A short video of our road trip in Iceland
In September my long awaited trip (it had been 3 years since my last visit!) home to Halifax, Nova Scotia arrived. For this trip I was happy to see Iceland Air were flying to Halifax and they also had the best price (£400 round trip). I’d wanted for many years to visit Iceland and since they allow a stopover for free Nathan and I decided to make the most of it. We planned a 2 night stopover on the way to Canada giving us just over 2 days to explore.
This post is part 1 of 3, about exploring Reykjavik where we were based and spent most of our time eating and so this post will be very food orientated. Part 2 will be about the day long road trip and part 3 will be about the Blue Lagoon.
Arrival into Iceland (Keflavík International)
After a short 3 hour flight from London we arrived into the beautiful Keflavík International airport, headed to pick up our rental car and hit the road to the capital Reykjavik. Reykjavik about an hour drive from the airport and what a drive it was. The landscape of Iceland can be very barren and due to the volcanic activity is black making it look much like another planet. So we had barren landscape on one side of the car and the seaside and occasional clusters of houses huddled together on the other. A stunning start.
Once we found our hotel (Radisson Blu 1919 Hotel ) and checked in we headed over to the Baejarins Beztu Pylsur hotdog stand we’d read so much about. We were glad it was so close to the hotel (across the road) because we were pretty hungry. The hotdogs were very satisfactory and at £3 a hotdog our fears of how expensive Iceland was going to be were eased. The hotdog stand lived up to its reputation in popularity, we could see it from our room and I saw people at the stand from first thing in the morning until late into the night.
After filling up on hot dogs we went for a wander around Reykjavik’s downtown, making sure to layer up because it was a bit chilly (around 12C) and with the wind from the harbour it was brisk. The downtown area is very manageable by foot and has many lovely shops, restaurants and bars to check out. Being a knitter I really loved the knitwear and wool offerings but restrained from buying more than a few skeins of yarn due to our upcoming trip to Australia. Next time!
After the sun went down and the temperature dropped some more we headed to the Laundromat restaurant, a cosy restaurant with good food (I recommend the nachos). This restaurant like most all of the cafes and restaurants in Reykjavik had jugs of water and cups for their patrons. I mention it because Iceland has THE BEST water in the world (and I have tasted a fair few countrys’ water). It was thirst quenching, refreshing and tasted like absolutely nothing, the way water should.
We learned a little too late that alcohol (like in Canada) is only sold in special liquor stores with the exception of light beer. We did manage to buy an Icelandic drink at duty-free in the airport, it’s called Brennivín, or (as we were told after we paid) black death and is 80 proof. It’s currently hidden away at my father’s cottage in the secret stash awaiting it’s first victim.
I was happy, being the coffee snobs I am, to find that Reykjavik has a decent coffee scene and I was able to get some good coffee before hitting the road for our road trip.
Dinner Time at Noodle Station
On the second day after our day long road trip we arrived back into Reykjavik hungry and took a walk to see what we could find. We came across Noodle Station a pretty nondescript looking place but it was heaving with what appeared to be locals (always a good sign) so we dove into the chaos. At about £6 a portion for a huge bowl of hot noodles we thought we were on to something. I wrangled some seats while Nathan put in the order. For reference, from someone who likes their food with a kick, there’s no need to order extra spice it was very spicy as is.
The bowl of noodles was large, very filling, really tasty and did I mention spicy. We left Noodle Station and went for a wander to try and walk off our Noodle babies feeling smug that we found a great bargain in what was supposed to be an expensive place to travel.
Bakery – Sandholt Bakery and Coffee House
In our first wander around Reykjavik’s downtown we came across the Sandholt Bakery and Coffee House. After drooling over the yummy goods on offer in the window we made a mental note of where it was located and went back the next two mornings for breakfast. Our first visit was for take away including an amazing blueberry tart of gooey goodness and a cookie meets cake mashup that was oh so good. Luckily later that day we hiked up about 500 steps to the top of a waterfall and managed to burn it all off.
The second visit was for as an eat in breakfast in. I had the chance to try their fresh jam, yummy butter and Nathan swears he had the best granola cereal he has ever had. The prices were great (the bakery takeaway was a bargain) especially for the quality of the food on offer.
In the end, our fears of Reykjavik being expensive were unfounded. I’m sure you could empty your pockets faster than we did if you tried. However, we were able to stumble upon good food at reasonable prices with very little effort and we had a great time.
If I’d been told I would travel to Poland 3 times in just over a year I wouldn’t have believed it. Poland while a place I was interested in visiting, it was a part of Europe after all and I love travelling Europe, but travelling to the same country 3 times in such a short span of time isn’t my usual style, so little time so much still to see after all.
However, when I found myself with some spare time but not a lot of spare cash I went online to see where I could go for a cheap weekend away. Ryanair came up with a £20 round trip fare to Warsaw and after checking things out it seemed once there my pounds would go far – sold. So even though it was December off I went to Warsaw (you can read about it in this blog post). I really enjoyed my time in Warsaw and found the Polish people, despite such a tragic history of betrayal and conflict, were very welcoming.
The next thing that rocketed Poland to the top of my list was my sister and her partner’s decision to base themselves in Poland for 10 months of a year-long sabbatical. This made logistical sense for them as the cost of living was low (for Europe) so their Canadian dollars would go further and it was a central location for exploring. As well her partner Peter was born in Poland making the visa situation easier and the language barrier less of a hurdle.
If you would like to read more about how 30 somethings can take a year off travelling and what life as a Canadian in Poland on a temporary basis is like, check out my sister’s blog Burrito West. She is now back in Canada trying to adjust to 40 hours of work getting in the way of what you really want to do.
The town th ey choose, Wrocław, which we lovingly called Rock Claw in private but thereal pronunciation is vrots-wahf. It’s located in the south-west of Poland and is the 4th largest city with a population of over 600 000. The university has a strong presence and makes the city a young lively place (one of the reasons Lisa and Peter chose it).
So after I finished my course at Makers Academy off I went to Wroclaw. When I landed I found myself in a shiny new modern airport with easy public transport to the city centre. On the way in I felt it was similar to Warsaw but could also see there was a lot of modernisation and building going on. Next came the large apartment blocks found in most cities in this area of Europe, then the city centre with the typical old town square which my sister conveniently had her flat located off of.
My first impressions of Wroclaw were that this was a place which those in Poland came to visit but isn’t as tourist-laden as Krakow, although due to the direct flights with Ryanair from England there was your occasional bachelor/stag party on the weekend stumbling through the square.
My visit to Poland this time around also came with a translator, Peter, which made things easier and more interesting (when he translates you need to keep on your toes to catch him out when he is taking you for a ride). My sister found even learning the basics of Polish to get by with extremely difficult so Peter’s Polish skills were much appreciated as there is less English spoken here than in Warsaw. As well he could explain some of the customs, traditions and cultural differences to us, like the Polish’s tendency to ignore queues and step up to the front of the line.
This trip was a brief one as I was job hunting and needed to get back to London ASAP. My next visit to Wroclaw was in February and this time Nathan joined me. We were trying to squeeze one last trip in a couple weeks before Lisa and Peter left Europe. I was a bit worried about how Nathan would handle the cold but in the end it was warmer and sunnier in Wroclaw than London that weekend.
So what is there to do and see in Wroclaw? There are a lot of malls, a surprising amount of them (with extremely nice washroom facilities) no sign of the old Soviet rule in this area of life. As well there are lovely boutiques around the Old Town Square as one would expect. On my first visit, there was also a summertime version of the Christmas Market on the shopping area leading up to the square.
Eating out was as cheap, if not cheaper than in Warsaw. We dined at the best restaurant in Wroclaw and had a whole room to ourselves. This was because that they still allow smoking inside and I have an extreme sensitivity to it (call it allergic reaction if you like but it’s serious stuff). So when we asked for a nonsmoking table and they sat us in the same room as a smoker Peter had to explain to the waiter that this wouldn’t suffice and was there another area, to which we found ourselves in our own private room. They’d opened up the upstairs for us, now that’s hospitality. The meal at this restaurant for 2 of us with starters, mains and drinks, total: £40 – bargain.
When in Wroclaw gnome hunting is a must, there are 300 of the little guys all over the city. They are a reference to the symbol of the Orange Alternative, a communist-era dissident group in the 80’s that used humour and satire as a weapon. They are now sponsored by businesses and can usually be found outside of the business which sponsored the gnome. You never know where you will stumble upon the next gnome and the do show up in some surprising places (like on the stairs of a church). They’re a great amusement and add a sense of fun to the city. There is a Gnome map but I enjoyed the surprise of finding them myself.
Other amusements we enjoyed were bowling and a movie (without the London price tag but the usual price gouging at the food stands). We chose one that wasn’t dubbed so it was the original soundtrack in English with subtitles the only thing to remind you that you were in Poland. We went to a fire art festival, hung out at Lisa and Peter’s local coffee shop the lovely Vinyl Cafe (by local I mean at the bottom of their building) a great place to relax.
On my first visit Lisa and Peter took me to the Panorama of the Battle of Racławice, a huge panoramic painting which is housed in it’s own 1960’s brutalism-inspired cylindrical building due to it’s size, a massive 15m high 114m around. It took 7 artists and 750kg of paint (in 1794) 9 months to create the painting. The tour of the panorama lasts 30 minutes and with the headset given you can learn the history of the scene depicted in the painting and why the painting is so significant to the Polish people and culture.
Interestingly around the city there are photos of what an area looked like after World War II. It’s amazing that despite the incredible devastation the city rebuilt and is thriving today with major international companies setting up shop such as Volvo, Google, Siemens, Cadbury, IBM and Microsoft. I have always found the resilience of European cities after World War II fascinating. So don’t be fooled by the Old Town Square the buildings aren’t really that old but very good copies of the originals built some decades ago.
We spent some time wandering the halls of the University of Wroclaw which has areas open to tourists. The most popular being the Aula Leopoldinum. A stunning Baroque interior, embellished with elaborate stucco work, sculptures, paintings and ceiling fresco, if Kim Kardashian was around when it was completed in 1732 I think she would have approved, they didn’t hold back in this room which is now used for important University ceremonies.
Also worth checking out at the University is the Mathematics Tower. On the way up you will pass by the 17th Meridian line marked on the floor, at the top you will be rewarded with a panoramic view of the city from the terrace of the tower. Unfortunately the day I was there it was a little too windy and cold to linger. After exploring the University be sure to grab something to eat at the Milk Bar (blog post about it here) and enjoy the floor to ceiling view of the beautiful University building.
Of course, time in Poland wouldn’t be complete without beer, which really is cheaper than water in some places! As an ale lover I was surprised to find some darker beers that were to my liking.
So now that Lisa and Peter are back in Canada I suspect it may be a while before I’m back in Poland again but I look forward to my next visit and exploring another area of this interesting and underrated country.
This is Part 2 of West Country Christmas, you can find Part 1 here.
After Christmas the four of us hit the road and headed to Cornwall. We had 2 nights booked at an Inn above a pub giving Lisa and Peter the full British experience. After finding our accommodation in the lovely small village of Mullion (lets face it most villages in Cornwall are small and lovely) we headed to St Ives to spend the afternoon exploring the lanes and beaches there.
After we met up met up with some of my friends for Indian, my sister takes any chance she can to have spicy food because when she is back in Poland where she’s been based for the past year her options are limited. This particular Indian in Hayle is also one of my favorites. After dinner we headed back to our Inn/Pub not knowing what to expect because when we checked in they warned us there was a live band that night. When we approached the pub it was confirmed, there was live music and what seemed to be the whole village inside. As we were tired we decided to relax in our rooms and were relieved to find out the sound didn’t travel well but shortly after lights out I realized there might be little sleep that night due to the howling wind coming off the water just half a mile away which didn’t let up all night. In morning to our relief (and our sightseeing plans) the wind had calmed down quite a bit.
After breakfast we headed down to Mullion Cove to see the sea. From the parking lot (which is at least 600m back from the harbour and out of site of the water) we could fee the sea spray on our faces. We soon realized though the wind had calmed down a lot it was still quite windy by the water and the ocean swell was still very dramatic. We stood and admired the beauty and power of the sea and took a few photos between wiping sea spray from our lenses. All four of us had grown up on the ocean and we all have a great respect for both the beauty and danger of the ocean so we kept our distance while watching the waves crash over the barrier built to protect the inner harbour.
After we had our fill of the rough seas off we went for the grand tour of the deepest depths of Cornwall, an area I’ve been exploring since 2000 and have gotten to know well. Up first was a quick stop to see St Michael’s Mount which when the tide is out can be reached across a cobbled stone pathway. We then headed to the nearby Madron Wishing Well which is a tree over a small pond in which people tie bits of cloth as an offering for their wishes. A little further along the path are remains of a Celtic chapel with an altar and a babbling brook which due to all the rainfall had turned the chappel into a bit of a lake.
After our ramble we headed down the road to see Quyote Layton a Celtic burial chamber found in a field beside the road.
The next stop on the whirlwind tour was the Minack Theatre near Lands End (the most westerly point in England) and overlooks one of the most beautiful beaches in Cornwall, Porthcurno. The Minack Theatre is an open air theatre built into the cliff side by a woman in the 1930’s. As the seating of the theater is very steep and it can be windy on a nice summer day I wasn’t sure what we conditions would be like on a such a blustery day. We were in luck it was open. When I asked if the wind ever closed the theatre, the woman looked at me as if I was mad. Apparently, there is no such thing as too windy at the Minack.
Our last stop before heading back to the Inn was Mousehole to see the famous Mousehole Harbour Christmas lights which were celebrating their 50th year. We got there just in time go get a spot in the parking lot, grab some mulled wine and find a nice spot to view the switching on of the lights. Mousehole is a pretty place, a fishing village just on the outskirts of Penzance which is popular with tourists in summer and in the winter the Christmas lights draw in the crowds.
After admiring the effect from the village and going down to the harbour beach for a different vantage we headed back to the car and back to our inn for a dinner, a pint (or 2) of ale in the nice warm pub below before resting up for the long journey back to London the next day.
I didn’t get my pint of Otter ale this time around but it’s always lovely to visit the west country, eat lots of clotted cream, get out into the open, breathe the fresh air and be near the ocean.
The weather in the UK has been pretty dramatic the past few weeks especially in the West Country where I spent the Christmas holidays in the counties of Devon and Cornwall and experienced it first hand. With me on this trip was Nathan, my sister Lisa and her partner Peter who were visiting for Christmas. This was the first Christmas my sister and I have had together in many many years. We haven’t lived in the same time zone let alone the same country or even the same continent for a very long time, so we are trying to make the most of their being based in Poland for the better part of a year.
On their visit to England for Christmas I wanted to show them as much as possible of the countryside while outside London. On our first day out exploring in Devon we made an attempt to see Totnes and Salcombe. This was aborted after getting drenched within 10 seconds of stepping out of the car. On the way back home (Nathan’s parents house in Dawlish) we had even to reroute due to a road being blocked (we aren’t sure if it was flooding or a tree down from the wind). However we were successful in making a visit to the Buckfast Abby shop which sells items made in convents and abbeys around Europe, I picked up a bottle of Buckfast, a lovely beeswax candle and some lip and moisturising balm.
Our next adventure out was on Christmas eve started off well with clear sky. We headed to Dartmoor and climbed Haytor. It was a windy and a little nippy but we were rewarded with the fantastic view across the countryside.
Then it was off to find some Dartmoor ponies which was a success. They were finding shelter from the wind and some food in the bushes.
We decided to ramble along and enjoy the scenery before heading to lunch. However we came upon a bit of road that was flooded and Nathan felt the car lose traction where the road seemed to be covered in mud, then as steam started rising from the car he quickly backed out. We decided the puddle was deeper that it looked and we should retreat, rather than risk Nathan’s parents car getting ruined and needing rescue on Christmas eve. This meant backing up down a country lane one car wide for about 1/2 mile to find a spot wide enough to turn. However while doing this we came upon another car, a Land Rover, coming down the lane, and Nathan had to drive back up to the flooded bit where it was wider to let them pass. Which she did taking on the flooded bit of road as if it was a puddle a couple of inches deep, blatantly this is the type of thing Land Rovers are built for, Minis not so much.
We decided Nathan had earned a break from driving and headed to a tiny village in Dartmoor called Wycombe for lunch in the lovely pub called The Old Inn. Which also happens to be the same pub Nathan took me on our first date!
After lunch we headed back to Dawlish where Nathan’s parents live and went down to the arcade. We played some games and Nathan, as is tradition, didn’t win me a teddy. Then it was a stop off for a pint before heading back to relax by the fire with some of the wine we bought on our trip to Tuscany in October.
Stay tuned for part 2 – Cornwall, in the mean while feel free to read my sisters take of Christmas in England on her blog here.
As a tourist we’ve all been there, hungry in an unfamiliar place. Unsure where to turn you end up in a tourist trap charing too much for mediocre food. With a little research before your trip you can arm yourself with options at your destination to help avoid the frustration and let down.
On a recent trip to Florence my sister researched some options and mapped them out on a paper map of the city making sure no matter what part of town we were in we would be a short walk away from a decent option including Brac a Lonely Planet recommondation in Florence. This little restaurant proves gems can be found in unlikely places.
Through a bar area, on through a courtyard (a great place to relax with a drink)….
We found ourselves in this lovely bookstore come restaurant with the friendliest most accommodating staff in Italy.
We were served some very tasty, fresh, flavourful and reasonably priced food. Below you can see my sisters curry pasta dish. Brac is a vegetarian restaurant, none of us are vegetarians but there were great options on the menu and no one was disappointed or hungry when we finished. The small restaurant was full of locals on their lunch, it was a lovely atmosphere, relaxing with tables that are well spaced (by European standards). If you should get there and have to wait for a table as we did (only 15 minutes) it is well worth it.
All our restaurant meals in Tuscany weren’t so memorable, in fact we even got served microwaved pasta in at least one restaurant. At Brac in Florence we had such a great experience and it made life so much easier having a place nearby when we were hungry. I’m going to make sure to make more of an effort and take on my sister’s approach of mapping out some options, especially when travelling in bigger or more touristy areas.
Some apps and sites that are great for researching restaurants:
Triptease – travel curation site, a great site to collect trip ideas with some great insider tips
Lonely Planet – Not only can you check out their restaurant recommendations but you can post on their forum Thorn Tree asking for recommendations.
Finally be sure to ask those you know for recommendations as well as those on Facebook and Twitter. Even better if you know a local ask them, my best travel food recommendations in Rome came from my friend Linda the owner of the Beehive accommodation in Rome.
My sister and her partner are on a year-long sabbatical and have based themselves in Wroclaw, Poland. When visiting I had my second bar mleczny or “Milk Bar” experience. This is a Polish cafeteria style place that was popular during communism as the food was subsidised. The few that are still around are popular with students and seniors. This time around at Bazylia it was buffet self-serve, pay by the weight service. We came to refer to Bazylia as the posh Milk Bar as it is really quite nice and has a good variety of (Polish) food options. The key is to show up an hour before close when it all goes for 50% off. I was there about an hour and a half before close (when it is 25%) and they were still topping up the food). I had a plate of food and a bottle of Lipton Ice Tea for the equivalent of £2.50, about half of that was the cost of my drink so you really can’t go wrong especially if you like perogies.
Here are my sister and Peter chowing down. Bazylia is located at the University of Wroclaw and has great views of the old university buildings.
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Part of the fun of travel is the anticipation. Anticipation of great food, sites, icons and adventure to be experienced along the way. Some trips I’ve been on I haven’t had any or have had very low expectations. It’s those trips that I’m usually pleasantly surprised. Some trips there are huge expectations, hard to live up to in fact. These trips are usually the ones that fall a bit flat. I always enjoy travelling and exploring but that flat feeling when it isn’t going quite right is frustrating.
My recent trip to Paris for NYE is an example of a trip which felt flat. NYE the previous year in Amsterdam was such fun Nathan and I decided to travel again this year. I’d been to Paris before so there wouldn’t be the pressure of feeling like there was too much to see, making it a good pick for a relaxing NYE getaway.
Another reason Paris was a great choice, the easy journey on the Eurostar avoiding the hassle of airport and airline travel, city centre to city centre in a few hours with customs pre-cleared before boarding the train. I love the Eurostar. There is no official celebration in Paris on New Year’s Eve, no fireworks or anything like that. This is fine with me because standing out in a crowd for hours in the cold isn’t my thing. Finding a nice place for dinner and with a few drinks after in the small cosy hotel bar overlooking the Eiffel tower, that’s more like it.
So what went wrong? Nothing really. I was excited to be going back to Paris, this time with the one I love, eat great food, wander the streets, see some beautiful paintings and relax. We had better than expected weather for most of our time there, enjoying walks in the sun along the Sine. Our hotel had a great location, not far from the Eiffel tower, an iconic travel symbol that for me lives up to all expectations. I could easily sit and look at it for hours and it is almost impossible to take a bad photo of it.
Our first night there we happened upon a friendly neighbourhood bistro near the hotel and had a fantastic meal including the most incredible steak tartar. After dinner, we went for a stroll and were overlooking the Eiffel tower from the look off at the Trocadéro esplanade at 11pm when it started twinkling, beautiful. A magic moment of travel when things just fall into place, no planning needed. There was lovely cheap (I mean £2 pound a bottle cheap) red wine in the shops. We came across a Christmas market with a Canadian stall selling Beaver Tails (a yummy pastry) and poutine with real curds, a nice surprise. So lots of great moments and good memories.
However due to the above mentioned excitement over the trip combined with a morning train that meant I didn’t sleep well the night before (I always fear oversleeping). The first night in the hotel the room was too warm to sleep finally around 2am I opened the window, at 6am a loud garbage truck outside woke me. So during the trip I had a haze one gets after 2 nights of poor sleep, followed by the 3rd night which saw me up with an upset tummy making the last day in Paris really hard work (I know your hearts all bleed for me).
There were also huge lines everywhere so we didn’t get into any of the museums or art galleries, which left us with unexpected chunks of time and no real plan. The hotel we were in had a pool but N forgot his swim trunks. Going to the shops on the Champs-Élysées to try to find him something to swim in seemed like a good idea until we got stuck in the horrendous crowds of shoppers. When we went to Sacré-Cœur there were aggressive men at the bottom of the steps selling bracelets, their selling technique was to put it on you (did I mention I don’t like strangers in my personal space let alone grabbing me), oh and they come at you in a
gang group (not a great sales tactic).
It turns out Paris is one if the top 5 places in the world to spend NYE, this might explain why a lot Parisians head for the Alps for NYE. I certainly don’t recall tourists overrunning the city in the same way on my first visit which was not on a bank holiday. I think that what it comes down to is I live in a big city so when I travel I prefer the ease and crowd free space a smaller less busy city has to offer. Perhaps somewhere small in Belgium for NYE 2013?
While in Warsaw I spent my last day with Adventure Warsaw Tours Off the Beaten Track tour. This is not your average city tour, it is a tour of Warsaw in a Nysa 522 the former soviet militia van. The Nysa manufactured from 1958 -1994 with no changes or deviation from the original design during this time. I’m not sure how the police ever caught anyone in this van after the 60’s. This tour was a perfect way to spend my last day in Warsaw. I’d already wandered around the main shopping areas, the Old Town and other obvious parts of Warsaw that a tourist should see (and then some). This tour of Warsaw explores further afield and into doorways and alleyways that one not knowing a city or the langue wouldn’t likely poke their nose in.
For this, we were well rewarded. Our guide Raphael has an obvious passion for Warsaw and a deep respect for all this city has endured during the last 100 years. We were taken to sections of Warsaw still left standing after the destruction of World War II and the Soviet occupation. These bits of Warsaw are in various states of repair and restoration because things such as ownership are still being untangled to this day and it’s a complicated business.
The first stop was a small park surrounded by examples of the mixture of architecture and influence on Warsaw from the past 150 years or so. You can see communist apartment blocks and Palace of Culture and Science, the Church of All Saints built the late 1800’s, modern skyscrapers and a some of the few buildings which remain standing after the Warsaw Ghetto was demolished along with most of Warsaw by the Nazis after the Warsaw uprising as seen in the below photo.
The building on the left in the above photo (which hasn’t yet been renovated) has a door with a small hole you can look through. When peering through this hole I was surprised to see what looked like a little boy. Upon a second look after recovering from the feeling of having looked into the past I realised it was a statue of a man on his knees. I have since found out that this is a new art installation and is causing a bit of controversy as it is a statue of Hitler praying. As this building is due to be renovated in 2013 I’m not sure how long the statue will be there, however Hitler or not it does cause a reaction and makes one think of those that may have lived in the building and in the Ghetto and endured so much.
The next stop on our tour of Warsaw was an area of town that one could see why in the past Warsaw was referred to as the Paris of the north. Our group was lucky enough to pass by a building at the right moment when some men were leaving who were not in a hurry, and they allowed us in to have a look. This beautiful building had recently been fully restored to its former glory with marble stairs, crystal fronted mailboxes and all. It was quite the contrast to the other buildings we had seen with crumbling façades revealing the brickwork (normally hidden by plaster and embellishments), cracked windows, bullet holes, paint peeling (in that charming European way) and dark staircases light only by the odd window.
Raphael also showed us a forgotten Palace, the Rusiecki Palace built during the early 1900’s which is hidden behind the building in the above photo at Ulica Lwowska 13a. It was at one time a hospital for the rebels in of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Luckily the palace and this street survived intact both the demolition of Warsaw after the Uprising in 1944 as well as the and communist occupation.
The last part of the tour saw us in Praga. A neighbourhood across the river from the Old Town, this was the least damaged part of the city. Praga is on the east bank side of the River Vistula, once a dangerous area home to the poorest of the poor, it is now an area of regeneration. Artists started moving in after the end of Communism in 1989 making the former factory buildings their home. Café’s and bars now dot the area along with new developments including the redevelopment of an old Vodka Factory, with the new East/West metro line being built through this neighbourhood Praga is sure to become an even more popular place to be.
It was in Praga that we got to experience the Polish way of life past and present. We had lunch at a Milkbar a communist institution which was where one could get a decent meal for cheap (subsidised in the past by the government). Only a few survive today, popular with students and seniors. Our lunch was a sampling of traditional Polish food on offer including beetroot soup, (very warming but tasted a little too much like ketchup to me) perogies, a type of sauerkraut with sausages and for dessert potato pancakes sprinkled with sugar. All in all a good hearty meal perfect for a cold winters day.
After lunch we took a walk around Praga including the Bazar Różyckiego which was the heart of the black market of Warsaw during the communist days selling things like firearms, Levis and other coveted western goods. Today it is a quiet market dying a slow death full of old timers selling their wears from wedding dresses, to crystal, to cheap underwear. It’s obvious that they have all known each other for many years as you watch them chat among themselves. Raphael has built up a rapport with them to make sure he can bring us tourists through with as little suspicion as possible.
Each block of flats in Praga has a courtyard with a very well looked after statue of the Virgin Mary looked after by the building’s residence, the contrast of the colourful well cared for statues among the old crumbling buildings is quite stark.
Praga has a similar feeling of parts of Berlin and East London, one could get a feeling of what these areas were like 10 – 15 years ago. It is an area where creative and working class exist together, not quite mixing but neighbourly all the same. In a few years it will be the trendy place to be and rents will be sure to soar.
After showing us around and telling us about the history of the Praga we found ourselves in one of the cosy bohemian bars being served shots of cherry vodka just what we needed to warm us from head to toe and a good place to reflect on all that we had just seen.
Sadly this was the end of the Off the Beaten Track tour of Warsaw and soon I found myself in the Old Town for one last wander wishing I had just a little more time to explore more of this fascinating city. I will definitely be back again to see Warsaw in the warmer months and learn more about this underrated European city.
The controversial praying Hitler statue can be found here: Próżna, Śródmieście Warszawa.
The hidden Palace is located at: Ulica Lwowska 13a
We drank Vodka at the cosy W Oparach Absurdu bar located at Ząbkowska 6.
For more information on Praga head to: http://www.warszawskapraga.pl/en/
Wandering around Berlin with so much to take in and see one could be forgiven for not looking down. When on a walking tour of Berlin these stumbling stones, which are little plaques among the cobbles of the sidewalk, were pointed out to us. Each 10cm square brass stone representing a victim of the Holocaust. These stumbling stones are found outside the last place of residence of those named on them along with their date of birth, date of deportation where and they died.
They are the work of artist Guenther Demnig which started as an art project in the 90’s. Since the first blocks were laid, 30 000 have been laid in various cities across Germany. The people whose names appear on the stumbling stones are researched and paid for (120EUR each) by local groups and individuals. Demning then makes and installs the bricks with help from two apprentices. This kind of memorial is more personal, he says, because it commemorates where the terror began, likely with a Gestapo or SS raid on a victim’s apartment.
There are critics of the Stumbling Stones project who object to having mini tombs outside their door and others who say it is disrespectful to those who’s names are being trampled on a daily basis. I think that it is a good way to remember that each of the 6 million people murdered during the Holocaust were people who had their lives were turned upside down and then were murdered. There is something about seeing those little blocks in an ordinary neighbourhood that really brings that home more than a giant memorial does. If I had a stumbling stone outside my front door I would take it as a reminder how lucky I was to have a warm home, food, rights and freedoms which we take for granted and to not have to fear for my life daily.
Next time you are in Germany (or Hungary, Czech Republic, Italy, The Netherlands, and Norway be sure to keep your eyes on the ground for a truly special memorial.