Saturday, December 6, 2008


By luck, my folks were on their last day in Budapest when I arrived on the overnight train from Krakow, which provided a convenient place to stash bags and a free breakfast (and dinner, for that matter). We managed to fit in some culture at the gallery, where a pianist was banging out emotional Hungarian music while we perused the art. Dad was typically charismatic at dinner, so much so that the over-zealous waiter gave us a bottle of red to take home, which was later put to good use.
For the most part, Budapest was spa-central: 3 of the 8 days there were spent at thermal baths. Why has it taken me 30 years to discover this hedonistic paradise? With a combination of indoor and outdoor pools, saunas and healing mineral waters at varying temperatures and steaminess, it's relaxation heaven. Szechenyi, in the city park, was the favoured location and was rewarded with two visits. My momentary concern that a bikini might not be acceptable attire was immediately dismissed when I was faced with walls of ancient flesh lolling about in small strips of spandex. Confident people, the Hungarians. The first day we went it was cold and drizzling, so the steam rising from the pool made it impossible to see more than about a meter in front of you, which was occasionally a good thing; a bizarre circus of characters frequent the spas - a film populated by these people would seem wildly fictitious. Old local guys set up their chess boards on the steps of the outdoor baths for a day of heckling in healing waters, ignoring the signs suggesting 20 minutes is enough in the steamy 38 degree pool. What a way to retire. Above, the exterior of the House of Terror, a fantastic museum dedicated to the atrocities committed by the fascists and communists up until the 1990s both in Hungary and specifically in this building. At the right time of day, the sun casts the shadow of 'terror' across the building. Typographic metaphor ... clever Hungarians. The exhibition design was equally powerful inside, with an actual tank in the foyer, dwarfed by a wall of photos (some sort of metal relief casting) of victims of the 'terror'.:
The contrast between the lists of victim's names running around the walls in solemn metal type, the seemingly endless number giving a sense of the magnitude of the genocide here, and the photographs of individual faces, bringing you back to the fact that these victims were all individuals, was an emotionally powerful technique. Verbally, our guide did this in Auschwitz, constantly quoting unimaginable numbers of victims, then reminding us that they were all, like us, unique personalities. The room of shoes at the first Auschwitz camp hammering this home.
More to come ...

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Following the joy of apartment living in St Petersburg, we organised a 2 bedroom apartment in Krakow just five minutes walk north of the Old Town area. We had news in English for the first time in weeks, and were able to watch the painfully uninformative coverage of the Mumbai siege as it unfolded. And an indescribably awful Learn English channel with Todd from Neighbours: "Is there floppy disc with the computer? Yes, there is a floppy disc with the computer." 'Floppy disc' ... an essential word for aspiring English speakers in 2008.
The Christmas markets opened in the main square (Rynek Glowny) while we were there, and the cheap but very drinkable mulled wine -- served by people sitting inside over-sized barrels -- was an instant hit. That stuff really sneaks up on you, but it's the quickest way to get your toes warm from the inside I've found. I ate pierogi six nights running. Too many dumplings are never enough. I loved Krakow. Having 7 nights in one place was bliss and what a beautiful place to spend them. The castle and old town square are overwhelmingly charming, but the 'dragon' of Wawel was more hilarious than intimidating, intermittently burping blasts of flame into the sky.
Aside from drinking mulled wine, feasting on dumplings and chuckling at the dragon, Krakow was the base for a few day trips.
My Grandma, who passed away about this time last year, came from a town called Kielce, 3 hours north of Krakow, before she was taken to Germany to work for a family during the war (she was 16). A few years ago, I lived in the Sydney suburb of Erskineville. G-ma worked in a factory in Erskinville when she was not much older than me at the time. While I lived there, I briefly worked at the local pub and the old punters propping up the bar remembered the immigrant women from the factory well. It amused me, in an uncomfortable way, that these same men who leered at me after a few too many schooners of Toohey's had possibly cast their eyes over my Grandma, two generations ago. We walked the same streets in Sydney without ever having lived there at the same time, and now also Kielce. There was a museum and cathedral to explore, and not a great deal else, but in the main park there was a 'mini zoo' with a dozen bizarre types of peafowl, unlike any I'd ever seen (except the peacock, of which I've been a fan for some time).

It was a harrowing day trudging through icy mud puddles and a constant, cold drizzle at Auschwitz and Birkenau (below). In one hall way, rows and rows of photographs with arrival and death dates under them were, en mass, a sickening thing to behold. Two months was average. And all those shoes. Piles and piles of shoes. As we left, a devastating sunset finished the day.
Salt Mines
Down as far as 134 meters below ground level, the salt mines are amazing. Our guide was a quirky old bird with a string of pre-rehearsed gags ... one of the (salt) sculptures shows the Seven Dwarfs working away, but Snow White was absent because women didn't work in the mines. The cathedral was the most spectacular part, with everything, we were told, made entirely of salt. Even the chandeliers! (Well, if you don't count the light bulbs, wooden frame, string and presumably electrical wiring). The wall relief carvings were incredible. There was, of course, a large statue of John Paul II (who appears where ever possible in Poland), which I tried to get Kat to lick for a photo, but she wouldn't play.

I spent a long afternoon drawing teapots and lovely objects in the Decorative Arts rooms at the fantastic art gallery.

Flea markets, Krakow
See the angry man staring at me, in the middle? Zoom in, look at the hate in his eyes. A nano-second after this shot, he stared screaming at me, and I mean really raging, in Polish. I don't know what he said but the woman in front of me actually clutched her hands to her heart and gasped, and everyone backed away around me. A curse, perhaps? No more photographs from the flea markets.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Warsaw: 23-24 November

We flew in at midday and by the time we got to Old Town at about 4pm (via a pierogi house for a dumpling fix that made me the happiest woman in Poland, they were topped with bacon bits fried in lard) it was already dark and very cold. The main square is stunning, especially in the snow. Polish hospitality is as hit and miss as the Russians, though smiling doesn't seem to be as much of a social faux pas here.
After a quick trip up to the top of the Palace of Science and Culture (Stalin's gift to Poland, which towers ominously over the city at 231 meters -- how Soviet) for the customary panoramic view:
I headed out to Wilanow to see the poster museum and palace (yes, Kat and I actually had our first day apart in six weeks). Unfortunately, the poster museum was only showing the annual student competition (I've seen many, many student posters) and although there were a couple of good ones I was really looking forward to seeing some famous Polish posters (the theme of 'tolerance' produced some predictable Bennetton-style responses, but the weirdest was a silhouette of a donkey doing something nasty to a man with the slogan 'tolerate this'. The palace, on the otherhand, was terrific -- opulant and grossly baroque, the King and Queen's antichambers were particularly awe inspiring. I could have happily lived as Polish royalty.
The grumpy Grandma's patrolling every room and creeping along half a step behind you can be trying, but they're clearly very proud of the contents of their museum, and protective over the rooms they shadow about in. In most of the larger museums, you have to cover your shoes with blue plastic bags, which is practical considering the slushy mud outside, but it makes you feel even more of a peasant wandering through these spectacular golden ballrooms.
Continuing the meat fest, we dug into some great wild boar and pork knuckle, and also found a jazz and blues club near the hostel where I was served a well made White Russian by a chubby version of Colin Farrell. We perched at the bar and listened to jazz for an hour or two, and Kat got chatted up by a guy who looked like my Uncle Henry and aparently wasn't a big fan of jazz music. He kept asking why people were clapping when it was so bad.
I found a strange little "peep show" place (just keep reading) where you sat on a stool and peered through a "peep hole" to see historical photos of Warsaw, mostly being bombed, burned and ravaged during the war.
General consensus seems to be that Warsaw isn't worth hanging out in for more than a day or two, but I think I could easily have spent a few more there and still not seen as much as I would have liked.

Helsinki and Rovaniemi (where Santa lives)

The bus from St Petersburg to Finland was 9 and a half hours of fantastic scenery, with a firey sunset on one side and snow covered fir trees on the other, it definitely felt like I was heading towards Christmas. With only one day in Helsinki, it made sense to just wander around and get a feel for the place. The short stay was actually a blessing in disguise -- Finland isn't a cheap place to be traveling on the Australian dollar, and there was a lot in the design district that I would have very happily dropped some cash on. A bar on the 14th floor of a hotel provided mulled wine and panoramic views of the city at sunset, viewing the Gulf of Finland from the opposite angle from a few days before in St Petersburg. One more sleep in the world's loudest hostel before our exciting trip north to visit Santa, which was no easy task with the drunken yobs crashing about and a blood curdling wind howling around and banging metal things against the wall. Hostels have an age limit, and I think I've just past it. I did manage to squeeze in a pre-breakfast sauna though, which is always a bonus. What a way to start the day.
Flights were out-of-the-question expensive to Rovaniemi, so a day after our bus Odyssey, we sat for 8 hours on a train. I'm still loving train travel, to my suprise, and am actually looking forward to the future trains in Eastern Europe. It makes me very calm.
The dream for Lapland was to go husky sledding under the northern lights, so it was crushing to discover that the season doesn't start til December this year. You could go to the husky park and pat a dog, but for 160 bucks that sounded lame, as did paying $250 for an hour reindeer sled ride. Instead, we decided to make our own fun and took a bus out to the Ranua Wildlife Park. By the time we got there it was basically sunset (2.30pm) so some of the animals were snoozing, but the polar bears played up to us and all the animals looked like they had enough space and activities to be relatively happy in captivity. I liked the snow owls. Hoo hoo.
It was weirdly deserted, and after being shadowed everywhere through Asia and Russia, it was great to be able to roam about a huge open space without seeing anyone else. Because I'm an adult, I found it infinitely amusing that the only sign of inhabitants we could see in some of the snow-covered enclosures were patches of yellow snow. It was a good two hour walk the whole way around -- by the end I couldn't feel some of my toes and it felt like permafrost had set into my thighs.
As we were leaving the park, we caught a glimpse of the northern lights -- more a coloured stain than a celestial blaze, but we were excited and amazed nonetheless.
The park closed at 4pm and the bus was scheduled to leave at 5.25pm, so we lingered in the chocolate supermarket, which was oddly the only thing open at the park til 5pm, then waited in -12 degrees at the bus stop for 45 minutes (the bus was very late), in a scene that was disturbingly like something David Lynch would stage. We were discussing the likelihood of anyone finding our remains if we were killed hitchhiking back to Rovaniemi when the bus finally arrived.
Our final day was reserved for Santa's Village, at -16C. I never suspected Santa lived in a thinly veiled commercial theme park, but you learn something new every day. Tourist consumerism at its most ferocious, Santa's Village was a collection of gift stores with a small area dedicated to an official post office (if you haven't received your post card, it must have just got lost in transit) and Santa's "office" where you can pay 20 euros to have your photo taken on the big man's knee. The line was long, so we saved some excited kids another five minutes wait and skipped that opportunity. I don't need a fat man in a suit telling me I've been naughty, anyway.
We met a Scottish guy in the hostel in Helsinki who was on his way up for a second season as an elf at the village. He was microwaving a mixture of baked beans and frozen meatballs for dinner and his complexion suggested this might be his regular diet, supplimented with a lot of booze. I guess the elf outfit makes them cute. Despite my cynicism, it was an admittedly magical place, even moreso with fresh snow falling on the already icy trees and huts.
The previous night, I cooked a reindeer stew (which was amazing, if can rate my own cooking) and we had some sliced reindeer meat left over from the bruchetta entree, but decided it might be inappropriate to take reindeer sandwiches to Santa's Village. In the cafe, aside from the regulation burgers and pizza, for a mere $35 you could have a cafeteria tray with reindeer stew. Sorry, Rudolph.
There is a great museum in Rovaniemi called Arktikum with lots of stuffed animals - you can press a button and hear the noises they make. Hours of fun...

Monday, November 24, 2008

St. Petersburg

The first phase of St Petersburg marked the end of the Vodkatrain trip, with Maria, who was the best local guide of the trip. Our two-day whirlwind tour took in the Hermitage, a panoramic city view from St Issac's Cathedral, the Political History Museum (which was fascinating but cut a bit short because Someone was grumpy), the Peter and Paul Fortress and many canals, statues and scenic streetscapes.
Kat brushing up on highschool history in the Hermitage. Below, where the dead Tsars live, followed by windows in the impressive Political History museum.

Our last meal as a group was a bit of a sorry state, with general exhaustion and irritability high. Maria took us afterwards to a bar area, and we had a couple of beers in a smoky little pub called Fidel (the Russian's love a Cuban theme) with supped-up Russian versions of everything from The Eagles to Michael Jackson. The last standing - so to speak - were Kat, R and I and we stopped by one more bar where R choked on the ice in the glass of Glenfiddich Kat bought us all (he thought we were doing shots). Waking with violent hangovers (it sounds bad, but it was only our third hangover in a month, which I think is commendable considering we were on the "Vodkatrain") we heaved backpacks on and trudged for an hour to get to the apartment we'd rented for six days with Pam. A good looking man carried our bags, one over each arm, up the stairs into the ENORMOUS apartment and we realised our time in St. Petersburg was about to get much, much better.
Although not the apartment we'd booked and been dreaming about for months (Prince Michael's former pad on Millionaya St near the Hermitage), we all had our own bedroom (bliss) and there was a separate eat-in kitchen, living room with a big TV to watch hilariously raunchy Russian music television (and exercise on the walking machine if any of us felt so inclined, which we obviously didn't) and a bath. Pam's arrival marked a distinct and much appreciated change in pace for the holiday. When we didn't leave the apartment til 1pm the first day, I'll admit to being a bit antsy, but I eased into the slower pace remarkably quickly (for me). Seeing Pam again after so long was a present, and being able to sit around the big kitchen table and talk and feast and laugh was the best thing I could have wished for after four weeks of busy traveling. We did nothing but eat and drink (and damn we did it well) for five days, the only tourist sights we saw were from the street or though windows of cafes and restaurants. One morning, I had caviar and pickles for breakfast, because I felt like it.
Other culinary highlights include the most expensive steak I've ever eaten (but every mouthful was a world of joy and it was as big as my head), bliny (pancake) heaven at a place just around the corner, a drink in 'The Idiot' called Crime and Punishment (accurately described on the menu as "our crime, your punishment"), random dumplings selected from the supermarket freezer section and made into soup (I guessed well on all of them except one which tasted like a sweet cheese, and didn't really go with the pork broth) and our last night, when we ventured to a French bistro for some salmon and wine:
The only blight on the whole fabulous time was en route to dinner on our last night, when we witnessed a Romper Stomper style attack on two guys outside the train station, when five men ran across the road as the lights changed and started swinging steel-capped boots into their heads and ribs with sickening force. Unbelievably, they both got up and made it across the street before the lights changed back. Aside from the ridiculously marked "Mafia Taxis" and occasional homeless person, this was the first real dark side to St Petersburg we'd been exposed to and it was shocking.

Eugene, our Moscow local guide, informed us that one of the statues of a horse on Nevsky Prospect had Napoleon carved onto its doodle. We never found it.

On our last morning, we headed out for breakfast and then Pam accompanied me snow boot shopping, as I anticipated Finland was about to get much frostier. I somehow managed to pick a pair up for about $25. It was a little glum saying bye to Pam, but we cross over in Sydney (for 36 hours) in January. Apartment living is the only way to travel. More please.


Stalin, obviously, in Red Square.

Moscow - home to skinny dogs, fat pigeons and creative parking. Arriving in a large city after such a long train ride was exciting, but as exciting as having the first shower in 7 days. Less exciting was the news that Red Square was closed, but luckily only for two of the three days we had there. We managed to get in to see Lenin's mausoleum on our first day (which weirdly wasn't part of the closed bit, considering it seemed to be a Communist convention that it was closed for). Weird, waxy Lenin (short man, small hands) is guarded in his dark, solemn tomb by intensely stern soldiers -- loitering and loud displays of emotion were strictly prohibited, we were shushed and ushered through with haste.
Our first male local guide, Eugene, was a lot of fun. Studying languages at university, Eugene wants to be a musician. He's in two bands at the moment -- the main one is Russian reggae-punk and the other is Hardcore-Emo Rock ... After the drudgery of Julie's company, having someone who was enthusiastic about their city and actually had non-guide book information for us was great.
We went to a ballet in the Kremlin (also permitted entrance then, but only via a side gate) which didn't feel like the three hours, despite the fact we couldn't find a glass of champagne to save ourselves. R thought several scenes were unnecessary to the plot.
A visit to the art gallery (the Repin painting of Ivan the Terrible clutching his dying son, who is rumoured to have been accidentally slain by Ivan's own hand in a heated argument, will stay with me for some time) was topped off when we walked out to a seriously impressive sunset over the Moscova River, the Kremlin buildings and Red Square.
Our last day we finally managed to get into the Square and R, Kat and I lined up for an hour in the freezing wind to get into the Armoury, which was the coldest I've ever been -- how the Russians fought wars in this climate I will never understand. It is an impressive place, as is the entire Kremlin.
On our final day we made a trip to Gorky Park. Despite not being a hub of fun at this time of year(it was like a ghost town), we still had to pay to get in. Rusty went on the roller coaster.
We still had eight hours to kill before our midnight train, and no one was in great spirits after two sleepless nights (a severely mentally unwell American woman kept us awake with bouts of sobbing and typing emails outside our room, with what sounded more like a couple of hammers than hands ... the embassy eventually came and gave her some cash and a ticket home) so logically we took another long walk (the Russians and their long marches...) to an observation point at 'Sparrow Hill'. This, and a long banquet dinner, eventually got us to our last train on the trans-Mongolian trip: an 8 hour overnight to St Petersburg, which was a breeze after the other previous epic legs.
You had to pay these women to use "their" toilets. They stink.

77 hours on a Russian train: Irkusk to Moscow

The Russians on the platform at Irkusk were a motley crew of rough looking characters. We were joining the Vladivostok to Moscow direct train (which is the trans-Siberian route, as opposed to our trans-Mongolian route starting in Beijing), which we'd heard is used by the military -- the packs of young men with shaved heads and barrel chests seemed to fit this bill. A couple of them were swaggering about bare-chested wearing Umbro soccer shorts and thongs clutching beer bottles (it was -2 C). I gave the one with blood on his forehead a wide berth. Our carriage attendant was a formidable presence, but gave me some comfort - he had a dark scowl and a dragon-tattoo running up his neck.
Our cabins were again slightly rougher than the first ones, but at least there was more space for our bags this time. We walked through what seemed like an endless number of carriages to the dining cart. The hallways were haunted with the ghosts of meals past ... boiled egg, smoked fish and a carnival of processed sausage meats lingered in waiting. The people who'd been on since Vladivostok clearly set up camp like home. When we finally made the dining area, I opted for some chicken borscht, which was unexpectedly good (the cook was wearing an American flag bandanna, Bruce Springstean-style. Our meal was accompanied by a blaring DVD of Van Heilsing (dubbed in Russian). Despite the vampire and werewolf screams, the cabin was charming in a high kitsch kind of way.
On the previous trains, there had been a number of tracksuit clad Russian women. Kat and I thought it would be hilarious to buy matching velour tracksuits in Beijing to 'blend in' on the train -- we'd been told tracksuits were basically uniform, but no one told us we needed a full set of gold teeth as well. On this one though, we seemed to be some of the few woman on the train except for the dining cart attendant, but in the dark, that was a questionable call anyway. This wasn't lost on a group of military guys having beer and juice (?) in the cart. One spoke a little broken English and after a few minutes of awkward conversation at the bar, he said: "We go back now, you will come with us." No thanks, Captain Romance, having just finished reading Anna Karenina, I know all about men like you.
R unwillingly acquired a friend during the journey, Nicholai Augustine, who sported an awe inspiring mullet (surely not military standard?) and constantly had a beer or two in hand. He didn't seem popular with the military guys, which may explain why he kept rambling incoherently in Russian at us, pressing us for vodka, and examining R's tattoos. During one session when he delivered a monologue from the doorway and we did our best to ignore him and continue a conversation, the only English word he understood in about 30 minutes was 'mistress'. Says a lot about a man's character. He followed R into our cabin one night, but we had to kick him out when he shifted from being vaguely amusing to slightly threatening (mostly because he kept kind of dry retching and clutching his hand over his sweaty mouth before slurring another torrent of Russian at us).
As he left, he dropped a cabbage-fueled weapon of mass-destruction in his wake to punish us. A soldier at heart. For the rest of the trip, he stalked the hallway, occasionally kicking things and muttering, and loitering at the door to our cabin -- like a vampire, waiting to be invited in. Luckily, he wore his earphones draped around his neck blaring offensive techno at all times, so we could hear the mobile disco approaching and close the door. At one stage toward the end, we actually slammed the door in his face (he was being particularly creepy) and he stood outside, clinking his bottle on the door. Fun guy.
My main mission on the journey was to try to get our attendant Dragol (so named due to the dragon tattoo) to crack a smile. The situation looked dire, but on the last day he caught us having a giggle in the hallway at the LCD sign that welcomed "worshipful passengers" and wishes us "Godspeed." He tapped my arm and pointed at himself when it named our attendants as the "Eastern District Division attendants." And kind of smiled.