A Travellerspoint blog

Poland & Slovakia

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The act of exchanging one currency for another should be fairly straightforward. Prior to my trip to Norway, I had ordered euros to my office; unfortunately Norwegians use Norwegian Kroner. Apparently they've used Kroner for a while now too, which was slightly embarrassing.

This time around, I attempted to exchange euros for "the Slovakian currency" at the airport, only to be told that "the Slovakian currency" is, you guessed it, euros. The attendant took my euros, looked at them, and then handed them back to me in some form of mock currency exchange transaction, perhaps to make me feel slightly less stupid. It didn't work, but what I witnessed next did.

It really is comforting that there is always someone more clueless than you, just itching to demonstrate a truly baffling level of incompetence when faced with the simplest of tasks. A small, timid Irish lady approached me in the queue at Burger King and asked whether this particular queue was the queue for the departure gates. It may have been apparent to everyone else in Burger King that the queue in Burger King would lead to a burger, but this lady just couldn’t quite work it out. I stared at her in disbelief and just about managed to mumble a “no” before pointing out of Burger King and towards the gates. My younger brother and travelling companion for this trip, Steve, could really have been forgiven for packing it in there and then and heading home.

The Kraków region is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the historic centre of Kraków and the Wieliczka Salt Mines, both of which were granted such status in 1978. Our guide mentioned that no Italian sites were recognised in 1978, to which an Italian tourist quipped that UNESCO must have been run by Poles. I’ve been to Rome and the Wieliczka Salt Mines and I think that there may be something in this.

The mines are a cavernous subterranean maze of tunnels and chambers dating as far back as the 13th century. The salt deposits are no longer mined, yet the passageways and shafts chart the development of mining techniques in Europe through the ages, while salt sculptures and underground chapels keep the punters entertained. Predictably, the tour channels tourists through underground, salt-themed gift shops. I mentioned to Steve that I couldn’t quite understand why they were not also selling that big, yellow one-eyed cuddly minion toy that every shop in Europe seems to stock. There is never a reason to sell it anywhere, but it is sold everywhere, so why not in a salt mine? I told Steve that it would also be a good idea to set up a shop selling pepper grinders over the road, as the salt mine only sold salt shakers. I think Steve was half listening to me by this point.

Poland is very cold in December and January. Our walking tour of Kraków’s historic centre was very cold as well. I didn’t ask any questions during the tour as I couldn’t feel my face, although we learned about Pope John Paul II, Kraków’s medieval heritage and heard numerous local anecdotes, all of which were told, before we were then told that they were all complete nonsense.

Southern Poland is across the border from Northern Slovakia, so I decided to hire a car and head south. Two hours later, we were trundling along at 5 mph behind farm traffic in the Tatras Mountains. This was another moment in which Steve could have been forgiven for packing it in and going home. Late December is ski season in Slovakia’s many alpine resorts, except there wasn’t any snow in any of them. Plan A had been to snowboard, so we had hastily cobbled together Plan B which in the absence of anything other than empty ski resorts, happened to be a visit to a provincial Slovakian waterpark. Thankfully, the park is located on a thermal spring and also boasted a large amount of saunas. I passed on the cold plunge pool, as well as a freezer-like room; this “snow room” reminded me of when we used to lock one another in the walk-in freezer at Sainsbury’s for a laugh. After our swim, we left Slovakia and drove 150 km back to Poland. Box ticked.

Steve and I joined a large number of foreigners in two of Kraków’s many bars for New Year’s Eve and drunk beers. Unsurprisingly, my resolution for 2016 is to visit an unhealthy amount of increasingly obscure European countries.

Until next time then x

Posted by Peter.Moules 12:47 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Oslo

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Much like you, I vaguely remember studying the vikings at school: big, hairy (probably rugby-playing) lumps crashing across the North Sea in their horned helmets and longboats.

Something crossed my mind as I polished off a bottle of beer by Oslo’s pleasantly redeveloped waterfront: perhaps they were not invading after all, but rather running away from Norway. Maybe they were running away from a land where, somehow, Kronenberg 1664 is £12 a bottle. A country where a smug-looking man called Jan, whose larger-than-life image is plastered across bus stops and train stations throughout the city, sells distinctly average hot dogs for a fiver in every conceivable retail outlet. To be fair to Jan, I would find it very hard not to look smug if I simultaneously shifted tinned sausages for £5 in WH Smith, Boots, Sports Direct and Toni & Guy.

To clarify, I am fully aware that Jan’s face is probably not slapped across Norway’s majestic fjords, or beamed into the sky to do battle with the Northern Lights. There is clearly so much more to Norway than this entry would suggest. There, I said it, now back to business.

I made this trip with my girlfriend, Ava. On arrival, Ava mentioned to me that Norway seemed very Nordic. I nodded. It’s all wonderfully inoffensive. Tourists sip coffee and potter about sleek designer stores. One or two may even buy something in a moment of complete madness.

Museums cost less than pints in Oslo. One houses immaculately restored 9th century viking longboats; it also contains a fair amount of plates, spoons and cups. If we can be sure of anything in this world, it is that tableware and cutlery occupy upwards of 80% of all museum exhibition space. The next time you lose a fork or break a mug, don’t worry, as it’s certainly not the last that humankind will see of it. Someone, somewhere, in 400 years’ time will find it, fix it and display it in a museum.

Another museum is home to Roald Amundsen’s trusty ship, Fram, which helped take Amundsen and his team to the South Pole ahead of Shackleton and Scott. Outside this second museum, I stood shoulder to shoulder with Amundsen and his team. Two explorers, of sorts. He had his fox fur boots on whereas I had gone for suede shoes and chinos (I’m sure he would have appreciated that this is a fairly solid combination). He had his Fram parked up in the museum around the corner and I’d arrived on a Ryanair flight from London Stansted.

As I walked away from the statue of Norway’s greatest son, I wondered whether he would see many parallels with today’s preferred mode of long distance travel? Had a member of his crew offered him a toasted sandwich and a small tin of pringles in exchange for £10? How many scratchcards had been aggressively waved in his face on the way to the South Pole?

Until next time then x

Posted by Peter.Moules 14:38 Archived in Norway Tagged oslo Comments (0)

Doing Things by Halves: Europe

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You join me halfway through. Mum used to say I didn’t do things by halves. Not true, I thought, as I slouched at my desk and gawped wide-eyed at a partition wall: I had only visited half of Europe. And so it hit me, and stopped me slavering like a moron all over my keyboard.

Broadly speaking, that other half is the newer half, creeping out from behind closed borders and societies and into the smartphone camera focus. Europeans hop from one country to the next these days, but some countries get hopped to more than others. There is another half out there which is less well-hopped. We’ve triumphantly built karaoke bars and greasy spoons all over Spain’s Mediterranean coastline. We’ve seen some of our finest football hooligans water cannoned into shop fronts across the continent. But do we know what Liechtenstein is getting up to? Why can’t I think of anything to do with Belarus? Where is Moldova?

Perhaps everything in that other half will be ‘nice’. Things are often ‘nice’, according to Europeans. Situations are ‘nice’. Nights out are ‘nice’, particularly when Europeans ‘make party’. Perhaps, in that other half, taxi drivers won’t shout the words ‘Wayne Rooney’ and ‘Manchester United’ at me from a distance of twenty paces. Scrap that, of course they will. And I'll nod and mutter 'Manchester' back at them like I have done many times before.

Perhaps, somewhere in that other half, someone in fact invented the continental breakfast. Had they realised that, in doing so, they had made early morning package holiday excursions that much more miserable? Why hadn’t they make it clearer for the rule-benders out there that a slice of bread and some instant coffee was absolutely not what they had in mind when they coined the phrase?

Amongst all this uncertainty, a few things can be taken for granted. There will be more churches, bridges and fountains than a group of middle aged Japanese tourists can shake a selfie stick at. There will be crowds of camera-wielding tourists, bussed from one site to the next. People on segways. Pigeons gobbling up fag ends and punters throwing coins into wells for good luck. There will be spirits which look and taste like ouzo, but are apparently not ouzo… and all this while Ryanair's in-flight team will attempt to sell me my body weight in scratchcards.

So, back to the focus of this entry, which is doing Europe by halves. In order to come full circle and make things whole, you will be glad to learn that this blog will also be done by halves. It will be reassuringly half-arsed, spectacularly half baked and well and truly half-hearted. At this stage, the following countries remain:

  • Albania
  • Andorra
  • Armenia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Belarus
  • Bosnia & Herzegovina
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • Georgia
  • Greece
  • Iceland
  • Italy
  • Kazakhstan
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Macedonia
  • Malta
  • Moldova
  • Monaco
  • Montenegro
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • San Marino
  • Slovakia
  • Ukraine
  • Vatican City

Why on earth did I decide to do this?

Posted by Peter.Moules 14:11 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged london Comments (0)

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