Tag Archives: travel

Kraków – and I’m in a dilemma

imageKraków is Poland’s second city and one of its most beautiful. Unlike the capital, Warsaw, Kraków survived World War II relatively unscathed (despite being the NAZI HQ in Poland) and its exquisite architecture dating back centuries put the city on the first ever UNESCO World Heritage List.

Situated in the Lesser Poland region in the south of the country close to the borders with Slovakia and the Czech Republic this is where I will be heading later this month, my first time in both city and country and I must say I’m a bit nervous.

Friends, family and readers of this Blog will know that I’m a seasoned solo traveller with a good head for navigation and a heart for exploration. I have met many Poles in the UK and have them as friends and sometimes as neighbours and I find them lovely, friendly, hard-working, polite and respectful.

I guess any nervousness centres around two concerns. The first is that this is my first venture into Europe since the intense worsening of the ‘migrant crisis’ caused huge social shock waves across the Continent. From what I see in the News, tensions remain very high in most countries, especially in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks. Eastern European countries in particular have displayed some of the most xenophobic reactions and outright hostility to the thought of taking in hoards of dark-skinned, Muslim refugees. My skin is a browner shade of white, being born in India of half Asian, half European stock. How will I be received in a Poland that has lurched politically to the right after the recent elections and is now at odds with the rest of the EU?

My other concern is that Kraków is at the epicentre of one of the most horrific episodes of man’s inhumanity to man as the closest city to that infamous NAZI temple of butchery and sheer evil – Auschwitz. I will be staying in what was the former Jewish Quarter in Kraków, not far from the restored factory made famous by Oskar Schindler and where Spielberg’s famous film was made. I am a long-time friend of Israel and the Jewish people, a calling I have had right from childhood, yet my choice of Kraków as my next destination was based more the British Airways Winter Sale (2 nts in a 4-star hotel, room only, plus scheduled return flights from Heathrow for £129) than any noble motive to pay tribute to the fallen. Now, I’m wrestling with my conscience as I contemplate a trip without Auschwitz and I’m wrestling with my emotions if Auschwitz is included. My very first visit to the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem brought me to my knees in tears and there I was only seeing images and hearing tales of the horror of Auschwitz and many other places that share its infamy. To visit Auschwitz will be to actually be there where it happened and I’m just not sure I have the bottle for that yet.

To be continued…

Related: Heading East

Heading East

imageI’ve a lifetime Bucket List ambition to set foot in every country in Europe. There are some 50 European states, so Wikipedia tells me, not including the 4 home countries of the U.K., the Channel Islands or Isle of Man. I’ve set foot in 23 of the 50 and next month head toward my 24th.

It was also once an ambition to visit all of Europe’s capital cities. There, too, I’ve not done bad though have been to less capitals than countries: London, Dublin, Reykjavik, Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn, Paris, Brussels, Luxembourg City, Rome, Vatican City, Monaco, Athens, Bratislava, Vienna. There are some capitals left on the list that I can’t see wild horses ever dragging me into, including that of my next destination.

My 24th country lies in the east of the continent and ironically has strong connections with the part of London I live in. During World War 2, its Government in exile was based here and my part of London has particularly strong connections with my destination including a large community of ex-pats who live here.

This city was founded in the 8th Century by a Pagan tribe who fought off and killed a fire-breathing dragon who ate sheep and young virgins in the catacombs beneath it. Either that or the poor bugger was hounded off to Wales. It is one of the best preserved cities of its kind and made UNESCO’s very first World Heritage List.

To be continued…

Hidden London: St. Pancras

imageI was in London recently for a meeting. Inner London and not the north-west outskirts where I live. It's a place I sort of know. Usually it's a place you pass through to central London and out again or else bound for one of the gateway train stations linking to the Midlands and North or else France and the Continent and used by millions of rail travellers each year: Euston, King's Cross and St. Pancras.

Opposite my appointment is a London landmark I've passed manyimage times but never paid attention to until now. It's an incredible architectural Grade I listed building and once the second most expensive of its kind constructed in London after St.Paul's Cathedral in its time. Across from Euston and choking in the maelstrom of heaving traffic and London's regular push'n'shove it is only 'hidden' because everyone is too busy to notice it. It is the parish church of St. Pancras and I only just learned about it because I stopped by to take notice.

imageOdd name 'St. Pancras'. Turns out it's Greek and I guess there might have been some clues for me seeing that the building mimics ancient temples on the Acropolis in Athens and I'm an Ancient History graduate. Pancratius was a 14-year-old Greek kid born of Roman citizens in the Empire. His mother died during childbirth and his father died when he was 8. Raised by his uncle in Rome, he converted to Christianity just in time for the murderous reign of Emperor Diocletian and his crackdown on the rapidly rising Christian 'cult'. He was beheaded for his faith in 304AD after refusing several times the Emperor's 'invitations' that he sacrifice to the gods of Rome. Cutting a little known story shorter, his only link to the UK was that parts of his relics were supposed to have made their way to England. St. Pancras Parish in the area around Euston, St. Pancras, Kings Cross and Russell Square are said to be among the first areas of Christian worship in the capital.

The church is not the original parish church (which can still be found hidden behind St. Pancras station). The 'new' parish church dates back to the 1800s and is a classic example of 'Greek Revival' architecture fashionable in northern Europe at the time. The magnificent entry portico is upheld by 6 impressive Ionic columns, again with a nod back to ancient Greece. The building is made of a mix of stone, Portland Stone and terracotta. Unfortunately it does not scrub up well amid the heavy traffic pollution of its surrounds despite several attempts. It was originally built to accommodate a congregation of 2,500.

The iconic star of the external architecture is the side porch imagelooking onto Euston road modelled on the Temple of the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens. This stunning portico is unique among the buildings of the capital and while none of it actually comes from there it is a slice of the magnificence of ancient Athens here in London. An actual Caryatid (the female statues) from the Acropolis sits not too far away housed in the British Museum.

imageIf you are ever at Euston, King's Cross or St.Pancras and massively early for your train (as I invariably am) a visit to this church is highly recommended. For a start, it will give you a tranquil place to sit and rest your feet, beating the distinct lack of seating in all three stations. Stepping into the church from the mayhem of Euston and you step into an oasis of peace and serenity. After post-war renovations, the number of pews was reduced and so the church today accommodates far less than the 2,500 it was originally intended to hold. The pews today are made of English Oak wood and are the really old-fashioned type that can be closed off by a door to the central aisle creating an almost private compartment. Originally this is what the pews were - private compartments that could be rented for a year by wealthy parishioners who always had their own same space to sit together on Sundays. I guess this is where the tradition of 'pew hugging' started that has been the bane of church life ever since.

Despite the distinctly 'high church' feel to it, there is a sense as you look around that there is a real worshiping community there today. Take note of the notice boards and see the faces of today's members. Note the collection point for the food bank donations right at the entrance, the play area for the children, the Hymn books and Bibles. There is also a feeling that the church reaches out to the public around it, Christian or not. Music recitals regularly take place at lunch times as does a 45 minute communal Bible Study on Tuesdays. The impressive crypt, entered via the Caryatid portico also supports local artists and regularly hosts exhibitions.

The church also supports the student Christian Union at the nearby University College London and is the venue for their annual Christmas concert.

Poignantly, St. Pancras New Church also became the focal point of local and national grief and floral tributes to the victims of the 4th bomb (the 'Bus Bomb') to explode on 7/7 just yards away from the church entrance down Upper Woburn Place 10 years ago this year.

Especially adding to the cool, dark reverence of the interior imageare the beautiful stained glass windows, though these were not part of the original plan. The original church was built with clear glass windows in the days when the folk inside would have looked out onto the fields of the now extinct English county of Middlesex, the land of the Middle Saxons (as opposed to the West Saxons in Wessex, the East Saxons in Essex and the South Saxons in Sussex). Only Essex and Sussex now remain among England's shire counties. The stained glass windows visible today were gradually introduced after 1866, some 40 years after the consecration.

imageAs I looked around I was surprised to see on the walls a reference to my home borough of London way up on the north-west edge as being 'in the same county' at one time as the parish of St.Pancras. Again, this is a reference to Middlesex, which was subsumed into the hungry stomach of an ever ravenous and expanding London in 1965. Middlesex once stretched from here in Euston (or the borough of Camden as it is today) all the way north to the borders of Hertfordshire and my home town of Harrow.

Once you have had your time in the church and are feeling aimage little peckish (but still with plenty of time before your train) here's another little tip. Rather than head to the plastic shops and cafes of the stations, exit the church onto Upper Woburn Place, turn left and walk a few yards down the street. On your left you will soon find a small turning, which if you blink you will miss, called Woburn Walk. This tiny little tucked away oasis has a small clutch of cosy cafes for a lite bite and continental coffee, perfect in the Summer for dining al fresco and watching the world go by.

Solo Traveller

imageI’ve done lot’s of solo travelling across Europe in the last 14 months. 15 cities, 14 of which I’d never visited before and 11 of which in countries I’ve never visited before and I did it Johnny NoMates style. A couple of friends asked me how I do it and they weren’t meaning method, just how I journey to completely new destinations without anyone with me or waiting on the other side. The short and honest answer is that it helps to be a grumpy anti-social independent-minded git.

OK you don’t have to be as seemingly anti-social as me to solo travel and in fact that’s an unfair label to put on myself as when I am abroad alone I’ve been known to be up until almost dawn having conversed all night with people from other countries I’ve never met just learning about their country and culture and politics all aided by several beers. Of the 4 classic personality types I have a ‘melancholic’ persona, apparently, which doesn’t mean I’m about to burst into tears every few hours but does mean that I’m very comfortable being in my own company for extended periods. Here’s my first tip: solo travelling doesn’t suit all personalities, especially those which can’t exist for a nano second without interaction with other human souls. Even in these days of cyber-interaction that is of little comfort if you need others to help you make a decision as to what to wear, do or where to go.

I love city breaks. I love culture, heritage, history, art, archaeology and architecture. I also like the complete unknown. I love to people-watch and time to think, time to absorb and time to eavesdrop on how others do life even though at the very most all I get are snapshots and sound-bytes. Yet you will be amazed at how even these can colour life back home just by seeing how people do things differently. So for me, my choice of travel experience must fit my personality to get the best from it. By comparison, I’m never going to understand for a single moment the attraction of say, Magaluf or ‘Eye-beef-fah’. That’s just me. There’s nothing wrong in those places either for a solo traveller. If that fits you and your personality and you can handle yourself alone in such places safely then go for it.

imageThat brings me to my next tip on solo travel: be savvy and fearless. OK, it doesn’t take a great deal of fearlessness to travel for the first time to Copenhagen or Tallinn or Bratislava on your own, not for me anyway. All are First World cities in developed countries but as ever things can go wrong. I do always pick out a good Guide Book and read up before I go out and take out with me (usually a digital version available offline). Depending on where you are going the guide-book may or may not be able to advise you on where to avoid, but all will counsel on basic common sense: stay in mainstream areas, keep your possessions close at all times and respect local laws. In my case this doesn’t always work. Drop me down in a new city for the first time and once I have the lie of the land, I am drawn to explore mazes of barely navigable back streets and love turning corner after corner as if drawn into the legendary Labyrinth. A word of caution here: I do have an in-built SATNAV in terms of me finding my way around. Not a boast and not 100% reliable but from all my travelling experiences this far in life I would say 90% reliable. You can drop me anywhere without a map and I will find my way around. That said, I do always keep guide books and maps in my shoulder bag even if I never refer to them. Be fearless – there’s no point going if you are just going to stick to the well-beaten tourist path, at least not for me. Use common sense and all your intuition but you will often learn and experience more from your destination when you venture off-piste.

imageNext tip: have a ‘Laissez-faire’ attitude or as the French say ‘whatever’. Now here I’m only speaking about my travels in Europe and not explorations further afield to more exotic locations. I don’t make lists when I pack to travel. I know me. You know you. My default travelling list is in my head on-demand. I’m not travelling with anyone to impress with my much admired fine biceps and 6-pack with a full array of Uniqlo sportswear. I’m out to experience what I set to experience as comfortably as I can. Do you need all those this and thats? The must-have essentials are your travel documents and any important medications. Anything else you forget to take with you, including toothbrushes and underwear can be bought at the airport or abroad. Just a caveat on the underwear thing: if you are prone to ‘go commando’ for comfort’s sake while you fly at any time – and I’m not saying that’s me (ahem) – just remember you have airport security x-ray screening to pass through before you’re in the departure lounge. Ever wondered why those security guys and girls seem so amused in their mundane jobs?

New tip: Never, never NEVER talk to warm, friendly, elderly chatty Australian Grandmothers who might sit next to you on any flight. This is not so much a golden rule for all but just me venting for the loss of my very expensive Dr Beats headphones on a flight back from Finland because the incessant talking of said neighbouring passenger which caused me to forget I’d put them in the seat pocket in front ready to use before I was ambushed and which I forgot in my haste to exit the aircraft.

Last of my big tips for solo travellers…but then you would already know this if you are or will be a solo traveller…be spontaneous. Plan your trip ahead if you want. Google Streetview where you will be staying and the streets around if you want (as I have done) but then when you get there be quite prepared to rip it all up and just pick a road and follow it to see where it goes. Yes, of course as said before, keep your brains inside your skull. Be safe, know what you need to do if you need help from that guide book you have already read and is in your backpack…but DARE to do things you’ve not done before. Stop your life for a moment and take a look at the lives of others. In my travels across Europe so far the differences aren’t huge but they are subtle and it has only served to have enriched my worldview.

My scariest adventure as a solo traveller to date has been a journey I took out of Sheffield one day as a newly licensed driver. Following in the footsteps of Bilbo Baggins I did pick a road – any road – and drove on it. I ended up in some small nondescript town in the British Midlands. To any non-Brit readers just imagine you were heading out into your local countryside just on a whim and ended up in Nowheresville Arizona. Well that was me. Scariest experience was trying to find my way out of that place. Whatever road I chose – with no map in the car – lead me back into NowheresVille where I genuinely believed I would run out of petrol, be drugged, kidnapped and wake up in a cornfield in Iowa. Go figure.

The worst I’ve ever encountered in solo travels have been riding in a bus through the West Bank during an Intifada (Palestinian uprising) with angry youths stoning the bus I’m in or riding a night bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat overnight while trying to sleep with my head against the hard metal handle to the escape window while a sleeping soldier next to me had his Uzzi Rifle digging in my ribs or being strip-searched before being allowed to board a flight to jumping full pelt onto a ferry last-minute in Norway only to realise I didn’t know where it was going, to being almost arrested in Rome as a suspect terrorist. I’m far more worried about being out late with the drunken hoards in my home town than any of all the above.

As I wrote earlier I’m a ‘whatever’ solo traveller I’ll keep on travelling solo in this way while life and God’s good grace permits.

Monaco…oh no.

imageMonaco is the world’s second smallest country after The Vatican. Home to a population of 37,000 people and their toy dogs (a must-have accessory for ladies wot lunch it would seem) these inhabitants, pets and their luxury cars cram into just two square KM of real estate on the northern Mediterranean coast. Monaco is the most densely populated country on Earth.

(Click on pics for full view)

Despite its diminutive size, the Principality ruled by a imageconstitutional Monarch (currently Prince Albert II) punches well above its weight in world fame as home to one of the world’s most challenging and glamorous Formula 1 races, the world-famous casino and Cafe de Paris on the Rock and the legacy of Princess Grace, the original Princess Diana, her magical wedding and her tragic death. As it is only 13km away from Nice where I was recently staying I knew that I could not come so close to this ‘playground of the rich’ with out a visit so I caught the train from Nice-Ville station to Monaco-Monte Carlo.

imageThe journey takes about half an hour to forty minutes in impressive double-decker rail cars hugging the shoreline with the view annoyingly frequently interrupted by the many tunnels. Monaco is not the final destination of the train which is actually on its way to Italy but the station is impressive like a giant marble vault carved beneath the city. On arrival there are two exit routes from the station – either up a number of escalators plus a high-speed elevator or down one escalator to the lower exit. If you plan to go, take the lower exit as it will lead you straight to the finish line of the Grand Prix race, which all visitors want to see. I and the very many others took the upper route…only having to walk all the way down when we got there to get to the same finish line.

First impressions were how subdued everything was. Around 90% imageof all the shops were closed, which surprised me. I thought Monaco with all those millionaires living there or on mega yachts in the marina plus all the incoming tourists would be a 24/7 party town with people splashing the cash almost as long but no. Monaco of Millionnaires observes the Sabbath and the only shops open were the eateries and souvenir shops and, of course, the Casino. The lack of commercial hubbub gave the place a very eerie feel not helped by the brooding mountains which crouch around the tiny Principality with their heads shrouded in low hovering cloud.

imageOnce down in the Marina, you can then take a view back up at the city and my immediate thoughts were that this is the Hong Kong of Europe and not in a good way. With only two square km of land to build on it was inevitable that Monaco had to build both up and down to house its increasing population so it has become Europe’s high-rise capital. But they are building down and out too. Only one-third of the new convention centre here is visible above ground. They are also reclaiming land from the sea spreading the city eastward where a whole new district has been built in the last 40 years.

The other thing that made the place feel odd was that they areimage preparing for the Grand Prix next month and so the wire fencing to protect the spectators is up all over the place making it hard for newbie visitors to navigate around – very frustrating. It also gave me a sense of being caged in. Monaco starts preparing for the race two months ahead of time when believe it or not the population of the place increases from 37,000 to 100,000 for a week. Though there are no borders or passport control when you enter or leave I felt somewhat claustrophobic after taking the 1 hour bus ride around that left me with the impression – is that it? I’ve seen all there is to see in an hour? What about all those towering suburbs up the mountains? It’s then that you realise that when you look up from the Marina to the sprawling districts high up that these are actually in France, not Monaco and so I got to feel even more claustrophobic. If I felt this way in Monaco, I wonder how I would feel in Gaza?

I must admit that while I’m no fan of Formula 1 racing, having ridden around much of the course on the tour bus I can’t believe that a race actually happens there at all or at such speed. The roads are not exactly broad and the famous tunnel and hairpin bend defy logic that men would race around them at such velocity. Needless to say I will, for once, tune in to at least a few laps in May.

There is no litter in Monaco. No graffiti, no scruffy people, no ugly people (apart from economy tourist peasants like me) and no beat-up vehicles. If I didn’t know what the ‘Jet Set’ was before I came I do now only they’re not just the Jet Set but the Mega Yacht Set, Mega Sports Car Set and Glamourous Ladies with Toy Dogs Set. I have never seen so many people out and about dressed up to the nines just so others could look at them.

imageI didn’t bother with the Casino apart from outside photos as I was afraid I might be barred from entering because I was not visibly wearing a designer brand. Same with the Cafe de Paris which was rammed with beautiful people eating at beautifully inflated prices. Even the shopping mall here was lit by crystal chandeliers for goodness sake.

Sounds like hated Monaco doesn’t it? That would not be true. imageThanks to the presence of the royal family with a heritage and history dating back to the Middle Ages there is a sense of refinement and culture here. Compared to the most brash and brazen place I’ve ever been – Dubai – Monaco is Baluga Caviar to Dubai’s diamond-encrusted breaded fish cake with pickles on the side. It was well worth a visit to people-watch in the Playground of Millionnaires but it was also good to get back to the warm, relaxed hospitality of Nice, which I found still dangling its toes in the slowly warming Med with a greeting as if to say…”I told you so.”