Gertie in Eastern Europe

Old May 19th, 2012, 02:30 PM
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Go to the Vilnius Picture Gallery. There is a painting there of Napoleon's Grande Armée in front of the Town Hall in the winter of 1812. The Town Hall looks the same today.

If you have an interest in the fate of The Jewish community in Vilnius, take yourself to the Genocide Museum and marvel at how it is represented.
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Old May 19th, 2012, 07:46 PM
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What countries are Riga and Lietuva in?
Enjoying your report.
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Old May 19th, 2012, 09:55 PM
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"I enjoyed the fumes." Love that quote, gertie. This is the kind of report I most enjoy, light and breezy. More, please.
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Old May 20th, 2012, 09:21 PM
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Thanks for your kind replies.

Riga is in Latvia.
Lietuva is the Lithuanian name for Lithuania.

Tragically I missed the picture gallery in Vilnius and although I paced the streets looking for signs of the Jewish community, I didn't see the museum. Shame on me. But thanks for the info, will be there for sure next time....have already seen that Ryanair and more pleasantly Wizz Air fly there.

There is more coming. I was on my feet for most of 12 hours yesterday and although I don't write with my feet, my fingers seem to have come out in sympathy.
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Old May 21st, 2012, 07:45 AM
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We're waiting.....
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Old May 21st, 2012, 11:19 AM
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What a joy the bus was, even though it was 8 hours and I had been apprehensive. 6 euros well spent. We drove along straight straight roads through bright green countryside which must stretch for hundreds of miles in all directions. Very little sign of human habitation, this bit of Europe is quite empty. I have definitely left the Baltic behind and arrived in central Europe.

Too many things to do here and not enough time. Yesterday I spent a Sunday watching Varsovians enjoying their city, walking their dogs and families, eating and drinking and filling the Old Town with colour and style. The street cafes were packed and the streets full of wandering minstrels. Most people seemed to be under 40, i.e. not even born last time I was here. It was their grandparents who scowled and growled at me back in the day. It was beautifully sunny, hot enough for even me to throw off my big sweater and woolly socks.

I was last here in 1972 when all was Soviet grey and the only word I heard was 'Nyet', and now I find this city totally unrecognisable. Last time there had been vast open spaces where the place had been smashed to smithereens, and now it has sprouted with new apartments, hotels and offices. One of the not-to-be-missed newish sights is the Uprising Museum. What an experience. I was there for hours. Because history is written by the winners and the last lot of winners only left in 1989 or so, the real story of the Warsaw Uprising had been obscured by the mists of Soviet propaganda. They have done a magnificent job in the museum. Nearby there are bits and pieces of the old Jewish Warsaw, very tiny bits and pieces because that too was decimated. A new Jewish museum opens next year.

The Old Town has been reconstructed from nothing in the last 60 years, one thing the Soviets got right. You would never know it's a reconstruction, though it does suffer from Disneyfication. I took a stroll across the river to the Praga district which is a real working-class district where real people live. Definitely the place to stay next time. It was hardly damaged in WW2 and parts of it look like the old East End, crumbling red brick which has seen better days, the shop windows still display the stuff they displayed 40 years ago, there are little courtyards behind the tenement buildings, each with its own shrine. We may be all Europeans now, but some animals are more European than others.

Finished the day with a concert by students of the Chopin Music University. Scenic young musicians playing 20th century French music. It seemed the right thing to do in the evening in Warsaw. As museums are closed on Mondays (why do I keep forgetting?), tomorrow I'll be having my fix of the Chopin museum before I get the train to.....

TBC
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Old May 23rd, 2012, 06:13 AM
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Krakow next?

Great report--please don't get tired of writing!
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Old May 24th, 2012, 11:23 PM
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The train to Krakow was a joy: non-stop, I had a whole compartment to myself and could sing along to my IPOD without embarrassing myself or anyone else. 3 hours of comfort and luxury, even drinks and snacks to accompany the bucolic scenes out the window.

I was out and looking at the Old Town within minutes, what a beautiful place. So many churches, spires and towers, all kinds of activity in the market square and hundreds of groups of schoolkids rampaging around. And what a huge square…the largest in Europe allegedly. It has been a herculean task to bring half a continent out of the Dark Ages in the last 20 years, but the Poles have done a magnificent job and their two show cities are spectacular.

I spent the next day in Kazimierz, the Jewish neighbourhood which is becoming trendy, full of egdy bars and restaurants. Sinagogues on every corner, Israeli tour groups, a very interesting museum, a cemetery or two, bits of the ghetto wall, and a touching installation of chairs representing the furniture Jews had to get rid of. The Schindler factory, now a museum. No schoolkids.

I rattled around on the trams and clattered over the cobblestones, meandered through the parks and stuffed myself with ice-cream. Gawped at the ceiling in St Mary’s Basilica, listened to the trumpeter, had a posh coffee in the Wawel castle grounds but was put off the cathedral by the afore-mentioned groups of kids. I think every Polish schoolchild was there today.

Finally there was Auschwitz. I won’t say anything. Read Primo Levi.
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Old May 25th, 2012, 08:25 AM
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So glad to hear about the revival of the Jewish quarter! When I visited in 2004 it seemed that it was being swaped by new apartment blocks, and the last remnant of Jewish identity would disappear.

About Auschwitz - it took me at least a week to recover.
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Old May 25th, 2012, 11:25 AM
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gertie, we didn't get to Auschwitz - those chairs were enough for me. very haunting. {i think that it's a personal decision whether to go to a concentration camp, and I wouldn't dream of criticising those who go, i just can't face it myself].

we loved Krakov, but like you never got into the the Cathedral - it was too packed for us.
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Old May 28th, 2012, 02:43 AM
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Another wonderful bus journey but this time over the Tatras mountains on windy roads, past ski resorts mothballed for summer, through spa towns, clipping the edge of Slovakia and into Budapest late evening. Amazingly enough a couple of Americans on my bus were staying in the same hotel and these were super-efficient people: had the route on the metro mapped out and even had little cards with everything written down. I was impressed; we got there in good order and in record quick time.

Spent the first day north of the city, in the Danube Bend area. This includes the old capital Estergom, Visegrad, and a tourist-infested town called Szentendre which had the usual pretty houses, cobbled streets and a large variety of churches. We had a guide who talked the whole time, my ears were ringing, impossible to take it all in. Lovely trip back for an hour by boat, the best bit of all was arriving in the city centre on the river in the golden evening light.

I was relieved to spend the next day all alone to rediscover Budapest. What a beautiful city it is and how much has changed since last time. The queues for the little funicular up Buda hill were so long that it was much quicker (and better for me) to walk. And once at the top it was a battle to get through the crowds and the tour buses. But a couple of streets over there was no-one there and I found a nice lunch spot overlooking the Parliament building on the river watching the little yellow trams rattle back and forth.

I had plans for the final day but the rain was pouring down: only the 3rd day of rain so far so mustn't grumble. It's a bank holiday here too so everything is closed. I have met up with the tour group who I'm travelling with all the way to Istanbul now. 14 of them, a real mixture of ages and nationalities but all English-speaking. I'm not good at group stuff, but this is an easy way to cover a lot of ground and I have already opted out of group activities. We leave on the overnight train for Sighisoara, Romania, at 10 tonight.
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Old May 28th, 2012, 04:26 AM
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Yes, I was surprised by the big increase in tourism in Budapest. Sorry about the rain.

Good luck with the tour. Baaaa.
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Old May 28th, 2012, 01:07 PM
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gertie - we went to Budapest a few years ago in the dead days between Christmas and New year, and though it was touristy, of course, but it was not swamped.

we liked it a lot; the hungarian cuisine is well suited to the winter and museums and galleries are well-heated with free garderobes. [the trick is to wear normal clothes with thick over-coats; then you don't get over-warm inside well-heated public buildings].

we did have some snow, but no rain, thank goodness.
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Old Jun 1st, 2012, 02:23 AM
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Woke up in Transylvania. How cool is that? Wonderful Saxon villages which have been there since the 14th century complete with fortified churches to keep out the Ottomans. Lots of German speakers and interesting to observe the social hierarchy: Saxons, Romanians, Gypsies. There doesn’t seem to be much integration, a telling comment on present-day Romania. Brasov is split between the historic old city with colourful houses and pretty churches, and monstrous apartment complexes out in the suburbs. We had a couple of scenic castles on the agenda. Royal palaces in strategic locations which are now trading on the Dracula legend and full of unlikely Japanese tourists. In Sighisoara is the house he was allegedly born in.

Outside the towns the countryside is very impoverished, entirely agricultural with horses and carts; it looked especially miserable in the rain. And the occasional bit of left-over communist ironwork which in a few years might be a modern art installation. Of course you always see the worst part of town on the wrong side of the tracks from the train.

And finally to Bucharest. What a city in transition. It’s a complete building site as they try to remove the traces of megalomania from the communist era and restore the ‘Paris of the East’ of the 30s, or even drag it into the 21st century. Dust everywhere. You can see the various stages it has gone through, most notably the little Orthodox churches scattered about, often stranded in the middle of apartment complexes or hidden in courtyards, but getting going again now and full of worshippers. And as for the People’s Palace, what a white elephant, half empty, a warning to any future power-hungry politicians.
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Old Jun 10th, 2012, 02:45 AM
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Sofia made me realize we were in the Balkans. There was cold wind coming straight off the snow-covered mountains running down the western edge. Reminded me a bit of Sarajevo. Lots of it seemed to be flattened for redevelopment which is waiting to happen. Most of the men look like Balkan gangsters and several of these were taxi-drivers which made for interesting experiences. We approached it through lush green countryside full of derelict houses where people had moved away for lack of jobs. Sofia is a hotchpotch of churches with domes gleaming in the sun, left-over Stalinist monuments and 19th century official buildings. Very few tourists unsurprisingly and very little English spoken.

We had spent several days off the beaten track in Bulgaria, away from most of the tour groups which was very refreshing. We travelled by local trains and buses first through Veliko Turnovo which is an old Ottoman town full of windy cobbled streets which is trying to reinvent itself as an arty-crafty centre. Then to Belogradchik which has spectacular rock formations, caves and a spectacular winery where we spent time tasting, drinking and leaving behind when we left the hotel! Finally to Plovdiv, an old Roman town which is in the process of being tarted up and has the most wonderful Coffee and Ice-Cream café I have ever found.

The last leg of our trip was a sleepless combination of train (probably the last remnants of the old Orient Express sans glamour) a lengthy process of getting Turkish visas at the border at 2am followed by a 4 hour bus journey into Sircecki station Istanbul by 6am just as the sun was rising over the Bosphorus. Took my breath away and certainly made up for all the discomfort.
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Old Jun 14th, 2012, 06:26 AM
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Istanbul, one of my favourite cities on the planet. I lost my group and spent the next 4 hours bouncing around the Bosphorus on the early morning ferries with the first commuters, having cups of coffee and glasses of fresh orange juice on the quayside, walking across and across the bridge, up the funicular to Galata and on the little red tram to Taksim. Back down to the sea and on the tram all the way to Sultan Ahmet. By now the first bus-loads had arrived and there were already queues to get into the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome was full of tour groups and the business of selling everything to the tourists was in full swing. After a reviving fish sandwich under the Galata bridge I fought my way through both the Egyptian and the Grand Bazaars and found baklavas and chai in the back streets. So many compulsory food experiences here.

We had our last supper in the fish market at Karakoy and next morning everyone moved on to the next bit of their lives. I’m quite glad to have space to myself again, no more group dinners, group hugs, communal breakfasts or crocodile marches through town from various stations. Time to slow down again and please myself. I have to agree that these tours cover a lot of ground in a painless way and are a great way to see a lot of places. But just once in a while.

Journey’s end.
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Old Jun 14th, 2012, 06:41 AM
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Gertie...Bravo..concise, colorful, informative..what more can we ask for? Happy Travels for a true traveler. Where to next?
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Old Jun 14th, 2012, 07:27 AM
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Ditto to Bravo, Gertie. Thanks for sharing your sojourn.
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Old Jun 14th, 2012, 08:20 AM
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Wonderful, Gertie! I have noted your report and itinerary for future travels.
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Old Jun 14th, 2012, 10:03 AM
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Thanks for the report. Glad the trip worked out for you. I know that post-tour freedom feeling....
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