Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Go Black!

That's right, we went to Brixton to see the race riots.

Actually, in November we went to Cardiff to see the all-conquering Welsh rugby team take on some plucky upstarts from New Zealand.

It was awful weather, but the fantastic stadium in Cardiff has a closable roof so we stayed dry.

I missed most of the game, because one minute into the action NZ's Andrew Hore biffed Bradley Davies, and I had to spend the next 79 minutes hiding under my seat, trying to avoid a Welsh lynch mob. I promise you this is true: by the end of the night, our inflatable Kiwi had been punctured by someone biting it.

The All Blacks went on to win 33-10, but the real winners were those of my English coworkers who like to call the All Blacks cheats. After the game we walked to the main street and partied it up at the Kiwi bar. It poured down all night. The women of Cardiff do not wear weather-appropriate clothing on a Saturday night.

On the Sunday we went to Cardiff Castle. The Millennium stadium and the castle are within a 2-block distance of the centre of town. It's a pretty convenient setup.

Cardiff Castle is one of the best I've seen.

It was thought that Cardiff Castle was medieval, but excavations in the 1800s uncovered Roman foundations, and it turned out that the castle was originally a Roman fort. This extended the known age of the site by over 1000 years. The Roman gatehouse has been rebuilt using the original foundations. If you look closely at the base, the original stones are marked with a red line.

Roman Gatehouse

The castle has ended up a confused mix of styles. The gatehouse is reconstructed Roman, the mound has a Norman motte and bailey keep, the Black Tower at the south gate is 13th century, and the main lodgings are gothic. In WWII, the passage inside the walls was kitted out as an air-raid shelter.

Motte and Bailey Keep

Gothic Main Lodgings

On the way back to London, our train stopped and didn't move for 6 hours. Two Welsh guys sitting beside us were travelling for work, and spent their 50 pound travel allowance on beer. They drank 18 large cans between them until the train's restaurant car ran out of booze.

So that was my first trip to Wales. The Welsh weather is as bad as the legends tell, but the people were universally nice, and the Welsh accent is a real thing. I hope to see more of the country.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

We Saw Warsaw (III)

Near the centre of Warsaw is a palm tree. We investigated this unlikely presence and it is indeed artificial, created by an artist. I like it.

On the second day we went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

It's a fascinating piece of war history, of which I knew very little. It truly shows how brave, tough and resourceful the Poles are. In 1944, the population (men, women and children) rose to expel the occupying German force. They expected outside help, but the British were otherwise occupied and it didn't serve Stalin's purposes for Poland to appear successful. The rebellion ultimately failed after an incredibly devastating fight.

An Australian who escaped from a POW camp and eventually ended up fighting with the Poland resistance commented that he thought the Aussies were the toughest people in the world until he met the Polish.

Here's a film that plays in 3D at the museum. It shows the devastation of the city.

The museum has loads of artifacts, including the homemade armbands of many of the fighters. What makes the museum doubly sad is the knowledge that Stalin declared the uprising illegal and many of the heroes were deported and murdered. It was forbidden to discuss it in positive terms. It was a long wait for the country's eventual freedom.

There's nothing particularly jolly about the museum, but it's excellent. Highly recommended.

This is the Palace of Culture and Science, an imposing gift from the Soviets to the people of Warsaw. As you can imagine, the Poles do not love it. According to Wikipedia, the local nicknames for it include Stalin's Syringe, the Elephant in Lacy Underwear and the Russian Wedding Cake.

The stadium opened for the Euro 2012 football tournament. You didn't? Well, it was important in this part of the world.

So, that was our flying visit to Warsaw. I couldn't recommend it for historical sites, but the Polish are nice, the food is interesting and different, and the Warsaw Uprising Museum is excellent. Overall, a fun weekend away.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

We Saw Warsaw (II)

There comes a point in every relationship where you have to drag your girlfriend to a Polish cemetery and make her stand around in the snow while you take photos of graves. Chicks dig that. It's a courtship ritual as old as time itself.

"Weirdo" is a term of affection, right?

Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery was created 1806 and became one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. It was later on the edge of the Warsaw ghetto, and was the site of mass executions.

The graveyard is not well maintained, because it was partly dismantled by the German soldiers. Poland's Jewish population was all but wiped out. The Jewish population of Warsaw was about 400,000 at the start of the war. In 1945, it was 5,000. When the city built its stadium, they found the bones of 100,000 people.

The cemetery next to Okopowa is Powazki. It's a Christian one, even older, with over 1 million graves.

We Saw Warsaw (I)

We did a quick trip to Warsaw, as one does. Actually, judging by the dearth of postcard shops, tourists do not visit Warsaw. In WWII, 85% of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed. Consequently, there's not much historical stuff to see. There's "Warsaw old town", but even it was rebuilt. It's where they get their tourism tag line: "Warsaw: the Christchurch of the north".

We arrived at night and when we woke up the next morning, the city was blanketed in snow. We didn't expect that. The snow continued to fall during the day. Wading through snow drifts is an excellent way to work out where the holes in your sneakers are.

View from the Hotel

We started with a trip to the Archaeology Museum, which satisfied both my fascination with archaeology, and our desire to not stand in a blizzard. It was smallish but very good. A large part of the display was devoted to numerous Celtic finds recently discovered when they built a motorway across the country.

We then walked to Warsaw old town.

Old Town market square:

The statue in the middle of the market square is of the syrenka ("little mermaid"). She is the symbol of the city and, according to legend, the sister of the Danish mermaid. Technically, she should wear a crown, but that accessory was removed from the coat of arms by the Soviets during occupation because it implied Polish statehood.

Did I mention it was cold? I feel that's an important point to make. Both my trips to Poland have featured copious amounts of snow.

In the old town, we found a little tavern behind a heavy wooden door. We had stew served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread. The Polish food is all heavy, but it's designed to keep you going in the cold.