Thursday, 31 July 2008

Bang goes the stereotype

The image of the Swiss is that of a quiet, contemplative, clean and perhaps a little insular nation. You would never imagine rampaging hoards running around the streets, smashed out of their skulls on larger and setting of fireworks everywhere.

The stereotype holds for the vast majority of the population for 363 days of the year.

Then you hit National Day, or more importantly in today’s instance, the Eve of National day, and the second type of Swiss arrive.

Walking back through town this evening I was convinced I was in the UK on a rowdy Guy Fawkes night, only they hadn’t seen the horrible public safety films at school about setting off fireworks! Not a major Swiss city.

It’s always so clean

I’ve always thought that Switzerland is clean and tidy, but I hadn’t really realised how much.

A lot of people, myself included, would put the UK down as being quite grubby and dirty in places with lots of graffiti and urban decay. However, when compared to Poland, and in lots of cases certainly to Berlin if not other parts of Germany, The UK itself is tidy. Yes there is graffiti, and there is rubbish around the place. But in most instances it is cleared up within hours or at worst a couple of days. The most noticeable thing in the UK, which has changed a lot in the last few years, is the absence of dog-mess. Across Poland and in Berlin it was evident in a number of places.

Consequently, sitting on the train from Zurich I was struck by the total lack of graffiti, the absence of rubbish (not even cigarette ends) everywhere.

I found myself carefully eating a pretzel over the bag just in case a grain of salt should fall off and despoil the streets.

And, perhaps that is the problem. I’m kind of used to clean-ish streets at home, but it doesn’t matter if you accidentally drop a bit of salt, or a crumb of bread. Switzerland feels just a little too much like it’s still wrapped in the plastic it was delivered in. Like a collectable car, worth so much more monetary wise still sealed in its perfect original packaging, but lacking the human emotion of one that’s been played with and enjoyed.

I love Switzerland, but maybe they could just relax a little.

Small victories are always the sweetest

There has been a quiet war being waged in Europe. It’s been between the “faceless bureaucrats” in Brussels and the German Capital, but at the same time it’s been a war that all of Europe could have been effective by, if the Germans had lost.

Brussels had the, in reality, eminently sensible idea of standardising all European traffic signals so that they all looked the same and there would be no confusion.

But, this threatened an identity that had slowly been asserting itself. Western Germany had always used what is politely described as “Euroman” the Red and Green Men at traffic lights. Euroman is pretty similar to the ones used in the UK. Eastern Germany had a more cheerful character with a jauntily cocked hat and a look of speed in green mode. Since the fall of the wall “Osties” the identity that former East Berliners, and East Germans, started to describe themselves as, have held onto the figure. In Berlin it was always a way of telling where you where. Did the little green man have a hat – Yes, you were in the former East Berlin, No, you were in the West.

But the EU rules would have done away with the Ostie man and given then “Euroman” instead.

After years of fighting this it looks, at least in Berlin, that a victory has been won. Not only is the Ostie Green Man still in place, but also all new traffic lights in the city carry the charismatic crossing device. He can even been seen on that most Capitalist of places the Kurfurstendam.

Perhaps this is the new threat from the East, and it is still Red (apart from the ones that are Green)

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Relentless Change

This is my third trip to Berlin. I originally visited in February 2004, again in Feb 2006 and now again in July 2008.

The thing that keeps striking me about the city is how much it keeps changing. Spaces which were the wasteland of the old death strip at Postdamer Platz in 2004 became home to gleaming office blocks and parks by 2006 with only a few vacant lots. Today, even those lots have gone, as have some of the buildings put up by 2004 to be replaced with even newer even shinier buildings.

Across at the Huptbahnhof the story is the same. In 2004 there was just a small S-Bahn station called Lehrter Stadtbahnhof. This was surrounded by acres of wasteland and a drab and frankly scary looking bit of the river Spree.

In 2006 construction work on the Hauptbahnhof was nearing completion (it opened a few months after I visited and just a couple of weeks before Germany hosted the World Cup, the absolute deadline for the completion of the project), but the site was still a mess.

Today the stunning station with it’s graceful glass roof and cavernous interior is surrounded by parkland, the area to the Reichstag a green walkway through the city, and the Spree with cleaned bridges and walkways boasts riverside bars and even a beach.

Meanwhile in London plans for a Beach on the Thames have quietly faded away since the change of administration at City Hall. It took nearly eight years to get, nowhere.

Come on London, If Berlin (a city that is almost Bankrupt because of all the rebuilding costs) can achieve all this so can you!

If at first you don’t succeed, change the rules

Shock!, Horror!, my train from Poznan was on time. Despite having travelled all the way from Warsaw it actually pulled into the station a couple of minutes early.

Or at least it did according to the indicator boards on the platform. For this was not the delayed 10:20 service, no, no, this was the on-time 10:42 service.

Which promptly lost time and was a quarter of an hour late into Berlin.

So my final encounter with PKP was as delayed as my first. 10 out of 10 for effort, I won’t comment on achievement.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

That was fortuitous

When I was booking this trip I had looked at various options for getting from Berlin to Zurich. The train took far too long which only left airlines, of which there were only two which flew the route, Lufthansa and AirBerlin. Their prices were almost exactly the same and there was very little difference in timings.

I decided to go with AirBerlin, only because I hadn’t flown with them before.

Today I’m feeling horribly smug as a strike by Lufthansa staff has started to hit with flights on many routes (and by the pictures on EuroNews this included flights to Zurich) being cancelled.

Just to feel extra smug (and to ensure that something goes spectacularly wrong because of my hubris) I checked the current prices of seats on my flight. Now selling at €250, I paid €1

Poznan closed for redecoration

What I had planned to be a packed day of museums and sights turned out to be a bit of a damp squib.

The museum to the Poznan uprising, which started after World War I to ensure that Poznan was part of the re-created Poland rather than Eastern Germany, was closed for reorganisation

The Museum of Musical Instruments was closed for redecoration

And the Archaeology museum was just closed for no apparent reason.

Does Poznan want tourists? Well, No, they do rather well from being the main trade fair site in Poland so they can probably afford to have all their museums shut if they wanted to!

Monday, 28 July 2008

Getting there

Well, PKP (Polish Railways) managed their best effort yet. The train for Warsaw to Poznan left on time (but then it did start at Warsaw so that wasn’t going to be so difficult!).

It did arrive into Poznan late, 20 minutes after its original due time. I wonder how much of that was down to the fact the train is a cooperation between PKP and Germany’s Deutscher Bahn.

Warsaw Knee

I’ve noticed that a very large number of Warsaws citizens appear to be wearing some form of strapping on their knees.

I wonder, is this some form of new fashion, or are the cobbles of Warsaw as lethal as I thought they looked.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

An ode to Andrex

I’ve had an upset stomach today. I’ve been making regular stops for “comfort”. Thanks to the only paper that is available in Poland it is now painful to sit down.

For future reference: All-ways pack a roll of soft tissue paper!

I could never have survived austerity conditions.

An Ode to AirCon

I’ve just wandered down to breakfast, and on the way walked passed an open door. I thought for a moment that a heater must be on the blink as the wall of heat that engulfed me for a second or so was un-imaginable.

Just in case I decided on a closer look and discovered that the source of the heat was approximately 8 light minutes away being the large glowing object currently rising high into the sky.

On walking back into the hotel I was hit by the cooling sensation of air-con set to “freeze” mode.

I dread to think what it has done to my carbon footprint (ignoring on the one had the obscene number of flights I make and on the other the fact I have never owned a car), but with the temperatures, and more importantly the humidity at these levels at 9am I am glad for AirCon.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Introducing the CathDaq

CathDaq is something that myself and a couple of friends have been playing since we first went to Krakow in 2005.

The rules are very simple, you need to keep a tally of the number of members of religious orders that you see first. It is customary to call out “Nun”, “Monk” or “Priest” when you spot one.

Like the stock market some orders are worth more than others due to their rarity, or on some occasions, appearance in the news, or if they are in an odd location (though you should also be able to justify your presence!)

Trainee or novice monks and nuns are worth extra as are abbots, mother-superiors, bishops, arch-bishops, cardinals and pope(s).

But, the key rule is, The Vatican and other obviously religious places such as churches, monastery’s and cathedrals are out of bounds (that’s insider trading)

Clearly signposted events where large numbers are in attendance are also out (i.e. going to an event where the Pope will be present gets you nothing. You can only score a “Pope” if you casually bump into him on a street or if you get a personal audience outside of the Vatican.)

Variations of this are also available for other denominations and faiths. If you are particularly up on your religions you may want to take part in ID-100 (Inter-Denominational index of the top 100 Christian denominations) or the IRex the Inter-Religious index.

Architectural notes 2

Ibis architects strike again, when overlooking a major tram junction and converting an old Soviet office block, you could sound proof the rooms, or you could just leave them as they were so that every tram can be heard, even down to the bell sounding to announce the doors are closing.

Friday, 25 July 2008

European Harmony, We all agree the Germans are obsessional

Whilst waiting at Gdansk station I was able to earwig a conversation that was going on between two friends.

Based on the accents, she appeared to be Polish, and he was probably French. Together they were chatting away in their shared mutual language of English (it’s a hard life being a fluent speaker of the worlds Lingua Franca).

They were discussing the inevitable delay on his train out of Gdansk (his was even more delayed than mine). She was saying the effectively anything less than 15 minutes late was on time, and that they only normally announced delays to trains once it had passed this time, but you should only worry if your train hasn’t arrived within an hour of its scheduled time.

He mused on the decline of the French railways and how their trains were always running late, and then he mentioned the Germans.

They both agreed that the Germans were obsessional with time keeping, to the point of madness, and that Germans would go nuts if their train is more than a minute late.

Having been on a German train that was running late I am happy to say that the Germans don’t go mad, they like their English counterparts, just grumble about how bad the service is, and it never used to be like this.

But it was interesting to see that even in this time of European Union and Harmony the old divisions are still there. The Poles, French and Brits united in a conviction that the Germans are obsessed with time keeping. Now where did I leave my umbrella and cricket bat, it must be time for a cup of tea!

Aspirational, but wrong

Well, I finally arrived in Warsaw, a little bit late. Once again the Polish railways strike, and they had been doing so well. The train was to all intents and purposes on time when it arrived in Gdansk, pulling into the station just 10 minutes after it’s advertised departure time

Sadly, something (I think in Britain it would be referred to as “a-delay-on-a-preceding-train-in-the-Warsaw-area”) held the train up and we eventually pulled into Warsaw Centralny station just over 55 minutes late. I was the lucky one. I was the last to join my compartment at Gdansk, and the first to leave. As the train had started at 6am in the very North West of the country, and was continuing onto Krakow, I didn’t bear to think how late it would be by the time the final passengers got off.

To add to my fun, and in a repeat of Gdansk, albeit this time I didn’t get caught out, as I walked out of the station there was a massive clap of thunder and the heavens opened.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

You wanted a tour; we’ll give you a tour

I’ve been to my third site in Poland where you have to go on either a compulsory, or advisory, tour.

The first was at the Salt Mines in Wieliczka, you had to go on the tour so you didn’t get lost, the second was at Auschwitz - Birkenau in Oświęcim, where it was recommended to go on a tour to fully understand the site (and in some ways offer an element of support for what is an emotionally draining location) and the third was today at Malbork castle, where you have to go on a tour if you want to get in!

Whilst the three tours all had very different reasons for existing, they all had one thing in common, the length.

These were epic tours lasting around the three hour mark. Everywhere else I have been guided tours last just over an hour, or at most 90 minutes (see for example the guided tour of the Vatican Museum, though if you include the two hour wait to get in…)

So the question has to be… If the Poles can do it, why can’t the rest of Europe?!

Be aspirational, even if you are wrong

It’s always good to be aspirational, aspire to what you want to achieve, not what you are currently able to achieve.

Perhaps not so good to be aspirational if you are the bloke in charge of timetabling for Polish Railways.

It could be that I’ve been using them at a bad time, or it could just be simple old misfortune, but every train that I have caught, waited for, or just seen advertised on an adjacent platform has been late mostly by over 5 minutes, sometimes more.

Yesterday my train from Hel did leave on time, but arrived in Gdynia 15 minutes late, for no apparent reason, it didn’t stop anywhere it shouldn’t have; it didn’t appear to go particularly slowly anywhere.

Today, my train to Malbork was over half an hour late, or it could have been 20 minutes late as the indicators on the platform showed a completely different time to the timetable!

I’m hoping it’s just a spot of bad luck, and that my journeys from Gdansk to Warsaw, Warsaw to Poznan and Poznan onto Berlin are all on time, but somewhere at the back of my mind I doubt it, the people waiting at Gdansk this morning had a very familiar expression… “The 8:15’s late, again, fourth time this week, what a way to run a railway, they do it better on the continent you know…”

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Go to Hel(l)! It’s actually quite nice

After being told it on many occasions, I have taken up people’s advice and gone to Hel.

This Hel has long sandy beaches, an aquarium and is easily reachable from Gdansk.

Located on a long spur of land that juts out into the Baltic the Hel Peninsular can keep the English speaking tourists in jokes for hours (helped by the Polish sense of humour by numbering the bus that serves Hel town itself 666)

I did Hel the scenic way, out on the Ferry Tram from Gdansk to Hel and then back along the peninsular and along the coast by train.

This now means I have been to both Hell (Norway) and Hel (Poland) in the year and have discovered them to be frozen over and very pleasant.

So the next time someone tells me to go to Hell I will tell them – Thank you for the recommendation, but I’ve already been, it was very pleasant

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The glorious smell of burning flesh

After yesterdays inclement weather I went out prepared for the worst. My jacket in my bag, jeans rather than shorts and a plastic bag inside my backpack to preserve my still waterlogged but just about useable guidebook.

Within about an hour it was obvious that I had over prepared. Not a cloud in the sky, and more importantly little in the way of shade (outside of being forced to sit in a street-side café with a large glass of beer and your feet up!)

By the time I eventually stopped for lunch it was obvious that the main thing cooking was me. I had a quick hunt through my bag and then remembered the conversation I had had with myself in the morning that was pretty much, “won’t bother with the sun tan cream, won’t need it”. To quote the great philosopher Homer “D’oh!”

I spent most of the afternoon indoors, so it prevented me from getting any worse, and as my skin didn’t actually feel too hot I think I might just have gotten away with it…

Monday, 21 July 2008

The sacred art of guidebook drying

To say that the weather has been changeable this afternoon would be a bit of an understatement.

After a pleasant wander around the town and a short stop for a late lunch, I caught the ferry up the river to Westerplatte. This small spit of land poking out into the Baltic had a traumatic life during World War II. It was here that at dawn on September 1st 1939 the German ship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire. These shots marked the start of the invasion of Poland and by the end of the day the continent would be mobilising and two days later War would officially be declared.

The area has not been rebuilt and a few bombed out buildings, slowly being reclaimed by nature, and a statue is all that remain. It is well worth a visit, but possibly not during the middle of a massive thunderstorm.

In an attempt to keep sort of dry I sheltered under a tree until a really big flash of lightning nearby reminded me that sheltering under tress in a storm is a silly idea, so I managed to run to a nearby bar and shelter under an awning.

However, the rain was so hard, and kept getting harder, that it managed to penetrate my bag and turned my nearly new guidebook into a soggy mess. As I type this I have the heater in the bathroom up to full blast with the book lying open in front of it in an attempt to make it usable, any attempt to turn pages at present results in the paper starting to disintegrate. That’s how wet it was! Of course, 20 minutes later the sun was out and it was all very pleasant again (if you ignore the massive puddles that had formed in all the streets)

All aboard screaming air

There were just a few babies on the flight (at one point I counted five separate sets of screaming coming from different parts of the plane!), and with a bumpy take off and landing they were more screamy than normal.

Still, despite that, the flight was comfortable, and more importatnly on-time. My luggage managed to keep it's almost unbroken record of being about the last off the plane, but it meant that I only had to wait a couple of minutes for the bus into town.

Room wasn't instantly ready, but after a quick cup of tea and a read through the key bits of the guidebook to Gdansk it was. Very nice room, balcony overlooking some parkland. It's all gone rather too smoothly, but I am happy for it to stay that way. Now I've just got to find a cash point which will take my bank card...

Key concepts in architectural design

When building an airport hotel, consider, if it is at the end of the runway, fitting something a little more sound-proofing than bog standard double glazing.

A bit of a disturbed nights sleep with regular take-offs until well after 11pm, a bed that creaked quite a bit (an achievement in a hotel less than two years old) and air-con that was either off or sounding like a jet engine!

Still, I got up a 5:30 instead of 3am, which I would have to have done if I had come from home.

Very quickly through Check-in, scarily smoothly, something is bound to go pear shaped!

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Wonderful, Wonderful, Luton?

Out onto the road again, starting my trip around Poland and Switzerland (from Gdansk to Geneve as I've titled it), in the slightly less salubrious surroundings of the Ibis at Luton airport.

I should have been having a leisurely Monday morning, journey up to Luton to catch an early afternoon flight, but six weeks ago I got an e-mail from Wizz letting me know my flight had been brought forward by over 5 hours.

With the options being getting up at about 3 to catch a night bus and the night train to Luton, or forking out for the hotel and getting up at 6 I decided to pay the charge and book a night in the hotel.

Sadly, as I have now found out, the hotel is just off the end of the runway, but only halfway up the hill to the terminal. I hadn't booked breakfast at the hotel. I might need it now!

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

It just keeps on getting expensive

The current credit crunch has finally started to hit home. I reserved a seat on the Goldenpass train from Interlaken last night for my journey in early August, and the exchange rate was less than two Swiss Francs to the Pound.

I was kind of basing my finance on 2.5 to the pound (it was that last year, why can't it stay the same!)

Oh well, don't think I'll be paying too much attention to my Bank Statement in August, it ain't going to make pleasant reading!

Monday, 14 July 2008

Jumping on the bandwagon...

So, I've finally jumped on the Web 2.0 bandwagon and added a blog to the site. Why?, well as I get more adventurous with my trips the gaps between me making notes on my days and actually writing them up into the website are getting longer, and my memory isn't what it used to be (this is actually a lie, I've always had an appalling memory!)

With the Blog I hope to be able to get some of my thoughts down each day during my travels, which will hopefully help me to write better accounts for the website.

Of course, this could all be a fad, I'll write a couple of posts on my first couple of days on my next trip and then abandon the blog to rot!

We shall see...