V. had booked a couple of seats on a bus to Auschwitz and we went out early on Saturday morning to meet it. They had told her to catch the bus in the market square. V. asked them for more precise directions, and they said when we get to market square the Florian Gate (Brama Florianska) should be behind us and the bus will stop on the right hand side.
From the hotel window I could see the snow falling heavily, and after breakfast we wrapped up warmly then strolled through the streets and around the Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), with the city’s big snow-ploughs trundling along the roads and the shopkeepers shifting snow from in front of their stores. Atop one of the taller buildings in the square, two workmen were shovelling snow from the roof, tossing it out over the eaves so that it fell into the street below.
Laid out in the 13th Century, this is the biggest medieval square in Europe. Like all civilised public squares it features pigeons and food vendors; in the case of the latter, little wizened-up old ladies selling pretzels. It wasn’t too cold, minus one degree celsius perhaps. We saw a miserable-looking pigeon on its last legs; I tried to feed it but it was dying and wouldn’t eat.
We’d had time for a look around, but with no sign of the bus by 9:00am we had started to wonder whether or not we were in the right place. It turned out we weren’t. We left the Market Square and walked up the Ulica Florianska (essentially, Florianska Street) which is lined with 13th and 14th Century townhouses now converted into shops; through the Florian Gate which dates from around 1300; and around the beautiful Barbakan (Barbican), a circular Gothic bastion built in the 15th Century to help protect the Florian Gate and the approach to the city. Originally connected to the Gate by a walled passage over a moat, the Barbican has brick walls nearly three metres thick and 130 loopholes (gaps through which soldiers could shoot bows, small arms, or cannons) on different levels in the turrets.
Crossing Ulica Basztowa (Basztowa Street) while dodging trams that reminded me of the ones in Amsterdam, we entered what is known as Plac Matejki (Matejki Square), once part of the ancient marketplace in a settlement called Kleparz just outside the city walls. Towards the end of the 18th Century Kleparz officially became part of Krakow, and in the 19th Century it was divided into two squares, one of which is Matejki. This square now sports an impressive group of statues, the Grunwald Monument, celebrating a great Polish military victory, so I won’t comment on the wisdom of telling visitors to the city to catch a bus in market square, meaning here.
It was just before 9:10am when we reached the bus stop and we were pretty sure we had missed the bus. V. found its timetable on a street post and I could see its last stop in Krakow listed as 9:30am at the Sheraton before it headed out of town to Auschwitz. We went back down to the road and I hailed a taxi in Basztowa Street. True to form, the cabbie was a middle-aged man with a black moustache, and he drove us to Sheraton Krakow, a five-star hotel on Powisle overlooking the Vistula (Wisla) River, by way of Wawel, which was our first look at the castle. We would be returning to the area of the castle and the river on foot late that night, but for now we alighted at the Sheraton in plenty of time to intercept the bus to Auschwitz. In fact, we were several minutes ahead of the bus so we went into the warm lobby of the Sheraton and sat down.
Booked on an easyJet flight we were delayed two hours while sitting in the aircraft because of an engineering fault. It turned out the engineers didn't have a necessary replacement part to hand, so we had to disembark and get onto another plane.
Flying into Krakow Balice at night was something of a surreal experience. There was quite a lot of snow on the runway, and only a small part of the airport was lit up. It was very cold and a bus was provided to take us the relatively short distance from the plane to the terminal. A combination of black night, white snow, and limited lighting made everything claustrophobic, as if we were on a small but sophisticated movie set.
We took a taxi to our hotel in the city. The taxi driver (like all the cabbies in Krakow) was a middle-aged man with a black moustache, and he drove aggressively at high speed through the snow-slick streets, zipping wildly around other cars and taking liberties with both man-made and natural laws.
The Polish are a fortunate race in that their women are so attractive, and we encountered the first of these on duty at the hotel desk: a very pretty young woman with long blonde hair. V. filled out the register while I picked up a little complimentary street map from the counter. The blonde woman took a different map from out of a cupboard and gave it to me with a smile, saying it was a much better one.
We went to our room then down to the bar where I ordered a double scotch. The woman behind the bar poured me two measures but the drink was actually a quadruple, so now I've learned that a Polish single is equivalent in volume to our double. We didn't feel like going out anywhere that night so we had dinner in the hotel's restaurant, and it's the first time I recall seeing a dumbwaiter (food elevator). On the way back to our room we heard "Don't Dream It's Over" by Crowded House being piped through little speakers set into the hallway ceilings. Playing on the telly was an American film called City Slickers 2 but it wasn't dubbed in the usual fashion; the original soundtrack in English was audible, with one man's voice speaking in Polish over the top of it, describing what each character was saying (as far as I could tell).
Early the next morning we were scheduled to visit Auschwitz and Auschwitz II - Birkenau.
The heart of the Red Light district was home to me and T. for three days. Our hotel was on Oudezijds Achterburgwal, amongst the old canals of Centrum.
On the journey from Schipol Airport to Centraal Station we sat upstairs on the double-decker train then took an early morning walk to our hotel along the cobbled streets of this ancient section of the city.
We had breakfast at a greasy spoon then went exploring. There were a few working girls on display behind the windows of their booths even at that hour, but generally speaking the streets were pretty sleepy and quiet. By the middle of the day unkempt men were starting to shuffle along the alleys and collect in small groups on street corners. T. was keen to drop into one of the coffee shops and I think the first one we went to was Hill Street Blues. We bought coffee and T. lit up his first joint of the trip.
It was cold of course, but not unpleasant. There had been some bicycle riders out and about in the morning, but by the afternoon there were lots of them, rushing this way and that, and I quickly learned to listen out for their little bells. We passed through Dam Square, with its WWII National Memorial, several times over the three days, and I was amazed at the sheer number of bicycles chained up in this square, many laying one against the other like rows of tipsy dominoes.
Sitting upstairs in Rick's Cafe on Oudezijds Voorburgwal, T. smoked marijuana while I drank scotch & coke (each to his own), then we had dinner after dark when the old district was really coming to life.
We thoroughly explored the Red Light district, leaving no cobblestone unturned. On the streets we were offered cocaine and ecstasy wherever we went by slovenly black men. The dealers sometimes worked in isolation, but were often clustered in little gangs on the street corners or down the narrow alleyways. In fact, my hotel window overlooked one of their prime spots. The hotel's 24-hour bar was at ground level, and my room was on the second level up, looking out into the very narrow alley. The mouth of the alley was just to the left of my window, with the canal just beyond that. Directly below me was a small gang of men doing drug deals all through the night, and slightly to their right I could see working girls in the windows of their red-lit rooms.
As far as I know the street dealing is illegal, but even though we saw cops on bicycles from time to time, the little gangs were pretty much left alone. I did see a couple of female police officers walking along late one night and I pointed them out to T. They were stocky girls and looked quite formidable with their big truncheons and handguns on hips. No doubt they could have earned a fortune moonlighting in some of the fantasy parlours.
Quite late on our second night we walked past a man who started setting off fireworks on the corner of a street beside a canal. He started with a huge pile of the smaller ones that go rat-a-tat-tat like a machine gun. Giggling away to himself he let another pile of them go, then he started setting off the skyrocket ones that shoot high up into the sky with a high-pitched whine before exploding with an almighty bang, sending bright sparks everywhere. The smell of the gunpowder from the smaller fireworks hung in the air and was quite nice, but by the time he set off his second skyrocket T. and I were wondering why the police hadn't turned up. There were hardly any people around as we were a little bit out of the tourist area, but there were tall narrow buildings all around us. We walked on and left him to it.
Even though our hotel had advertised breakfast as part of the deal, we went out to eat each morning. Their "breakfast" was laid on down in their threadbare and chilly basement and consisted of a big plate of sliced sausage meat covered with gladwrap, a coffee machine that almost tore a gear trying to cough up half a cup of something lukewarm, slices of bread to be put in the malfunctioning toaster, and a pile of those little margarine and jam packets that you need a chainsaw to open. I sat there for a minute and watched the attendant trying apologetically to get the toaster to toast the bread, then I bade him farewell and went upstairs to tell T. we were going out for a Full English.
I made a point of visiting Anne Frank House, and T. came along with me even though it hadn't been on his itinerary. I read Diary of a Young Girl many years ago, and it was amazing to visit the warehouse and offices, go through the secret door behind the bookcase, and look around the living quarters in the annex where Anne hid with her family and friends from 1942 till their betrayal and arrest in 1944. This was the highlight of my trip.
In the Piazza della Signoria I was immediately drawn to the Rape of the Sabines in the Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air gallery of sculpture. As soon as I saw it I thought it was depicting a rape, and the bronze relief panel at its base confirms this, but in fact the sculptor Giambologna had more symbolic intentions, only deciding at a later date to have it represent the rape of the Sabine women. It's a powerful piece of sculpture.
We had already walked back and forth across the Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno river early in the morning before the shops had opened, but now, with the gold and jewellery merchants having opened up the shutters, it was a different experience altogether. No one knows when a bridge was first built at this part of the river, but its history goes way back, possibly even to the Roman colony of Florentia in 59 B.C. Originally the bridge was made of wood, but it was washed away during a flood in the 12th Century and rebuilt with stone. The Arno rose up in the 14th Century and wrecked it again and it was rebuilt in 1345 to the design we see now.
In the 16th Century the private corridor over the bridge was built by Vasari for Cosimo de' Medici so he could come and go without having to mingle with the great unwashed. The corridor, which passes over the Arno and through various buildings along its way, is reportedly lined with great paintings and works of art which the public has only recently been able to have a look at. We would have liked to go through of course, but the waiting list is apparently two years long.
The day wouldn't have been complete without a good look inside the Duomo. For a modest fee we were able to go right up to the interior of the cupola (dome) and walk around a narrow viewing platform with the frescoes just above our heads. Then we started climbing, up steep steps and ladders, inbetween the cupola's doubled walls to emerge into the open air at the very top to great views of Florence. (On the way up we were, in effect, sandwiched between the outer wall of the cupola that you see from outside the Duomo, and the inner wall, on the underside of which are painted the frescoes.) It was quite a privilege to stand atop Brunelleschi's engineering masterpiece.
Before heading for the Accademia Gallery and the Master's most famous sculpture, we had to warm up with hot minestrone at Zio Gigi's restaurant a block from the Duomo.
We spent a wintry weekend in Berlin, flying into Tegel on Friday and staying the night at Hotel Orion in the West. The next morning V., my sister and I took a walk to Kurfurstendamm and the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm church and had a look around while we waited for the markets to open. For once in my life I didn't mind going into a shopping mall (nice and toasty), and we had drinks in a cafe. My sister said she felt ill so she left us to go back to the hotel.
V. and I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon exploring the streets and shops, and looking around the outdoor Christmas market. I sampled the famous Gluhwein several times, my favourite being the one sold by M. & B. Roden; their mulled wine was richer and hotter than others I tried.
That evening we had dinner at the Hotel Mondial restaurant along the Kurfurstendamm.
The following day was much more active, and it began at Zoo Station which takes its name from the nearby Zoological Gardens. We took the S-Bahn overland train with its good views of the city to the old Jewish sector and started a half-day historical walking tour. We visited and learned about too many amazing places and their histories to list here, but highlights would include: walking on an icy bridge over the River Spree; the architecture of Museum Island in the centre of the city; Berlin's singular memorial to victims of war at the Neue Wache; an open-air rink where children were ice-skating with Lennon & Ono's sanctimonious Christmas song blaring through loudspeakers; the Bebel Platz memorial at the site of the Nazi book-burnings, a slightly opaque window set in the ground through which we could see empty subterranean bookshelves; Checkpoint Charlie, the former border crossing between East and West; the notorious "death strip" and the remains of the Berlin Wall; the carpark on top of the bunker where Hitler died; the controversial Holocaust memorial by an American architect that opened this year; the Brandenburg Gate in Pariser Platz and the famous Reichstag (parliament building); Unter den Linden and the Victory Column.
There was much more besides...
You could almost be forgiven for thinking the rich history of this city is composed of tragic human conflicts and little else, but it depends on how you look at things.
Finishing the tour mid-afternoon, we retired to il Punto right across the road from the Reichstag and warmed up with Gluhwein, then caught a bus back to the Kurfurstendamm.
As EnidW said, Florence can be (and I quote) "a bit of a sensory overload". There are many amazing things packed into a small area, but after being there for a little while and doing some exploring, it all starts to seem quite manageable.
Our day started at the Piazza della Repubblica, the public square that was traditionally the heart of medieval Florence, and which became the centre for merchants and their trading. Around this was the part of town known as the Jewish quarter or the "Ghetto," and which got itself into such a sorry state they demolished the whole slum and put up an inscription to celebrate its destruction. I wrote down the inscription: L' ANTICO CENTRO DELLA CITTA DA SECOLARE SQUALLORE A VITA NUOVA RESTITUITO, which means something along the lines of: from squalor the ancient centre of the city has been given a new lease of life.
It was interesting to contrast an asymmetrical, slapdash medieval building with a Renaissance palace like the Palazzo Strozzi. The frontage of this palace was pleasing to the eye, and we also had a look inside and stood at the central courtyard which was a feature of this sort of rich family home. Back in its heyday the courtyard would have been a private outdoor space with maybe fountains and greenery, although when we saw it some workmen were making a mess. Across the street and a little further down was another, smaller Strozzi home which they used to house guests who had come for a visit. In the front of this second home, and looking for all the world like a cat door (cat-flap), was a hole in the wall through which the occupants of the house would push their leftover food into the street after dinner so the poorer people could have something to eat. We also learned they often used to give wine out as well, in this same manner.
The main point of interest for me in the Church of Santa Trinita was seeing and hearing about the frescoes, including a very famous one whose image I'd seen many times in books. This was Adoration of the Shepherds by Ghirlandaio which is a feature of the Sassetti Chapel, one of the beautifully decorated alcoves inside the church. I already knew how frescoes such as these were created, but it's an entirely different experience to talk about them while they're right in front of you rather than looking at pictures in books.
The next ancient church we visited was Orsanmichele, originally a granary and grain market built in the 13th Century on the site of the San Michele monastery's garden. Somehow or other a building for storing grain became the focal point for religious devotion, and in the 14th Century the open arches were closed up with cement so it could be used as a church. This didn't mean it was no longer a granary, however! Space in Florence being at a premium, the grain was now stored in the upper floors, dragged upwards by ropes and pulleys, and returned to ground level when it was needed by being poured through vertical conduits in the pilasters (support columns). V. and I were lucky to be able to walk around inside Orsanmichele because it has been closed to the public for several years and had just been re-opened in the last week or so.
I had an espresso in a cafe at the corner of Piazza della Signoria.
Last night on the way home from work I took a seat in the Tube station so I could read my newspaper while waiting for the train. On the seat beside me there happened to be a book. I took it home. On the front of the book there is a sticker. The sticker says:
I'm not lost!
Please pick me up,
read me, and help
me with my journey!
There is another sticker on the inside front cover. This sticker says:
I'm a very special book.
You see, I'm traveling around
the world, making new friends
wherever I go. I hope I've found
another friend in you!
and write a brief journal entry
with my BCID number (below).
Then keep my dream alive:
READ and RELEASE ME!
Below this is a 10-digit number and the code name of the person who left the book on the seat in the Underground.
Flying out of Stansted around the middle of the day, we arrived in Pisa at 3:30pm. The bus ride to Florence took 70 minutes, and by the time we got there it was pretty dark. We checked into the Hotel Aldini right on the corner of the Duomo piazza (square), and from our room I could see the campanile (bell tower) and cupola (dome) of the cathedral. We only went for a short walk that evening and I'll always remember my first look up at the Duomo; I'm glad I first saw it at night. We had dinner at "Buca S. Giovanni" on the other side of the piazza, so-named for the Bapistery of San Giovanni I suppose. The restaurants open at seven and that's almost a cause for distress in a person who likes his first aperitif around five. This restaurant was downstairs below street level and seemed to be intended more for the locals and friends of the proprietor than tourists. The food was passable but we had a good waiter, a grey-haired man of around sixty, who made us welcome and brought me a beer promptly each time I asked for one.
V. put out some food on a plate for our resident grey squirrel and we watched from the upstairs window as it picked up and examined various nuts and seeds, nibbling at some and taking others away to bury in the lawn. It took some of the food quite far afield to stash in the backyards of our neighbours. It would do this quite quickly before bounding back to the plate to see what other morsels were on offer.
Before very long, and while the first squirrel was a small distance away burying something, another squirrel started nosing around the lawn and approached the plate almost right away. (Grey squirrels have a keen sense of smell.) The first squirrel charged over and chased the newcomer away from the plate. Naturally enough the interloper gave the plate another try, and was chased away even more aggressively. In fact, the first squirrel made a decided effort to run the newcomer right out of the backyard altogether!
If this seems a little mean, it was made worse by the fact that the first squirrel was very plump and looked strong and robust, whereas the other one was small and kind of thin. The thin one was no coward, however, and was determined to stay in our yard -- but it was forced to sit nearby and watch as the fat one stayed beside the plate and ate to its heart's content. Once or twice fatty would stray from the vicinity of the plate to bury something, then skinny would make his move, but fatty had eyes in the back of his head and would tear back to chase skinny away once more.
V. was having none of this and marched downstairs to get another plate which she took out onto the lawn. Fatty and skinny scattered; even fatty was no match for V. Now we watched from upstairs again, with half the food on one plate and half on the other, as the two squirrels returned. The plates seemed to be so far apart that we figured skinny couldn't fail to get something to eat, but now fatty was even more determined and wouldn't let skinny near either plate.
Things got uglier still when a scuffle broke out between the two of them and one of the plates was upset and the food spilled onto the lawn.
Ultimately, however, skinny missed out entirely.
We took a flight on the London Eye. Can the experience really be called a "flight" if you're connected to the Earth the whole time? -- this is how British Airways refers to the experience anyway.
The Eye really is an absolutely stunning piece of engineering. Anyone terrified of heights could just stroll alongside the Thames to admire it from the ground. The Eye was conceived and designed by two London architects (husband and wife) who then went into partnership with British Airways and other companies to get it built.
It looks to me like the hybrid of a giant ferris wheel and the Queenstown gondola. The passenger capsules, however, are not dangling down under the influence of gravity, but are rotating within circular rings that remain on the outside of the giant rim. This gives the London Eye a very distinctive (and attractive) profile. There are 32 numbered capsules with each one able to hold 25 passengers. The irrational among us will be relieved to hear there is no capsule number 13; it has been missed out and replaced by a capsule numbered 33, just in case.
From a distance, the giant wheel looks as if it's rotating very slowly, but right up close it seemed kind of fast to us. In fact, it's rotating at 0.26 metres per second. Each passenger capsule, within its mounting ring, is rotating at the same speed as the wheel, only in the opposite direction, ensuring the capsule floor is always level.
Our flight took 30 minutes, and at the highest point we were 135 metres above London with a view of 360 degrees. There wasn't much we couldn't see from up there, but the notable landmarks and places that interested me included: the BT Tower, Cleopatra's Needle, and Waterloo Bridge towards the north; St Paul's and the Gherkin to the east; the Treasury, Ministry of Defence, Downing Street, St James Park, Buckingham Palace, and Nelson's Column towards the west; MI6 and MI5 headquarters, Westminster Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament with Big Ben to the south.
It's possible to see 40 kilometres in any direction from the highest point, but, despite us having a sunny day with blue sky, the very distant parts of the city were partly obscured by some grey winter smog.