the #34 tram, and I couldn’t even find the street!
I finally found a ‘Hostel Info’ booth manned by a few 18-year old girls, who gave me a rudimentary map and pointed out the fact that it would be just as quick to walk there, given that the street leading up to the hostel was closed down for repairs.
Of course, it was raining, which after a few minutes made me wonder just how waterproof my backpacks were. The map was easy to follow and I soon found myself walking towards the corner of Starowislna and Dietla. I was supposed to see the sign for the hostel, but there was no indication that there was a hostel even there. I walked directly up to 97 Dietla and it looked like an abandoned building. Not good.
I walked back and forth, in front of the address several times, before finally seeing, on the street level, ‘The Stranger Cafe’, but the shutter on the window was closed. A Polish woman who was standing on the stoop, umbrella in hand, saw me walk by one more time and then started saying something to me, ignoring the fact that I was telling her I couldn’t understand her … in another language.
As I stood there, watching her smirk at me and shake her head, trying desperately to find out what she was saying, I saw that within the lobby of 97 Dietla, up some stairs was a door, and above the door was a sign for the Stranger Hostel. I told my new friend to hang on and raced up the stairs. The lobby of the building was dark and dusty, and the only light came from the other side of the main door. There was no buzzer and my repeated attempts at knocking produced no response. I peeked through the crack along one side of the door, between the hinge and the door itself and saw only a staircase … no reception, no billboard, no brochures, nothing.
I turned around and stared out in front of me. As my brother so clearly pointed out, I seem to have a knack for getting myself into these situations. I was in a foreign city, a foreign country where very few people seem to speak English. I had no idea where any other hostels were, only a map the size of a cocktail napkin. It was raining, I was hungry, I was tired and I was cold. I stood like a statue, working through Plan A’s and B’s, wondering how I could’ve got myself in this mess and what I was gonna do about it.
Suddenly, the old Polish woman appeared in the doorway downstairs and started yelling at me again, shaking her head. I finally understood her. A rough translation would probably be, “You stupid idiot, I told you there’s no one there.”
I took out my ‘map’ and figured out how to get to the town center, the Market Square. I figured if there were hostels anywhere, they would be there. Through the rain and roadwork I backtracked and walked down narrow cobblestone streets that opened up in to one of the largest public squares in Europe. I picked a direction, left, and started walking along one side of the square. Almost immediately I saw a sign for a hostel, up some stairs and above a few bars and restaurants.
Now, I pride myself on my ability to choose hostels. In more than two years, I’ve only had one bad experience, and that was when a receptionist screwed up my booking and I was forced to take the only bed left in Perth. I’ve always gone with my instinct and it has never been wrong. As I walked up the two flights of stairs to Hostel Rynek 7 (I know, sounds like something Arthur and Ford Prefect would stay at), I feared for my standards of cleanliness and safety. The fact that I had $2000 in computer equipment and nearly $1000 of camera equipment strapped to my body wasn’t making me feel any better.
I walked into the main door and was relieved to see a clean and ordered front room. The hostel seemed well maintained, though the staff could use some lessons in coming off more friendly. The only things was … well, it was empty. I mean, when the receptionist showed me to my bed, it was in a 12-share dorm room, and I was the only one there. The sole window at the end of the room looked out over the square, it was a magnificent view. I’m sure there was plent of competition with hostels in the area, but I was surprised that such a centrally located one was so empty, even during the quiet season. I found out they even had free Wifi and free breakfast! After surfing the web for a while, I discovered that many of the hostels in town offered the same, for a lower price, but for the view it was hard to beat the deal.
I talked to the receptionist about what museums were in town and which ones were worth seeing. I had an idea of what sights I would visit the next day, and with the time I had left that afternoon, I walked around the city and got my bearings. The square was bordered on all four sides by cafes, bars and restaurants. Smack dab in the center was the Cloth Hall, one of the oldest commercial buildings in Europe, still serving the purpose of hawking tourist goods
I found a supermarket and bought some dinner, along with a few beers. I retreated back to the hostel, ate, drank and relaxed my way to sleep. It had been a long day, with a few dicey calls thrown in, and I was happy to have a warm bed for the night.