Friday, 30 September 2011

Back to Budapest 3 - Gellert Hill



Rising above the Danube on the Buda side of the river, at the foot of the Liberty Bridge sits Gellert Hill. You cannot miss it! Every night, the Liberty Statue (again, another controversial structure in Budapest) is brightly lit up. Built by the Soviets to commemorate the liberation of Hungary from Nazi Germany, it is one of the few pieces of public art from the Communist Period not to be relocated. Well, it is a symbol of the city. And it would now feel really weird if it was to be pulled down from its perch above the city.

On the approach to Gellert Hill from the Liberty Bridge, there are two major landmarks to look out for. First is the famed Gellert Baths, meant to be the most ostentatious ones in the city. Time meant that the spa was out of reach for this visit to Budapest, but the building (externally) is very pretty to view:



Actually built into Gelert Hill are a huge labyrinth of caves, part of which houses the city's only monastery. Still functioning today, it is a holy site, so no shorts or bare shoulders if you want to visit!



But for me, the main target of Gellert Hill was the summit itself. The day was hot and sultry, the air was balmy, the city was inviting and so off I went. The climb up is pretty painless, if a little confusing. The route up the hill switches and turns but at least the route is scenic. Plenty of benches line the route up and so if you need a rest it is pretty easy on the feet. The key to reachin the summit is to keep heading up. The paths all lead to the summit in the end, so if you go on a roundabout route then do not worry too much.



But the walk up is magical as the views on the way up are spectacular. It is on top of Buda's summits that you can begin to appreciate the differences between the flat Pest Side and the hilly Buda part of the city. The Danube slices through the city, its main artery and on a stunning day, it is a beautiful view to behold.



But the real reward is at the top of the hill itself. There, the Liberty Statue can be seen in all its glory. And it is huge! No wonder you can see it across the city, the actual construction is massive. Because it was built by the Soviets, it is not universally loved. Had it been built by anyone except Europe's number 2 bogeymen, this would be a celebrated piece of modern art. Instead it is like a secret shame, like a foot fetish or an indulgence of Yum Yum's. yes it is a good thing, but something that is frowned upon by society as a whole.



While the Liberty Statue dominates Gellert Hill, the summit also hosts the Citadel. Built by the Austro-Hungarian Empire for protection, it was heavily shelled by the Red Army in the battle for the city at the end of WWII. Today it has been restored and some of the old armament can still be seen. Otherwise it is a modest entry fee to view the inside of the citadel itself. And for those caught short, there is a handy (but pricey) toilet to use inside the Citadel itself. You can also snack on some ice creams (guilty!) in the shade of the citadel before resuming your endeavors!



For me though, it is the view that makes Gellert Hill so worthwhile to climb. Budapest is a pretty city, and I was blessed with a gloriously sunny day. Perched high above the city, the vista across this wonderful capital is truly spectacular! Now a free and open country, Hungary's Capital is really an easy to get to and easy to navigate. It is not exactly a hidden gem after all this is one of Europe's most famed cities (rightly so) and the former Eastern Bloc has now been a part of the EU for seven years, making transport to and from it (especially from the UK) a doddle! However, it is well worth visiting, despite the tourist numbers (but not as much as you think) and the prices (not as pricey as it could be). One of my favourite places that I have been to. Well, think about it, the second year running I have ended up here! There must be something good about Budapest...

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Back in Budapest 2 - Night Life!



Budapest is an incredibly pretty city, but at night, the city takes on a new aura. Last year, it was cold and breezy, the Danube chilling me to the bone. But this year, it was a joyful time to wander through Hungary's capital city at night. The warm weather, the memories of the previous year and the lack of sleep from the road trip made Budapest magical, almost tingly to the feel!

The buildings are lit up, the people throng in the streets, the capital takes on an air of beauty. After all, being one of Europe's premier capital's, Budapest is a beautiful city to wander through at night. And you have to put Budapest into the concept of its history ad location. Hungary, remember, is an isolated country linguistically. Hungarian is really, only spoken by Hungarians. Unlike Polish which has similarities to Slovakian, Czech and Serbo-Croatian, Hungary does not share its language with any other part of Europe (the Finnish link is a tenuous one). This means that culturally, the Hungarians are that more self aware of the status. That they are very different and unique in Europe. This is reflected in their history both recent (bloody) and further back.

And Budapest's glory days were during the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While the jury is very much out on whether this was a good thing for Hungary, in terms of Budapest's it was a time of great civic splendor. Some of the most magical buildings stem from this time period as Budapest became one of Europe's fastest growing cities.



Modernisation has kicked into Budapest. EU money, but Hungary's own burgeoning economy has seen the capital rapidly develop. Much of the Pest side has been pedestrianised, and despite the hordes of tourists (guilty!) wandering through the Eastern Quarters of Budapest is surprisingly serene. There are some great places to eat and unlike a stroll in say, London, the people of Budapest are far more civilised when it comes to socialising!



Of course, the place to head to at night s the Danube. Budapest glistens along the river at night, and the views from any of the bridges are spectacular. My poor photography (and awful camera) does no justice to the spectacular views that you can witness all along the Danube. Across the river, the bridges splinter and cut across the dark waters. And on either bank, the great buildings of Budapest shimmer in the light. The Parliament, the Castle, Gallert Hill, the Pest's entertainment districts. Even at night, the river provides a useful navigation tool to the lost traveler who attempts to negotiate the streets of this beautiful capital city.



As you can read, I am intoxicated by Budapest. Hungary's capital is one of the prettiest places I have visited and at night, the city takes on an ambiance that cannot be described by mere words, or by my awful pics. It may be a long time before I return here, so I will takes a couple more days to blog about this impressive city. And after that, I have to take you, the reader, back on my road trip. Oh yes, after Budapest, there was a lot more travelling that I managed to accomplish...

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Crossings of the River Danube 2 - The Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd)



The Chain Bridge may be the most iconic of Budapest river crossings, but in my opinion, the Szabadság híd or Liberty Bridge is probably the prettiest sight in Budapest! Budapest's third oldest crossing, it was built in time for the Magyar Millennium (in 1896), which was the source of many great public works of art in and around Budapest, including its iconic Line 1 on the Metro.



I have a lot of fond memories of this bridge as both last year and this, I was living but a stone's throw away from here. Close to BUSHO HQ, for me it was the most convenient way to cross Europe's longest river. And yes, during my road trip this year, I even drove over this most iconic of Budapest's bridges. Linking the city's Central Market Hall on the Pest side with Buda's famed Gallert Hotel and Spa, this is a place that sees tourists throng to it. In any other city, this bridge would be the icon of the city, but such is Budapest's beauty, it is simply another way to stroll across the river that runs through it...



It is a great way to cross the river. Trams trundle over every few minutes. And hell yeah, it is romantic place to take a stroll. The river laps below, the breeze is...strong. Ahem. And while there are many sights to see in Budapest this bridge makes a wonderful sight to see in this wonderful city!

Monday, 26 September 2011

Back in Budapest (1)



Last year, life was easy. This year, life is still easy. You get up, go to work and every few weeks jaunt off on a holiday somewhere. At least that is the impression I wish to leave on my blog readers. The reality could be different, but that is of course for me to know...

But a year ago, I saw this magical city for the first time. My first time in Hungary, its capital enthralled me, and introduced me to the world of the former Soviet Bloc. Amazing to think that less than a generation ago, this was under the sway of a different era. I am no fan of capitalism, but the ability to choose your life, to be free in that choice is something I hold dear. 20 odd years ago, that choice was denied to half of Europe. Now, we have choices for everything. It is scary, all that responsibility. But my goodness, it fun! And it was my choice to drive from West Poland to Budapest. 16 hours in the saddle, it was painful, but it was worth it to come to Budapest again!



As I described last year, this is one hell of a pretty city. The architecture is superb, the location is breath taking, and the people are wonderful. They understand that their language is hard to grasp and so are very forgiving to us foreigners!



And there are quirks in every street. More than the long boulevards, Budapest has an eclectic array of sights and sounds around the city. Traditionally seen as the gateway to the Orient, and it is a place that has always had an air of the mystical about it. But there is also a lot of fun to be had here. The Hungarians are very hospitable, and Budapest happens to be one of the friendlier European Capitals I have visited. It is small, bite size, making it easy to navigate. Come on, I drove in this place, that says a lot!



The views are astounding wherever you go. On the Buda side of the Danube, the hills rise over the city, giving grand views over the urban fabric. On the Pest side, the flat side of Budapest's pancake, this is where you party. Dance, food, movies, music, it all happens on the eastern side of the Danube. And of curse, there is the Danube. Europe's longest river drifts magnificently through the city. This river really defines Budapest, with the magnificent bridges that cross the Danube an integral part of the city.



But this is no quaint backwater. Budapest is a capital city, and people throng the streets on their way hither and tither. Alongside the multitude of tourists that visit Budapest, its inhabitants are busy making money, like any other good city on Earth. Budapest is hive of activity (with prices to match). Unlike much of Eastern Europe, do not come here expecting bargains. Instead, you will be paying the same prices as Western Europe. With that in mind though, you get far more bang for your buck. You will eat in better restaurants, stay in better hotels (or apartments - they are worth it!) or spa in, well, some of the best spa houses in Europe! If there is one thing you come to Budapest for, it is for the Spas! They are wonderful!



There's a lot to write this week about Budapest (and when will I get the time?!) and as my second time in a year, I would have been shocked if you had told me this last year. But yes, it is my second time to this city, in such a short period of time. Do not ask me when I will next go back, but hopefully, over the next few blog posts, I can share some of the magic that I experienced in this most wonderful of European Capitals!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Euro Road Trip 1 - the long night drive...

I have never done a true road trip in my life. Sure, I have gone up the A5 to North Wales, I have even driven as far as Manchester. But a true road trip, across a continent, or at least encompassing a few countries and dodgy border posts. No, that is something I had never done until the Summer of 2011. There, at the age of 31, I finally embarked on a grand road trip across Europe, a total journey distance of 1,000 miles!


(The beastie, in Slovakia).

This road trip also meant that I engaged in the visitation of two more countries which meant that I have now visited 35 countries in total! The Czech Republic (which to be honest was really a series of endless highways) and Slovakia (quiet but stunning). And my destination? Budapest, again!

The last year has been a strange one for me. Really, Budapest was like a left turn in my life, but for so many good reasons. If it weren't for the fact that Caution Wet Paint was screening here, I would have never even bothered with Hungary as a destination for years to come. Instead over the course of the last year, I have begun to explore this brave new EU. And my own life, as I have mentioned has dramatically changed, both in what I am doing and possibly where I am heading. But of course, I always remain elusive in my own writings, hinting but never directly telling you what I actually get up to. I liken myself to an open book. I do not hide anything, but I will not be reading directly from the pages. It is up to you dear blog reader to piece the puzzle together, while I give you a shot of the Czech Republic, my first view of country 34...



To be honest, I feel like a cheat. I did not really see the Czech Republic. I just stormed through the country. After getting lost in the Eastern badlands of Germany, I managed to navigate my way into the Czech Republic. My night drive was beginning to turn into a nightmare. So I floored it on dodgy Czech bypasses and highways to Slovakia. My destination was Budapest and I aimed to reach it from the West of Poland in one night.

Oh dear.

But mange it I did. I got flashed by a speed camera in Bad Moscow in Germany, I got fined by the Czech customs patrol for not paying the road tolls and on top of all that, I had to drive on the wrong side of the road!!!

But the morning came and I was driving through the outskirts of Slovakia's capital, Bratislava. Now, rush hour is never a great way to introduce yourself to a country, but I was late. Very late. But I trundled through Bratislava's suburbs with the other mad drivers. Whole they were in a rush to get to work, I dawdled until I reached the Hungarian border.


(That lamppost in the middle of the pic roughly marks the border between Slovakia and Hungary)

Yeah, so in one night I had travelled through four countries - a start in Poland, a wrong turn into Germany, a lonely night in the Czech Republic and a dawn in Slovakia - so by Friday morning I would arrive in the fifth, Hungary. Really, that was only possible because of Schenghen (more to come on that later this month). orderless travel meant that these customs posts that you now see are effectively useless. They are relics of a time when stamps in passports were there to be collected. Now there is...freedom! Okay, I may smack of the European ideal, but in a practical sense, it makes life so easy! And while on old border points like this, there are the old custom posts, on newer crossings, it is so simple to whoosh from one country to the next, you may not even notice the change in jurisdiction.

There are still some hindrances to this European practice of one simple easy area to go whistling through. Firstly, the currencies still change in this part of the world. Only Slovakia has the Euro. Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary keep their own dodgy paper notes (along with 'Sterling') which means that you still need a wallet full of different colours to get from one side to the next. In practice, the border areas will accept Euros, but if you don't have cash beforehand, the exchange rates are silly when paying for tea, coffee and fines.

Also there is the toll system. An alien idea to a Brit, but the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have a road toll system. The Czech Republic sneakily hides its toll booths and signs and instead you have to go to a petrol station to get your sticker. Slovakia has booths at the border points to sell you their toll sticker. And Hungary has booths at the border as well as signs for half an hour in telling you to get your Vignette. Unlike the other two countries, Hungary's system is based on number plate recognition.

Finally, each country has different rules and regulations. Broadly, across Europe, the road rules are the same, but there are little differences. The obvious one when travelling in Europe is that the metric system is used. The world may have adpoted the archaic English language as its current universal language, but no one in their right minds would ever use inches, feet, yards and miles to measure distances, lengths, heights and widths. Of course, when you see a width restriction stating 2m, I keep wondering if that means 6'6". Thankfully, it did...

Secondly, a lot of European Countries require your car to carry an assortment of the following:

Spare Bulbs, Tool kit, First Aid Kit, Hi-Vis Jacket and Warning Triangle(s) in the car in addition to Spare Tyres and in Winter for the car to have Winter Tyres. You also have to carry your driving licence with you at all times (in addition to your state sponsored ID Card or Passport), and have to have all your documentation in the car (insurance, ownership papers).

Oh, and one thing, many of these countries require your headlamps to be on at all times, yes, even in daylight. Poland is a particular stickler for this.

Compare this to the laissez faire attitude of British driving. If the cops stop you (and they do) if they request to see your papers, you have up to seven days to produce them. Of course, the UK's system is far more computerised than the rest of the EU, but it still is an old law that has been around long before I started driving.

The irony is that all of these safety conscious countries have far higher accident rates than care free Britain, despite the facts that our roads are far more crowded and designed for medieval horse and carts rather than 20th Century road traffic...

I will compare our European cousins to ourselves later on this month, but here is another photo of Hungary, where I had my first cup of tea on this long drive...


(In Western Europe, you find product placement. But in Soviet Hungary, product placement finds you!)

I was nearly there. Tea drunk, breakfast eaten, we were off. To the Hungarian Capital, the roads became good (after a torrid night of Czech bumpiness) and just before noon, the suburbs of Europe's eighth largest city had filtered into view. We arrived in our hotel and unbeliveably I had arrived back in Budapest, a year later. If you had told me a year earlier I would be back here after a European road odyssey, I would have laughed at you.



But 16 hours after I started out in Western Poland, I had made it to Hungary's Capital. I had a full weekend here before I would head off back to Poland. So what did I get up to in Budapest, again? Ah, that is another blog post for another day...

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Michief

mischief.

feeling frisky.

me.

yeah.

very.

for lots of reasons.

but also busy.

too busy.

at least sun is shining.

about time.

damn autumn is coming along.

but off now.

will be contacting people in the next two weeks.

yes, life has been busy.

and mischievous...

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Zielona Gora - Unofficial Artwork...

I spent a hell of a long time in the town of Zielona Gora this summer. Part of that reason was for the film festival - Quest Europe - where I was a member of the jury. And when you got time, you take a wonder through town and see the quirks, the foibles, the little bits and pieces that stand out.

Now, I got to say that ZG is surprisingly artistic. In a good way. Unlike other parts of Poland, it feels far more on the nice side compared to other Polish cities. Much of Poland has a feel of deprivation to it, but ZG is one of the better looking town and the air in the city is not threatening but fun and enjoyable.

And so onto the art work. There is a lot of it littered around town. Yesterday you saw the official art installations, but there is a lot of 'street art' out here. Some beautiful, and some the normal works that you notice here and there, but it adds a vibrancy and decoration to Zielona Gora.

First up, I do not have a clue what this is, but it is damn pretty!



Right outside the central part of town, this wonderful wall mural is one of the best I have seen in all my travels. It covers the whole side of the building and really, it is gorgeous. I am a big fan of blue, and it really does liven up this part of the city. I do not know how long it took to make this piece of art, but it was worthwhile!

One of the nice things, is that there has been no tagging on many of the artworks. They have been left in their original state. Imagine that in London? Never!



I do not know what this is, it can kind of be figured out, but let me be honest. It is 5am! Why am I blogging after work instead of going to sleep! Well, it is a nice mural, I loved it, and again, are there any such untagged designs in my home town?



This guy on the right I have seen all over Zielona Gora. I do not know who he is, but he definitely looks like a bloke. That mischievous look, that cheeky grin. He knows something that I don't. What, who, how, why, where, and when? I want to know more about him, but it will be a while before I head back to ZG to find out more...

Well, I think I am done with my look back at Zielona Gora. My East European Road trip actually took on a whole host of new countries. I went from Zielona Gora to Budapest and back again in five days of hard core driving and sight seeing. And being the first time I drove on the 'other side' of the road, I was impressed, and terrified at the same time. Stick around as this blog will detail my very first road trip later in the month!

Monday, 19 September 2011

Zielona Gora - Official Quirks



Zielona Gora is a bit of a cultural hotbed. First of all it is in the wine growing region of Poland. So all around town you will see dedications to this particular industry. Apart from the big guy above, you normally see little gnomes getting very jolly on barrels of the stuff. Oh and there is a wine fest every September...the Polish and their gnome fetish!



And nearby in case you have been naughty during the wine fest, there is suitable punishment for you. Used by frustrated women on their partners due to the drunken hi-jinx during wine fest. All right, maybe ZG is bit of a town that loves it liquor!



Something a bit more Holy. This is the Cathedral. And remember, ZG was a part of Germany. On the side of the church is the inscription of te foundation stone is in German. The heritage of this town, wine making, stocks, churches, are unmistakably Western Europe, not Slavic. Like I mentioned last week, this part of Poland is a fascinating meld of people and culture of a former land now subsumed by a new entity. The tragedy of war and the dividend of the past twenty years of peace.



So there you have it, a small tour of Zielona Gora. Tomorrow I will take you on an unofficial tour of the city...to see what could be accurately termed the Unofficial Quirks.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Zelda Adverts!



The Legend of Zelda is a quarter of a Century, and it is no surprise that I just love this game series. This was the gaming experience that defined me as a child. Just type 'Zelda' into the search bar and you will see me wax lyrical about this fantastic gaming franchise.

But I was trawling the net yesterday and came across this:

The Best Zelda Commercials!

It's nearly 20 minutes, but for me it was a great trip down memory lane.

It's weird to see how the games and the advert for the series changed. For me my favourite adverts from the video are for 'Majora's Mask' (first version), 'Wind Waker' and the first 'Spirit Tracks' Ad (the spooky one on the Subway). Special shout outs to the 'Minish Cap' ads (all of them) and of course the dancing advert from 'A Link to the Past' for the Japanese market. That one is just, weird...

Unfortunately, I have not played all the Zelda games in the franchise, but I am hoping to be allowed to by a 3DS soon so I can relive some memories and try some new ones out too! Here's to hope!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Culture

It's different.

Yeah.

People from around the world.

Differences.

It is tricky.

It is interesting.

Meeting people across different landscapes and languages.

Different moral codes, different ways of achieving the same goals.

One person's poison another person's pleasure.

Culture.

Yeah.

It's different.

It's argumentative.

It's negotiation.

Some people have a thick set view on the world.

Some have a more fluid reaction.

Some people are expert negotiators.

Others are expert planers.

Some panic about the melding of cultures.

Others embrace it.

Some worry about a future not already written.

They 'plan'.

Some just allow the future to unfold and to react to situations as they come.

They 'dream'.

In the end it is about discovery.

About finding out new things.

Some things you like.

Some things you don't like.

It's culture.

It's life.

It's...fun!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Leaving London without style - Victoria Coach Station

Last month I was in Glasgow for the Deep Fried Film Festival. It was my first time to Scotland's biggest city and I was impressed. Especially with the food on offer. However, I chose the cheapest method to get there, by coach. Now, to be blunt, you get what you pay for, so I am not going to moan about the lack of leg room, the lack of sleep or anything else that was endured on this trip up north and back again. After all, I have done far worse on my travels by coach.

Anyhow, if you are departing from or arriving in London by long distance coach, there is a good chance that you will end up in Victoria Coach Station.



Now, to put it politely, Victoria Coach Station is not the greatest way to depart London. It does not have the class of St Pancras or the technical prowess of Heathrow's Termial 5. Hell, you don't even have the hope that Gatwick or Luton tries to give to you.

Victoria Coach Station was built in the 1930's and surprisingly the building is listed. Goodness knows why, the interior has not really changed since the mid 1980's (apart from a lick of paint every few years), the whole place feels plastic and unappealing. Look, here is the departure, boards, it says it all:



As a first welcome into London, it really does not get much worse than this. Some forgotten spot, seemingly miles away from the nearest tube station, and with separate sites for the departing and arriving coaches, this relatively small coach terminus (and it is small compared to some of the behemoths I have seen worldwide) is utterly bewildering and unhelpful. Trying to find staff is impossible and wanting any information can be tricky. I know the score, but to someone who is new here, Victoria Coach Station is just bad news. Plus it smells. I cannot put my finger on it, but there is a particular musk in the air. And it is an unappealing scent.



Victoria Coach Station is also seemingly expensive, for what is one of the cheaper ways to enter and exit the city. Food and drink is extortionate here, plus you have to pay 30p to use the (disgusting) toilets (disgraceful). But, there are a few ways to save money. If you want to buy snacks/water for the on-board journey, then head across the road towards Victoria Railway Station and up in the shopping plaza (or village) there is a supermarket, open until late, close to the Green Line Coach Station Entrance.

By the side of Victoria Coach Station there are also a few cheap places to grab a hot meal, and if you are in a pinch for time, a newsagents will sell the basics. So you can avoid the truly awful stuff served inside the station. But really, if you can hold out, London is a great city, and there are so many better places to fill your stomach...

In the end, there is not much that is nice to say about Victoria, so I will keep my mouth shut. It is a safer thing to do. To be blunt, no one chooses the coach for its lifestyle statement, you choose it because you cannot afford to use the train and/or the flight is just too inconvenient/expensive. Fact, while my journey to Glasgow would have been practically completed by train, the cost of the train (plus the relative bargain that coach travel is) meant that I was always going to take the poor man's option.

So there you have it, my little commentary on Victoria Coach Station It is not the first time I have used it, and it will probably not be the last time, as to be blunt, the coach is a fairly handy (and very cheap way) to shuttle across the UK. I may well be back, but I will not be looking forward to the process...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Back a week already?

Oh, I do feel a little woozy.

One week back, and I have been working like a dog. Slowly I have got back into things. First of all, I have caught up with sleep. I have been shattered while in Poland and Eastern Europe, as I was B-U-S-Y! Film Festival, travelling and a whole range of sightseeing made this like many of my journeys - tiring!

And throughout the month, I will be bogging about my journeys through Eastern Europe. As I have mentioned previously, I made my first intercontinental road trip, some 1500 miles where I went from Western Poland to Budapest and back again. Talk about a massive journey!

I am dead busy for the next few weeks as well, before my next 'break'. Ugh.

But stick around, more amazing 'titbits' will be eminating from this blog over the coming days, including the tale of my Euro Road Trip. On this holiday I added countries number 34 and 35 to the list!

Toodles!

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Back in Zielona Gora



So I spent a lot of time in Zielona Gora. It was nice and sunny while I was there, as I mentioned, too sunny and moist, so the mosquitoes came out to play. In a city surrounded by forests, this was an interesting summer. NIghts with the windows closed, days scratching your bites. I have not been this bitten since my last trip to Seychelles. Remember, last year's journey to Sri Lanka was made in the dry season - lucky me, no bites!

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Coming to Zielona Gora this time was very different from my first time here. Back in January, the only thing I wanted to do was huddle inside, such was the cold. My first Polish Winter kicked me in the proverbials. I knew Poland was cold, but that cold?!?! As a traveller to usually exotic destinations, and as a true resident of London where snow is meant for decoration not for semi-permanence, my introduction to Poland was also my introduction to real cold weather. Hence why my first blog post on this town was not so favourable.

Being summer, and once again coming to ZG, I can safely say, that it is a lot nicer this time round!



You know what, all a city needs is a bit of sunshine and a bit of warmth and it completely changes in the blogger's eye ;)

Now Zielona Gora trnaslate as 'Green Mountain'.

So a big question to the (not so) many visitors to Zielona Gora is where is the Green Mountain located.

Hmm...

(If the Trade Description Act applied in Poland, some smart-ass lawyer would have sued by now...)

Lubuska is pretty flat. It is where the Oder (called Odra in Poland) flows through, so the hills are pretty non-existent. It is certainly green, there are more trees than you can shake your fist at, but for a green mountain, hill or even a small promontory, then the best bet is going to be were the Palm House is, on the edge of town. Perched on top of a small rise, this humble slope is as close as you're going to get to the Zielona Gora in Zielona Gora.



Now Zielona Gora was a town that was in the theatre of battle during WWII. So the rebuilding of the town was quick and Soviet once you get beyond the pretty city centre, it is all concrete blocks. Not flattering, and even though the Soviet Era is now long dead, you may get a sneaky peek of some old monuments within the buildings.



Zielona Gora is a weird and wonderful town. It is located in one of Poland's richer districts, and being a former German town, it shares a lot of heritage with that past. You can see it in the back streets, where some of the old buildings survive, clustered, falling into some disrepair, waiting for some money to gentrify these little pockets of history. It is not all concrete blocks that dominate this green mountain.



But let us not forget, Zielona Gora is very firmly a part of the modern Poland and like many other places in Europe, it is now the same as the next town or city. The same shops, the same streets, the same pattern of development. While different from the brutalism of the Soviet times, the architecture of Commerce has now made its impact here, just as it has done in towns and cities across Europe. Big out-of-town shoping malls, brands that are the same across the continent, and cash that needs to find a hole in your wallet, so it can slip from your grasp into some board member's pension pot.



But it is not all doom and gloom. Zielona Gora itself is an optimistic place. I have visited some parts of Poland that have made my jaw drop - not in a good way. ZG is very different, and I swear it is the summer that has changed my mind to the place. Of course it is not perfect, but it is a pretty town. It is a forward looking town, and a very young town. Unlike many other parts of Poland, there has not been a brain drain to other parts of Europe. Zielona Gora is a young city, children are here, families have made this their home and you could quite easily see the boards on the edge of the city stating: Welcome to Zielona Gora, a Nice Place to Raise Children. Please Drive Carefully.



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Stick around, tomorrow I am going to go through some Zielona Gora's quirks, not the normal city that you see at face value, but what lies beneath the cracks, in between the people and around the urban landscape. It is far more interesting (and hospitable) in the summer, and it was great fun to go wandering through this town. And then there will be more tales from my holiday to Poland and through Central Europe, later on in the month...

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Village life - Letnica, Lubuska



Just outside Zielona Gora is the village of Letnica. A small commuter 'burb, so there was no reason for me to be there. Except that part of Quest Europe was taking place here. This was where the Best Films from the Alter-Native Festival of Romania were taking place. And what better than to spend a mosquito ridden evening than here in Letnica.

Yes, there were mosquitoes in Lubuska - a frigging swarm of them. The whole area was infested. A hot, moist summer made it ripe for these little terrors. But I will stop talking about the lowlight of my holiday (itchy bites) and go to one of the highlights. The movies which was held in the old Protestant Church of Letnica.



Now Poland is a Catholic country. It is fair to say that Catholicism is intricately linked with the culture of the nation. For a country that has been dismembered, shrunk, had its borders shifted hundreds of miles westward, has had torture and tyranny as a regular byproducts of many of its governmental institutions, it is probably been one of the stabilising factors of the country. Which is why Catholicism, even today is a beacon of strength in this country, while in the rest of Europe, church attendances have shrunk to a few hard core elderly. The Catholic Church in Poland is very much like Christianity in America. Strong, visible, part of popular consciousness and attended on a weekly basis.

So it is surprising to see a protestant church in a village, even one that is no longer actively used for worship. Oh, there is a reason for that. Until 1945, this was Germany. Protestantly so. And it can be seen on the World War I monument outside the church grounds:



The inscription from the base is from John's Gospel: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. The futility of war. It would be along time from the erection of the plinth that this land would know peace in any semblance or form.

And so this Protestant Church, filled with so much history was the venue for one of the many screenings of Quest Europe. And in a village! I have been to many festivals, but to one that screens films in such a small settlement. The Polish are real culture vultures because there is no way that a somewhere this remote could host such an event. That was well attended. A full house, by all members of the community, young and old. And that served free apple pie!



(I would propose to any girl who could make cake this good!)

The Church itself has been magnificently restored and I think has to be one of the best venues I have ever watched a film in. A beautifully haunting place, with simple but elegant architecture. This village is far off the tourist scene, so to be able to come to a hidden gem like this is simply amazing for the uninitiated foreigner such as myself.



Letnica is a fascinating place, and not just for the films that I saw, which were truly amazing. It is a small place, and as a city dweller, I find visiting the countryside far more entertaining than seeing big cities. Don't get me wrong, I too am a culture vulture, and I really enjoy the feast that is found in a city. But when I am on holiday, I love to see a slice of life I don't normally experience. Getting into the countryside, difficult though it is, fascinates me.

Letnica is also a fascinating place for its setting. It is easy to sometimes forget the historical context of this part of Poland. This was once not Poland, not even a Slavic or majority Catholic country, but a westward looking Germany. Especially that Poland is both linguistically and (supposedly) ethnically homogenous. 97% of population in Poland claimed to be Polish in the 2002 census; compare this with Britain which has large parts of the country covered by different languages (Welsh, Gaelic and increasingly Cornish) as well as our cities where multiple languages are spoken. Poland does not have that, yet its border changes have been far more dramatic than the UK's. It is interesting to start thinking about why this is so, and Letnica made me think of this...

So you forget that borders change, people come and go, or assimilate into the local population. This part of the world has had a very violent recent past and has suffered many upheavals. And unlike many other parts of urban Poland, here in the villages and small communities, those scars have remained on the landscape. The relative emptiness of the area, the forgotten languages inscripted at random on old memorials that have survived, the abandoned buildings once put to use as part of the community. Even the local culture reflects this once strange past, almost totally eradicated from everyday living, only existing through historical text books. Despite its beautiful and serene setting, Letnica reflects this turbulent past. It is a fascinating piece of history, but it will be one for further exploration another day...