Joined August 2016
  • Day23

    Moscow - Monday

    September 5, 2016 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 15 °C

    (*TESSA*) Buffet breakfast again to start the day, and this time I got right into the chicken nuggets.
    As a group, we visited the Kremlin. It's home to three cathedrals: one built for funerals of the royal family, another for baptisms and marriages, and another for coronations. Presidents of Russia still use the Cathedral Square to swear in to the post.
    Russian Orthodox cathedrals differ from Catholic in that there is no stained glass used. Paintings decorate the inside of all the walls and ceilings. The alter is entered only by priests. Women cover their hair when the enter. I find these old, old cathedrals very moving and said a thank you for the fact that the Soviets didn't damage these ones.
    Still as a group we visited the armory museum. Catherine the Great has always captured my attention. She participated in a conspiracy to dethrone her husband (he was assassinated) to take power. She communicated with philosophers such as Voltaire, had lovers and toy boys and began the Hermitage Museum. As well as armor, carriages and all that jazz, we saw the dresses Catherine the Great was confirmed in, married in, and then a dress from later life. Her portrait, as we are familiar with it, shows a grand women of some age and waist line. But she was so tiny as a girl, and as a bride, and judging by the dress not much bigger than me in later life, if at all. No photos allowed in the Armory Museum.
    We are getting along well with the other tour members. We're sharing our transport and daily tours with one retired couple from Scotland and a single guy, Andy, from England. After our tour we shared long, late lunch with Andy and caught up on life stories. A lovely guy.
    At night we all boarded an overnight train for Veliky Novgorod. Sheldon and I were in a four berth cabin - I got the top bunk! It was hot, the toilet was primitive and the train rattling.
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  • Day22

    Moscow - Sunday

    September 4, 2016 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 15 °C

    After a breakfast buffet (which I found a little less exciting than the dinner), we were due to meet up with our guide in the lobby. We booked our Russian itinerary through a tour company with the rather official sounding name of Russian National Tourist Office. The tour is either alone, or with a group, depending on demand. So Tessa wandered around the lobby asking English speakers if they were from our group. It turns out, there were multiple people who had booked through the same company, but only 5 were on our tour. Our tour guide for Moscow was Olga - a local of Moscow who's favourite city is St Petersburg.

    We went on a city tour by mini bus. Olga told us a load of facts, and since it's been several days since then, we've forgotten most of them already - except that Moscow was founded in 1147. We stopped for photos at a look out point and some probably overpriced souvenirs at a local store and then Olga showed us around Moscow’s underground rail stations. That probably sounds terribly tedious but the Soviets had beautifully decorated many of their main stations in the Moscow area. One particular station had many sculptures of people doing everyday things and there was a belief about some of the dog statues that if you touched their noses, you would have good luck. We saw many Moscow locals touch the dogs’ noses as they walked past and you can tell from the differences in colour on those statues as they had been worn down by touching over time.

    On this particular tour we have our afternoons free to ourselves, so we wandered over to the Red Square for some lunch and a general sticky-beak around. The food was excellent and I had probably the best beef stroganoff I had ever had up until that point. Our waiter was very friendly and we had a chat about his sister who now lives in Australia. Unfortunately Red Square was packed with stadium seating for their annual celebrations of the city’s beginnings 869 years ago (quite young really) so we didn’t perhaps get the best view of whole surroundings but it was still great to walk around.

    Back near our hotel, we headed to a local tourist village, I guess you would call it. It was a modern reconstruction of some older style Russian buildings with a truckload of souvenir stores and minor museums. We did check out the museum of vodka, because we were in Russia after all. We tasted some old-style vodka and some flavoured vodka, which were both nice, and chatted to the two ladies who were looking after the museum who wondered why we’d come so far to see Moscow. We also got a little distracted by two cats snuggling each other in the museum’s lobby section.

    We finished up the day by ordering room service at our hotel which was quite a trial as they initially managed to forget to bring up one of our drinks and two of our entrees. Luckily our waiter had a translation app on his phone so Tessa managed to reach a mutual understanding between him, her and the cook who the waiter had to keep ringing. Unfortunately the result was a little disappointing for Tessa when all was said and done as the dumplings just weren’t up to scratch.
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  • Day21

    Moscow - Saturday

    September 3, 2016 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 20 °C

    A long time on the train, a very very long time. Long and not very exciting until about 1am where the Polish border guards followed by the Belarus border guards kept us for what felt like 30 minutes by walking up and down the train checking and stamping everyone’s passports and documents. Eventually they left and even though the train stopped and started and changed directions continually, we arrived on time in Moscow.
    At the train station we were met by a taxi driver organised by the tour company we were using for our Russian section of our holidays and he took us to our hotel, a Russian branch of the Best Western chain. A very nice hotel although the décor and the 1940s Western music pumping through the place made me think of the Fallout game series.
    Check in felt a bit like checking in at the airport. We went through security gates, had our passports registered and signed official documents. This was all made more fun by the free champagne.
    We spent much of the remaining day recovering from the long train trip (I personally was starting to become run-down) and we had to take advantage of the cheap but plentiful dinner buffet before we hit the hay.
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  • Day20

    Warszawa 2

    September 2, 2016 in Poland ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    (TESSA) We slept in, checked out and strolled the Old Town. We stopped to share huge German-style meals that had the look, but not the taste of Germany. We toured a cathedral and joined the audience of an organ music concert within it. I'm so very glad we went in because it had my favorite stained glass windows of the whole trip. Check out the mermaid!
    We visited the reconstructed Palace, made possible through hard work and donations of the polish people.
    We were ripped off by a cab driver on the way to Warszawa Centralna (the central train station). We had gotten too comfortable and trusting having had so many good experiences. ‘Always agree on the fare before entering the cab.’ Indeed.
    We boarded a train in the early evening. With no wifi, we chatted, looked out the window, read and learned some basic Russian. Spack-coin-a-noi-cha (Goodnight in Russian, the Aussie way).
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  • Day19

    Warsaw 1

    September 1, 2016 in Poland ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    (*TESSA*) We’re staying in a building that’s one of many making up the Old Town, reconstructed following the second world war and now a UNESCO historical site. We checked in late after the delayed train and grabbed dinner at a local chain restaurant, Zapiecek, that’s well recommended (we downed pierogi, beef and cabbage, vodka and sangria).

    Our accommodation is way out of our league (but not that expensive). It’s proper lux. I can’t work the coffee machine. I’m in constant danger of knocking over the glassware and décor. The artworks are certified indigenous from across the globe (but not Australia). We tumbled dried our clothes for over 6 hours, over two days due to our inability to work the dual washer dryer. I’m blaming the tumble dryer for how tight my pants have gotten, but we all know it’s probably the pierogi.

    In the morning of the 1st we joined a free Second World War walking tour (we tipped well, of course) and learned of the starvation and persecution of the people, as well as the destruction of the city. Pierogi for lunch (seriously) with potato pancakes, with an aperol spritz for me and beer for Sheldon – as is usual most afternoons.

    We spent the afternoon at the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Following years of occupation, persecution and hunger, inspired by the earlier uprising of the Jewish people in the Warsaw Ghetto, the people of Warsaw armed in an effort to reclaim the city from the Nazis. With only about 10% of their makeshift army with firearms, they had little chance. The museum celebrates their wins – they took POWs and shut down a Nazi communication centre – but ultimately tells the tragic tale of the destruction of Warsaw. About 90% of the city was in ruins. The beyond cruel Nazi Ghetto that had claimed the lives of thousands of Polish Jews was wiped off the map.

    The Poles know how to construct a museum. There were survivor accounts, interactive exhibits, films, a 30s café, and items to collect. It was engaging, factual and, in stark contrast to the presentation of museums in Germany, it was emotive. I shed a fair few tears here.
    We had trouble finding the bus stop to get home. It’s not like Australia, where bus stops for each direction on a line are more or less directly across the road from one another.
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  • Day17

    Olsztyn - Tuesday

    August 30, 2016 in Poland ⋅ ☀️ 19 °C

    More catch-up posts!

    (*TESSA*) We travelled by train to Olsztyn, a town in the north of Poland and rented a car. Right hand side drive! I felt fierce – travelling 120km +, overtaking on the left and navigating all the overtaking by speed hounds who create an imaginary lane when need be. I drove us to Wolf’s Lair – Hitler’s home for three years of WWII and an administrative hub for the war.

    Wolf’s Lair is a spooky place, not least because the motivations for all the visitors are unclear. For instance, a couple of German kids, climbing and playing fake gun warfare seemed to valorise the place. Our guide told us it is not uncommon to find flowers outside Hitler’s bunker in memorial. I would have destroyed any memorial of that nature had we seen one.

    The bunkers were blown up by the retreating Germans so as to be of no use to the Allies. Nature is reclaiming them.

    We spent the night at what Sheldon called, the Daylesford of Poland. Kathy and Team, we hope to convince you to come back with us one day. The accommodation at rock bottom prices was extremely high quality. Our host was extremely helpful with sightseeing suggestions, and we wished we could stay another night. As it was, we dined by the lake and drove through the town the next morning. We had no time for more, with the rental car due back and our train tickets already booked for Warsaw. In the end, we had more time than we thought – our train was delayed almost two hours. We spent it on the platform in complete ignorance of what was going on. Here, as in other cities, we got approached for advice. We must be doing an ok job of blending in. Until we speak. I’ll never forget the face on one woman after catching us off guard by addressing us in fluent Polish. Rather than our usual butchered greeting, ‘Gin Dob Re,’ we replied with a broad Aussie “Hello” in unison. She was so shocked she covered her face in our hands, stepped back and started laughing.

    Dinner was pierogi of course, what else?
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  • Day16

    Warsaw - Monday

    August 29, 2016 in Poland ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    We started the day by catching a train to Warsaw, which was efficient as the European trains normally are however I was disappointed that they got my order for breakfast wrong and I ended up with scrambled eggs instead of some hot croissants with jam that I was looking forward to eating.

    We initially got a little lost trying to find our way to our apartment from the train station and frustrated with the stupid cobblestones that make wheeling bags around very annoying.

    We settled in for some recovery time and then headed into the nearby shopping centre for some everyday shopping time. We enjoyed some classy food court food for dinner (Zinger burgers are pretty much the same all over the world). There was a Magnum ice cream stand there where they would let you pick your toppings and dip the ice cream bars in dark/white/milk chocolate.
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  • Day15

    Krakow - Sunday

    August 28, 2016 in Poland ⋅ ☀️ 28 °C

    After the previous day we decided to take it easy and have a lie in which was a good idea considering we were a little fatigued from the constant walking around so far on our trip.

    When we did finally drag ourselves away from watching Friends in our apartment, we headed into the old city for a general wander. We walked to the university that Copernicus studied at back in the day (although the library which is apparently quite lovely was closed). There was a music festival of sorts going on in the main square and we had a nice chat with a Polish reenactor about how a man is meant to correctly kiss the hand of a lady (the man is meant to bend his head down to kiss the hand, not bring the hand up to his head). We had more pierogi for lunch by which point we were starting to hit our limit of pierogi (I’ve skipped mentioning a couple more pierogi-based meals). We ended up having Italian for dinner just for a change in cuisine.

    In the evening we went a classical concert in one of Krakow’s churches which happened to be on that night. It was the perfect match between the beauty of the church and the beauty of the music.

    We finished the night off with a return to the Absynth Café where I enjoyed some extremely alcoholic absinth-based cocktails.
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  • Day14

    Auschwitz

    August 27, 2016 in Poland ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    Today we made our way to the Auschwitz extermination camp in a group tour and as you can imagine it was an emotionally draining day. Having read about the Holocaust for many years, I wasn’t surprised at what I was told, but being there and being able to visualise what I had previously read about was powerful. The room filled with the hair cut from Nazi victims is something I will struggle to forget.

    I was amazed to see how packed the camp was with tourists. I must admit that I struggle with the idea of an extermination camp as a tourist attraction (which I admit is ironic considering I came to the camps as a tourist). It’s good that people do come so they can learn and never forget what happened, but on the other side, seeing masses of people queue up to walk through a gas chamber and crematorium was a little difficult for me to watch. While Tessa and I did walk through the gas chamber in Auschwitz I camp, Tessa in particular struggled with being in a room where so many people had been murdered and felt compelled to leave as quickly as possible. In retrospect I wonder whether I should have gone through the rooms at all.

    The memorial near the gas chambers at the Auschwitz II – Birkenau reads along the lines of, ‘let this be a cry of despair and a warning.’ Tessa broke down.
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  • Day13

    Krakow - Friday

    August 26, 2016 in Poland ⋅ ☀️ 24 °C

    Time to catch up on some posts!

    So after getting off the sleeper train at Krakow’s main train station, we wheeled our bags through some lovely (but cobblestoned) parks to our accommodation. We are getting to the point where we are finding the cobblestones more annoying in terms of lugging bags around than “picturesque” and “old-worldy”.

    Our apartments happened to be a short walk from a restaurant that served a buffet breakfast (which we went back to a few times) that got us ready for the day and then we headed to Wawel Castle and Cathedral. The castle has many exhibitions and areas that you have to buy individual tickets for and we were initially going to see everything before we were informed by the ticket seller that it would take seven and a half hours. We were more selective.
    There were some beautifully decorated rooms and treasures, as well as the original copy of the famous painting “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci. Wawel Castle also had some very engaging audio tours which was a step up from the very dry ones we experienced in the German museums.

    We had our first of several pierogi feasts in Krakow at Pierogi Mr Vincent, which was amazingly delicious (and cheap!) and we followed it up with some cocktails at a hipsteresque bar near our apartments called Absynth Café.
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