Thursday, 21 March 2013

Day 7 - 11th March 2013, Zielona Góra

This was our main day for exploring Zielona Góra, as we would be heading back for an overnight to Warsaw before our flight back to the UK the next day. As we had arrived in the dark, I would have a chance to show my Dad the attractions of the city in the daylight. During our trip, the weather had gotten colder and colder and the city was covered with snow, and as such was more like Biała Góra (White Mountain) than Zielona Góra (Green Mountain, the beautiful translation of the city's name into English).

Old town square in the daytime
We started by visiting the main square and admiring the colourful buildings, stopping off in a local bookshop that caught by attention as it was selling a book called 'Zielona Góra przełoma wiekami' - literally Zielona Góra through the ages, which detailed with illustrations and text (in Polish, naturally) the city's history, culture and traditions. It also came accompanied with an old map of the city and a DVD showing some photos of the city in former times. I did not purchase it, as the money I had for this trip did not permit it, as it was quite expensive, but I have made a point to return in September for the wine festival (something I always planned to do) and will buy it then as a tribute to my favourite Polish city.

Trees and church near the main square flecked with snow
Following on from this bookshop, we made our way to the main street, taking in a language bookshop and Empik, which is basically a shop selling all manner of Polish magazines, films, music and so on. After this we found a local independent record shop which had an even better collection than Empik and to which I have also made a point to return. My Dad really appreciated the colourful nature of the city and I loved the atmosphere the snow added to it, as I had never been here at this time of year. It is simply a wonderfully pleasant city to walk through, and you feel as if you are really viewing Polish everyday life.

A shop selling a variety of teas from all around the world -
I still have some toffee tea I bought here in 2008!
After this we decided to visit the tourist office on the main square, which had moved since the last time I was there from the small office on Kupiecka street (Ul. Kupiecka) to a more prominent position on the main square. I was very impressed, as it sold a wide range of artefacts and souvenirs less commercial than in many other places (although these were here too) and had a range of local products. In particular, I picked up a fascinating anthology of fantasy literature created by local students who had the vision and inspiration to come up with a mythology for the City based on it's history and residents. For me this was fascinating and entirely unique, and the anthology only cost 10zł (around £2.50), with a second anthology also available and a third in the making.
Another of the main streets in Zielona Góra
However, as I figured it would be enough of a challenge to translate the first, I only bought the one. In addition, I bought a map/poster of the Palmiarnia detailing the contents of the interior and with a wonderful large image on the back showcasing the building and park in its entirety. This is a nice compliment to the poster of the city I have in my room back home. I had planned to take my Dad to see the Palmiarnia, the place which inspires me most in the city, but unfortunately it was closed as on Monday's they take care of the plants etc. However, this offered even more incentive to return in the summer for the wine festival, easily the highlight of the city's cultural calendar.

The Palmiarnia in the the snow - vineyard covered over
Time was unfortunately marching on, so we made our way slowly to collect our bags from the bed and breakfast (we had made an exception to stay somewhere nice in this city, with a wonderful breakfast) and made our way back to the station. Since we had been exploring with little time to eat, we bought some bigos (Polish stew) and pierogi (polish dumplings) 'na wynos' (to take away) near the station to eat on the train. Our train to Warsaw was at 16.18 and would take five hours. Incredibly, our train was officially inter-regional, but was made up of Intercity stock (this could only happen in Poland) and for a change we had a toilet with running water and flushing toilet. Ironically, the train was also called Zielonogorzanin (the name for residents and citizens of Zielona Góra). This was a fantastic end to a fantastic stay, although all too short in the city, and I find myself eagerly in anticipation of my four-day return in September to appreciate the city more fully.

Street near railway station with hotel & snow-covered tree
N.B. Having said the above about the trains, although it may sound strange to some, this just serves to intensify the appeal of Poland. It is not a typical tourist destination and one cannot expect all the services one can expect at home all the time - however, Polish hospitality is second to none and any unusual aspects of public transport etc. are more than made up for by the resilience and nature of the people that constitute this country. There are certainly more serious things to worry about in the world than whether the train you are travelling on has water for washing your hands with. Remember those people in Africa who have to walk for miles each day just to access water? Poland is not one of those countries, and shouldn't be seen as such.

Link to day 7:

Day 6 - 10th March 2013, Zielona Góra

Today was a rather uneventful day, as the majority of it was spent travelling on a long train journey  that involved three separate trains with little time to connect between them and around 10 hours travelling. However, we started out early, at around 8.30am and so arrived at our destination in time to find something to eat and make the most out of the evening and our limited time here.

Stary rynek (Main square) in Zielona Góra at night
It is worth saying at this point that Zielona Góra is absolutely my favourite Polish city. I know a couple of people from here, and the town is not at all one that would generally be full of tourists - the only tourists here would generally be from across the border in Germany looking to get in touch with their historical roots, as the town was formally German, known as Gruneberg. However, it is now quintessentially Polish whilst still maintaining some vague references to German architecture and style.
Haust bar and brewery where we spent the first evening
The reason the city is special to me are twofold. First of all, I know two people and their families from this city or very close by, and these people are good friends of mine and generally special people in my life. Having said this, the town is special in it's own right - unlike certain provincial cities in Poland, the city has a colourful and pleasant atmosphere, with many of the buildings being of a pleasant colourful facade. It also has an extremely unique and interesting attraction in the form of the Palmiarnia, or Palmhouse, which I feel a very close connection with. This is the second reason.
Bottle of the local brew - the way forward!
The Palmiarnia is both a botanical garden, a Greenhouse and a restaurant, complete with a viewing terrace overlooking the city, set in wonderful green surroundings and is generally a very refreshing and welcoming place to be, particularly in the summer. It is set in a park that is, or was, actually a vineyard, as the city is well-known for its wine producing, and holds a wine festival every September, known as Winobranie. It is a place I feel completely at peace and relaxed. However, since we arrived relatively late into the city, after checking into our accommodation we simply went out for something to eat and had a drink of the locally brewed beer known as Haust which is brewed on the premises next door to our hotel since 2004. 

Day 5 - 9th March 2013, Oświęcim/Auschwitz

Today was to be the most sombre and serious day of the trip, as we had decided to go to Auschwitz. Many people wrongly call the town where the museum is located Auschwitz also, and although this may have been correct when the country was under German occupation, it is no longer - the town itself is called Oświęcim (pronounced Osh-vyen-cheem), while the term 'Auschwitz' refers solely to the 'museum' and it's surroundings.

The train to Oświęcim/Auschwitz from Kraków station
We took the train from Kraków Główny (the main station) at precisely 10:14, on one of the cheap regional trains that runs to Oświęcim fairly frequently - these trains are the most uncomfortable, and cheapest in Poland, but for a journey of 64km (40 miles) costing only around £3, you can't complain too much. The journey time was fairly long for the distance covered, but gave us time to read up on the camp a bit more before our arrival.

A sense of colour in a former world of grey
Upon arrival in Oświęcim, we had to walk 2km to the museum through housing estates, and we passed a typical apartment block from Communist times, with the pleasant addition that they had painted it in bright colours to make it more interesting and, presumably, pleasanter for the residents. There was hardly a soul in sight on the way there, which meant that our arrival at the museum to find it bursting with life, lots of tour buses and hundreds of tourists came as even more of a shock.

Entrance to the camp as seen by the victims
In any case, we entered the museum (entry is free) and bought a simple guide with map to show us the way around and with explanations of what was in each of the buildings. It was surprisingly time-consuming going round and we missed off some of the buildings as there tended to be some repetition about what had happened to the people of each nation, and one can only take so much. The most sinister areas were the area in-between buildings 10 and 11 with the so-called 'Death wall' where members of the camp had been lined up and shot, with the windows of building 10 boarded up to prevent other 'residents' viewing what happened. Building 11 was where certain prisoners and officials from various sectors of society were locked up for various non-crimes, not merely in blacked out cells but also in very small and windowless bricked-up cells where prisoners were only able to stand, with little room to move or even breathe.

Just a few of the thousands of pictures of unfortunate victims that line
the walls of the buildings at Auschwitz - none of them survived.
Following this we moved on to the other buildings. the most notorious of which was the gas chamber, very sinister and silent and was by far the worst. It did not take long to visit and one could almost imagine what had gone on here, especially after the business of the other buildings made way for the quietness here. At the end of the trip I bought a small and simple booklet with colour photos of the camp - I had made plenty of my own, but none could compare with the quality of the official images, even if they reflected a truer picture. The day we visited was very dull and this did add to the atmosphere, without the colour enhancement and pleasant weather of the official pictures - although this is useful to show people who want to see the place in a positive light, of sorts.

The wall of death where so many lost their lives

After this we had only a little time to make our train to Kraków. We were to meet some of my friends on the main square at 7pm and only just had time to do some shopping before the time came. We spent some time talking over the days events and the rest of our trip and had a few drinks. My friend introduced me to an extremely tasty honey-flavoured beer that was wonderfully smooth and I would definitely drink this again - is there a pattern emerging here, with the honey? I'd like to think so! In any case, we ended the night in a shisha bar with very oriental decoration. We did not smoke anything, but it was enough just to take in the atmosphere and enjoy a final drink. After this we retired to our room, exhausted by the days events and bracing ourselves for a long 9 hour overland journey to my favourite city Zielona Góra the following day - this would most definitely be the highlight of my trip.

The gas chamber as it looks now

Link to day 6:

Day 4 - 8th March 2013, Kraków

Today was a fairly uneventful day, as were mainly preoccupied with travelling by train from Warsaw to Kraków, which took a little over two hours, and on a pleasant and comfortable inter-regional train. After arrival, as usual, we made our way to the place where we would be staying, known as the Aston hotel on Ul. długa (Long street). Trams run along this street shuttling between the edges of the historic centre, known as the Planty, and the marketplace known as Nowy Kleparz, where there are lots of stalls selling food, flowers and other goods generally in daily demand.

A bike with my name near our hostel - it's destiny!
We first discovered this market in the December of 2006 on our first visit to Poland, when it was wonderfully decorated and had lots of stalls selling intriguing Christmas food products and decorations and other colourful regalia. We discovered it quite by accident as the area also serves as somewhat of a transport interchange between trams and buses, which led to the hotel we stayed in.

Our accommodation in a Polish apartment
In any case, upon reaching our accommodation we were somewhat surprised to discover that our room was not in the same building where the reception bureau was, but was actually in a second building across the street. For me at least, this is one of the quirky delights of travelling in Poland. Although our accommodation was technically a hostel, it was really just a set of apartments that had been taken over by the company that operated it, and as such utilises a multitude of buildings in the area to provide accommodation for temporary visitors or residents. This is a particularly Polish phenomenon to me and means that your lodgings are inevitably much more pleasant than a typical travellers hostel would be likely to be.

One of the Polish traditional Szopki (Nativity scenes).
 This turned out to be the case, as we had a nice big room leading off a large hall with a kitchen and bathroom attached. It felt more like we were in our own private apartment than a hostel, as at least for the first night, we were alone in the place. The only downside was being three storeys up and no lift, but this was less a problem for me than my Dad, and in any case Polish people are used to this sort of thing - often hardier folk than those in what I call the West (i.e. Britain). By the time we had familiarised ourself with the local area it was almost evening and so our stomachs were calling our for something to eat. We made our way to the main square and down to the Milk Bar on Ul. Grodzka. 

Advert promoting an international volunteering programme.

Milk Bars (known in Polish as Bar Mleczny) are another historically Polish phenomenon. They offer good, home-made cuisine in simple, informal surroundings and at an excellent price. We ate Polish meat cutlets with mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, washed down by a Polish fruit milkshake (very different to those at home, and healthier) and a chocolatey cake specific to the region we were in. All very enjoyable and cost only £3.50 (17zł) per person! Following this, we made our way to the Ethnografic museum (Muzeum etnograficzne) which showcases traditional Polish lifestyles, folk art and cultural phenomena. The most interesting was an impressive display of szopki (nativity scenes) made by hand out of various pieces of coloured foil - the museum had an impressive number of these of astonishing size, and were made all the more beautiful by being lit up for us. We were the only guests in the museum so to go to this effort was touching.

After this it was getting dark, so we went to a cellar bar (Kraków is notorious for these) near our hotel and had a drink before heading back. Wouldn't have minded buying the barman a drink, as he was very nice, but I thought I might give the wrong (or right!) impression ;) - better luck next time!

Link to day 5:

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Day 3 - 7th March 2013

Today was our last full day in Warsaw, and as we had done the modern side of the city, we decided to concentrate on the Royal Way and the areas around the Old and New towns. Confusingly enough, in addition to the modern part of town as defined by the 'Śródmieście' (City Centre) and the areas around the Central Station, Warsaw also has both an Old Town (Stare Miasto) and a New Town (Nowe Miasto). Due to an unfortunate aberration in history, the New Town is actually older than the Old Town. Confusing, I know.

Old Town Square in Warsaw
This unfortunate state of affairs came about due to a certain Hitler's imperialist and territorialist ambitions over Poland (in addition to many other European countries) and resulted in Warsaw being completely decimated during World War II, such that there was nothing left of Warsaw's historic architectural legacy and what it once was, except for a bunch of photos. Fortunately, these photos were taken as historical reference points and through the 1950's right up and including to the 1970's, Warsaw was slowly put together to look exactly as it once had, honouring it's architectural legacy and pride as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Rather than making Warsaw a tragic place to visit, bearing this in mind only serves to make it more fascinating, and results in an attachment between the visitor and the city unusual in many other cities on the continent and overseas.
Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy) in Warsaw
Walking around the Old Town itself is a real pleasure, particularly when you get to the Main Square (Rynek Starego Miasta). It is much smaller than many other main squares in Poland, which is ironic given that this is the capital, but it is important to remember that this is a medieval square that was originally built in the 15th and 16th centuries. The fact that it has been built to almost exactly the same standards before is a credit to Poland's architects and to the sense of character and beauty that architects of the original period also had. The town houses and tall buildings will be immediately familiar to many people who have seen other European capitals, but those of Warsaw's old square are that much smaller as to be almost like a model village, yet one that is living and breathing in it's own right. That alone makes it somewhat special. Dotted by cafes, restaurants and a few tasteful souvenir shops, Warsaw's original town has risen from the ashes like a phoenix, both commemorating it's tragic history and looking to the future with passion and enthusiasm.

Traditional Polish crafts on sale in the Old Town
For me personally, one of the highlights of the main square is a man who sits in the centre, playing an organ with various tunes and ornaments dotted around it. He is quite clearly meant to appeal to tourists, but somehow he just fits, and you can buy a unique postcard from him and have your photo taken for the mere sum of 1zł each (20p). This simple yet pleasurable pasttime harks back to the past whilst reminding younger people of the traditions of yesteryear that still hold meaning for Poland now, and hopefully also in the future. Such a simple thing is often missing from squares in the centre of London, for instance.

Traditional Polish food in the New Town

Following a pleasant stroll around the main square, we made our way to see the New Town, by way of a detour of an exhibition of the Old Town then and now, showcasing pictures and videos of the area both before and after the war. This made an interesting aside on the way to the New Town, which is very similar to the Old Town except the streets are wider and there is more space, yet still with that familiar sense of evading the modern whilst still embracing it sufficiently to remain relevant in the 21st century. We stopped off to eat here in a restaurant called 'Zapiecek', where I was served with traditional Polish soup with grilled sausage in a silver bowl with a candle underneath to keep it warm whilst you serve yourself several times. This was accompanied by wonderful Polish bread that is very different to that in the UK, and in my opinion much tastier. Following this I enjoyed a coffee and traditional Polish apple cake - all of which came to the princely sum of less than £6.
A Metro stop representing modern Warsaw
As we had done some significant sightseeing at this point, we decided to take it a bit easier and gave Dad a ride on the Metro to the last stop, where there is a tram terminus and Dad could spend some time taking photos. Instead of taking the Metro back the way we had came, we got on a tram that took us through some of Warsaw's northern suburbs. It is here, unfortunately, that the darker side of Communism can still be seen in the uniform grey apartment buildings that dot the landscape. Undoubtedly, this is not the only side there is to Warsaw's suburbs, but it is here that the incidence can most keenly be felt. On the way back we stopped off at another modern shopping centre to pass the time before heading back to the hostel. I would later on meet my friend with whom we would share a drink and catch up on the time since we last saw each other. A pleasant end to a pleasant day.

Link to day 4:

Day 2, 6th March 2013

Woke reasonably early today, with a full day of sightseeing planned. The first stop was the Złote Tarasy (Golden Terraces) shopping centre near the main station, as Dad wanted some batteries for his camera and we also needed to exchange some money. Perhaps the most valuable piece of advice I can give about travel in Poland is ALWAYS exchange your money, or as much of it as possible in Poland after your arrival. You will always get a better exchange rate than in your own country, and often will be able to get a better rate the more you exchange if you ask. As an example, at the time of this trip, travel agents and exchange centres in my town were offering 4.50zł to the £1, where-as those in Warsaw were offering an average of 4.72. It may not sound like much but it does make a difference.

Inside the Złote Tarasy shopping centre
In any case, we were rather impressed by the shopping centre, furnished inside as it was with lots of green plants and a curiously curved glass roof - and all in the shadow of a huge guitar from the Hard Rock Cafe and the Palace of Culture and Science. Nevertheless, we didn't hang about here for long and made our way towards the remains of the Ghetto wall that can be found in the city. They are quite difficult to find, located at Sienna Street no. 55 (Ul. Sienna 55). You can enter if you're lucky from the gate on the street itself, but the best and easiest way is to go to the next junction with Twarda street (Ul. Twarda) and then immediately turn left on to Złota street (Ul. Złota - Street of Gold) and you will walk past some shops. In between the Marcpol delicatessen and a clock-makers shop is an inconspicious gate that actually has signposts leading to the wall remains, saying 'Miejsce pamięci' - literally, Place of Memory.

The Palace and Culture of Science and the Hard Rock cafe.
From here it is easier, and you can exit after the second wall fragment you can exit back onto Sienna street, from where it easy to make your way back to the centre by turning right. I found myself thinking perhaps it is a good thing that it is not easily accessible and requires some effort to find - it is not a place that is bustling with tourists, and it shouldn't be. This is a place where due respect is required and a quiet contemplation. It is eerily quiet given the proximity to one of Warsaw main streets, al. Jana Pawła II (John Paul II Avenue) but this only augments the possibilities for quiet reflection and contemplation.

A stone with a Jewish star left in tribute to victims of the Holocaust. 

Following this sombre detour, we made our way to the Warsaw Railway Museum (Muzeum kolejnictwa) which my Dad wanted to see. Entry costs 12zł (around £2.50) and there is an indoor exhibition with lots of model trains and railway memoribilia, and, perhaps most interestingly for rail enthusiasts, a significant outdoor exhibition with many old locomotives to explore and photograph. Perhaps the most interesting exhibit for visitors to Poland is the one remaining war train that is stored here, complete with a cannon built into it. One can only imagine the horrific uses to which it was put, but it makes for an interesting change to the more everyday passenger service locomotives to be found here. On the way out, I picked up a small booklet with pictures of the trains on show and information on each of them (that I will have to translate) for my Dad. Nonetheless, it made for an inexpensive and interesting souvenir for him.

The only remaining war train in Europe.
Upon leaving the museum, we took a tram back to the central station and the shopping centre in order to buy a few necessary food items in the supermarket here. We had decided rather than splash out eating out, tonight we would buy some nice items from the supermarket and cook a nice dinner in the hostel. Since Dad's stomach had been playing up over the past few days, we didn't go for anything heavy and just bought some nice Italian pasta and sauce to make a simple dish - we weren't doing very well on the Polish food front up to this point, but this would soon be rectified.

A water fountain for filling up trains at the Railway Museum.
After this we made our way back to the hostel, cooked our food and settled in for the evening, only nipping out for one drink onto New World street for another of those famous 4zł drinks. Time to call it a night!

Link to day 3:

Day 1, 5th March 2013: Warsaw

Arrived at the main airport in Warsaw, and in Poland, Frederic Chopin, named after the famous composer. Our flights had originally been to the smaller Warsaw Modlin airport, which is some way out, but due to problems with the runway for the foreseeable future, our flight had been changed to come here. Fortunately, this worked out better for us, as it is only a short trip from the City centre, compared to Modlin airport which is a good 30 miles out of town and requires a relatively expensive and significant coach ride to the centre of Warsaw.

Palace of Culture and Science
We arrived at around 6pm in the evening, just as it was getting dark and took one of the shiny, modern new airport trains to the centre, and since it was part of the three-day public transport ticket (Bilet trzydniowy) we bought the journey did not cost us any extra. However, since it normally only costs 4.60 in Polish złoty (zł.) - around 95 pence - for this ticket, it still isn't particularly expensive. As in most places outside of the UK, public transport in Poland is a steal compared to the inefficient and overpriced system that reigns in the UK. We got out at the Central station (Warszawa Centralna) as opposed to the nearest station to our hostel, so as to be welcomed by the magnificient towering figure of the Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki - abbreviated frequently to PKiN).

University gates on the Royal Way
Naturally, our priority was checking into the place we would be staying, which was located on Tamka street (Ul. Tamka), only a 5 minute walk from Krakowskie Przedmieście, the main thoroughfare in the centre of Warsaw, and part of the Royal Way (Trakt Królewski) that stretches from here to Warsaw's southern reaches and beyond at the palace in Wilanów. After checking in, time was marching on and we decided to take a walk down Krakowskie Przedmieście at night with a view to seeing the Old Town lit up (Stare Miasto). This proved to be a rewarding walk and introduced us to the delights of cosy bars, cafes and restaurants that looked extremely inviting in the frosty Winter air, and we made a bid to return later in the trip. We also saw a shop that sold some a variety of wonderfully colourful items made from Polish crystal - something to add to my collection when I'm a rich man, perhaps!

A selection of Polish crystal products in the Old Town
After viewing the Old Town and ambling around some of the streets, we decided to have a welcome to Warsaw drink, so as we were walking back along the Royal Way, we stopped at a bar where all drinks were 4zł (about 80p) - I indulged in a small glass of wine and Dad enjoyed a glass of beer. By this time it was well after 10, so after a tiring day of travelling, we decided to head back to the hostel and get our heads down for a nights sleep, ready for the exciting full day of sightseeing ahead of us the next day.

Link to Day 2: