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About Me

Found 6 results

  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. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
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