Friday, 26 October 2012

Krakow, Poland

Knowing I would be back home for a few months before heading off again, I went ahead and booked a short break away in Krakow for myself and my mum. Taking advantage of cheap weekday flights and lucking out with decent hostel accommodation managed to keep costs down too.

Arrived late at night but figured we'd check out Rynek Glowny, the main square, before we hit the hay and see if there was any action around the area. It was pretty much a straight shot and within 15 minutes we'd come to the square.

As you apporach it at night, the most obvious sights are Sukiennice which houses loads of little stalls selling everything from amber to souvenirs to pottery, the Town Hall Tower and St. Mary's Basicila. All of these are lit up at night and look beautiful.

We sat down at one of the many restaurant/ cafes flanking the square and had a few drinks while relaxing asnd soaking up the tranquil atmosphere. Horses pulling carriages are a regular occurence and you soon realize that buskers work night and day here, well at least until closing time anyway.

St. Mary's
Rynek Glowny (the square)
The following morning proved to be rather drab weather but that wasn't going to deter us considering how short our visit was. Again, we took the direct route to the square and, guide book in hand, started to go through the obvious things on the tick list.

St. Mary's Basilica with its two towers is considered a giant in the Gothic world and although I know nothing about this kind of architecture, it is obviously beautiful. There's a resident bugler who plays the same old tune on the hour til midnight, perhaps later, really hoping that there is more than one person who does it rather than some poor chap chained up in the tower.

Inside is Veit Stoss' famous high alter which takes up the back of the church, just turn right at the visitor's entrance. There are many more alters within the church but designed for actual prayers and worship, not photos and tours.

The Sukiennice, which basically translates to 'cloth hall' is constantly packed with tourists milling around and buying up trinkets whilst sifting through the rest of the souvenir junk on offer. There is the Town Hall Tower and surrounding the entire square is a plethora of restaurants, cafes and bars. It would be very easy to not venture too far from the square at all, everywhere looks so inviting and it would be too easy to just sit down with a drink and not move.

St. Mary's in the sun
Stalls within Sukiennice

Rynek Glowny
Town Hall Tower, Sukiennice, St. Adalbert's Church (left to right)
Within St. Mary's

If you leave the square via Grodska, you are soon led to a few different churches: the massive Franciscan church with its dark and somber interior, the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Andrew's Church and St. Gile's Church. Went into these for some reflction and peace and was surprised at just how many young people were frequenting the churches. Having said that, Pope John Paul II was Krakow's bishop for some time so not that surprising I guess, there are pictures of him in every church.

The end of the road brings you to Wawel castle, the most un-castle like castle you are ever likely to come across. It looks more like a stately home or city retreat of a king more than a castle. To gain access, you walk up the ramp, turn the corner and find yourself within the grounds. At least it's set up on a hill and there is the odd looking rampart so maybe it could pass for some sort of castle.

Entrance to walk around the grounds and Wawel cathedral are free, but if you want to look at the old Royal tombs or climb Zygmunt tower to touch the bell clapper for good luck, you'll have to fork out a little extra.

Once we'd finished scouring the area, we just headed straight for the onsite cafe and took in the calm of our surroundings. Would look beautiful on a nice day, with the well kept gardens and buildings and the cathedral's wild design, with it's many spires, towers and domes jutting out unevenly and all differing in shade and colour.

Wawel Castle
Wawel Cathedral
More from within the grounds
St. Peter and St. Paul's
Church of the Holy Trinity

The weather picked up for the following two days which was unexpected, as you can see some of the photos show a rather dank looking atmosphere compared to those in the sunshine where everything looks amazing.

This made for refreshing evening strolls around the centre and with the ridiculous choice of cafes it was never hard to find somewhere to sit down and get some good food and a beer. G&Ts for mum.

On our final night we went to St.Adalbert's Church which is a little one on Rynek Glowny for a concert. A couple of the churches offer this but we fancied something  a little less commercial and more intimate so went for that one instead, fewer than fifty people can fit in.

Everyone gets a good view of the alter where the quartet are set up, one cellist and three violinists, to play their set. Having never been to a concert or seen anything like it before, I found myself surprised by how much I liked it. Might have to invest in some Chopin CDs.

Loved my time here in Krakow, and leaving with the same feelings I had when I left Holland the other week, mainly, why have I never travelled in Europe before? Definately something I need to rectify in the coming years. Having enjoyed Rynek Glowny so much, perhaps a stop in Brussels sometime would be something to consider. Next time.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Bobbing in for a cheeky German pint

As the weather was so perfect, heading out for a day on the bicycles seemed like a great shout. Armed with packed lunch and typical Dutch brakes in the wrong place (you have to pedal backwards to stop) we set off along the dike running parallel to the Rhine with the intention of cycling into Germany for a cheeky pint before coming home.

Luckily Tim lives right by the border so taking the scenie route is only about 20km, which we covered in reasonable time while moving at a leisurely pace. Obligatory stops for photos and food breaks and the occasional rest at one of the many signs in the Dutch countryside specifically designed for cyclists. There are so many cycle routes here with so many signs it must be impossible to get lost.

Housing along the dike

One of many roads catered for small vehicles and bikes
Local windmill

Approaching the border, and with the brilliant blue skies, we decided to stop off and get an ice cream. The housing had become decidedly less Dutch and the road became less cycle friendly until the very moment you cross the border. At this instant, the cycle lanes disappear and you know you're in Germany.

The nearest town, Elten, was just round the corner. A quaint little village really with a small square with a few cafes surrounding it on one end and a couple pubs on the other. Made a beeline for the pubs but to our dismay and surprise they were all shut. Feeling we weren't going to get our pint we headed into the local bakery for some German cheesecake, wow. So creamy, nothing like the usual stuff I've had before.

We were about to head to our bikes and set off but we were drawn to the pubs again, the doors were open now on all of them and as we looked at our watches we realised that the pubs must open at 4pm. Testing out this theory we went to the closest one and walked into be greeted by a stout looking fellow. Thankfully Tim speaks German too so within minutes we were outside with our big 500ml glasses enjoying the glorious sunshine.

Crossing the border

Yes, cake
More German refreshments

Once satiated, we headed back in a different direction and enjoyed another couple beers at a local restaurant in Zevenaar, a popular town for students. During the daytime, the square acts as host to all those after coffee, but as the evening draws on, the chairs and tables are put away and people just drink and dance outside. Might have to come back this way again I think.

With the sun gone and the darkness setting in, more beers would have been a disaster, especially as I was still not quite used to my enormous bike. Everyone here has such long legs. Another detour brought us home a different way, with the smell of homemade food to welcome us as we walked in the house. What a treat.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Canals, Cafes and Coffee


With Holland being a small country, getting around on the trains is remarkably easy. From Amsterdam to our first destination, Leiden, some 40 kilometres from Amsterdam and literally no more than 20-25 minutes on the train with barely a wait for it.

Once out of the station and after a quick word in the information office so I could drop off my bigger backpack, we walked around in the direction of the town's sights and no doubt a few cafe stops for coffee, beers or whatever else tickled our fancy.

Soon came upon a canal system where there was a square and I saw my first windmill in Holland, got to love the stereotypes. Followed the main canal for a bit before heading down 'Rapenburg' and having  a couple coffees along the canal whilst people watching in the sunshine.

Once on the move again, we made our way through the town seeing the main attractions: 'Pieterskerk' or St. Peter's church which is a big old church along Kloksteeg, the Burcht which  translates to something like castle ruins which is what they are, affording decent views of the surrounding area  and then onto 'Hooglandsekerk' which means Highlands church.

After seeing the sights and wandering the picturesque narrow roads and canals it was time for yet another pitstop at a cafe for some refreshments on a bridge overlooking the main canal street before heading onto Delft where we'd be staying overnight.

My first windmill

View from within the Burcht




Another short train trip brought us to Delft; birthplace of the famous painter Johannes Vermeer, The Girl with the Pearl Earring being one of his works, home of Delft blue pottery and to the New Church which is the burial ground of the Dutch royal family, starting with William of Orange himself.

We arrived in the early afternoon and left just about enough time to roam around the beautiful main square and get our bearings in relation to where the churches of note were for the following morning. With most things closing, this was as good a time as any to have a peaceful night in, but not before some traditional pea soup served with rye bread and bacon, delicious.

As we were heading to Tim's hometown the following day, an early start was required to fit in everything in Delft. It's only a small town which makes this relatively easy and no need for any transportation, everything is within walking distance.

First stop was the main square, home to the city hall and the impressive New Church with it's clock tower which is some 108m tall, the second tallest in the country. We'll get onto the tallest in a minute. The clock tower offers 360 degree panoramic views of the town and perhaps on a seriously clear day you could see all the way to The Hague or Rotterdam, maybe.

The church  is cavernous to say the least, with the tomb of William of Orange dominating the front and the right hand side dedicated to educating the masses on the origins and history of the Dutch royal family with plenty of glass-housed scripts and pictures written out in Dutch and English.

The actual tombs are beneath the church and off limits to visitors so you have to make do with just walking the perimeter of the church, sitting down to enjoy the silence, pray or just take in the scenes of others unfolding around you.

Beyond the square is the Old Church where Vermeer is actually buried. Situated opposite is the Prince's Court, where William of Orange was actually murdered in 1584. Just a two minute walk from the main square brings you to 'Beestenmarkt'. This used to be an animal market back in the day but now is a beautiful little square where all the restaurants around it have their outdoor seating, a real treat in summer I imagine.

New Church


View of the City Hall from the clock tower

View of the Old Church


Just before making it to Loo, we managed to have a couple hours in Utrecht as it lies between Loo and Delft. Just a quick stop really, no more time than to see the tallest church tower in Holland, the Dam Tower, measuring 112.23m precisely we were told. After this we checked out a cosy little alley of cafes called 'Wed' and proceeded to people watch, always fun, over a few beers until it was time to call time on my town hopping and settle in Loo for a few days.

Dam Tower

Old student building
Next stop, Loo, for a break from moving around and a cycle ride around the countryside.

Friday, 19 October 2012


Having been home for a couple weeks it was only a matter of time before I fancied a little trip away in Europe, having never been to any of the usual hotspots famous for European travel.
Therefore, I decdied to head to Holland to see my mate Tim who I travelled with in Mongolia and Chin.

A cheeky flight over the channel brought me to Schipol International Airport and a day of festivities in the Dutch capital could begin, starting with a leisurely walk around a couple of the main squares and canals before our tour around the Heineken brewery.

Just a short walk away from the Central train station is the Dam Square. Countless little roads lead to it and it is surrounded by the city hall, Madame Tussauds, New Church and the Royal Palace. The usual drill of buskers but no guitars here, all cellos and other woodwind instruments, must be in Europe. Oh, and pigeons that will eat absolutely anything.

Central Station

Dam Square

Madame Tussauds in the background

Royal Palace

Hopped on to a tram after ambling around and made our way to the Heineken brewery. It's a big old building where they only make a fracton of the booze they used to, the main brewery is a little further away, this one is more to show you how the magic happens.

Having never been on a brewery tour (don't worry, I'll get to the Guniess factory one day) I have nothing to compare it to  but it was an enjoyable experience. Saw how the beer was made, got samples and a couple beers at the end for my troubles. My only problem is these small continental glasses, no pint glasses anywhere.

Outside the brewery

Canal ride that came with admission prie for brewery

Over the next couple days, time was generally spent chilling out in the brown cafes in the Jordaan area, enjoying a drink and the refreshing aroma of classic Dutch vegetables, whilst intermittently wandering around  and taking in the beauty of the canal system, dominated by the thee main ones: Gentlemen's, Emperor's and Prince's.

Whenever a break was needed, with all the squares of Amsterdam there was never far to go to sit down for a coffee or a beer when the urge arose. By and large it was very relaxing and the weather couldn't have been better.

Down from the 'Konings Plein' (another square) we headed past the Albert Cuyp market, famous for selling flowers, visited the 'Bejinhof' which is the only remaining courtyard in Amsterdam, set with tradional housing with only female residents, had coffee by 'Rembrandt Plein' and posed on the Museum Square with and on the 'I Amsterdam' sign, custom built for visitors pleasure.

As mentioned in previous posts, I don't to museums, however, we thought we'd check out the Van Gogh museum since it was close to the 'I Amsterdam' sign, and, we were in Amsterdam after all. As it happens, the musems had moved location, guess I'l have to go next time.


Albert Cuyp market

Museum Square

Interior of a typical brown cafe

Now as most people are aware, Amsterdam has plenty of culture, both day and night, and as the sun set it seemed only appropriate to check out the dark side of Amsterdam and walk around the Wallen area, also known as the Red Light District.

Having never been before, I had all sorts of images in my head, but aside fromvhaving women posing in windows in next to nothing, I'm not sure what the fuss is about. Wasn't that bad considering what I've heard other people say. I even saw people taking tour groups around the area, not sure why you would bother when you can just amble around the area on your own steam.

Most of the curtains were closed when we got there, busy start to the evening it would seem, but you get the general jist as you walk around. Hearing people haggling a price is common enough and it's always fun to see a half dressed woman shooing a group of Japanese tourists away as they probably scare away punters lurking nearby waiting for an opportune moment to get inside from the cold.

A trip to the sex museum, okay so I went to one museum I suppose, concluded  my time in Amsterdam. Basically it was a three storey building dedicated to porn and sex. Just the kind of place you want to take you kids after dinner, needless to say, I think it was adults only.

Red Light District

Sex show anyone?

View of the Old Church
Of course, you could spend days in Amsterdam visiting the sights and chilling out in cafes and not even come close to being bored, but time being of the essense it was time to move on to some of the smaller towns in Western Holland.