Monday, June 19, 2017

Into Czechia

Czechia being the new name for the Czech Republic.
First stop Olomouc. This small city lays in the east of the country.
After navigating from the bus station to the guesthouse in a very indirect manner. I headed into town for a look about. Much quieter than other places I had been.
The main old town easily navigable on foot. A couple of town squares are to be found with a plethora of statues. The grandest is the Holy Trinity column which UNESCO describe as"one of the most exceptional examples of the apogee of central European Baroque artistic expression". So there you have it!

I popped along to the art gallery for a gander, as interesting addition is the ability to get up to the loft and a single protruding boxroom with views over the city.

Nice gardens line one edge of the old town. Although there is plenty of roadworks being done nearby as the dig up the streets for tramworks. Hmm, sounds familiar.
Back in the park I found a science museum which had some cool exhibits, seemed they were in the middle of setting up a beer garden out front. Czechs really like their beer and starting at 30cz/£1 for a pint it's really cheap. Although later in the day I did have to step over a few people rolling around drunk in the streets!

Another main sight is St. Wenceslas Cathedral, an imposing building built high up and fortified by city walls. I took a wrong turn and had to walk round those walls.

I was getting some laundry done when I looked out and spotted a guy walking a tightrope across the river, he wasn't very good he fell off, luckily he had a safety rope!




Saturday, June 17, 2017

Cat-o-veet-sa

From Krakow it was a bus to Katowice.
I had a hotel booked and the bus whizzed past it, so had to hike back, turned out to be about 20 mins from the bus station. Still it was cheap! Beside the university and not too far from town, although first impression of some of the side streets looked like they might be condemned. The city centre was much better with a large pedestrianised area with pubs and restaurants, busy for a Monday. A couple of new shopping malls, one encasing the rail station. I had a quiet first day just nosing about and relaxing, museums were closed. I purchased a train ticket that night when I eventually worked out where I could buy the ticket.

Early the next day I boarded a train, an hour later I was at Oswiecim, 20 minutes walk later I was at the gates of Auschwitz.

1.1 million people died here.

Now converted into a memorial museum, each block houses exhibits on the camp.
Detailed records, photographs of the victims, their internment & death dates.

Other rooms simply show the scale of the camp, with a large room just filled with shoes.
40,000 pairs of shoes fill the room. Collected in just 4 days.

After a few hours, it was time to visit the other section of the camp, Birkenau, This has been left as is, and you can walk around it. Occasional information, such as this is the woods where people were queued up when the chambers were full.

A taxi got my back to the train station and the next day it was off to a new country.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Kracking Krakow

Arriving in Krakow I eventually found my place, don't always trust GPS. Had to use an address, old school.
Turned out to be a rather large apartment on the top corner of a busy road & tram intersection, just round from the local metal bar.
Nice quiet spot then.
As it was nearby I headed to the National Museum, this monstrous museum had three man sections: armoury, decorative art and paintings.
Also on temporary exhibit of Leonardo Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine - a pure stoater.
The top floor art exhibits was the most interesting going from traditional painting to modern art with some weird stuff in between.

Krakow picturesque old town is surrounded by a thin stretch of green, the local gardens.
I entered past the university and headed for the main square. This huge square serves as a focal point for pubs & restaurants.
Plenty of people milling around, drinking beer. A strange mixture of tourists, Cracovians and even the occasional Franciscan Monk (not just in Dan Brown novels).
A bride was taking photos in the square, then noticed by a group of Argentinian tourists started singing and chanting, which only drew out the drunken Brits into a singsong. I had a wander around town, going out to Kazimierz and back along the banks of the Vistula.

At night I decided to be cultural and attend a Royal Chamber Orchestra concert in St. Adalbert's Church in the main square. The acoustics were excellent, just a small space, all seats taken. Played a mix of classical and film scores.

The next day it was on the train to see the Wieliczka Salt Mine. A lengthy queue proceeded a lengthy tour.  A lot of descending of stairs, but was well lit and I didn't feel claustrophobic.
We headed down one level, and saw some equipment, apparently they only stopped using horses 15 years ago. However the real star, was the vast chambers and the intricate carvings down throughout the lifetime of just 3 miners. So a man-made wonder, rather than a natural one. Salt chandeliers, salt tiles, even had the Last Supper carved out in amazing detail.
Busy tour though, just me and 10,000 other people, which meant that the tour groups would shuffle from room to room. The guide said goodbye and we had to get back to the surface ourselves. Through the underground gift shop & restaurant of course. After a bit of a hike, joined the queue for the lift back to the top, you don't want to be at the back of this queue. "Well be out by tomorrow", somebody quipped. I got squeezed into a lift with about 8 other people, this was definitely claustrophobic but short as the lift whizzed back to the surface. Glad to be back in fresh air after 3 hours underground, however rain was threatening, so legged it down the train station and back to Krakow.

At night I had a stupendously giant 'Polish Plate' It contains potato pancakes with goulash, dumplings, pork chop, cabbage roll, krupniok, polish bigos, white sausage and roasted potato.
Didn't get close to finishing it.

Another day, and it was off to the Castle. This must be one of the most confusing tourist attraction in Europe. You had to buy separate tickets for each attraction. There are at least eight, so you can do any combination of them. This results in an extremely slow moving queue, with lots of confused tourists. Luckily the entrance ticket office is running at full capacity today with a staff of one.
Later I found out that it would have been much easier and quicker to walk beyond that ticket office and purchase it inside.
Anyway I opted for the State Rooms, Lost Wawel & Dragon's Den. The state rooms were a series of formal rooms with artworks and decorations, but nothing to rival Warsaw Royal Palace.
The Lost Wawel turned out to be more like an archaeological exhibit of the old chapel on the which the castle has been built upon. Lots of rocks.
The main gardens were the best bit alongside the Cathedral (and ticket free!). Finally the Dragon's Den was the exit path down through the caves and out to the Vistula River, it was pretty cool, probably due to the dampness.

I opted for another Polish meal, this time in a cafe, one of the strange things about the menu was that all food is listed by weight. So I had the Zurek soup (250g) followed by the Pork Chop with tatties & cabbage (350g). The pork chop was really a schnitzel, flattened out, breaded and fried.
Another giant meal which I was unable to finish! Shouldn't have order the soup, that had a boiled egg and sausage in it, so not exactly a light starter.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Winging it in Warsaw

A last minute flight booking saw me scrabbling around trying to get organise on Monday and setting my alarm for 04:45...
After getting underway I was promptly soaked as soon as I stepped out the front door by some early morning storms. I'd decided to book a bus ticket into town, as this being RyanAir dumps you in the middle of nowhere, Poland. Somewhat optimistically I opted for the 12:00 bus after a 11:35 arrival. Still we actually landed 20 minutes early and got through passport control smoothly enough. In fact I even caught the bus before, as there was a seat or two still empty they let me on.

I had rented an apartment in Warsaw for 3 days. But first I has to pick up the keys. After arriving it wasn't too far away, just has to find the right spot. GPS to the rescue, not sure how I found anything before travelling with a phone. Got the keys and jumped in a taxi, turns out the driver is a huge Newcastle fan and has visited there to see them play a few times.
Got into the apartment, inside a gated community of 4 tower blocks. I was on the ground floor,
the pipes from floor to ceiling in the middle of the room were an unexpected addition.

I headed out for a look around, the nearest sight being the Chopin Museum. Spotting a sign for lunch I jumped into the attached restaurant and very swish Tamka 43 as they were offering a 3 course lunch for around £7. Seem to be classified as modern Polish cuisine, nice soup with egg for starter, turkey main and big dunch of brownie. Then onto the Chopin museum. All very nicely presented, the museum showcases the life and times of Poland most famous pianist & composer Frederic Chopin. It has a a listening room where you can put on headphones and hear some of the various pieces, split up by genre. Etudes, ballades, nocturnes etc.

After my big late lunch I opted for a light dinner, Belgian fries caught my eyes and then a zapiekanka. That is an open toasted sandwich a bit like a pizza with various topping and sauces.

The next day I tried to go the the Copernicus museum but it was 'full' as it had a sign up saying no more visit as it had reached it's daily limit. Hmmm, okay, anyway onto the old town and the market square. The old town isn't really so old as has been rebuilt after world war II. A highlight was the spectacular Royal Palace. The rebuilding completed in 1984, was funded by a worldwide donation drive. Inside rooms are gilded, marbled or intricately decorated, adorned with paintings. An impressive sight!

Later that night I returned to the old town to take in a Chopin piano recital. In a small room the pianist started with Ballade no 1 in G minor, ending with Polonaise in E flat minor, opus 26.

Next day it was to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, with an audio guide I went round there, along with giant tour groups of hyperactive schoolchildren. Still at least I had headphones in. Inside was a B24 bomber, many rooms about the uprising and some original film footage. Up on the roof there was a viewing platform, limited to 10 people, so maybe that was why nobody else was there.

Later it was time for a spot of lunch, so I popped into a local lunch spot, seemed to be a mix of cuisine, not just Polish. I opted for the duck and a big coke, but actually I got a big duck and a coke. Which would explain why it cost more than I thought. A bit of a duck up.

Then I had a look at the tallest building in the country, the Palace of Culture and Science, which was a Russian gift to the people of Poland. There is a viewing platform if you wish to go up it, but I just headed inside and found a small museum with an exhibition about evolution, mostly dinosaurs.

Back having a look around the old town I found 'Horror House' and decided to venture inside.
Knock & wait, get told to wait outside for 15 minutes. A couple of guys come out looking a mixture of terrifed and relieved. Soon I go in then a nice woman gets you to sign one of those unsueable forms, abdicating them of your heart attack. "Do you wanna play a game?"
You enter a dark room, no not dark, pitch black, can't see anything. There are rubber strands draped down for doorways you go through them. Eventually ended up crawling in the complete darkness on all fours as the space gets tighter. Then you get a torch! But it's crap.

Next you have to solve some puzzles and unlock the doors, i.e. find the combination or the key for the lock. Meanwhile an occasional ghost will scream in your face, or grab you. After a few more rooms and scares, I got chased out by a chap with a chainsaw. Now I was like those earlier guys terrifed and relieved.

For dinner some traditional Polish food, dumplings with cheese, potatoes & onions (pierogi ruskie) with a cup of beetroot soup and some steamed veg. Ending up being loads of food and had to give up near the end.

Monday, December 28, 2015

More Morocco

Arriving at Casablanca and you soon find out it isn't a quaint little city. It's the economic powerhouse of Morocco, with the city & suburbs housing a reputed 8 million folk. One of these cities, where drivers use their horns for driving!

I headed out to see the must-see sight, Hassan 2 Mosque. It's huge with a minaret over 200m high, capable of holding over 25,000 people inside and a further 80,000 outside. Amazingly it was built in just seven years, albeit by thousand of workers. A tour inside and you can see the fine intricate details. Nearby the waves crash on the breakwater, and even a couple of people surfing in the choppy waves. A hop on the train takes me up to the capital of Morocco, Rabat.

Rabat seems slightly quieter and more relaxed, with wide tree lined avenues where I am staying, near the Archaeology Museum. I pop in there for a nosy, it's small and has some neat carved items taken from nearby Volubilis. I head to the exotically named Kasbah of the Udayas, a former Barbary pirate stronghold! Well, now it's a tidy blue-painted village. Small lanes wind around, up and down the residential area. Good views over the sea, and nearby Sale. A nice garden houses many plants, some with medicinal uses, and some fruits such as oranges & bananas. Heading back into town, I walked through some markets, some selling tourist tat, others just general household goods.

Another short train journey and I arrive in Meknes. I stay at a beautiful riad, which was once used by a branch of royalty (apparently!) and hoarded some treasures, hence the metre thick walls! I'm in the middle of the medina, and get nice views across Meknes from the rooftop. Back down on the ground a couple of minutes away, tucked behind a door lies a small former school. Although not nearly as grand as Medersa Ben Youssef in Marrakesh, it has a well decorated courtyard. A walk through the medina, bring you out at the large El-Hadmin square, flanked by the Bab Mansour gate. I had a walk around town and find a tasty rotisserie chicken joint for dinner, where I get a plate with everything on it!

Next day it was a petit taxi to the grand taxi stand, where I shared a taxi with a couple of other backpackers to get to Moulay Idriss. A holy town, with Moulay Idriss bringing Islam to Morocco. Six pilgrimages here is equivalent to one Haj to Mecca. The town itself is perched on a hilltop and nearby has great views of the town itself and down to the nearby Volubilis, which I walked down to. However I must of taken the wrong road, whilst ending up at Volubilis, unfortunately there was a large fence in the way. Not sure where the proper entrance was, I just ducked under a gap. I had a good look around the partially excavated sight. The sun was starting to dip, giving a golden hue to the pillars, it was nice and quiet, until a busload of tourists turned up for sunset. After taking some pictures, I headed out giving my 10 dirhams admission price to a bemused guard. I walked back up the hill just as it was getting dark. I later headed into a local restaurant to have some overpriced and very chewy beef brochettes. The next day I crammed into the taxi with a driver and 5 other passengers. Definitely a tight squeeze, but luckily the door locks were adequate. Back in Meknes, I jumped on the train for another short hop over to my final destination, Fez.

The last of the four imperial cities and the hardest city to navigate! It is a huge warren of interconnected pathways weaving around in no discernible order or direction. They say is is unchanged in a thousand years, but one obvious addition is that of satellite dishes everywhere! I set out to get lost and succeeded. I did manage to get up to the Borj Nord Arms Museum. It was a decent museum, but the English audio guide was amusingly bad. Great views back out over the medina from up on the hill here. Back down in the city itself, I has a look at the tanneries, which color the skin. I enter and am given a sprig of mint to hold to your nose to mask the smells. They store the animal skins in pigeon droppings for a while before dyeing it. As you can imagine it's not a place you really want to linger to long. I  ended up getting dragged into the dreaded carpet shop, which I managed to extricate myself from. I stopped off at Cafe Clock for one of their famous CamelBurgers, which was surprisingly good! Another sight I manage to eventually find was the faded grandeur of Palais Glaoui. This crumbling palace had hints at it's former glory. Quite interesting with a tour from the guide, although she didn't speak a whole lot of English.

After Fez, I retraced my path, following the railway line back to Marrakesh via Casablanca. A few more days in Fez, I went to the Menara, which looked better in the postcard. Although in the postcard, you don't hear the music they were playing. Then I found a couple of palaces which I had failed to find first time round! They first was more run down, the second however had more surviving. With mosaic walls, intricately painted doors and wooden carved ceilings. One final meal, I opted for the 'royal' menu at a restaurant where I got six starters, then a huge main with chicken, beef & meat(?) skewers over couscous with few different sauces & chutneys. Then just the flight back to Glasgow which was fine except for one crazy woman who decided to suddenly start screaming at the top of her voice at the airport gate.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

El Jadida

I went to the bus station to buy a ticket to El Jadida, but the bus only went as far as Safi so I went there. I shouldn't have bothered.

Safi is an industrial town with a large sardine processing facility near the middle of the city.
After much searching more a place to eat I did have a nice pastilla at a snack shop with an impossible small spiral staircase. However, one night was enough, so I headed up along the coast to El Jadida. This has a Unesco Heritage site of the traditional Portuguese City near the sea. However lots of restoration work at the moment.

I stopped off at Cafe Do Mar for a gallete more French influence at work. One place of interest was the cistern, which is below ground illuminated by a single shaft of light. The light reflects around the surface of the water resulting in a very atmospheric place. This setting was used in Orson Welles' Othello. Later at night, a much better choice of places to eat. I headed for a local fish restaurant, Al Bahri, for a good whole fried fish.

A short trip the next day I was in Casablanca.

ATVing

While in Essaouira I decided to have a go on an ATV. I signed up for a 3 hour tour in the afternoon. At 14:00, after getting dressed in a wind jacket, gloves and dapper scarf, we got underway. A quick intro to the controls and once around the block, then a short journey along the road. Soon we turned off the road and on to the beach. After a few manoeuvres, the speed limiter was removed and we were zooming along the beach. You have to follow the lead driver tracks, as he knows what he's doing!

Started curving up sand dunes and back down. Then steeper ones. Eventually out in to some proper desert style sand dunes. While the lead in driving, he also manages to take photos. I only got stuck a couple of times! Just have to reverse and then zoom up the dune again. A couple of downhill ones, which you can just use the brake, but it the ATV will slide down the sand anyway!

We headed out to an outlook over a surfing beach, to stop for some water and a snack. A quiet beach with a few folks surfing the waves on a rocky beach. The area further south near Agadir might not be so quiet in a few years, as a big development further south at Taghazout Bay plans many new hotels.

After a break, we headed back through dunes, scrubs and trees, then finally back along the beach. A very enjoyable time with great scenery, only spoiled by the amount of plastic rubbish washed up onto the shores.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Agadir & Essaouria

In Agadir the wide beach stretches for miles in a gentle crescent. As the Atlantic laps the sand, the damp flat areas are turned into football pitches by the locals. Although footy on the beach isn't the only option, as I passed a city stadium which I wondered into for a brief look. Lots of organised football with 4 or 5 games going on. Well I say organised, but after being under a spell of pressure one team countered attack, only for the move to stop as the attacked threw up his hands in despair. A kid from a different team had nicked the opposition goalposts.

The beachfront has a new promenade for the locals and tourists to stroll down. At one end resorts, the other the marina. Around the marine are dotted some fancy restaraunts. I popped into a fancy one on a whim, somewhat underdressed in a t-shirt. You know it is fancy when your spuds come in a smear on the plate! And you get what I imagine was an amuse bouche (I don't remember ordering this!). Here is le menu.

One of the things which was recommended to try was a Morrocan Hamman, so I booked one. I got picked up from my guesthouse and whisked away. After stripping down to your pants you get put in a steam room ala Turkish bath. Soon a woman comes in and slathers Argon oil on you. Then leaves you to sweat. Later you get rinsed off and out comes the brillo pad. Okay, it wasn't a brillo pad, it just felt like it. This gets rid of the dead skin cells (by removing a layer of skin, I suspect!). Then some buckets of water over the head and shampooed. Then you get a normal massage afterwards. Interesting as a bit of a different experience, but I don't think I'll be in a hurry to repeat the brillo pads!

Next up was Essaouira. I jumped on the Supratour bus, they have assigned seats and I ended up right behind the driver, not sure I like that seat! Traffic is actually quite light, and well behaved. Although it seems like traffic coming on to the roundabout has right of way. Of course they drive on the wrong side of the road here. After finding my guesthouse down a cul de sac, I headed out to the medina for a nosy. Much more managable size compared to Marrakesh. Nearby the medina itself is the fishing port. Around 15:00 the boats return along with their catches and loads of seagulls! Certainly an interesting time to have a stroll, as people bustle around and seagulls are whirring through the air. Also the ramparts nearby have some cannons, as it used to be a military fort with the much cooler name of Mogador! Just off the coast lies Ile Mogador. A small island now a nature preserve with resident falcons. Apparently it was used as a backdrop for Game of Thrones, with the guesthouse owner getting a part as an extra!