All posts by outofofficereplyon

It was written in the stars, as they say - I am a Sagittarius, the sign of travellers.

Warsaw in two days: Day 2

My second day in Warsaw started with a visit to the Palace of Culture and Science (PKiN), the highest building in Poland (231m) and centre of several cultural activities. Teenagers on school trips crowded the ground floor while the majority of other tourists seemed to head straight towards the lift to the viewing terrace located on the 30th floor. From there, the view over the city and the growing number of high-rise buildings is an interesting way to witness the changing skyline of the Polish capital.

 Outside the building I stumbled across a stark reminder of the sad history of Warsaw and Poland: boundary lines mark the ground perimeter of what used to be the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of all Jewish ghettos during World War II.

Boundary markers of the Warsaw Ghetto walls

Sudden memories of me aged 10 and reading a book about kids in the Warsaw Ghetto came back. I wanted to go and see what’s left today.

The Warsaw Ghetto was established by the Germans in 1940 and, split into a “large” and a “small” ghetto, locked 350,000 people identified as Jews behind its walls until May 1943. The harsh life conditions in the Ghetto and the day-to-day activities of its inhabitants were recorded in detail in the Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto by Emanuel Ringelblum.

Nowadays one of the best preserved fragments of the Ghetto wall remains at 55 Sienna Street, not far from PKiN. Other small memorials can be found around the same area.

After the Ghetto area, it was time to dig deeper into history so I headed to the Warsaw Rising Museum. Opened in 2004 and split over several levels, this largely interactive museum covers the chronology of the events of the 1944 Uprising. This was a resistance operation attempting at liberating Warsaw from the German occupation. But it didn’t end well: after 63 days the city capitulated and the German acts of destruction continued, with large parts of the city flattened to the ground.
Give yourself 2-3 hours to visit the museum and learn about the many aspects of the Uprising.

My last bit of sightseeing in Warsaw involved catching the metro to reach the Eastern side of the city and explore Praga. This working class district is now regarded as up-and-coming and is quite in contrast with the main tourist areas of Western Warsaw. Rundown estate blocks, flashy shopping centres, alternative nightlife, unusual museums, all characterise Praga.
Worth a longer visit next time.

Warsaw in two days: Day 1

 In the morning, I ventured out in the streets of Warsaw wearing multiple layers of clothing. I was determined not to let the freezing cold (temperatures around -7C!) stop my sense of adventure and interest in discovering a new destination.

Krakowskie Przedmieście is one of the most well-known streets of Warsaw, a wide avenue with large pedestrian areas and flanked by elegant palaces, churches and townhouses. As I reached it arriving from the east side of town, I saw the first of many Warsaw landmarks: the Copernicus monument that stands outside the Polish Academy of Sciences. Walking around the square I spotted a curious sign of contemporary times: QR codes labelled “take a selfie with Chopin” on a bench! It seems that there is a whole app on the relevant online app stores….

Next in the line of Krakowskie Przedmiescie’s monumental buildings as I enjoyed my stroll towards the Old Town (with a large cup of hot coffee to warm me up), were the church of Kościół Rzymskokatolicki Wizytek and the Presidential Palace, the largest palace in Warsaw.

Just before entering the old town, I made my way up to the viewing platform next to St. Anne’s church. This is a great spot for a view over the whole Old Town and its cobbled streets and houses in pastel colours.
Built during the 12th-13th centuries, the Old Town (or Stare Miasto) was destroyed by the German Army after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Subsequently rebuilt using most of the original material, it has been awarded UNESCO recognition and is now the most popular destination for tourists visiting the Polish capital.

The Old Town is worth spending a few hours just wandering around. Start from Castle Square and explore the labyrinth of cobbled streets, admire the houses with beautifully coloured and adorned facades, head to Market Square, stop by in one of the many arts and crafts stores to buy some traditional products. Cafes and restaurants abound too, and every now and then you may want to rest your legs (or warm up, if you go in winter!) and sample local food and drinks. I certainly did!

I couldn’t leave the Old Town without visiting the Royal Castle: one of the landmarks of Warsaw, this beautiful building has a long history as it was the residence of the Polish monarchs for several centuries. Almost completely destroyed during World War II, then painstakingly rebuilt, it  now serves as a museum and several rooms can be visited over a couple of hours.

A short walk from the Old Town was Polin, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Not a happy place, quite oppressing at times, but something not to be missed if you want to better understand the sad history of Poland.

The Holocaust section felt claustrophobic compared to the rest of the museum: low ceilings, grey walls, narrow passages – the sense of anguish increases as you walk through. Pictures of Jews in concentration camps plastered the walls. Extracts from the Warsaw Ghetto Diaries featured everywhere.
Then World War II ends and the exhibition lightens up a bit. But the Holocaust can’t be forgotten.

More on this in my next post.

Setting foot on Polish land

When I was (much) younger, Poland to me meant a random combination of Holocaust, Pope John Paul II, Solidarność, and Zbigniew Boniek.
And Polish was that unpronounceable language with strange tails and slashes across letters, and an ‘l’ (technically, ł) sounding like the English ‘w’.

Over the years, it never felt these were good enough reasons to push the country to the top of my travel wishlist.
But things were about to change.

With a sport race scheduled in Warsaw on a winter Saturday evening, it was time to give this country a proper chance. And a long weekend in the Polish capital was added to my diary.

Cheap airline flight booked, bag packed, GBP turned into złoty (even though Poland is a member state of the European Union, it has its own currency) – Poland, you are about to become my country nr. 45!

Modlin airport in Warsaw – one of the two airports in the capital – is well served by public transport (bus and train) as well as taxis. Modlin Bus takes you to the city centre in just under an hour and for 35 złoty. From the stop at the Palace of Culture you can then reach your final destination on foot or by catching the city metro (two lines, M1 and M2) or another bus or a tram (info here).

I opted for the bus. Walking 2.5Km with my carry-on suitcase in a freezing -2C didn’t sound too appealing.
A couple of hours later I warmed myself up with my first taste of Polish traditional food: barszcz and pierogi! And I started drafting my itinerary on a map.

More to come on this trip :-)

An Amsterdam-to-London adventure

I hadn’t planned to catch a train from Amsterdam to London. I had my flight booked and an easy 45 minutes or so in the air already planned.
Yet the weather had a different plan…
And this is the story of how travel disruption turned from very stressful into a nice adventure :-)

Monday 11 December 2017. Snow, fog and strong wind cause the cancellation of 95% of flights out of Schiphol airport.

When at 5pm announcements were made that also my flight (initially scheduled for 2pm then delayed to 7pm) was no longer going, panic seeped in! I have to be back in London within 24 hours due to more travels planned, and there are no seats on other flights until Wednesday, I cried to the desk agent – how the heck am I going to make it?!
To add to the misery and mayhem, also all trains from Schiphol were cancelled due to bad weather conditions. The only way out of the airport was to catch a taxi. Welcome to a two-hour queue then :-(.

Based on the EU regulation Nr. 261/2004 on “compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding, flight cancellations, or long delays of flights”, I was reassured that my airline would reimburse any additional expenses incurred (within set limits). So I went ahead with taxi and hotel booking in Amsterdam for the night.

And to get to London? Then train will have to be! Intercity from Amsterdam to Brussels then Eurostar from Brussels to London. It would take me most of the following day but at least there were seats. And a chance to get home!

It was sunny with blue skies in Amsterdam the following morning. I took a stroll around Amsterdam Centraal train station to enjoy the snow. But it was soon time to catch the train.

And here I am, on board of the Intercity train to Brussels. Slower but much cheaper than the Thalys, it felt like being back to the days when train journeys across Europe (good old InterRail!) were the norm. Slow travel. Stare out of the window. Enjoy the moment.

The scenery was lovely – snow covered the fields, the streets, the roofs of the houses. White everywhere, shining in the sunlight of a beautiful day with bright blue skies.

The train drove through Den Haag, Rotterdam, Dordrecht, Roosendaal, Antwerp, Mechelen. And eventually reached Brussels, 3hrs and 20minutes later.

The Brussels-London stretch wasn’t as interesting. I slept most of the two hours on the Eurostar, it was dark outside and in the tunnel under the Channel. I had finally relaxed, knowing that I would make it home in time to unpack my bag, repack it for the tropics, and fly out again the following morning!

As for my claim for a refund, once I got home I immediately submitted it online, uploading all receipts for transport, accommodation and meals costs incurred as the result of the flight cancellation. (Update Jan 2018: in less than a month I received full reimbursement of all additional expenses!).

If your travel plans are ever disrupted in a similar way and you find yourself stuck, try and see the bright side to it as you can turn it into another adventure :-)

Utrecht: a winter wonderland

My last trip to Utrecht was about 20 years ago. It was summer, a hot summer.
This time I spent a day or so in a winter wonderland!

But it didn’t start as such. As I walked around in the morning, having arrived the previous afternoon, there was just a handful of flakes floating in the  air. While my friends were posting Facebook photos of London covered in snow, I was freezing but there were hardly any signs of an impending storm. Quite disappointing.

Fear not, must have been the thought of the gods of weather!
Two hours later I was in the middle of a snow storm, with the wind howling (think “Frozen”!) and an increasing amount of white on every surface! Soon Utrecht was looking like a town from a fairy tale.

When I felt too cold from the walking around, I entered the cathedral (Domkerk in Dutch) and I spent some time enjoying the Gothic architecture and the beautiful stained glass. Interesting fact is that most of this church collapsed in 1674 due to the force of a tornado and was never rebuilt. What remains today are the choir, the transept and the church tower.

The church tower (Dom Toren) is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. 112.5m, 465 steps. Guided tours from the nearby tourist office take you to the top in around one hour and for Euro 9. The tower is not the easiest thing to stair climb when it’s so cold and the steps are made slippery by snow and ice, and you soon find yourself praying that you won’t fall. Yet the view from the top is worth the effort and the risk!

I spent the rest of the afternoon with an old (and great) friend I hadn’t seen in almost two decades: shopping, sitting at a cafe’ drinking hot chocolate and eating cakes, chatting. Then I tried the traditional “oliebollen”, sort of deep fried dumplings with sultanas and covered in powdered sugar. Yummie!

The darkness in the evening made everything very atmospheric and pictoresque, and the last few photos were taken before I returned to my hostel.

A day in Bratislava

Bratislava wasn’t at the top of my travel wishlist.
It was there somewhere but it was lagging behind some very strong competitors.

Then suddenly it climbed to the top. Unexpectedly. A dark horse. Thanks to the  UFO Tower, its 430 steps and an international race I wanted to take part in.
And on a mild September weekend I found myself in the Slovakian capital, ready to tackle a stair challenge as well as  explore a new destination.

Slovakia Bratislava "UFO Tower"
UFO Tower

Bratislava – one of the smallest capitals in Europe – gained its capital city status when the Slovak Republic became an independent state on 1 January 1993.
Small but intriguing, I found it really pleasant to visit. With its medieval centre, its narrow cobbled streets and plenty of historic buildings, Bratislava offers many opportunities for your sightseeing day.

Hlavne namestie (main square) is a good starting point for your Bratislava mini-adventure: considered the centre of the city, this square features landmarks such as the Old Town Hall and Roland’s Fountain. I especially loved the fountain at night: the changing lights, with shades from red to green to blue, made it a very magical place!

Do you like wandering around without a set itinerary, like I do? Then lose yourself in the meandering streets, explore the city and its history, try the street cafes, discover the quirky arts and crafts shops, enjoy the views over the River Danube. There is so much to enjoy in such a small place!

And how can I forget Bratislava castle?! Perched on the top of a hill, what we see now is a 1950’s reconstruction of Emperor Sigismund’s fifteenth-century castle, which burnt down in 1811. The box-shaped building and its four towers are particularly fascinating at night. The views over the city and the Danube are something not to miss!

My time in Bratislava was limited so I didn’t get to visit buildings  or museums properly but I definitely recommend this city.

By the way, for those of you who want to enjoy panoramic views of the Slovakian capital from the UFO tower, you won’t need to climb 430 steps: there is a lift that will take you all the way to the top!

Street art in Athens

This is something I really didn’t expect. Isn’t Athens supposed to be all about the ancient Greek ruins and some Orthodox churches?!

No, I quickly found out, while wandering around the streets in the city centre. Street art, graffiti, tagging. Everywhere. Is this just the new version of the wall paintings of ancient times?

I spent hours turning into every corner of the narrow streets up the Acropolis hill, as well as the Psiri neighbourhood. No wall seemed to have been forgotten by the unknown (to me) graffiti artists. It was like walking into an open air gallery!

Admittedly there is a huge amount of tagging that is of little artistic value, yet some graffiti/murals were incredibly beautiful.

I will leave you with some images, best placed to describe the variety of art available. All credit goes to the respective authors, even though I don’t know who they are!

Athens Day 3

This was my last full day (+night) in the city. Not tired of walking, I spent the day exploring more of the city on foot. This included a walk up Lycabettus hill (or Mount Lycabettus), the highest point of Athens!

Here are the highlights of the day:

#National Gardens
Located behind the Parliament building, this is a peaceful area where to relax away from the main tourist crowds. I actually visited these gardens on two consecutive days as I really enjoyed walking around and exploring!

#Panathenaic Stadium
I loved it! This is the site of the opening and closing ceremony of the 1896 Olympics and it was also a venue for the Olympics in 2004. Entirely made of marble and with very steep steps, it requires a bit of caution when walking up and down after heavy rain but once you are at the highest point the feeling is amazing! You can also have your photo taken at the podium that is located at ground level.

#Lycabettus hill (Mount Lycabettus)
This is the highest point in Athens and its top can be reached on foot or by using a funicular. St George’s Chapel is located at the top and offers a good viewing point to the rest of the city. The wind can be very strong here so be warned!

#Piraeus
Only a 15-min metro journey from Monastiraki lies Piraeus, largest passenger port in Europe and second largest in the world. I went because I wanted to see the port and enjoy the sunset by the sea on my last night in Athens. The sky was cloudy but the colours were still beautiful!

 

Athens Day 2

My top tip for Athens is: base yourself in the Monastiraki area! This is THE hub. Excellent transport connections to the rest of the city, reasonable walking distance to most tourist sites (I walked pretty much everywhere), plenty of restaurants and eateries of all sorts, plenty of bars for a good night out. And I just loved walking around in the evening, enjoying the view of the Acropolis from below and of the streets full of people. Yes, there are a few dodgy individuals around the train station but, as long as you are not there on your own in the middle of the night, concern should be minimal.

So my second day in Athens started by exploring the area further, and here are some photos.

#Psiri
Next I explored the Psiri district. I spent a lot of time there, fascinated by the rundown buildings, the huge amount of street art (more in another post) and the flea markets.

#Ancient Agora
This is the best known example of an ancient Greek agora, and it remained in use either as an assembly, as a commercial, or as a residential area for about 5000 years. Restoration of this area has been minimal. The highlights are the Temple of Hephaestus,  the best preserved ancient Greek temple from the Classical era, and the Stoa of Attalos, a building of the Hellenistic period that was rebuilt from the ground up based on its ancient appearance.

#Kerameikos
This is the ancient cemetery of Athens and is one of the least visited sites in the city, despite its importance and beauty. Archaeological excavations in Kerameikos started in 1870 and so far archaeologists have found columns of temples, marble statues, remains of public buildings, funeral offerings and thousands of tombs. I spent well over an hour wandering around the area and I definitely recommend a visit.

#Syntagma Square and Parliament
Syntagma Square is the most important square of modern Athens from both a historical and social point of view. In recent years (2010-2012) this square became the site of mass protests related to the economic situation of the Greek government-debt.
At the top of Syntagma Square you’ll find the Parliament building. Crowds gather outside every day to watch the Evzones, the elite soldiers who guard the tomb of the unknown soldier as well as the Presidential palace. While the main ceremony of the changing of the guard is held on a Sunday morning (this is when the traditional white kilts are worn), hourly changing of the guards occur every day on weekdays too. I watched these a couple of times and found them quite entertaining.

 

Athens Day 1

My first day of Athens sightseeing covered quite a lot (I walked around 15Km!) and here is some information and photos on what I saw.

#Acropolis
I couldn’t miss it. Yes I had been there before but 25 years can make a huge difference from the viewer’s end. The Acropolis wouldn’t have changed much but my way of looking at things would have.
To reach the Acropolis you walk up the steps on the hill, enjoying the narrow streets, the small restaurants and cafes along the way, the graffiti murals that seem to cover every wall, the panoramic views of the Athens. The route isn’t really well signposted (there are various routes anyway) and more than once I bumped into other tourists who appeared lost on their way up.

The entrance ticket to the Acropolis is Euro 20 (it drops to  Euro 10 in low season). I walked around the area for a few hours, enjoying the views despite the strong wind of the summit of the hill. A lot of restoration work is going on and sadly the Parthenon was largely covered in scaffolding. Yet just being able to be there in the presence of such majestic monuments of the ancient times was incredible.
The Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Theatre of Dyonisus, the Temple of Athena Nike, and more. You could easily spend half a day there. And the views of Athens from above are pretty stunning too.

#Acropolis Museum
Not tired of archeology yet, I then spent some more time wandering around the Acropolis Museum, which displays a lot of remains that were found in the area. The museum is located by the southeastern slope of the Acropolis hill and the building itself is quite beautiful.

Traditional souvenirs

#Plaka district
If instead you are tired of sightseeing, the Plaka district, just by the Acropolis hill, has plenty of cafes and shops (mainly souvenirs) for anyone’s entertainment.

#Philopappou hill
My first sightseeing day ended with a walk up Philopappou hill to see the Philopappou Monument and enjoy a panoramic view of the Acropolis and of Athens as a whole. Again it was very windy but the view from the top was really nice.