Monday, 17 November 2014

Poland – Return of the Krak

November 15-16

If you don't get the title, watch this 90's classic song to help you...

People who have read this before will be aware that I love visiting new places. Having that slightly helpless feeling of not quite knowing where you’re going is something I find intoxicating as a traveller. Who knows what could be around the next corner? This is one of the many reasons why I’ll usually opt to visit a new country or city, rather than return somewhere that I have visited before. I’m not the only one; I know many people who love to ‘tick off’ a new place and are always searching for something new and unique, and as a result won’t go back to old haunts.

It is a restrictive philosophy. I used to think people who went to the same holiday location every summer were missing out. To an extent they are avoiding expanding their horizons. However, if you really enjoy a place, why risk going somewhere which may not live up to expectations? If you enjoy something and it more than satisfies your needs, why bother going somewhere else?

Before you castigate me as a hypocrite or accuse me of losing the desire to travel far and wide, consider this philosophy in another context. If you had the best pizza of your life in a certain restaurant, would you refuse to go there again just so you can try pizza somewhere else that is merely ordinary? Of course not. Most British families have their Indian takeaway place, their pub, their preferred place to sit in a cinema or theatre. Why should travel be any different?

I’m not saying that it I would be happy to only go to the Costa del Sol for the rest of my life. I love travelling and exploring different places. The point I’m trying to make is that it is acceptable to return to places you have visited before, and that going to a place whose sights you have already seen should not mean that the adventure is diminished in any way.

I was thinking of this whilst on a train coming back to Prague from Krakow, the jewel of southern Poland. I’ve been here before. Six-and-a-half years ago, to be precise. Back then I was a fresh-faced, broke backpacker who strolled around the pretty city and explored the nearby mountain ranges simply because it didn’t cost me any money to do so. I’m now older, ever so slightly wiser, and have what economists might describe as a little bit of disposable income. Whilst I’ve been to Krakow before, this time was a markedly different experience.

An overnight train took us from Prague to Krakow, taking eight hours. I slept for maybe two of those hours. As you can decipher from the fact that I don’t know where the camera is pointing, I wasn’t my usual energetic and alert self as we walked around firstly some world-famous mines and then the beautiful city centre of Krakow itself. Here’s a tip: book in advance so that you get a bed. Especially if you are like me and are well aware that you find it immensely difficult to sleep in a sitting position.

I’ve seen the city’s main sights, such as its Barbican fortification and Wawel Castle dating from the Middle Ages…in summer. I’d seen the castle’s red bricks shimmer in bright sunshine. This time I saw the castle surrounded by bare trees with spindly branches. It gives off quite a different impression.

I also once again saw the statue of the fire-breathing dragon, which was underwhelming simply because it only breathed its synthetic fire because by the time you’ve finished reading this sentence it will have stopped breathing. Yes, a Welshman disappointed by a fire-breathing dragon: they do exist.

 Much more impressive is Krakow’s Rynek Glowny, or Market Square. It is the largest medieval square in Europe, measuring a whopping 40,000m2. It’s not just the size that makes this square spectacular, however. The seeming randomness of having a large tower in one section of the old marketplace, which itself is divided by a grand building which is now a mini indoor market, adds to the charm of the area. The atmosphere, undoubtedly aided by the thick coat of fog it was often entrenched in aside from one hour on Saturday afternoon, added to the aura of the square. It just oozed importance and grandeur.

In another corner is a towering church, from which a person plays a cute, friendly trumpet piece on the hour every hour during daylight. The story behind this is that it's played in memory of a trumpeter killed by a Tatar arrow in the 13th Century. Whether it's true is questionable, though it adds to the magic of the square, particularly when played in tandem with a group of local traditional dancers grooving and waving below.

Other places near Krakow are as far removed from magic as humanly possible. Indeed, inhumane would be a good word to describe the main reason for visiting the town of Oswiecim, approximately 65km from Krakow: Auschwitz.

Words cannot truly express the feelings you experience walking around the Nazi’s most notorious death camp, which has now been turned into a museum of remembrance. Emotions can fluctuate wildly depending on what room you are in. Seething anger at seeing the cans of Zyklon B gas which murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent people; disbelief at seeing rugs made of human hair; pride at the stories of some who survived, escaped or sacrificed themselves. All mixed with an overriding sense of terror that humans could do this to one another, and that this happened so recently.

Visiting in a colder month and shivering whilst walking around really hammers home just how desperate the victims must have felt. I’d been here before as well, but the emotions you experience are still just as raw. Arguably, they are magnified with age and experience of the wider world.

There are other, more pleasurable attractions within a bus ride of Poland’s most cultural city. One such place, which I hadn’t gone to in 2008, are the Wieliczka Salt Mines.

This labyrinth of underground caverns and catacombs, with tunnels measuring almost 300km in total, are one of the original twelve UNESCO heritage sites. With good reason, too. Stunning vistas and statues have been delicately carved by miners and designers, all in excess of 100m under the surface of the earth.

Visiting in the overcast transition between November and December means that some seasonal treats were now available that weren’t tempting when I visited all those summers ago. One example is a famous Polish drink called ‘Tatanka’, which is composed of bison grass vodka (the main brand is Zubrowka) and apple juice. I had a delectable wintry version of this classic cocktail which included gingerbread liqueur and cinnamon. Served hot, it is a perfect complement to the bitter, wintry air that Krakow is going to experience for the next couple of months.

New places have also opened since I last came to Krakow. A definite favourite is a small coffee shop called Cupcake Corner. We later discovered, slightly disappointingly, that this is a chain of coffee shops in Krakow, but the one we frequented on each day is just south of the dominating main square. Nothing is more rewarding after a long day sleep-walking around attractions (that’s what an overnight train without a bed will do to you) in the fog and cold than a large, warm cup of cinnamon cookie latte with a small, delicately decorated home-made cupcake. Well, possibly except tatanka…

Could I have visited somewhere else – a new place – this weekend? Sure. Would I have had as much fun? Possibly. Am I happy that I returned to Krakow? Definitely. Would I go back again in the future? Absolutely.

There is always something new to see, do, experience or savour, no matter what city you visit. So yes, go explore the world and find some fresh places. But don’t deny yourself the chance to return to lovely places just because you want to find somewhere ‘new’.

Love you all


Thursday, 30 October 2014

England – Those world-famous Whitby fish and chips

October 27-30

Hello everyone!

Another half-term, another trip to…England. Though I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the fact that I’m not visiting many new and exotic countries at the moment, this feeling is tempered by our decision to visit a great friend in a new location.

Our flatmate in Kazakhstan, Cheryl, has returned to her hometown of Whitby, a coastal town in the northeast of England. We’d heard much about Whitby during our two years in central Asia. How amazingly beautiful it is. How it is steeped in history, ranging from Dracula to Captain Cook. How it is the home of the best fish and chips in the world. It was time to see if Whitby could possibly live up to the hype.

A combination of three trains and a tube across London took us from my parents’ new abode in Sussex upcountry to Whitby, where we were greeted by our excited tour guide.

Arriving in Whitby’s quaint train station in the evening meant that we were unable to judge how beautiful the place was until the following day, when we strolled around the town. We wandered down the rolling green hills of the North Yorkshire moors towards the pretty seaside town, which itself is bisected by the Esk river.

Both sides meet the sea with their own rickety wooden pier, creating what seems like a large mouth in the sea, ready to suck in unsuspecting ships. Some quite famous ship captains have set sail from here…

History aside #1: Captain Cook moved to Whitby when he was 17 and learnt many of his fabled seaman skills in the town. There’s a museum here…which we didn’t make it to.

Looming large over the small galley of ships is the imperious Whitby Abbey. If you think it looks like a dilapidated, ruined building…you’d be correct. This is for a variety of reasons, ranging from Henry VIII’s destruction of the abbey in 1540 to a more recent bombing during the First World War.

History aside #2: Bram Stoker used Whitby and its haunting abbey as inspiration when writing Dracula. Part of the story is set here, and the town now has a famously scary Dracula Experience…which we didn’t make it to.

The abbey dominates Whitby’s skyline and, on a cloudless blue day such as the ones we had, is a breath-taking sight. To reach the top is breath-taking in its own right, as you have to ascend 199 steps to reach it. There are 199, even though I miscounted on the way up.

It’s not just the main monuments that give Whitby its picturesque, postcard look. Narrow streets that snake through and link the historic alleys are the heartbeat of the town, where throngs of people can be found hunting for their lucky duck or scouring for a piece of cheap jet-stone extracted from the nearby cliffs.

The whole region possesses stunning natural beauty. One particular spot, Robin Hood’s Bay, is just a few miles down the road.

History aside #3: Robin Hood has never been here. Nothing for us to miss here!

It was here that I (partially) fulfilled one of my goals for the trip: go in the notoriously cold North Sea. Not having a towel or change of clothes prevented me from fully submerging myself. Honestly, it was nothing to do with it being bone-shudderingly cold…

Much drier, though just as windy, was our walk along the western beach to the nearby village of Sand’s End.

As for those world-renowned, much-hyped Whitby fish and chips? We certainly sampled enough: three lots in as many days, all from different places. There are a plethora of other locations to try in the future, though the queue below will suggest to you the popularity of some specific chippies. The Magpie Café, shown below, is where celebrity chef Rick Stein (not James Martin, as I may have suggested in the earlier edition of this blog!) tucks into fish and chips.

Verdict? Amazing, particularly from Hadlee’s chippy. Even the takeaway shop which accidentally included a loose screw from their chip fryer were kind enough to offer us fresher, non-metallic chips. All very tasty, though I could feel my arteries clogging and waistline bulging with each bite.

As you may have gathered, we loved Whitby. It was wonderful to properly catch up with one of our best friends from Kazakhstan and experience so many of the things that she had told us all about. Missing some of the main attractions actually gives us many reasons to return! Once we’ve gone on a serious diet to recover from the mountains of fish and chips, of course…

Love you all