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Tim

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  1. Something rare happened today. Not an eclipse; not Halley's comet returning; something rarer than all of those: I overslept. In the interests of protecting my reputation, I should point out that I didn't really oversleep. Not initially. I still woke up naturally before seven o'clock. The problem was that I saw what the time was, and still felt tired after around four hours' sleep, on top of the lack of sleep before flying out here, so decided to go back to bed. When I awoke again, it was nearing ten o'clock, the time that I should check out! The host here is very nice (she'd even asked me the previous night when I'd like to check out) so I wasn't concerned about that particularly. What was a matter of concern, though, is that the latest train I could realistically take to Poznan would depart at 11:47; there was a three-hour break before the following train, which wouldn't arrive until 18:17. That doesn't sound like the worst challenge on paper, does it? Around two hours to get showered, packed, check out, and make the train station. The problem is that there was something I wanted to do first: something I wasn't able to accomplish yesterday because the Jewish cemetery had closed by the time I got there. And the apartment, cemetery and train station were nowhere near one another. I whizzed through the showering and packing, deposited the keys in the host's coffee shop, and set off to find the appropriate bus-stop. A quick look at the timetable confirmed which bus I needed: the Jewish cemetery was marked there as stop 11. Unfortunately, it was also marked by a white circle where all the others had a black one, so I thought there might be a problem if I tried to alight there. Fortunately, another stop with just the sort of name which would attract me was immediately before it. And sure enough, that's the stop I chose to get off at, only a couple of minutes' walk away from the entrance to the cemetery. But then my heart filled with dread: the metal doors of the cemetery were shut, just as they were yesterday! I remembered having read a note stuck to the door explaining that it would be closed on several days coming up but also distinctly recalled that there was a sequence of several consecutive days starting from tomorrow, but today hadn't been listed. I happen to be the world's worst person regarding dates, however, and so prepared for self-inflicted disappointment again. But not before I decided to try breaking in. Success! The door gave way easily: it wasn't locked! And soon I was handing over my 20 zloties for a ticket. There wasn't exactly an abundance of space even in so large a cemetery, so off I set. It didn't take long for my Esperanto-attuned eyes to spot something. Not what I was looking for but something special anyway: Those are the gravestones of two of Ludoviko's younger brothers, Leono and Felikso. I felt I might be on the right track. I wasn't. I reached the end of this lengthy aisle and hadn't seen it. I would have to scour the cemetery pulling my suitcase. (If you ever want to feel very self-conscious, I can recommend taking a heavy suitcase as your companion to a cemetery. Oh, the echoes of those wheels being pulled along the stony ground!) Nothing. I would have to start being scientific: perhaps Leono and Felikso were grouped together because they died only a year apart. That did seem to be a pattern, so I narrowed down the search to plots with older gravestones in whilst the clock ran down. Still nothing, as I reached the end of an aisle which had been taped off. But then I saw something. Although there was no text on it from the angle from which I was viewing it, you can't be a zamenhofologist and not have an idea of what Ludoviko's tomb looks like. And so I abandoned my suitcase and crossed over the tape into No Man's Land: And to make things easier for others to picture it, I shot a video of it: And then I had to rush out: I had a train to catch and needed a tram to get there! It didn't look good for me: it was supposed to be a 13-minute journey with a 2-minute walk at the end, and then the need to buy a ticket. I think I had about 25 minutes but everything would come down to when the tram arrived. It did but as quickly as I would've wished. As the stops slowly passed by one by one, I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be late, as I usually am. ("But if I'd left on time I wouldn't have found the tombstone" seems a reasonable excuse to me, even if I can't imagine too many others would agree with me!) By the time I got off the tram, there were minutes to spare, and I dashed away in something of a forlorn hope. Bah, too late: the time had passed, and all the ticket desks were closed. And then I heard something on the tannoy: the 11:47 to Berlin Hauptbahnhof had been delayed by ten minutes. 11:47? That time rang a bell, even if the destination didn't: both Poznań and Berlin lie west of Warsaw, so there might be grounds for hope. I looked at timetable: that's my train, due to have left from platform 3 but delayed! That gave me a few minutes to buy a ticket, and so I hurried to the machine. And then I promptly hit the machine! It would only allow me to buy tickets from 12:00 onwards: I wanted to buy one for 11:47, ten minutes ago. Hitting the machine did nothing to change its mind, so I decided that the best approach would be to stow away and then try to track down a ticket inspector as soon as we pulled away. I dropped down to the platform. Over the tannoy there soon rang another announcement in English: the train had been delayed by at least twenty minutes. I can't stand waiting around, so headed off to find a way of getting a ticket. No luck, but a lady spoke to an employee on my behalf, who replied that "nie ma problemu" to the idea that I could just buy one on the train. Great! And so I returned to the platform. In short order the details for the 11:47 appeared on the signs, and a train appeared on the platform, accompanied by an announcement in Polish. So I boarded it, rather satisfied with my good fortune. ... until I tracked down the ticket inspector about twenty minutes later. A ticket inspector who spoke only Polish, incidentally. This train wasn't going to Poznań: it wasn't even going to Berlin. It was the wrong train. Well, from my perspective. It was the correct train from the point of view of the timetable: it was the train which was scheduled to be departing from that platform at that time. But for some reason they chose to show the details for the delayed 11:47 at the point it arrived, and I don't speak Polish so didn't understand the message on the tannoy. Between us, non-Polish-speaking me and the monolingual Polish ticket inspector worked out a separate route: I could alight at a stop about twenty minutes away, from where I would have a three-hour stop-over until a train to Poznań departed. Fine! I bought my ticket, and twenty minutes later was in the middle of nowhere, whence I set off to try to find something to do. I love the idea of living an isolated existence: I'd looked on admiringly at the large houses often with red roofs which were dotted about the route. But it comes at a price in that there are next to no amenities. I found a bar but that wouldn't be open until 16:00. I'd be gone by then. I suppose that was for the best: although I fully intended to find a bar it doesn't bear thinking about what the consequences would be with a three-hour pause at Polish prices: despite my best intentions to stop at three pints, as soon as that one disappeared, it would descend to a binge. It was a good thing for me, then, that there was nothing I could do, as I dragged my case around in the hope that I would chance upon civilisation. Google wasn't much help, refusing to fill in any details for the section of the map which I happened to be in, and struggling to decide which way I was walking at any given time. After an hour or so, I'd located the town, including a burger joint. I wasn't interested in junk food, so bypassed it. I later returned, having discovered that for some reason or other, everywhere else was shut. I couldn't read the menu: although the names were in English, the descriptions were in Polish. I opted for the "Polish Burger" without knowing what that would entail. As best as I can tell, the Polish element of that was melted Camembert and cranberry sauce, or something along those lines. One rushed meal later, I was off. As usual, I realised that I had left things late, and ended up dragging my case at pace, occasionally resorting to short bursts of jogging. (I'm not sure whether this was any faster than fast walking but it made me think I was doing a better job.) As I reached the outside of the railway station, my train pulled up. No! There were tracks between me and it, and I couldn't see any way as to how I'd be able to cross them with my case without incurring the wrath of the various guards standing there. The subway it would have to be! I got there but I was so out of breath at the point I boarded, having pulled the 20 kg case up a ramp whilst jogging. (This part was much easier on the downhill section, though required covering much more ground than just descending via the steps would have. I didn't see that at the point I chose the ramp, though!) Fortunately, I had the cabin to myself, so no-one had to witness the undignifying sight of the blown-up fat man about to expire. The rest of the journey was uneventful, as was my arrival into Poznań. Don't get me wrong: Google tried its best to cause me to smash my phone, by constantly changing my position relative to everything else, such that a 20-minute journey took over an hour as I constantly entered and emerged from subways. (By the way, authorities in Poznań: why are most of your escalators broken?) What really got me mad is that by the time I located the halls of residence myself, I realised that I'd originally navigated myself to within 100 metres of them at the point that Google told me that it had changed my mind and I needed to far away from here. I had a frustrating hour in the halls trying desperately to get an internet connection before eventually giving up and deciding that I wanted a booze-up instead, the lack of internet compounding my impression that I'd signed up to something akin to an IKEA-bedecked prison cell for the rest of the week: As luck would have it, my stroll into what appears to be a very beautiful night-time Poznań ended up with me in a restaurant which served probably my favourite meal when we're in Central and Eastern Europe: goulash. This one was amazing, as was the bread it came with. But I don't want to end on too positive a note on what had been, the very start and very end aside, a frustrating waste of a day, so I'll point out that the goulash got me a little depressed that no matter how many times I've tried to replicate it, mine never turns out anything like the culinary delights I encounter on my travels.
  2. The first mission of the day was to source some breakfast. Poland is a very Catholic country so I wasn't sure that any shops or restaurants would be open. Except for one: the one bearing those famous golden arches. It turns out that there was one only a short walk away. My street happens to come straight out onto Castle Square: The buildings in Castle Square really are easy on the eye: The apartment is located on this street between these two colourful blocks: There was some sort of demonstration nearby, around Sigismund's Column: Once breakfast was sorted, I went back to the hotel to have a bit of a lazy day, ahead of a later adventure. You see, I'm in Warsaw, the home of Esperanto, since this is where Ludoviko Zamenhof lived when he published the first book in the language in 1887. I'm an Esperantologist, so there were some streets I wanted to track down. I left in the afternoon, and the restaurants on Castle Square had brightened themselves up with some lights: I headed off in the direction of the Barbikan, and soon found this rather strange statue: It's the Pomnik Małego Powstańca, a monument honouring child soldiers: And before long I glimpsed the Barbican in the distance: It was a sixteenth century fortress which was largely destroyed during the Siege of Warsaw in 1939 and the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. What we see now is a rebuilt version, hence its apparent newness: The nearby streets are full of colourful buildings: They realy are delightful: And they go on for quite a distance: I realised I would have to turn off before I ended up too far off track, so turned onto a main road, where I was met with a sight I hadn't anticipated: They were following a black car which had a police escort. Something didn't seem quite right to me: the uniforms seem to be from decades past: And my suspicions were confirmed when I saw the women: I presume it was either a historical re-enactment or something being filmed, although I hadn't spotted a camera crew. I seemed to have chanced upon a hotspot for commemorating the Second World War: This is a monument to the Warsaw Uprising: I crossed the road to walk through the gardens of the Krasinski Palace and found my first bit of unexpected Esperanto on a signpost for hired bikes: That's the Esperanto word for vehicle, and it was immediately in front of the palace, the front lawn to which was the territory of a collection of winged horses: I went around the back of the palace to walk through its grounds: It really is a splendid building: And it brought me out right where I wanted it to: Alongside Zamenhof Street you'll fine a monument to the Warsaw ghetto: And on the same site stands the enormous POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews: And so I decided to go into this gargantuan building to see whether my Esperanto detective skills would turn something up. There are extensive exhibitions spanning 9 different galleries. I'd seen plenty of beautiful artefacts, including these paintings of Frederick William II, Emperor Franz II of Austria, and Catherine the Great: But there didn't seem to be any Esperanto-related displays. And then my eagle eyes caught sight of something familiar in the distance: "That's the house in Białystok in which Zamenhof was born", I thought to myself, and I approached it. One quick glance seemed to confirm it: And then I spotted a relevant passage on a board: Success! But could I find more? It turns out I could. And all I had to do was mind the steps as I headed down a flight of stairs: This led to a map of the ghetto on the floor: Although I was going around as fast as I could, there was a one-way system in place and the exhibition spanned several floors, so I spent more time in the museum than I intended to. I needed to resume my route: I was off to Nowolipie Street, where the firm which printed the first Esperanto book was located at number 11. To get there, I had to go down Nowolipki Street ... and look what I found: Amazing! An Esperanto mural! It existed on both sides of a shortcut between buildings: There were Polish translations of the Esperanto text: I'm afraid Nowolipie Street doesn't hold a candle to it. This is the section where the Chaim Kelter's printing firm used to stand: It looked nicer back in the day: And on I strode to my final destination: Zamenhof's tomb in the Jewish cemetery. As tends to happen to me, I passed a street with a memorable name en route: Unfortunately, my decision to visit the Museum of the History of Polish Jews backfired to a degree: the Jewish cemetery had closed by the time I got there. That just means I'll have to come back tomorrow morning before I leave Warsaw. At this point, it was becoming evening and I was a couple of miles away from the Old Town, so it was time to walk back as night was falling: And after a while, I saw a familiar, if not friendly, face: One quick glance at the beautiful Castle Square: And then I headed home. Tomorrow morning I'll be saying goodbye to Warsaw. I'm glad I came here: it's far, far nicer than I imagined.
  3. Tim

    Bye Bye, Mortgage

    A shade over 11 years ago we took out a 35-year mortgage on our house. We've just paid it off in full, every penny coming from us: no loans, no gifts, no inheritance. Clare's only 36 years old and owns her house outright! I don't think it's too bad either for me at 41. And so we treated ourselves to celebrate. The day the final payment went through was a workday but that didn't mean we couldn't do something special. Clare came downstairs expecting Bran Flakes for breakfast: I always include Heidi and Pebbles on special occasions, so they got a tin of tuna for breakfast: I'd bought us a yule log to have with coffee in the afternoon, and as a dessert in the evening: Since lunch was a treat too (I made Clare a pizza), we weren't at all hungry, which wasn't a bad thing because we worked late and so didn't get around to starting our evening meal until nine o'clock, commencing with champagne and a few nibbles: The girls were well aware that we were running late with their food too. I'd made a point of feeding them some treats at various points during the day so that they wouldn't be too hungry, but we were approaching three hours behind their normal mealtime at this point. That meant that they had plenty of space for their prawns! I normally feed them equal portions but Pebbles is a beast when it comes to her favourite food, so she got slightly more: True to form, Pebbles had wolfed hers down and then gone for a lie-down to sleep it off before Heidi even got to the halfway mark: (She didn't manage to eat much more than that, and Pebbles re-emerged an hour later to wipe out the rest of the supply.) Clare had requested lasagne so I removed it from the oven, and set about serving it: Here's where you see why it's possible to have a Favourite Cat. Where Pebbles eats and then goes about her own business indifferent to us, Heidi comes back to sit with us. Where one is a lodger, the other is a family member. Greeting us every time she sees us, waiting outside the bedroom door when I get up, and crying outside the door if she's not had a cuddle before I go to bed are all everyday features of living with her, as is her keeping us company whether we're working in the office or eating at the table: That lovely bottle of red wine went down beautifully with the various cheeses and bread rolls we ate afterwards, as did the remaining champagne with the leftover chocolate cake from the afternoon. We managed a small coffee and managed to stay up for another hour to aid digestion before midnight struck and it was time for bed. As closely as we've been tracking our mortgage, the fact that we've paid it off only one third into the term still hasn't sunk in for either of us, so I deliberately took those photos yesterday and wrote this blog so that we'd be able to look back on the day all our hard work and planning had paid off. We should have still been paying it for another 23 years and 9 months, finally seeing the back of it when I'm 65!
  4. One thing we hadn't done during this short break is visit the Christmas market in Bolzano in the evening. We'd got back to the hotel early enough today to be able to go out again in the evening, so after night had fallen, we put our coats and boots on, and headed out the door. Soprabalzano was pretty in the dark. It had its own Christmas market outside the cable-car station. It appeared that we were going to be the only people taking the cable car at the point we boarded. Yes, the doors closed without anybody else coming through, so we had it to ourselves. About 7 minutes into the journey. an illuminated Bolzano appeared in the distance. There were two very handy landmarks standing out. There was a Christmas market alongside the Big Wheel, and another in the main square, which had the cathedral on one edge. The first cabins were enclosed by trees with beautiful fairy lights and large red baubels. And the street had lovely lights suspended above it. The edge featured reindeer and lights. The cabins happened to be closing at the point we arrived, so we said goodbye to the reindeer and walked towards the main square. We knew we were nearly there when the cathedral appeared. Each side of the square featured a light show of moving stars. We were really pleased to see that one of the cabins housed a nativity scene. There was a beautiful tree at the side of it and a lovely view of the cathedral and its roof above it. We stopped beside it to have a small mug of Glühwein. Although it was time to head back home, we decided not to take a direct route, leaving the square from the end opposite the cathedral. It took us up a street we'd already seen in the daylight. We knew where we were going. We'd seen that the nearby streets had decorations up, and wanted to see them at night. There were plenty of trees in the nearby square, surrounding some more cabins. And some Christmas lighting guiding our way back home. It was a fun evening to a fabulous day, before we fly back home tomorrow.
  5. Today was our final day. I hadn't given much thought to what we'd do, thinking that we could arrange something together whilst we were in Zakopane and knew the lay of the land. My suggestion was Nowy Sącz, on the basis that it was the nearest large town. Matt came up with a much more reasoned suggestion: 'We barely got to see Kraków and we've got to go to the airport near Kraków, so why don't we go to Kraków and see a bit more of it?' That made so much sense that it's exactly what we did. The 65-mile drive was very easy for nearly the whole distance, since it was on a motorway, which offered occasional pretty views: A little after 12, we'd arrived, choosing to park by Wewel Cathedral, which was immediately visible to us upon exiting the car park: It was immediately apparent that the Vistula was a wide river: we hadn't seen it before because night had fallen when we crossed it previously: We walked around the wall and soon encountered a dragon: A little past him was a ramp upwards, which we followed: Soon we saw the cathedral: It was very pretty up close: Around the corner was a statue of the region's Karel Wojtyła, better known as Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in over 450 years: We were running low on time at this point (the contract with the rental company stipulates a fine of 500€ if we don't return the car on time!), so headed down rather than linger. After roaming for a couple of minutes, we walked up a street with a pretty church on it: Directly opposite was a lunchtime cafe, and that's where we decided to stop for a quick bite to eat. We exited to the view of the church, retrieved the van, and returned it to the company with five minutes to spare, before walking the few minutes to the airport for our first of two flights home.
  6. Our base for the final two nights was Zakopane, a ski resort in the south of Poland. I spent a week here in 2005 during an Esperanto event, although shamefully have no recollection of the mountains. By the time we arrived night had fallen. Our landlady told us where to find a good, local restaurant, confirming that it was open, since we'd noticed so many others closed for Independence Day during our travels. We ate well and returned to the chalet. Yes, I said chalet. We have an amazing location with a bedroom each. It looks beautiful from the outside: The inside is equally stunning: This morning started off with a streetwide powercut, which the landlady had informed us about the previous evening. Fortunately, Dad and I had got our showers in beforehand, and there was a gas cooker in the kitchen, which Matt used to make sure that everybody had coffee. We had a particularly relaxed start to the day with people free to get up and come down when they wanted. Our plans were limited to using a cable car to get to the top of a nearby mountain. Without any travel ahead of us, we could afford to take our time. As it happens, we never got around to having breakfast because it was past eleven when we left the house and drove to a place called Kuźnice, from where we were going to use a cable car to reach Kasprowy Wierch, not far from the summit of the highest mountain. Unfortunately for us, the cable car was closed down for technical review prior to the ski season, so we were stuck where we are, albeit in pretty surroundings: Rob, James and Matt went off for a little stroll: And came back down perhaps twenty minutes later: With little else to do and having had no breakfast, we decided to head into the main town and look for lunch. We ended up parking alongside pretty surroundings: Including Poland's largest ski jump! It didn't take long to find somewhere to eat and so we settled down for an hour or so. Afterwards, we had to think about what to do, given that our plans had gone awry. I had the intention of taking a five-mile trail to see a glacial lake called Morskie Oko but I was conscious that this wouldn't be everybody's cup of tea. In the end, we decided that Matt would explore the town and then make his way home, Dad would spend some time in the chalet, and Rob, James and I would go up the trail by the cable car. The first 20 minutes were very difficult, walking up a steep cobbled incline. Things suddenly became easier and we were soon rewarded by a view: A few minutes further, and things really started to look pretty: We decided that it would be worth walking on to see whether we could get any closer views, so off we set: The track led through a pine forest: There was soon a steep section: It had become drizzly but we were soon encouraged by the promise of a view: And soon we were there: It had taken a shade over an hour and we weren't far from twilight, so we decided we'd earned a rest, and headed back down to the car, taking a slightly different route on the other side from where we had taken some photos earlier: And then we headed home. That's also what we'll be doing tomorrow. Since we're flying from Kraków and didn't get to see much of it when we were there, we've decided that we'll stay there for a few hours before driving off to the airport.
  7. Today is Armistice Day. It also happens to be Poland's Independence Day. This isn't a coincidence: the dissolution of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires in 1918 simultaneously heralded the rebirth of the historical Poland which had been divided up among those larger powers. A little over 20 years afterwards, the Second Polish Republic ceased to be when it was invaded by a remilitarised Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Slovak Republic. That action was incipient of the largest, most damaging conflict in the history of the planet, which would leave perhaps 85 million corpses in its wake. Poland's soil was the site of the most infamous depravity, Hell on Earth: its name was Auschwitz. Although I had booked free tickets in advance, it became clear that for only £12 we could join a group led by an English-speaking tour guide. That proved to be a bargain, as we spent over 3 hours being educated about the horrors inflicted on people who's only crime was to live. This blog isn't the place to find detailed information about Auschwitz. There are plentiful better sources. I'll just stick to what we saw. From our starting point, we could see barbed wire and the infamous gates: The title was, of course, cruelly ironic. Nobody was going to get out of here alive. People were going to be worked to death, assuming they were judged capable of working. Those who weren't were disposed of immediately. There was no mistaking that this was a prison: In each of these blocks between 700 and 1000 people were housed: It was clear that Auschwitz was the end destination for Jews, political prisoners, priests and other undesirables from all over Europe. 1.3 million people were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz during the five years that it was operational. 1.1 million of them were killed there, 90% of whom were Jews. The original crematorium could incinerate 5000 bodies a day. It became clear that this wasn't enough. In the first block we entered, there was a monument to the murdered people. The urn contains ashes taken from the crematoria at the death camp, Birkenau: The mass murders were carried out when the prisoners were herded into showers. Through a vent in the ceiling, pellets of a cyanide-based pesticide called Zyklon B were dropped in. 5 to 7 of them were enough to kill everybody in the room within 20 minutes: The sheer scale of murder at Auschwitz meant that even though so small a supply was needed for each group killed, the Nazis got through hundreds of canisters of the stuff: We walked past similar piles of pony tails, shorn from female prisoners, whose hair was used for stuffing in mattresses, bombs, and ropes and cords for ships. Likewise, we saw mountains of suitcases with names painted on them, glasses, and personal effects. I don't think anything could out-shock the site of toddlers' shoes and clothing: These weren't an isolated few cases: I don't think most people in our group had heard of Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death. He was infamous for experimenting on prisoners, without using anaesthetic. He had a particular fascination with twins. He would regularly inject one twin with a deadly disease, and keep the second alive. Once the infected one was dead, the healthy twin would be murdered so that he could compare their organs. A photo on a wall shows two of Mengele's twins, Eva and Miriam Mozes. Eva was the one infected but survived the resultant infection, and both twins made it out of Auschwitz alive. Eva visited Auschwitz annually to share her experiences and died in July of this year, aged 85. We soon exited into a courtyard where prisoners were put up against a wall and shot: There were also posts featuring hooks from which prisoners would be suspended by their hands, bound together behind them. This was effectively a death sentence, since most prisoners arms would be ruined by the torture, meaning that they ceased to be of use to their captors: A short distance away was a special set of gallows erected for hanging prisoners in front of other ones: We soon reached the end of the camp. It's surprisingly small considering the enormity of its infamy: Around the corner and on the other side of the barbed wire was the villa of Auschwitz's commandant, Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss. I can't imagine that anybody shed a tear when he was hanged for his crimes on gallows erected especially for him: People aren't aware that Auschwitz refers to several sites. The one that most people think of, the one with the infamous gates, is Auschwitz I, the concentration camp. The site of industrialised murder, however, is a short distance away at the death camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau. We boarded a bus to take us the short distance to it. It looks bleak from the get-go: Prisoners would arrive sealed in trains which could hold up to 70 people. At times they were filled with 130: Exiting the wagons, the prisoners would be directed on which side of a doctor to pass. Those deemed fit for work would be on one side. The elderly, infirm, and young would be placed on another. They wouldn't survive the day. The Nazis tried to destroy the crematoria as the Russians approached. The ruins still remain: A monument stands at the end, featuring plaques in those languages most common among the people murdered, including Judeo-Spanish: Here's the translation: The one remaining site was the women's accommodation. It was abject: The buildings were supposed to hold 700 women. With some quick mental arithmetic, we worked out that this meant that 6 people would share each compartment. That includes the bottom one, the floor to which was soil. Rats would scurry about eating the deceased. If they didn't know whether a body was dead, there was an easy way for them to check. The extreme cramping may actually have been useful to the prisoners. Temperates in this part of Poland can reach minus fifteen in winter. You can imagine that the Nazis weren't interested in providing heating. They were barely interested in providing toilet facilities. The women were herded into a toilet block twice a day, and were given 30-40 seconds before being forced to leave. Clothes were changed every few weeks. Showers were rare but when they did happen, the prisoners would return naked and wet, including in the dead of winter. All together, our tour lasted an hour and forty minutes at Auschwitz I and a further hour at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, immense value at only £12 each. We chatted with our guide a bit on the return journey to the first camp, and then began the journey to Zakopane, where we'll be spending our final two nights.
  8. Since I spotted that Kraków had a Zamenhof Street yesterday, I really didn't have much choice this morning than to get up earlier to track it down before breakfast. It took a while to cover the ground but the street appeared into view. A word in orange on the facade of the shop across the word looked familiar: Sure enough, it read how it was supposed to: There were proper street signs, of course: Plus a plaque: Returning back across the road, I saw some very attractive buildings: They were particularly nice close up: Everything appeared to be quite pretty: By the point I'd finished taking these photos, I was going to be late for breakfast, so I had to dash back. We had a big day ahead of us; one which deserves its own blog entry, because it was a visit to the most infamous site in the world, testament to the darkest depths of depravity to which the species has ever plunged: Auschwitz.
  9. My brother asked me quite some time ago about the feasibility of doing a WW2 roadtrip, taking in Berlin, Munich and Auschwitz within the space of a few days. The answer to that was that it was totally unfeasible, which has led to a refinement; we're now in Poland with a view to visiting Auschwitz on Armistice Day. Our group has swollen from us two to include our other brother, our father, and our brother-in-law. Getting here relied upon that universal constant, the very early start, and two aeroplanes. In something of a novelty for me, we flew from my local airport, Birmingham, with KLM to Amsterdam, and then caught a connection to Kraków. Having landed and exited without needing a passport check, presumably because we flew Schengen to Schengen, the next trick was to track down our rental car, a 9-seat monster. It's a good job I bought external insurance because the prices here are through the roof; a scratch on the bumper will set us back 367€, according to a document I was asked to sign. We registered Rob as an extra driver since he too has experience driving in Europe. He was soon thrown into the deep end in a downpour, since it occurred to me that he's driven around Europe in vans bigger than this one, whereas I've only used small cars and never driven a van in my life. My logic missed out on an obvious flaw once we pulled off though (having waited around fifteen minutes for someone to come and manually open the gate to let us out): Rob's only ever driven right-hand drive. Whoops. He did a really good job and we were soon in Krakow, having spotted our hotel and attempting to find a place to park. In the end, it seemed easiest to complete a loop and return to the hotel to drop the others off, whilst Rob and I looked for parking. Approaching the hotel, we noticed a spare place on the corner of the street, and Rob drove into it. As it happens, the very friendly staff at our hotel helpfully informed us that this was illegal, since although that particular spot, like the others on the street, is free to park in, it's only available for residents, who are identifiable by a sticker on their windscreen, conspicuous by its absence on mine. Not all the visitors seem as amicable as the staff, however, judging by an entry I spotted in the guest book: After we'd all checked in, Rob and I headed off to find a private car park, with me driving this time to make up for debuting him to left-hand-drive earlier in the day. Inner-city driving is horrible on your first day, as I learned in Tenerife a couple of years ago. Once back, we all convened and decided to go for a stroll. We're staying in the old Jewish Quarter, and that soon became clear when we saw the shop names: We'd peeked into a few restaurants on our journey and noticed that the prices were very reasonable, although they all seemed to be narrow affairs limited to two-seater tables. We were now into a bigger square where we noticed the inverse: the restaurants could comfortably seat us but the prices were notably more expensive: At the very end there was one with decent prices and which allowed us to get out of the rain, which was bucketing down. Whilst we were waiting to place our order, I pulled out a map to help plan what to do next. Regular readers who know of The Curse will have no problems guessing what the first street to jump out at me was: Yes, Esperanto again in the form of another Zamenhof Street! I was highly tempted at the thought of goulash but its accompaniment sounded very unappetising: cabbage pancakes. I gave in, prioritising goulash, and buying a portion of chips as back-up. It turned out that I didn't need them because the cabbage was rather like Rösti or hash browns: I'd wanted to visit Wawel Cathedral but we were approaching 16:30, when the sun was supposed to set, and it would've been a bit of ground to cover. We decided instead to remain close by and head in the opposite direction to see Oskar Schindler's factory. The journey, again under a barrage of rain, involved crossing the Vistula: Rob navigated us using his phone but all we could see was an art gallery where the factory should've been: It was then that Matt's eagle eyes spotted something: the factory was preserved within the exterior of the gallery! It was extremely dark at this point, and so it was time to leave, in the hope of finding somewhere drier. As we were leaving, the others read a plaque by an otherwise unassuming piece of brick wall. It turned out that it was part of the Gdansk shipyards which were the source of the Solidarity protests from the early 80s: On the way back from home, Matt led us to an Irish pub he'd seen. We popped in but it was cramped and my glasses steamed over with the heat, so Dad and I left other three to enjoy their time there whilst we headed back to the hotel. My clothes are now drying on the towel rail whilst I write this blog. I think it might now be time to try tracking down the other three, since there's a pub next door and I have a few złoty in my wallet. But if I can't find them ... well, that leaves more for me, doesn't it?
  10. Our two-night stay in Veliko Tarnovo coincides with Unification Day in Bulgaria, celebrating the unification of Eastern Rumelia and Bulgaria in 1885. It's a national holiday which falls on September 6 and in Veliko Tarnovo happens to feature an elaborate sound-and-light show. We set off in the evening and straightaway saw that the fountains in our nearby park were illuminated after darkness had fallen: They colours changed every few seconds: We'd soon paced through the town, past the Hanged Rebels Memorial, which looked a lot more noticeable in the dark: Within a few minutes we caught a glimpse of the fortress in the distance: We needed to get a lot closer, which meant passing the cathedral: Some of the fortress walls were extremely bright: Eventually we reached the entrance and were standing with a crowd: The lights were dimmed... ... and then various sections were lit up... ... one after the other... ... until the whole complex was glowing: We were spoilt for choice with colourschemes: Soon the fortress was shooting lasers: Until hitting the best colourscheme of all: After that, the scene turned red and the sound recording accompanying the display stopped: You can get to experience a similar display thanks to a recording which somebody uploaded: And with that, we and the thousands of other people watching dispersed. Today's been a long day but fortunately we don't have to check out until noon tomorrow for our afternoon trip to Bucharest, and the bus station is only a two-minute walk away, so we can have a lie-in in the morning to recover before heading on our first ever visit to Romania!
  11. We're safely back home. Here's how the weather was on the day our flight was due to leave: We travelled through a very aggressive hailstorm on the train earlier in the day.
  12. Some people like surprises. And what could be a nicer surprise than finding out you've got an extra day on holiday? Alas, we didn't enjoy finding out about ours. Arriving at the airport, we knew that our flight was slightly delayed. No harm there. A little later, we noticed something of a commotion in front of our gate, three hours before the revised take-off time. We ignored it but a little later Clare overheard a man explaining to his wife, who was sitting next to Clare, that there was a problem and that the plane might not land. I made a point of going up to the gate to hear for myself. That's when we got confirmation. The plane was not only en route but was also on time ... and always had been. It had been circling above the airport looking for an opportunity to land. Madrid, in the centre of the desert that is Spain, was experiencing inclement weather. We'd already seen the downpour ourselves arriving at the airport. It happened that the weather was so bad that it wasn't possible to land a plane safely. The staff informed us that the plane had been diverted to Barcelona to refuel and that Head Office would later make a decision on whether it would come back afterwards. The best-case scenario was that it would arrive at 01:00 if it were allowed to return. This was no good to us personally, since we wouldn't be able to retrieve our car until 05:00 at the earliest, making it very unlikely that we'd be back at time for work, especially for Clare's early-morning work commitments, which required her to be suited and booted. The staff were trying their very best to be helpful, especially given that they didn't know anything beyond the information which they were passing back to us. They informed us that we would be given food vouchers for a restaurant, although they didn't know which ones at that moment. In spite of the total innocence of the staff in this matter, some passengers seemingly couldn't resist taking out their frustrations on them with infantile outbursts about wanting a flight rather than a food coupon. The news later came in that the flight wouldn't be returning soon from Barcelona. The latest update was that it would leave at 08:00, and that the airport would arrange overnight accommodation and food. At least, I thought that's what was being said; people seemingly couldn't stop grumbling such that those of us trying to get accurate information could clearly hear it, and the staff members were soon inundated by a queue of people all asking the same questions and getting the same answers. We waited until the end and then spoke to a staff member, who was taken aback at somebody being polite and even said 'Thank you for your kindness!' Things became a little unclear once we'd retraced our steps back to Terminal 4, 20+ minutes away, and, as instructed, had joined the chaotic customer services queue. Nothing was budging there for half an our until finally a woman told people that there was a bus outside to pick us up, and off we headed. Well, not quite all of us. There were people for whom Madrid was a connecting airport who were complaining that they couldn't retrieve their hold luggage. If they'd been listening up top, they'd have heard a gentleman informing everybody that hold luggage couldn't be returned so late at night because of security reasons. We waited at the bus stop without much happening. Business Class passengers were allowed to get on board the bus but for seemingly little benefit; they were sitting down in the dark with nothing happening whilst we were standing. Meanwhile, the sky was flashing, followed by extensive roaring and rumbling. I think we probably all felt better being on the ground than in the air! Eventually, a second bus pulled up and we were allowed to board, after which we were transferred to a hotel. We received coupons for the restaurant whilst we queued and then checked in. The lady doing so stated that there was no news on when the next flight would be but if it were early, then we'd all get wake-up calls. Otherwise, we could pop down casually after breakfast and check to see whether any information had been printed and posted. We could see some posters for a rescheduled flight to Berlin, so the process seemed easy enough. At this point, it was 00:30, with the restaurant closing at 01:00, so we didn't spend long in our room. Our first impressions were very good: There was plenty of food and we weren't slow in finishing it, so soon were back in the room ready to sleep. I woke up at around 6 and headed downstairs to see whether there was any news. The lady who had checked us in hadn't heard of anything. My phone had, though: Oh, crikey. That's a lot longer than we were expecting. Getting to work really wasn't going to be possible today. And there was the problem of our cats; they hadn't had fresh food since Monday morning, when their feeder had discharged the final of its four offerings. They were now going to go without for not only Monday evening but all of Tuesday too. I thought of a solution but it was too early to act upon it. Their regular catsitter, who visits daily when we're on longer breaks, has a key, and so I texted her as soon as I thought it possible to get away with it, which was 07:00 UK time. She's a star, who did an emergency visit and made sure they were well loaded for our return. The breakfast spread was a very generous one, although neither of us was particularly hungry having eaten dinner only a few hours before. The morning then became one of idleness, with us having nothing to do but wait for our bus, which was due at 12:00. I bought an obscenely overpriced book at the airport yesterday evening anf managed to resist the temptation to read it because I didn't want to have to spend another 20€. We got to the airport with no fuss but then hit a roadblock: our flight wasn't mentioned anywhere on the boards. A quick check with a staff member was fruitless, and she recommended we go to customer services. More queuing followed, accompanied by the frustration which always results when there's no movement and you can't understand how everybody being served could possibly need so much time. We finally got through and got some fairly uncomplicated instructions: retread yesterday's steps and at some point your flight will be on the board. This we did and thus it was, although rather unhelpfully it was yesterday's flight details and an indication that it was cancelled. We knew that we were entitled to a food voucher and so set off to find someone who could give us one. The answer to that request was initially no but magically turned to yes within minutes and, eventually, we were able to get the required paperwork. We headed off and ate a fairly standard meal. And now we're sitting near our gate. It's two and a half hours until our flight is due to leave. Let's hope we don't get another bonus day in Madrid.
  13. My day was going to be an early write-off. We arrived at our spectaculary good apartment at about 16:30, around half an hour after finishing a colossal steak which was far more than I would normally be able to eat but the expense of which compelled me to attack. In a sweltering hot country and with a beer and some wine in me, that was a recipe for a food coma, and so I was immediately asleep as soon as the host left us. More or less. Clare wanted the photos for the blog preparing first, so I did those with my eyes partially closed and then had a cold shower. It didn't work and I was soon a curious combination of asleep and feeling sorry for myself. Clare is much more disciplined than I am and set to work on the blog. When it was finished a couple of hours later, she asked me whether I felt it was time to go out and see the town. As far as I was concerned but it wasn't fair to give her cabin fever, so I agreed to go out too. cursing myself for still being too full to be able to even consider buying some beer or wine to enjoy on our rooftop. It turned that I needn't have felt so full at all. You see, when we arrived around 2 o'clock looking for a meal, we went to the only place we'd encountered stating that it was a pizzeria/restaurant and tried to order. It wasn't open, aside from its cafe. So I asked the lady whether there were any other places open. In her opinion, that was very unlikely, although she suggested we head down the main road. That was how we found the restaurant offering our very expensive meal. It turned out all she would've had to say is 'There are about a million restaurants in the Old Town. Why don't you head there?' We didn't even know there was an Old Town until we headed down the main road this evening and went further than the restaurant we'd visited earlier! We espied a spire in the distance and so headed towards it: We saw a sign pointing out that there was an Old Town and so headed into a side street: And look what we found: a busy square! The mountains in the background were a sight to behold: It had a large clock tower: There was a small section of portici: And the church whose spire we'd glimpsed earlier: We headed down a street in the direction of the castle: There was a couple getting married: We thought we'd leave them to their privacy. Or didn't want to pay the entrance fee. Delete as applicable. And so we turned around and headed back to the square: Emerging from that direction presented us with the mountains again. We'd driven along them earlier to get to Castelbuono: And so we began the journey home, heading up a small street with an attractive tower beckoning us: Soon we passed a lovely fountain: Before we knew it we were a two-minute walk from our appartment with an ice cream store next to us, so we picked up a large mint ice cream apiece and retired to our rooftop to see the soon fade away behind the mountains: I'm really glad that we ventured out ... but can't help but feel slightly aggrieved that the lady we spoke to earlier in the day didn't tell us about the Old Town. I'd have loved to see it in proper daylight, plus we wouldn't have been compelled to eat so large a meal that we were effectively denied the chance to sit on our rooftop with a nice bottle of wine to end the evening. There's always a wineless tomorrow morning, of course, when I inevitable wake up early and need somewhere to sit whilst reading!
  14. Today was such a full day that we were wiped out and didn't want to do much other than go to bed once the blog was finished. We started the day with a guided tour of three churches in Naro, had a lengthy stopover at a garage when it transpired that we were within 120km of the car breaking down, drove for a couple of hours to Villa Romana di Casale and saw perhaps 30 or 40 mosaics, drove to Enna, were sent up some very steep streets by Google Maps, which were so narrow that we eventually had to reverse because our car was too wide, so instead had to park the car elsewhere and then follow Google's indications up those same steep streets for over a kilometre with our backpacks and suitcases. Nonetheless, we hadn't actually seen anything of Enna since we got here so forced ourselves to go on a stroll. Our hotel is on Via Roma, the main street. The main street that we would've reached had Google Maps not taken us on a 'shorter' detour. From our window we could see that some lights had been switched on: We followed the lights, which soon became a second type: We soon reached a square: It overlooked the old town. You might get an idea of how narrow and steep the streets we'd been driving earlier were: We turned around and left the square: The next stretch of road featured lights in the shape of candelabra: We then reached the Duomo. Unfortunately, it's all covered up for the renovations so there wasn't any point in photographing it. On the other side of the road was a square named after and featuring a statue of Giuseppe Mazzini: Via Roma is a one-way street because there is another road running parallel to it. We walked through an archway to get to it: We're quite high up! The building in the distance is the Palazzo del Governo, so we headed down to see it: And with a quick crossing of the road, we were back in our hotel two minutes later.
  15. Clare worked hard to bring you today's blog and then after a day of 35-degree heat and accummulated sand needed a bath, so I had plenty of time to do some reading. It's a shame that I'm so slow at it though; I'm two pages from finishing so will get there before lights out! Having moved our car from its temporary location to the square recommended by our host earlier (and having conquered again the one-way system and streets which were narrower than the car), I had noticed how pretty the yellow stone looked illuminated by the streetlights and suggested to Clare that we nip out for a stroll. Just standing in the doorway, we were treated to a sight: And our street was very pretty too: After a couple of minutes, we passed our hire car: We knew we'd hit the local hub when the street became wide enough to accommodate cars in each direction. There were a couple of cafes open but I quite liked the sight of a pizzeria on the street corner because there was lots of empty space. We ordered a jug of wine and a large beer: I was feeling a little peckish so ordered a burger. The server called it a 'Luxembourger', which confused me, until I realised on the second occasion that she was saying 'deluxe hamburger'. It was big: So big, in fact, that I couldn't fit it into my mouth. It was sliding all over the place, most of it finishing on my hands and face. Fortunately the waitress had seen it all before and brought me out a stash of serviettes. There was an unfortunate moment when a freak blow of wind blew up the paper sheet she'd added as a second tablecloth, which began a chain reaction starting with an empty beer bottle toppling into a wine glass, the contents of which spilled, with the result that a poor ant which we initially believed had drowned was a few minutes later zig-zagging across the table. We chatted for a while and then I asked for the bill: 10.50€! Yet again, we'd benefitted from paying the price the locals do by speaking the language! I'm not sure it's much of financial return on the hours invested but I always love it when it happens. We then had a slow walk home, culminating in the lovely yellows on our door step: Today was a busy day with lots of road driven and a few towns stopped in. Tomorrow promises to be much easier. Because there's less on the agenda, we didn't have any qualms in accepting the offer of a post-breakfast guided tour from our host for tomorrow. Fingers crossed I'll have finished my book by then.
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