A Travellerspoint blog

In Switzerland

Cuckoo clocks and pocket knives

In 1998 we briefly visited Lucerne as part of a 47-day Ultimate Europe Contiki tour and although we were there little over an hour, we agreed Lucerne was somewhere we’d like to visit again. Unfortunately that particular trip ended with me breaking my arm in Prague so we never made it back. Now, as we were running ahead of schedule, we decided it was time to return. It was a long drive over the Alps from Neuschwanstien to Lucerne, but the scenery was stunning. First we crossed back into the Austrian Tyrol, a land of lovely rolling green hills and picturesque villages. At the high Fern pass we stopped by a little lake and debated taking a time out to canoe around the lake, but it was now getting towards 4pm and I wanted to move on. There were still a lot of kilometres to cover. With hindsight we should have said damn it all to hell and enjoyed ourselves, but such is life.
The days drive covered four countries - Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. By accident, as we missed the turnoff for Vaduz and got on the wrong highway. This cut Liechtenstein out of the picture and lost us over an hour as we tried to navigate back to the right highway. It SHOULD have been as easy as back tracking the way we’d come, but of course it wasn’t. After several such instances (on the German, Dutch and Belgian borders) I have become convinced that certain countries don’t particularly want to advertise cross border cities or the routes out of their countries.

After a frustrating hour detour we finally drove past Vaduz. What a strange place Liechtenstein is. It can’t really be called a country, more a political anomaly. Liechtenstein is a small sliver of land on the eastern side of the river that separates Switzerland from Austria. Steep mountains rise up a few hundred metres from the bank and form an almost impenetrable barrier between Liechtenstein and Austria. In this tiny, strange, border netherworld Liechtenstein does what it does and, of course is the reason it continues to exist. Liechtenstein really doesn’t have any industries or natural economy as such. What it does provide is a place for neighbouring countries to circumvent national laws, taxes and launder money.
Our drive across the length of Switzerland had now become a race with the sun as it’s not much fun arriving in a city at night. We had about three hours (sunset is approx 9pm). As we were travelling on a highway this seemed achievable. But of course you can’t just drive across Switzerland and not be awed by its natural beauty so we made a couple of stops to take photographs. Cutting it very close, we arrived in the city at dusk. Lucerne is a small city and we’d hardly arrived before we turned a corner and there was the famous water tower that is the symbol of the city. It took us a while to navigate around the narrow, confusing, labyrinth of one way streets. In the end we just gave up, pulled over, parked the car and decided to walk into the centre. We were very fortunate in snagging the last room at the imaginatively named Tourist Hotel, which was close to the centre of the city and cheap. We decided to stay two nights.
Our first night was a bit of a write off. By the time we’d checked in, moved the car, unpacked and got tidied up it was after 10pm and most the restaurants were shut. We ended up having a slice of pizza near the train station and then went home. An AFD - alcohol free day!! (Shelly wants it known that that was not her first AFD).
The next day we opted to go to Pilatus Mountain. Pilatus is 2432 metres high and offers spectacular views over Lucerne and the surrounding areas. You can even see Zurich from there. From one side of the mountain there is access by cable car and the other by funicular railway. We opted for the cable car although I am generally terrified of heights. I needn’t have worried. It was a smooth 45 minute ride; the last section being over a dramatic gorge. The sun was dazzling at the summit and there were plenty of people just lazing around in deck chairs soaking up the rays. Europeans really love the sun - perhaps a little too much. It’s fine when you’re young but it takes its toll as you get older. Yet everywhere you go across Europe you see old men and women as brown as berries and as wrinkled as prunes.
We wandered around the summit for a while. There wasn’t really that much to do - sunbathe, shop, eat at one of the overpriced restaurants, take photos of the view, or, if you were completely insane, you could go paragliding. We watched a couple of adventurous souls launch themselves over the edge. We were surprised to see a couple of mountain goats clambering up a nearby peak. They were right on the summit and bounded around with surefooted ease. A large audience gathered to watch them and there were several gasps from the crowd as they ventured right to the edge of a chasm and then trotted over the other side. I guess vertigo has been naturally selected out of mountain goats.
Afterwards we travelled back to the city for sightseeing and shopping. Lucerne’s lakeside position is extremely beautiful and there are numerous paddle steamers chugging up and down, giving the place a nineteenth century spa town air.
The most famous and photographed monument is the water tower in the middle of the river separating the old and the new sides of town. It was originally part of the city fortifications. It later became a torture chamber and was then used as a support for the famous Chapel Bridge. This 16th century wooden bridge was the main link between the two sides of the town for centuries and was decorated with religious and historical paintings. Unfortunately in the 1990’s it caught fire and was almost totally destroyed (there are only a few very blackened sections left). As almost all the original 16th century artwork was destroyed this was a tragic loss, however, ironically some important paintings survived as they had been removed by city authorities in the late 16th century as they were deemed ’too political.’ A short distance from the Chapel Bridge is the Bridge of Death, as I like to call it. This bridge too was decorated with paintings, but these are altogether more ominous, highlighting the myriad of ways death comes to us all. There are of course all the usual scenes of death - plague, war, starvation, murder, etc. But the painter, whomever he was, also managed to insert some quite political and subversive images into his work - Death as the doctor come to heal the patient; Death as the babysitter come to relieve the tired mother; Death as the Emperor leading his courtiers around the palace; Death as the Pope leading a procession of nuns and priests.
From Lucerne we drove north back towards Germany. We stopped briefly at Bern, the capital of Switzerland. Like Canberra or Wellington or Pretoria, Bern seems an unlikely choice as a capital, but not because it is a modern, artificial city, but because it seems so quiet and laid back with none of the political and financial buzz of Zurich. Bern feels distinctly - and comfortably - regional. Old Bern sits in the natural bend of a river, surrounded on three sides by steep slopes and gorges. What was once a fabulous defensive position is now simply scenic.
We crossed the old bridge into the old city and took a long walk up the main thoroughfare. Impressive 18th and 19th century buildings ran along the entire way. Notably, each building had a cellar opening onto the street and most of these are now restaurants and shops. Although it was around 3pm, the streets were almost empty. Even around the main clock tower, with its glockenspiel, the cathedral and the parliament building there was a distinct absence of both visitors and residents. Lack of trees in the centre, especially down the main street makes for a hot city and the temperature was around 32c. People were looking for all kinds of ways to cool off, some opting to sit in one of the many public fountains lining the main street. Looking down from one of the bridges we noticed that the river that circumnavigates the town was filled with people, floating or drifting along in inner tubes. The river was running so fast that people were swept along as if in a water ride. Indeed the parks along the riverfront was positively overflowing with people sunbaking and swimming.

It would have been nice to stay longer, but we’d already decided to travel on to Freiburg in Germany so that we could drive the Black Forrest so we dared not linger. As it was we stopped at Lauterbrunnen, where we had stayed on our Contiki trip. It hadn't changed a bit in ten years and was still just as beautiful as we remembered. Then it on to Germany.

Posted by paulymx 13:37 Comments (3)

The Mad and Lonely King

Neuschwanstien & Herrenchiemsee

In a modest palace just outside the medieval city of Fussen in southern Bavaria, a young prince named Ludwig grew up listening to tales of chivalric virtue and the heroism of his ancestors. Young Ludwig determined that when he grew up he would be the epitome of chivalry and valour; a noble philosopher king in the classic mould. But it was not to be. For a start, Ludwig had been born about five hundred years too late. In 1865 the days of chivalric kings and emperors was long gone. For a start, the new king of Bavaria had to answer to a parliament. Also, the Kingdom of Bavaria, so long one of the most important and wealthy German kingdoms, had recently been absorbed into the German Reich and Ludwig was subordinate to the Hohenzollern Emperor Wilhelm II.

For Ludwig, sensitive, artistic and gay, the limitations reality placed upon him were unbearable. In other circumstances he would have made his name in the theatre or in the arts, but that was not possible for him. Bavaria, however, was rich and he had a substantial fortune at his disposal so he determined to build for himself a series of palaces that would allow him to live out the fantasies of his childhood.
Fussen is on the border of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It is a beautiful country of deep forests, wide lakes and breathtaking mountains and is very popular with holiday makers today, not all of them drawn by Ludwig’s fantasy castle at Neuschwanstien. Back in Salzburg we decided to make an unplanned detour into Switzerland as we both love the country. But Neuschwanstien was so close to Salzburg it seemed crazy not to pop in on the way. It was a pleasant drive over the low Alps into Germany and we were travelling ahead of schedule. As always happens on these occasions, we decided to make an unplanned stop at Chiemsee. Chiemsee is a large lake and on one of the islands, Ludwig built one of his most audacious palaces, the Herrenchiemsee Konigschloss, or Kings Palace in the Lake. Herrenchiemsee, which was modelled on Louis XIV’ Versailles Palace in Paris, tells you a lot about Ludwig’s personality. The building copies almost every detail of the Versailles Palace, right down to copies of the paintings. The decoration inside makes extravagant an understatement. Ludwig spent millions of marks on it but only visited it once, for ten days, and spent most of his time there sleeping. He didn't like to be seen by the staff and his dinner table - small and set only for one - is set on an elevator so it can be set in the kitchen below and then hoisted up into the dining room above. It's an ingenious and extravant way of avoiding human contact. Only about twelve central audience rooms and the walls of one of the wings were finished when he died. The uncompleted wing was later torn down leaving only the central section standing.
The detour to Chiemsee meant we didn’t get into Fussen until late in the afternoon. We struggled to find accommodation and had to settle for a shared dorm at a youth hostel well out of town. Shared accommodation is never the most comfortable, but the experience was made all the worse as there was a tour bus of middle aged Polish women at the hostel who screamed and laughed and fought and shouted and cackled and otherwise behaved pretty F-ing inconsiderately until well after 1am. Very late that evening there was a thunderstorm so loud and so close that it blew all the fuses in the place (but it still didn‘t shut up the bloody Polish women!!).
Next day we bolted early from the hostel to Castle Neuschwanstien. Neuschwanstien is instantly recognisable the world over. It was the model for the Disneyland castle, and why shouldn’t it be? Both castles are inherently fake. Ludwig engaged one of his favourite theatre set designers to build Neuschwanstien and inside you can see why. It is really just an elaborate theatre set for Ludwig’s play acting. Of course, it was built at astronomical expense and only ten rooms were complete when construction stopped. In 1880 the Bavarian government, now extremely alarmed at the spiralling costs of Ludwig’s build program (he started construction of four palaces and never finishing a single one of them) that they called in the creditors. Ludwig was deposed and replaced by his younger brother. The next day his body was found, along with that of his physician, washed up in a lake. The cause of death was never released. Personally, I suspect he killed himself as the only thing more useless and pitiful than a constitutional monarch is a deposed constitutional monarch. His legacy - the extravagant fantasy palaces he built for himself - were taken over by the state and soon opened for tourism as a means of recouping their costs and they’ve become one of Germany’s biggest tourist draw cards. As for the palaces themselves, they reveal Ludwig as something of a tragic and faintly ridiculous person. Herrenchiemsee is by far the more interesting inside, although not as spectacular as Neuschwanstien. Neuschwanstien is better from a distance. Inside it just looks tacky and tragic.
The castles can only be visited on a guided tour and you cannot take photos inside. It’s important to visit early. We arrived quite early - for us - about 9.30am and there was already a long queue at the ticket office. The earliest tour we could get was 11.25am. A half hour walk from Neuschwanstien is the palace of Hohenschwanstien, where Ludwig grew up. We chose not to do both the palaces as the dual tour takes over two hours. By the time we finished up around 1pm the village was cram packed with hordes of tourists who stumbled about on the roads , blocking the traffic. Although a tourist myself, I must admit that if tourists were a species they would quickly become extinct due to their innate and often self destructive stupidity. It is NEVER a good idea to stand in front of a bus in order to take a photo. Waiting times for tours was now over four hours.

Posted by paulymx 14:06 Comments (2)

Austrian Travels

Late in Austria

Ahh, Vienna
The Motherload

Bratislava and Vienna are so close to each other it’s possible to live in one and commute to the other. It’s ironic really but a strange twist of fate ensured that one of the cities would become the capital of an enormous European empire while other became a regional backwater. Budapest was long the capital of Hungary, but in 1526 the Ottoman Turks captured the city and the Kings of Hungary were forced to flee. They set up their new capital in Bratislava and set about decorating with suitably imperial buildings. One branch of the family had married into a local German dynasty called the Hapsburgs, a family that had distinguished itself by its ability to marry into any family that looked to be going places. The Hapsburgs came from Vienna, then a small but important city on the western edge of the Hungarian realm. As soon as a Hapsburg son inherited the throne they moved the capital to Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian empire was born.

Vienna is largely the product of the mid nineteenth century, only St Stephensdom cathedral dates back to the 15th century. Like Paris, Vienna was completely made over with impressive public buildings, large shady parks and wide imperial boulevards. The inner city looks marvellous - just as it was supposed to - but the rebuild was largely a front to disguise an inner weakness. As far as empires go, Austro-Hungary was always pretty shaky, composed as it was of a kaleidoscope of Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Serbs, Bosnians, Italians, Turks and Croats all of whom never particularly liked each other. In fact, the term “sick old man of Europe” was originally applied to Austro-Hungary before it was used to describe the Ottoman empire. The only thing that held empire together was devotion to the Hapsburg family. As soon as they had been swept away at the end of the First World War the empire fractured into the many countries of central Europe we know today. However, devotion to the family is still strong. 90 years after the last Hapsburg sat on the throne there are still people bringing flowers to the family tomb just beside the Hofburg Palace. The original church that sat on the site is long gone and a smaller, modern chapel has replaced it. Down several flights of modern marble stairs, that would not be out of place in a hospital mortuary, you suddenly find yourself in a long arcaded crypt surrounded by rows and rows of enormous lead caskets. It’s a little creepy. Most striking is the size of the crypt. After walking down a very long row of extravagant and extraordinary 17th and 18th century tombs, one turns a corner and finds another equally long row of tombs for the side branches of the family. Like a Mafioso family, you never really left no matter who you married or where you lived. There were a couple of exceptions though. Franz Ferdinand, who’s assassination sparked the First World War has only a wall plaque to note his place in history and the last Hapsburg, Charles, who was forced to abdicate in 1919 has not been allowed to return, even in death.
But we didn’t spend all day looking at dead people. Why would we, when there are so many more interesting live people around? Lonely Planet may have said Bratislava has the most beautiful women in Europe and very possibly they were right, but clearly they were all commuting to Vienna. The women in Vienna were stunning. The men were handsome. Everybody looked well dressed and gave off a distinct air of prosperity. The sun was shining and all was right with the world.
As strange as it might sound, I was also pleased to be back in the ‘Deutsche sprachen weld.’ I felt both a little rude and stupid in Poland and the Czech and Slovak republics as I didn’t even know a single word of their respective languages. At least I had a smattering of memorised German that made me sound less like a philistine (but probably more like a moron). I could for example order food; “Ich muchta einen schnitzel and einen wurst mit srei beer, bitte” which translates into something like “Goodbye, I am Tuesday rabbit railway station with a large sausage your mother, thank you.” No sooner do I start speaking in German than people stop me and ask me to speak in English please. How handy is that?

German language isn’t renowned for its humour but there are some words that do give us a laugh, such as:
1. Anything that ends in ‘fahrt’ - e.g. , einfahrt (entrance), ausfahrt (exit), gute fahrt (have a good journey). A good fahrt joke never gets old (well, Shelly doesn’t actually agree but what does she know!).
2. The German word for art is ‘kunst’ and I couldn’t agree more.

Vienna is the home of the wiener schnitzel and of course we had to have one. The one Shelly ordered was the size of a dinner plate and absolutely delicious. I had a huge bratwurst because I’ve always wanted a big sausage. It came wrapped in bacon. Now, wrapping a pork sausage in bacons does sound a little bit excessive I know but you need to understand that pork is so important the cuisine of central Europe that it comes with every meal. Even the beef is made of pork. Shell, who normally isn’t a fan of sausages has even succumbed to an occasional curry-wurst in a pinch (a sausage with curry sauce sold at take away stands all across central Europe). But it wasn’t all pork, we made sure we kept up our fruit and vege intake with regular servings of apple strudel
Salzburg was our next destination but we decided to take a detour via the Danube river valley. One of the first places we saw was castle Durnstein. Now a ruin, its main claim to fame was that Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned there for two years from 1192. Richard’s reputation is nowadays wrapped in chivalrous myth. In reality he was a vicious bastard. In 1190, while on crusade in Syria, he had quarrelled with and insulted Duke Leopold of Austria who had become the defacto leader of the German crusaders after the death of their emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. In act of public humiliation Richard had Leopold’s heraldic banners torn down and thrown into the moat at Acre (now in Israel). It was shocking behaviour at a time when personal honour mattered so much and Leopold immediately packed up his troops and left the crusade. Ironically, Richard was shipwrecked off Corfu on his way home and had to travel overland. Although disguising himself as a simple knight templar, he couldn’t help but proclaim his presence everywhere he went by his arrogance and he was soon arrested and presented to Leopold. Leopold of course was little inclined to respect his prisoner and had him packed off to remote Durstein while negotiations for his ransom were initiated. He was eventually released after the payment of three years worth of England’s’ taxes. This was the period of the Robin Hood folk tales when good king Richard was away and the realm of England was mismanaged by bad prince John. Perhaps if Richard had ever lived in England his reputation might be somewhat different.

A long way to go for Melk
A little way past the ruins of Durstien was the abbey of Melk. It’s an obscure place today but Melk was famous in the middle ages. It was the setting of the book and film “The Name of The Rose” although the 12th century monastery is long gone. The drive there seemed interminable, with lots of narrow weaving roads, prompting me to make the smart arsed comment above (at least twenty or thirty times). Fortunately there was not too much traffic. We were quite unprepared when we stumbled upon the town. At first there was nothing to see - just another small riverside town like all the others - then, as we turned towards the market square I caught a glimpse through the corner of my eye. The Melk abbey sits atop a spire of rock that juts out over the old town. Coming from Vienna, it’s invisible as the rock face is hidden by trees. Only as you turn south do you get to see it. And it is astonishing. The abbey was completely rebuilt in baroque style in the 17th century and is painted bright yellow. It looks like a golden ship looming over the town. Inside, it rivals St Peters in the Vatican. Astonishing.
Salzburg - Doe, a deer; a female deer
The drive to Melk was exhausting. It was very hot - 32 degrees C - bright sun, and the driving was intense. All I wanted to do was stop somewhere and rest. But we decided to press on and drive straight through to Salzburg and stay a couple of nights. We arrived towards 8pm and our initial views of the city were stunning. Salzburg straddles a river, with the old town on the northern bank. High over the city is a large fortress that dominates the skyline. Mozart was born here and, as you’ve no doubt guessed, “The Sound of Music” is set here. We were hopeful of quickly finding accommodation and setting out to get some sunset shots, but the city planners were conspiring against us. Firstly, the age old problem of one way streets, secondly, the street names are written in atmospheric gothic typeface and are only about 3 inches long. To put it bluntly, they are unreadable from the road. Thanks city of Salzburg!! And thirdly, the first hostel was full, the second was …. Gone, and the third….err, consult problems one and two. By luck we found accommodation in an old monastery in the centre of town. As a default accommodation it was pretty spectacular.
Our first night was a write off. We wandered around briefly and had our cheapest meal to date - two slices of pizza that we got for free from a pizza shop that was about to close. Cheers!!!

Next day we did the “Sound of Music Tour” It sounds corny and it was. I wanted to wear the Austrian military cap I’d bought in Vienna but Shelly wouldn’t let me. Possibly a good thing as most of the people on the tour seemed pretty serious about it. It was interesting though and we got to see the city and surrounding countryside.
After we did some sight seeing in the afternoon we finished up the night at the Augustiner Brewery. This is a brewery in an Augustine monastery. The monks have been making beer here for 600 years and their operation today has barely changed. There is only one type of beer. You buy a mug (6 euro for 1.5 litres!!!) and give it to the man who fills it up and you’re done. Around the edge of the garden are food vendors selling - you guessed it - enormous sausages (plus bbq chicken, pork ribs, whole bbq trout, etc). You sit where you can. It was packed. It was great.
The next morning we were moving a little slower than normal but we had the perfect antidote. Taking a spin by the Salzburg airport we visited Hanger Seven, the home of Shelly’s favourite inventor - Dietrich
Makeshifts - the owner of Red Bull. Hanger Seven is where he displays his obsession with speed - formula one racers, motorcycles, jet fighters, vintage aircraft. Man, the guy has everything! The Austrians have some interesting recipes for Red Bull, including Red Bull and white wine.

Posted by paulymx 15:15 Comments (2)

In Poland

The oppressive weight of history

Prague is Beautiful
Prague. Capital of the Czech Republic. City of Exceptional beauty. Everywhere you look there are scenes of outstanding, stunning beauty. It’s marvellous. And the city itself ain’t bad either.
Yes, Czech women do live up to their reputation for beauty. Maybe it was just the way the girls carried themselves; their carefree confidence; Or maybe it was their hair, their skin, and their tans. Or maybe it was just that they dressed better than the Germans. Whatever it was, there was a certain spring in everyone’s step in Prague. Mine especially.

It was an easy drive from Dresden and we arrived in the early afternoon. Of course we had no accommodation booked so it took us an hour or so weaving through the streets around the train station before we found a suitable (that means cheap!) pension. We booked in for two nights. It was only a short tram ride into the city. It was 11 years since we’d visited Prague but the city itself didn’t really seem any different; maybe a few more big name shops.

The Charles Bridge - where everyone promenades in the late afternoon - was being renovated and was covered in scaffolding. It was still packed however. Prague was popular with tourists 11 years ago, but it’s gone crazy now. Everywhere there were queues and congestion, and of course, wherever tourists congregate there are the beggars and scammer, like flies on a turd.
Highlights of the city are the market square, especially in the late afternoon light. The astrological clock is overrated in the same way as the Munich Glockenspiel, but is still draws thousands of tourists every hour. The Tyn Church in the corner of the square is a masterpiece of gothic architecture and provides a beautiful backdrop. Then there is Prague Castle, set high on a ridge across the river from the old city. It isn’t so much a castle in the traditional sense, but palace complex that house the presidential palace, parliament and other government buildings so it’s not really a museum piece. In 1998 you could enter all parts of the castle for free, except for special exhibitions. Although you can still enter the castle, there are entry fees for the various buildings, including St Vitus Cathedral and even the Golden Lane, a tiny medieval lane of shops. We’d seen them all before so we didn’t pay, but we did visit a toy museum and saw an exhibition of Barbie dolls. Did you know that Barbie was originally a German newspaper cartoon character, drawn for a very adult audience? Very interesting!

After two days in Prague we set off again, heading north over the Sudeten Mountains into Poland. In 1938 Adolf Hitler initiated an international crisis to have this ‘Sudetenland’ recognised as an integral part of Germany (Silesia, which is now part of Poland was then part of Germany). Hitler claimed the German speaking minority in this borderland were being oppressed by the Czechs and Britain and France conceded. Czechoslovakia, which was prepared to fight for the region, was not consulted. Less than six months later Adolf Hitler gave the Czech government an ultimatum - resign or be destroyed - and Czechoslovakia was no more. Driving though the winding forested slopes of the Sudeten it becomes clear what all this was about. Hitler of course didn’t care about the language rights of a few thousand German speakers; the Sudeten were a defensible bastion and if the Czechs could hold the mountain passes, the German Blitzkrieg - even if it struck across the Austrian border - would grind to a halt and with it the myth of German invincibility. Had Hitler been defeated in his first military battle it is likely he would shortly have been deposed by his own officers. However, once he’d seized control of the mountains, Czechoslovakia was doomed and the dominoes were set to fall.

It was a very long and slow driving day. Although the mountains themselves aren’t high, the roads are narrow (single lane) and their quality declines considerably once on the Polish side of the border. Poland has about two motorways - one linking Berlin and Warsaw and one linking Warsaw and the port city of Gdansk. The rest of the country is linked by single lane highways. Often deeply rutted from the weight of heavy truck traffic. Tractors, trucks and road works can hold up traffic for miles. Due to the road conditions our travels in Poland often involved extended time on the road, which meant we had ample opportunity to contemplate the torturous, tragic history of this interesting country - when not playing chicken with Polish drivers, that is.

Road conditions obviously make Polish drivers impatient, aggressive and reckless. They often had no compunction overtaking in the face of oncoming traffic and it was not uncommon for us to be forced onto the hard shoulder by approaching traffic. Such recklessness results in numerous head-ons. We saw four in our two days in Krakow. Maybe this explains the numerous roadside shrines along every road. Poland is a devoutly Catholic country and roadside shrines are distinctive feature of the landscape. They varied considerably; from elaborate statues of Mary and the crucifixion, to strange floral ornaments draped in brightly coloured ribbons. The most unusual shrines were especially prevalent along roads on the forest and at crossroads. Folk customs die hard and I’m pretty convinced these forest shrines reach back into a pre-Christian world of forest and animist spirits. I guess they also do their best to remind drivers of the dangers of the road.

Along the forest roads we regularly saw people sitting with a small bucket or tray of vegetables. Often these were no larger than an ice cream container and the money they would have made from selling them would have only been a few zloty. Sometimes there were many of them, sometimes they were along. Often they were very far from the nearest town so who knows how far they had come No one ever seemed to stop.

The same can’t be said for another kind of forest traffic. Clearly, women don’t drive as much in men in Poland because there always seemed to be an abundance of young ladies waiting for a lift. Fortunately there seemed no shortage of gallant drivers and truckers will to pick them up.
The drive from Prague to Wroclaw took 8 hours of solid driving. Until 1945 the city was in German Silesia and called Breslau, Some of its older residents still it call it that. The city has a nice central square but has definitely seen better days. Perhaps it was fitting that we stayed in an old Communist era hostel whose décor was distinctly 1973. From the state of the bathrooms it also seemed as if the cleaners had left when the wall came down in 1989. Wroclaw’s main tourist attraction is a 114 metre, 360 degree painting of the 1794 Battle of Raclowice. I know it doesn’t sound very exciting but we went to see it anyway and it was stunning. This epic (and huge) painting is housed in a very horrible 1960’s, circular, concrete building. You view the painting from a central viewing platform. There is a three dimensional diorama in the foreground which matches in with the landscape of the painting and it really does create an impressive 3-D effect. There are half hourly tours in Polish but also provide an audio translation in other languages which explain the how the painting was made, its restoration, and of course the battle itself. Here is a link to a website for the painting:

Poland’s history has been one of domination by other powers. A medieval Polish kingdom existed between the 12th and 16th centuries, but it was continuously at odds with its neighbours - the Russians, the Germans, the Austrians, the Hungarians, and the Tartars (Mongols). By the end of 17th century Germany, Russia and Austria had divided Poland between them and the country ceased to exist. In 1794 Taduez Kosciuszko (after whom Mt Kosciuszko is named), led a rebellion against the Russians. His army defeated the Russians at Raclowice, but the insurrection was ultimately defeated. Like Gallipoli to the Australians, the success of the battle is less important than its symbolic meaning.
The next day we did another 8 hour drive to Torun, birthplace of the astronomer Nicholas Copernicus, with a lunch stop in Poznan. Despite setting off early we didn’t reach Poznan until nearly 3pm. Poznan’s square was quite beautiful, but we didn’t stay long. We arrived in Torun about 6pm. Unlike other Polish cities, Torun was not destroyed in the Second World War so its great old, red brick gothic buildings are all original. We had a delicious meal of Polish dumplings and beer.

The next day we had another early start as it was a long days drive to Gdansk. Gdansk, on the Baltic Sea, is Poland’s main port city. It was only some 360 kms from Torun and there was a motorway for half that length, but it still took nearly a full day to get there. We stopped at the magnificent Malbork castle just outside Gdansk. We have seen a lot of impressive castles in our travels, but Malbork is astonishing for both its size and scale. It was swarming with package tourists and school groups, which made the experience a little bit frustrating.
Malbork was the fortress headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, a crusader order that conquered northern Poland and Lithuania. Originally the Poles had invited the Teutonic Knights to help defend against the pagan Lithuanians in the 12th century. The Knights set about slaughtering the Lithuanians with such unbridled ferocity that the Lithuanians quickly converted to Christianity in an effort to save themselves (literally and figuratively!). But the Knights weren’t about to a little technicality like that get in the way. They soon turned on the Poles, and then even the Russians. It would take an alliance of Poles, Lithuanians and Russians, under the Russian Prince Alexandr Nevesky to smash the power of the Knights in the 13th century (it’s subject of a famous film by Sergei Eisenstein). The Knights would later form the core of the Prussian nobility and their brutal attitude towards the Poles and Russians would infect German policy. Indeed, the Nazi’s policies of deportation and extermination of the Polish people was no historical aberration, but simply took Prussian anti-Polish policy to its ‘logical’ end point.

From Malbork we visited the small seaside town of Sopot. Now it is little more than a suburb in Gdansk‘s urban sprawl, but it was once a 19th century spa town complete with pier and promenade. The beach was positively packed as it was high summer and stinking hot. We quickly dipped our feet in the Baltic and then turned towards Gdansk. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the outskirts Gdansk were not very encouraging - run down train yards, urban neglect and the usual dodgy characters loitering in the street - but when we reached the old town we were pleasantly surprised. Although extensively damaged in the war, most of the old centre has been restored, including the Royal Processional Way and the 12the century Medieval crane. Gdansk has a good atmosphere and is a pleasant city to spend time in. But we almost didn’t get to enjoy it all. Accommodation in the city is expensive and difficult to find, especially on weekends. And it was Saturday. And packed. Every place we checked was either full or ridiculously expensive. By luck more than anything we found two beds in a dodgy hostel by the central station. It was horrible and noisy and there was no privacy or any security, but it was all there was available. Needless to say we were up and out at the crack of dawn for the long drive to Warsaw (the sun comes up at 5.37am - we know this because there were no blinds on the windows).

We took no detours this time but we still didn’t arrive in Warsaw until late afternoon due to roadworks and other delays. We visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum as soon as we arrived as it was one of the few museums that did not close at 6pm. On Sunday the museums are free so it was totally packed. The Uprising is one of the pivotal moments in Polish history and, like the Battle of Raclewice, commemoration of the event was long suppressed by the communist regime. In early 1945, the Polish Govt in Exile and the underground (mainly comprising officers who’s escaped capture and execution by both the Nazis and the Soviets) launched a massive attack on the occupying German army. For almost two weeks, the Poles regained control of Warsaw and other key cities. While the Germans were busy putting down the Uprising, the Soviets launched an attack from the east. The Soviets reached the east bank of the Vistula River and then did nothing. They watched on as the Germans slowly regained control and exterminated the Polish forces. Those Poles who managed to escape to the Soviets were arrested and imprisoned. I used to know an old Polish gentleman who had fought in Uprising. He once described to me how he and few of his compatriots escaped through the sewers. It was black and the sewers were full. There was only an inch or two of ‘breathing space.’ The stench was unbelievable, but they jumped in anyway and swam as best they could as to remain behind meant certain death as the Germans were not taking prisoners. They swam and crawled for several kilometres, uncertain where they were or whether they could even get out. Some of them drowned in the filth, but a few managed to reach the river and swim across to the Russians at night. Recalling that story still made him shudder, but he observed that it’s amazing what you can do when your life is on the line.

This wasn’t the first time in history that the Soviet army had reached the outskirts of Warsaw and that time the outcome had been significantly different. When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917 they firmly believed that a universal workers revolution was about to break out. After Central Powers collapsed in 1918, communist governments were formed in Hungary and Germany, but both were quickly and savagely suppressed. Lenin realised that only armed intervention could ensure the success of his workers revolution, so in 1919 he launched a massive invasion of Poland. The Russians had never really accepted the idea of Polish independence and intended to wipe Poland off the map again, but they also intended to push on into Germany, sweep up Hungary and then drive into the heart of western Europe. Had the plan succeeded we might be living in quite a different world. A combined army of Poles, Ukrainians and Byelorussians opposed the Soviets but were quickly overwhelmed and in full retreat. They were forced to make a last stand at Warsaw. But the Russian success had been so absolute that their armies were strung out over hundreds of kilometres and at the limit of their endurance. The Poles launched a surprise attack that cut right through the Soviet lines and penetrated into their rear. The Soviet army broke in disorder and it was their turn to retreat. Both sides had behaved savagely towards the other and no quarter was given. Stalin had been a frontline commander of the southern army and he was not a man to forget and forgive. When the Germans and Russians partitioned Poland in 1939 he had all Polish army officers he could lay his hands on arrested an interned in camps in Byelorussia, where some 50,000, including many who fought at the Battle of Warsaw, were executed in the Katyn Forest.

We stayed in the excellent Hostel Helvetica, just off the four kilometre Royal Way, a street of while marble public buildings lining the promenade to the old Royal Palace and Old Town Square. The palace and the Old Town are beautiful and are the heart of the city. They have all been painstakingly restored to their original condition. This is especially amazing in the case of the Royal Palace as not a single stone was left standing. After the Uprising, Hitler ordered the city to levelled to the ground. All civilians were deported and a special SS commando bought in to demolish the city. Only 30% of the city survived.
From Warsaw it was another long drive to Krakow. Krakow had been the royal capital of Poland until the 17th century and it has a magnificent castle and cathedral. The main square of Krakow is also the largest in Europe apparently. Having visited Krakow some ten years ago we were pretty sure this was an exaggeration, but we were both shocked when we saw it again. It IS huge. Much larger than either of us remembered. In the centre of the square is the Cloth Hall, a former market building and a clock tower. The clock tower stands on its own, looking a little lost in this enormous space. I’m pretty sure there must have been a rathaus or town hall attached to it at one point, but it was destroyed or burnt down or something. Will have to look into that. On our second night we did an organised pub crawl. Our group was primarily a bunch of young Irish lads so Shelly was all right. The Irish sure had some interesting stories to tell. It was a good night but we were a little under the weather the next day.
Outside of Krakow there are a number of interesting day trips. The first was a trip to the Wielka Salt Mines. It was totally packed with tourists and, as the number of people who can descend the mine at any one time is limited, mob behaviour and rudeness dominated. I won’t say anymore. The huge underground cathedral carved out of salt is impressive, but at two hours it does go on a bit.

When we returned to the light it was raining. Hard. So opted to make an appropriate side trip to Auschwitz. Some 40 kilometres from lovely Krakow is one of the single most horrific places in human history. Auschwitz I was a Polish army barracks that the Nazis turned into a prison camp for Polish military, political agitators and intellectuals. Shortly thereafter it was expanded to hold Russian prisoners, then gypsies and later Jews. We had visited Auschwitz I before and saw no need to go back, so we went to Aushwitz II -Birkenau. While Auschwitz I was a concentration camp where prisoners were worked to death, Birkenau was a specialised death camp. At the end of the war the SS destroyed much of the camp including the gas chambers and incinerators, but there is still enough left, including the grim gateway through which the trains would pass. It’s a scene familiar from many films. The most striking thing about Birkenau is the sheer scale of the enterprise. The camp stretches as far as the eye can see. In row upon row of barracks prisoners must have waited for their turn to be killed, never knowing when there would be a ‘gap in the schedule’ that would mean their time had come. With every train the fit were separated from the ‘less fit’ - the young, the elderly, the women - who were immediately gassed and their bodies burnt. The fit were worked as slave labour until they either died or were themselves gassed. It was the industrialisation of mass murder.
Given the history of pain and torment inflicted on the Polish people by both the Germans and the Russians, it did strike us as odd that there is appears a very strong skin-head neo-Nazi movement in Poland. It seems incomprehensible. And to end our trip through Poland on an inappropriate note, Paul bought himself a German helmet in a Krakow souvenir stall!

Polish observations
Poland is blessed with a surplus of very beautiful women, who all speak excellent English (at least I think they did when I could be bothered listening)
Poland is no so blessed with a surplus of handsome men. Shelly says there were a few, but only a few.
The ratio of beautiful to not-so-beautiful being what it is means that many Polish men are punching way above their weight. And they know it. And they can be a bit surly about it.
Polish radio stations love the 1980s almost as much as the German radio stations.
Shelly does not like Polish or German radio stations.

Posted by paulymx 14:30 Comments (1)

The Roads Less Travelled

Are sometimes less travelled for a reason

Getting out of Brussels should have been easy but it wasn’t. Once again we started following the signs to the motorway only for them to disappear, leaving us ‘off the map’ with no idea where we were. Twice we found ourselves driving through pleasant leafy suburbs, far from the motorway and were forced to backtrack into the city to re-orientate ourselves. It took a very frustrating hour to get away.

Going back to Germany involved a long driving day as our destination, Bremen, was some 600 kilometres away, but given the average speed on the motorway was 130 kilometres per hour, this did not seem an issue. About an hour into our journey however, we hit our first traffic jam. Progress slowed to a crawl and for the next two hours we never got out of first gear. By late afternoon it was clear we would never reach Bremen before nightfall so we diverted to Dusseldorf. Dusseldorf doesn’t really jump out as a tourist destination, but it does have good nightlife. The entire length of the old town waterfront is like one giant beer hall. The lower boardwalk offers German pub food and drink and was absolutely pumping. The upper promenade is filled with classy restaurants.
The Germans have a very relaxed approach to street drinking. The bars serve people directly on the street, creating what is virtually a huge street party. Each bar charged a deposit on the glass to ensure its safe return. Although there were lots of people walking the streets drinking there was no police presence or any bouncers, but no one was out of control or rowdy and the whole atmosphere felt safe. Why is it that in Australian street drinking like this would likely lead to violence and antisocial behaviour?
That said, later that night as we were about to walk across one of the major city parks on the way back to our hotel, a police van approached us. It slowed to a crawl and the officers inside gave us a hard look, then they drove off. We laughed about being ‘international fugitives’ but a few minutes later 8 armed tactical response officers came charging down the street towards us. They flashed us with their torches and then moved on. Needless to say were a little startled and hurried on home.

The next day we set off early for Bremen. For lunch we stopped in Munster, partly because it was on the route and partly because the Lonely Planet gave the city a good plug. 90% of the city was razed to the ground during the Second World War but the old town had apparently been tastefully restored. Although it was buzzing with tourists, we found the city a little disappointing and quickly moved on. Taking a slight detour from Munster we visited Schloss Nord Kirche, one of Westphalia’s many 17th century palaces. We walked around the gardens and statuary park. There were several weddings in the grounds. Afterwards we visited the 14th century moated castle, Schloss Burg Vischering, which was stunning.

We arrived in Bremen in the late afternoon and found a cheap hostel near the waterfront. Like Munster, Bremen had been destroyed in the war and its old city had been rebuilt from scratch. But Bremen’s magnificent historical buildings were restored with real feeling and sensitivity, whereas Munster felt like it had been restored by Disney Corporation. But Bremen wasn’t all old buildings, it’s waterfront was similar to Düsseldorf’s, only a little smaller. It was Saturday night and the bars were pumping. There were numerous bucks and hens groups weaving their way through the crowds, although the groups were a little more restrained that the ones we see at home. We sampled many types of beer and enjoyed a sausage or two.

The Long Road
Bremen was a bit of a crossroads in the leg of our journey. We had originally planned to continue north east along the Baltic coast before turning south at Rostock and then crossing into Poland. However, the northern German cities we had visited hadn’t really inspired us that much so we decided to change to Plan B. We would forego the Baltic coast and drive straight to Berlin, stop overnight and then drive to Gdansk in Poland the next day. It would mean two long driving days but that would allow us to spend more time in Poland and places we’d never visited before.

But already the omens were ominous. Firstly, it was Sunday and everything in Bremen was shut, including McDonalds, so we set off without breakfast. Two hours later, just outside Hannover, we pulled into a servo in the hope of grabbing an early lunch and found the place overrun with metal heads. At first it was simply amusing to see so many death metal fans in one place, but as more and more began to pull into the servo we began to wonder why. It turned out there had been a three day heavy metal festival in Hamburg that weekend and people were beginning to head home - and all of them lived in Berlin apparently. When we pulled back onto the motorway it was four lanes of bumper to bumper traffic for the next 300 kilometres. Time for Plan C.

Erfurt lies in the geographical heart of Germany. The capital of Thuringia had received a very favourable write up in the Lonely Planet, apparently thanks to its beautifully restored medieval centre. It was another long drive, but anything was better than being stuck on the motorway. So we changed plans again and turned south at the next available exit. There was one thing we hadn’t counted on when we made our decision; Erfurt was in the former East Germany and we were coming from the former West Germany. There was no direct route. Despite our earlier navigational ‘challenges’ we were quite confident and by the B roads we would visit a number of other interesting little towns along the way.
The first was Hildesheim. Hildesheim had been bombed flat during the war and then rebuilt in Soviet brutalist style. After reunification the city voted to tear down its ugly Soviet era centre an rebuild it in a more traditional style. Although it's a modern reconstruction it is truly magnificent and makes the city worth the detour.

Then it was on to Goslar. Unlike most of the other cities we’d visited, Goslar had escaped damage in the war and it shows. The whole inner city, not just the central square, is medieval. Magnificent half timbered houses stretch along every street. What’s more, Goslar was open on Sunday and was doing a roaring trade. The streets were absolutely packed with tourists, all German. We wandered around for hours and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
Being a small city, it was easy to get out of Goslar, but as we tried to navigate back towards the motorway we began to have problems again. Firstly we were directed into a small village which had no access to the motorway, then, after an hour of frustration going in circles, we found the motorway, but could not find any access to it in the direction we needed to go. By now thoroughly annoyed we ended up just getting on and driving in the opposite direction until we could turn off, turn around and get back on in the right direction. That detour cost us two hours.

We were now more determined than ever to stick with the motorway and avoid the B roads. We plotted a course to Erfurt and, given a good run, we could possibly make it by about 7 or 8pm. But once again we miscalculated. Much of the infrastructure in the former East Germany is new, like the motorway we were now driving on, but there is a lot remaining to be done. Like the turnoff to Erfurt, which we discovered was due to be built in 2011. Time for Plan D.

We decided to continue on the motorway to Leipzig. Unlike West Germany, which is densely populated, Saxony-Anhalt is largely rural. The lovely new motorway stretched on through low rolling meadows of wheat and corn, dotted around with cylindrical hay bales. It was certainly pleasant countryside, but I found my mind pre-occupied with other thoughts. Firstly, the petrol gauge was now showing less than a quarter of a tank, and secondly, we’d not passed a service station since we got onto the motorway. Leipzig was over 100 kilometres away. About 30 kilometres out of Leipzig the petrol warning light came on and things became very tense. In desperation we turned off the motorway at the next small town, but it was Sunday and everything was shut, including the petrol station. We had no choice now by to try and reach the city. Then we saw a sign for the airport; it was a toss up between 25 kms to Leipzig or 22 kms to the airport, so we turned to the airport. It was now almost 10pm so when we saw a few lights on in the centre of the satellite town of Markranstadt, we pulled over. There was a kebab shop open so we parked out the front, ordered a kebab (remembering that we had not had breakfast or lunch) and asked if there was a hotel and petrol station in town. The answer was yes to both questions. The petrol station was 300 metres further up the road. After picking up our kebabs we nursed the car into the petrol station with the warning light flashing. Of course, we paid a premium rate at the only hotel in town but enjoyed the best kebab in the world.

The next day we decided not to go into Leipzig after all. I had wanted to go to Zwickau, a city made famous as the home of MZ motorbikes (Motorrad Zwickau) and Audi. Zwickau has an outstanding auto museum that I was dying to visit, but we’d no sooner set off that we realised that it was Monday and the museum was closed (Damn!) and this foolishly influenced our decision making. The RIGHT decision was to write off yesterdays navigational blunders and head directly to Dresden, only 130 kms away. The WRONG decision was to try and go back to Erfurt, now 85 kms in the opposite direction. So clearly we went to Erfurt. Let me be clear - there is nothing wrong with Erfurt. It does have a nicely restored town centre and, if you’d not already visited Bremen, or Hildesheim, or Goslar, you’d think it was great. But we had. And so it wasn’t. So we went, took our photos, felt disappointed (knowing full well we’d made the wrong decision) and turned around and drove the 220 kms to Dresden.

Florence of the North
Dresden is perhaps my favourite city in Germany. We visited in 1998 and had been blown away. The architecture is magnificent - the great Gothic cathedral in the old city always reminds me of a dreadnought battleship steaming up the Elbe. Then there is the cruelty of the city’s destruction, with the scars so vividly left on the fabric of its buildings, and the Herculean efforts of the Dresdners to restore their city to its original glory.

For most of the Second World War Dresden had escaped much of the destruction wrought on other German cities because it was not an industrial centre and for its cultural heritage, and as a consquence by the war's end it was filled with refugees. In the last months of the war, the combined British and American airforces attacked the city with firebombs. More people died in the ensuing Dresden Firestorm than in the combined bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The decision to destroy Dresden utterly, largely lay with Winston Churchill, and the reason, obscured for years by vague, political justifications, was to demonstrate to the approaching Russian armies that the Western Allies possessed the power and political will to utterly destroy their enemies. Correspondence between Churchill and chief of the British Bomber Command, ‘Bomber’ Harris, later revealed that both understood that if they were ever held to account in a Nuremburg type trial, both of them would hang for war crimes (Churchill, as an old imperialist, was fundamentally opposed to the Nuremburg trials; he’d recommended that all high ranking Nazi’s be summarily executed as soon as they were captured).

The process of restoration began back in the 1950’s, partly as an anti-western propaganda exercise by the East German government. The process slowed down considerably during the 70s and 80s but gained new impetus after reunification. The magnificent baroque masterpiece, the Frauenkirche, however, had been left as a pile of rubble as a monument to the destruction of the city, but in 2000 work began on its restoration. It took 8 years but the rebuilt cathedral is a masterpiece. Thousands of tourists flock through it, almost as an act of pilgrimage. People, young and old, were bought to tears by the experience. I think the building itself has become a symbol of resurrection.
From Dresden we set off on the road to Prague in the Czech Republic. A city of beautiful architecture, beautiful women, and cheap beer. Sounds like heaven….

Random thoughts about travelling in Germany
German radio seems to have a disturbing preference for 1980’s ‘middle of the road’ rock music and 1990’s power ballads. Or, Euro-pop. Either way it’s shit.

Popular fashions observed -
Beige pants, worn very high, with a checked shirt, T-shirt, or penguin top, tucked into the trousers.
Brown loafers or brown sandals with white socks.
Denim shorts, often disturbingly tight, or slightly too long (either way, something very not right)
Hair - short, buzz cut and totally style-less.
For men -
Same as above

Posted by paulymx 16:14 Comments (1)

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