Old nuclear plant towers surrounded by endless networks of high-voltage cables can be seen. We stop at a very busy station where I foresee an old wooden sign: 'Ostrava'. Fellow passengers rush to the carriage doors and I am left alone in the dark cabin.
Beside me, a multi-coloured train coming from St. Petersburg stops, its destination is written in Cyrillic and contemplates a long overnight journey to Vienna, I would like to call this 'The Imperial Express'.
I always thought there was something different about train journeys. The departure whistle, The sound of the steel being pressured against the terrain, the rocking carriages, the platforms suddenly vacating. It is a fusion of modern technologies and old-fashioned traditions that hopefully will never die.
A few minutes later, we leave Ostrava behind and start our slow journey though the Polish rail tracks. I manage to sleep on the floor of the now empty cabin, holding onto my backpack to keep warm and distracted by the odd set of lights shining through the dark window.
A couple of hours later, I am surprised by a rural scene with tall pine trees. Outside my window, the frost of the autumn has given the vegetation a rather interesting shine.
Krakow abruptly appears as the image of a train graveyard and a modern train station. I am excited as this means I have now reached my 60th country visited, also marking the end of a tough train journey.
I walk through the empty squares and pedestrian tunnels of Poland's second largest city heading towards town. A wintry cold scene dominates the landscape: frost covering every piece of exposed grass and naked trees contrasting with old rusty balconies and neon signs.
With no plans in mind, the streets of an early morning Krakow lying completely empty become my main playground as I rush through a pedestrian area where I spot tourists vacating hostels carrying heavy backpacks until I bump into Market Square.
The fog is covering the landscape completely and even the top of the red-bricked church towers are impossible to contemplate. Obwarzanek (Pretzel) sellers organize their stands in the cold morning while streets cleaners take care of every piece of rubbish, leaving this magnificent place in a immaculate state.
My mind drifts a bit when discovering that Krakow is very small and can be appreciated in a short time. A trip to Auschwitz starts fixing on my brain as I keep walking South to the famous Jewish District, a place rich in history where museums show part of the history of a city considered lucky.
Always beautiful, Krakow was not severely damaged by World War II attacks and was always an important centre of commerce, communications and impressive imperial architecture.
I walk through grid-organised streets surrounded by derelict buildings covered in colourful posters, through ornate churches and following the cold Vistula River to Wawel Castle, which my maps tell me is at the top of the hill.
Through layers of fog and a long set of stairs, I discover a beautiful walled palace, constructed in a combination of bright-red bricks and stone, reflecting the wealth of Casimir III who built it in the 1330's. It looks like a small little city inside with different dependencies, a cathedral and a bronze statue of Pope John Paul II who was also a local.
After a couple of hours walking, businesses are finally opened. A cozy coffee shop overlooking Market Square becomes the place to be for proper cup of coffee, a panini, phone charging (and why not, using the toilet facilities).
Eager to adventure through the Polish countryside and with only a few hours left, I decide to go to a tour agency to find out about day-tours to Auschwitz. Nothing is available and those available tours arrive into the city after my flight leaves.
I read about a local bus heading up in that direction leaving from the coach station in only five minutes. For a minute, it is a mental fight between the risk of leaving the city and lose my flight or stay in Krakow and lose an unique sightseeing opportunity.
The next 240 seconds happen as I run through the city, into a shopping centre, down an escalator, through a tram station, up another escalator. The bus is gone and I am forced to wait for the next one leaving in 20 minutes.
I grasp some air and decide I will go forward with the plan. On my map , I also discover that the airport is not far from the road we will be taking and ask the chauffeur if he could drop me halfway down the road.
With no knowledge of English, he looks at the map, reassuring me with a timid 'Yes' and minutes later we hit the streets of the capital in a fun journey while making conversation with a Brazilian and a Thai girl heading up the same direction.
The bus is indeed mostly full of locals which force us to stop at every single village down a road which cuts through endless wheat and barley crops and colorful little wooden houses.
Oswiecim signs in sight. We have reached Auschwitz.
For those who don't know about it, Auschwitz was the main concentration camp in the Holocaust and an iconic place in the Nazi and Jewish history. Here, nearly one million Jewish from all over Europe were brought and exterminated in a soul less way.
Today , Oswiecim (a Polish version of Auschwitz) looks like a quaint village surrounded by colorful crops, crystal clear water streams and a train station.
The bus reaches the entrance, crowded with tour coaches and tourists wandering around. The entrance to the place is free, however, a fee is charged for people arriving between 11:00am and 14:00pm for a guided tour which is compulsory at peak hours.
I have very limited time and the earliest tour is in Italian. I am in, with all the Italians of course.
We meet our tour guide. She is a local, middle-aged woman, wearing a sober dress and round glasses, rather sad looking features dominate her posture. She introduces herself in a perfect Italian accent and her broken voice can be heard clearly through the earphones we are wearing.
I feel a shiver in my spine when walking under the sign 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (ironically German for 'Work makes you free') just before crossing two walls of heavy thick wire fences and start our walk through Auschwitz I.
It is a crisp sunny day and not a single cloud in the sky can be seen. A cold breeze shuffles the pine trees loudly creating a comforting sound. However, the place has a terrible vibe felt directly by everyone. No smiles are seeing around, it is a place for thinking.
Geometrically laid pavilions are walked by as we are shown memorabilia and pictures of the horrible costumes and procedures here implemented back in the 1940's: the crowded conditions of the trains, the disembarkation platform, the selection of those who would become prisoners and those who would die immediately (mostly children, women, sick and elderly), each part of the exhibition hits a nerve and become extreme as we enter rooms full of personal belongings, shoes and... human hair.
I feel a knot in my stomach. Unconfirmed theories say human hair was sold to business to create brushes as tons of bags full of them were found in deposits soon after occupation of the concentration camp.
We are then led to a pavilion used for punishment of those who were considered rebels. Small torture cells where people would die of starvation or be tortured in horrific ways, only to survive to the final penalty of being shot in front of the wall of death, now carefully maintained as a memorial to pay tribute to those who here were murdered.
The last stop is the gas chamber. A dark and cold concrete structure were people were tricked into 'having a shower for disinfection' prior to tins full of lethal Zyklon B gas being thrown into the hermetic square compartment killing everyone within minutes.
Auschwitz I works with your senses and personal comfort. I share the thought of many: it is a place where somehow, you feel ashamed of being human, even not having anything to do with the Holocaust, it takes a while to understand how humanity could reach such level of cruelty, moved by a state of local madness and loyalty to an idea.
Nearby Birkenau is next. My mind is already tired and I lose the Italian group, leaving me only a few minutes to contemplate the ruins of some over sized silos and warehouses crossed by old railways.
The strong sunshine somehow cheers me up. I have learned a couple of interesting things today and once again , I feel like I have witnessed a place with unique historical value, a place I will always remember as the 'saddest place on Earth'.
Not much time for sentimentalism, I run to the bus stop in order to complete my tight schedule and make it to my flight. The same driver announces the spot where I should get off the bus, right in the middle of...Poland?. No taxis around and no bus lines scheduled in the area. It is time to follow my instinct and walk through a narrow paved road. On my left hand side, I can spot a lake where families enjoy a Sunday off only a few kilometers away from the city.
It becomes my last glimpse of Poland (for now), broken by the sight of the parking lot at the entrance of the modest but modern John Paul II International Airport where the basic departure routine begins: Ryanair queuing, security check with a security guard quickly telling me he lived in Dublin for a while, immigration control and a crowded boarding room only to be announced that our flight has been delayed.
That of course wouldn't stop the groups of Irish people from buying small bottles of wine and beer, waiting for a Dublin-bound flight at their very own style.
We take off a couple of hours later with the last rays of sunshine. I fall asleep for the nearly four-hour flight to Irish capital only waking up before landing in the windy and wet evening.
For a moment , while queuing in the busy Dublin airport, I pause to think about the holiday and the contrasts I have seen for the past three weeks, starting with a sad-looking Paris later enjoyed with the company of amazing friends, continuing to Kenya with my colleague whom added an extra element of fun and friendship to the already exciting red lands of the African continent and towards the sad-looking Eastern European region, unique in history and local costumes. Another holiday of contrast with a particularly sad but reflective ending.
Bus line number 16 is outside. It is time to go home and unpack. I'm in the office in eight hours.