Archive for March, 2008

EU 2008: Krakow, Poland

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Another overnight train to Krakow, and an early morning arrival in … Warsaw? Eh, that’s not right! It turns out that some cross-country European trains split up during the journey. If you’re in the wrong part of the train then you end up in the wrong place. You’d have thought that the conductors might have warned me.

So I hop on a train back to Krakow utterly screwing up the only part of the trip I had actually planned in advance. After a quick chat with tourist information and my hotel staff I work out I can still do the stuff I really want to do if I go on organised tours rather than trying to do it all myself. With that it’s off to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.

Wow, just wow. Pictures don’t just do the place justice, you’re walking around and it’s already pretty impressive and then you turn a corner and there’s a bloody great church carved into the rock, 120 feet underground. It’s awesome, in the original sense of the word. Maybe this shoddy video will give you an idea, remember this is in a mine 120 feet underground:

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I can’t recommend the place enough. I went with an organised tour (Cracow Tours) from the city but you can go on your own and wait at the mine for a group to form with a guide that speaks your language. The advantage of going on your own is that you can hang around and eat in the underground restaurant, although I suspect you’d need to book in advance.

BirkenauThe next day I used the same company to go on a tour to Auschwitz. The sheer size of the place is staggering, and it gives you some idea of the scale of the atrocities committed during the war. The downside is that it’s full of tourists, there’s something about groups of tourists being shepherded around a Nazi death camp that struck me as grimly ironic. Again it’s a place you should visit if you’re in the area but I’d avoid the organised tours and head there on your own as early as you can manage, if you get there before ten you should be able to get ahead of most of the tours.

Bigos Krakow itself is beautiful, the old town is a wonderful set of cobbled streets complete with horse drawn carriages, there are more pictures in the flickr set. The food everywhere is excellent, the drink is cheap. Make sure you head out of the old town to the Jewish District of Kazimierz which is cheaper and less touristy than the centre.

I’d absolutely go back to Krakow, there’s a ton of stuff I didn’t get to do and I’d love to get a group of us over there and go on the Crazy Guides Communism Tour. The flights are cheap from Edinburgh and it’s a perfect weekend getaway destination. Poland is my favourite country so far, I might try and visit somewhere in the north when I go to the countries up that way.

Krakow at Night

EU 2008: Bratislava, Slovakia

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

And so to Slovakia, the other half of the former Czechoslovakia. I arrive late in the evening and have to navigate my way to my hotel. Bratislava is one of those cities that’s covered with public transport but in such a way that it’s impossible to work out where the hell you’re going. The centre is small enough to be a walkable, but you’ll need at less a couple of tram rides to get to and from the train station.

Nový MostI’m wasn’t 100% sure where I was staying, but I knew it’s a boat (the Botel Marina in fact), meaning all I need to do is find the Danube and walk down in the right direction — amazingly I manage this with no problem. It’s a nice enough place but it’s around fifteen minutes walk from the centre and there’s nothing else around it — even the nearest tram or bus stop is a fair distance away. You do get a nice view of the Nový Most or ‘New Bridge’ with it’s UFO supported by struts leaning at an alarming angle.

I head out to the centre for a drink, there’s a few places open but generally they’re either packed out the door or almost empty. It’s here I’m accosted by my first Slovakian pickpocket, who employ the blatant approach of coming right up to you (on the pretence of asking for some change) and just going for your pockets. Suddenly I realize I’ve got more pockets to protect than I have hands. Fortunately it’s pretty difficult to get stuff out of my pockets so there was nothing she could really grab and run. It was a weird experience, pretty disturbing given that it’s happening in plain sight, in a quiet but not deserted square, obviously it works because it’s done by woman and men are reluctant to just physically push them off. The same girl tried it again later on (this time I did push her off and headed into a bar) and — more bizarrely — a different but identically dressed girl tried it the next night. Weird. That’s three times in two nights, in the off season.

Paparazzi

Cumil
The most interesting part of Bratislava is the old town, it’s small and full of cobbled streets and squares, with people milling around, taking pictures and dipping in and out of restaurants and bars. It feels like a typical European style town centre which would mean nothing but the rest of the city is, frankly, a bit grotty and plain looking so the old town really stands out. They’ve also dotted a whole bunch of quirky statues around the place, it’s a nice to chance across some bloke peering out a man-hole when you turn a corner. There’s pictures of a couple more in the Flickr set.

Aside from that there’s Bratislava castle, which is essentially just big square box, it’s not nearly as nice looking up close and it was almost entirely closed when I was there. If you do go to the castle it’s worth checking out Chez David, a Jewish restaurant, on the way back down the hill. The food there was excellent and very reasonably priced.

Bryndzove HaluskyThere’s plenty of bars and restaurants in the old town and there are a few places further out (although watch the trams, they don’t always go in the direction you expect). Like on the first night most places where either packed or deathly quiet, I think getting to somewhere at the right time is the key. There were a few stag parties going around and I suspect that that’s a sign of the future of the city. On the upside the food was good, Bryndzove Halusky is a traditional dish made of small dumplings topped with sheep’s cheese and bacon. It tastes exactly as you expect it to, at this point I imagine you’re either disgusted or think, like me, that you quite fancy having one of them.

Bratislava is the first place I’ve been this year that I have no real wish to go back to, there’s not much to see and I can only assume that there’ll be many more drunken tourists and more pickpockets during the high season. I think you’d be able to get a feel for the place by taking on a day trip, which you can do by boat or train from Vienna amongst other places.

Bratislava Castle

I may not want to go back, but I’ve been there, so that’s another one marked off.

Boat to Belgium

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

The next stop in my Eurotour was Belgium, and I opted to mix it up a bit and get the SuperFast ferry across. It’s cheap, £31 for the overnight crossing in an airline style seat, and it means I can visit Bruges which is supposed to be a highlight of the country. Full posts and pictures coming up but here’s some advice and reflections on the crossing.

First up, sleeping, the seats are much bigger and more comfortable than those on a plane. The downside is that the seats are right beside a corridor and the kids play area is just round the corner, worse is that the lighting is left on full power all night. If noise and light are going to keep you up then take earplugs and a eye-mask, I just bundled my jacket over my head and got a fair bit of sleep but the noise was too much by around 9am and I was forced to decamp to the bar with a book.

The buffet on the ship was good, but pricey at just a shade under twenty quid. It looks like it would have been as cheap to eat in the à la carte restaurant, although I’ve no idea about the quality. You’re on the boat for almost 18 hours so you can’t really avoid the food, maybe you could get by with snacks and stuff out the shop but I think you’ll just got to accept that that’s were they make some of their money.

Last piece of advice, be aware there’s no ATM or money exchange in Zeebrugges port. There’s not much to buy but you’ll need money for the bus into Bruges, so have some Euros or buy the ticket on the boat.

So what was the trip like? Well, it was … interesting. As the boat filled up and the night wore on I realised that it was an interesting mix of people. It’s like an alien was charged with assembling a representative group of humanity and he dutifully picked up the business traveller, the young family, the sole blogger, and then got bored and just emptied the worst dancing-round-a-handbag nightclub he could find and mopped up an old folks home to make up the numbers. Perhaps a (blurry) picture will help.

Pink Hat

Those hats were on the tables in the main bar when I first arrived, people supplied their own pink wigs, silly sunglasses and general fancy dress.

There were three bars on the ship, the main bar had the bulk of the clubbers while the others were much quieter, mostly with families or groups of older folk. There was a dubious lounge singer of exactly the sort you’d expect to find on a boat in the more sophisticated bar, but apart from that they were fairly dull and they shut early. There’s also a dubious looking cinema, and what’s laughingly called a casino — in reality a blackjack table and a stack of fruit machines.

Seeking distraction I sat down at the sole gaming table, turns out it wasn’t blackjack but was pontoon which has different rules (notably, the house wins on a draw, giving them an advantage and throwing my strategy into disarray). As always I lost, but I did manage to waste a couple of hours playing and drinking for not much money. Chatting to the other players I discovered that the cruise isn’t always this odd, apparently I’d got caught up in an eighties theme cruise — hence the mad costumes and 80s disco.

The real shock was the number of people that were doing the crossing to spend four hours in Belgium and then just head back that night. It’s really just a big floating nightclub with a few hours to buy duty free thrown in. Each to their own I guess, it just seems a bit strange.

Everything on the boat costs money so it’s always going to be somewhere between boring and expensive. Again I wondered if I should have taken my laptop, but there is nowhere secure to leave it so I’d have to carry it everywhere or chain it to my seat. Overall I enjoyed the crossing, everything is well run and the surreal atmosphere helped. Plus you get some excellent views of Edinburgh as you’re heading out to sea, I’ll try and put some examples on Flickr once I’ve had a chance to sort through my pictures.

There are more ferries in my future so I look forward to comparing the experiences.

EU 2008: Germany and the Czech Republic

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

Bratwurst + PotatoesWell in terms of the resolution this is a bit dodgy … I was in Cologne for two hours and Prague for six, both waiting to change trains on my way east across Europe. I had been trying to avoid journeys where I had to change but they were never that stressful, everything went remarkably smoothly because European stations seem a bit better laid out and have better signage than over here.

Two hours in Cologne really only gave me time to grab a bite to eat and drink a few glasses of Kölsch. The beer is good, the sausage was alright but together everything was salty to the point of almost being inedible. Although I did have a bit of a hangover at this point so I wasn’t in the best position to judge.

Astronomical Clock, PragueIt was too dark to get decent pictures of anything else, I should have got an earlier train and then I’d have had time to see the Cathedral which is right beside the train station. Although then it would look like I’m travelling the EU visiting cathedrals, which I’m really not — I just have a thing for Gothic architecture.

Honeyed duck with beer I was meant to have a day and an evening in Prague but I’d decided not to do two back to back overnight train journeys and so I changed my ongoing train to an earlier one. The hours in Prague really only gave me time for a bit of a walk about and some more food (well, it’s a fair old journey overnight from Cologne).

So, it’s a bit dodgy, I’ve been to both Germany and the Czech Repubilc before and I’ll certainly go back to both but if I end up visiting every other EU country in 2008 except one or both of these two then I’m going to go ahead and count ’em.

EU 2008: Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

Friday, March 14th, 2008

The train from Paris to Luxembourg City is my first impression of European train travel. I thought my guide book was rather unkind when it said train travel was excellent and affordable in Europe:

… apart from Britian, whose rail system suffered massively following privatisation …

until I actually took a European train. The difference in price, organisation of the stations and number of routes available is pretty staggering.

Luxembourg BattlementsAnyway, Luxembourg. The guide book says to pay a bit extra and stay in the Old Town, I didn’t and frankly neither should you. The train station, surrounded by a knot of cheap hotels is literally ten minutes walk from the old town and it’s just not worth the mark-up. It’s difficult to grasp how small Luxembourg is until you’re there, but it does it’s best to make life difficult by being built around a ruddy great valley. So I reckon there’s more vertical distance to cover than horizontal plus you can end up on a road on the wrong level and it becomes a complete pain to get back to the level you were aiming for.

I was here out of season, which is a shame as many places were closed (notably the casements, a network of underground defensive tunnels). The weather was excellent so I settled for following the scenic tourist trail, up and down the hills ending up in Grund which is the lowest part of the city lying alongside the river. This area is supposed to be thronged with pubs, and I imagine it might be in high season but I could only find a couple that were open.

Pork with Broad BeansThe old town, where I was heading for food, is back up the hill again. Fortunately there’s a free lift so you can avoid the half-hour winding walk back up. My guide book strays further into fantasy when it says the old town is “crowded with inexpensive cafes and restaurants”. There are a fair few, but crowded is pushing it and they’re not inexpensive unless you’re settling for a McDonalds or a generic pizza joint. I sampled a traditional dish of pork and beans which looks exactly as appetising as the picture and would have been only average before I paid an arm and a leg for it.

The truth is the old town is a bit of a tourist trap with high street stores and chain restaurants, wander a few minutes away and you’ll find cheaper places with a more authentic atmosphere. It was here that I found the other dish I’d been searching for, Blutwurst, a type of Black Pudding. Much cheaper than the pork and infinitely more tasty, much moister and meatier than what we get here.

Blutwurst and mashEmpty Plate

If you want even cheaper bars and cafes then head for the area around the train station, although it’s noticeably more seedy and nowhere near as pretty as the rest of the city.

The advantage of this time of year is the lack of tourists, meaning you can get a good look at the places that are open, like the Notre-Dame cathedral. While not as impressive as the one in Paris it’s infinitely better for not being full of tourists.

Would I go back? Actually, yes. If I had some spare time, or if I wanted to go somewhere to unwind then I would definitely go for a few days.

Anyroads, I think that knocks Luxembourg off the list, there are a couple more pictures in the Flickr set.

Luxembourg Skyline

EU 2008: Paris, France

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

Right, I promised ‘country’ posts to accompany my tour of Europe. I’m not going to do a diary style thing dealing with what I did day to day — I still have a vague idea of writing all my travel notes up and making some sort of travelogue one day. But this is not that, these posts are more my quick-and-dirty reflections on the countries I’ve been to.

Eiffel TowerAnd so: Paris, “The City of Lights”. To be honest I’m wasn’t really here to do the tourist thing, it was more of a stop off to visit friends, and there should be plenty more tourism coming up.

Arc de TriompheI knocked off a few main sites anyway, the picture to the left is one of the rare ones with me in it to prove that I was really there. We didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower, instead we climbing the Arc De Triomphe so we could see the Paris skyline with the tower in it. You can get a pretty good idea of the layout of the city from the top, if you’ve not had a heart attack from the stairs. Sadly my pictures from the top aren’t that great, so you get one from across the road instead.

I also got a chance to go round Notre Dame which is probably more impressive from the outside, it’s not that the inside isn’t impressive but one gothic cathedral is much like another and when you’re part of a shuffling line of tourists it kinda loses something.

Snails We didn’t eat particularly French stuff, in fact the best meal I had was in an excellent Sushi place, but I did make a point of getting a plate of snails. Just getting them out the shells is a bit of a challenge, even with the special tongs they give you. Once you get them out they’re kinda small, they have a texture not unlike a mussel and a taste I can only describe as earthy. Not bad, but not something I think I’d seek out again.

The problem with Paris is that it’s huge with a shedload of things to see and do, even if I hadn’t been spending a significant part of my trip knocking back Jagermeister I’d still not have seen a fraction of it. Paris is expensive too, a few more days could have easily broken my budget. Fortunately it’s only a short hop away so I can always go back and see more of it.

Effiel Tower in the distance

My advice for Paris is to plan ahead, now that’s true of anywhere but having a proper plan and a knowledge of where the attractions are relative to each other is going to help you get the best out of the place. As with anywhere the cheaper places are off the beaten track, but the sheer size of the place makes finding them difficult.

Would I go back? Yes, in fact I’ll almost certainly be back this year. There’s so much else I could do and it’s so easy to get to that there’s really no excuse for not returning.

But still, Eiffel Tower, Norte Dame, Arc de Triomphe, Snails? I think that means Paris counts as done, more pictures in the Flickr set.

Late Thoughts …

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

I meant to write this much earlier but apparently a week of traveling, too much booze and too little sleep isn’t good for you — I’ve felt pretty rough for the last few days.

I’m back from my travels and I will get round to posts for individual places (promise) so this is just a collection of thoughts.

Glance up and you’ll see one of the first of set of all new header images for 2008. It was pretty disturbing going through my photos to find images to use — there’s a handful of photos with me in them and I look progressively more haggard as you the week goes on. Scary stuff.

Anyroads, some advice after the jump.
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