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After completing our travels round the northern half of Poland and the Baltic states, we made a brief interlude to fly to Brussels to visit Stefan's mum for her birthday for a couple of days. We flew from Warsaw to Brussels and a few days later returned to Warsaw to pick up where we had left off. See route description for details.

We loved the eastern and southern parts of Poland as much as the northern. We now left behind the influence of the Baltic Sea. As with northern Poland and the Baltic states, by far the most visitors were from Germany, with a small number of other nationalities, French, Dutch, Italian and, of course, Russians. Hardly an American or a Brit in sight. We took in a variety of places and sights, from the renaissance town of Zamość to the chilling concentration camp of Majdanek on the outskirts of Lublin (which in its bleakness made a far greater impression on us than tourist-infested Auschwitz), and culminating in the beautiful surroundings of the Tatra mountains and Zakopane.

We were very glad to have taken the trouble to visit much smaller Slovakia. Whilst we didn't spent as much time there as in Poland, it certainly packed a punch: the atmospheric town of Levoča, which we used as a base to explore the surrounding countryside, with trips out to Slovenský raj ("Slovak paradise") for hiking with a difference, and the ruins of mighty Spišský hrad. Slovakia has one of the largest populations of Romanies (gypsie) in Europe and this made it more exotic. I loved observing the gypsy faces and expressions, and it wasn't hard to understand why they are often sidelined or blamed for theft and dodgy dealings. Later we also visited Bratislava, formerly known as Pressburg, a small capital that is getting the full EU revamp. We're glad we saw it before it is totally sanitised. The "UFO" bar at the top of the Novy Most, the bridge across the Danube, has to rank as one of the best bars we've been to.

Oh, we "did" Vienna too, while we were here. If any city has the right to call itself the capital of Europe it must surely be Vienna. Right at the heart not only geographically but more importantly as the seat of the powerhouse of the Habsburg empire over the centuries. More recently it may have taken a bit of a backseat in history but it still has grandeur in spades.

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Planning the final leg

We were up for an early start today to make the journey back to Poland to start “part two” of our tour of central and eastern Europe. We had breakfast together with Mama and then drove to the airport in our hired Chevrolet something. Fortunately there was no rush hour madness, just normally heavy traffic and we were on time at Zaventem, dropped the car and keys off and made our way through the airport to our gate. The flight left with a minor delay and a change of gate.

A few hours later, after an uneventful air-conditioned cocooned flight we were back in Warsaw. It took a long time for our flight’s baggage to arrive, well over an hour and after remaining phlegmatic for most of the time we finally went to enquire. Minutes later our bags turned up. We found Eddie and drove into the centre of Warsaw, opting for the anonymous but convenient Ibis, a few tram stops out of the Old Town. Oh, tourist info at the airport were totally useless, no help on accommodation but an acknowledgment that it was a big problem, and we should try the Sheraton as everywhere else would be full. Rubbish, as we managed to book a room at the Ibis without any trouble. We checked in and used the rest of the day to plan and deal with “admin”, before we got going again. We plonked downstairs in the surprisingly cosy (for such an anonymous hotel) l’Estaminet, with red and white checked tablecloths and done in a French country café style.

We had a pile of books and the colourful Europe map and worked our way through the highlights sections of our Rough Guides and Lonely Planet, which took us a couple of very pleasant hours. I love this bit, this stage, where we’re poring over maps, pointing at bits of (for us) terra incognita, circling dots, and building up the sense of anticipation, the knowledge that you’re going to go to these new places. In the process we had to make choices and, in the interest of conserving our limited and dwindling budget, had to leave out many potentially interesting places, but fewer places also meant more time in the places that remained on our list, and that meant a more manageable pace and ability to get to know a place. Anyway, it was a lot of fun to do this together. We took a break and went upstairs to use the internet in our room, but the hotel had run out of Orange cards and so we had to give up on that, and instead went downstairs for dinner, a tasty pork chop I think, and continued planning in l’Estaminet, and had an early night – and a double bed!

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Commemorating the 1944 Warsaw Uprising (and subsequent destruction by the Nazis)
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They don't make trams like this anymore

A slow start, a lie-in and breakfast in l’Estaminet and then we did a bit more planning and uploading of pictures before we finally got ready to go out for a day of mooching around Warsaw. We have decided to stay here for a day or two before moving on, rather than just head out and leave Warsaw unseen (which was the original plan). It was a lovely sunny day. We jumped on a tram to head into the Old Town, without tickets as we assumed we could buy them on the tram. The trams are for the most part lovely old affairs that clunk along reliably, rather like the ones in Brussels. We got off one stop too early and walked the last bit, through an area of some apartment blocks and reconstructed old town houses. This brought us out by a small triangular square, with the castle or palace along one side, and open on one side, with a pillar or monument of some kind, and in the moat area below there were some “Tartu”-type medieval horse rides for kids.

We continued into the heart of the Old Town itself, along streets with the usual bustle of tourists and street entertainers. The narrow streets had been pedestrianised and were lined with tall old buildings, merchant houses and so on. We walked in the Rynek, the main square (Rynek is a generic name for this) and looked around. On all four sides it was lined with old imposing houses, some sort of uniformity as well as a bit of a muddle and mixture of sizes, decorations, styles. On the square itself there were many tourist cafés with their colourful umbrellas, and a good crowd of tourists strolling about. It was incredible to realise that this whole area, in fact just about all of Warsaw, had been thoroughly and systematically destroyed during WWII, levelled until hardly one brick stood on another, largely as a result of the Nazi reaction to the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 and as a part of their scorched earth policy as they retreated from the east at the end of the war. More on that later. The square had been reconstructed faithfully and you would hardly guess that this was only about sixty years old. Warsaw’s “Old Town” had been entirely rebuilt, but it was now the exclusive domain of the tourists. We sat down at a café and left again after taking a look at the inflated prices. Instead we found a more convivial and cheapter option on a street off the Rynek, a small branch of the Polish chain Pierogarnia with pierogi (Polish dumplings) and other Polish fare on the menu. We had a plate of pierogi each, mine with some type of mushrooms, Ness’s with mashed peas and bacon, delicious.

We continued walking round the streets of the compact Old Town for a little longer and then went into the Warsaw History Museum, on one side of the Rynek. I got fed up after a few rooms on the ground floor, especially after getting tired of being followed round by the old women who are the typical museum caretakers, and for being told off – “nie, nie foto!” – when I started to dig out my camera. I left Ness to see the rest and went to sit in the entrance lobby where I wrote my diary. Ness in the meantime took her time to go round the museum and from the length of time she had been away I began to realise that there must have been more than just this stuffy collection on the ground floor. When she came back Ness told me that the museum stretched over five floors across the six adjoining houses along this side of the Rynek, with recreations of merchant houses, collections of silver, wartime photographs of the destruction, and lots more. Ah well, shame I missed it, but I was quite happy to just have a bit of “diary time” anyway.

Next we went for a coffee, at one of the touristic bars on the Rynek, never mind the prices as it was a splendid setting. Ness helped out a table of four elderly Spaniards who were trying to ask for ice in their drinks. “Glace” was interpreted as “glass” but Ness looked up the right word in our Rough Guide for them. Dinner consisted of a kebab at a Syrian kebaberia on a side street and then we toured back.

We passed the dramatic Warsaw Uprising monument, showing a collection of bronze figures bursting forth from the earth, including one of a young boy wearing a helmet too big for him, and a separate, smaller group showing them retreating into the sewers to escape. In front of the monument and on the manholes, candles in red glass had been placed by way of remembrance. We didn’t twig until later that the uprising had actually started on 1 August and that we had arrived on the day following its anniversary. We walked on and caught a tram back, this time with tickets. Outside it was starting to get dark, clouds were darkening the sky, and inside the tram the yellow light shone atmospherically. I could just picture a Warsaw commuter’s journey grim autumn or winter weather as they sat or stood on the tram with a newspaper or book. We headed upstairs for “B, B and B” – book, bear and bed!

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Once a familiar symbol, now a museum piece
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Leaving the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising

What a contrast to yesterday. We woke to a grey, wet day. Outside it was looking very autumnal, and somehow this just seemed a more fitting weather for Warsaw. We made a slow start, downstairs for French breakfast, upstairs to get ready, and then went out to the nearby Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. First though we tried to find a Sony Centre to have our laptop adapter checked. The first place we tried was round the corner from our hotel. They pointed us to a service centre a few blocks away but they couldn’t help either. Seems the Vaio product range is not supported in Poland. Still, it gave us an excuse to walk through some different streets, rather boring backstreets with service centres and dodgy bars as well as residential apartment blocks and local cafés and restaurants. I reckon these would be good places to meet some Varsovian “salt o’ the earth’s”.

In the rain we made our way to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising which was situated improbably along a main road and track tracks, away from anything to do with the Old Town. The museum itself was a modern affair, a no-nonsense steel job which had a vaguely industrial feeling. Inside was an excellent museum laid out in modern fashion, i.e. well-planned displays but consisting of boring panels, instead a more haphazard-seeming collection of photographs, exhibits, multimedia things. Basically it took you through a timeline from pre-Uprising, context-setting, and then the period of the Uprising itself and its terrible consequences as it started to fail while the Soviets stood by and the Allies were unable or unwilling to intervene, and finally to the aftermath, the total destruction of Warsaw in systematic fashion and, as if that wasn’t enough, the subsequent Soviet occupation and distortion of the facts for a further fifty years. Along the way there was a multitude of personal stories, a mixture of the heroic and the tragic, and some pretty harrowing material on Nazi atrocities. We spent several hours in the museum, happy to take our time over it, with a coffee break in the period 1940’s style café which was situated halfway. An excellent museum and essential viewing to understand Warsaw.

It was still grey and raining when we left the museum. We walked to the fantastic Palace of Culture and Science, a superb lump of uncompromising stalinist architecture “bestowed” by Stalin on the city of Warsaw and meant to impress, reminiscent of Senate House and Big Ben on steroids and, from pictures I have seen, similar to Moscow’s Lomonosov university. By now the weather had worsened slightly, the grey clouds hung low and obscured the upper parts of the tall buildings. The impact of the sight of the building was lessened somewhat and marred a little by the presence of other tall glass office towers erected in more recent years, but its footprint was so big, including its surrounding wings, that it still had enough space to command a suitable perspective on approach. We had a drink at a café on a corner and then walked along the side of the Palace. There didn’t seem to be anywhere to visit inside it.

We walked along to another imposing lump of a building, Warsaw’s central railway station, stopping for a much-needed pit stop for Ness. Lots of dodgy characters around, bums and cheap tracksuits. Inside the vast station hall it was uncannily warm and I felt that “tug” of wanting to board a train, any train going anywhere. I know our method of travelling by car is an ideal way of getting around, freely, flexibly, cheaply, but train travel has such a romantic appeal and feels more exotic. We took a few pictures inside and then a few more outside. The gloomy weather really completed the atmosphere. It made both the Palace and the station look “right” somehow. Outside the Old Town, Warsaw is not picturesque, a rather grey city with, as we now know, a tragic past, but it does seem to brim with new-found confidence. Even so, what has been done to it, and to the Poles, can not simply be glossed over and has clearly left deep scars to this day. The greyness created an atmosphere of its own though.

We caught another cosy tram back. While waiting on the platform for the tram it was interesting to watch the drunks around the station, swaying this way and that. One of them had fallen into a gutter right by the heavy traffic. Maybe he had fallen after helping a couple of lads to push their knackered car (Poland is full of old Audi’s) to get it started – I only saw the two snapshots of the scenes separately. Along with a few commuters we got on our tram (we could have taken the earlier one everyone else got on but having checked the schedule we decided to wait for the “22”) and got off at the stop nearest to our hotel.

For dinner we popped into the nearby and very convivial-looking Pizza Hut, and over dinner spent more time planning, focusing on Bulgaria, based on our Rough Guide’s suggested highlights. We have both seemed to find renewed energy and enjoyment for our travels, a combinations of new horizons opening, as well as the fact that this really is our last chapter of our epic trip – I think it has made us realise that what we have been experiencing is a special privilege. I guess we have got back on an even keel with our travels and have stopped taking it for granted. So what if it’s “another town” – it’s still worth looking at in its own right and we should do our best to avoid categorising too hastily. Anyway, what I was trying to say was that it was bloody good to sit there with a map and book, circling dots and placenames. We returned to the hotel and I uploaded some more pictures while Ness jumped into bed. I stayed up late doing stuff on the laptop until about 2am before also getting into the snug warm bed.

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Flowers in Kazimierz Dolny

We woke to the sounds of a procession passing along the far side of the large triangular space in front of our hotel. I got the camera and took some pictures and then got back into bed, but the procession carried on and I got up again. The procession must have consisted of several thousand people, walking in sections of a hundred or so, with young priests in black dress marshalling and a long rope being carried by the processors (processees?) to provide a guide. One troop consisted of soldiers marching orderly and in tight formation, but most were young school children and teenagers. What was it for? No idea.

After breakfast and uploading a few more pictures, we got ready and left Warsaw, heading to Lublin, the next stop on Poland Part Deux. I’ll dispense with the “drive” bits – nothing eventful happened. We made a stop at Kazimierz Dolny, a short detour from our route. Kazimierz Dolny was a little gem, a tiny town, a village really, with a fantastically picturesque centre, and of course totally overrun with tourists. It was set by a hilly outcrop along a wide river. Makeshift parking was advertised everywhere and we found a spot at one on a cobbled side street among the trees and then walked into the centre. The Rynek of Kazimierz Dolny “with its solid-looking wooden well at the centre, ringed by an engaging mixture of original buildings, opulent town houses of rich Kazimierz merchants rubbing shoulders with more folksy buildings” (RG). Anyway, it was teeming with tourists, mostly Polish I had the impression. Uphill on one side was a baroque church which we didn’t go into and carried on uphill on the cobbled streets and then on a steep path climbing a wooded hill that overlooked the town. The locals charge one złoty for access to the top, from where you got a nice view over the village/town. Back down and along the hill and across to another one with the ruins of the old castle (indecipherable squiggle in my diary at this point) built by King Kazimierz. Another złoty. I climbed to the top of the watchtower from where I had an even better view over the town and surrounding countryside, and then Ness and I went together to look at the ruins. Oh, I totally forgot: before all this walking we went for lunch at a Jewish restaurant on a street behind the main square. It took a bit of searching as our Rough Guide had it marked in the wrong place. Inside the cosy log cabin we sat on old hairdressers chairs. Appropriately, the place was called “U Fryzjer”. We had a tasty meal, well, mine was a hit, “sausages” made from duck skin and filled with a kind of black pudding and liver. And then we went climbing up hills, with full stomachs.

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One of the locals

After spending a couple of pleasant hours in Kazimierz Dolny we went back to the car and carried on. We had only intended a brief pit stop but it just was such a nice and picturesque little town. On to Lublin then. The scenery had gradually changed to become more rural again, at least until we got close to Lublin. We made our way through the so-so suburbs. It’s all apartment blocks here, even if they’re not gloomy. There are no “leafy lanes”, at least none that we are seeing on our travels so far. But into the town centre for the Stare Miasto (Old Town). We navigated an arcane one-way system and a hard-to-get-into old town had us going round in circles. We had booked ahead for our hotel, which was in the Old Town but it took us several goes at ignoring traffic signs to get to it. The old town felt like a totally separate world, an enclosed medieval town within the town. Thankfully, the restorers had not yet done their job here and it looked atmospherically dilapidated. It also felt quite “Italian” with a higgledy-piggledy layout and lying on a raised area above the surrounding town. Our hotel was in fact one of the few buildings that had had the full “treatment”. On a side street, actually on Ulica Grodzka, a main thoroughfare to the castle but now pedestrianised or all but, we found our hotel, the Waksman, a lovely boutique job and, yippee, a bargain at 200 złoty. An excellent find. We got the blue room, looking out over the back towards the castle, tastefully decorated with wooden period (ish) furniture. Toes tingling with pleasure. What a find, the unreconstructed old town and a charming hotel, with friendly hotel reception staff and, to boot, it started to rain, adding yet more to the atmosphere.

After chilling out for a while we went out and ventured out of the old town and we walked the length of the pedestrianised and bar-lined Krakowski Przedmiescie. It was raining but large umbrellas sheltered the crowds of locals, mostly students, who were sat outside in small groups. We ended up back in the old town, unable to find a free dry table. Off the Rynek we had a drink, listening in to the conversation of a mixed group sat next to us – Brits & Poles, academics? We carried on and had another in a narrow basement bar with only locals, and a final coffee, vodka and beer at one of the terrace bars at Pl. Po Farze, an open space where the ruins of an old church, the Gothic St. Michael’s, are now just a collection of low walls to be clambered over. And then we toddled back to our cosy hotel room. At least we had comfy double bed (even if it was only with a single duvet).

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Schoolboy walking home, taking a short-cut through Majdanek. The most chilling thing about it is how close to the ordinary world it is

We had breakfast in the small room at the front of the hotel. The weather had cleared, not totally, but at least it was no longer raining. In the morning we drove out Majdanek, one of the most notorious of the Nazi death camps, situated only a short distance out of town. That proximity was the most incredible thing about it. In fact, it was almost in the town itself rather than on its outskirts. Driving along on an ordinary main road, rutted of course, through a suburb. and suddenly there it was, a large expanse of green on our right hand side, by a bus stop and now overlooked by apartment blocks and houses. We could hardly believe it and were reminded strongly of the Khmer Rouge and their prison / execution centre of S-21 or Tluol Sleng right in the centre of Phnom Penh. This was much, much bigger though, and most of it now consisted of green fields, with only a perimeter of barbed wire fences and watchtowers indicating the extent of the former concentration camp, and then you had to realise that it still covered only about twenty percent of what had been planned by the Nazi’s. Along one side stood a massive concrete Soviet memorial. We drove in along the paths, paid attention to the attendant(ess) who came out and gabbled in Polish, and returned to the entrance, parked and went to the visitor’s centre. By now the poor lady must have been wondering what we were up to with our to’ and fro’ing.

Inside the rather basic visitors centre we watched the film/slide show. It was pretty sobre. The facts are just so incredible and gruesome that superlatives seem out of place and it is better to just present the facts as they are and let the enormity of it sink in. We commented to each other that we felt rather ghoulish coming here. We walked up to the massive Soviet memorial which looked like a word that had been written in gargantuan concrete letters which had been raised a couple of metres above the ground, on a platform, a raised hill which overlooked the site. Crows had now made it their playground. I stood under it and felt the mass of concrete pressing down on me. I really do wonder about the Soviet taste for the monumental. Next we drove to the car park at the entrance to the fenced area. A few wooden sheds stood along the outside of the barbed wire perimeter. The first one was identified as Bad und Desinfektionszimmer I – bang, straight in the deep end, the gas chambers, which were also used as baths. The baths served as a prelude, to calm the prisoners down before they were led into the next area where they were gassed. It was like walking into a tomb, no, not that – it was a curious mixed feeling, a place of such intense evil and at the same time it was just a plain shed, recently varnished by the smell of it. It was now over sixty years ago and I have no personal connection with it whatsoever and it still felt wrong, bad, horrible, a production line of death. We toured the rest of the site with exhibitions and lots of stuff about how the camp was organised, and a section of prisoners barracks, just simple wooden sheds, which had originally been designed to hold cattle. At the far end of the massive site there was a large tomb+memorial, a curious dome shape underneath which there was a large mound, a “hill” of earth and ashes. Next to this were the crematorium ovens in a separate shed.

We completed the circuit and returned to the car, in need of more light-hearted sightseeing, and drove to the centre of town where we parked Eddie in the hotel car park. We strolled around the compact little Old Town with its narrow cobbled higgledy-piggledy streets, just ambling through, and stopped at the small Rynek, with the town hall in the centre of the square, and had a bowl of soup and glass of berry juice. Next we walked to the castle, just outside the section of the Old Town and reached by a pedestrian road. By now I had begun to get worried I might not be able to find “something” for Nessie’s birthday and it struck me that I really had left it far too late this time. We visited the castle, an 1820’s neo-gothic job built on the site of Kazimierz the Great’s original 14th century castle. It housed a range of “attractions” to visit. The main one among these was the stunning Chapel of the Holy Trinity with fantastic medieval frescoes covering every inch of the walls and vaulted ceilings, consisting of a mixture of original and sympathetic restoration. No photography permitted unfortunately. We also visited the castle museum with a range of interesting galleries with collections of porcelain and glass, folk costumes, and a small but very worthwhile art gallery. I rushed back to get a photo permit to take some snaps.

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Atmospheric streets of Lublin's old town

By now it really was last-last-minute for any pressie shopping and I told Ness I needed to disappear for a little while. Ness, understandably, found it hard to believe that I had left it so late. In a bit of a panic I managed to find a stall selling flowers – actually, it was a whole series of covered stalls, most of which were shut, but quite a few were luckily still open. Well, that was one thing at least. I had no luck trying to find a card and the supermarket next to the flower stalls had just closed (minutes earlier I had been in it looking for a card but now had come up with the idea of a bottle of bubbly, now not possible). Damn, now what? Maybe I could get back to the hotel before Ness and put the flowers in the room, I thought, but Ness saw me coming across the square with the flowers and we just walked back to the hotel together, getting a brass vase to put the roses in from the reception. But – phew – I spotted a decent-looking gift shop under the gateway/archway just down from our hotel. Again I said to Ness I just had to pop out. The shop did have some nice things and I bought a scented candle and a carved wooden box for Ness, and left these with the hotel reception, to “surprise” Ness tomorrow morning at breakfast. Panic over but unfortunately in the process I had had to reveal to Ness what last-minute job it had been. We relaxed in our room for a while and I read my book, “Yemen” by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, snoozed for a few minutes and we played a game of cards on the bed.

Later we went out for dinner at the Jewish restaurant on a corner of the Rynek. Most of the dishes we fancied weren’t available – “only on the Sabbath” – but we did end up with a tasty filling dish of potato latkes, Ness had meatballs, I had something else. A lovely little find, and there were people out on the various other cafés and restaurants around the square, a pleasant summer evening atmosphere.

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Happy Birthday Ness!

At breakfast there was only one other customer, a business-type, of the smart lawyer type rather than the laptop-brigade. The friendly hotel receptionist brought out the card and pressies. Ness had already opened the books and card Mama had given me to give to Ness. We packed our bags and checked out of the Waksman hotel. Before we left the receptionist showed us the large comfortable suites in the loft. Then we retrieved Eddie and headed out of Lublin towards Zamość, only about an hours drive or so, on a lumpy bit of road.

Zamość was smaller and had a very “Italian” feeling. Not surprisingly as it was laid out and designed by an Italian architect, Bernardo Morando of Padua, commissioned by Jan Zamoyski, a sixteenth century chancellor, to his own “ideological specifications” (RG). We had called ahead to book into the Orbis hotel which was just off the main square. We checked in and settled into our big comfortable room, a twin rather than a double but otherwise fine. Then we went out and took a look at Zamość’s Rynek which was very different from any we had seen so far. Our Rough Guide described accurately it as Italianate and Renaissance. The Rynek consisted of a perfect square, one hundred metres on each side, with Italianate merchant houses, with a low arcade running all around. The town hall is apparently one of the most photographed buildings in the country. In the centre of the open square a curious temporary structure had been erected. It consisted of a wooden half-pyramid, a kind of tower. A steep set of stairs on each side allowed you to climb up inside the tower. We plonked at one of the nice terrace cafés and ordered a pizza to share for lunch and just watched the square and people, many climbing into the pyramid and some who were too hasty slipping on their way back down the steep steps. The gradient reminded us of Angkor Wat. The sunny weather and clear blue skies made the colourful buildings stand out sharply, making for good pictures. We went on a short walking tour around the square and nearby streets, relying on our Rough Guide for commentary. Zamość’s layout is highly regular. It was designed as a utopian “ideal city”. We saw a group of scouts marching through the square and entertaining some local children. We saw them again at the town’s cathedral, with statue of John Paul II outside and its ornate interior. Standing free next to the cathedral was a bell tower. We climbed it, past the massive bells, and from the top had fabulous views over the town centre.

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For non-windy lifts head right?
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Scouts on patrol in Zamość

We continued with our walking tour, past a statue of the city’s founder, Jan Zamoyski, on horseback, looking a lot more imposing than the somewhat squirrel-faced portrait of him in our hotel. We finished our tour by taking a look at the Jewish streets and square, behind the main square. It looked pretty, old town houses with decorations, though not “Jewish” in any way, but the former synagogue was a clear sign that this used to be a Jewish quarter. Now it was more an exhibition space. Its interior now contained several works of art, at least one of which was on loan from the Gulbenkian Institute in Lisbon (another reminder of a previous trip for us). One was in a room with a large white board filled with thousands of small coloured cubes, each face of each cube was a cutting from a promotional magazine, with a price or a figure (see picture). In the main hall was another work which consisted of hundreds of sections of square steel tubes, neatly stacked. Along the walls of the now defunct synagogue another work consisted of sections of bright colours in the spaces where previously there would have been Jewish frescoes, presumably.

Back to the hotel for a pit stop. Outside it had now started to rain quite heavily but we still went out and continued our tour of Zamość. In fact it was quite nice to have some “weather” for a change. We walked to the town fortifications, which were so well designed that even the Swedish army couldn’t manage to surmount them. Now there was a covered market on two levels in one of the buildings contained in the city walls (i.e built into the fortifications). The covered market was full of stalls selling cheap clothes, electronics, fruit and vegetables, toys and so on. A reminder of that market in HCMC, though of course not so full on and in fact very empty. We followed a path/road that led a short way out of town, to a rotunda, also a former part of the town fortifications, a circular bastion which used to house twenty canons facing in many directions all around. This was another tragic Polish site now, as it had been used by the Nazis in WWII to imprison and execute large numbers of people. The canon cells were now memorials, each one housing flowers, wreaths, some kind of monument, plaques. The path leading up to it was lined with markers for those who had been murdered here.

We made our way, still through the rain, back to the main square. At a café we had a beer – I tried the dark Porter beer – and herring and żurek, delicious Polish sour soup with potatoes, cream, bacon, a hearty bowl. Mama called us to wish Ness a happy birthday while we were sat there. After this we returned briefly to the hotel and used the internet connection to check for birthday emails. Ness’s parents had excelled themselves with a poem and Ness spoke to them on the phone. Then we went out again. In the lobby we had to squeeze through a large Japanese tour group which had arrived. It’s actually quite a relief to see them instead of the ubiquitous groups of Germans! We went to the same restaurant on the square and had tasty and uncomplicated meals. Caz called and Ness spent a very long time on the phone. Overhead the sky seemed clear, a deep intense blue, providing a lovely backcloth for the buildings on the square, some of which were lit up. I just remember that the whole atmosphere was just “right” and that we both felt very relaxed and glad to be here. An enjoyable day of just mooching around in a lovely little town to explore and a fantastic summer evening atmosphere. Super!

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Interesting contraption, but it works!

Today was a big “bus day”, a long drive from Zamość, which has been a great place to stop and very worthwhile, to get to Krakow, one of, if not the, main touristic sites in Poland. We drove in one hour sessions, swapping over to avoid either of us getting too tired. The landscape was nothing unusual, just pleasant rural parts though hardly especially scenic. We stopped at a McDonalds, I couldn’t resist a “royale with cheese”, and drove on again. Then we hit a long stretch of road works, a succession of works and the main road had in each case been diverted for the short section or there temporary lights, and our progress slowed considerably.

It took ages to reach Krakow, and once in the city it was still very slow going. We knew roughly where the Orbis hotel was but not exactly – booked ahead this morning, 360zl/night, ouch – the receptionist in the Orbis in Zamość said “that’s Krakow”. Asking at the Novotel, also part of the Accor chain that seems to have the monopoly here, including the Mercure, Orbis, Novotel and Ibis brands in their chain, we got directions to the Orbis Cracovia, a few streets further on, through some rather dull streets with the grey apartment blocks. The Cracovia was a bit of a surprise though. We had just expected another formulaic hotel, but this was a huge lump of a Grand Hotel in high Soviet 1960’s style, and very popular now with large tour groups we noticed by the buses outside. Never mind, this was something very different, a little (big!) time capsule. The interior was smart but still in that 60’s Soviet manner. The service, appropriately, was a little gruff. I had expected nothing less! We ended up going for a superior room as the standard ones would have been on the noisy side on the second floor, but instead we got a two room mini-apartment on the fifth floor. This too was decked out in 1960’s style.

After the long drive we didn’t feel like going out into town and were happy to just have a drink in the aperitif bar on the ground floor of the hotel, a tiny bar with lots of red and gold, and then had dinner in the large canteen-like dining room at the rear. Waiters, older men, provided efficient but graceless service. A large group came in after us and had their dinner served rather like a school dinner. I thought it was all super and was grinning internally. Ok, it might not be the “real thing” but it came close enough to be able to imagine these surroundings in the Soviet days, with a large conference or some gathering going on.

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In the Cracovia
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A pair of elderly buskers on the Rynek in Karkow
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Virtuoso performance of Bach's Tocata and Fugue on ... the accordion?!
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Sure this isn't Milan?

Started with an excellent buffet breakfast, including “groats pudding” was was basically the same thing as haggis. There were crowds of tourists and tour groups, mostly Italians and Spanish I think, but all languages and nationalities were represented. We bought tram tickets from a little kiosk on the street and caught the tram towards the city centre, to the famous Rynek of Krakow. The crowds of tourists were out in numbers, strolling around, and there were many street entertainers already at work, from exotically dressed “standers” to a very traditionally dressed elderly couple playing double bass and accordion, or was it the fiddle?

We entered the massive Rynek at one corner. The Rynek is a huge square, two hundred metres on each side, though that figure hardly tells you anything. It’s a massive open space despite being divided in half by the large market hall in the centre. We walked around one side, into and through the market hall which now houses a long series of craft stalls in the booths and shops along the sides, from which all kinds of tourist tat and crafts were on offer. We wanted to take a look at the Kosciol Mariacki (St. Mary’s Church) in the south-eastern corner of the square. We noticed groups of people stood around outside, looking up at the bell tower. They were waiting for the trumpeter to play the hourly bugle cal, hejnat, a tradition dating back to the early days of the Tatar raids (fifteenth century?) The story goes that during on of the early Tatar raids the watchman positioned at the top of the tower saw the invaders approach and took up his trumpet to blow the alarm. His warning was cut short by a Tatar arrow through his throat. The call is now played every hour, halting abruptly at the precise point the watchman was supposed to have been hit. After watching and listening to the trumpeter we continued to tour the streets around the Rynek, a little aimlessly perhaps.

We split up for the rest of the day. While Ness went off back to the area round the Rynek, I caught a tram towards the Jewish Kazimierz district, a bit to the south of the Old Town. I got off by the Ethnographic Museum at pl. Wolnica. There was a very different atmosphere here. No tourists, only locals, and it was clear that this was a less affluent inner city area. There was an exhibition of photographs around the square. With nothing better to do I decided to go into the museum, paying an extra zl.22 for the photo permit. On the three floors there was an excellent collection of recreated rooms, costumes, folk art, photographs and more. A worthwhile little detour. Next I walked around the small streets of Kazimierz and found a folksy courtyard/square off the main streets, an RG recommendation and a location used by Spielberg in filming Schindler’s List. It was a perfect spot for people-watching. Taking up position against a wall of the central market building I was able to just point the big lens at unsuspecting shoppers, browsers, passers-by. A great way to observe people, and here they were definitely mostly locals, queuing up for the zapiekanki, a slide of baguette with cheese, like cheese on toast. Stalls were selling a variety of wares and trinkets, from books, fruit and veggies to general tat, tourist kitsch, etc. I found a pleasant somewhat Bohemian café and sat there with a beer, watching the life on the street outside as people passed in front of the café door, my “window”, and felt rather melancholy.

After sitting at the café for a while, I continued to stroll around Kazimierz. The Jewish history became more apparent, with several former synagogues scattered around the quarter. In front of one, there was a large group of Jewish schoolchildren or students, listening to an older man, their teacher or maybe a rabbi? He was telling them about the Holocaust no doubt. For them this must be a very different place, with different emotional content, not just a collection of streets and buildings with some patches that still had Hebrew writing, but otherwise it just served as an empty reminder, along with some old photographs. I ended up at the elongated broad open ulica Szeroka, with the grandest of the Kazimierz synagogues, the Stara Synagoga, at one end. I was too late to visit it unfortunately. Along the square there were a number of restaurants and cafés, mostly with a strong Jewish theme and names like Ariel, Alef and, at the top, Klezmer Hois, by a small garden-thingy (in Dutch I would call it a “plantsoen”) with a fence full of stars of David. I plonked outside at the Arka Noego restaurant, another atmospheric Olde Jewish place at the top of the square which looked ready to welcome the tour groups. I sat writing my diary for a long time, nursing a dark beer. The waiters were popping in and out, checking I wasn’t going to do a runner. I hardly touched my beer but did have a very tasty bow of some kind of Jewish soup. Ness called me on my mobile. The number showed up as an outer London (0208) number and I answered rather stiffly, expecting it was a call from an agency. That reminds me – last time we spent the part of the day apart, at Nida, I got a call and answered cheerfully with a “hi gorgeous” only to get a bemused “it’s been a long time since anyone’s called me that” from the agency representative at the other end of the phone! Ness came over and joined me at the café, while I carried on writing in the meantime. We had a drink and walked back to the hotel, and had dinner in the hotel “canteen”.