The Polish 'stag' experience

Image: Krakow main town square, with 'Sukkenice', (cloth hall)behind

Mon’s organisational skills were tested for Eddo’s Stag tour to Krakow, (pronounced ‘Crack off‘), thirteen of us on the mini bus up to Gatwick airport, and for those of us that hadn’t planned in advance, grabbing our Zloti currency at the airport exchange. Everyone under orders to have quit shaving in the run up to the trip, and a last minute addition that we should all wear collared shirts and a tie on the journey out, so we had a curious mixture of fat beards, thin beards, wispy efforts, (Eddo looking like Shaggy in Scooby Doo!), and a general look of thirteen vagrants that just got scrubbed up for an appearance in court. Beer already flowing in preparation for the four days ahead, a few big breakfasts shovelled down much like the condemned man enjoying his last meal, and soon enough we’re herded on to one of Boeing’s smaller aircraft, for the two hour flight to Poland, fed throughout by a worthy supply of beer and spirits.

As we crossed into Polish airspace, one of the first things that caught our attention were the old communist style tenement blocks way down below, looking quite forbidding and bleak. And as we descended, more and more of these imposing structures captured our attention, until everything became green beneath as we approached Krakow airport, then our attention focused on the dated looking military aircraft alongside the runway as we landed, a legacy of the old communist regime I suppose. I already felt at this point, that we were in for a different experience, here was a place that had ‘descended under an Iron Curtain’, as Winston Churchill put it in 1945, and we’d already witnessed some of the remnants of that era before getting off the plane.

After a fairly swift disembarkation through the airport, we stepped out to meet our organised transport to the guest house, passing some rather stunning Polish lasses on the way, Adrian asked the willing stunners to pose with him for his camera phone. A promising start! Half a mile down the road, it seems, and the scenery has a very Alpine feel to it, narrow tree lined lanes, and the look of an unhurried pace of life overall. On the way, our driver Tomasz was teaching us a few basics in Polish (phonetic pronunciation) gin queer=thank you, chien dobry= good morning, proashia= please, this was going to take some learning. Not too long before we’re in the City of Krakow, a blend of stark greyness, and visually striking architecture, very European in feel, not surprisingly, and tramlines criss crossing throughout it’s streets, with their over head cables sprawled like spiders webs above, Dutch style Bell gabled buildings, green stained copper clad spires, turrets, and minarets, and, as this van load of lads were noticing more and more, gorgeous, fit looking women everywhere you look, the fast food industry yet to take effect on Polish waistlines!!

Our digs looked a bit bleak from the outside when we arrived, but inside was a pleasant surprise, spacious rooms, with high ceilings, clean and nicely decorated, although mine and Simons room had an optically overpowering pink hue from floor to ceiling, with doors, towels, cups, and blinds to match!! Once we were all settled in, we headed off to find the main Town Square, straight up the Stradomska road, a ten minute walk from our digs, passing the Wawel (vavel) castle halfway along. You can’t help but notice the strong religious influence there either, big posters of the late Pope John Paul, more churches than you can shake a stick at, and plenty of robed gentlemen strolling about the place. If you haven’t been impressed with the walk to the Town Square, (you should be), then the Square itself should do it for you, an artist’s, or photographer’s paradise. Other than the wonderful looking buildings and eye-catching Polish women, they have a healthy amount of entertaining street theatre too, every corner, or other available space, seems to have a mime artist, violinist, dancers, accordionist, and even Bavarian looking lads on Penny Farthing bicycles.

Our trip was co-ordinated with two Polish bank holidays, so the whole City was one big pedestrian throng during our visit, the bars so cheap, thirteen pints of Polish lager for less than ten quid, and staff friendly. Our first day, we stayed drinking in the Square, watching the world go by, in glorious sunshine, enjoying the visual delights paraded before us. Jez had the kitty, which we all chucked 50 Zloti into (about ten quid), and it lasted most of that day, including food. This is a seriously cheap place for what you’re getting back. I’d like to say I could recall the whole evening, but the every hour (ish) vodka’s, combined with the fairly relentless beer flow, always makes my memory its first victim, no hangovers mind you, for which I’m grateful.

Day two and the rest of the mob are off to Auschwitz for the day, forty miles up the road, I wasn’t up for being traumatised again, S 21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia was quite enough for this sensitive soul. So as the lads trouped off, I took myself out for a leisurely amble around the City to investigate its sights, first stop, the Castle and Cathedral. Wawel Hill, on which the castle is built, lays next to the Vistula river, and the whole thing has been added to down the centuries, resulting in an amazing medieval collection of religious and monarchist representation of Polish history, it’s hugely impressive, but at the same time, a very relaxing place to be inside, for me, the arcaded courtyard was undoubtedly the most captivating part, the scale of it from within seemed immense, the Roman looking inscriptions transport your thoughts back millennia, and the awesome overhanging wooden roofing beams, little roof dormers, green stained copper dragons heads peering down from the guttering, all combined with the surrounded arches and columns to give a truly medieval, fairy tale feel.

After Wawel, I took a stroll down by the river for a view from outside looking up at it, and then on for another amble through the tree lined avenues, which surround the old town centre of Krakow, called Planty Park, another sedate promenade to relax the mind. You can’t help but be impressed by the feel of the place, lovers laying in each others laps on park benches, musicians sat playing while talking to interested old men, people walking in no great hurry to get anywhere, commemorative bronze or stone statues dotted here and there, and all this in the middle of a city. Becoming more at one with my surroundings, I began to think about all the great artists, composers, poets, and writers, that must have drawn inspiration from this idyllic environment down the centuries, with its little footbridges, fountains, monuments, and general Bohemian ambience and serenity.

With this serenity of mind, I wandered into the main Town Square, (Rynek Glowny) , with its wonderful centre attraction, the arcaded Sukkienice (cloth hall), home to all kinds of stalls through its centre hall way, and the two towered cathedral across the square from it, I don’t think I could do justice to the architecture really, but I’d just say, it might almost be worth the trip on it’s own. Moving on towards the Florian Gate, where artists have their creations up for sale on the old city walls, some amazing artwork, and well worth checking out. I wandered and wandered, continually thinking of all the creativity that this city must inspire, all the peace of mind it must engender, already my mind had been made up to return as soon as possible.

Culturally fulfilled, I made my way back to the apartments, to wait for the crew to get back from their ‘Trauma Tourism’ at the Death Camps. It was a longer day than they’d expected, and it soon became evident that the effect on them had been a deep one, but even so, humour being one of the most basic human defences against such harrowing ordeals, the stories came across throughout the group, of trying to be ’atrocitised’, as North put it, when another gorgeous looking Polish lass would stroll past, and they’d follow her with their eyes and then have to wipe the floor dust off their tongues. The other amusing thing was, that during the day, Guzzi had the kitty for the group, and kept forgetting that I wasn’t with them, so they had one spare of everything, tram ticket, coach ticket, entrance ticket for Auschwitz, and anything else they happened to buy, so the obvious question for Guzzi was, ‘did I enjoy myself?’, ‘yes mate, you had a great time’. And then as if to compound the joke, our first round of beers since rejoining the crowd, and they bring us fourteen, so we still have one extra. For our meal out on night two, we decided to go for some local dishes, and found a place that didn’t mind thirteen blokes descending upon them in one hit, we figured that our bill should soften the pain of having other potential customers walk off at first sight of us lot, I’m not entirely sure if the owners felt the same, but the staff looked after us and enjoyed the banter. Anna was our host for the most part, and was the recipient of a great deal of attention, especially from Ades, from whom we’d expect nothing less! The meals didn’t particularly fly out of the kitchen, but we got them all eventually, Si getting his White Borscht soup starter after he’d finished his main meal, there were Knuckles of Pork, Boar, Red Borscht, and a few unpronounceable dishes, and finally washed down by Anna’s recommendation of ‘Angry Dog’, a shot of Vodka with something bloody hot, but something cooling also.
Everyone cream crackered after their long day, so we headed back to the ‘Puls bar’ next to the guest house to avoid a long walk back when hammered.

Day three, and things are about to get messy. No major upsets so far, just a mildly irritated neighbour across the hall from us, but otherwise happy drunks, no damaged limbs, broken bones, or wounded pride, yet.
Guzzi, Billy, and Comfort boy set out alone, when North phoned them, all he could make out were clip clops of horses hooves, they were on a horse drawn tour of the city with one of the many horse & carts that line up along the main Town Square, good move. The rest of us were off to the Castle, I’d been selling them the idea since meeting back up with them the day before, but once we got there, everyone got separated until just North, Ades, and myself were left. I gave them the benefit of my recent knowledge of the place, and after a good viewing and picture taking, we settled at the Castle’s Café, and sunk a few beers, admiring the magnificent view of the various castle buildings before us. After an enjoyably informative conversation with an English gent and his Polish lady companion, discussing Polish history, the before and after effects of communism, and basically what a great place Krakow is, we mooched off to find the rest of our crew, along the Planty Park towards the Square, and I have to say, the first failure of the tour, yours truly. My last recollection, being sat next to Billy boy, in one of the articulated golf buggies which take tourists all around the city . I’d been passing out in my seat apparently, being obnoxious when spoken to, (according to Guzzi), and the boys Red Carded me, flagged down the buggy, and Billy drew the short straw to chaperone me back to our residence, only a ten minute walk, but I wouldn’t have made it, Billy having to retrieve me on a couple of occasions as I fell out of the side of the cart, one down, it was only 5.30pm!.

Well after a five hour kip, a shower, and brush of teeth, I felt ready to go again, not surprisingly. Made a few phone calls, without getting much sense, and took off up the Stradomska, towards the Square once again, get half way, and meet up with the Slim King and Ades, carrying Eddo, (the Stag) back, he’d just been Red Carded too, but obviously after a far more respectable amount of time on the sauce, he was smiling though, another cheery drunk. With the Stag tucked away, happily unconscious, I set about convincing Slim and Ades to get back out there, and rejoin the others, after a couple at the bar next door to our place. We set off, but didn’t get far before bumping into Mon, returning with the news that the rest of the mob weren’t far behind, with a story or two to come. Everyone has their own individual trait when drunk, some get over happy, others get punchy, some, like me, pass out after talking bollocks, but there are the occasional Jekyl & Hyde drinkers, that have an imperceptible trip ‘Switch’, you don’t see it coming, but when it arrives it can be a nightmare, North has such a Switch, and it was tripped. Unfortunately nobody filmed him for posterity, so, one by one he took on Guzzi, Comfort, and eventually Simon, their crime, trying to assist him getting home, which they did manage between them, all full of understanding about the situation, and once he’d been put to bed, no shortage of amusement concerning how embarrassed he’d be in the morning. I for one have shamed myself too many times when wasted to be pointing any fingers, ‘there but for the grace of’, and all that, this was a Stag tour after all, it’s not supposed to be an angelic bible study group, even if the place did come across as the Vatican’s second home. We continued in our mission to drink the Puls bar dry, and may even have been successful, I can’t remember. There was one more Switch to trip before we hit the hay mind you, from a most unexpected quarter, the usually placid Simon, his eyes went wild, and he wanted to attack whoever was in his visual arena, me, Billy, and eventually the large frame of Mon, pinned down, and subdued him until he passed out, thankfully. The vodka does that to him apparently, he told us the next day, hmmmm.

Day four, time to go. Woken by lots of shouting, finger pointing, and general upset ness, Mon was not a happy bunny, he‘d been accosted by the owners. Apparently, the pram that had been nestled downstairs during our stay, had been abused and broken overnight, and they’d tried and convicted us already, reparation would cost us a hundred Zloti each, about twenty quid. No one admits, or no one remembers, we paid without argument. Now I’ve been on many a drunken shopping trolley ride before, so I can certainly envisage the scenario, but it’s a two person effort, you’d expect one of them to remember, but if you’d have offered me that scenario, as the worst that would happen after a four day Stag tour, at the beginning, I’d have happily grabbed it. After that, they wanted us out early, no problem. Everyone rushing around for some last minute shopping, vodka, fags, Polish football shirts etc, North looking a bit weak, apologising profusely to everyone for the night before, and beginning to feel the dread as the flight home dawned on him, he and Ades both suffer from fear of flying, but no matter, neck a few pills to calm the nerves, share Ades Beta Blockers to slow the heart, neck some Diazepam, perfect way to recover from four days of abuse, Hunter S Thompson would be proud.

With time on our hands at the airport, we set about unloading our spare Zloti, breakfasts, beer, more shirts, Euro porn, just the usual. But something was brewing that none of us saw coming, poor old North wasn’t having the best time of things, and it was beginning to show itself, as he first sunk to his knees, Bucket and Guzzi caught him thankfully, then his eyes rolled back and a kind of rasping gurgle came from his throat, this was looking a little serious. Luckily, Bucket and Jim are Paramedics, Jim the more experienced, and he’s on the scene fairly sharp to take control, unfortunately there was a wee gap between handing North over, during which he fell forward and smacked his head on the chair he’d previously fallen onto, creasing his skull between the eyes. By now we’d attracted a fair bit of attention, and been told medics were on their way, Ades desperately trying to make them understand that North isn’t drunk. They came, took him off, and we sweated for a while as we waited to hear if he’d be ok, and allowed on the flight, quite a spectacular way to sign off from a Stag tour. After quite a while, he was given the all clear, and thirteen of us boarded the flight, incident free, although in a fairly jaded condition, it has to be said, and we made it back to Gatwick unscathed. North wasn’t so lucky, he’d been given the last two back rows to spread out and rest in comfort, but he had a relapse on touch down, started going very pale, gurgling again, eyes rolling, Bucket was trying to coax some assistance out of a particularly unhelpful air hostess, and poor old North was spiralling out of consciousness once more. As the rest of us were herded off the plane, Bucket and Ades stayed with North at the back, and an ambulance was called, at least he’d get to hospital now, and given whatever treatment was required.

The latest we heard, while trundling back in a rickety old jalopy, was that he’d be fine, but they’d admitted him and he was being fed through a drip to put all the nutrients back into his system, a ‘Hartzman bag’ I think they called it. At least the knowledge that he’d be ok allowed the humour to take back over, little cracks about North stealing Eddo’s thunder, and wondering if his wife would ever let him on another Stag do, maybe Eddo was secretly happy that he’d escaped any real Stag punishment over the weekend. Whatever happens, I suppose it’s one more story to confirm European beliefs that we’re all thugs when we’re not, the Stag tradition will continue, and rightly so, always looking for ever more obscure destinations to spend our magic currency, I can’t think of a better reason not to sign up for the Euro, or maybe that’s why they’re all so desperate for Britain to have it, to stop us from coming over and enjoying ourselves!

Image: North in Wawel castle courtyard

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