Sunday, November 22, 2009

Musical Cheers

Mostly, even with CDs that I love, I'll eventually get sick of them. In high school, I don't know how many time I listened to the "Best of Blondie" album, but it's probably a ridiculous number. The same goes for "Jagged Little Pill" a few years later. But it's pretty rare that I would listen to either of those today.

A couple of years back, my cousin made me a CD with some of her favourite songs. It ranged from well known artists to ones I'd never heard of. And I still have that CD on fairly high rotation - it's just great. This week, I saw my third artist off that disc since I arrived in England: Dar Williams.

Dar's the one that isn't a bald man

She played a small club in Soho called "the Borderline", that was. It was only by chance that I spotted the concert and ordered a ticket 4 months ago. It was a long wait. She was fun live, and told some hilarious stories.

If you want to hear a catchy song from a singer that you've probably never heard before, check out "Are you Out There" at I don't think it's Firefox friendly.

Here's to you, F. I imagine it's been a tough year for you and M. Thinking of you.

Poland: Snow More to Tell

The next morning, I needed to get up early and head home. The sound of driving rain that I feel asleep to, had been replaced with absolute silence. Here's the view from my window.

Whenever you return to England from overseas, there's always a jolt when you realise that the place your coming back to isn't as good as the holiday place. For this trip, that jolt came when my bus from Stansted to Cambridge was an hour late, and they didn't even apologise. By comparison, the Polish bus that I caught from Zakopane back to Krakow, through the early morning snow in the Tatra mountains, on a national holiday, was cheap, pleasant, and on time.

So, that's that trip done. Poland: Highly recommended.

Here Comes Mr Hairylegs

I had one full day to spend in Zakopane. There are a lot of good walks and I was determined to do one, but I wasn't sure which. I asked the woman running the pension if I could walk up one of the most famous mountains (Giewont), but she seemed to feel it would result in a lot of unnecessary paperwork for her and the local coroner. She scribbled some place names on my map and I headed out.

As I set off to explore, I stopped at one of the little carts on the main street and bought what I thought was a glazed cake.

It turned out to be about half a kilo of ewe's milk cheese. That is the signature food in the Tatras.

I took a cable-car up to Gubalowka. Gubalowka is a town not far above Zakopane, and it is quite cute, but I was surprised that it wasn't more impressive. I was sure that I had read about the cable-car going far up into the mountains as a must-do activity.

Houses in Gubalowka

I wandered along the tops to the next village (Butorowski Wierch), but there wasn't much to see and I headed back down to Zakopane.

At about this point, I began to notice something. Everyone was looking at me. I feel that way wherever I go, but here there was no doubt that everyone was staring at me.

I was wearing shorts. Even for hiking in the rain in Poland, they only wear jeans. Someone wearing non-denim trousers without any cloth below the knee was unheard of. People would walk past me, and then I would see them nudge eachother and look back at me. When I walked through the market, a woman actually came up to me and spoke to me at length about my legs.

I've narrowed her meaning down to:
  • Your legs are uncommonly hairy and masculine. Would you care to meet my daughter? She is also uncommonly hairy and masculine.
  • Shorts? What are you, a fucking idiot?
It was frustrating that I couldn't explain to them that for hiking in the rain, shorts make more sense than slow-drying heavy fabrics, but my Polish isn't quite at that level.

I caught a random mini-bus to Kuznice, which was one of the names the woman had scribbled on my map. It turned out to be the start of the cable-car that I had read about. The Gubalowka one was just a tiddler compared to this one, which climbed to the top of the Tatras at 1987m. The weather up there was even more... inclement.

A few weeks ago in the comments, I stated that I would never put a picture of myself on the blog. Scratch that.

Me, in Shorts, in a Blizzard, on top of the Tatras

It's called Kasprowy Wierch, and that point where I'm standing, more or less, is the Polish border with Slovakia.

A number of professional-looking climbers were also at the top of the cable-car. They were all wearing expensive full-body waterproof climbing gear. They ate an expansive lunch out of their tramping packs, while I slumped in a corner with my shorts and gnawed on my block of cheese. I was back to feeling like the poorest person in the room again. Outside, I climbed up the bank a bit, so I like to think I was over 2km up.

Any thoughts I might've had about going further were quickly dispelled by this poster:

Not providing a meal for a bear was foremost in my mind, although I can't imagine they're stupid enough to be out in that weather.

After I got down from the cable car I got on a mini-bus to the next place-name scribbled on my map (Dolina Chocholowski), but it was getting dark and the bus driver stood around talking to his friend for ages. So I reluctantly gave up and got off the bus. I'll just have to go back and hike some of the valleys in the Spring.


After leaving Rakowicki cemetery, I walked back across the inner part of Krakow. The old city is surrounded by a grassed area with trees and benches. As I was walking past a set of benches, a couple were sitting there and a voice from the dark called out "Do you speak English?" Without looking, I replied "No" and walked on.

For the next 15 minutes, I flicked between sniggering and berating myself for giving the stupidest answer possible. Then my mood shifted to one of shame. In most of the places I have visited in Europe, I'm one of the poorest people around, but in Poland I felt better off, and there seemed to be a lot of needy people, given the pretty harsh climate.

I couldn't get my mind off the voice that I'd heard, so I turned and slogged back across the old town in the dark and the rain until I found the old couple that had hailed me. I had a talk to them, and they were indeed homeless. I gave them some cash and as I did so, a police van pulled up. The couple pretended to be giving me directions, which I played along with, but the police began harassing them and I wandered off, feeling worse than before. Perhaps the moral is: Sometimes in life, it's best to just ignore the voices.

Part of the genesis of this trip was a hiking website that I read that talked about walks in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, around Bran Castle (Dracula's supposed castle). It sounded great, but when I started reading into Krakow, I found I might be able to combine a cultural trip with some mountain walking.

So, I caught a bus from Krakow to the town of Zakopane, nestled in the foothills of the High Tatras, which are part of the Carpathian mountain range.

This statue commemorates the "Battle of 5 Armies". Legend tells that the Polish army and 2 of their allies were squabbling, when their enemies took the opportunity to attack. The Polish and their allies put aside their differences to face the enemy. When all seemed lost, a great cry went up "The eagles are coming!", and a flock of eagles flew down to save them. You wouldn't read about it!

Zakopane is the largest resort town in Poland. It has quite a small population, but has accommodation for 100,000 at a time. Through the Winter months, it offers skiing, and through Spring and Summer the valleys are blanketed with wild flowers. It's a holiday paradise all year round, except for a small window in November when there's driving rain and it's miserable. Aww, drat.

I got to Zakopane in the evening and went for some dinner. I had borsch with dumplings, chips and potato pancakes. I don't know what borsch is, it just sounded exotic, but it looked like what you'd get if you hugged your guinea pig harder than the petshop owner recommended.

The Polish highlands have a distinct culture, and most of the restaurants (including mine) had bands playing traditional music. It was more fun than it sounds.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Not far out of the centre of Krakow is a cemetery called Rakowicki. Dating from around 1800, it was THE place in Krakow to be buried. Indeed, people were dying to get in. Now, I'm a person who enjoys a nice creepy graveyard, so off I went.

In Poland, 1 November is All Saints Day, when people pay tribute to the dead. I was there a week later, but even so, people were still burning candles or oil in decorative glass jars on many of the graves, and there were flowers everywhere. My Polish isn't great, but I believe most of those buried there died after licking the wall of a salt mine.

As you can see in the pictures, it started off as daylight, but night fell really quickly. While it was light, there were people everywhere, but once it got dark they all suddenly disappeared and I was alone. It's a pretty big place. I got completely turned around, and there's a big spiked fence right around the outside so I found myself lost in a giant Polish graveyard in the dark, among 1000 glowing graves.

A Murder of Crows in the Graveyard

I've got to say, that place was actually really, really cool.

Goulish and Goulash

When we left our hero at the end of the last cliffhanger episode, I was licking the wall of a salt mine. Why did that seem like a good idea? Well, I blame St Stanislaw. He dared me to do it.

St Stanislaw's Sanctuary

St Stan's Pool

St Stan was the bishop of Krakow in 1070-odd, and he was martyred by Boleslaw the II. There is a church just near Wavel Castle called Skalka, where he was slain and dismembered, and his body parts were thrown into a pool. According to legend, they reassembled and were guarded by 4 eagles. If you go down to the pool, you can drink a trickle of allegedly health-giving water from the pool. Having drunken the water of St Stanislaw ("mmm, sulphury"), I felt sufficiently fortified to lick the wall of Wieliczka.

The guides say that you can still see smears of Stan's blood on the church wall, but it was locked when I tried to have a look.

The food in Poland wasn't bad, but wow is it heavy and unhealthy. The life expectancy there must be measured in minutes.

The first evening, I ate at a restaurant called "Orient Express". It was quite cute. It was made up like the inside of a train, with old style suitcases and fedoras stacked on the luggage partitions between the booths. Here's one of the light fittings.

I had a meal of goulash, pierogi (dumplings), and black-and-white nalesniki (pancakes). At the supermarket, I bought a box of green banana juice, because that sounded different. In the middle of the night I woke up with my tongue throbbing, which I put down to drinking unripe bananas, but I guess could also be blamed on either drinking the water St Stanislaw's corpse was dumped in (which, realistically, may also contain eagle droppings), or from swapping spit with one million salt mine tourists.

Damn my Insatiable Curiosity!

The following night I changed things around by having the pierogi as the starter and the goulash as the main. The goulash at the second restaurant was served between potato pancakes, which turned out to be enormous. That was good eating, but where do they get their vitamins from?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tongueing with Copernicus

There are 3 UNESCO Heritage Sites around Krakow. I already mentioned the Old Town. This post is about the other 2. They are worlds apart, but have one thing in common: They represent the human capacity to achieve things on a massive scale, for better or worse. They are Auschwitz and Wieliczka.

When I arrived at the airport, I met a couple of other kiwis travellers, and they were going straight to Auschwitz so I tagged along with them. Auschwitz itself was actually quite small. The bigger camp in the area was Birkenau, which was where the vast majority of murders occurred.

Exact numbers aren't known, but it's thought that 1.3 million people were brought to the camps, and of them 1.1 million were murdered.

The most moving parts of the tour were the humanising aspects: A pile of brushes, a pile of pairs of glasses, a huge pile of human hair to be spun into blankets and sold as mattress fill. Overall, being there didn't answer my question of how the people involved could do that.

In the pictures, the more permanent brick buildings are Auschwitz, the later wooden ones are Birkenau.

I'm sorry for being flippant here, but does anyone else see the irony of a death camp having a health and safety notice? And that's German, not Polish, so it's not something that's been added retrospectively.

While everyone knows of Auschwitz, fewer people have heard of Wieliczka. It's a salt mine that operated from the 13th century until just a few years ago. The last horse that worked in the mine is still alive.

It is staggering large. It has 300km of passages over 9 levels, and over 2000 rooms. Beyond the size, it is also beautiful: Over the years, the salt miners created carvings in the salt.

This one shows the origin of the mine. Princess Kinga was a Hungarian princess who was to marry the king of Krakow. In Hungary, she asked her father for a salt mine, and then threw her ring into it. When she got to Krakow, she told the locals to dig, and when they did they hit salt and found her ring. This shows one of the miners giving her the ring.

This is the Saint Kinga's chapel. It's vast, and was carved by 3 miners (each starting when the previous one died) over a period of 70 years. Around the walls are scenes from the life of Christ.

One of the chapel chandeliers. It's made out of salt crystals.

A bas-relief in the chapel of Da Vinci's Last Supper.

It has been visited by celebrities over the years including Copernicus, Goethe, and Chopin. We were allowed to try licking the walls. I like to think that I licked the same patch of wall as Copernicus, although there may've been a million tongues on it between him and me. For the record, it was ... salty.