Summer 2012 – Adventures in Croatia – Part 2 – The Most Beautiful Sunset, Sibenik & Krka

After another 40 minutes on the lovely coach, I was back in Zadar. I jumped off at the bus station and began heading straight into town. It was just after 4pm and the sunset was due around 6:30. I made the short walk down the now familiar streets pretty swiftly, and arrived in the old town with more than an hour until the sunset started. I decided this might be a good time to have a look around at some of the narrow backstreets. Much of the city was destroyed during the civil war in the 90’s and the mixture of original and renovated stonework makes for some very interesting sights.

ImageImageImageHaving meandered for perhaps 45 minutes around the cramped alleyways of the old town, I decided to find myself a spot to have a beer and to read some of my book, while I waited for the sunset to arrive. I found the perfect location, diagonally opposite the southern corner of the harbour, well within the sound range of the sea organ. It provided a relaxing, whale call-like soundtrack, as I sat back in the sunshine and took a first sip of my Karlovačko. I picked up my book and found my page. Before I had chance to digest even a single word, someone had blocked out my sunshine. I looked up and there was an Asian girl. She asked me if I was travelling alone and if I felt like some company. I said that would be nice and we began to chat. She told me that she was a Chinese student, studying medicine in Germany, and that she had decided to spend her summer seeing Croatia. She also let on that she had been in Zadar for 3 days and that she was about to embark on a boat to some islands, nearby. I asked her about the sunset and she told me that I absolutely must see it and that I must also not miss the sun salutation, after the sun had gone down. I had no idea what she was on about – I only knew of the sun salutation from yoga. She explained all about it, and then left for her boat.

By this time, the small crowd of sunbathers near the sea organ had multiplied into something of a throng, looking out to the sea, where the sun had begun its descent and was already colouring the sky beautifully. I paid for my beverage and headed down to join them.

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I found a nice place to sit and, surrounded by at least a couple hundred more tourists, watch as the sun painted the sky in one palette after another. All the while, the gentle hum of the sea organ and the lapping of the Sea of Dalmatia provided a calming soundtrack.

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Finally the sun had retreated beneath the horizon. It honestly was the most spectacular, beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere was charged all the more by all the people, of so many different ages and backgrounds, all gathered together to watch it. It was a magical time. Little did I know, that the magic was only just beginning. It was time for the sun salutation.

As I had been instructed, I had moved myself to the blue, electronic-circuit-hatched glass disc of the sun salutation as the sun was dipping below the horizon. I was told that, as soon as the last rays of the sun left the surface, it would light up. I sat down in the middle and waited. After around a minute of held breath on the part of me and many in the crowd, the first lights came on.

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The Sun Salutation is an art installation, made of dancing LED lights, designed to start working as soon as the sun has set. It creates a really amazing, atmospheric effect. The patterns appear to be quite random, with colours phasing from red to blue to purple and much more. It just adds to what is already an unforgettable experience.

ImageAfter almost an hour soaking up the atmosphere at the sun salutation, I decided it was time to head off. I stopped in a few bars on the way out of the city and met a few more travellers. the Garden and The Old Arsenal being particularly memorable. I decided to grab a swift bite to eat and get my head down, for in the morning I was off to Sibenik for a definite change of pace.

In the morning I was greeted, once again, by glorious sunshine and heat that permeated my hostel bed, in spite of the always-on air conditioning. I got myself up and quietly removed myself from the dorm, where everyone else was still sleeping. After a quick shower and, all importantly, putting on some sun block, I was back at the bus station, getting my ticket to Sibenik. It was a route I was very familiar with, as it was just an hour on from Beograd Na Moru, so I settled into my seat and took out my book. This time, I had chosen to sit on the mountain side of the bus, so that I could watch the rugged landscape, opposite the sea. What I didn’t expect, was that after we had passed Beograd and begun the route on the motorway down towards Sibenik, there would be small forest fires, dotted around. Huge plumes of smoke rose up into the cloudless sky, making for quite a dramatic effect. Imagine my excitement then, as I began to see two water planes, dipping down into the sea and dousing the flames. It was amazing watching the precise angles of the pilots and the whole process of putting out the fire. Time flew as I watched this display and, in no time, the bus pulled across the bridge over the stunning bay of Sibenik.

The bus station was a fairly dirty place but, mercifully, almost directly opposite my hostel. I walked up the steep steps and checked in. After ditching my bag, it was straight across the road to the harbour and the old town.

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As you walk around the curving harbourside, you see immediately, that Sibenik is one of these cities built into the cliffs opposite. Almost nothing is on ground level. Looking up, you can see the church for which the city is so famous (more on that later) and the enormous medieval fortress, still standing, in reasonably good condition, at the very top. Between it and the sea, was a maze of narrow alleyways and staircases. Time to explore, I thought.

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ImageAbout two thirds of the way up, I began to realise just how steep a climb this was (and perhaps just how unfit I was!). My calves were aching and I was short of breath. I guess the 35 degrees of close, warm sun did not really help. But I pressed on and when I reached the top of the city, just beneath the fortress, I immediately remarked to myself that it had been more than worth it. The views were simply stunning.

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It took me a full five minutes of staring in awe at the view over the harbour and sprawling old town below me, before I even glanced up at the gleaming white fortress, which defended the city in days gone by from the Turks and various other would-be invaders. Once I’d seen how solid a structure it remained though, I had to complete the climb and take a look. It clearly sustained very little damage in the bloody civil war of the 90s and one suspects the condition the fortress is in has not changed for some centuries. There is no roof, but the main external wall exists on 2 levels and you can walk around all of it, taking in an even more incredible view of the seascape and islands below. A solitary flag of St George smiting the dragon flies at the northmost tip of the castle.

DSC_0180 DSC_0172 DSC_0185After this, I began to realise how tiring such a steep climb, in such hot weather had been. Parched, I decided to descend and find a cafe. So back I went, this time taking a different route through the narrow, old stone streets. I quickly came upon a monastic garden, which had been converted into a cafe. It was beautifully tended and had a foutain right in the middle, sending a spray of fine mist into the air, which was cooling as soon as I walked in. I sat down for the very short time it took me to drain a litre of mineral water.

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My next, and final stop, on the way back to the hostel was the iconic church, in the heart of the old city. It was designed by one of the most famous architects in Croatia during the medieval period. Venetian lions can be spotted on the facade, evidencing the patronage of the great city state at this Dalmatian trading partner city of old. The roof, and shape of the building is very distinctive and, despite its small size, it makes a strong impression on you, the moment you see it.

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Finally, feeling like my 3 hours exploring had sucked most of the life out of me, I decided to go back to the hostel, grab my things and hit the beach to get some colour on my pale skin. Arriving back in the dorm, a tall fellow was sat on the bunk below. We introduced ourselves, and it turned out that Dave, as he was called, had just done a more or less identical whistle stop tour of the sights of Sibenik, and was also feeling like stretching out on the beach. So we each got changed, grabbed our towels and headed down to the really nicely designed purpose-built beach, at the end of the harbour. We laid on the beach as the afternoon sun roasted everyone and everything and had a long chat about where we were from, what we did, and what we were doing in Croatia. Dave, a Canadian/Lebanese physiotherapist who was about to go and retrain as a doctor, had the same plans as me for the next day – a trip to Krka national park.  We quickly agreed that dinner that night, followed by some beers, and the early morning bus to Krka was the plan.

We met some German Swiss girls in our hostel, after the sun had gone down and discussed possibly meeting them for a beer later, before heading to an awesome restaurant, right across from the hostel, on the edge of the old town. We went in and asked for the local specialty – shark, with salad and potatoes. It was delicious. The waiter also fetched us some excellent dark beer, quite different from the usual Croatian fare. Finally, he gave us a shot of a traditional Croat liqueur and asked us what we thought it was made from,. We drank it – it was delicious and I was quite sure it came from honey. He assured me, however, that it was made from snake’s urine. (This turned out not to be true and it was in fact honey – the cheeky monkey!) From here, we walked to the strip of clubs, where one of Croatia’s most famous punk/rock bands were giving a free outdoor concert. Their music was dire, so we crept away, discovered our Swiss German friends, and settled in by the water side for a couple of beers. Before long we were back in the hostel and off to sleep, ahead of the next day’s park trip.

The bus ride to the tourist-fuelled village which nestles alongside Krka were 20 of the sweatiest minutes of my life. Absolutely crammed in mid-August high season, and with primitive air-con, to be generous, my t-shirt was pretty moist before we arrived. We walked down to the harbour side, to wait for the boat to the main park area. The boat came quickly and then sailed steadily through the algae green water of the lake, surrounded by trees and small mountains. After arrival, we went to the ticket office and paid our outrageously cheap entry fee and we were in. From the first moment, you are struck by what a treasure the place is, as scores of people splash and swim amongst the stunning natural waterfalls.

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As you walk into the park proper, the beauty, not just of the water features themselves, but of the balance between light and shade and the different land and water life this promotes, is striking. Also of note is the amazing water turbine, set up by the great Tesla himself. Krka, it turns out, was the first place on earth to have a town with lights powered by hydroelectric power. The displaying of the original equipment is a really nice touch.

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At the end of the day, after walking around almost the entire lake complex, we went for a swim in the beautiful fresh water, amongst the fish, at the bottom of the lowest waterfall. It was an incredible experience, and I can honestly say I’ve never swum anywhere so atmospheric, even with so many people around. We walked back to our bus stop and got a slightly less sweaty bus back to the city. Once we were back at the hostel, we realised that the staff were having a party, so Dave and myself, along with 2 Croat girls who were really funny, hung out with the guys, and chatted about everything and nothing, while emptying too many bottles of beer. The next day, Dave was heading to Zadar, as was I, to take the ferry across to Istria and the industrial port of Pula, with its extensive Roman remains!

 

 

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Summer 2012 – Adventures in Croatia – Part 1 – Zadar & Around

So, many months after the event, I decided that it might be a nice idea (as I originally planned) to blog about my Croatia trip from August of 2012. So here goes:

It was the 15th of August. The United Kingdom was, predictably, spattered with a light covering of irritating rain; everyone was in a foul mood. Thankfully, I was leaving! I boarded the Ryanair flight from Stansted Airport at ten past five in the evening to the warm, exotic port city of Zadar, in Croatia, after a cheeky pint in Stansted’s soulless airport lounge. The flight was uneventful. I read my travel guide and gleaned precisely no information from it, as I was too excited about visiting a new place. I constantly peered out of the window, unnerving my neighbour until, finally, we began to descend over the bay of Istria.

As we queued in the fading sunlight of dusk in the small, clearly-not-built-for-tourist-use airport at Zadar, I was refreshed by the lack of obvious idiocy from the British passengers. I came to security, smiled (but not too much) and went to find out how the buses worked.

After a 20 minute wait and a number of “jokes” with the bus driver, where I had no idea what he was on about,  we were on our way. During the 20 minute ride, I was positively permeated by the heat of the place. After spending the past 6 weeks in the rain-sodden UK, it was a welcome and very distinct change.  The bus arrived at the main bus station and I took the opportunity to venture into a cafe and ask for directions. Thanks to the utterly atrocious nature of my Croatian, I was quickly moved on to a very accomplished English speaker. She quickly pointed me in the direction of my hostel and off I went.

Amongst the palm trees, which I was familiar with from the previous summer in Turkey, were the classic eastern European buildings that have become my home in Poland. An eccentric combination of pre 90’s cuboid concrete and the all-new walls of glass and steel. It’s fair to say the area around the bus station lacked any real identity. I could be anywhere, I thought. This was all to change, I was about to realise.

I found myself meandering around a residential area which reminded me more of the Turkish backstreets of Fethiye than anywhere else I’d been. When I got to the point on the map where my hostel ought to have been, there was nothing of note to be seen. Only residential gardens, a chemist and a few barking dogs. I walked further, up to the main road and then back again. Finally, I noticed some teenagers outside one of the houses. I approached them and asked them if any of them spoke English. A couple of them did, so I asked them if they knew about this hostel. Predictably, this WAS the hostel. A girl quickly put down her drink, and led me to a bedroom/dormitory conversion and told me which bed would be mine. She told me I would have to pay right away and offered me a map of the city. I paid her, dropped my stuff and immediately headed out to Zadar’s old town. Apart from anything else, I needed to eat!

Within 5 minutes of the unremarkable residential zone, I arrived at the edge of the harbour. Immediately I was struck by the grandeur of the place. To the left are the high city walls, restored from their original medieval splendour, still some 8-10 metres tall, housing a myriad of tourist-focussed restaurants, bars, cafes, clubs and museums. To the right are an array of boats, large and small, as well as the highly decorative, illuminated bridge to the other side of Zadar’s harbour and its many hotels.

 

I walked through one of the gates into the old city and was overwhelmed by street sellers, entertainers, musicians and a swathe of tourists walking in all directions. I walked along the main path, taking it all in and was finally lured to a wonderful smelling pizza restaurant. I ordered a slice and a beer and sat at a table near another guy who was by himself, watching the football. The game was Croatia vs Switzerland; the inaugural game for the Croats’ new stadium in Split. “You like the Croatian national team?” he asked me, in perfect English. “Yes,” I replied. “They play really attractive football.” “We are losing 4-0 to the f*@%ing Swiss!” he said. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but luckily he started chuckling so I followed his lead. We toasted to the next time these teams would meet and he (Ivan) started to tell me what I should make sure I see, while in Dalmatia. I love such meetings. Once the pizza, beer and conversation had dried up, I walked down the old streets of Zadar, back to the harbour side, and made my way back to my hostel. I hit my bed and was immediately overrun by a powerful wave of sleep.

At 9am my alarm shook me, and, with Ivan’s advice, I was heading back to the bus station within an hour, with a plan to visit Sveti Filip i Jakov. A tiny town on the coast, some 30km South east of Zadar, Sv. Filip i Jakov is known for a busy harbour in summer, beautiful surroundings, a religious festival in August & very little else. Time to check it out and get some photos, I decided.

Once inside the bus station, I found a wide selection of bakeries from which to choose my breakfast. After negotiating my way to a cheese and spinach filled croissant, I meandered around to the ticket office with my camera and my money and quickly and easily purchased a ticket to Sveti Filip i Jakov for 9 kunas – about £1.15 or 6 Złoty. Excellent. I went to the appropriate bay and found a modern, attractive, air conditioned bus waiting. “Sveti Filip i Jakov?” I said to the bus driver, in my best questioning tone. “Yes, yeeeees,” the driver replied. “Can you tell me when we are there?” I asked further. “Yes, yeeeeees,” he replied again. Evidently, he had very little idea of what I was talking about.

As those that know me well will be aware, I am a great advocate of the train as the best way to travel to take in the scenery of a place. But the Dalmatian coast is a place where the roads are so well knitted in to the coastline that you invariably have a deep blue ocean on one side, dotted with beaches, coves, harbours, fishing villages and islands; while on the other side there is a combination of towns, cities, mountains, lakes, and more. It’s really a wonderful way to travel there and the standards and kitting out of the coaches really makes it as comfortable as a coach trip is ever going to be (thank god for the air con!). The moment you leave Zadar and get on the southern road to Split, you begin to see the islands for which Dalmatia is famed and the magnificent coastline. Every kilometre or so, you will find a family or couple, parked up in their cars at some space in the trees, taking a dip in the deep blue, fishing, perhaps sunbathing, or some combination of the above. It’s really very appealing to simply stop and join the party. But continue down the coast I did, gawping at the views from the window. ‘Sveti Filip I Jakov’, said one of the signs, as we sped past. Shit. I had missed my stop.

 

Luckily, I didn’t have to wait too long for the next one. About another 7 km down the coast road the bus lurched at a roundabout and began a slow descent along a shady, tree-lined, quite steep lane. At the side of the road, leather-skinned flat owners sat in garden chairs with handwritten cardboard signs, detailing their spare rooms and how many Euros they wanted for them. After a few moments, we had arrived at the bus station of Beograd Na Moru. Time for me to get off. The first thing I saw, after leaving the tiny, island-like bus station was a man with an ox-pulled plough, made of straw. No, really.

 

DSC_0014From here though, it wasn’t far across the road and over a small wall to find the breathtakingly blue sea. I walked down to the water’s edge and marvelled at the azure water gently lapping at the rocks and – even at 9:45am – the hustle and bustle of small boat traffic, gathering for island tours, fishing trips and, in one case, even a submarine voyage. This idyllic view is one that you can easily get used to in Dalmatia, as I would come to learn, but by no means should it ever get boring.

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Realising that it was mid-morning, and I’d yet to imbibe any caffeine whatsoever, I decided to rectify the situation and took a seat at a harbourside cafe bar. A waiter quickly attended to me and brought me a strong cappucino and a long glass of iced water to follow and I just sat back and people watched for a while, soaking up my first real sunshine in 11 months.

Once suitably caffeinated, I paid my bill and decided to have a walk through the old town of Beograd, away from the harbour. What I found were lots of irregularly shaped houses, awkwardly, but beautifully packed in together, with ornate flower gardens, wrought iron balconies and aromatic wafts of coffee, bread, cakes and other foods, almost visibly drawing you in, like the vapours in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. As I approached the small, old church in the heart of the town, I came upon a beautiful square, furnished with someone’s unattended bicycle, which was to be one of my favourite scenes of the whole adventure.

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After wandering around, I realised that time was getting on and that I still had to get back to Sv Filip i Jakov and then to Zadar for its fabled sunset. So back to the bus station it was. A bus was handily ready and waiting to take me back up the coast road, so I paid my money, boarded and we set off. Within 10 minutes, I was dropped at the sign on the main road for my target village. I descended from the bus, and it sped off, throwing up a great cloud of dust. As it cleared, I looked around. Where on Earth WAS this village?! I walked up to the crossroads and took a punt that it might be down the hill, towards the sea. Fortunately, I was right.

Here was an even steeper slope, under a denser canopy of trees. As the miniscule turn off to the village had threatened, it was a seemingly very small place and eerily quiet. At least it was, until I got to the water’s edge. There, as far as I could see to the left and the right were scores of cafe bars, restaurants and rows of beach side camping plots, with young people, families and couples, all mingling in the glorious morning sun, overlooking the Sea of Dalmatia. I had a really good feeling about exploring this place, but decided that I could really not do anything until I’d had some lunch. I found a grill in a plush spot and pitched up at a table. The waiter addressed me in Croat, then German, then Polish (which I responded to with little skill) and finally in English. I asked what he recommended for a hungry carnivore who has just arrived in Croatia. He had no doubt, it was time for my first Cevapi.

One thing I had managed to take in about Croatia, was just how much of the folklore was focussed on their successful spurning of any attempts by the Turks to invade during the early expansion of the Ottoman Empire. So, imagine my surprise when the Cevapi turned up and was, quite clearly, a reworked kofte. Regardless, it was delicious, freshly grilled, accompanied by fresh balloon bread and a variety of delicious salads and olives. You can find more information about this highly recommended meal here.

After eating, I decided to explore a bit. Once again, the main sights of note were the wonderful sea and a small old town, in which I found a beautiful, humble church. Here are a few images of the place.

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Finally, as the afternoon wore on, I decided I ought to head back to Zadar and find a spot for this sunset. For the next day I’d be on my way down to Sibenik and a quite different backdrop for adventures.

 

Adventure in Malbork: A Really, Really Big Castle

So Easter and Spring were upon us, so it was time to don T-shirts and short trousers and head out for another adventure. Ah, but wait, in Poland, sadly, Spring has been lost for some time. Missing posters were up everywhere, while my winter coat was increasing its value for money score daily. But the Easter holidays were here all the same, which meant that we could not be held back – another adventure had to be had!

Once again, many of my colleagues & friends had disappeared off somewhere – this time to Vienna – so it was just Pam and myself that ventured off to the train station and onward thence to Malbork! Before the station, we visited Bydgoszcz’s finest purveyor of sandwiches in Canapa, where we feasted on baguettes, panninis and decent Italian coffee. After this, we were prepared and made our way along Dworcowa, to buy tickets.

A small few moments and ticket & provision purchases later and we were aboard the train on platform 3. Our compartment mates on the TLK InterCity express were some giggly, but seemingly pleasant, teenage girls. We stashed our coats and other belongings and stretched out in the warmth of the train cabin. Then, just as the clock hands were about to show our departure time of 10:13, the door slid silently open and in walked a penguin. I mean, of course, a nun – not a real penguin. As with all religious entities, I felt a tightening in my throat and a general sense of unease, as I offered to help her stow her bags. She accepted my kind offer and sat down with no sign of fright at my heavy metal band t-shirt or surprise at my Jesus-esque features. Perhaps this would not have any effect on proceedings at all, I mused to myself. The train set off on its journey out into the snow covered countryside of Kujawsko-Pomorskie and we all continued our light hearted chatter while sister whatever-her-name-was maintained her vow of silence. After a few minutes though, she began to make cross actions in the air, fairly wildly, muttering under her breath the Hail Mary in Latin and then fidgeting with her rosary beads, accompanied by Our Fathers. Travelling in the presence of a fruitcake – can’t beat it! Needless to say, I ratcheted up my casual swearing and looked out the window at the pretty snowscapes, so as not to catch her creepy gaze.

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Relief came when we arrived at Tczew (non Poles – try saying that one!). This was where we changed for the onward journey to Malbork. We jumped off the train and went for a refreshment break and to stretch our legs. It looked like a pretty nice place, with a cute little shopping centre and a reasonably smart station, complete with a far-too-tempting-smelling bakery!

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It was a good thing we had decided to stretch our legs as, when we returned to the platform for our connecting train, it was packed. So we all piled in to the overcrowded Malbork train, and had to stand in a very sweaty, cramped area. Luckily, we were getting off at the first stop, after just 22 minutes. So, after wobbling about for a bit, here we were:

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The first thing that strikes you about Malbork, is that this place is going to be pretty grand. Right from the buildings at the train station itself, everything screams “look at me!”

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After marvelling at the ornate station building, we took the short walk over to the main event, the castle itself. The town/village of Malbork itself is essentially one shopping street, with a number of cafes and restaurants and a Pepco (who sold me a new set of sunglasses for 10 Zloty & which I’m sure I will have broken before Spring properly arrives).

Just after the shopping street there are 3 interesting things to see. First there is a lifesize statue of some king or other, on horseback, with a scepter, a sheathed sword and (typically) a powerful moustache! Next is a strange underground river waterfall-weir-thing. Secondly, there is a really nice scale model of the castle itself, complete with a helpful plaque explaining the significance of the Virgin Mary on the eastern facade. Lovely.

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In the background, you could already see the castle, which absolutely dominates the town. As you can see, the model is a really good job. From here, we took the short walk around to the church opposite the castle. The church has some really interesting, very modern stained glass which sadly didn’t photograph well at all, without a flash. It of course came complete with the customary JPII statue outside and had some really interesting architecture, being as it was made almost entirely of red brick, to match the castle, except for a quite beautiful, wooden bell tower.

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From here, we walked around the dry moat walls, slightly awestruck by the scale of the fortress. Malbork is Europe’s biggest brick castle and you really get the sense of this as you walk around it.

ImageWe walked around, staring at some of the details of the facade, until we came to the ticket office, where we paid a very small sum of 19 Zloty for a winter, post 13:00 ticket and went in to the castle, over the wooden gate bridge.

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Once across the gated bridge, you are faced with the enormity of the wall of the castle itself. Not only is it colossal, it’s also armed with 2 sharp-toothed portcullises and any number of solid metal gates, with guard doors so small that Pam was suited to them. Not an easy place to burgle then.

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ImageAfter all this, one might be forgiven for thinking that you were in the castle. But no, this is the beginning of the citadel. The initial fortified area, where castle staff and the like lived. Here, we found a number of places where you can get food or drink, an amber workshop (the main trading commodity of note in this part of Poland in the middle ages) and various defensive units, such as cannon! This is also the area of the castle where I befriended a cute little feline. First he buried himself in my huge winter coat to protect himself from the wind. Then, when I went to put him down, he claw-poked my chin, before climbing onto my shoulder and perching himself there for a good 5 minutes. As you can see from the photo, I really didn’t mind!

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From the citadel, we walked across another gated bridge, this time made from stone and brick, into the central castle complex itself. Here, we found an ornate central courtyard with a beautiful carved bird, atop a huge well. This was surrounded by 5 stories of corridors, leading into individual chambers, kitchens, storehouses, chapels, alehouses and so on. It’s a really stunning place.

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After looking around all of the intricate rooms (besides the armoury, which was unfortunately closed for renovation), we decided we ought to pay a visit to the architecturally ingenious toilet. In Teutonic castles, these were wooden seats, over an open hole which dropped all of people’s… “stuff” directly down into the wet moat. It meant no-one had to deal with the human waste and made the wet moat even less appealing for would-be attackers.

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ImageFrom here, we realised that the castle was soon closing, so we decided to return to the outer citadel, where there was a restaurant, which sold food based on traditional recipes from the time of the Teutonic knights. We arrived and were quickly told by the head waiter, in excellent English, that the mushroom soup was all that was left. So we ordered one each. When the mushroom soup arrived, it was well stocked with mushrooms of different kinds, as you’d expect in Poland, but also with chicken and chicken bones, which we found a little more surprising. It then became apparent that, in those days, there were no vegetarian soups. My kind of era! The soup was delicious and provided exactly the warmth and energy required on such a cold day. We also received rather excellent crowns!

ImageAfter this light appetiser, we were still feeling pretty famished, and so elected to find somewhere else to eat something more substantial. We went quickly to the souvenir shop to acquire some postcards and then walked around the sprawling perimeter of the castle, towards the river. When we arrived at the river bank, we saw our lunch-based saviour in the shape of a floating pub/restaurant. Readers of my previous stupid adventure blog will remember how much excitement this generated in Gdynia. So, we took a couple of snaps of the castle walls and hurried across the (very bouncy) bridge to inspect the eatery.

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When we got inside, we were confronted by a waiter who closely resembled Prince Adam from the original He-Man cartoon. With biceps as thick as my waist and an unimaginably deep voice (not to mention a severe-looking pudding basin haircut!), he showed us to the seating area and then came along to take our orders. As he did so he stood well within my half metre of British-culturally-acceptable distance. There was something macho-camp about the whole episode. I ordered the schabowy, which came in such a huge size that it required its own plate (there were boiled potatoes buried underneath) and my fried cabbage and surowka were each served on small side plates. This was my kind of meal. Pam ordered a very exciting looking zapiekanka ziemniaczana (a kind of oven baked potato dish, involving most of a chicken carcass, veggies, mushrooms and half a kilo of cheese). We staggered through our meals, aided somewhat by the cold beer and the imposing view of the castle across the river. Occasionally we were interrupted by the grunting of our burly waiter, but it was, in all, a great meal, good value and – all importantly – on a boat.

Once the meal was gone, we decided to be on our way back to the station and a small bar that we had heard good things about and whose sign promised a huge selection of local beers – always a good thing. Time for one last shot of the castle, from across the river then.

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We arrived at the charming Spizarnia and were immediately taken with the place. It was like the living room in a fun old aunt’s house. Nothing really matched, there was wicker furniture mixed in with dark wood, doilies on everything, huge pumpkins adorning the windows. Then there was the bar. On it were stacked tens of bottles of the many different types of beer they sold in this tiny establishment. Pam and myself pulled some chairs at a table in the corner and began to inspect the myriad beer menus that they had. As we did so, we noted that there were English, German and Polish speakers, all dotted around in this quirky little place. We regiestered too, that there was a genuine familiarity and fondness between the clients and the straightforward looking man in the overalls, behind the bar. I went over to him and ordered a dark beer for myself and an unpasteurised light beer for Pam. The barman asked me, very politely if we might speak in English (I always try, at least, with my Polish). He told me that he had a better light unpasteurised beer than the one I had ordered, that it was from just 4km up the road in the next town and that it was cheaper, to boot. As any of those criteria might well have sold me, I inevitably gave in. Pam confirmed it was a fine brew. We sunk into our chairs and enjoyed the gentle soul, blues and jazz music that came from the old record player in the atmospheric bar and began to understand why the place had received such high praise.

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It was then that I decided, finally, to look for when our next train was, as we had regrettably missed the one we had initially intended to catch, even before coming to this place. Then we realised it was a four hour wait. Drat.

So we decided to drink up and take ourselves back to Tczew, where we might find a bar in which we could relax and wait for the 2 to 3 hours before the train home to Bydgoszcz. After some kerfuffle with the ticket office, we had our tickets and boarded the slow train. We jumped off at Tczew and made our way out to the “town”. Beyond the shopping centre, seemingly, there was nothing. And we were stuck here for 2 and a half hours. It didn’t look good. I quickly consulted google maps, which gave me a choice of 2 local bars. As the name reminded us of the fine hotel of our hometown, we chose Pod Orłem. We found it, opposite this unfortunately named supermarket:

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Once inside the bar, we noted that A) we might be the first ever tourists in the place and B) that the guy behind the bar was a decent bloke who was only too happy to serve us beer. Fact C,  that the table next to us was full of insanely drunk tramp-people only came to light later when they tried to walk. Pub Pod Orłem proved to be a fine place to sit and chew the fat, at the end of a long day, over pints costing less than a quid in the Queen’s money. After that we headed to the train and slumped in the corridor, reflecting on a fine day’s adventuring!

The Stupid Adventure Ruled by Destiny – 29th December 2012

What to do, when half of your friends have buggered off for some kind of “Christmas” holiday? Clearly, the answer is to gather your remaining friends who are stupid brave enough to accompany you on an adventurous journey ruled by fate.

Unlike a Zombie apocalypse, or an alien invasion, Christmas can be predicted quite well in advance. This has benefits when initiating such an adventure. Not least of all because you can enlist far more competent people than yourself (Hi Lisa) to do the groundwork for you and, at the same time, make the whole thing more fate-determined. Excellent.

So it was that Lisa and her assembled crew of mischief makers were given the task of finding 5 destinations which were all within 3 hours train ride of the city of Bydgoszcz, where we reside. The role of myself and my 3 companions (Roger, Pam & Luke) was simple: Go to the railway station on the morning of the 29th and find a random person to pick one of the completely unknown destinations from a hat, then to buy our tickets and go there, to see what fate had in store for us. Now that’s an adventure!

So, we arrived at Bydgoszcz Głowna just after 9:30 am. We looked around and found an old lady, working at the ICC Railways information desk. We argued momentarily about who was going to talk to her and finally, I decided I would do it. Clutching my paper, I walked to the lady and said:

“Proszę o wylosowanie nazwy miasta z tej czapki. Jesteśmy w podróży rządzonej przez przeznaczenie.” (Thanks Ania!)

For those unfamiliar with Polski, this literally means: 
“Please choose our city from this hat. We are going on an adventure ruled by destiny.” She – unsurprisingly – looked at us like we were absolutely out of our collective trees. Roger tried to assure her by asking “Rozumiesz?” (Do you understand). Her reply: “Romzumiem, Filozof!” With that, she delved her hand into my red hat and came out with Gdynia! We thanked her and immediately went to the ticket office to buy our tickets. As we did so, she spent five minutes staring at us in bewilderment and telling her newly arrived colleagues about the nutty English folks on the “adventure”.
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From here, it was time to get coffee, water and pastries. All essentials for anyone on a stupid adventure. Once these were bought, we went to find our train. It was already awaiting our arrival on the platform. We boarded immediately behind a young lady with a far-too-heavy suitcase, who walked slowly down the corridor to the compartment containing our reserved seats. She said hello to us and, hearing our obvious Britishness, asked us what we were up to. I began by telling her we were on an adventure. In a state of disbelief, she asked me to explain so, in my best (i.e. not fantastically good) Polish, I explained the whole situation to her. She informed us that she spent a lot of time in Gdańsk, one of the other “three cities”. Clearly, this was destiny throwing us a guide for the next stage of the journey, so I told her that she had to decide what we would do in Gdynia.

Naturally, she said that Gdynia was actually not such a great or interesting place. As luck had it though, her boyfriend lives in Gdańsk, so she could call him for some advice. She told him about our plans and, after some hysterical laughter, it was decreed that we had to go to the Oceanarium, the beach and an area of the city called Plac Kościuszki, where there were a lot of pubs, restaurants, etc. She was really helpful and nice and, in spectacularly crap form, we failed to get her name, though we did thank her for her advice. The important thing was that fate had selected our next path.

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The nice lady got off the train at Gdansk and we spent the next 40 minutes looking out of the window to see a bit of the Trój Miasto, as we crawled through various Gdańsk stations, then Sopot, before finally arriving at Gdynia Głowna.

ImageAfter leaving the relatively warm and sunny (1˚ ABOVE freezing, people!) Bydgoszcz, we were confronted with a strikingly Great Britain-esque Gdynia. There was a blanket of grey clouds and an irritatingly fine veil of drizzle. But we were not to be deterred. Immediately, behind the station sign, we saw a poster for the Aquarium that we had been instructed to visit. So we hurried out of the station, marvelling, as we did so, at a nice sea animal mosaic and outside – better still – trolley buses!

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With none of us having ever been to the city before, we decided that the best plan was to ask someone where the hell we were supposed to go. We needed to find food and the city centre, so that we could begin our allotted missions. We found a random small person next to a bus stop and asked it where the centre was. She pointed and told us to go straight ahead, so we did exactly that. After a small wrong turning, taking us to a shipping container area that looked a bit dingy (but had some super graffiti, which I tragically took no photos of), we ended up on the main shopping street and confronted by the child molester priest training centre and a nearby road sign pointing us towards the beach. Hurrah! There also seemed to be a lot of stuff commemorating this Antoni Abraham gentleman. I had no idea who he was at the time, but he seems to be some kind of cultural icon in the region from the late 19th – early 20th centuries. Jolly good. As with many historic figures in Polska, what a powerful moustache!Image

As we neared the beach, we found a series of restaurants in a row. After considering a curry in “The Bollywood Lounge” we were lured by a place with Czech, German and Polish flags outside. When we reached the front of this pub/restaurant establishment, Roger set about befriending the Pirate on the door and we spotted a burgeoning beer selection inside. ‘This will do,’ we thought. And do, it did. 
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We went inside and ordered a round of various types of burger, with chips and a range from the fine beer selection they had on offer. Everyone scoffed down their delicious basket of food quickly and with satisfaction. We paid, and headed for the beach. 
Upon arriving at the beach we were greeted by a frightening, unsettling, even unimaginable situation: there were ducks in the sea. As someone who has travelled a little bit, I feel like I am not often thrown, or disturbed by things. But there was something deeply unnerving about ducks and swans frolicking in the Baltic. I immediately approached them and began to remonstrate, demanding that they return to the lake/river/canal from whence they came. But it was to no avail. Instead, the swans approached, mocking us with their strange snorty noises and inspecting our pockets for bread. Bastards.

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It was, though, a really lovely beach and certainly somewhere I’d like to return to in the heat of summer, when the atmosphere would, I’m sure, be quite different. The white sand extends a long way around the bay and the water is surprisingly calm. 

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From here, we had decided we would go up to the eerily cross-dominated lookout point. An elevated park with awesome views of the city. It was a bit of a climb, but the perfect remdy to follow fat burgers and beer at lunch. Not to mention a way to shake off the shock of the misplaced waterfowl. As you can see from this view, I do not exaggerate about the cross!

 

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There were also some pretty good views of the city and harbour from here and it was then that we found the path to the aquarium. The excitement at this, combined with mine and Pam’s need for a sprinkle, led to us hurrying back down the leafy stairway to the main road, where we walked past an interesting monument to Gdynia’s internationally renowned film festival and a harbourside featuring three exciting ships.

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A naval warship…Image

An oldy-worldy tall ship…

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And a really exciting looking pirate ship. More on that later!

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Now, as destiny had instructed, it was time to visit the aquarium.

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Once in the aquarium, we did a whole host of aquariumy things. Namely looking at aquatic flora and fauna. By far the most exciting elements were a variety of extravagantly coloured reef fish, some horrifyingly monstrous eels and 2 anacondas, which could easily have eaten a whole cow for lunch. And had dessert!

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ImageAfter the fully life-enriching experience of the aquarium and, in particular, the interactive display where you could learn about the ports, river mouths and seabed shelves of the Baltic sea which we hogged and refused to allow children to use for several minutes, we decided that we would go and take a closer look at the pirate ship. Not least of all because it was a fully functioning bar (and restaurant). First we decided to look a bit more at the abundance of piratey regalia. The man on the prow smiting the dragon was particularly impressive!

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So onboard we went, considering whether to have simply a beer or a bite to eat. When we got inside and saw the range of awesome pirate weapons etc behind the bar we were tempted to stay, but some particularly vociferous and irritating miniature humans convinced us that this was a bad plan, so we headed back into the city, after our pints.

Tiring, as we were, after a long day and with just 2 hours until our train back to Bydgoszcz, we were beginning to give up hope on finding somewhere exciting to eat and so we ventured into a fairly modest-looking bistro cafe. Little were we to know that the food would be cheap and absolutely excellent, though Luke was turned into some kind of anti-vampire super weapon by the most powerful sos czosnkowy ever produced by mankind.

ImageAfter the delicious nosh, we headed back to the station and, armed with coffees & water we jumped onboard and found our nice, quiet cabin for the journey home. In traditional Polish railway style, we made an unscheduled stop at Sopot for absolutely no reason whatsoever, delaying us by half an hour. But, we all agreed that the stupid adventure had been outstandingly stupid. Until the next time!