Sunday, July 31, 2011

Warsaw - where old is new again

Poland has a population of about 38 million and is a relatively wealthy country with plenty of mineral resources and a well developed industry base. It's not a country you hear much about in Australia, si we didn't really know what to expect. What Warsaw has is a well developed western look to it, with an old town close to the centre, and an abundance of historical buildings in excellent condition.
The view from our hotel room. The Europenas are very good at facades, but often the back is a total wreck.

View from level 12 of the hotel. No pedestrain crossings on busy intersections. Walkways under the road are the norm
 However, all is not as it seems. Warsaw was heavily bombed during WWII, and much of the city has been rebuilt exactly as it was before the war, using photos, paintings, recollections and other documents to restore it faithfully. This is especially true of the Old Town.
These buildings were destroyed in the war and booby trapped by the Nazis. They have been faithfully recreated in the Old Town

Part of the Old City Wall
 There were parts of Warsaw which weren't destroyed, and these were the palaces and other similar buildings which were occupied by he Nazis, and were therefore protected.

Belvedere Palace, built in the 18th century, was destined for destruction, but although holes for explosives were drilled, nothing eventuated.

The gates to Warsaw University survived.

Warsaw has a number of significant statues. One is of Marshall Josef Pilsudski, a WWI patriot, known as Moustache Number 2. Moustache Number 1 was an early King John, and Number 3 is Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader and retired President. Another is of Frederic Chopin, a son of Warsaw, whose statue was chopped up by the Nazis and recreated in the 1950s.

Patriot Josef Pilsudski

Frederic Chopin, polish pianist, under a weeping willow tree, He gained inspiration from its sounds.

The monument recognising the Warsaw Ghetto, is a large and powerful. So also is the monument recognising Poles murdered by the Soviets in labour camps in Siberia.

The front of the Warsaw Ghetto monument. Approx 300 000 Polish Jews were murdered from here. The Jewish population in Poland today is about 1% of pre war numbers.

The back of the Jewish Ghetto monument

Memorial to those transported to Siberia by the Soviets.
We saw a film about the destruction of Warsaw by the Nazis, which was quite powerful, but I'm sure the visit to Krakow tomorrow will be even more so.

Our guide, Yolanda, who was excellent, said that Poles had learned to forgive Germany for its actions in World War II since their chancellor Willie Brandt had apologised to the nation, and enabled the country to move forward with cordial relations between the two countries.

Although WWII left its mark, so too has the Soviet era. One of the biggest monuments was built by Stalin and is called the Palace of Culture and Science. It's pretty ugly and is over 200m tall. There are similar ones in Russia and in Riga, but as Yolanda said, "We're very lucky, we only have one. The Soviet Union built it for free, and we have been paying for it ever since." We took the lift up to the 30th level, and the view would have been fantastic on a clear day, but today was drizzly and the view wasn't terrific.

Stalin's birthday cake

The view from level 30

Following our trip up Stalin's birthday cake, we had another shopping adventure, trying to buy products by picture, and work out supermarket fresh fruit and veg. protocols, while holding up the queue. I suspect Poles are used to queuing, as the cashiers at Marks and Spencer were as slow as a wet week as well.

Well, that's Warsaw. Off to Krakow tomorrow.

Fom Vilnius to Warsaw

It's about 450km from Vilnius to Warsaw with no diversions or detours to reduce the tedium. There's not really that much to say about a whole day spent in a bus. Unless you include storks.

We passed through a number of towns and villages which were quite attractive
One of the Polish towns we passed through

One of many rivers in Poland

It became apparent that the rural areas were better off than countries we had previously visited. There are lots of thickly forested areas, and I didn't see any evidence of clear felling as you would in Australia. There were large areas under crops, mainly corn, and both the farms and farm houses were much bigger than previously.

Large farm with cattle as well as crops and extensive outbuildings

Farmhouse with stork's nest

Then there were the storks. They are quite large here and are the national animal emblem. About 25% of Europe's 350 000 storks live in Poland during the summer. In the picture above there is a large stork's nest just above the lower roof. There were many nests along the way, but as the bus didn't stop or slow down, stork nest spotting became an engrossing activity. Once you found one trying to photograph it in time, in detail and in focus was a challenge. Consequently my efforts  are a bit fuzzy. 
Stork's nest with storks on top of a power pole. Also there is a roadside shrine in the bottom right corner.

We finally arrived in Warsaw, population about 3 million, late in the afternoon afer a tedious day

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Virtuous Vilnius - the capital of Lithuania

We were told that Vilnius has 2 main religions Roman Catholicism and basketball. We didn't see any evidence of basketball, although I think David met a Lithuanian basketballer currently playing for Ireland. However the day proved to have its fair share of ABC - another bloody church.

First we visited the very old church of Sts Peter and Paul, which looked very ordinary and dark on the outside, but inside was decorated totally in white in the baroque style. It had magnificent decoration - hundreds of statues and mouldings, including the circle of life statues as well as a fishing boat, danish style, suspended above the centre aisle.

St Peter and Paul Cathedral



Ornate interior

Suspended boat
Next we visited a Lutheran Church, also in white but decorated in the more restrained classical style. From the outside it looked like a Greek temple.

Very restrained Lutheran Church - looks like a town hall

We also drove past the Russian Orthodox Church with its green roof, and undoubtedly inside there would be little restraint, judging from the many other Russian Orthodox Churches we have visited previously.

Russian Orthodox Church

We broke up our church excursion for a trip past the Town Hall and into the Amber Gallery for a short talk. Lithuania is the main centre of amber.

The actual Town Hall

Learning how to tell real amber from plastic prior to some retail therapy

In the afternoon I visited Trakai Castle, about half an hour from Vilnius. David decided not to go and he and Tony had a game of snooker then walked back to the hotel in the rain since neither had an umbrella.

Trakai Castle is quite small as castles go, with an inner and outer courtyard. From what we were told the soldiers were forbidden from frternising with the local women, and if caught were imprisoned in the main tower. The prison was never empty.

Outer courtyard

The inner castle has 3 levels, with a quite small inner courtyard, surrounded by wooden balconies or verandahs. The main feasting or banqueting hall shows still the vaulted ceilings made from brick made locally.

Large entry door to inner castle

Wooden balconies

Inner court yard

Banqueting Hall with vaulted ceilings

Ever onward to the next destination.
Next Poland.

Riga to Vilnius

Today was a relatively uneventful day as we travelled from Latvia to Lithuania. The countryside is lush and green and the farms and farmhouses are looking a bit more prosperous as we travel further from Russia.
Village with houses right on the main road
 We stopped at Rundale Palace which was designed by Rastrelli, the architect who designed the royal palaces in St Petersburg. At first glance it was obviously his work, as its appearance was very similar. However it isn't as grand, and isn't decorated with gold. The plaster work and decoration is outstanding. Probably the most unusual feature is a stork sitting on its nest fashioned as part of the ceiling decoration.

Front view of Rundale Palace. It was built in 1741 and there has been a stork's nest on the right chimney ever since.

The view from the gardens at the back - more impressive in my opinion

Stork and nest decoration on the ceiling

Other rooms are beautifully decorated, and the gardens have been recreated with hundreds of linden trees.
Floral embellishment on marble

The Duke's bedroom

Day bed for reclining

Part of the gardens

One of the things I've noticed about lawns everywhere on this trip is that the edges are trimmed, usually by people bending poorly using hand shears. The lawns are very long and usually have heaps of weeds in them. feel much better about my lawn with all its weeds now - perhaps it has joined the nobility.

We also stopped at the 'Hill of Crosses" in Lithuania, where there are hundreds of thousands of crosses placed by the faithful, usually to remember somewone who has died, but often as an act of devotion. It's an incredible place.

Some of the crosses on the Hill of Crosses

On the way there we saw a severe storm in the distance with what looked like a twister. It was still quite stormy at the Hill of Crosses but we missed most of it. A bit later on we came across devastated buildings, with sheet iron twisted and blown around and yellow insulation batts scattered and blown.

The other event of the day was the coach driver, Stan, being pulled over by the police for not wearing his seat belt. Many of us were blissfully dozing when we came to a sudden stop. Caused a bit of excitement as we thought he may have been speeding. It took ages for the police to write out their tcket or warning - Stan said they were writing a novel. He was a bit stressed though as he stood outside the coach having a cigarette or two. He doesn't like the seat belt as it rubs his neck, but nevertheless we keep reminding him to wear it, law-abiding Aussies that we are.

Police in Lithuania are as forgiving as anywhere else

Arrived in Vilnius late in the afternoon after an long drive.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Exploring Riga

Riga  with a poplulation of about 600 000 is the capital of Latvia - the second of the Baltic states we have visited. Latvia is much bigger than Estonia, its northern neighbour. Our trip from Tallinn to Riga followed the coast for much of the journey.  

We stopped at a resort town of Parnu for morning tea and a walk on the beach. The beach had no waves and the water was quite shallow, but it is obviously a popular holiday spot with the locals.

David testing the waters

We passed through the border between Estonia and Latvia which is no longer staffed since all the Baltic states are now part of the European Union.

The border between Estonia and Latvia
After passing whrough some fairly unremarkable rural countryside we stopped for lunch at the village of Ragana, at an eatery called Ragana's Kekis. I think kekis is the latvian word for witch, and the whole place was decorated according to this theme, including the wall painting below.

Next we visited Taurida National Park, one of Latvia's popular parks, and in winter a popular ski area. The park features many sculptures, the most significant recognising the person who made it his life's work to record thousands of Latvian folk songs for posterity.

Tony next to the statue
The park also contains the ruins of Taurida Castle, which was built on a high strategic position with views over the river valley. David climbed the 300+ steps to the top of the tower for an excellent view.
Taurida Castle

In the evening we attended a dinner with a folk performance from a group of Latvian entertainers. A fun night.

Entertainers in traditional costumes

The next morning we had a tour of the city, including the old medieval town, much of which is decorated in the art nouveau style. The old town has narrow winding streets, stone paving, an interesting mix of private and state owned properties, a few churches, and the usual mix of cafes and souvenir shops. Some pictures of the old town below.
Crazy mix of archtectural styles

Narrow winding streets

The cloister of the very old Dome Church

Decorative features on a public building

The modern town has several distinguishing features as well.There is very little high rise yet. Also, there are many trees and a green belt in Riga, separating the old and new towns. Coming out of the Soviet era much has to be done to restore many of the buildings but progress has been made.
The freedom monument

The Russian Orthodox Church. During the soviet period its interiors were stripped and it was turned into a planetarium. It has been restored to its former glory.

One of Riga's many bridges

This ugly edifice is known as Stalin's birthday cake