Friday, November 8, 2013

-- Poland Touch & Go --

The dynamics of the overnight express to Poland unfolds through a sleepy veil. I seem to notice things happening around me yet I can't seem to react properly.
Old nuclear plant towers surrounded by endless networks of high-voltage cables can be seen. We stop at a very busy station where I foresee an old wooden sign: 'Ostrava'. Fellow passengers rush to the carriage doors and I am left alone in the dark cabin.
Beside me, a multi-coloured train coming from St. Petersburg stops, its destination is written in Cyrillic and contemplates a long overnight journey to Vienna, I would like to call this 'The Imperial Express'.

I always thought there was something different about train journeys. The departure whistle, The sound of the steel being pressured against the terrain, the rocking carriages, the platforms suddenly vacating. It is a fusion of modern technologies and old-fashioned traditions that hopefully will never die.

A few minutes later, we leave Ostrava behind and start our slow journey though the Polish rail tracks. I manage to sleep on the floor of the now empty cabin, holding onto my backpack to keep warm and distracted by the odd set of lights shining through the dark window.
A couple of hours later,  I am surprised by a rural scene with tall pine trees. Outside my window, the frost of the autumn has given the vegetation a rather interesting shine.
Krakow abruptly appears as the image of a train graveyard and a modern train station. I am excited as this means I have now reached my 60th country visited, also marking the end of a tough train journey.

I walk through the empty squares and pedestrian tunnels of Poland's second largest city heading towards town. A wintry cold scene dominates the landscape: frost covering every piece of exposed grass and naked trees contrasting with old rusty balconies and neon signs.

With no plans in mind, the streets of an early morning Krakow lying completely empty become my main playground as I rush through a pedestrian area where I spot tourists vacating hostels carrying heavy backpacks until I bump into Market Square.
The fog is covering the landscape completely and even the top of the red-bricked church towers are impossible to contemplate. Obwarzanek (Pretzel) sellers organize their stands in the cold morning while streets cleaners take care of every piece of rubbish, leaving this magnificent place in a immaculate state.

My mind drifts a bit when discovering that Krakow is very small and can be appreciated in a short time. A trip to Auschwitz starts fixing on my brain as I keep walking South to the famous Jewish District, a place rich in history where museums show part of the history of a city considered lucky.
Always beautiful, Krakow was not severely damaged by World War II attacks and was always an important centre of commerce, communications and impressive imperial architecture.

I walk through grid-organised streets surrounded by derelict buildings covered in colourful posters, through ornate churches and following the cold Vistula River to Wawel Castle, which my maps tell me is at the top of the hill.
Through layers of fog and a long set of stairs, I discover a beautiful walled palace, constructed in a combination of bright-red bricks and stone, reflecting the wealth of Casimir III who built it in the 1330's. It looks like a small little city inside with different dependencies, a cathedral and a bronze statue of Pope John Paul II who was also a local.

After a couple of hours walking, businesses are finally opened. A cozy coffee shop overlooking Market Square becomes the place to be for proper cup of coffee, a panini, phone charging (and why not, using the toilet facilities).
Eager to adventure through the Polish countryside and with only a few hours left, I decide to go to a tour agency to find out about day-tours to Auschwitz. Nothing is available and those available tours arrive into the city after my flight leaves.
I read about a local bus heading up in that direction leaving from the coach station in only five minutes. For a minute, it is a mental fight between the risk of leaving the city and lose my flight or stay in Krakow and lose an unique sightseeing opportunity.

The next 240 seconds happen as I run through the city, into a shopping centre, down an escalator, through a tram station, up another escalator. The bus is gone and I am forced to wait for the next one leaving in 20 minutes.
I grasp some air and decide I will go forward with the plan. On my map , I also discover that the airport is not far from the road we will be taking and ask the chauffeur if he could drop me halfway down the road.
With no knowledge of English, he looks at the map, reassuring me with a timid 'Yes' and minutes later we hit the streets of the capital in a fun journey while making conversation with a Brazilian and a Thai girl heading up the same direction.
The bus is indeed mostly full of locals which force us to stop at every single village down a road which cuts through endless wheat and barley crops and colorful little wooden houses.

Oswiecim signs in sight. We have reached Auschwitz.

For those who don't know about it, Auschwitz was the main concentration camp in the Holocaust and an iconic place in the Nazi and Jewish history. Here, nearly one million Jewish from all over Europe were brought and exterminated in a soul less way.
Today , Oswiecim (a Polish version of Auschwitz) looks like a quaint village surrounded by colorful crops, crystal clear water streams and a train station.

The bus reaches the entrance, crowded with tour coaches and tourists wandering around. The entrance to the place is free, however, a fee is charged for people arriving between 11:00am and 14:00pm for a guided tour which is compulsory at peak hours.
I have very limited time and the earliest tour is in Italian. I am in, with all the Italians of course.

We meet our tour guide. She is a local, middle-aged woman, wearing a sober dress and round glasses, rather sad looking features dominate her posture. She introduces herself in a perfect Italian accent and her broken voice can be heard clearly through the earphones we are wearing.
I feel a shiver in my spine when walking under the sign 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (ironically German for 'Work makes you free') just before crossing two walls of heavy thick wire fences and start our walk through Auschwitz I.

It is a crisp sunny day and not a single cloud in the sky can be seen. A cold breeze shuffles the pine trees loudly creating a comforting sound. However, the place has a terrible vibe felt directly by everyone. No smiles are seeing around, it is a place for thinking.

Geometrically laid pavilions are walked by as we are shown memorabilia and pictures of the horrible costumes and procedures here implemented back in the 1940's: the crowded conditions of the trains, the disembarkation platform, the selection of those who would become prisoners and those who would die immediately (mostly children, women, sick and elderly), each part of the exhibition hits a nerve and become extreme as we enter rooms full of personal belongings, shoes and... human hair.
I feel a knot in my stomach. Unconfirmed theories say human hair was sold to business to create brushes as tons of bags full of them were found in deposits soon after occupation of the concentration camp.

We are then led to a pavilion used for punishment of those who were considered rebels. Small torture cells where people would die of starvation or be tortured in horrific ways, only to survive to the final penalty of being shot in front of the wall of death, now carefully maintained as a memorial  to pay tribute to those who here were murdered.
The last stop is the gas chamber. A dark and cold concrete structure were people were tricked into 'having a shower for disinfection' prior to tins full of lethal Zyklon B gas being thrown into the hermetic square compartment killing everyone within minutes.

Auschwitz I works with your senses and personal comfort. I share the thought of many: it is a place where somehow, you feel ashamed of being human, even not having anything to do with the Holocaust, it takes a while to understand how humanity could reach such level of cruelty, moved by a state of local madness and loyalty to an idea.

Nearby Birkenau is next. My mind is already tired and I lose the Italian group, leaving me only a few minutes to contemplate the ruins of some over sized silos and warehouses crossed by old railways.

The strong sunshine somehow cheers me up. I have learned a couple of interesting things today and once again , I feel like I have witnessed a place with unique historical value, a place I will always remember as the 'saddest place on Earth'.
Not much time for sentimentalism, I run to the bus stop in order to complete my tight schedule and make it to my flight. The same driver announces the spot where I should get off the bus, right in the middle of...Poland?. No taxis around and no bus lines scheduled in the area. It is time to follow my instinct and walk through a narrow paved road. On my left hand side, I can spot a lake where families enjoy a Sunday off only a few kilometers away from the city.

It becomes my last glimpse of Poland (for now), broken by the sight of the parking lot at the entrance of the modest but modern John Paul II International Airport where the basic departure routine begins: Ryanair queuing, security check with a security guard quickly telling me he lived in Dublin for a while, immigration control and a crowded boarding room only to be announced that our flight has been delayed.
That of course wouldn't stop the groups of Irish people from buying small bottles of wine and beer, waiting for a Dublin-bound flight at their very own style.
We take off a couple of hours later with the last rays of sunshine. I fall asleep for the nearly four-hour flight to Irish capital only waking up before landing in the windy and wet evening.

For a moment , while queuing in the busy Dublin airport, I pause to think about the holiday and the contrasts I have seen for the past three weeks, starting with a sad-looking Paris later enjoyed with the company of amazing friends, continuing to Kenya with my colleague whom added an extra element of fun and friendship to the already exciting red lands of the African continent and towards the sad-looking Eastern European region, unique in history and local costumes. Another holiday of contrast with a particularly sad but reflective ending.

Bus line number 16  is outside. It is time to go home and unpack. I'm in the office in eight hours.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

-- Praha, the beautiful --

A loud bang rocks our cabin door in the middle of the dark. It's the ticket officer returning the tickets he had held hostage for the entire evening now carefully stamped and voided. An indication of our arrival into Hlavni Nadrazi Station in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.
By the time the train pulls into the busy station, the first rays of sunshine reflect through the busy platforms where trains from all over Central Europe arrive in synchronization bringing commuters and long-distance travelers to the bustling city.

My friends for the night are bound for the international airport and we wish each other good-luck under the steam of a cup of hot chocolate and a morning croissant just by the departures hall. I also have the chance of leaving my heavy backpack in one of the locker rooms. Today, I will be walking with no extra weight.

I am wearing shorts and a light jumper to be surprised by the autumnal morning temperatures of Europe and shockingly feel a rush of coldness through my naked legs and my spine almost immediately after leaving the sheltered train station, giving me no time for second thoughts: it is time to walk faster to warm up.
At nearly 6 in the morning, the residents are asleep and the wide streets around the train station and the main museum are empty, covered in a light cold fog.

A lonely tourist from Romania seems to be lost and asks me for directions and we seem to be in the same predicament: I arrived in Prague with no references or maps but just a basic picture engraved in my mind of what I wanted to see. How I was gonna do it? That is a complete different story.

We both follow the signs through narrow cobblestone alleyways smothered by tall medieval buildings and high chimneys working at full steam until, out of nowhere, we bump into the sight of a shy Starbucks and an impressive tower, important landmark in this city.

The round features and complex mechanics of the Astronomical Clock , placed on one side of the City Hall seem to shine with the early morning rays of sunshine. Around me , nobody but a cleaning lady is spotted. The perfect opportunity for a clean picture (and crossing this landmark off my list of things-to-see) of this marvelous medieval piece of art and contemplating Old Town Square, presented to me as an empty open space.

I get lost in the narrow streets for a few minutes until I find Charles University and without noticing , I am walking through the iconic Jewish neighborhood and even manage to spot a clock built in Hebrew, a clock turning anti-clockwise.
A first glimpse of the windy Vlatava River is given, completely covered in dense fog. Underneath one of the bridges, lone fishermen can barely be seen in the quiet waters, in between docked flat cruises and floating restaurants.
I rush just by the shaded and cold river bank to be presented with views of the sunshine and the wind slowly clearing pockets of dense fog and, just like a slow-motion magic trick, the sight of the hills around Prague Castle and a combination of white walls and red ceramic rooftops seem to appear to amaze my eyes.

Charles Bridge (Karluv Most) is on the sight now and my heart beats faster, just like a little kid trying to grasp every single piece of candy in the supermarket. I walk faster trying to reach a place that became my main reason to visit the Czech capital.
Amazed, I walk under the high square tower and rush through the old cobblestone floor only to turn around my head and witness one of the most beautiful views I have seen in my life: in front of me, a medieval urban centre, lying steady and quiet. The dense fog has hidden any sight of modern civilization and only dark silhouettes can be seen through it, dyed by the early morning sunshine. It is breath taking and a special moment that can only make me feel privileged of experiencing such show of natural lights.

At the other side of the bridge, narrow streets become steep and crowd with colorful trams carrying morning commuters down the hilly neighborhood.
I climb up a long set of steps until I reach the grounds of the Castle and the main entrance. No tourists around, I take the opportunity of taking pictures with virtually an empty landscape, appreciating the clean lines of such important landmark.

Coffee rush is needed and a Starbucks, conveniently placed as it was hanging by a large balcony, becomes the stop to refuel, have some black coffee and a cookie, sit down, recharge the mobile and use the free Wi-fi to do some basic research.
The now strong light shines through the glass windows and heats up the seating area. Outside, sights of endless red ceramic rooftops losing in the hills confuse my senses and it feels like I am somewhere in the Mediterranean. It is freezing outside though.

An hour later, phone and energy recharged, I leave my hideaway to find waves of tourists crowding the Castle as the change of guards is performed. It becomes the main feature of the day and what makes Prague famous for: an absolutely beautiful place, plagued with tourists.
I soon learn why the locals have kindly nicknamed the area surrounding the Castle as 'Little Disneyland'. An endless pilgrimage of visitors taking pictures of every single place, corner and tower around.
Walking becomes difficult, let alone taking a good picture without being interrupted by some clumsy tourist copying the idea or simply not moving out of the place.

Still, the cold-stones streets downhill are a medieval architectural jewel that was preserved at its best, reflecting the greatness of the Bohemian Empire and Charles IV who was responsible for the Castle to be rebuilt in a Gothic style, transforming it into the largest ancient castle in the world by area.

Once back in the river and avoiding the crowds, I end up in a small hidden restaurant for lunch time. Time for treating my palate with some typical Czech cuisine.
I order a plate of Svickova which is promptly served to me in a flat white dish and consists in a combination of meat slices smothered in thick buttery gravy, served on a bed of bread dumplings and cranberry sauce. Stodginess comes to my mind first. Deliciousness comes right after. A hearty and savory meal better enjoyed with a glass of fresh Kofola.

Old Town Square becomes unbearable to walk on. It is a medieval city in the end and tourists are confined to enjoy the scenery in narrow spaces. A sweet pastry called Trdlnik makes up for dessert, carefully rolled and cooked in the fire, sprinkled with cinnamon and a layer of fresh butter, weight issues anyone?

A stop at a second Starbucks becomes as an option for a caffeine dose and place to wait for another of my must-sees in Prague: sunset by Charles Bridge.
I am, of course, not alone in this idea and a line up of all sorts of cameras occupy both sides of the bridge in between buskers and street vendors.
The busyness of the place does not jeopardize the view and the sky turns dramatically orange by the end of the day hiding just behind the pointy towers of the cathedral within the confines of the Castle.

Bucket list items crossed off, the best option for the rest of the evening results in losing myself through the streets with no definite destination, discovering picturesque souvenir shops, museums and a rather unspoiled river bank where swans play in a background full of lights.

One would think Prague wouldn't be as busy at night time. Thought wrong. At this point ,restaurants attend the demand of hungry tourists gathering for dinner and sharing their experiences whilst showing their photographs to each other on every table.

Coffee shop stop, souvenir shopping stop and a last walk through Old Town Square, saying farewell to a city I always longed to see. A true architectural jewel and a striking medieval hideaway, unfortunately only fully appreciated and enjoyed when empty.

I reach the train station only to be notified the train ticket I had purchased online is wrong. The train is now fully booked and I am offered the last available seat by a very unhelpful lady who refuses to speak English to me.
Another post-war train, no bunk beds this time but a hard almost vertical seat in a compartment for eight persons. They are all locals and speak no English which forces us to exchange awkward stares until the train departs the station delayed by almost 40 minutes.
Silence in the cabin for the next hours, I fall asleep in tiredness supporting my head in the hard compartment wall, the dark and gloomy Czech countryside passes by as we head East towards my next stop: Krakow, Poland.

Friday, November 1, 2013

-- 'Buda Pesht' --

Noisy roommates start banging against the steel beds early in the morning, time I decide to wake up and continue on my Hungarian adventure.
Everyone else in the hostel seem to be asleep and the receptionist is gone for the day. It is very sunny outside but the late-September weather means a cold and constant wind is present for the early hours of the day.
The strong sunshine reveals a Constructivist-Soviet row of suburban apartment blocks (and an McDonald's restaurant oddly placed in between). Grey and square buildings dominate the view of the longest avenue in Budapest. Commuters crowd the tram stations and rush into old noisy carriages powered by electricity cables defying the traffic around them.

Reading on the basic city map provided by the hostel, I fall into the temptation of taking a free walking tour and rush into the City Centre. This is when a complete side of the city is presented to me.
Forget about the gloom and darkness of ;last night's arrival. City Park is now bustling with morning joggers around the sullen-looking Museum which now exposes its beautiful and aggressively pointy towers to complete the landscape (even manage to hear a little explanation on how this castle was first built entirely in paper mache for a World Fair and then re-built with real stones) . Even Heroes Square itself is jam-packed with a series of coaches and eager tourists hearing explanations and history in different languages.

Through Andrassy Ut, the wide tree-lined avenue explored the night before, I feel like I have landed in Paris and its flagship Avenue de Champs Elysees.
It is a rich area of the city, constantly lined up with embassies and manor houses as the footpaths and streets get busier towards Deak Ferenc Square: a combination of locals, tourists and the biggest amount of tour guide stalls per square meter I have ever seen.

I walk around in circles , trying to locate the starting point of the 'tour for the cash-strapped tourists' which I find only a few meters away in a nearby square with travelers gathering around a water font. Three young locals scream their lungs out organizing the crowd, ready for some good hours of walking and entertaining.

As we start walking, we are explained some basic facts about Hungary. Once an important communication crossroad, it is a land occupied by many cultures through time: from the Ottomans and Barbarians, to a time when the country shined and infrastructure was developed as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire policies, Vienna-like buildings mushrooming through Budapest as a consequence.
A country later battered by WWII and the Holocaust, events that have set the mood in this part of Central Europe and a logical explanation for the sad-looking locals spotted everywhere, theory confirmed by a local.

The city is divided into Buda and Pest (Pesht as they call it) divided by the cold and murky Danube River which flooded Pest at some point, starting a massive project of city re-development which saw this part of the capital transformed by the same architect responsible for the layout of the French Capital. Indeed, Andrassy Ut was supposed to be a replica of the Champs Elysses.
We are shown squares in which buildings from three different periods have been built next to each other, combining the round lines of theNeo-classical, the carefully worked lines of the Baroque and the efficient and poorly aesthetic Soviet architectures.

Could you repeat after me: Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért, the longest word in the Hungarian language which agglutinates words in a logical order (to them anyway) and meaning something like: 'for your [plural] continued behavior as if you could not be desecrated'.

We cross the beautiful suspension bridge soaring over the cruise liners underneath us, crowned by statues of victorious lions symbolizing imperial times and we continue towards a long set of steps to the top of the 80 meter-high hill from where the dimensions of the busy Pest can be appreciated, as well as the House of Parliament (design copied from the Parliament in London) and the City Park marking the end of town and the start of the suburbs.

The broad river provides us with an amazing view of the wealthy and hilly Buda side of the city where the large Castle sits (forget about the plastic frames in the windows) as we are explained about more peculiarities about this country, their people and their language.
Cameras everywhere, tourists everywhere, guards everywhere!. The walk finishes at the Fisherman's Bastion and the Hilton Hotel, where ruins from an old church raise beside a modern glass structure. A place where the views and granite arches work as an inspiration for several couples in their wedding day pictures, and a spot that defines Budapest at its best: a city that has recycled its space in order to accommodate different cultures.

Enough guided walking for the day, time for some wandering on my own and a stop for a gyros roll and a bottle of Hungarian wine at the Oktogon square.

Sightseeing done, stomach happy and brain slightly boozed, it is time for the ultimate Hungarian experience: A Turkish bath, and no better place for it than Szechenyi Thermal Baths, the largest bath house in the city.
Cultural legacy of the Ottoman occupation and thanks to its actively volcanic soil, Hungary has become a reference in this tradition that combines several hours of jumping from pool to pool experimenting different temperatures and aromas, as some of them have a strong concentration of sulfur which is meant to be good for the skin and the muscles.
Massages and spas treatments are also offered. I am more than happy with the pool-jumping, a drink by one of the hot outdoor blue pools, surrounded by charming yellow buildings adorned with glass motifs.
I also experiment the hottest sauna room I have been to in my entire life and even manage to make some conversation with a couple of Irish guys while suffering together in the 75 degrees Celsius chamber of horrors.

By sunset, a chilly breeze announces the end of  the 'bathing experience' and the time for walking through the busy streets of Pest to Keleti Railway Station, a dodgy and gloomy place where passengers line up at the front of the building with bags of different sizes and shapes to look into a massive blue screen in order to find the platform for their next train departure.
I am early for my train, so I decide to find a place to charge my phone and grab a last gyros+wine combo, when the hassle of street scammers force me to end up in ... Mc Donalds.

An hour later, my train appears on the old blue screen and a very unfriendly ticket officer shows me my Soviet-era boudoir for the night.
I meet my fellow cabin buddies: a couple from Canada and a solo traveler from Malaysia. The 'couchette' (bunk bed) adventure begins with a loud whistle and a slow-moving old train pulling out of the station and gaining speed over the suburban area of the Hungarian capital, a city that won a special place in my mind, mainly because of its exciting character and rich history, and a place I look forward to visit sometime soon.

Cabin buddies become friends of a lifetime in a matter of one and a half hour, sharing sweets, drinks, food and playing Uno. Only 10 hours left to reach a new and long-awaited destination to visit: Prague, Czech Republic.