Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reconnecting

Goodness knows how far I've travelled in the last six and a half weeks, or for how many hours (or days). I could work it out, but my poor jet-lagged brain wilts at the very notion. Let's just leave it at 7 flights, 11 rail journeys, one week-long cruise plus four other boat trips, and lots of driving. Being driven, rather, in cars, coaches, a roller-coaster and one ambulance.

There's been history and architecture, art and war, old friends and some new ones, a wedding and a camel, innumerable churches and cathedrals plus one astonishing mosque, lots of good food and a surprising amount of beer (favourite: Berliner Weisse - must be rot, not grun). It's been interesting, sad, funny, emotional, heart-warming, boring, horrifying, painful and tiring. The weather was summer-hot and winter-cold, with rain and an icy Mistral. I hated myself for packing so badly and having to haul around such a stupidly heavy suitcase, and will NEVER do that again.

Right now I feel that I never actually want to leave home again. Mainly because I'm tired, and sore, and have so much writing to do from the trips I've done this year already - but also because though I've seen such wonderful sights, such beauty of so many different sorts, I went down to the beach today and realised yet again that where natural beauty is concerned, a 20-minute drive is all it takes for an eyeful (and heartful) of the best.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Home rocks

I'm feeling rather smug, though it was purely luck: what looks like an insignificant pimple in this crappy iPhone picture is of course amazing Uluru. Even from 39,000 feet, with the naked eye it's still astonishing, so big and so abrupt, and far more impressive than it appears in the photo.

I'd been keeping an eye on the airshow in the hope that I might spot it (and in that respect, the Etihad version is much superior to Emirates' useless maps that couldn't even identify huge Mt Ararat for me last year) and looked out just at the right moment to see it below, on my side - pretty lucky considering we were ripping over it at getting on for 1000 kmh.

And then, some minutes later, I remembered about Mt Connor, the flat-topped mesa you pass on the way to Uluru from Alice Springs that novices always think must be the Rock, slid up the blind and there it was too. Given the scale of the distances on this trip, seeing these familiar rock stars makes me feel that I'm nearing home.

Heading home

... and I'm one of them. Not right at this instant, obviously - I'm sitting at the gate at Abu Dhabi airport waiting for my flight to Sydney and a, hopefully, long sleep under that enviably light and cosy Etihad business class duvet - but I will be soon, for another 13 hours or so.

I'm going home at last, hooray, after nearly 7 weeks away in 9 countries, several of them more than once. "So many stamps!" said the nice young man at Munich airport, flicking through page after page of my 10 year-old passport, looking for the most recent Paris one to put his stamp next to. At one point he shrugged and muttered "Whatever" but then remembered he was German and found the correct page.

It's been an interesting trip, this one, full of so many different experiences: sea-sickness in the desert, lots of cruising on rivers, a wedding, old friends and some new ones, a trip (literally) to hospital, connecting with a dark part of my father's past, being awash in history, and above all, learning about the Second World War in the most vivid way, seeing and touching and being right there.

Not a holiday, in the conventional sense - certainly not relaxing - but rich and rewarding. Though I really could have done without the hospital bit.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Heil hope, dashed

This trip has been so focused on the war, or wars, partly through choice, with visiting Stalag Luft III, but mostly because that's simply how it is in Europe, that today in Munich I just went with the flow and topped it all off with a Third Reich walking tour. Berlin is the other half of that story, of course, but Munich is where it all began and Eric (from the US) was a well-informed and interesting guide around the significant locations. Few are more significant than the upper hall of the Hofbrauhaus where every night tourists come to bend their elbows and sink a few steins in rowdy jollity, most of them probably in total ignorance of the fact that just above their heads is where Hitler announced the birth of the Nazi Party.

It was a very odd feeling to sit there and listen to the familiar story and know it had taken place on that very spot. Even more unexpected, though, was when we left to follow the path of the march of the Beerhall Putsch that took place three years later, from the Hofbrauhaus to the Odeonsplatz, and Eric described how the marchers had been fired on by soldiers. As he told the story, Hitler's bodyguard, "a big, fat Bavarian", flung himself on top of Hitler, taking four bullets for him "which didn't kill him, because of the fat" but in the process dislocating Hitler's shoulder.

Well! I never expected to feel any sympathy for Adolf Hitler, but just for a moment, I actually did. And immediately, I wanted to know which shoulder it had been. "No-one's ever asked me that before," said Eric, "but it was probably the left, because of the salutes." That was exactly why I was asking, of course - remembering all those crisply raised right arms, I wanted hope that my rapidly withering arm has a normal future ahead of it. But no. Scheisse. So afterwards I went to a Biergarten for some elbow-bending of my own. The left one.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cesky varmints

Still in the Czech Republic, we left Prague's seething masses and came south to Cesky Krumlow (which sounds much less silly when given the proper pronunciation, as of course we do, given that Karin our guide is Slovakian - though also disappointed that our memories are so short when it comes to remembering simple greetings and thank yous in the various languages we've encountered). I almost cut this tour short of coming here, and I'm so glad I didn't: it's probably the prettiest place we've been to, and that's against stiff competition.

It's ancient, on a river, undamaged by war or communists and full of winding cobbled streets - well, the same can be said for Prague; but where CK (not Louis) scores is in more or less banning cars from the centre. There are some, but used for access only, and it makes a huge difference to the feel of the place - and the sound of it: I could hear blackbirds singing today, and the river tumbling over the weir. And once it gets to about 5pm and all the day trippers (including - spit - river cruisers from Linz) have gone, it's just lovely, so peaceful and relaxed.

The castle where the photo was taken from grows organically, it seems, out of the rock above the town, and has some most unusual sights inside, including a ballroom painted with costumed grotesques that was like nothing I've ever seen before. It was in the hands of just three families for most of its history, and one of them with connections to the Italian Ursinis has bears on its crest and naturally instituted bears in the moat below. The poor things, a blonde, a brunette and a black one, skulked invisibly under the bridge for most of the day, but ventured out when it went quiet to pick at what the birds had left of their fruit. Not very nice to see them in such an uneco enclosure - but at least it has chiaruscuro decoration. I suppose.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Burdensome

Dislocated shoulder still very sore, thanks for asking, and making taking photos a pain in both senses: so many crooked ones, thanks to doing it one-handed. See? Annoying.

Prague is a great place for getting lost in - because it's so easy, the narrow little lanes winding off confusingly between the tall buildings that hide even the landmark spires (100, they claim); and also because it's fun just to wander and see where you fetch up. It's warm now, the place is swarming with other tourists, there are icecream stalls and pavement cafes, buskers and beggars, touts and tour guides with umbrellas everywhere. The shops are selling Bohemian crystal, garnet jewellery and beautifully-made marionettes, all genuine Prague souvenirs - plus Russian-doll football teams (Tottenham Hotspurs, ManU...), bottles of lurid absinthe and Duff beer, and Italian gelato - all somewhat less authentic.

Our guide, Karin, took us across the old, age-blackened Charles Bridge to show us some hidden bits that were relatively peaceful, the prettiness of the painted and decorated buildings easier to appreciate when not swirling in a tide of rowdy tourists with all their tat and clutter. On the bridge one of the 30 statues has two brass plaques at the base with bright polished spots where they've been rubbed by thousands of people making wishes. My own may not have been entirely shoulder-unrelated.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Checking out of Berlin and into Prague

First things first: never stay at the Marriott in Berlin (or in any other city, probably). They charge six euros  for one hour of internet! Outrageous! Plus they only have a two-slice toaster on the breakfast buffet. And the concierge is useless. Stay at the Melia instead: just as central, free wifi, and excellent staff.

Now, Dresden: full of surprises on a relaxed and sunny Sunday, with students busking everywhere (clarinet under the arches! recorder! flute! My personal woodwind trio!), lovely hairy-fetlocked draught horses pulling carriages round the cobbled streets, a paddle-steamer on the Elbe and a curry Wurst on the street. For a city that was 75% destroyed on 13 February 1945 (bad, bad Brits this time) it's looking good, the buildings restored and the city's triumph, the Frauenkirche, finally finished in 2005 after languishing in a dismal heap of rubble for 50-plus years. The world's biggest jigsaw puzzle, the bits were labelled and painstakingly fitted together again, plus replacement stones of course, and the church has risen again, topped with a gold cross given by Britain, the master craftsman in charge of its recreation amazingly the son of one of the bomber pilots who flattened the city that night.

And tonight we're in Prague, in the Czech Republic, and are going to bed after a lovely trip along the river admiring the reflections in the water of the spotlit buildings that are, for once, all authentically old and totally undamaged during the war. The locals are staying up, drowning their sorrows after losing to Russia in the ice-hockey. Shame.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Against the wall

So, Berlin. It's a lively place, feels young, edgy, messy, a bit out of control. Tourists everywhere, posing with pretend US border guards at Checkpoint Charlie, to the bemusement of older locals who remember the real thing. For what I'd always thought of as a regimented society, it's much looser than I expected: no bike helmets, Segways fairly hurtling along on the road, punters drinking beer at a bar on wheels that they're propelling by simultaneously pedalling, people clattering past in little convoys of even littler Trabant cars, others lifting up 150m in the basket of the world's biggest tethered balloon.

There's still plenty of grand stuff, columns and domes and statues and such - but again, younger than it all looks, mostly just 50 year-old reconstructions. There's irreverent graffiti on monuments, there are nettles along the edges of the parks, tatty pink and blue pipes jink along the roads and over intersections carrying ground water away from building sites. There's still a lot of building going on, and empty sections - for somewhere that's still so focused on the past, the future is very much a part of the present.

And the past? Not shirked. At the Topography of Terror display on the site of the former Gestapo and SS building, Berlin's history 1933-1945 is thoroughly, not to say exhaustively, laid out, with plenty of photos and clear, honest explanations. I was impressed.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Berlin, wieder

Driver Chandor and guide Karin were surprised today - and so were we: on our 580 km drive from Warsaw to Berlin, we were on excellent motorway all the way, so someone's been spending some money. Fortunately, not yet quite enough to erect the planned high barriers along its length, designed to make driving safer in winter conditions, but stuffing up any chance of enjoying the scenery for even high-up coach passengers like us. The lengths of fence already in place are mostly solid, with see-through panels occasionally that I was pleased to note had hawk silhouettes on them, to scare away the birds that would otherwise crash into them. Nice touch.

There were more storks today, stalking through the grass, and some deer, but few other animals apart from the odd tethered cow: small farms across these plains, growing wheat mostly, fruit and trees. Green and lush, but not spectacular, so it was just as well there was lots to listen to. "And now we have to mention Adolf Hitler," Karin began, after summing up over 1000 years of pan-European history delivered without notes.

The day ended with an uber-jolly evening at Ziko's Grill, where there was unlimited beer and wine, an efficiently-delivered 4-course meal that was generally good, a literal joker of an owner who took as much delight in pretending to spill soup on people as the customers did, and a stand-up musician who started with 'Lili Marlene' and 'Valederi, valdera' and ended up with 'New York, New York' and conga lines round the crowded restaurant. Not really my scene, but amusing enough to witness from behind the safety of my sling.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

I left my heart in Warsaw...

Chopin was Polish you know: Polish, Polish, Polish. Yolanta, our feisty guide today, was very keen that we should get that straight, and not let France or Spain attempt to poach him. So were Copernicus, John Paul II and Madame Curie, and they all came into today's tour, but Chopin predominated. At Wilanowa Palace, where we enjoyed the Baroque splendour almost as much as the warmth inside on yet another day of icy wind, we came across these schoolchildren, one party of dozens we saw in the city today, really getting into the spirit of the period - though when this little mock-Chopin sees the photos in later years, he may not be so proud, especially when teased by the boy behind.

The Poles are proud of Warsaw, of what they've made of the 80% destruction after the war, of how they fought back in the 1944 Uprising. They're not proud of Russia's gift of an ugly wedding-cake tower in the centre of the city: "gift", they call it, the inverted commas part of the name - they paid for it with 50 years of communism. But the Old Town that they rebuilt and recreated, using the walls left standing and recycled rubble, is pretty and authentic-looking and no doubt hugely important to their self-image. From a tourist's perspective, it works well, and we wandered happily around it, the Royal Way with its grand buildings and embassies, and then the less appealing modern maze around the Russian monstrosity, for hours today, as the sun finally came out.

This Insight tour is less leisurely than I was expecting: we've frequently had 6am or so wake-up calls, and there's been quite a lot of walking in between the days on the coach travelling between cities. Though I think differently when the phone rings each morning, I actually wouldn't want to change things: there's no point being here and not seeing as much as we can - so even on the free afternoons we've been busy, prowling around looking more closely or doing extra exploring; consequently, despite being so well fed, we're actually feeling pretty fit, and the scales that seem to be a feature of hotel rooms here aren't the party-poopers they might otherwise have been.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Crowd control, deutscherweise

I bought my first pair of shoes, with saved-up pocket money, when I was about 10. They were red: I like red shoes, and I’ve always had at least one pair in my wardrobe since. I saw red shoes today, small splashes of colour in a sea of dull brown, a long, long heap of 70 year-old shoes, doubled on the other side of the room to make, apparently, 43,000. Pairs or singles? Doesn’t matter.

There were so many big numbers at Auschwitz today, 6 million being the biggest – but the small numbers were impressive too, in their way. The one month Helena lived after arriving at the camp; the mere hours most of the Jews lived there, sent straight to the gas chamber on arrival, deemed unfit for work; the twenty minutes it took for the Zyklon B gas to kill a roomful of naked people.

The camp is intact. The brick barracks are neat, the grass between them trimmed. The electric fencing is tight, still ironically labelled ‘Vorsicht – Lebensgefahr’. The flowers in front of the Death Wall are fresh, the trees surrounding the chimney from the gas ovens covered in lime green new leaves. The steps down to the basement cells are very worn, though – that happens after 60 years of visitors, a million-plus every year. It was busy today, thousands shuffling through the halls, eyes everywhere, silent mostly.

The recycling was impressive too. The gold teeth melted down, the hair cut off and woven into cloth, all the belongings, 50kg per person, carefully sorted. Very efficient, the whole operation, especially the mug-shots labelled with name, ID number, dates of birth, arrival, death. Not so the two simple angled wooden posts near the Wall of Death, though, the ones with the hooks: for hanging people by their hands, tied behind their backs, to dislocate their shoulders as a punishment. They couldn’t work after that, so they were killed. Seemed like an uncharacteristic waste of time, to me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Rock and a hard place

Rock salt. Who knew it was made from rock? Actual rock, that's hard and can be carved, and polished - and tunnelled through, for hundreds of kilometres, several hundred metres deep. We only went down to 135m in the salt mine this morning, and covered a mere couple of kilometres, just 1% of the total. It was interesting, and fairly spectacular, and nicely warm on a cold drizzly day. There were tunnels, and impressive timber shoring, and teeth marks on the walls, and long flights of steps, and an incredibly snug lift, little chapels and big halls, the Last Supper and Pope John Paul (a Krakow local) and even Goethe - all carved out of salt. Lot's wife, however, didn't make the cut.

Then we walked round Krakow's old town in the drizzle - unlike so many of these old European cities, it's all original, unreconstructed; though that's not to say it hasn't suffered destruction during its many occupations. Still, what's left is lovely and well worth a wander, even cluttered with school parties and undisciplined umbrellas. The street food looked good, the market stalls were appealing - even better at Christmas, I bet - and every side street offered some new discovery of something old.

I headed downhill, in both senses, and walked through the former Jewish quarter and over the Vistula River to the Jewish ghetto, where there's a square with rows of chairs, symbolising the furniture and possessions left there by Jews on their way to the ghetto, who'd been told they were simply being moved, and so brought all their things which they then had to abandon. Then I carried on to what was Schindler's factory and is now a museum: probably the best-presented I've ever been into. Of course the occupation of Krakow, the walling-in of the ghetto, and Schindler's list is a powerful story, but it was told so well, with video, photos, touch-screens, radio, artefacts, reconstructions, symbolism, art - full of variety but simply done, the facts standing for themselves. And what facts they were: almost unbearably shocking and sad and terrifying. We all know roughly what happened, but it's the individual testimonies that make it so real.

Tonight there was a jolly evening of Polish food, dance and song - but tomorrow we go to Auschwitz.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Another day, three other countries

Breakfast in Hungary, lunch in Slovakia, dinner in Poland: what it is to be a globetrotter! Though in fact it was only a day's not very intensive driving in our comfortable Insight coach through pretty green hills and farmland with little villages of coloured houses with steeply-pitched roofs, and churches with tall spires of various shapes. There were people tending neat gardens, some crop hung to dry on triangular racks, a stork wading through long grass, a deer watching something, lots of clear mountain streams and proper mountains with snow on them.

There were also clusters of horrible Soviet-era apartment blocks, now painted brightly but still eyesores ("though stylish inside!" insisted Karin, who grew up in one), ugly factories belching smoke and smells out into the clean air, electricity sub-stations all cables and transformers, car-yards under tents of plastic banners, and lots of Tesco supermarkets. But mainly it was lovely, the apple and plum trees blossoming white and pink, the woodlands pleasantly mixed deciduous and conifer, scatterings of goats and sheep, random singly-tethered cows chewing their cud, and always the appealing traditional houses, three or four storeys, or just one in sturdy wood.

The southern part of Poland we came in to was especially attractive - and the roads were excellent! And now we're in Krakow, which has not only swans on the wide bend of the river below the towers of the Old Town's cathedral, but an actual salt mine to explore tomorrow. Now there's a thing.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Ugly and beautiful

When the tour guide uses the words "wars of independence" you know you're in a country with a complicated and tragic history. Hungary is in the fertile Carpathian Basin that's been coveted for over a thousand years and successively claimed by Celts, Magyars, Romans, Mongols, Turks, French, Italians, Germans and Russians, some of them several times each, and if I think too hard about all the history I heard today the whole lot evaporates out of my head. Back at Heroes' Square, the four big statues on top of the colonnades represent Labour ("we know all about that"), War ("we've had so many wars"), Peace ("we've had hardly any of that in our history") and Progress ("still waiting") - that's according to Agnes, and she knew what she was talking about.

Later we went to the Terror Museum, in the Budapest equivalent of the Champs Elysees with Gucci and Louis Vuitton just down the road, and tiptoed through the building used first by the Hungarian Nazis (who knew?) and then by the military police, who were the same people in a different uniform. It was stern stuff, well presented and thorough, and though there could have been a bit more English labelling, there was no doubt about what went on there - and on, and on. The voice testimonies were pretty riveting, godawful stories from ordinary-looking people; and then there were the torture instruments, including an actual battered bright light on a stand by a chair in the 'Treatment Room' that made a joke I've often made seem very sick. And there was a gallows (used). It was horrible, and sad, and confusing: just a couple of days ago, in Zagan, we were feeling sorry for the Russians in the concentration camp of Stalag VIII C, and now here they were doing unspeakable things to the Hungarians. Bad people are bad people wherever they were born, I guess.

But there were beautiful things today too: the interior of the fabulous Parliament buildings, the lovely church up on the hill in Buda, and a spectacular dinner cruise along the Danube with all the bridges and best buildings perfectly lit up and colouring the black water.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Bard in Budapest

Knowing nothing about Hungary other than associating it with a Rhapsody, an Uprising, goulash and paprika, most of what I saw today meant very little. The statues in Heroes' Square of men world-famous in Hungary (in my ignorant eyes at least) I enjoyed simply as works of art and historical oddities: the horse's bridle made out of antlers, the Viking moustaches, the man in long robes clearly astonished to find himself in such - presumably - exalted company. We were free-wheeling today, making the most of the lovely weather on an open-topped bus tour with a frankly abysmal commentary - although, European history being the dauntingly complicated affair that it is, that wasn't so surprising.

What did impress us was the fabulous architecture; so grand, so imperial, so beautiful on its hill above the Danube, so artistically laid out. The Parliament buildings knock Westminster into a cocked hat, especially seen from a boat on a hot sunny day with a pleasant breeze. We boated, we bussed, we trammed, we wandered - it was all about ambience today, with violins (they are to Budapest what bagpipes are to Edinburgh). Tomorrow we get the facts and figures.

One thing we found while meandering was this statue of Shakespeare apparently deploring some kind of shoe-related malfunction (but actually bowing) that's a replica of one in - wait for it - Ballarat in Victoria, where we went in 2010. It was created by a Hungarian-born sculptor living in Australia, and recreated for Budapest to 'serve as a spiritual link among the discerning public in Australia [pause for your appreciation of no gags inserted here], Hungary and Great Britain'. Coincidence, eh? Not unknown to the bard himself, of course, as a handy plot device.

Friday, May 11, 2012

All aboard, again

Back on the trains today, successfully avoiding the scenario above: twelve hours from Berlin to Budapest during which I mainly gazed out of the (regrettably dirty) windows and watched the countryside pass by. It was sort of an experiment, to try overland instead of through the air, and on the whole I think it was a success. I saw occasional vapour trails of planes passing overhead whose passengers at best would have seen the yellow of the oilseed rape, but little else.

They didn't see the little towns and villages with their onion-domed churches and brightly-painted half-hipped houses, and the bridges over the Elbe (the river looking muddy brown but nowhere near as doomy as in Wolfgang Borchert's play Draussen vor der Tur), and the flowering chestnuts and lilac trees, the busily productive allotments, and the boats on the river. Nor, to be fair, did they see the derelict factories with peeling paint and broken windows, all the graffiti, the Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks, the power stations with their smoking chimneys.

But it felt good to travel in real time, to have the leisure to watch the day pass by, the sun move from one side of the train to the other, to see the people rushing to work and then, later, out enjoying the sunny evening on bikes, roller blades, walking dogs through meadows knee-high in grass and dandelions, fishing in ponds and the river; before a lovely sunset that I could watch till the very end of the afterglow. And it was good too to be able to move about during the day, wander through the carriages, be greeted at regular intervals by the cheery trolley guy with his beer and snacks. Finally - admittedly, about two hours later than would have been ideal - it was good to end the journey in a new city feeling tired simply because it was bedtime, and not spaced-out and confused after yet another episode of limbo.

Although, whoa, this was confusing: what's Rangitoto doing in the Czech Republic?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hallo aus Berlin!

Who else would you expect to see by the Brandenburg Gate, if not Darth Vader? This is Berlin, and we're part of a permanently seething horde of tourists again, not stand-out foreigners as we were in Zagan. It's kind of a shame: it was quite a novelty being in a real town with real people, who didn't speak English and were slightly startled that we would think they might. There they were, just getting on with their everyday lives, while here of course they are too, but so outnumbered on the streets by wandering tourists of all nationalities that they're the ones who stand out, in their business suits.

Tourists aren't an edifying lot, by and large: chattering away and not paying attention, and cluttering the place up, whether they're the young ones in shrieking, brightly-coloured groups or the older couples in special matching, quasi-military travel clothes. We do bring money, though, and Berlin is as focused as anywhere else on extracting it, whether it's Segway tours along Unter den Linden, bronze soldiers to pose with under the Gate or bicycles built for six to hold up the traffic on.

There's a lot to see here, of the grand and impressive sort, as well as tackier stuff, but today was taken up mostly with house-keeping, returning from Zagan, getting the hire car back to the Hauptbahnhof (a mission, a veritable mission, and all praise to the sat-nav), and finding our hotel again - but we did manage time for some gawping at the vast food hall at the Ka-De-We department store, with more cured meat than you could shake a stick at, and smelly cheeses, and beautiful shiny fruit tarts, as lovely as in any French patisserie, and amazing fish, and displays indicating a predilection for chocolate-coated marzipan that I could entirely identify with. Tomorrow, more travelling - tonight, we luxuriate in a vast bed with separate duvets as light as air, which we will appreciate after the last two nights in a former German military hospital in Zagan, which was as luxurious as it sounds...

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Stalag Luft III

A lump of concrete in a forest; a lump of broken brick in my hand; a lump in my throat. Our visit to the site of Stalag Luft III today was moving, definitely, standing on the ground where Hut 103 once stood, walking on sand dug out of the Harry tunnel, looking at things that Dad had seen day after day during his four years in the camp - things like the brick-lined fire-fighting pond, the theatre walls, bits of broken crockery with the Luftwaffe eagle on the bottom. It was a warm and balmy day, but in winter it gets down to -20 degrees, and the pine and young oak trees growing all over the compound now weren't there to cut the icy wind back in 1942-45.

Marek, the museum director, is a man with a mission and enormous enthusiasm, spreading the word of the camps to local people and seeing it as a duty, to honour the memory of the men who were imprisoned here, and the thousands who died here. That was my surprise today: to learn about adjoining Stalag VIII C, where thousands of Russian prisoners of war endured (and often didn't) concentration camp conditions - all because Stalin wouldn't sign the Geneva Convention. It made Stalag Luft III seem a bit like a holiday camp in comparison, with no work to be done by the officers, Red Cross parcels, Shakespeare productions, model yachts on the pond, choirs and orchestras. But of course it wasn't really: there was never enough food, the boredom was epic, the cold was horrific - and the ingenuity, hard work, determination and courage involved in digging the tunnels was totally an inspiration.

Fifty of the escapers were shot afterwards on Hitler's orders, and their names are everywhere; but there was also danger in everyday life in those extraordinary times: my father was one small stroke of luck away from being shot by a guard wanting revenge for his family killed in a bombing raid. That kind of thing wasn't rare. It all seemed very real today, especially as the area is still used by the Polish tank division for training, and as we walked around we could hear gunshots and the boom of tank cannons, and saw one trundling through the trees.

It was a relief afterwards to find Zagan's pretty centre and sit with a beer and a pizza outside in the sun, joking about how glad we were that fast food is an international language; but actually thankful for so much more than that.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Mentioning the war

In preparation for my day at Stalag Luft III tomorrow, I was reading Paul Brickhill's 'The Great Escape' on the train to Berlin last night, and got a bit embarrassed when I realised I'd put it down with its cover up to get out my ticket for the conductor. I really shouldn't have been: the war is a fact of life, or of history at least, here in Germany, and I suppose every German has had to sort out for themselves how to manage that. Every culture has events in its past that are, at the very least, an embarrassment to those living with the ramifications - even we mild-mannered, low-profile Kiwis have our issues, the treatment of Maori in the early days of European settlement not the least of them.

But of course a World War (or two) that killed millions is another matter altogether, especially when that includes the Holocaust. I was quite impressed this morning when I was photographing (badly - broken shoulder, remember) a bronze sculpture of children that we came across by chance in a side street off Friedrichstrasse near the station, which commemorates the Kindertransport. That was the sending of 10,000 Jewish children to England in 1938-41 - the lucky ones, that is. Other trains took other children to places like Auschwitz. I learned this thanks to the passing German lady who took my arm and led me to read the nearby story boards that accompany the sculpture. She's got her handling of history sorted, it would seem.

And tomorrow is going to be all about the war, as I visit the remains of a prisoner of war camp hidden in the pine trees that line the bumpy roads here in western Poland. My father spent four years of his early 20s there, hungry, bored, frustrated and no doubt sometimes fearful for his safety - with good reason, as we discovered after his death. I wonder what else I may learn tomorrow.

Monday, May 7, 2012

En train

So it's goodbye to Blighty, with its grey skies and yellow fields, and off on the trains again: Eurostar under the Channel to Brussels, then change of trains to Cologne, where I went last year on the river cruiser, and finally today to Berlin, where I've never been before.

Brussels is new to me too, but all we're seeing of it is the big and busy railway station, where an Air France lady took the trouble to come out of her office and tell me to keep better watch over my bags, which I had turned away from to read the paper. Bit unnerving, though kind of her.

Trains are such a novelty to me, like most New Zealanders, that I'm always disproportionately impressed by how people whisk through these large and confusing places, taking the whole system completely for granted. And it all works so well! On time! Comfortable! Free wifi! An efficient railway network is the mark of a civilised society, I reckon.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Big thinker

Isambard Kingdom Brunel: now there's a name to remember. And not just because it rolls so splendidly off the tongue, but also of course because this man thought so big during his busy 53 years. Not just thought, but did. Ships, bridges, tunnels, railways, dockyards... His works are all over Britain, still standing, still used, and in Bristol today we got to know the SS Great Britain, the world's first propeller-driven steamship (just think how important that leap of imagination was) and at the time the biggest ship on the planet.

She's back in her home dry dock now, after a long and chequered career transporting gold miners to Australia, guano from South America (I'm guessing the Ballestos Islands off Peru), wheat from the US, coal to the warships of the Great War, storing wheat in the Falklands, and more. Hauled back to the UK in 1970, she's been beautifully restored and sits like Cutty Sark shored up and able to be walked around, this time under a layer of water on glass, the iron hull below carefully kept in a humidity-free environment (odd, to feel drier under the water than above it).

It's really well done, a big ship with lots to see, lots to learn and marvel at - and on this SUNNY bank holiday Sunday, was being thoroughly enjoyed by heaps of people and family groups, which was lovely to see. Bristol's waterfront was buzzing, with boats and a train, and the M museum was pleasingly full of parents teaching their curious littlies bits of Bristol's pretty lively history. Good day. And sunny, too. Did I mention that?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Old

There's no getting around it: our English friends are old in both senses now. As are we, of course, and I'm currently feeling all of that myself, what with the awkward left-handedness, the stiff knee, the aching shoulder and all. Not to mention the bruise on the cheek from the glasses that have been remarkably high-profile on this trip for frames that were chosen particularly for their unobtrusiveness.

Despite being in shock with the pain of the dislocated shoulder, I was still able to snap at the paramedic who reported that I'd "had a fall" that actually, I'd TRIPPED AND FALLEN, thank you very much. But it didn't help that one of our friends has also done just that while walking along the road and has, at the moment, an even blacker eye (and greener cheek) than I have.We made a right pair, out at the pub for our dinner tonight after an afternoon of catching up in front of the fire with their startlingly ancient and ragged - but perfectly content - cat on the mat.

But, coming from such a young country, it's noticeable that being old(er) in England feels more fitting than at home, what with everything we look at from houses to hills to trees being so very much older - and all the better and more attractive and interesting for it, it must be said. Though, really, it would be pushing it to say the same of Fluffy.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A cold homecoming they had of it

 
Back on what was for a long time home turf, we've eaten award-winning pie here at the Farmer's Boy, caught up with old (and best) friends, tutted once again over the untidy mess that our once-loved former home has become (spied on through the gate), been appalled at the shocking state of the minor roads, and been taken by local guide Mary on a tourist's tour of Ross-on-Wye on what felt to us like a bone-bitingly cold day.

Ross is a busy little market town, its central Market Hall surviving 350 years of traffic along what is now the A40 squeezing past its worn red sandstone pillars. Once, every third business was a pub, every fifth one a butcher's, each with its own slaughter-house. We sneaked into dark alleyways that we never even noticed when we lived here, were invited into a fourteenth-century almshouse which was pleasingly warm and cosy, though the living room was about the size of our bathroom back home, and walked through the cemetery behind the church, where playwright Dennis Potter is buried, and the children have a sad little section all to themselves.

There was a story about highwayman William Lester, mortally wounded as his horse bolted right through the town, another about a love-lorn and tragic young couple, and lots about benefactor John Kyrle, the Man of Ross, after whom the high school is named, where I once briefly worked, and whose students were wandering through the town at the end of lessons, one of them wearing just her uniform polo shirt. Brrr.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Queen's Narnia

Sandringham is where the Queen and the Royal Family spend Christmas every year in private, staying for about 6 weeks. It must be odd to have a house that you only live in during winter - it must always be associated in her mind with cold weather and fires, and chilly walks to the nearby little flint church with its unexpectedly extravagant silver altar and pulpit. "A land in which it seemed always winter", as Tennyson didn't say.

But evidently they sneak in for the odd weekend at other times of the year, the remarkably well-informed guides told us, when they slum it in another house on the estate; so they do get to enjoy the expansive gardens and grounds that today were entirely at the disposal of doughty and well rugged-up dog walkers. In the stables, there are immaculately polished cars - Daimlers,  Rolls Royces, Bentleys - as well as some outrageously indulgent large toy cars enjoyed by Royal children over the years. There's also a rather horrifying room bristling with horns and heads from big-game hunts long ago: three understandably glum-looking rhinos including a baby, plus a stuffed (in both senses) lion and lioness, cheetah and zebra skins, several bison  heads, a whole herd of deer and antelope, and elephant tusks. "Kept in celebration of the taxidermist's skills," the notice read - rather defensively, I thought.

The house, though apparently much modified since its Victorian heyday, is still very cluttered with stuff, all of it with a story that the guides can tell. The one stationed in the corridor to the ballroom which was lined with cases of shotguns including 33 Purdys, and masses of racing trophies and statues, who boasted that she could find something to link with every nationality, was stumped when I asked about New Zealand, though. She's probably still kicking herself. (It's very hard to take photos one-handed, by the way, holding the camera, focusing and clicking the shutter all with your left hand.That's my excuse.)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A dislocating experience. No, really.

Sigh. So there we were, all set this morning for a leisurely cruise along the river, into a Broad or two, stopping wherever we wanted (or could, more accurately), and enjoying the brighter weather which included actual sunshine - and I wrecked the whole thing. Leaping hurriedly off the side of the boat to warn the Captain that he was about to bump the old-fashioned yacht moored ahead of us (crewed by Three Men who were having a wonderful time in the pub last night), I slipped, fell onto my right shoulder and both broke and dislocated it. At least I didn't fall into the shockingly cold water! (Only bright spot).

I can't really recommend a shoulder dislocation, other than its making giving birth seem like a walk in the park - which I was reminded of when the ambulance finally turned up and the nice man gave me gas and air, which I last sucked at just over 21 years ago as the Baby arrived. It's not very funny having invisible veins, either, so it took five (literal) stabs to get a line going. And then, all that swinging about on the end of my arm to manouevre it back into the socket was far from a bundle of laughs, especially being accused of "fighting it". The morphine that came next was a great disappointment, as I slept through the whole trip. Altogether, pretty much a write-off, as far as holiday fun is concerned. At least it was all free! Thank you, NHS, and British tax-payers.

So the ship was abandoned, and we were back to driving round the Broads, enjoying windmills, big skies, huge fields of green wheat and bright yellow rape-seed, hump-backed bridges, flint churches with sturdy square towers, and the rows of brightly-painted beach huts above the stony strand at Cromer. Almost as good. (Not really.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Broadly speaking

I didn't know whether I should be channelling Fanny and Dick today, or Titty and Roger, when we picked up our frighteningly large (8 berth!) river launch for a couple of nights on the Norfolk Broads. It's a classic thing to do, to cruise the rivers and adjoining lakes, or broads, tying up outside pubs and going ashore in pretty villages to buy provisions (lashings of lemonade! Or pemmican?). A wet blanket recently told me that the Broads were choked with badly-driven boats loaded with stag parties, and thoroughly spoiled - but the river was pretty empty for us, and the worst drivers were us as we manoeuvred in to dock at the end of our sail downriver to Horning.

We tied up (amateurishly) eventually, after some quiet panicking, white knuckles and frantic thrusts backwards and forwards [ok, no more un(ish)intentional double entendres]. Then we discovered that there's a lot of walking involved in cruising, as we meandered past masses of thatched cottages, a windmill and two appealing black-and-white pubs, from which we chose The Swan, which was warm and cosy and inviting, and of course had free wifi (free wifi is gloriously common in England now - pubs, cafes, hotels, hotspots - it's just as it should be).

Then we wandered all the way back again for a quiet and still night on the boat, disturbed only by trespassing ducks on the roof, rowdy geese, whistling swans flying along the river, and some post-cider snoring inside. This is a lovely way to have a holiday - once you've earned your captain's stripes.

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