Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 2 – Kandy Day 1

It was 10:00 and with a sweet bread roll, called a tea banis in a bag and all of my other bags, I was standing on the platform at Colombo Fort station, waiting for my train to pull in and then to lead me up in to the hill country to Kandy, the former capital and still the religious capital of the buddhist contingent of Sri Lanka. I bumped into a couple of Australian girls who asked me where I was from, where I was going and how I had found Colombo. They were also kind enough to grab a photo of me before I set off.

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Within a matter of seconds of this photo being taken, a station manager came striding down the platform, telling us we should move to where our train was now waiting. We half jogged, in spite of all our belongings and I lost the Aussie girls in the crowd but, all importantly found my carriage and my seat. The train looked like it had been built in the 1990s – a huge leap ahead of what I had anticipated would be the norm on Sri Lankan trains. It had electric doors and, in my first class carriage, even air conditioning! I had paid for the first class ticket the previous day, simply so that I would have huge panoramic windows, as I’d been advised that this route was quite spectacular. The alarm for the doors beeped and it was time for me to find out. We chugged first through the suburbs of Colombo, of which there are many and the views were really quite unspectacular but, once we had started to ascend into the mountains, I was suddenly bombarded with visions of lush plains dotted with palm trees, mountains shrouded in forest canopies, and all this broken up with terracotta painted rural stations, with huge, full flowerbeds. I really started to feel I had got my value for money.

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After these stunning views and the interruption of a fair few tunnels carved almost two centuries ago through the mountains, we pulled in to Kandy’s train station and I collected my things to disembark. The station itself is a quiet, tranquil place and stepping outside in to the cacophonous chaos of the main road up to the city’s Goods Shed bus station is something of an assault on the senses. Hundreds of buses fly here and there in front of your face, mixed in with the usual floods of tuk tuks and the occasional ordinary car, while people stand on corners, peddling lottery tickets and fruit and passers by and tourists try to beat a safe path through it all. You definitely know you have arrived in Kandy. After soaking it all up for a moment, I managed to find a reasonably priced tuk tuk to zip me around the lake – the centrepiece of the city – to my hostel.

The Kandy City Hostel is located at the south east corner of Kandy’s lake on Ampitya road. It’s a really great place to stay and meet people. Beds are comfortable and clean, and showers are solar powered and so there is hot water – not something that is particularly common in budget accommodation in Sri Lanka! There’s also a really good breakfast of eggs, fruit, toast and jam, tea and coffee, etc. The lady that runs it is very friendly and knowledgeable and her housekeeper, Anthony, is one of the nicest people you can meet. He constantly tries to help you, be that by advising you on must sees in the area, or calling his friends with tuk tuks to make sure you get the best price for travelling around the city. There’s also a chocolate Labrador there, who is absolutely gorgeous. At this moment though, I simply ditched my stuff and went out to explore the city. First things first though – a man needs his lunch! Walking down the winding road to the lake, I saw what looked like the perfect place – a miniscule curry shack, very much not geared up for tourists. It was getting on bit – something like 2pm, so I wondered if they had any rice and curry left. Sure enough, they did, so I ordered one and the obligatory ginger beer. The price came in at a whopping 210 rupees – around 1.30 Euros. This was what I got for my money:

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This was a huge pile of rice, some kind of salad at the bottom left, which I never identified on this trip, but is delicious and surprisingly hot, delicious dhal with lemongrass, mustard seed infused potato curry, seeni onion sambal and a singular piece of fish curry crowning the whole thing. It was terrific and genuinely fiery. I ate the lot (without cutlery, this resulted in me having seriously messy hands!) and drained my ginger beer, before thanking the smiling proprieter and heading out to explore.

Stepping down from the bustling road to the lakeside in Kandy is a genuinely transformative experience. In a matter of moments, the roar of the traffic and the smoke from those dirty diesel bus engines is left behind and you find yourself wrapped up in the tranquility of the still water.

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From this corner of the lake, there was a path stretching up on to one of the hills above the city. I decided this would be a good chance to find a better vantage point. The path led steeply away from the lakeside and very quickly there was a hush, and the only sound was the wind in the tree branches all around – and the occasional tuk tuk whining its way up the hill past me. Reaching the top, I decided to stop off at a restaurant for a cold drink. With this view:

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With my  ginger beer – yes another one – finished, it was time to walk back down to the lakeside and see more of the city. On my way down though, I was stopped in my tracks by a gang of furry mischief makers. A whole family of monkeys were crossing the path, some carrying babies. I stopped to take a couple of snaps, but then quickly darted out of their way, not really wanting to give them the impression I was confronting them.I was later to see the same family of monkeys robbing the fruit traders in the market, which is a hilarious sight!

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Back at lake level, I continued around the perimeter, exchanging occasional conversation with locals who were out for a walk, or just reading at the lakeside. Eventually, I came to the red cross hall, where I was accosted about a Kandyan dancing show. I was in two minds about this. The guidebook had told me that these shows are very much tourist traps and prices are quite steep, but at the same time that this may indeed be the only way in which the dances, from all over the island, and carrying with them centuries of tradition, might be preserved in the long term. I decided to buy a ticket to return the following day. After the red cross hall, you come to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – a temple which is supposed to contain an original tooth of the buddha himself and, as such, a highly revered place. I was about to walk in and have a tour, when I was stopped by someone who told me to come back a little later, as, for the same price, I could go in to watch the evening “puja” offering ceremony. It seemed like good advice, so I kept on walking and noted the time.

On my way, I spied the iconic roundabout with the British colonial clocktower at the corner and my first sight of a Hindu temple in the country, with its highly detailed gate and the red and white candy cane colour scheme which would become such a mainstay of my time in the north of the country.

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With time ticking by, it was time to retrace my steps to the temple of the tooth. Arriving at the gate, I saw a man with a huge rooster sitting on the bench next to him. To this day, I have no idea what that was about. I paid my entrance fee and began to walk in to the gardens of the temple. the first monumental column outside the temple details the case of a Buddhist saint who was put to death at age nine and who didn’t even scream as she was struck with the sword, in order to show to her brother how to accept this awful fate with honour. A sad reminder of the violence that people have done, wrongly, in the name of their faith(s).

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I went to the internal gatehouse, showed my ticket and handed over my shoes at the “foreign shoes” counter. After that I was led inside by temple ushers. At first, you are bombarded by the sound of the drums, played by the ceremonial drumming monks, as they begin the puja. The atmosphere is extremely intense, with incense burning throughout the temple, and the noise of the drums echoing through the temple, the only light from hundreds of candles. After a few moments of watching the drummers, temple ushers motioned for me to join a queue on the stairs to go and witness the offering of flowers at a great long temple and then to have a brief look inside the chamber where the tooth relic is kept. Upstairs, the atmosphere was even more electric, with people chanting, placing flowers, oil and other things on to the offering table and everyone patiently waiting to have a look inside at the relic. This, sadly, is where the process became a bit disappointing. People in immaculate white clothing kept being ushered in before the patiently queuing people – a seeming express lane to view the relic. After this happened for the fifth time, I asked a Sri Lankan pilgrim next to me what was happening and why we had been waiting for so long without moving. He explained that wealthy Sri Lankan people were allowed to be fast tracked in to see the relic, rather than having to queue with the little people. The irony was not lost on me, of this happening in a temple to a religion which so specifically chastises the cults of wealth and possessions. So, while the temple was indeed beautiful and the ceremony, for the majority, a deeply, palpably spiritual experience, this information really did leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.

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Fortunately, my guide book had given me an excellent idea to remove that bad taste, and that was to try out the Kandyan Muslim Hotel. To say this place looks a bit crappy is a huge understatement. But the food here – and particularly the kottu – is exceptional. This was the first time I’d been here, and indeed the first time I’d ordered kottu, so while I knew what it was, I wasn’t really sure how it would actually work. Kottu is pieces of chopped roti bread, fried on a hot plate with whatever filling you ask for and a variety of fresh vegetables and spices. I asked for the beef and cheese and it was a great choice. Steaming chunks of spiced beef, with melted cheese oozing all over the place, amongst spring onions, chillis and other vegetables. On the side, I had a cup of milky tea. It was excellent, cheap and largely made me forget the odd set up in the temple. With the clock ticking towards 10 I returned to the hostel, where I bumped in to some other guests: Tom, an Australian on his big Asian trip and Grace, a British Sri Lankan girl exploring the country of her father. They were great people and some that I’d spend considerable time with over the coming days. But for now, it was time for bed.

Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can get yours, here:

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Évora – History, Bones and Gastronomy

The end of my first full month in Portugal had arrived and with it, my first pay cheque. Time then, for an adventure. One of the great things about living in the heart of Lisbon, is that it’s so very easy to get out of the city, via one of its many transport hubs. Thanks to some of the spending that went on in the 2000’s, the Portuguese rail network is a fast, clean and broadly efficient one, meaning that the 100 or so kilometres to Évora is quickly and easily traversed in no small degree of comfort and, all importantly, at very little cost.

Something terribly exciting about that is that this presented me with my first opportunity to cross the Tejo on the mighty 25th April bridge. Sadly, many of the photos didn’t come out as well as they might have, due to the huge girders that make up the bridge, but you can still get a sense of the scale of the Tejo estuary and the spectacular views of it from the bridge, here. Not to mention the great figure of Jesus, overlooking the city from Almada.

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Leaving at 5pm after the clocks had changed for daylight saving to Western European Time meant that, as the train rolled in to Évora at 6:30 or so, it was quite dark. The first thing we noticed after Lisbon was the quiet. Évora is a small city and, compared to the nation’s capital, there was an almost eerie silence as we edged away from the train station. We followed my google map to our hotel and dumped our stuff, before heading out for a look at the city by night. As I’m told is often the case here, there was a throng of students in the centre, chanting and generally having fun. We walked down a side street to a sprawling, vaulted bar in one of the old buildings called Bar Amoeda. It’s a really nice place, with interesting, locally carved furniture in the shape of livestock. Odd, but it had a really nice atmosphere and was playing decent music. They also sold Sagres preta – the South of Portugal’s only black beer and a very good one.

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After a drink here and a walk around the old town, we stopped in a café for a quick bite to eat and, as the city seemed to be winding down, we headed back to the hotel for a sleep. In the morning, we woke up to this view:

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The Hotel Dom Fernando is a 1970s-built hotel which, at the time, was probably a very grand place indeed. Before booking it, I noted a lot of guests complaining on Trip Advisor about its style, harking back as it does to former days of splendour, while seeming a little bit run down in modern terms. This was absolutely what appealed to me and you really had this sense of the hotel in its heyday and, at the same time, far less “sterility” than you might have in one of today’s foremost hotels. The pool looked lovely, but it was far too cold to go in. Breakfast was also top notch – a very important feature of any lodging. Do look it up if you’re in Évora.

With breakfast demolished, it was time to get a look at this historic city by day. As it was opposite, the Parque de Liberdade seemed like a good place to start. Essentially a palatial garden on the edge of the medieval city wall, it was still alive with flowers, even on the first weekend in November. How spectacular it must be in summer. But the thing that really strikes you is the style of the architecture. Évora had been a stronghold during the period of Moorish occupation in Portugal and it was in evidence right from the off in the obvious influence the Arabs had on the architecture here. The band stand, the park office, both bearing classic Arabic style.

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But for the crosses etched into the balcony facade, this would be equally at home in Tunis.

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Walking round from here towards the northern edge of the park, you come to a partially collapsed fortification from the times when the city walls were more about defence than tourism. While looking at this crumbling structure though, I was taken aback to find at least 4 pairs of peacocks just going about their business in the park and, beside their play area, a full-to-busting lemon tree. This was one of those moments where the difference in the climate in my new home country really makes itself abundantly clear.

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Out of the park and across an entirely unspectacular car park, I found myself under the archess of the quite incredible church of St Sebastiao. Disappointingly it was undergoing intensive renovation (which will likely take some years) but from this one side, you could get a decent glimpse of the splendour underneath the covers.

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From here we wound our way through the maze of narrow streets, through the sprawling town square – formerly the place where more people were publicly executed than anywhere else in all of Portugal in the middle ages (yuk!) – and on to the Temple of Diana, as it’s called.

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Al fresco dining: more appealing than hangings.
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Very bright, old, quaint post boxes.

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Before the temple though, the imposing sandstone structure of the cathedral greets you. It’s a curious sensation wandering out of one of a sequence of narrow residential streets, with their small town white-with-yellow-trim colour scheme and suddenly being met by a small square and a 100m+ tall edifice, battlements creeping away to one side. In front of it stands a testament to the medieval past of the city in the form of a well, complete with an original bronze seal.

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Around the corner and you come to another square, with a magnificent walled garden, looking over the Alentejan countryside. In front of it stands the temple of Diana. It’s called this because the city was indeed home to a small cult of Diana during the roman period. The origins of the temple are murky though and rumours abound about it actually being dedicated to the emperor at the time or Jupiter, or both. Regardless, it is quite a building and the pillars, in particular are in remarkable condition.

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Just peeking out from behind the temple, as you look here, is the top of a very ornate church. While we chose not to enter, we did climb the tower of the neighbouring Palacio and the view was quite remarkable. The position is at the very edge of the city wall and, at the tower’s summit, you are stationed around 40 metres above the ground beyond the city walls. Thus you end up with vistas like this:

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All this walking, looking and photographing was making me hungry, so it was time for a snack. In Portugal, a snack almost always means cake. This time was to be no different, and we decided we ought to try a few Alentejan specialties. When in Rome and all that. So, walking down one of the many narrow streets, we happened upon a little café with some outside tables, ordering a curd cheese cake, an almond and egg bite (with what seemed to be near-raw egg inside) and a slice of caramel(ish) tart, with layered orchard fruits inside. Washed down with a couple of galaos (milky long coffees), they were all quite delicious.

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After our short break, it was time for more strolling, but this time with a little more purpose, we were off to the bone chapel. So we meandered through the streets in the general direction of the cathedral, where our day had more or less started.

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No trip is complete without meeting a cat

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The Chapel of Bones is a very different kind of place to anywhere I’ve been before. Constructed in the 16th century by the monks who used the church of Sao Sebastiao as their place of worship, the idea of the room is as a commentary on the human condition, mortality and more. The plaque as you enter, in Latin, advises you that “We, the bones that lie here, await yours.” It seems like grim reading, but you can in a sense appreciate what they were trying to say about human existence. It’s a very powerful and, in a way, even a beautiful structure. The morbidity is contrasted with the golden altar at the heart of the chapel and the ornate tiling of the perimeters. I won’t say more about it, but this place is really worth visiting if you’re in the area.

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Perversely, perhaps, I left the chapel feeling intensely hungry. So it was off to my first of two quite excellent meals on my full day in Évora. Having eaten really well far too much the previous day, we didn’t want anything too heavy and so, opposite the café where we’d enjoyed our cake earlier, we remember a small, boutique tapas – or petiscos – restaurant.

Disappointingly, I can’t remember the name and nor can I find it on google maps, but it had the most wonderfully unpushy staff and, despite being really nothing more than a small room with a few tables outside, the menu was super. The waiter made some recommendations based on our need for something not too filling and we ended up with roasted sheep’s cheese with fresh oregano leaves, cod (not bacalhau!) sliced thinly, battered and fried and a mixture of scrambled egg and thistle, which was very accurately described as tasting like a more intense asparagus. He brought out two white wines for us to try and the birthday girl selected a quite stunning Chardonnay. The wine and food, we were reliably informed, all came from within a 30 km radius. And it was all excellent. And it cost less than 40 euros in total. A bargain.

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After a quick trip back to the Dom Fernando to freshen up, all that was left was a dusk/night time walk around the city before dinner.

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The city wall is really quite imposing at night and you can easily see why it’s ranked as a UNESCO heritage site. After our walk, it was time for one more meal at Momentos restaurant. This was one I’d read about before we began our visit, where the chef is famous for his use of all local, all organic ingredients and working with blending flavours. First he brought out a trial plate for each of us, of a shot glass of his special recipe tomato soup, accompanied by a poached quail egg on mini toast. It was all terribly indulgent. We once again were presented with a couple of white wines to try and settled on a great one (though not as fabulous as the afternoon’s Chardonnay) and my main course, which exemplified perfectly the owner’s philosophy – a fresh anchovy and grilled pear salad, with strawberries, spinach and rocket. It was stunning.

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After our meal, it was a gentle walk back to the hotel, accompanied by a friendly stray dog. I felt terrible leaving him outside the hotel, but there was nothing we could do for him. With an early start beckoning, we retired for the night. In the morning, after an early breakfast, we made the short walk back to the train station and wove our way through the countryside back to Lisbon.

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Finally, Évora is a charming place, with history in abundance and an immense amount of delightful gastronomy. We wondered whether it might be a lot busier in the summer months, as it did seem there was not too much going on in the evenings, besides for students. Nevertheless, it was an appetising first taste of the Alentejo and it is certainly a region we will return to.

Adventures in Greece – Part 1 – Athens (Piraeus) via Warsaw

Just hours after arriving back in Poland from a 4 week stint at an international summer school, I was packing my things again and heading off to the cradle of our civilisation – Athens, in Greece. This time with my girlfriend in tow, I was really excited about this, as well as a little apprehensive, after hearing of a few pretty serious horror stories about Greece’s ancient capital in recent times.

Waking up at a leisurely 8:30am, after my first sleep in my new flat, I trudged around like a zombie, preparing myself for the fun of the Polskibus to Warsaw at 11:20. Polskibus is a relatively new venture in Poland and is ran by a Polish fellow, who has spent a fair bit of time working in transport companies in the UK. The result is a fleet of brand new, clean, comfortable buses, with free Wi-Fi(!) toilets and extremely low prices. In a country where some long distance buses are close to my age, it is a very welcome thing. So, after 4 hours of cruising Polish highways, ducking to use the hobbit-sized toilet and consuming a nutritious road diet of lemon ice tea and Cheetos pizzerinis, we arrived into Warsaw’s Młociny bus station.

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The brilliant thing about arriving at Młociny, is that it is right next to the metro station. Getting to Warsaw’s Frederic Chopin airport is (theoretically) easy, as you can travel by bus, train, or SKM (fast urban train). We asked the lady at the information kiosk, and she told us the best way was to go to the central rail station by Metro and then onward by bus No. 175. Ania and I remarked to ourselves about how helpful and easy this had all been (having been hugely frustrated by using public transport in Warsaw before). We boarded the metro and off we went. Then after 4 stops, the wheels came off. Not literally, thankfully. Due to the work on laying the track for the new second line of the Warsaw Metro, the Metro would miss not just our stop, but a stop or two either side, as well. Nice of the info lady NOT to tell us. We followed the signs for diverted passengers and ended up on a tram. After waiting just a couple of minutes the tram sped us to Centrum and we disembarked and headed across the park beneath the majestic Palace of Science and Culture to the main train station.

Walking inside the station, we found the usual scene in Warsaw. Scores of people queuing for the woefully insufficient one person in the ticket office and no information points open. Signposts to the airport trains, buses and so on were all lacking, aside for the mention of a slow train, leaving in almost an hour’s time. We asked a few people and finally an old lady from the train company pointed us to the area where we could find the bus. Feeling a little stressed, and with time left to check in ticking away, we hurried into the subway, looking for signs to the airport bus. Naturally, there were none. Finally finding our stop, via the wrong side of the huge road, we then went to the ticket machine. It advised me that it was not accepting change and then proceeded to spit out my pristine 10 Zloty note, like it was a used tissue. Beginning to suffer from serious rage by this point, I jumped onto the bus and pleaded with the driver to sell me some tickets to the airport. Thankfully, he was merciful and 2 child tickets each were issued. We stood, squished into a corner of the bus, for 25 minutes, relieved that another completely haphazard transport experience in Warsaw was all but over!

Arriving at Wawa’s airport, I was struck, right away, by the feeling that a bit of money has been spent here, on modernising. With a towering glass facade at the departures entrance and cloudy daylight pouring in from above, it was a lovely place. We joined a queue crammed with Polish-Greek couples at the Aegean airlines desk. After a short few minutes we were checked in, given window seats near the emergency exits – hello legroom! – and my rucksack, almost always sent to oversized baggage, was allowed straight into the hold on the conveyor belt. I was positively delighted and the endeavour required to survive Warsaw’s information-deprivation scheme was all but forgotten. After a quick sandwich and a last swig of the ice tea, we headed for security. Also mercifully efficient, we were sat looking at the nose of our plane with more than 30 minutes before boarding was due to begin.

Resisting the temptation to go and try on all 100 or so of the designer watches in the boutique opposite our gate, instead I waited patiently for boarding. When the time came, we filed on and took our seats.

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Being, as we were, on a flag carrier for the first time in ages, I was looking forward to free food and beers. My seat was pretty comfy, I could stretch my legs in front of me, and we got settled pretty quickly. We took off into the greying skies. Food was soon served. Now, while I never anticipate gourmet cuisine on an aircraft, the infants’ portion of dried pasta with meatballs the size of ball bearings was not inspired. Luckily the accompanying bread, crackers, chocolate bar and beer were far more palatable. After the rubbish had been cleared away, dusk began to wash over the sky, as we drank our coffee. Later thunderstorms ripped through the night sky below us to the right. It was quite a show.

ImageAt just after 10, local time, we cruised over the Greek peninsula and marvelled at the orange dotted pathway of what we later learned was the Athenian central highway. The plane descended gently and landed with barely a bump. Ania and I were first off the plane and set off to find our baggage. Once we gathered our things, we immediately headed for an ATM – I hadn’t had any time to get currency sorted, post summer school. We drew some cash, picked up a bottle of water and were directed by highly efficient signs to the X96 express bus to Piraeus. With a fair number of others from our flight, we ditched our luggage and watched the dark city streets go by as we sped through night time Athens. It was fairly quiet and the bus barely stopped at all. After around 40 minutes, we realised that we didn’t really know exactly where we were supposed to get off. The people from our hotel had sent a map, but hadn’t been clear about whether it was from the last stop or some other, beforehand. So, when a huge German family (seriously – there were about 10 of them!) decided to get off the bus on one of the many busy streets in Piraeus, we jumped off too. Immediately we began to regret our decision. None of the streets from the map were near us and, with the clock already well past midnight, we were feeling pretty fed up. Then, as we were starting to despair, we saw a small souvlaki place, “Gr… Eat” (see what they did there?), and so I wandered in to find out whether anyone spoke English and whether they knew where our hotel was.

The chef, who was unoccupied, came straight over to me and asked if he could help (in Greek). “Do you speak English?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. By which he meant that someone else in his restaurant did, as he looked blankly at me, while I pointed to places on my map and asked if he knew where they were. Finally his colleague, a very enthusiastic waiter, and a slightly less enthusiastic waitress led me to a huge map mounted on the wall and began arguing with each other about the best way to get to our hotel.

Quite the contrary from this being irritating though, they were all just so keen to help us find our way. I was pretty touched. After we established the best route, they shouted after us “You’re Italian?” I confirmed that I was in fact British, but it’s nice not to be recognised as a British tourist. We made a mental note to return here to eat, later on in our visit, which we did, and enjoyed it immensely. After a few minutes more of walking and a quick check in a different hotel, that we were on the right track, we finally came to the Hotel Phidias/Piraeus Inn which turned out to be a superb & quite bargain-priced place to stay. The receptionist was bright and cheery, in spite of the late hour and told us, quite unexpectedly, that we had breakfast included. I’m a big fan of breakfast. We jumped into the lift and headed to our room for some much needed sleep.

Waking up in the morning and stepping on to our balcony, we couldn’t decide, in the shade, whether it was actually all that warm. Just moments after breakfast though, stepping down to the street and into the full glare of the sun, it quickly became apparent that it was roasting. We decided to take a walk around the marina, which was just a few steps from our hotel, down one of the many steep streets. The place is a hive of activity, with cafes, bars, restaurants, fishing boats and a variety of shops, combined with the considerable traffic ferrying people from the port to the city and airport.

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After following the curve of the marina to it’s limit, passing under numerous cafe parasols, we found ourselves at another steep hill, this time curving around to a recreation area and a crowded, small beach. The water was positively glinting in the morning sun and we decided to head down and dip our feet in the water. It was surprisingly cold and I began to make sounds like a young girl, pretty swiftly. Once we had enjoyed a little paddle, it was time to continue round the path, past some intriguing buildings (and obligatory churches) to find somewhere to get one of these cappucino freddo things that every man and his dog – no really – seemed to be drinking. We happened upon Riva cafe, a delightful place, with comfy sofas, a view of the marina, complimentary water and delicious cake and first class cold coffees.

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So now, refreshed after the gentle pace of the morning and the fabulously brutal nature of Greek coffee, we were feeling ready to move on to the next stage of the adventure – to the Acropolis!

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!