Return

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I thought I should round off the trip by letting you know that we’re safely back in the flat in Dundee.

We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at our hotel in Krakow this morning before jumping into a taxi which took us to the airport. Boy, was that a busy place! But, as always, we got through security eventually and boarded the plane 30 minutes later than scheduled. It tried its best but didn’t really make up the time in the air (even with a tail-wind) so that, by the time we were through passport control, got our cases from the belt and took the tram to Edinburgh Gateway, it was 13.46 and, yes, you guessed it, our Dundee train left at 13.44! Bugger!

However my faith in human nature was renewed when the most helpful of ladies at Edinburgh Gateway conjured up our tickets for the next train out of Haymarket at no extra cost. This necessitated taking a train to Haymarket (wrong direction!) and waiting 40 minutes for the Aberdeen train – Virgin – which came in 30 minutes late and already packed to bursting like those trains you see chugging around India with folk hanging off the sides and on the roof. Surprisingly we both got seats by using our elbows and charm, but they were 10 seats apart, so I had a conversation with a lecturer in Primary education all the way to Dundee while Mary talked Norwegian cruises to an elderly couple.

Mum (God bless her!) was waiting for us at Dundee station and drove us up to the flat. And that’s where we are now, watching TV and catching up on what’s been happening while we’ve been away. As always, we’re delighted to be back home but typically we’ll be back on the road on Wednesday, up North to see my brother Joe and his wife in Lochcarron and then we’ll come back just to leave the car. The train will take us to Scott and Keira’s for Saturday night then another train will take us to Mike and Het’s in Kendal. M & H will be driving us to Liverpool for a 2 day Beatles tour (which I’ve always wanted to do) and then we’re flying from there to Barcelona for a 2 week rest in the caravan in Vilanova. At least that’s the plan!

Ok. Time to open a bottle of Isla Negra and toast a successful tour. I’m secretly a bit chuffed that it all worked out so well, trains, hotels, apartments, trips. Of course, if it wasn’t for the Internet, none of that would be possible without a whole world of visits to travel agents and choosing from only what they offer. We recommend a visit to Bratislava, Budapest and Krakow (if only to go to Auschwitz) from our travels, but if you only have one chance, then we both suggest Budapest which was absolutely brilliant!

This is the end of the daily posts for the moment but I’m back in the groove as regards writing stuff, so don’t be surprised if you get news from the Highlands and Liverpool.

I leave you with a couple of snaps that I didn’t have space for earlier. Cheerio!

Mary chatting up a Budapest artist!

Me learning Hungarian!

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Hell

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Up at six and picked up by our minibus at seven, we were on an hour’s drive to a place infamous throughout the entire planet, a place which God ( whichever one you believe in) abandoned and a place where unspeakable deeds were committed. In whose name and why, I personally cannot understand although I’ve learned about the perverse ideology that brought it into being. Nationalism, as represented by the Nazis in Germany, put forward the notion that certain groups of people were responsible for the ills of the country.

The Nazi race theory saw many groups as “undesirables”. These included Jews, Roma, homosexuals and the mentally and physically disabled.  These were not to be part of the new racially pure Arian Germany. So gradually it turned the people against them whilst accusing them of all sorts of things for which they were not actually responsible. Once the people were persuaded that those groups were indeed the problem, they then dehumanised them, which made it easier to remove them from life itself.

It’s that bit that got to us. OK, the mass extermination is beyond awful and no-one can say otherwise. But the treatment dished out to men, women and children from all over Europe and of all ethnic backgrounds was so incredibly horrendous that you are left puzzling over how ANY human being could be so cruel to another of the species. And also the meticulous detail involved in organising the extermination of the Jews, how they were criticised, reviled, displaced, abused and finally murdered by a plan that came to be “The Final Solution”. A solution to a problem that only certain people perceived to exist, people who must take full responsibility for what happened where we were today, only 72 years ago, only 8 years before I was born.


Our minibus took us initially to Auschwitz on a bleak autumnal day of dark cloud and persistent rain – perfectly suiting where we were going. Our guide led us through 2 hours of visits to the death camp itself, outside and inside. We had been prepared by a video we were shown on the minibus, a film shot by a cameraman of the Russian army which first liberated the camps. The cameraman had little idea of what he was about to film and was brutally traumatised by what was found there. So, entering the gate under the “Arbeit macht frei” sign, we steeled ourselves for what was to come. I decided to build myself an emotional wall before I went in, so dealt with what I saw and heard better than expected, knowing when I’d seen or heard enough and simply walking away.

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The above photo was taken from within one of the Auschwitz gas chambers. I have no words to describe this place.

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The entrance to Birkenau

At about 11.30 we had an early lunch in the bus park but were quickly whisked away just 3 kms up the road to Auschwitz II – Birkenau, a death camp which was the biggest in Europe and dealt with 10 times as many victims as Auschwitz itself. We saw in graphic detail the original buildings, the rail tracks which transported the Jews in but never out, the selection process whereby they were chosen to work or separated immediately from their loved ones, taken for a “shower” and gassed with Zylon-B. The original undressing rooms, shower rooms (gas chambers), and crematoria are all still there although crumbling and broken. These poor souls were duped into thinking that, after their shower, they would get dressed, be reunited with their families and housed in the barracks where they would live and work until the war was over. 10 minutes after entering the area they were all dead. Latterly, as the Soviet army drew nearer and nearer, up to 8000 men, women and children, including babies, were snuffed out every day in this most wretched of places.

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By three in the afternoon, we were back in our room and as has become the habit on busy visit days, we both had a well-deserved siesta. Dinner was taken at that wee restaurant next door where the food was if anything even better than last night and once again embarrassingly cheap. We’re packing now and will be back in Scotland around lunchtime tomorrow.

We had a great discussion over dinner about our latest jaunt around Europe and agreed on many aspects of our journey. We are both entirely converted to travelling by train again and can honestly tell you that, having booked on the Internet in our flat in Dundee, the whole thing has panned out pretty much as we hoped it would have. The travel was brilliant, the accommodation varied from good to excellent, the places we stayed were all in good areas with top-class transport links and, above all, they were all very safe. We’ve had a ball and I hope you’ve enjoyed following our adventures.

Bye, bye for now!

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Spies

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I left you last night as the door closed on our sleeping compartment on the night train from Vienna to Krakow. Our own wee caretaker man gave us instructions in how to manage our compartment then left us to enjoy the journey. As we drew away from the Austrian capital, I realised I had no idea which were the intermediary stops because frankly it didn’t matter to us much as we’d be sleeping when we reached them. The train noises associated with slow speed and point-changes gradually gave way to a low hum as the train found its rhythm and, with me above and Lady Burton below, we slipped off to sleep. Clunk! I slipped back to awake mode. Crash, Bang, Wallop! They were chopping the train up! We started to head back to where we’d just come from when …….. we fell asleep again! Clunk!!

And so it continued until 06:30 when the wee man knocked to ask us which hot drink we wanted to go with our pre-packed breakfast! Tea and toast with butter and cheese gave us some kind of a breakfast to believe in and left us to reflect on whether we could sneak unnoticed into a country nowadays. You see, ever since Billy Connolly taught us “no need to panic, there’s no need to cry, I’m an undercover agent working for the FBI!” I’ve known something Mary has known all her life. These trains are full of spies! Cue the intro music from “The Third Man”.  Midge Ure ensured we know most of them get on in Vienna and from then on anything East is definitely dodgy! Now, it just so happens that Lady Burton wanted to be a Spy way before she chose to be a teacher. She finds European cities very romantic despite there being a spy on every corner and of course she knows full well that they all travel incognito on the night train.

I hate to disappoint but Daniel Craig was nowhere to be seen! Nor were any of the other frequent travellers on the Orient Express. No, all these spies were doing their nighttime spying so well that we couldn’t find any of them. Not a single one tried to access our locked door with a hairpin and the group playing Bridge in the salon carriage started and finished with the same 12 people. Not one disappeared out a window or was found dead, stabbed in the neck with a particularly sharp fountain pen! We’re ashamed to admit it but we’ve done Munich, Bratislava, Vienna, Budapest and Krakow and not had a single drop of poison slipped into our nightcap or been stabbed by a brolly!

Safely in Krakow Glowny station we pondered over a cup of Darjeeling what to do. It was obviously way too early to check-in at our hotel but we couldn’t walk about all day with our luggage, so we agreed to go and leave stuff at the hotel luggage store then get in a bit of tourism if we could. Two very helpful young girls from Warsaw helped us pick out the correct tram to catch but in the end we took a taxi once we realised the sign at the stop said “Line closed for maintenance”! The hotel did agree to store our luggage, leaving us spies free to go get some real breakfast which we found right next door at a cute wee café. Refreshed, we made for the main square a 15-minute walk away and found ourselves right in the middle of busy Krakow.

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The main square market

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St. Mary’s of the Assumption

St. Mary’s of the Assumption dominated the square so we paid and went in to see the famous altar tryptych carved in wood. The cathedral itself was splendid indeed and we spent an hour admiring its attributes before managing to buy a ticket for 3 areas of the historical museums of Krakow: Schindler’s factory, Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s  Apoteka under the Eagle and Pomorska Street (Gestapo HQ) with the common theme being the annihilation of the Jewish Ghetto under Nazi occupation in WW2. We would do these on our own as all the official tours were fully booked. At 13.20 we were finally admitted to our room but 10 minutes later we were in a taxi and on our way to the Emailwaren factory of Oskar Schindler.

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Schindler’s factory front door

Most of us know the story of how Schindler helped 1000 Jews escape almost certain death at the hands of the SS from the Steven Spielberg Oscar-winning film “Schindler’s List” starring Liam Neeson which was shot in the actual factory we went to visit. It is a wonderful story of a German entrepreneur who saw an opportunity to make a fortune from the war but who was appalled at the treatment he saw being dished out to Krakow’s Jews and then did all he could to protect his employees from the excesses of the Third Reich. The witness accounts were heavy reading at times and once or twice I had to stop to compose myself but it was a sobering afternoon in there. We moved on straight to another tale of defiance in the jaws of death from a Krakow pharmacist who broke all the Nazi rules to set up a tiny chink of humanity while surrounded by unspeakable horror.

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Commemorative plaque

We worked out how to get back to the hotel by tram this time and we were soon both fast asleep as 18.00 hours came round. But we woke up in time for a delicious dinner back at that wee café next door and going by the quality of what we were served, we’ll be going back tomorrow as well!

We’re now both back in bed as we have a really early start tomorrow for an organised tour of a place we all know and whose name sends shivers down our spines. We’re going to visit …. Auschwitz.

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Mary in the Apoteka

Bonus Day

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We were up at 7 this morning, in the Metro by 8 after saying Bye! Bye! to our hostess and on the train to Vienna at 08.40. Very good facilities again although we were a bit put out that for the whole journey there was no wi-fi available. Still, I got through 2 quite difficult hands of Spider Solitaire while Mary read the entire works of Charles Dickens!

And so we were to have a bonus day in Vienna, the city we crowned the best we visited on our Grand Tour 5 years ago.  When you consider we visited among others Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Munich, Rome, Florence and Barcelona then you can understand how impressed we were back then.

The train pulled in to  Vienna as we have come to expect bang on time at 11.25 and immediately we made for the left-luggage and got rid of most of our stuff so we’d be free to walk around the city unencumbered.

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Lady Burton in front of the Vienna Opera House

Diving into the Metro, we bought a day ticket and got off at St. Stephenplatz, the hub of life in Vienna. From there we set off to visit as much as we could remember of this great place, including the many wonderful enormous squares and of course the Spanish Riding School with the Lippizaner horses. Lunch was taken in a park and followed by a wee siesta on the grass in the warm sunshine.

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The National Library

A rude awakening for me however as a freak wind surged through the centre, ensuring that I was awoken by leaves whipping me in the face and crows panicking all around. Honest, I thought I was having a nightmare! All the hundreds of tourists disappeared in a flash and the cafés and restaurants struggled to keep their tables, chairs and parasols from flying away!

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This guy has better buns than me!

We made our way back to the City Shopping Area where we had coffee but I’d noticed a couple of guys with AC Milan scarfs on and I began to wonder if a team from Vienna were playing in the Europa League tonight. Sure enough, as six o’clock struck, we stumbled on a pub advertising the Austria Vienna v AC Milan game live at 7. That would do me fine…. and Lady Burton could read a book! So that’s what we did, chilling out in the depths of a city centre pub, me watching footie with burger and chips and Mary organising our next 2 days over roasted veg and rice. Did I forget to mention the 2 litres of Weißbeer?

At 9 in the evening we set off back to the main train station via the Metro, reclaimed our possessions and settled in a café until it was time to board the night train!

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Mary getting all excited!

Oh, did I not say that we were taking the overnight sleeper from Vienna to Krakow tonight? This was to be an absolute first for Mary and a close second for me (I travelled Paris-Nice on the sleeper at Easter 1974!!). Our own wee cabin was brilliant and we were giddy with excitement. We took a few pics, the train drew out on time (front bit for Berlin, middle bit for Warsaw and the back bit for Krakow) and this is where I’m going to stop for today.

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Our sleeping compartment

Night, night! XX

Let’s have a Bath

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We slept long this morning after yesterday’s marathon but still had a plan to follow for today. I worked out a route to our first targets that would involve using the trams as often as possible and would spare our poor wee legs!

So it was onto the tram outside our flat, 6 stops to the river and a change to the no.2 tram which I’d read described as the best tram ride in Europe. We quickly sussed it would have this reputation because in runs along the left bank of the Danube all the way to the Parliament (which we were going to have a closer look at.)

But not far from the Hungarian seat of power, we stopped to reflect on an amazing piece of artwork, the “Shoes by the Danube”, 60 pairs of old shoes cast in bronze to commemorate the murder of dozens of Hungarian patriots by their own Nazi members who shot them there, letting the bodies fall into the river.

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Suitably sobered by this poignant display, we jumped back on the tram and made our way to the Szécheni Fürdó, the spa centre we had decided to treat ourselves to. We’d even remembered to bring our cozzies! And just as well because, with the sun shining and a temperature 10 degrees higher than yesterday, we had the most amazing afternoon in the healing hot waters of this natural spa.

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More pools than you can count, a huge outdoor complex, water at 30-50 degrees plus loads of treatments we did not have on our menu and you get an idea of what this place was like. There were hundreds of people taking the waters quietly and sedately or sitting by the pools having a coffee in their swimsuits. The baths indoors dated back a long way too. There’s no room here to describe it all in detail so you’ll have to google it or make do with our photos.

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Returning to the flat after a very late lunch, I had an hour or so in the Land of Nod while Lady Burton did whatever it is she does. I awoke just in time to freshen up, grab my coat and whisk down into the bowels of the Metro on the corner and a short trip back to the Basilica, the start and finish of the Night Bus Tour.

This tour was absolutely brilliant because although we’d already seen all the sights over the past 2 days, this time we were seeing them under illumination! We were both speechless with what we saw and can only show you a couple of the hundreds of photos we took.

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So was it home to pack after all that? Not quite! Because just opposite our flat happened to be the New York Café, rated the most beautiful café in the world. So where else to end our time in Budapest?

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Some posh bird!

We only had a cup of coffee but the decor both inside and out was something else. We really felt quite posh in there!

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Lady Burton looking for the loos!

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The New York Café

And so we’ve had our 3 day visit to Budapest and it gets a huge thumbs-up from both of us. Think Paris with Spanish prices: that’s what we thought it was and if you want more you should plan a weekend escape yourselves.

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Steepest escalator ever!!

Budapest

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Our apartment, middle floor 4th/5th from right

Today would be all about serious sightseeing as we aimed to get in as much as we could from this great city. So while Mary stuck with the Weetabix cardboard option, I took advantage of the apartment’s cooking facilities to rustle up a mushroom omelette to accompany my tea and toast. I’m a man of simple tastes.

A brisk walk down the main road ended in us being accosted by a rep from Citytours offering us 2 bus tours, a boat trip and a night tour of the illuminations on one ticket. He almost fainted when we told him “Yes, that’s exactly what we want!” We hopped on and we’re taken over the Chain Bridge to Buda and up the hill to the Citadel. From there we travelled down and back over the Danube to St. Stephen’s Basilica where we got off for a visit. It was just ABC (Another Bloody Cathedral!) as Uncle Gerard used to quip. But we found a strange reliquary inside with (reputedly) the preserved right hand of St. Job. Back outside we warmed up with a bowl of Goulash Soup at an eatery as it was windy, rainy and quite cold today.

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There’s a hand in there!

Back on the bus for our second tour, this time we got to see Buda Castle (you can see it from everywhere actually!) the Parliament Buildings, Heroes Square and lots more. We eventually jumped off on the banks of the river and took up our free river cruise up the Danube, around Margaret Island and back down. It was so exciting that we both fell fast asleep and missed loads of it.

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Parliament from the Danube

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Compulsory selfie on Chain Bridge

At the far end I paused to get a bottle of water out of my new backpack. Except I didn’t have a backpack! Oh no! What had happened? Investigation of the photos Mary had taken of me revealed it was there until the Fisherman’s Bastion. But just before that, we’d been in that wee café. Bingo! But it’s getting dark and the café is over the bridge at the top of the hill. And we’re both getting tired!

Wait! I’d commented on the wee blue bus no. 16 up at the castle. Quick, check the guide for bus routes. Flick flick.  The 16 passes by here. There’s one! Run!! To cut a long story short, that bus took us back to the café, my rucksack was indeed there, Lady Burton used their toilets and we hopped on a bus back down, not even paying the fare this time!

Needless to say it was straight up the avenue via a couple of shops, a quick pasta tea and Mary curled up with a book while I switched on Hungarian TV and the Gods were smiling on me as I stumbled on Barcelona v Juventus live! Great game too. Pity the Celts took such a beating but it sounds like PSG were something else!

That’s it. Hope you’re not too tired keeping up our pace but that’s what touring is like. Same again tomorrow? Hope not.

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Sent Mary to the shops for a couple of beers

 

Trains

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Right! So we are one week into our rail trip to places beginning with the letter “B” (OK not Munich but it’s in Bavaria!) and as we are settled on the train to Budapest just now, I will try to give you a summary of how it has been as regards the travelling.

Maybe it was being brought up on South Road with the old railway line right across from our living room window, or maybe it was my memories of steam train journeys to and from Leeds to visit my English grandparents, but I’ve always loved travelling by train. Especially on European trains, I find them interesting, romantic, comfortable, well-priced and very relaxing. It is totally de-stressing to sit back on a comfortable seat and watch mountains, rivers, lakes, forests and little villages wizz by your window. Mary finds it so as well and because we’re not in a hurry, 2-4 hour trips are a doddle and give us serious “chill” time. Heavens, I’m writing this on my iPhone as we roll through southern Slovakia towards the Hungarian border and onwards to Budapest! This train is smooth, clean, quiet and sickeningly punctual as most of them seem to be.

Compared to the many flights we’ve had, the train comes out a clear winner. No 2 hours beforehand, no baggage restrictions, room to breathe and arrival in a city centre means it’s no contest if you have the time which you really do in Europe. Nowhere is very far away and borders are still crossed with impunity. Remember that, Brexiteers.

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Main station Budapest

Anyway, we reached Budapest around 4 and walked the half-mile to our apartment which was not terribly easy to find, requiring me to call the landlady to get her to come down and greet us. Our first impression was reserved to say the least. But when she opened the door to our apartment … Well, we found ourselves in a 3-room flat of the old Empire style with high ceilings, a huge amount of space, fully-equipped kitchen, all mod cons and all of this overlooking one of the great boulevards of Budapest. This was a massive plus for us in financial, cultural and convenience and comfort terms. If you want the details just send us a message.

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Main room 1

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Main room 2

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And look what’s along to the left…. Tesco!

The landlady proved to be overwhelmingly helpful and we almost had to throw her out to get a chance to settle down. Mary put on a washing, jumped in the bath and I went out to get some Hungarian Florints at an ATM. My stomach then took me to a Turkish carry-out where Schnitzel and Rice set me back 1200 florints! Thankfully that translated into 4 Euros so I kept that smug grin on my face.

While we were at the station we decided to buy our ticket back to Vienna on Thursday morning, the 08.40 express. Imagine our delight when the price proved to be 30 Euro LESS than we’d read on the Internet at 13 Euro each! Check that out if you want: window seat reservation on international express Budapest to Vienna. Even we are a touch gobsmacked at that bargain.

For tea we decided to eat in, so popped over to the supermarket opposite (don’t ask me to tell you its name: it was something akin to ” caramel pavlova”) (just way too many “y”s and “z”s in between!). A spaghetti and mushroom concoction was then prepared back in our apartment, accompanied by  Pilsner Urquell, Hungarian Merlot and Cola Light. I leave you to puzzle over who had what! The rest of the evening was devoted to reading up the history of Hungary and Budapest in particular and planning our next 2 days.

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Towels folded into a swan shape on our bed

Question: which Hungarian footballer led the attack for the Real Madrid team of the late 50s/early 60s when they dominated the European Cup? No using Google!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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