Monday, September 28, 2009

Europe, part VII

18 September 2009
Krakow-London, 3.30pm

Last night we went out for what we thought was going to be Polish cuisine, and discovered yet another form of restaurant/café in which it is possible for us to be clueless—self-service. At least we tried Polish pierogi (a bit disappointing) but the rest of our mixed plate was nice. Then to Western-style café with English on the signs—helps us to feel less imperialist. (At least I did say ‘thank you’ in Polish today, TWICE, and they understood me!) We also tried, at different times, these breads that are sold everywhere in little stalls. They are shaped into a big ring and look a bit like pretzels, and they’re really yummy.

It was my last night in Europe (Katie made a silly mistake and booked her flight to Paris on the 19th!) and so we stayed up to 11.30, our latest yet! and played two-hand 500. I lost, of course, but at least I wasn’t in negative figures.

This morning we left our bags at the hostel and went for a wander, first getting breakfast takeaway, and strolling through the park that is in a ring around the city centre. This brought us to Wawel Castle and so we went further around it, walking beside the river Wista with the castle towering over us, before making our way back to get our bags.

We walked to the train station through the Old Town and came across things we really should have seen before, such as St Florian’s Gate. Oh well—at least now I have a snapshot!

At the train station I had to say goodbye to Katie for possibly a whole year which of course made me cry and still makes me tear up now. [She is teaching English in France for the next year.] And now I am on a plane to London. It does feel like I’m returning to civilisation, a little, after ten days of hostels. It almost feels like I’m coming home. I can’t believe I’ve only got eleven more days here, and I am not ready to go back to New Zealand.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Europe, part VI

17 September 2009
Krakow, 4.45pm

Today we spent the day at Auschwitz. I don’t even know how to describe it. There is nothing I want less than to be all sentimental and talk about an icy feeling clutching at me as I entered—because there wasn’t—but neither can I pretend that it wasn’t profoundly moving.

We took a bus filled with lots of other people from central Krakow, a drive of about one hour and fifteen minutes. As we drove, we would have looked out on pretty peaceful scenery, except that our eyes were glued to a screen, watching a documentary of footage filmed by a cameraman among the Soviet liberators of the camp. It was pretty shocking stuff but there were two low points for me – 1) footage of Soviet pathologists performing an autopsy on a limp, dead baby found in the camp, emaciated and tiny; 2) footage of child prisoners, aged maybe five or six, in a group, raising their arms to show the numbers branded on them (they probably did not know their own names), looking for all the world like a primary school class, except that they were skeletal and branded. Result: a sense of grimness before we even reached the place.

However, entering the camp itself, it was hard to picture these things. It could have been a normal, almost pretty, apartment complex, if you ignored the barbed wire and watch towers, or if you didn’t enter the buildings. We followed a guide around—in the buildings now is housed a museum, and we saw photos, documentary evidence, material evidence (piles and piles of human hair, shoes, glasses, etc.)… We saw a recreation of the wall where prisoners who had committed some ‘crime’ were shot, now stacked with flowers and candles, and the punishment cell where Father Kolbe, a Polish priest who sacrificed his life for another prisoner, was sent to die by starvation with another nine prisoners. We saw ‘standing cells’, about one square metre, into which four prisoners were crammed overnight, with only a small ground-level door as an opening to crawl through—after a night in these, the prisoners were still expected to work all day. We saw a whole hallway of photos of shaved-headed prisoners, with their names, their numbers, their date of arrival and date of death; of all the ones I read, only one had no date of death, and almost all the rest died within two or three months, at the most. A few here and there had traces of a half-smile as they had their photo taken, the vestige of their personality, stolen by the Nazis; they died no later than anyone else. We saw the place where Rudolf Höss, the camp commandant, was hung after the war, about two hundred metres from the house he had lived in with his wife and children and had a happy life, right next door to utter misery. We walked through a gas chamber and crematorium in which thousands and thousands of people died a slow, painful death.

Lord, have mercy on us.

I felt pretty grim all the way round (an understatement) and did not feel at all like talking, but actually came extremely close to crying at one point, in the little square where the prisoners were shot – I don’t know why it was there, but there it was.

After a short break in which we ate lunch and felt bad about it, we got on the bus for the short ride to Birkenau, otherwise known as Auschwitz II. This seemed much more how one would imagine a concentration camp—a big empty field with long wooden huts on either side, train tracks down the middle, the remains of crematoria the Nazis tried to destroy before they fled—except that the grass was a brilliant, Irish green.

We only had about half an hour here and saw the latrine hut, which prisoners were allowed to use twice a day—about 2000 people had to make it through in half an hour, or an hour if they were lucky. No need to do the maths to understand how impossible that would be. We also saw a hut with the sleeping bunks—even in its clean condition it was horrible but to imagine how it must have been with 700 or 800 people, in either summer or winter…

I bought a book: “The Holocaust: Voices of Scholars”—academics such as Kershaw or Wiesel or Bartov discussing the difficult questions of the Holocaust. It looks very interesting, but the blurb on the back is a bit pretentious and was obviously written by an academic:

“The duty to raise questions about the Holocaust rests especially upon intellectuals, since from them we await answers to critical, difficult questions of values…” Really? Do we?

And now we’re back at the hostel. My last night in Krakow, my last night in continental Europe, and the last time I see Katie for almost a year.

Europe, part V

16 September 2009
Krakow, 2.00pm

We finished off the day in Prague yesterday with a river cruise, which afforded nice views and also FASCINATING insights from our guide, such as, “Ladies and gentlemen, over here you can see the Ministry of Public Transport…” No?! Fancy that!

After which we walked back to the Old Town Square and had cocktails as, from a distance, we watched a Czech talent show of different martial arts. Felt like we were mastering European café culture—just plonked ourselves down and waited to be served, after which the waiter told us “service is not included in the bill”, which makes things SO much simpler than going through the issue of to tip or not to tip. Had kebabs for dinner (Vienna ones are superior) then went back to the hostel for our things, walked to the train station (Hlavni Nadrazi), and eventually, exhausted, found our train.

We were on the 21.09 to Krakow Glowny, in a ladies’ sleeper shared by three—we had the top two bunks and a Czech lady had the bottom. We were told we MUST lock our doors or we would be robbed by gypsies, and it felt like a cross between “Murder on the Orient Express” and “The Elves and the Shoemaker”. I was on the top bunk, and had a ladder to climb up, and felt very comfortable, lying there on the top bunk being rocked to sleep.

Until… I must have dozed off, and then woken again in a sudden flash of panic. Don’t know why, but suddenly felt very shut in, unable to sit up, unable to just jump out of bed, imagining being enclosed in that space, and I knew that if I didn’t get out, I would start to hyperventilate or something. So I got up, went and washed my hands, paced the corridor for a while, said some prayers, then got into bed, intensely disliking the feeling. Eventually I must have got to sleep, and so the night passed, but I must say I was very relieved to get off that train, bright and early at 6.30am.

We wandered into Krakow, tried to get money out of an ATM but were thwarted by a beggar who wouldn’t back away so I could put my pin number in without him seeing; finally found ‘Coffee Heaven’ open so had a sort of breakfast; then left our bags at the hostel. We walked over to Wawel Castle and wandered the cathedral and grounds—very beautiful, and the royal apartments had an unexpected feel of Italy. However, I haven’t seen a ‘castle’ in Europe or Britain that seems at all how I imagined a castle. I wonder if such exist!

Now we are at the hostel, enjoying much appreciated showers and rest. Soon we will go into the Old Town again to get on a bus to go to Wieliczka Salt Mines—will update!


Well, the Salt Mine was amazing. A great tour guide who told us—actually—REALLY INTERESTING stuff about the mine and cracked some not-tired-sounding jokes. The mine itself was amazing. Statues, whole CHAPELS carved underground, it astounded and brought the whole thing beyond expectations.

And just for your information - that chandelier is made from salt!!!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Europe, part IV

14 September 2009
Prague, 11.20pm

We’ve had a wonderful day glimpsing some of Praha, starting with the Old Town Square, which boasts the Astronomical Clock – a surprisingly cool contraption which has a skeleton who reaches out and rings a bell every hour (plus more unintelligible aspects which were completely lost on me).

There’s definitely a more medieval feel to this city—just walking into the square confirmed that. Possibly the narrowness of all the little streets, maze-like, too, or the sight of Prague Castle across the Charles Bridge… Again, I am impressed by Eastern statues. So much more interesting.

We went on a tour with a bunch of other English-speakers (mostly Americans) to Prague Castle. The castle seems less like a castle up close, but has an elaborate changing of the guards and a gorgeous cathedral with stained glass like nothing I’ve seen before.

After the tour was finished we walked back to the Old Town via the not-disappointing Charles Bridge and did some shopping (at least, that was mostly me). I got some great present items [which of necessity must be hush-hush, given that this is a public blog]. And we wandered some more.

Tonight we went to the opera! Carmen. We were both a bit under-dressed, and the lady at the door looked us up-and-down very disapprovingly, which was a bad start, but at least she let us in. It only got better and better. The theatre was spectacular but once the performance started you only had eyes for the stage. We had great seats and the set/music/cast/EVERYTHING was wonderful. It seemed so much more like The Real Thing than anything I’ve seen in New Zealand (though to be fair I’ve never been to an opera before). A new addiction, perhaps?

15 September 2009
Prague, 2.30pm

I am sitting on an island – Střelecký Ostrov – in the middle of the Vltava River in Praha. It’s been a busy sort of day, a second full day in the city, which seems unusual and abnormally long compared to the last two cities. But it is very pleasant sitting out here watching the river, and it is a nice change from rushing around madly.

This morning we started off at the Chocolate Museum, which is as educational as it sounds, choosing this over the Museum of Medieval Torture (which actually looked pretty interesting) and the Sex Machines Museum (not so much).

Then we went to the cemetery in the Jewish Quarter. Naturally. This was the only burial ground allowed for Jews and so is stacked high with graves and a higgledy-piggledy morass of tombstones. Some Orthodox Jews were gathered around one grave, presumably someone special, chanting and rocking, and I felt so rude walking around with my camera out. Felt worse when I saw a couple of other tourists standing right next to them, snapping away…

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Europe, part III

13 September 2009
Prague, 9.45pm

Have had what seems like a full/empty day. We started off by leaving the excellent Happy Hostel with our luggage and directions for the very easy tram #18 to the Suedbahnhof. Then spent an hour dragging suitcases glumly around the gardens of the Belvedere Palace. They were BEAUTIFUL, which slightly lightened our glumness, but we were both tired; Katie coming down with a cold and I on the last stretch of one; hungry and, in Katie’s case, caffeine-deprived.

After having lunch (and coffee), and stocking up on provisions (= chocolate), we felt much better, and went to get on our train – this time in the right carriage, on the right seats.

It was a longer trip this time (12.58-17.18). The Austrian part was very quick, but soon after getting into the Czech Republic we went winding through a valley that seemed to last almost all the way to Prague and slowed us down a lot. Not that that was a bad thing! Definitely the most scenic train ride yet. It was also interesting seeing a well-paved bicycle track running along by the train and river sometimes, and people biking or skating along it. Two German girls at the hostel had biked all the way to Prague two days ago, so it must be reasonably well-known.

The area of the hostel was reasonably easy to find; we had to take the metro (I ordered tickets in a very broken Czech – “dva - Muzeum”). But then finding the right street was a bit of a mission, and then we had to wait at two locked doors until someone came out, because the buzzer wasn’t working. Finally, at the hostel door, a very unfriendly receptionist who had no idea we were arriving and a grim, stale-with-cigarette-air room greeted us. Luckily the receptionist lightened up and our actual bedroom was not smelly! Still, this is definitely the least pleasant hostel so far. Which increases the hilariousness of the fact that Katie arranged for our opera tickets to be sent here tonight—according to her booking confirmation, “we will deliver the tickets on the evening before the performance to the concierge of your hotel…” :)

We left the hostel as soon as we could, unsurprisingly, to get dinner, and chose, for the funniness of it, a restaurant called “Typical Czech Restaurant”. For the first time, we had a truly helpful and nice waiter who didn’t make us feel stupid. I’ve never even heard of Czech cuisine before, but Katie had potato pancakes with cabbage and bacon, and I had a spicy Czech goulash. It was DELICIOUS. A very good culinary experience, in short – and culinary experiences tend to be the high points when I travel! Prague is starting to look more promising.

The only thing I feel I need to do now is to learn a few Czech phrases. We have felt so imperialist since we arrived in Europe, assuming we can just get by on English. I actually did okay in Vienna with my very very basic German, to the point where I could order food, say ‘excuse me’, ‘thank you’, etc – and for the majority of the time, I didn’t NEED to assume English knowledge, which was great. But in Hungary, and now in Prague, where the most I can conjure up is a ‘thank you’, I feel so rude!

Europe, part II

12 September 2009
Vienna, 8.30pm

When I look at the date of yesterday’s diary entry, it really surprises me, because it certainly doesn’t seem like only a day since I was sitting on that train writing that entry. Yet our time in Vienna has gone by very quickly, and I will be sorry to leave so soon, tomorrow—except that we are on our way to Prague!

We arrived at the Westbahnhof at about 2.15 yesterday and reasonably soon found our hostel, which is extremely close by. It’s name is the ‘Happy Hostel’, and I am certainly happy we booked this one, because it’s wonderful! We get a huge room to ourselves, and because no one is in the room next door, also a shower, toilet and kitchen! Free internet, friendly staff, gypsies bowling up in the morning and offering me a cigarette (true story) – all for only €21 a night!

So after a couple of hours digesting our accommodation, we headed off into Vienna, deciding to go to the Schönbrunn Palace, a short tram-ride away. This was the residential palace of the imperial family of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The palace itself was beautiful but the grounds itself were the real highlight – the manicured gardens were so much prettier than I could have imagined, and then looking up the hill, a gloriette at the top. Woodlands surrounding, with different paths running through them, fountains to happen upon.

Back near our hostel, we had Puten (turkey) Schnitzel that night, because it seemed sort-of Austrian.

This morning we discovered that the muesli we’d bought the night before was overwhelmingly sweet, with clumps of white chocolate; also that “Butter Milch” is NOT milk.

We set off to walk down Mariahilfer Straβe. This would lead us into the central city and the Hofburg Palace, but in the meantime provide us with lots of shopping opportunities! We both made purchases at H&M – I bought a scarf. Katie bought just a little bit more!

It didn’t seem like a very long walk, with so much distraction, and we came to the first set of buildings of the Hofburg Palace at about 11.30. This is a huge place and we didn’t know where to start, so we wandered aimlessly for a while, Lonely-Planet-less. But eventually we came across a big Austrian food festival in the grounds; tents and tents of pastries, meats, HUGE cheeses, wine, beer… Bought what I think were called ‘topfels’? Then found a big tent with many tables in the middle, a brass band in national dress, and FOOD STALLS all around the sides. We each had a kind of Austrian hot dog, very long with a kransky-like sausage, and I had a beer. It seemed like a weird juxtaposition to be feeling so Austrian, and then to hear the band start playing Michael Jackson’s ‘We are the World’. Then we couldn’t resist, and bought a pastry to share. DEFINITELY my favourite thing in Vienna.

After this we moved out of the palace area and into Vienna central. This was much more like the Austria I had seen in images than the part of town we were staying in. Horse-drawn carriages and deceptively “simple” architecture. We went into one church, St Peter’s, that looked very ordinary outside but was stunningly ornate inside. Then to St Stephen’s, the cathedral. This was very different though no less stunning, very Gothic, with huge grey columns soaring up and very little colour, even in the windows. We decided to go up the spire for the view – had to cram into a tiny little elevator with an Austrian man who kept making comments in German that no one understood. On the way back down, one of the more surreal experiences as we crammed in there silently – Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive”, on the radio. “Ooooh, as long as I know how to love…” Couldn’t help looking at each other and shaking with giggles. Burst out into the cathedral again and couldn’t quite get into the solemn, contemplative mood after that, so we left.

Had a weird and embarrassing/angering experience at a café – turned out that by going to the counter and ordering for ourselves tea/coffee we disqualified ourselves for a seat, and had to stand up near the door by a bar table. Angry waiter very indignant when we questioned his instruction to get up off the chairs we had claimed. Felt very bitter and considered sitting on the ground with our drinks, just to lower the tone of their overpriced establishment.

[Above is Wilson, the little sheep a friend gave me to carry around Europe with me and photograph in different places, à la Amélie.]

We headed back through the Hofburg, stopping to relax in the gardens outside the Natural History Museum for a while, and then visiting the museum itself. It was a good museum, but its building was the most impressive thing for me – an amazingly grand entrance hall. I took a photo of Katie on the stairs looking up and just as I took the photo a VERY, VERY HANDSOME museum worker came into the frame, jumping out of the way as soon as he realised. Thank goodness the photo caught him! So good-looking. With a nice smile. And later, as we left, he said “Tchüss!” to us. I think we had a little moment there… :) [Apologies to the blog readers: I took this photo on Katie's camera, so for now you are unable to see him!]

From there it was back to the hostel. We paused on the way to get a kebab from a street vendor, and it was really good. At €3, only 10 cents more than my expensive and uncomfortable tea earlier in the day! Lesson for the day: Avoid fancy-looking cafés.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Europe, part I

11 September 2009
Budapest-Vienna, 11.30am

If I am travelling to Vienna it follows that I must have spent the last two nights in Budapest! And I did. Not without hiccups, but successfully spent two nights in a foreign city. I say foreign as opposed to London, which doesn’t really feel foreign. Would I have managed, or retained my sanity, without Katie? I don’t know.

I spent most of Wednesday sitting around waiting to go. The flight didn’t leave until 4.45pm but it basically took the whole day out once you factor in getting to the airport and my anal-retentiveness about getting to things like this early. Finally got on the plane, following a group of boys talking about who had shagged whom – haw haw haw – and followed by a man with a very public school accent talking on his cellphone: “and when I am dead” (dripping with irony and enunciation) “you will receive half, and my two children will receive a quarter each. I see no reason to pay several hundred pounds to change a perfectly good document. Now will you please stop, you are worrying my wife…”

On the plane with me (unfortunately not beside me) was Rufus Sewell, the actor from Amazing Grace, Helen of Troy, etc. Saw him again when we got off and were waiting for bags – looking rather inconspicuous for a famous actor but also really good-looking!

All this faded to horror, however, when I tried to get money out at Ferihegy Airport and my card was rejected by the ATMs. Panicked a little, considered crying, then – thank God! I had £30, which I got changed to forints. Katie had texted ahead the correct train line to get onto, which despite all my careful planning was not Déak Ferenc but Nyugati, and feeling stressed and anxious I got on – but it made me feel a heck of a lot better to see her waiting at the end of it! Resolved to deal with credit card issues the next day, and just to get some rest, [plug] at the very comfortable Unity Hostel [/plug]. [Actually it was very nice, and if you like waking up to the strains of flute practice at the Franz Liszt Music School, you should stay here too!]

Unfortunately for Katie, we spent until 10.30 the next morning (Wednesday) simply trying to call the emergency number of my bank. Finally managed to sort out the issues, but no thanks to my bank, who will be getting a strongly worded letter when I return to New Zealand. And then by 11am it was time to catch a bus to Memento Park…

…which is a collection of all the old Soviet-era statues, gathered into one area instead of destroyed. It was quite hot by this time. We wandered around all, posing flippantly with some, taking quite a few photos. One of the weirder was a single pair of boots high on a podium – Stalin’s boots – the rest of him smashed by Hungarians in 1956. There were no more Stalins in the park but plenty of Lenins, Bela Kuns and nameless workers or soldiers. I spent 2000 forints (about $20) on a very small badge with Lenin’s face on it, and later in the day saw a better one for cheaper. Typical.

The bus left again at 1pm, dropping us back in Déak Ferenc Square, where we had a bit of lunch and then set off for Buda, on the other side of the Danube, which is much more hilly than flat Pest. We climbed up instead of taking the overpriced cable car, stopping on the way at a sort of promontory overhanging the river, where lovers dangled legs, and geckos basked in the sun. At the top – something different around every corner – amazingly beautiful old buildings, Byzantine-looking churches, very Eastern European statues, a slight Mediterranean feel… I think the quote for the day was definitely “That is such a cool statue!”

An awkward moment – sitting in ex-cloisters now café overlooking the Danube, heavenly, a four-piece gypsy band starts playing, even more so – BROKEN irreparably when the violinist comes over, starts playing/singing in our ears – oh no! We are completely clueless about etiquette in this situation – are we expected to pay him? Finally it comes out – his CD, 5000 forints in the stores, but for you, 2500 forints. [Erm, well, not really interested.] I can see you are young girls, therefore, for you, 2000 forints.

Ended up deciding no; he was not impressed. Very embarrassing.

Walking back, VERY thirsty in all the heat, bought Coca-Cola, collapsed in a green patch near the river – lovely.

Went out for dinner on the street near the hostel which was crowded with restaurants spilling out onto the street; Caesar salad check, orange juice check, service – not fantastic but we still tipped. And yes, it was not exactly Hungarian food, but I had the beginnings of a horrible cold and felt like something light.

This morning we checked out, dragged our bags down to City Park (the spectacular Heroes Square and a castle), then over to Keleti Station and got on this train. Managed to embarrass ourselves again by sitting in the correct seat numbers, but in first class – oh dear. Had to do a walk of shame down the entire train. And here I am now, in second class, still in Hungary, I think. Lunchtime!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

snapshots, part IV

Too many snapshots, so little time! Anyway, here are some more.

The battlefield of the Battle of Hastings, 1066, + the abbey built at the top of it as a penance.

The ruins of the abbey

Inside the monks' quarters


Fun and games on Brighton Beach

High Street, Battle


A for Allie

Walking up an English hill made me feel like Lizzy Bennet striding around Hertfordshire

I'm off to Eastern Europe on Wednesday, so... see you later. With, no doubt, a whole lot more snapshots and a really difficult job choosing which ones to share.