Friday 31 August 2012

Baltic Leaps and Bounds

We were really loading up on souvenir foreign notes now. Squirreling away a twenty Lithuanian Litas note for our world currency collection, we met our hostess and her young son on Kauno Gatve, before being led past a creaky staircase to the bottom of an even creakier birdcage elevator. Nervously and gingerly stepping inside, where our backpacks made for an awkward squeeze, the cables managed the rickety drag up three floors, where we passed through tall heavy wooden doors to our apartment for the next couple of nights. We took the stairs from then on.

Despite its aged appearance, the apartment came with some surprising features. For one, it had a fully furnished kitchenette, making me smile with eagerness. Cooking this year has been such a rare pleasure for me, so I raided the little local convenience store to whip up a couple of servings of a simple dish inspired from our time in Tuscany and a freshly cooked breakfast. Something to break up the stodginess of eastern european meat-and-potatoes.

Meat (slow-braised lambchops) and (mashed) Potato - Vilnius
Meat (3 types) and (baked) Potato - Vilnius
Secondly, this apartment had a fast internet connection. And I mean really fast. In fact, it had the fastest internet connection we had ever experienced in the world so far. As an unapologetic pair of Macbook-toting flashpackers with hundreds of large format photos to upload, families to video-chat with, and a tendency to leave crucial organisation efforts to last-minute online scrambling, we had developed a habit of checking the speed of every internet connection we came across. The record speed held by the bleak confines of a Vietnamese Communist government hotel room, had been unsurpassed throughout our journey so far, only to be well and truly trumped by this freaky-fast speedtest result:

Our World Record Internet Speedtest Results for an obscure Lithuanian apartment - Vilnius
Vilnius itself was a quaint city complete with Eastern Europe's largest Old Town harbouring the usual assortment of churches, town halls, public squares and streets lined with cafes and tourist shops. An interesting quest set by our guidebook was to head to the base of Gediminas Hill, find the tile marking the start of the Baltic Way in the midst of Cathedral Square, and perform some kind of clockwise-pirouette to gain a wish. I thought I found it, however the scarcity of other twirling tourists and an internet search led me to believe I may not have come across the right tile.

Cathedral Square - Vilnius
At any rate, the significance of this place was the fact that in 1989, a mind-boggling two million people joined hands to create an impressive 600 kilometre chain stretching from this square in Vilnius to Talinn in Estonia, in peaceful demonstration for the independence of the Baltic states. Can't help but admire that.

The withdrawal of the Soviet rule has also been credited with the demise of an efficient rail network within between the Baltic countries. Whether this was actually the case, the bus network was easy to navigate, with luxury wi-fi to boot!

It was to be a quick overnighter in Riga, so we cashed in some leftover Polish Złotych for Latvian Lats, dumped our bags at the hotel before hitting the cobblestone streets. Actually, there was a hell of a lot of cobble-stoning going on, and I really felt for the guys pedalling around trying to encourage tourists into what promised to be a bumpy European rickshaw ride.

Setting sunlight on Riga's alleyways
Nevertheless, it was a gorgeous sunny day, perfect for poking about the old and the new. We casually appreciated the tiny details that made the city pretty, such as overhanging lines of clothes drying above overflowing baskets of summer flowers, ...

Casual washing and cobbled-stone walking - Riga
In the flowers - Riga
... modern stonework accented with wrought iron lamps and cast iron posts contrasting with exposed brickwork and old timber, ...

Cobbled streets of Riga
Back alleys of Riga
... before scaling the tallest tower in town to capture a bird's eye view of it all.

The spire of St Peter’s Lutheran Church - Riga
Latvian Rooftop. View from the spire of St Peter’s Lutheran Church - Riga
Coloured Latvian Roofs. View from the spire of St Peter’s Lutheran Church - Riga
View from the spire of St Peter’s Lutheran Church - Riga
We settled for an evening of people-watching, observing the curious behaviour elicited from passers by a bronze pig/dog/cat/chicken statue, sipping beers and taste-testing shots of uh, medicinal Black Balzām, to take the edge off our cobbled-out legs.

Chilling with Latvian beer - Riga
A shot a day keeps the doctor away (allegedly). Herbal-tasting Black Balzām - Riga
Wolfing down a quick breakfast, we rode the morning bus out of Riga to Tallinn. It was unfortunate that we had already been through so many European "old towns" recently and so we struggled to find amazement in our surroundings - the speed of our journey and the sameness of each European "Old Town" had sapped our enthusiasm dry.

Beautiful Carved Wooden Clock, Holy Spirit Church - Tallinn
Artists and tourists on the walk up Toompea Hill for a view of Tallinn
Church of St Olaf - Tallinn
Church of St Olaf - Tallinn
I suppose some things of note was how old some things were, how church architecture was starting to incorporate more Eastern Orthodox styling with their funky onion domes, and how rooftops were steepening in slope as we headed north, perhaps in anticipation of snowy winters. Clutching at straws here.

View from the Church of St Olaf - Tallinn
View from the Church of St Olaf - Tallinn
Estonia was the last of the Eurozone for us, so we burned our last Euros (bar one souvernir note) on some fancy French-Italian alfresco dining, trying to absorb some kind of energy and excitement out of where we were, to perhaps recreate that edgy tingle of displacement and foreign-ness that makes a traveller keen to continue exploring, but for some reason all we could arouse was bemusement at the dollop of fish-flavoured foam cresting my pasta, and a realisation that, my gosh there really are a lot of amber shops here!

We really need to just stop somewhere for awhile, go beyond a city's touristy old town, to have enough time to meet people and understand a place (I have not picked up a single Lithuanian/Latvian/Estonian word or greeting so far) before moving on. I really do not feel like we have done the Baltics justice at all, barely catching a whiff of it's essence, and it kind of upsets me. I hope our upcoming tour of Russia will be more satisfying.

Monday 27 August 2012

Cruising Through Krakow

Time was running out for Central Europe. With only a week left we still had four countries between us and Russia. We took another high-speed train from Prague, only to change over the border at Katowice to a slow, lumbering old carriage set that dragged out the relatively short remaining distance to Krakow, the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. The Polish złoty was the currency of the day, and we added another set of notes to our growing currency collection.

The old town and our very central hostel were only a short walk from the station. Krakow's old town was not as big as Prague's but it was denser, being packed into the original small-walled and still-gated city. It was impossible to not be charmed immediately by this town when sitting in the Market Square, watching horse drawn carts clip-clop past, wandering amidst the old-styled market stores, listening to talented buskers treating us to the melodies of violins and guitars.

It was a simple pleasure to wander the streets, checking out the Polish Catholic churches (well attended on a Sunday) ...

The Main Square at Krakow
... and the universities ...

Collegium Medicum Uniwersytet Jagiellońsk Cortyard - Krakow
... between people-watching at café stops while drinking coffee and munching pastries ...

Michalscy. Cukiernie - Krakow
Pastries at Michalscy Cukiernie - Krakow
... and hiking up the stairs to Wawel Royal Castle to enjoy the view.

The many textures and architectural styles of Wawel Cathedral - Krakow
One of the many Ceilings at Wawel Royal Castle - Krakow
A window with a view, Wawel Royal Castle - Krakow
We did not have the time for a tourist pilgrimage to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, but we felt that the weight of this history was more than adequately found at Krakow's Oskar Schindler Factory. For those who haven’t seen the film Schindler’s List or read the book, Oskar Schindler was an ethnic German who was credited with saving over 1,200 Jews during the World War II Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories. Now the former enamel factory is an interactive museum on Kraków's sad history during that war. Unlike many museums, the Oskar Schindler Factory was what I would term a linear format, forcing you in one direction on an emotional journey with many powerful images, sounds and scenes, enabling us to experience as well as learn. Even with wordy facts and the usual glass-encased-ledgers on display, the focus was definitely more on individual lives during this troubled time, what they were forced to endure and what they had lost.

Swastika, Oskar Schindler's Emalia Factory - Krakow
Pots and Pans, Oskar Schindler's Emalia Factory - Krakow
Propaganda at Oskar Schindler's Emalia Factory - Krakow
Gates at Oskar Schindler's Emalia Factory - Krakow
Having been to the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) I preferred this one in Krakow. While the Deutsches Historisches Museum covered this time as well and was factually honest about much of what happened, it lacked the raw emotion of the period. I guess that may be a difference between the Germans and the Polish.

After two short nights in Krakow we jumped on an afternoon train to Warsaw, waited two hours to get into our hostel, had a dinner and a couple of Wódkas (debatably, Vodka's origins are Polish) and jumped on the first northbound train out of Poland.

Vodka, Gorzka and Cytrynowka - Warsaw
Morning train out of Poland

Saturday 25 August 2012

Prague Pleasantries

Long had I dreamed of seeing the beautiful city of Prague, loved and gushed over by so many of my travelling friends in the past. It really was a pity we couldn't stay long.

We appreciated the speed of the tilting ICT train from Berlin to Prague, if only to maximize our time in this city, but it was still an almost seven hour journey. We had now left the Eurozone, so we stocked up on a couple of days worth of Czech korunas, before checking into a surprisingly roomy hotel room with huge sunny bay windows, which I immediately had the urge to throw open. Our laundry was also overdue (when your Icebreakers are starting to odourise, you know it's time), and while hand-laundering meant that most of our clothes were still holding up after eight months of repetitive wear (if one ignored the occasional holes where our backpacks clipped them), it meant learning to capitalise on roomy places to dry them. So we settled ourselves in for an early afternoon of domestics beneath the billow of long flowing curtains in the summer breeze, with the sounds of yet another city floating in from below.

We satisfied our local food cravings at Lokal, a busy restaurant very popular with the young tourists of the season.

Lokal Restaurant - Prague
At one end of this low-vaulted eating hall we were denied a table, the service staff insisting that they were full; however at the entrance to the other end of this same hall, we were seated straight away. They made up for this strange behaviour with some great value modern and traditional Czech dishes, tasty beer and a mildly convivial atmosphere.

Crispy Carp. Perhaps one way of dealing with the freshwater pests in Australia - Lokal Restaurant, Prague
The beautiful late afternoon beckoned a wander through Staroměstské Náměstí (Old Town Square) where we joined an hourly crowd gathering to watch the spectacle of a 15th century astronomical clock ring it's bells and spin it's suite of apostles.

Staroměstské Náměstí (Old Town Square) - Prague
Our guidebook suggested a dawn visit to Karlův most (Charles Bridge) to avoid tourist crowds, which suited us just fine. The rain accompanying our early start probably also assisted in keeping the hordes at bay, and we shared the romantic singing-in-the-rain moment with only one other couple, before the sogginess got to us as well and we went back to the hotel for a further snooze.

Love Padlocks on Karlův most (Charles Bridge) - Prague
Love Padlocks on Karlův most (Charles Bridge) - Prague
Thankfully, the day cleared up as it progressed and we managed a good sized walking tour of the city. We explored the grand old grounds of Pražský hrad (Prague Castle), …

The high vaulted ceiling of the Katedrala sv Víta (St Vitus Cathedral) within Pražský hrad (Prague Castle)
… wandered through the only slightly newer vibes of Nové Město (New Town) to sup on hearty goulash with Czech Budweisers at a smoke-filled local, …

Beef Goulash with Czech dumplings - Prague
… and enjoyed awesome views of the city, beverage in hand, from a beer garden north of the Vltava River.

Patting the Dog. Karlův most (Charles Bridge) - Prague
View East from Karlův most (Charles Bridge) towards Staroměstské Náměstí (Old Town Square) - Prague
A celebration of all the nice bits of central European architecture, our only disappointment was that we really only had one day to appreciate this pretty town. Děkuji Prague!

Thursday 23 August 2012

Bumming Around Berlin

We had five days set aside for Germany, a sizeable country, so we had time for just one city on this trip. So we chose Berlin, a trendy and progressive international city built upon a youth culture of art, social activism, tolerance and having a party. Well, that's what I got from our time there.

We rode the Deutsche Bahn from Brussels to arrive at Berlin's Hauptbahnhof on a stunning summer Saturday afternoon. Although tempted by our first sighting of European rickshaws, we instead decided to walk the two kilometres to our hotel, dodging frisbees on the Reichstag building lawns and trying to figure out the actual trajectory of the 11-person-party-bicycles pedalling around the Brandenburger Tor.

The Quadriga sculpture on Brandenburger Tor, only surviving one of 18 Berlin city gates
We were curious about Berlin's fun-city reputation, so Saturday night on the touristy-but-happenin Oranienburger Straße went down well with a few beers to start off a week of sightseeing.

Drinkig Beer on Oranienburger Straße - Berlin
The Unter den Linden was under occupation by modern developers armed with big cranes and lots of fencing attempting to subvert Berlin’s grand historic boulevard to include another underground U-Bahn train line.

Cranes on the Unter den Linden - Berlin
At Potsdamer Platz, with its big-city-business structures that were ok, but didn't wow us much, we wondered if perhaps we shouldn't have booked so many nights in advance.

Potsdamer Platz Architecture - Berlin
However a stand of six concrete panels, thick with old spray paint and crusty chewing gum, made us realize we were standing on historic grounds. From busy intersection, to desolate Berlin Wall Death-Zone, to location of one of the first Wall "breaches" in 1989 - the intense rebuilding over the last 22 years to once again become a major hub of activity must be hailed as an achievement.

Inspiringly Icky. Berlin Wall panel covered in chewing gum and beer bottle caps
Berlin's dark history as the former capital of the Third Reich and headquarters of the Gestapo (Nazi Germany's secret police), is present in a tactful shade visible in just enough quantity to remind people that "Oh yeah, that stuff was uncool. Let's not do that again." The Holocaust Memorial occupied one of the city's squares, its stark lines providing an irresistible photography subject.

Holocaust Memorial - Berlin
Holocaust Memorial - Berlin
Lady in the Holocaust Memorial - Berlin
Ladybird on the Holocaust Memorial - Berlin
Holocaust Memorial - Berlin
A lengthy perusal of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) gave us a matter-of-fact rundown of the long history of the country that, like most of Europe, had rather flexible borders over time. It was actually a surprisingly fascinating museum, featuring such artefacts as Napoleon Bonaparte's hat, seized from the battlefield of Waterloo, and a huge world globe taken from the former Nazi Foreign Office that featured telling damage from bullets over the area representing Germany.

World War II Anger Management Issues. In the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) - Berlin
We checked out the longest remaining section of the original Berlin wall, its one and a half kilometre length becoming a symbol of unity for this part of the world - the East Side Gallery. In spite of the heat of the sun, we spent a decent hour or so browsing this fascinating collection of street art.

East Side Gallery - Berlin
East Side Gallery - Berlin
East Side Gallery - Berlin
East Side Gallery - Berlin
Peace man …

East Side Gallery - Berlin
At our first attempt at traditional German foods, the quality was rather mediocre. Downing superb bowls of Vietnamese salad in Alexanderplatz and authentic Thai noodles in Hausvogteiplatz, it appeared that international cuisine was very much the forté of local chefs. The currywurst, Berlin's tribute to fusion fast-food, threatened to rupture arteries in its quest to overwhelm our tastebuds with the most intense amount of curried ketchup and mayonnaise ever consumed on one humble pork sausage.

Currywurst (steamed and then fried pork sausage doused with curry powdered ketchup, fries and mayonnaise) - Berlin
We had more than one alfresco morning breakfast in town. Although nothing quite compared to our favourites in Melbourne, some came close. A humble stall at the Winterfeldtmarkt, Schöneberg turned out amazing cappuccinos, while an eatery near our hotel flipped tasty omelettes.

Breakfast in Berlin
And we did finally find one heartily satisfying German dish - the ubiquitous giant joint of tender pickled pork knuckle - Ben had his roasted with crunchy crackling, while I enjoyed my Eisbein all boiled and blubbery in the Berlin-style - served simply with potatoes and sauerkraut. It was a case of not eating for several hours before or after this meal; the only required accompaniment - a small beer on the side.

Eisbein (Berlin-style boiled pickled pork knuckle) - Berlin
Having had enough of the blockbuster war memorial sights we decided to just enjoy the lifestyle Berlin had to offer. Crossing the forests of Tiergarten, we had fun with gadgets in the Siegessäule access tunnels …

Digitally Inverted Shadows in the Siegessäule (Victory Column) access tunnels - Berlin
… before tackling the spiral staircase of the Victory Column itself.

Siegessäule (Victory Column) Spiral Staircase - Berlin
Mass at the Berliner Dom was a highly ornate affair …

Berliner Dom - Berlin
Berliner Dom - Berlin
… and the cabaret duo, Carrington-Brown, put on a fantastic show at the Bar Jeder Vernunft tent. Although a lot of the show was in German, many of the quips were in English, and there was enough universally naughty humour to keep us in stitches of laughter.

Having a Beer at the Caberet - Berlin
Venturing just out of the capital was easy with a direct S-Bahn to Potsdam. Picking up a couple of bicycles on the station platform we navigated the streets to Potsdam’s amazing Park Sanssouci, a huge landscaped garden, interspersed with grand palaces from the eras of Frederick the Great and such. We umm-ed and ahh-ed over whether to join the long queues for sold-out palace entrance tickets, but decided to pedal away from the crowds and explore the long, hedged and tree-lined pathways instead.

Cycling Riverside in Potsdam
Our course led us along the Havel River, taking in random historical buildings, scenic pubs, and the occasional turret, before we decided to while away the rest of the sunny summer afternoon relaxing, reading, and watching a young family learning to fish on the riverbank.

Relaxing Riverside in Potsdam
I have to say we liked Berlin. Not only was it a city with great historical sights, it also had the combined elements of a pleasurable lifestyle incorporating international people and food, a great public art scene, accessible expanses of restorative green space, and an anything-goes night-life. I could see how many people would decide to put their backpacks down, and stay.

Leaving the Gates of Berlin - Brandenburger Tor