A Travellerspoint blog

October 2016

Ghost Train to Krakow

overcast 9 °C

As we ride the rails from Warsaw to Krakow we think of the cavalcade of tortured souls whose spirits must still haunt these tracks. For this is the railway of death used by the Nazis to feed the insatiable incinerators at Auschwitz. Forcibly stripped of all possessions and dignity then herded as animals onto cattle trucks, millions of Polish Jews took this same route with a one-way ticket to hell during WWII. Over the years rusted rails have been replaced and stations smartened up, but no amount of cosmetics can obscure the ugly history to which this railway line bore witness under Nazi rule. But no gas chamber and incinerator awaits us. We alight from our train with all our possessions, find our very comfortable hotel and venture into Krakow's medieval city centre...
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Krakow's Cloth Hall dominates the largest market square in Europe The 13th century market hall was rebuilt in 1555 and today it is home to an extensive collection of tourist knick-knacks, trinkets and bric-a-brac. If you need a stuffed angel or a picture of Pope John Paul II stencilled onto a toilet roll holder, this is the place for you...
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Pope, (now Saint) John Paul II was the Bishop of Krakow before becoming Pope and he is everywhere in this city, especially in the cathedral that forms part of the castle...
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We had vowed to stop posting pictures of ancient buildings, especially as we have at least ten more great European cities to visit on this trip, but Krakow has such a wealth of stunning architecture that it cannot be glossed over...
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However, Krakow is much older than its buildings. It began life as a stone age settlement and has changed hands in battle so many times that it it surprising any medieval buildings survive. Ghengis Khan's Mongols, the Hapsburgs, the Swedes, the Russians and the Nazis, are just a few of the invaders who have pulled this city and this country apart since the Dark Ages, yet it has survived gloriously. A good way to tour the city is by one of the many beautiful carriages...
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Today's invaders are numerous though friendly and, despite the lateness of the season, the city is alive with tourists. In the evening the magnificent Market Square looks splendid in the flickering lights from the outdoor cafes...
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Poland is relatively inexpensive for most foreigners, (although you can always find someone willing to fleece you if you try), and from what we have seen it has much to offer. But time marches on and so must we – southward ever southward – next stop Bratislava in Slovakia.

Posted by Hawkson 10:57 Archived in Poland Comments (5)

Wasted in Warsaw

sunny 16 °C

The No1 Tripadvisor pick for Warsaw is the Lazienki Royal Park, so we happily handed over a few bucks and wandered in. Big mistake, (or was it), because we had inadvertently stumbled into one of Europe;s biggest beer festivals...
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This was worse than when we accidentally booked a hotel in Perugia in the midst of Europe's biggest chocolate fair a few years ago...
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A couple of hours later we stumbled out of the beer fest and went in search of food. We are what we eat so, as we meander the world one restaurant at a time, we truly become global citizens. However, it is perfectly possible today to travel worldwide without ever leaving home gastronomically. Here in this world class shopping mall in the centre of Krakow we can buy food, fashions and goods from all over the globe. The French boulangeries are particularly good...
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Such is the power and pervasiveness of international marketing, and the demands of tourists and travellers, that restaurant menus and supermarket shelves worldwide are heavily weighted with foodstuffs beloved by consumers in First World countries.
Even in truly remote parts of the world we have found all manner of recognisable products. It is increasingly difficult to discover places not serviced by British, French and German supermarkets, Irish Pubs, Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants, and American superstores like Costco and WalMart. Poland is no exception - from Mark's and Spencer's to C&A: from Starbucks to KFC, almost every global chain has set up shop here...
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But we wanted local so we went in search of two truly Polish dishes - pierogi and sausages. Pierogi are fundamentally pasta pockets with a variety of stuffing. They are in essence a Polish form of Russian pelmeni, Chinese gyoza and Italian ravioli. But, as Shakespeare might have said in Romeo and Juliet, “A dumpling by any other name is still a dumpling.” However, the Poles have taken dumplings to new heights and restaurants in Krakow offer fifty or more varieties of pierogi with fillings as interesting as curried goat and cappuccino with white cheese We had some pretty simple meat dumplings, some boiled and some fried, with blue cheese and mushroom sauces...
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Next - sausages. We had seen plenty of sausages in the markets but we searched vainly for a local restaurant serving true Polish sausages. In the end we had to make do with dining in a typical Polish sushi bar...
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C'est la vie.

Posted by Hawkson 09:39 Archived in Poland Comments (5)

Warsaw - Ancient & Modern

sunny 11 °C

For the past couple of weeks we've visited cities that have Medieval hearts, and the old city centre of Warsaw looks no different. There are magnificent buildings surrounding the market square...
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And this is the extensive Royal Castle...
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The King's throne room is simply sumptuous...
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However, if you are getting weary of looking at medieval architecture you might be surprised to discover that, despite their archaic outward appearances, none of these buildings are older than us. In some ways the whole of 'old' Warsaw is a movie set built after the Germans blew the entire city to smithereens during WW2 in an effort to permanently erase Polish culture and Polish heritage.
Less than 15% of the city remained in 1945 – the rest was just rubble, and most of the inhabitants had either been murdered or had fled. This is a monument to the 3 million Polish Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis in the many concentration camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka...
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We have visited the sites of Nazi concentration camps before and have painful lifelong memories that we would rather not renew. However, we spent a morning at the excellently presented Jewish history museum in Warsaw and discovered that the persecutions, executions and expulsions of Jews began almost a thousand years ago when Jews first settled in this area. Roman Catholicism rules in Poland and has done so since medieval times. There are Christian churches galore – none original; all rebuilt from the 1950s on...
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 To all intents and purposes Warsaw is one of the most modern cities in the world. There are numerous malls and lofty skyscrapers...
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Together with the imposing 'Cultural and Science' Palace'...
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This massive structure was a postwar gift from Stalin: perhaps to atone for the many thousands of Poles that the Russians killed during the war, or to remind Warsaw's residents that the Kremlin was pulling the strings during the Communist era. The views over the city from the tower are spectacular..
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Apart from a short section of Warsaw's old city wall, (probably rebuilt), everything here could have been knocked up on the back lot of MGM. But it wasn't,. And the Polish people should be applauded for putting their capital city back together in such a fine manner.

Posted by Hawkson 11:18 Archived in Poland Comments (5)

A Glimpse of Old Vilnius

overcast 5 °C

Vilnius - This once Communist capital city has more bling on its store shelves than we have loo rolls in our dollar stores. The wide tree-lined boulevards are home to the ritziest of couturiers, perfumeries, jewellers and purveyors of diamond knick-knacks. We are among the many who would have to ask the price before we bought. For instance: two thousand dollars seems to be the starting price for a pair of flimsy sling-back stilettos in one shoe emporium, (the word “shop” seems too prosaic here). These are the magnificent buildings along the main shopping street...
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But behind the fancy facades, haughty hotels and haute cuisine restaurants, there is a labyrinth of winding cobbled streets that once formed the Jewish ghettos...
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The ghettos have been tarted up and no longer show the scars of the Nazi horrors that occurred here, and there are many handsome little shops specialising in all manner of local products, especially amber and linen. These are a couple of cute flower shops...
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As we walk the narrow backstreets we sometimes glimpse an older, more secluded, world, through ancient archways. The atmospheric courtyards hidden behind the posh frontages still have memories of a much darker time, although they are brightened by the colourful autumn foliage...
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This part of the world has been fought over for millennia and it is still on the front lines between the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus, so it is difficult to know what is original and what has been rebuilt. The Russian Orthodox church (circa 1345) has been rebuilt so many times that Czar Peter I who visited in 1705 wouldn't recognise the place today...
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Vilnius has much to offer but, as in the other Baltic States, we have been a little disappointed that so many of the people serving us are clearly graduates of Kim Jon-un's North Korean School of Diplomacy. However, we enjoyed our time in the Baltics and enjoyed learning about the famous Lithuanian Sakotis – a multi-occasion celebration cake that is made on a spit,,,
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Now we are flying south to Warsaw in the hope of catching up with the retreating sun.

Posted by Hawkson 08:21 Archived in Lithuania Comments (3)

Brave New World - Lithuania

overcast 8 °C

We all have stereotypes about peoples and places that are often extremely difficult to dispel. For instance: Russians are rude; Japan is expensive; English food is terrible and it is always sunny in Paris. None of these statements are true today, in fact the opposites are nearer the mark. But, unless you travel to these places and meet the people it is unlikely that you will be convinced. So – for many people the ex-Eastern Bloc countries are probably still grey, dour and controlled by dangerous men. This is the Lithuanian Presidential Palace in Vilnius – not a jack-booted guard in sight and the twice-elected President is a woman, Dalia Grybauskaitė
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The Baltic countries that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain a quarter of a century ago are now thoroughly modern Western democracies with first world infrastructure.
However, with few exceptions, our sightseeing is dictated by online travel guides who steer us to the historic hotspots and we rarely visit the places where ordinary folk live, work and play. Would we visit Rome if it weren't for the Colosseum and St. Peter's? Would Paris be a draw without the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame? But in a few centuries time will future generations stare in awe at today's modern apartment blocks in Vilnius?...
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Maybe they will take guided tours of this giant shopping mall...
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and wonder what madness led us to believe that we needed 15 different shoe shops?...
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Or will they question our need to have 40 different coffee makers and more than 60 different electric kettles on offer in a single store...
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Beyond the old city centres of Tallin, Riga and Vilnius there is a new world that is, if anything, more advanced than our own. All three Baltic countries have world-class internet, a well maintained network of roads and excellent public transit. There are giant new factories, big box stores, dealerships of Audis, BMWs and every other car maker and the farmland seems well utilised. There are still vestiges of the recent past. Not all the old buildings have been renovated or demolished but, unlike in our own cities, we have not witnessed beggars on the streets or the homeless sleeping in shop doorways. We have been impressed by the cleanliness of the streets and the neatness of the parks and people's gardens. We have certainly been impressed with the food and our Thanksgiving Dinner in Vilnius started with stuffed Lithuanian potato dumplings, followed by Pork loin in mushroom sauce...
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For desert we had fruity black bread pudding – delicious.
Tomorrow we tour old Vilnius.
Happy Thanksgiving to all our Canadian friends and family.

Posted by Hawkson 11:02 Archived in Lithuania Comments (9)

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