Where No Birds Sang

We were up fairly early this morning, about 6.45am, and I showered, blow-dried my hair and got dressed before going down to breakfast. The bus was coming to collect us at 8.00am for our excursion, which today was going to be to the most infamous Nazi concentration camp of them all – Auschwitz.

We enjoyed a substantial buffet breakfast once again and made our way outside to the side-entrance of the hotel to await the bus. It was a fine day, with a blue, cloudless sky and little wind and the sun shone down.

The bus arrived and we all boarded, and we were just about to set off when one lady realised she had forgotten something, so she ran back into the hotel and kept us all waiting for 10 minutes before she reappeared, smiling apologetically. We then set off for the hour-long journey to the town of Oświęcim, where the notorious death camp is situated. Auschwitz is the German name for it.

As ever, we enjoyed the coach journey, looking out of the windows at the sunlit Polish countryside and passing through interesting little villages and towns on the way. Soon we pulled up in the car/coach park at Auschwitz, and we saw that our bus was only one of two; our guide Mike told us that it was usually crowded here, but during this ongoing Covid-19 crisis, like everywhere else, crowds are a thing of the past; certainly not of 2020 anyway.

In keeping with the safety precautions we all had to sanitise our hands on entry and put our masks on. We then had our temperature taken at a gate, and the light had to turn green before we were allowed in. It was reassuring to see these safety precautions in place, and partly explained why Poland had only experienced low Covid numbers so far.

Once we were inside, we met our guide and began our tour in detail.

We saw some old brick buildings and the guide explained they were the prisoner reception buildings; they were adjacent to a long block of buildings with tall chimneys. These buildings served as the camp kitchens. Although we had never been here before, it all looked horribly familiar due to TV and media exposure, particularly when we came to the camp gates with the infamous ARBEIT MACHT FREI sign above them. This translates as “work sets you free” as the prisoners arriving at the camp believed they were being sent there to do hard labour. In fact, this part of the camp, called Auschwitz 1, did start off as the labour camp; it was when Birkenau (Auschwitz 2) was open that it turned into a mass extermination death camp.

We saw the various blocks, each of which had a horrific history if its own. Block 10 was where medical experiments were practised on women. German “doctors” (I use the term loosely) performed a variety of experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz. SS doctors tested the efficacy of X-rays as a sterilisation device by administering large doses to female prisoners. Carl Clauberg injected chemicals into women’s uteruses in an effort to glue them shut. The most infamous doctor at Auschwitz was, of course, Joseph Mengele who performed experiments on identical twins, dwarfs and those with hereditary diseases, particularly those of Gypsy or Romany descent.

Block 11 was the punishment block, where inmates would be flogged or beaten for the flimsiest of infractions of the rules. It also contained the standing cells where, as the name suggests, prisoners were interred into a cell so narrow they had to stand, sometimes for days at a time, without food.

The courtyard between blocks 10 and 11, known as the “death wall”, served as an execution area, including for Poles in the General Government area who had been sentenced to death by a criminal court. The first executions, by shooting inmates in the back of the head, took place at the death wall on 11 November 1941, Poland’s National Independence Day. An estimated 4,500 Polish political prisoners were executed at the death wall, including members of the camp resistance. The more we saw, the more appalled we became at man’s utter inhumanity to man.

But we were hardly prepared for what we were to see next. Our guide took us into a room where we saw a huge pile of empty Zyklon-B canisters. As you know, Zyklon-B was the infamous pesticide that contained cyanide pellets, and it was these that were administered through holes in the ceiling to the gas chambers below. On average it took each person 20 minutes to die, and the Nazi guards knew when everyone was dead because the screaming stopped.

Next, we saw a massive pile of suitcases and other luggage, all of which had their previous owners’ names painted on them. There was also a mountain of shoes and boots, crutches and artificial limbs, eye-glasses and, most horrific of all, over two tonnes of human hair. Actual, real human hair that had been cut and shaved from the women’s heads as they were being “processed” in the camp. It was utterly abominable, and I had to fight back tears at the sight.

During our visit our guide pointed out old photographs around the walls. One of them showed a new arrival of camp inmates standing in a long queue, some of them wearing the distinctive striped pyjamas, and a man in Nazi uniform standing by with a clipboard and one hand pointing to the right. He would assess each inmate’s capability for work, and those deemed to old or unfit or sick for work were sent straight to the gas chambers, i.e. to the right, where the guard was pointing. Each photograph and what it was portraying, frozen for an instant in time, seemed more horrific than the last.

As we emerged from the building into the bright sunshine and cloudless skies, it seemed somehow wrong that the day should be so clear and bright over a place that should be forever shrouded in clouds and darkness. The next part of our tour would take us to Birkenau, which was built purely as a large-scale murder factory.

As we approached the buildings we saw the notorious stretch of railway track leading to the infamous archway of Birkenau, through which the trains carrying their human cargo would pass, directly to the gas chambers. At intervals along the barbed wire fences we could see the lookout towers. as well as some of the buildings where the inmates would sleep, three or four to a bunk, on three levels. Some of the previous occupants of the bunks had scratched their names and details in the concrete walls; one that was still discernible read:

1943-1944
MARIJA LET
JUGOSLAVIJA
49841

Those on the bottom level were actually just on the floor, which during wet weather would become a quagmire of mud, among which people were expected to sleep. Very often, those who were not put to death died anyway, of typhoid or starvation; we were told that the average weight the each adult man who survived was 30 kilogrammes. Unbelievable.

Our guide led us into another intensely depressing building with bare brick walls and iron oven doors; these were the remains of the crematoria where thousands of bodies were incinerated. No matter what you might read about the Holocaust, nothing can really prepare you for going to Auschwitz and seeing where it all really happened, and it still has the power to shock and repulse even after all these decades. And so it should; no-one should ever be allowed to forget.

Out in the sunshine once again, we saw a large plaque which read:

FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE
A CRY OF DESPAIR
AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY
WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED
ABOUT ONE AND A HALF MILLION
MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN
MAINLY JEWS
FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU
1940-1945

The last place we visited before we had to be back on the coach was the gallows where the Auschwitz camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, was executed.

It had been an interesting and educational, but harrowing and sobering, visit, but one which we were pleased we had done nonetheless.

Once we arrived back in Kraków about 3.00pm, the bus dropped us off in the centre square where we decided to go and have something to eat, as we hadn’t had any lunch. We had a look around and spotted a bar/café that didn’t look too busy and was serving food, so we went in and ordered a pint of Tyskie each as well as a plate of one of the local dishes, that was pork escalopes fried in a sort of batter with onions and a savoury sauce, served with fried potatoes. Like a lot of the food we’d tried so far, it was a simple dish but a tasty one, and was very cheap.

We then walked around for a bit and decided to go and sit at a pavement café for another beer; a busker was singing and playing some lively music nearby as we sat drinking our beers with the sun on our backs. We felt our mood slowly lifting as we looked forward to whatever the rest of the day would bring. 🙂

Later on, back in our hotel room, we rested and relaxed for a while before getting washed and changed and venturing out once again. We decided we’d take a slow stroll back to the park where the dragon statue was, as we wanted to see it “breathing” fire (and hopefully photograph it!) in the gathering darkness. The evening air was pleasantly warm and there were quite a lot of people about, some walking, some on bicycles and some whizzing along on the ubiqutious scooters. When we reached the dragon we had it timed just perfectly; with a hiss and whoosh of gas the flames emerged from his mouth; we got some great photos! 🙂

We then walked over the bridge where we could see the balloon in the sky again as well as the lights reflecting on the calm waters of the Vistula. We had a wander around the streets and came to a corner which had a lively pub on it called “Time for Tea”. It was an English-style pub, with posters of the Beatles and an “Abbey Road” sign; it had an extensive drinks menu featuring British beers and ales as well as cocktails and wines. The pub was packed out with customers; even though some tables were marked out with black-and-yellow tape indicating that they were not to be used, in order to maintain social distancing, people were taking no notice and sitting at the tables anyway. Everyone was laughing, drinking, shouting – the noise was tremendous.

Trevor ordered a pint of beer and I had a large glass of wine; the drinks came with a dish of salted peanuts. Next to our tables was a group of eight blokes; although they were not British they were all speaking in English to each other. It turned out they were from about five different countries and English was the only common language. One of them handed me his phone and asked if I would kindly take a photo of them; I happily obliged.

After our drinks we returned to the hotel just after 9.30pm; we’d packed a lot into today and we were now pleasantly tired. On the way, we called into the Spar and bought some more beer and snacks to enjoy in our room.

We watched the limited TV programmes and I read my Kindle for a while before settling down the for the night. It had certainly been a day with a difference.

Castles, Towers and a Dragon

After a sound night’s sleep we were up at 7.15am and got ourselves ready for the day. We had booked our breakfast for eight o’clock and, donning our masks we made our way to the dining room and stood in the socially-distanced queue outside. After sanitising our hands we entered the restaurant and were shown to our table for two.

Breakfast was in the form of a hot and cold buffet, which we were quite surprised at, but customers were invited, one table at a time, to select their meals. Tea and coffee were delivered to our table. I enjoyed some yogurt and cereal, followed by bacon, sausage and scrambled eggs, washed down with two cups of coffee.

Our group then assembled outside the hotel to await Mike and our tour bus; today we were going on a half-day exploratory walking tour of the city. The bus soon appeared in the back street and once again we had to put on our masks before boarding.

Off we went through the streets for the short journey to the main square, at which we met up with our local guide, Barbara. The sun was shining and there were hardly any clouds in the clear blue sky as we started our tour.

Our first visit was to the park at Wawel (pronounced Vavel) Hill to see the legendary Wawel Dragon statue. The statue was designed by Polish sculptor Bronisław Chromy and completed in 1969; it was installed in its present location in 1972. It contains a natural gas supply and is set to ignite roughly every five minutes, leading to its fiery breath! We had noticed, in souvenir shops, there were lots of dragon ornaments and plush dragon soft toys, and now we knew why. 🙂

We continued our walk up to Wawel Castle, which we had seen perched on the hill last night as we walked along the river. The castle looked as if it had been an old structure with other extensions added later, giving a sort of “house that Jack built” appearance, and indeed this was the case. The current castle was built in the 14th-century, and expanded over the next hundreds of years. In 1978 Wawel was declared the first World Heritage Site as part of the Historic Centre of Kraków.

We had a good look at the distinctive buildings, including Wawel Cathedral where Polish monarchs were crowned and buried. The cathedral contained twin domes, one of which was golden. We also walked around in the impressive 15th-century Renaissance courtyard, the corners of which contained gargoyles at the top.

In the castle grounds was an outdoor refreshment stand with tables and chairs set up nearby, and Barbara said we could have a 15 minute break. We therefore took a seat in the sunshine and Trevor had a coffee while I settled for a cold soft drink, and we each had a slice of Polish cake; I found mine a bit over-the-top sweet and sticky. We then had some free time to walk around and use the restrooms, which I did.

After Barbara rounded us all up, we continued on our way until we came to another statue, this time of Karol Józef Wojtyła, otherwise known as Pope John Paul II, who was the Archbishop of Kraków from 1964-1978.

As we were walking down the steps leading from the castle grounds we heard some music and came across a pair of musicians in traditional Polish dress; one playing an accordian and one the tambourine. We stopped and took some photos but we didn’t stay long enough to hear them play.

We soon arrived at the famous main city square, known as Rynek Główny, which dates back to the 13th century and is the largest medieval square in Europe. The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) lists the square as the best public space in Europe due to its lively street life, and it was a major factor in the inclusion of Kraków as one of the top off-the-beaten-path destinations in the world in 2016. It certainly did look impressive, and contained many historic buildings and churches, and was dominated by the famous Cloth Hall (Sukiennice).

Round the edges we also saw many charming restaurants, shops and pavement cafés, and we looked forward to exploring more later on.

The time was now about 11.45am and our guide, Barbara, told us to watch out for the clock on the Town Hall Tower chiming the hour at 12 noon, and to listen for what happens next…

We heard the clock strike 12 and then, from the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica, a window opened and a trumpet appeared. The musician then started to play a signal – called the called the Hejnał mariacki, which came to an abrupt end half-way through. The trumpeter then waved to everyone watching below, withdrew his trumpet and the window slammed shut. This tradition occurs on the hour, every hour (24 hours a day) and is (so legend has it) to commemorate a famous 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before a Mongol attack on the city. The noon-time hejnał is heard across Poland and abroad broadcast live by the Polish national Radio 1 Station.

The sounding of the trumpet, at which we all waved, also heralded the end of our guided tour, and we all thanked Barbara with the traditional round of applause before she left us. Our travel rep Mike then informed us that the rest of the day was ours at leisure, and explained that we could either get the tram back to the hotel, walk back, or continue to explore on our own. He pointed out the various options to us, and recommended things to do, but Trevor and I had already made plans for this afternoon – a visit to Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory, made famous by the film Schindler’s List.

We had already booked the tickets for 4.00pm, so we had a few hours to explore until then. We decided to go and have a drink and some lunch (I wasn’t hungry after the huge breakfast I’d eaten!) so we walked around looking for somewhere which took our fancy.

On our way, we came across a massive flock of pigeons in the square who were attracted by the crumbs of a little boy’s packet of crisps – it looked just like a seething grey carpet at the boy’s feet, while even more pigeons flew in and landed on other pigeons’ backs in their quest for a few crumbs. We saw a lady standing in among the pigeons, and held her arms out at her sides, whereupon two pigeons landed on each arm, and one perched on her head. It was like something out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. 🙂

I decided to have a try and, sure enough, a pigeon landed on my arms and pecked gently at my outstretched fingers. It was quite cute, and I hoped that I wouldn’t receive a “little present” from any of them, ha ha. 🙂

We then decided to go and have some lunch as we had plenty of time before our pre-booked visit to the Schindler factory. The sun was very warm so we looked around for somewhere in the shade and found a pleasant, dimly-lit bar-café; a sign advised that the loos were downstairs so we went down and discovered there was also a bar and restaurant down there. We each ordered a cold pint of Tyskie and Trevor had a cheese and ham panini, but I wasn’t hungry after our substantial breakfast. We stayed long enough for another beer, then went back upstairs and out in the sun again, and started to make our way towards our next destination which, according to Google Maps, was about a 30 minute walk away.

Once more we crossed the bridge over the Vistula, past the ferris wheel and the balloon, past parks with many trees, bushes, paths and joggers. One of the things we noticed was very popular here in Kraków was electric scooters; they were everywhere and their riders wove in and out of pedestrians with some speed.

Soon we came to Lipowa Street, number four of which is the famous Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik (DEF), where German industrialist and member of the Nazi party Oskar Schindler employed (and ultimately saved) nearly 1200 Jews. The former factory now serves as part of the Museum of Kraków and contains a permanent exhibition depicting Kraków during the occupation of 1939-1945.

We still had some time to kill before our 4.00pm slot, so we went to a pavement café over the road and had a drink each. We then went to the main entrance (avoiding the socially-distanced queue as we were pre-booked) and I showed the bloke on the door the booking number on my phone; we were then taken to the reception desk to pay our 26 Zlotys each (just over a fiver) and collect our tickets, and a brochure describing our self-guided tour.

It was very interesting indeed inside the factory, even if it wasn’t quite what we were expecting. To quote from the official web site:

The exhibition is primarily a story about Kraków and its inhabitants, both Polish and Jewish, during World War Two. It is also a story about Nazi Germans – the occupiers who arrived here on 6 September 1939, brutally disrupting Kraków’s centuries-long history of Polish-Jewish relations. The great history of World War Two intersects here with everyday life, and the personal dramas of individual people overlap with the tragedy which affected the whole world.
The wartime history of Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik – DEF – and its owner Oskar Schindler was brought into the limelight in 1993 by Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. Ever since that time, tourists from all over the world have been coming to Lipowa Street to visit the place where Schindler saved the lives of over a thousand people
.”

We did, however, see Oskar Schindler’s actual office, desk, chair and filing cabinet, as well as a large glass case containing a selection of some of the pots and pans that had been made in the factory. There was also a whole wall full of photographs of some of the people who had worked in the factory, as well as a small cinema running a film interviewing some of the former Schindler workers, who explained how he had saved them from an almost certain fate in the Płaszów concentration camp in Kraków. It was all very moving, and we spent about two hours in the museum before the closing time of 6.00pm.

On our return to the hotel, we determined we would go up in the balloon tonight, and we hurried along to try to get there before sunset; how fantastic it would be to photograph the sun going down from aloft! We walked briskly along the banks of the river and underneath the Pilsudski Bridge (which we’d nicknamed the “Tyne Bridge” due to the similarity in appearance). We could see the balloon up in the sky in the near distance, and with the sun dipping lower in the sky, it made a brilliant photograph.

We arrived a little after sunset (but with plenty of atmospheric light still available) just as the balloon was descending, and bought our tickets. As we joined the socially-distanced, mask-wearing queue, the gondola disgorged its passengers, one of whom was Frank, from our trip. He was lucky enough to have caught the sunset!

We then boarded the gondola, which was a doughnut shape with the cable that controlled the ascent and descent of the balloon running up through the hole in the centre. Usually it would carry up to 30 passengers, but this time it was only taking 12 per load, and the floor was marked into sectors, one for each person, to stand in.

Off we went, gradually rising higher and higher as the cable was paid out. There was only a little wind which did blow the balloon gently, but as was restrained by the tether the wind didn’t affect the movement too much, although the pilot did say that the balloon didn’t go up on very windy days.

We had fantastic views of the winding Vistula and its bridges, as well as the red-roofed buildings of Kraków spread out below us. We could also see the ferris wheel, its lights flashing and changing colour as it slowly revolved. The vehicles speeding by on the roads below looked like Dinky toys. What a great experience! 🙂

After about 15 minutes, the balloon began its controlled descent, landing perfectly over the hole from which the cables emerged, using the castors under the gondola to help it glide into position.

What a lot we had packed into today! We must have walked over 10 miles; in fact my Fitbit was showing well over 20,000 steps, and we were ready for something to eat now. We decided to make our way to our “favourite” restaurant, the Pierwszy Stopien.

When we arrived at the restaurant about 8.00pm, the same friendly waitress greeted us and said it was nice to see us again. She then showed us to a table for two in the warm, welcoming restaurant which was already doing a roaring trade. Trevor ordered his usual pint of Tyskie and I opted for an Aperol Spritz. I enjoyed a nice big main-meal salad consisting of chicken, ham, cheese and lots of fresh salad vegetables in a herby dressing, with a side order of dill pickles; it was delicious. We then finished off with another drink; this time I had a Mojito.

As we had done a lot today and we were quite tired, we decided just to go back to the hotel (I still had some of the wine I’d bought at the Spar yesterday) and read, watch the limited English-language TV and rest.

We had to be up early in the morning and leave the hotel for tomorrow’s excursion around 8.00am, so we settled down around 11 o’clock and slept very well.

Welcome to Kraków

When the alarm shattered the silence at 3.20am it felt as if we had only been asleep for 10 minutes, as we blearily opened our eyes in the darkened Travel Lodge room. Straightaway I put the kettle on and made some coffee; we would have to wait until we were at the airport before having any breakfast.

We got washed, dressed and packed, looked around the room to ensure we hadn’t forgotten anything, and left the hotel just before 4.00am. A light rain (what we call a ‘mizzle’ in the North, i.e. mist+drizzle) was falling and I was glad I’d packed my cagoule in my carry-on bag. We loaded our stuff into the car and drove the short distance to the long-stay car park. Dropping the keys in at the reception, we were just in time to get the shuttle bus.

We had never flown from or into Edinburgh Airport and we were surprised at how big it was; certainly a lot bigger than Newcastle. As we approached the airport building we could already see the one-way system in place and the signs everywhere advising people to maintain social distancing and wear a mask at all times whilst in the airport terminal.

The queue at the EasyJet luggage drop desk was quite short (we’d already checked in and printed our boarding passes before leaving home) so, once we’d got rid of our cases, we went through security until we were airside. At this point we decided we’d try and find somewhere that was open where we could get something to eat and drink, which was quite difficult as most places were closed at this time of the morning, and the ones that were planning on opening would not do so before 5.00am. There was a Wetherspoons which stayed stubbornly closed, a Burger King which was also closed and a depressing-looking series of vending machines selling water and soft drinks.

Eventually we found a Costa Coffee that was open and we bought ourselves the unlikely breakfast of Heineken beer and a millionaire’s shortbread for me, and beer and a cheese toastie for Trevor. I also purchased a bottle of water to keep myself hydrated on the aircraft.

Soon the call for boarding appeared on the departure board, and we made our way to the EasyJet designated gate and joined the quick-moving queue to board. We were exciting at our first trip away this year, very unusual for us when we usually go on holiday three or four times a year. 🙂

The aircraft took to the skies on time, and we settled back for the 2 hours 10 minutes flight. Once we’d reached cruising height the refreshments trolley appeared, which I was surprised at because I had thought they would not be serving food and drink on a reasonably short flight, in order to avoid passengers having to remove their masks. But we enjoyed a coffee each and a small canister of Pringles (strange breakfast indeed!) then, when the trolley made its return journey along the aisle we had a cold beer each, as we were now slowly getting into the holiday mood. 🙂

Before landing, we had to complete our Passenger Locator Form with our contact details, a mandatory chore without which we would not be allowed to leave the airport. All part of the Track & Trace system, where they are supposed to keep an eye on people’s movements around the globe and advise them if they come into contact with someone who later tests positive for COVID-19.

We touched down at Pope John Paul II International Airport, Kraków, 20 minutes ahead of schedule and taxied along to the arrivals gate. I was disappointed to see that it was raining (!) as the weather in Poland recently had been sunny and warm. It didn’t take long to go through security, and we arrived at the luggage carousel at the exact time our cases appeared, so no waiting around there either. A bit different from our arrival into LAX last October, which took just under three hours to process via the US immigration system. 🙂

Putting up the hood of my cagoule, we trundled our bags to the airport exit, where we met Mike, the Newmarket Holidays rep. Only one other bloke, who we later found out was called Frank, had also come in on our flight from Edinburgh, so the three of us were directed to a private hire car which took us on the 45 minute ride to our hotel, the Golden Tulip, in Krakow-Kazimierz.

The main entrance to the hotel (and the back entrance, for that matter) were only accessible by a gate, and you had to press the buzzer to announce your arrival, or use your room card. The rain had abated quite a lot by now, and the sky looked a lot brighter; the forecast was for it to be fair this afternoon (good!) 🙂

The hotel was in a fantastic location, walking distance from most of Kraków’s attractions, and in a street containing many bars, restaurants and shops. We couldn’t wait to explore this, our 90th country. 🙂

We checked in and had to wait in the lobby for 20 minutes or so before our second-floor room was ready, all the time wearing our mask. Looking around we could see the entrance to the dining room, as well as a cocktail bar. Each of the entrances had hand-sanitizer dispensers nearby, as did the entrance to the lifts, which only allowed one person at a time, unless you were sharing a room.

Once in our room we thankfully removed our masks and had a single thought; an hour’s nap to make up for the very early start. We emptied our cases and hung up the few items of clothing we had brought for our 4-night stay, then I set the timer on my phone to go off in an hour’s time, and we settled down in the clean cotton sheets.

When we woke up it was about 12.30pm and, looking out of the window, we could see that the rain had stopped and the sun was tentatively trying to peep through. I freshened up a bit and then we decided to explore our immediate surroundings and go and have a spot of lunch somewhere.

Off we went along the street, looking in the windows of the shops (one of which was a Spar, just down the road from the hotel) and we soon came to an inviting-looking restaurant called Pierwszy Stopien; it contained lots of greenery and exposed brickwork and contained wooden chairs and tables with glass candle holders. As we went in, we were greeted by a friendly mask-wearing waitress and we confirmed we’d like a table for two.

We noticed that they were offering a lunchtime three-course set menu, so we placed our order and decided to sample a Polish beer, ordering a pint of Tyskie each. I ordered a thick asparagus soup garnished with fresh cream and chopped pistachio nuts, while Trevor enjoyed a chunky tomato soup.

For the main course, I had delicious stuffed red peppers which contained barley, onions and carrots amongst other things, served with a mixed salad. Trevor tried the steamed Russian dumplings.

Then we had a traditional Polish dessert which was something like cake with a fruit puree on top. It was all excellent value for money, coming to just over £13.00 for both of us. Currently there are five Polish złotys to the pound, and everything we’d seen so far seemed remarkably cheap.

After our delicious lunch we set off to explore the area. We walked along the uncrowded street to the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, and came to a square containing Isreali restaurants and Jewish bookshops, as well as a synagogue; the iron railings separating the square from the main road had Stars of David contained within the metal work. We came across a life-size statue of a man sitting on a bench, a nearby plaque proclaimed him to be Jan Karski, an emissary of the Polish people in German-occupied Poland in 1940-43, who tried to prevent the Holocaust. He lived from 1914-2000 and was given the accolade of “Righteous among the Nations” and became an honorary citizen of Israel. Trevor sat down on the bench next to the statue and I took his photo. 🙂

We walked a bit further along and came to a large, cream-coloured building set back from the road among some trees; a path led to the entrance which claimed it to be the Kupa Synagogue. It cost 10 złotys (a couple of quid) each to go inside, which was classed more as a donation than an entry fee. We decided to see what it was like, as I had never been in a synagogue before.

The Kupa synagogue was founded in 1643, so it was over 300 years old. It was richly decorated with paintings, wall decorations and featured a fantastically ornate ceiling, painted in subtle browns, blue, cream, white and beige, which depicted scenes from the Bible. Around the edge of the upper gallery (from which you could enter the women’s section) were the 12 signs of the zodiac. There was also a large bima (a big centrally-placed pulpit for reading Tora scrolls) as well as a double seat next to the bima for the person holding the scrolls. In addition, there were several long tables and benches which were used for dining on feast days.

We had a good look round, spending about half an hour inside the synagogue. On the leaflet we were given by the lady who took our money at the door was the notice:

In Judaism the synagogue is used only for prayer, learning and religious purposes… it is forbidden to use the synagogue as, for instance, shelter against the rain or the sun or to visit it only to fill your curiosity. That is why visitors are requested to make a short prayer to the Creator of the world, the Host of this building, of whom they are guests at this moment.

I don’t know many prayers off by heart, except the Lord’s Prayer, so I stood under the chandelier and recited that. 🙂

Once outside again, we walked along the pleasant streets, looking at the interesting architecture and the characterful shops, restaurants, bars and pavement cafés. The weather was bright and pleasant now, so we decided to have a drink at one of the bars, called Beer Street, which had some pleasant parasoled tables and chairs outside, at which small groups of (socially distanced) people sat.

Trevor ordered the drinks while I went to use the loo, and we spent a relaxing interlude sitting outside for a while, talking about the strange times we have been experiencing in 2020, and how we were lucky finally to get away on holiday somewhere, even if only for a short time.

Afterwards we walked back along to the hotel, stopping at the Spar to get some beer and wine to enjoy in our hotel room later on. 🙂

We then spent some time pottering around in our room, reading, watching TV (there was only one news channel in English, the rest of the channels were in Polish) and relaxing. At around 6.30pm I got washed and changed, and we decided to go back to the Pierwszy Stopien restaurant for our dinners; we had enjoyed it so much at lunchtime and we’d also seen some impressive-looking burgers being served, so we thought we try one of those. 🙂

We were greeted by the same smiling waitress (at least I assumed she was smiling under her mask) and shown to a table surrounded by lots of greenery, pot plants and glass candle-holders. There were more people in than there had been at lunchtime, and the atmosphere was relaxed and happy, that of family and friends breaking bread together. We each ordered the special burger and Trevor chose a Tyskie beer while I decided to have an Aperol Spritz.

The burgers were massive! They came in a triple-decker toasted bun and contained lettuce, tomato, onion and a special sauce, and were served with plump dill pickles and chunky chips. It was quite a struggle to finish the meal, and once again it was excellent value for money.

We then decided to try to walk off some of the calories by crossing the Vistula river and exploring further afield. We went across a bridge over what is a very wide river, as night was beginning to fall and the lights from the riverside buildings were reflecting on the rippling water. We saw a large boat that had evidently been converted to a restaurant and/or night club, and the sky was lit up by a large ferris wheel, the spokes and hub of which subtly changed colour. I can never resist going on a ferris wheel, so we each paid our 25 złotys and took our seats in one of the capsules.

Off we went, up and up, and enjoyed stunning views over the Vistula (also called the Wisła (pronounced Vizwa) in Polish) and the twinkling lights of Kraków. We had three revolutions of the ‘big wheel’ before we came to a stop and the sliding doors of our capsule opened.

As we walked along the riverside, we saw a large, interesting tethered balloon. It wasn’t a hot-air balloon and, at first, we thought it was just one of those advertising balloons you sometimes see, until we spotted a gondola underneath that was clearly big enough to hold people; in fact, a small queue had formed of people waiting to board. We stood and watched a while, then discovered you could buy tickets for the balloon at a nearby kiosk, it worked out at about 11 quid each for 10 minutes, but they stopped ‘flights’ at 8.00pm and it was five to eight now, and the last ascent was about to commence. We knew what we’d be doing tomorrow night! 🙂

As we watched, the balloon slowly lifted off; it was tethered by a steel cable which was wound around a revolving drum which allowed it to be paid out at a constant rate, leading to a smooth ascent. It went up to about 300 feet, glowing a pale blue in the darkened sky; from a distance it looked like a large, glowing moon, as you couldn’t see the cable.

We set off walking back to the hotel, as it was starting to get a bit chilly now, and we were still a little tired after our early start (and the hour’s time difference). We arrived back at the Golden Tulip around nine o’clock, and decided to open the beer and wine we’d bought at the Spar. I got washed and into my ‘jamas and enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine while reading my Kindle. I am reading the true-crime book Children who Kill by Carol Ann Lee; it is an interesting (although somewhat disturbing) anthology of child murderers (and murderers who are children), such as Thompson and Venebles, and Mary Bell.

At 10.30pm I could hardly keep my eyes open any more and we settled down for our first night in Poland. We had to be up at seven o’clock tomorrow for breakfast at eight, and we slept very well.

Seward to Seattle

Got up at seven o’clock this morning to find the Quest docked in Seward, Alaska.  We went up for breakfast in the Windows Café and I enjoyed the full English as we knew we’d be disembarking soon.  😦

We returned to stateroom 6009, packed the remainder of our stuff into our carry-on bags, had a last look around and reluctantly left our cabin, making our way to The Den to await the call for our group, Green #11, to disembark.  This came around 9.15am and we went down to Deck 3, swiped our cruise cards for the last time, and finally left the Azamara Quest.  We’d had a great two weeks on her, but our holiday wasn’t quite over yet.

We boarded one of the waiting coaches for the two-hour ride to Anchorage, where we would board an Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle-Tacoma airport.  We’d been advised that the best seats were on the same side as the driver (the left-hand side in the USA!) as this would give us the most scenic route for the journey.

We set off through the town which eventually gave to wide roads and onto the freeway, and it was certainly true regarding the views out of the window; trees and lakes and snow-capped mountains against a blue-grey sky filled with scudding clouds.  I took quite a few photos of the starkly-beautiful landscape out of the bus window and spent the time reading my Kindle or listening to music on my iPod.

The time flew by, and the clue that we were near the airport came by the sight of aircraft roaring overhead on their final approach into Anchorage. We then spotted the control tower, and eventually the bus pulled up at the entrance to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.  A quick Google told me that the airport is after Ted Stevens, a U.S. senator from Alaska in office from 1968 to 2009.  You live and learn!  🙂

Inside the check-in building we were confronted by a couple of HUGE polar bears!  Luckily, however, they were in a glass case and were stuffed ones, with details of the name of the hunter and when they were killed.  To be honest, killing is polar bear is something to be ashamed of, not proud, but in Alaska where hunting and whaling and fur-trapping was a way of life, I suppose that at the time the bears were killed it was more acceptable than it would be today.

Likewise, we also saw some stuffed brown bears in a glass case as well, their taxidermied bodies artificially posed, huge paws raised, and their glass eyes staring blankly into infinity.

We made our way to the check-in desk that had a short queue, and quickly managed to get rid of our cases, after having to pay an unexpected $30.00 each for checked bags!  Then it was just the usual; through security and into the Duty Free shopping area and other airside amenities.

As our flight to Sea-Tac wasn’t until 3.30pm, we had quite a bit of time to kill.  We therefore had a look around the airport and finally settled on a small restaurant and bar area, where they had free wifi and facilities to charge your phone or laptop.  We weren’t too hungry after our substantial breakfast, but ordered a dish of chicken wings in a sort of barbecue sauce to share, as well as a pint of the local beer each.

I then charged up my phone, plugged in my laptop, and spent some time updating and uploading this blog, whilst enjoying another beer.  🙂

It was then time to proceed to the departure gate where we could see our Alaska Airlines plane sitting waiting for us on the tarmac.  Boarding commenced not long afterwards and we took our seats, surprised to find that the aircraft was pretty full.

The flight to Sea-Tac was around three hours 30 minutes, and before landing we had to advance our watches one hour forwards again, to Pacific Daylight Time, which is eight hours behind BST.  We’d started our holiday eight hours ahead, in Japan, and now we were eight hours behind! 🙂

We landed around 8.30pm local time and looked around for the rep to direct us to the coach to take us to our hotel, the Marriott Courtyard.  No such luck, however, and after trundling our bags through seemingly endless corridors and past luggage carousels, we could only find a Princess Cruises rep and we asked her.  She told us that the shuttle buses to and from the various local hotels were listed on the schedules at the bus stops, and showed us where to go.

We arrived at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel around 9.20pm after a long day doing nothing much in particular.  The hotel was fairly basic but cheerful and comfortable, and we were given a room on the second floor.  After dumping our cases we decided to go downstairs and get something to eat and drink as we were quite hungry by now; the last food we’d eaten was our shared chicken wings at Anchorage airport.

The hotel ‘restaurant’ was more like a fast-food place, where you ordered your meal or snack and received it packed in cardboard with paper coffee cups. I had a chicken, bacon and salad club sandwich with a tub of side salad, washed down with a Budweiser, while Trevor had a bowl of chunky soup and a sandwich.

The hotel had a lounge area with a living-flame fire and various armchairs and couches.  A group of blokes were having a lively game of cards in the corner.  We finished our beers and were feeling quite tired by now, so we just went back to our room, where we watched some TV and settled down to sleep.

The next morning we ate breakfast before the shuttle bus came to take us back to the airport.  Then it was just a case of checking in for our British Airways flight back to Blighty and passing the nine-and-a-half hours homeward bound.

Another unusual, superb holiday had come to an end, and we could now begin counting down the days to the next one.  🙂

Good Morning Tokyo

Disembarking the aircraft and making our way through Arrivals was fairly quick and efficient, and soon we found the Azamara Club Cruises rep and joined three other couples from our flight for the bus to the hotel, which they told us was about 1½ hour’s travel away.  In Japan, they drive on the left as we do in Britain, and we looked out of the bus window with interest as we made our way through the Saturday lunchtime traffic to the Grand Prince Takanawa Hotel.

The hotel was huge, with a massive marble-floored lobby.  As we walked to the reception desk, we were greeted by bowing and smiling hotel staff. It didn’t take long to check in, which was just as well because we were feeling very tired and longing for a lie-down.

We were allocated room 2520 on the fifth floor and as we made our way to the lifts I stopped to go to the toilet.  Now I have to take some time here to describe the toilets in Japan, because they’re unlike any you’ll see anywhere else.  When you go into the cubicle the lid of the toilet comes up automatically, then when you sit down, you’ll find yourself on a heated toilet seat, with a control panel where you can choose what music you want to listen to.  Then, when you’ve finished doing what you need to do, you can choose to have either your ‘front’ or ‘back’ gently washed with warm or cool water, you can choose the water pressure and whether you want the spray to be plain, oscillated or pulsed.  Then, you can sit and have everything ‘blow dried’.

As soon as you stand up, the toilet will automatically flush and the lid goes back down again.  I think it is the only time in my life I have ever taken photos of a toilet!  😊

Room 2520 was fairly plainly decorated, but clean and comfortable with a pleasant 5th floor view from a small balcony over trees and landscaped gardens.  We decided to have a nap first, then go out and explore our immediate surroundings afterwards.

We set the alarm for an hour’s time, then thankfully collapsed onto the bed for a power nap.  When the alarm went off all too soon, we forced ourselves to get up to try to adapt to the new time zone as closely as possible.  We then thought we’d go out and stretch our legs.

Walking back through the hotel foyer we were met with the usual bowing and smiling staff, then we went outside into the warm afternoon sunshine.  We were not in the main city centre of Tokyo, but rather on the outskirts, where it was not so busy and frenetic. Most of the buildings surrounding us were hotels and office blocks, with here and there some shops, bars and restaurants.

We opted to go into a nearby bar and have ourselves a Japanese beer.  We each ordered a cold pint of Kirin, and sat on a terrace table opposite our hotel, and drank our beer in a glassy-eyed, semi-somnolent state.  The beers were quite expensive at £7.85 a glass so, after we’d finished, we decided to go further down the road where we’d seen another bar advertising “Happy Hour” from 5.00-7.00pm where we could also get something to eat.

The downstairs basement bar was called the “Outback Bar and Grill” and was an Australian-themed steak bar.  We each ordered another Kirin beer and I chose a Caesar salad with steak (instead of the usual chicken) while Trevor had a delicious-looking steak focaccia.  We stayed for another beer each, then decided to take a slow walk back to the hotel and relax in our room for the evening.  When we came out of the bar about 6.50pm, we were slightly surprised to see it was already dark.

Back in our hotel we saw that they had a “7-11” general store, so we went in and bought a bottle of prosecco to enjoy up in our room.  We saw several bottles of wine or liquor that just had Japanese writing on the bottle and I was quite tempted to buy one and see what we ended up with, a sort of “Russian Roulette”.  😊

Last Monday, to get in the mood for all things Japanese, I decided to re-watch the movie Lost in Translation.  This is one of my favourite films and stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two fellow American ‘lost souls’ in Tokyo, and it highlights some of the cultural differences as well as having a slightly comical aspect.  Already, during our short time in Japan, I had seen several things that reminded me of scenes from the film; the smiling, bowing hotel staff, the disembodied Japanese voices spouting robotic gobbledegook in the toilets and in the lifts and the bottles of Suntory Whisky in the shop.

The Lost in Translation theme continued back in our hotel room, where Trevor quickly zapped through the various TV channels, all of which seemed to be showing Japanese game shows, their presenters yammering away in an over-enthusiastic manner.  There appeared to be no English-language programmes at all, but after all, the cultural differences are exactly why we go on holiday to places like Japan, Nepal, Ecuador and Brazil, to name but a few.

I got washed and changed into my PJs, and enjoyed a couple of glasses of prosecco while reading some of my magazines. I was trying to keep my eyes open as long as possible, but I really was fighting a losing battle, and I settled down before 9.00pm and was out like a light.

Turning Japanese

Turning Japanese,
I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so.

The Vapors – 1980

There were a few songs that sprung to mind when thinking of a title for today’s blog; as well as Turning Japanese by the Vapors, I could have had Big in Japan  by Alphaville or Japanese Boy by Anneka.  So maybe that might give you a bit of a clue as to where we were going to start our next epic cruise!  😊

Yes!  Today we were flying from Newcastle to London Heathrow at 11.30am, then onwards to Tokyo, Japan at 3.45pm.  We weren’t really looking forward to the long-haul flight and the 8-hour time difference, but these things are a fact of life when you want to visit exciting locations, and fewer places could be more exciting or exotic than Japan.

We drove through to Newcastle and left the car in the long-term car park before joining the British Airways queue inside the terminal. We checked our bags right through to Tokyo, then went through security and into the Metro bar, where Trevor enjoyed a pint and I had a large cup of Americano coffee, hot and strong. Then it was time to make our way to the gate for flight BA1327 to the capital.

On arrival 45 minutes later, we proceeded to the connections area in Terminal 5, then made a beeline for the ‘Crown Rivers’ pub there, which is a Wetherspoon’s pub and was doing a lively trade in meals and drinks.  It was lunchtime by now and we were quite hungry, so I used the Wetherspoon’s app to order and pay for a couple of pints of beer, plus some traditional fish and chips for Trevor and a plate of chilli con carne for myself.

The service was excellent; the drinks arrived in three minutes and the meals only three minutes after that.  It was certainly a contrast from the last Wetherspoon’s pub we’d been in, the ‘Lord Chief Justice of the Common Plea’ in Keswick, where we’d had to wait a full half hour before we received any drinks.

We each enjoyed another round of drinks before it was time to go along to the British Airways departure gate, where we could see our aircraft, a B789 Dreamliner, waiting for us on the tarmac.  Boarding did not take long at all, and we made ourselves comfortable in our seats to endure the 11-hour flight to Tokyo.

The aircraft soared off into the skies and we settled back in our seats, looking out of the windows at the receding London landscape below. Then, once the ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign had been switched off, the cabin crew came around with pre-dinner drinks and snacks, and we passed the time looking at the interactive AVOD screens, reading, listening to music and all the other things you need to do to try to keep the tedium at bay.

The Dreamliner aircraft windows do not have the usual pull-down shades that you find on most aircraft.  Instead, they have a dimmer switch below which serves to lighten and darken the glass, a bit like those ‘Reactolite’ sunglasses you could get.  As we had the sun on our side of the aircraft and we were heading in a north-easterly direction, we dimmed the windows a little to make it more comfortable on the eyes to look out.

It was a strange time to be flying; it was neither a night flight nor a day flight.  We were due to arrive in Tokyo at 11.10am local time, which would feel like 03.10am British time, and we wondered how the jetlag would affect us.

As we were travelling north-east and into the daylight, we noticed a very unusual phenomenon; it never really got dark.  I managed to get some fantastic photos out of the aeroplane window of a blood-red sunset, with the silhouette of the aircraft wing against a deep blue sky but then, instead of the sun disappearing below the horizon, it started to come up again!  Looking at our sky map, we noticed we were flying over Sweden and then Finland, so we concluded that because we were so far north and flying east, we enjoyed the sight of the sun being constantly in the sky.  Against our blackened windows, it looked like a deep red ball, and it reflected into the interior of the plane as a warm red glow.

I can never sleep at all on a plane, so I just passed the time reading and watching a couple of episodes of Fawlty Towers, which is still funny after all these years.

Time passed in its usual way and soon the cabin crew came round again with our breakfast of Spanish omelette and fresh fruit salad.  Our sky map told us we had a couple of hours to go, and passengers around the aircraft were getting up and stretching their legs and using the restrooms.

Eventually the announcement came for us to return to our seats and fasten our seatbelts, and the words “cabin crew prepare for landing”.  We looked out of the windows with interest at the Japanese landscape, buildings, roads, traffic and gardens, as the aeroplane glided into Narita International Airport, Tokyo, and touched down at 11.00am local time.

We had arrived!

Kathmandu to King’s Cross

Well, what more is there to write?  We we got up this morning our holiday was effectively over, and we just had the tedium of a looooooong journey back home again.

We had a light breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then collected our cases from our room and went down to the foyer to check out.  The minibus had, by now, arrived to take us to the Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, so once we’d paid our hotel bill and our luggage was loaded into the vehicle, we set off into the early Friday morning traffic.

It was about 40 minutes to the airport, and once we arrived the guy showed us where we needed to go to check in.  There were no queues so we checked our bags right through to London Heathrow.  Looking at the time, we decided it wouldn’t we worth while going to the executive lounge, so we just went through security and along to the departure gate to wait.  Once there, we spotted Charles and Julie again and stopped for a brief chat.

Our flight was soon called for the first leg of the journey – Kathmandu to Delhi.  We were offered a snack and a bottle of water; I declined the snack but drank the water with some more paracetamols.  When we came into land, it was really painful for my ears as the aircraft descended; normally passengers will feel slight popping in their ears as the pressure is equalised, but because I was bunged up with my cold I couldn’t relieve the pressure, and it was like being in deep water.  I was relieved once we were back on terra firma.  😦

Inside Indira Gandhi International Airport we didn’t have a lot of time before our flight was called, so off went along to the departure gate for the longest part of the journey.  Once we boarded the Boeing 777, we noticed there were a lot of spare seats, so Trevor and I had three seats between two of us, which was great.  This meant I could sit with my feet up and help to avoid the awful swollen feet and ankles that are so common on long-haul flights.

The flight wasn’t too bad, as it happens.  The staff came around fairly regularly with drinks and snacks, as well as our main meal.  I declined my dinner, but kept myself hydrated with the small bottles of water and some cans of Tiger Beer.  🙂

Then I just passed the time reading, messing around on my iPad, looking out of the window, leafing through the in-flight magazines and seeing where we were on the SkyMap.  The eight and a half hour flight seemed to go by quite quickly, and eventually the “fasten seatbelts” sign came on for our final approach into Heathrow Terminal 4.

Again, the changes in air pressure as the aircraft descended were very uncomfortable, and by the time we finally landed I felt as if both of my ears were filled with fluid.  At least the long-haul flight was over though, and we were back in Blighty.

It didn’t take too long to retrieve our cases from the luggage carousel, after which we made our way to the underground station, and the Picadilly Line, to get the tube along to London King’s Cross, where we arrived about 8.15pm.

Our train back up to Durham was not due until 10 o’clock, but we’d arranged to meet our daughter Kathryn and her husband Gareth (they live in London) in the “Parcel Yard” pub, and we found they were already there when we arrived.

So that’s it, really.  We passed a pleasant hour or so in the Parcel Yard until it was time to go along to Platform 6 around 9.45pm, where our train was already in.  We stashed our cases in the luggage rack and tiredly made our way to our seats for the last leg of the journey.  The train left on time and headed north, rattling along at a fair old pace, bringing us ever closer to home.

We were back in the house just before 2.00am, after another incredible (and different!) experience and adventure in Nepal.  What a great time we had had.

Heritage and History

Got up at 7.30am to find that the electricity in the room had gone off; this was a regular occurrence in Nepal.  It would come on for a few seconds; then go off again, so it was difficult to keep our phones charged up.

When we looked out of the window we were pleased to see it was dry, so we got ourselves ready then went down to the Kutumba restaurant for a good breakfast to set us up for the day.

Once again there were only us and the Belgian group in the restaurant so we were afforded the usual king’s welcome.  It was not worth the hotel’s while to put on a huge collection of cooked breakfast items, so there was only continental breakfast available.  We therefore enjoyed cereal, toast, juice and coffee before returning to our rooms and gathering together sunhats, cameras, map, hand-gel, toilet paper (!!) and, of course, credit cards and money in case we saw any unique souvenirs.  🙂

Off we went around 8.30am into the streets, which were not too hot or crowded at this time of day.  We decided to go to the bridge where the pedestrian “toll booth” was, pay our $15.00 each and spend as much time as we wanted, at leisure, exploring all the treasures Bhaktapur had to offer.

On arrival at the bridge we couldn’t see any sign of anyone in the little toll-house (indeed the door was firmly closed) but, as soon as we put one foot onto the bridge, a guy in an official-looking uniform seemed to materialise out of nowhere and asked us for our ticket!  We explained we’d only arrived yesterday so he led us over to the toll-house, made out our day-passes and we handed over our 30 dollars.

Referring to our map, we thought we’d make our way first of all to Pottery Square, but we wanted to explore as much as we could en route, as he had all day.

We crossed the bridge and walked up the narrow, uneven streets full of narrow, uneven houses, some of them with tattered-looking clothes hanging outside to dry.  Many of the doors onto the streets were open, but when you glanced inside the interior of a lot of the buildings was pitch dark; I didn’t know whether the occupants used heavy curtains or draperies to keep out the heat, the dust or both, but the overall effect was claustrophobic.  Perhaps the people liked somewhere quiet and dark to rest after the noise, heat and traffic outside.

In between the little houses were the occasional small cafés; a lot of them were known as “Mo:Mo” cafés (written like that, with the colon) and we’d previously been advised by Anal that “mo-mo” was a type of steamed dumpling, very popular in Nepal.  The cafés had photos of some of their dishes on boards outside, and customers were enjoying their breakfasts inside.  We were dubious about eating at any of these little places as we didn’t want to risk a “Delhi Belly” when we’re flying home tomorrow!

We strolled along until we came out at what was obviously a large, man-made green lake, which it transpired was called the Siddha Pokhari lake.  It appeared to be largely covered by a layer of bright green lichen or moss, but here and there we could see large, orange and black fish jumping, or coming to the surface to catch flies.  We walked all around the perimeter of the lake before heading in the general direction of the squares.

We came to Pottery Square.  Like much of the rest of Bhaktapur, there was an awful lot of building work going on; piles of bricks and stones, and rubble and the clanging of tools on masonry and the rumble of the cement mixers going round.  In among it all we saw the rows of newly-created pots laid out in the sun to dry.  The many pots and bowls and other clay items are made in the locals’ houses, then displayed for sale; it was quite cool to see an item that had only been created that morning.  The clay used was of different colours too; some was the usual ‘reddish’ colour but others were a dark-grey to black.  Because of the restoration work and the lack of visitors the square was not as busy as usual, but there were nevertheless several stalls set up, their owners trying to tempt us to buy their wares.  There were also a couple of locals who, spotting a potential opportunity to make some money, offered themselves to us as guides for the day.  We politely declined and continued on our way.

The little shops with their hand-crafted wares displayed a wide range of attractive goods, and I spotted a shop that was selling hand-knitted 100% woollen pullovers, hats, scarves, gloves and hooded jackets; it was the latter I was particularly interested in.  After browsing around a couple of the shops I saw what I was after – a purple and white knitted, fleece-lined woollen jacket with a zip front, hood and hand-warmer pockets.  It was very well-made and had quite a lot of weight to it; it would be a lovely warm jacket for the winter.  The shopkeeper wanted 2,800 rupees for it (about 20 quid!!) but we knocked her down to 2,500 rupees, and handed over 3 x 1,000 rupee notes.

At this point the lady showed me some interesting, brightly-coloured circular bags with zips around the outside.  When the zip was undone, the bag opened out into a rucksack, complete with shoulder straps and a couple of small external pockets!  It was an ingenious idea and the lady said we could have the rucksack for 500 rupees instead of its usual price of 800.  So we took the jacket and the bag for the 3,000 rupees – great bargains!  🙂

Well pleased with my purchases, we walked along until we came to the renowned Durbar Square.  In the wake of the 2015 earthquake the square, like the other places we’d seen in Bhakapur, was undergoing extensive building and renovation work.  Many of the historic, intricate buildings had wooden props and scaffolding up around them, and the Durbar Square gave the impression of being an area of chaos instead of the peaceful and spiritual visit it was supposed to be.  Nevertheless, we determined to have a look at the palaces, pagodas and temples and make the most of our visit.

Almost immediately, we were accosted by a local guy who offered to be our guide, saying he’d give us a 2-hour tour for 500 rupees.  We politely declined as we preferred to do our own thing and didn’t want someone hanging around us all the time.  The guy would not take no for an answer, and trailed behind us, offering his unwanted opinion and interrupting Trevor and me when we were speaking amongst ourselves.  Trevor repeatedly told him we didn’t want a guide and it took a full 20 minutes before we finally got rid of the guy.  We were then able to take our time and examine the buildings, take photos and just look around.

The first place we stopped at was the famous Golden Gate, which is the main entrance to the courtyard of the Palace of 55 Windows.  The door is surmounted by a figure of the Hindu goddess Kali and Garuda (mythical griffin) and attended by two heavenly nymphs. It is embellished with monsters and other Hindu mythical creatures of marvelous intricacy. Percy Brown, an eminent English art critic and historian, described the Golden Gate as “the most lovely piece of art in the whole Kingdom; it is placed like a jewel, flashing innumerable facets in the handsome setting of its surroundings”.

Then, of course, was the famous Palace of 55 Windows itself.  Like a lot of the buildings, it was undergoing repairs, but nothing could detract from the intricate, detailed Newari architecture; the wooden trellises, the decorative window frames and the mellowed brick work.  The interior of the palace wasn’t open to the public, but one end of it had been turned into a small museum for which there was another charge if you wanted to go in.

Next, we went to the Nyatapola Temple.  Nyatapola in the Newari language means five storeys – the symbolic of five basic elements. This is the biggest and highest pagoda of Nepal ever built with such architectural perfection and symmetry. The temple’s foundation is said to be made wider than its base.  At each side of the steps leading up to the pagoda were effigies of Buddhas and Elephants.  We sat on the cool stonework for a short time, and just people-watched and looked around at the life passing by in the area.  Several times more we were asked if we needed a “guide”, and each time we told them no, thank you.  You couldn’t blame them for trying to make a living, though.  🙂

We continued in this way, looking at the ancient buildings and many temples, browsing the shops and just pottering about.  After about three and a half hours, when the sun was at its highest and the air was hot and humid, we decided we’d take a slow walk back along to the hotel and sit outside in the lovely gardens for a rest, along with the inevitable cold bottle of Nepal Ice each.  😉

We arrived back at about 1.00pm and enjoyed our beers, sitting at a parasoled table outside the hotel reception.  I think the American and Belgian guests had left by now, and Trevor and I were the only ones remaning in the hotel!

We sat out for about an hour, then it clouded over and started to rain a little, so we went back inside and had a lie-down.  At least the electricity was back on and the room was nice and cool again.  I had a glass of water with some paracetamol to try to keep my nasty cold at bay (regular readers of this blog may remember I had a cold on the last holiday we were on as well, in January).  😦

When we woke up, we spent time re-packing the suitcases and generally getting sorted out and trying to put the depressing thought out of our mind that this time tomorrow we’d be on the aeroplane, heading for home.  I decided to have a refreshing shower but I couldn’t get the water to come out of the shower-head, so it ended up being a bath.  It didn’t really matter though, because I felt clean and refreshed and I blow-dried and styled my hair.  Then we just pottered around until dinner time, where once again we decided to eat in the hotel.

We had the excellent personal service again, as the hotel’s only guests.  I ordered a delicious, savoury vegetable soup to start followed by nasi goreng, a rice dish of Indonesian origin, although many Asian countries have their own version of it.  This as unlike any nasi goreng I’d ever tasted before, however, as it contained fresh green chillies and it packed quite a punch.  The chillies were just what I needed for clearing my blocked sinuses, however!  🙂

Afterwards we adjourned to the Tribal Bar, where the bar staff were pleased to see us.  There was no live footy on tonight, however, so we just spent the time pleasantly at the bar; I enjoyed an unusual cocktail which contained rum, lemon, honey and local spices; it was served with boiling water so was more like a hot toddy than a cocktail – just what I needed.  I will have to make it at home.

At some point some other customers came into the bar, so the bar staff went over to talk to them.  We finished our drinks, said goodbye and “namaste” and returned to our room as we had to finish our packing and be up early in the morning (5.45am) as breakfast was at 6.20am and the minibus was coming at seven to take us to the airport.

We settled down in room 202 for our last night on Nepalese soil, after a very good day.

 

 

 

Browsing in Bhaktapur

Woke up about 5.00am to go to the loo; my throat was quite hoarse and tickly and I put it down to the drying effects of the air-conditioning.  Went back to sleep again, then woke up at 8.00am when the alarm went off.  Trevor said it had been 2.45am (!!) before the football had finally finished; after extra time it had gone to penalties, which England had won 4-3.  🙂

My throat was still dry and tickly and I hoped it would be OK once I’d gone out into the fresh air.  We packed up most of our stuff and went down to breakfast, where we saw Charles and Julie; Vee and John had left for the airport several hours before.

We enjoyed our breakfast then decided to walk up the street and look around the shops for a bit; there was certainly no hurry.  Not all of the shops were open yet, but we managed to browse in one or two of them; one had a lot of handcrafted textile goods in, such as shawls and bags, pashminas and household things like cushion covers and wall-hangings.

After walking back to the hotel we spent some time sitting outside by the pool; my throat was still dry and husky and I reluctantly decided I was going down with a cold.  Just my luck!  😦

We returned to our room and had a cup of coffee, then finished packing up all our luggage to take it down to the foyer at 11.15am.  We found Anal and Madern waiting for us, so we were able to leave straight away, once we’d settled our bar bill and checked out.

It seemed strange, us being the only ones on the minibus.  We set off into the traffic and were advised it was only a 45-50 minute drive from Kathmandu so could plan on arriving around lunchtime.

Just before 12.00 noon our vehicle pulled up in a small gated courtyard; we had arrived at the Hotel Heritage, Bhaktapur, which would be our base for the next couple of nights.  It looked lovely; a traditional style building set in ornate gardens and stone terraces. In fact, the Hotel Heritage was the first deluxe hotel to be built in Bhaktapur, and was like a living antique shop, full of intricate wooden carvings, ornate decor, stone floors and exposed brickwork in the walls.  Colourful handmade curtains, cushions and throws were everywhere, and of course there was a ever-present smell of incense in the air.  What an amazing place; we got a fantastic welcome from the hotel staff.

We were advised by Anal that we were on our own now; someone else would be coming on Friday morning at 7.00am to take us to the airport.  We thanked him and Madern for all their help and for making our visit a memorable one, then we handed each of them an envelope containing a generous tip.  Everything of interest in Bhaktapur appeared to be within walking distance of the hotel, so we’d feel perfectly confident exploring the city by ourselves.

Our large room on the first floor, number 202, was amazing.  All dark wooden carved furniture, stone floor, brick wall with colourful handmade accessories, included a patchwork quilt and hand-woven rug.  A small side-table contained complimentary bottles of water, some fruit and a few canapés, and there was a large settee, ample wardrobe space and a cool, stone-floored bathroom containing a bath tub with shower over it, sink and WC.  It all looked lovely and was so unusual.

We weren’t hungry after our substantial breakfast, but we thought we’d have a short rest before venturing out and exploring our immediate vicinity.  The hotel proprietor had given us a leaflet, showing the nearby attractions with detailed maps on how to get to them.

First of all, we decided we’d explore the hotel gardens, so we wandered around and saw that there was a bar/pub called the “Tribal Bar” which, in keeping with the rest of the hotel, was ornate and comfortable, with antique wooden tables, comfortable, squashy armchairs and settees, and a row of large padded stools along the bar.  We knew where we’d be going tonight!

It was hot and humid, and I wasn’t feeling up to much walking, so we decided to sit at one of the parasoled tables and enjoy a freezing cold beer each.  The hotel served the strong  Nepal Ice beer, which comes in 650ml bottles.  There were another three people sitting at a nearby table; we judged from their accents that they were from North America.

There were also some other guests in the hotel grounds; a female tabby-and-white cat with her two half-grown kittens – they looked to be about 10 weeks old.  The tabby striped kittens were as alike as two peas in a pod, and they were frisky and playful.  Being cat lovers, we couldn’t resist stroking and petting them and, as we sat down to enjoy our beer, they settled down near our table.  🙂

Afterwards. we took a slow stroll out of the hotel and along the road, where we had noticed on our map that an interesting-looking temple, the Bahari Ajima Temple, was close by.  There was the usual ornate wooden carvings, lots of gilt, mosaic tiles, small hanging tinkly bells and the little alcoves where you could light a candle.  There was wooden board next to the temple explaining what everything was, but because it was all written in Nepalese then we didn’t have a clue what we were looking at!  It all looked very nice though.  We also passed a shoe-shop on the corner near the hotel; it had lots of sequinned and hand-embroidered shoes and sandals in.  I bought a pair of ornate red velvet mules; they were very different and cost less than 10 quid!  🙂

We then decided to walk into the main town to get an idea of our bearings and plan what we were going to do tomorrow, as we had the whole day to explore.  We therefore walked through the dusty streets towards the main square; we noticed that there wasn’t as much traffic as there was in Kathmandu and the streets, although busy, were not too crowded.  Once again, Trevor and I were conspicuous as the only Westerners to be seen.

We passed little open air refreshment stands, and even a lady roasting some corn-on-the-cob by the roadside and making a few coppers selling them.  We also saw an “emporium” of different shops, including a pharmacy and a small supermarket, as well as clothing shops.

As we walked along, having to be constantly mindful of the traffic (there were a lot of motorbikes and scooters, if not actual cars, and there were no pavements) we browsed in the little individual shops, looking for bargains or unique souvenirs of our amazing visit to Nepal.

Eventually we came to a bridge that was the gateway to the cultural centre.  Some of the historic buildings of Bhaktapur were badly damaged in the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal, that registered 7.8 on the Richter scale.  Therefore, in order to help fund the extensive repairs and restoration that was needed, a sign at the bridge proclaimed that visitors were required to purchase a day-pass to allow them to visit all the monuments.  For non-Nepalese visitors, it would cost $15.00 per person for the day.

At this point we saw another couple of Westerners hovering by the bridge sign, a couple of young girls with backpacks; they looked like students.  We decided that we’d be better off coming back in the morning and paying our 15 bucks apiece then for the whole day; therefore getting better value for money.  As it was after 6.00pm now, we decided we’d just return to the hotel and chill out there.

Back in our room, we pottered around for a bit then decided to eat in the hotel about 7.00pm.  Because we’d had no lunch, we were fairly hungry by now, so we got washed and changed and went downstairs again.

The hotel restaurant was called “Kutumba” and was apparently open to non-hotel residents.  When we went in, we were the only ones there so we were shown to a table for two and given time to peruse the extensive menu.  Shortly afterwards, a group of three young men came in; it transpired they were from Belgium and were also guests in the hotel.  The restaurant had a pleasant, relaxing atmosphere aided by the soothing Nepalese music playing softly, and the small candles flickering on the bar and on the tables.

I enjoyed a delicious prawn cocktail which was a bit of a twist on the ‘usual’ prawn cocktail, as the sauce was quite spicy and the prawns were served warm.  I then followed this with a tasty mutton biryani in which the rice was served in a spicy sauce and contained peppers and vegetables and the odd burst of chilli!  It was all washed down with a glass of white wine.  Every now and again the chef would come out of the kitchen and ask us if we were enjoying the meal – we were certainly getting top-class service tonight!

Afterwards we decided to go along to the Tribal Bar which we’d looked at briefly earlier on.  We settled ourselves on the huge bar stools and ordered a beer each, then spent some time chatting with the bar staff.  As usual, because we were the only people in the bar, the staff were intrigued by us and they kept asking what we thought of Nepal and of the hotel.  The bar was great; they were playing some background jazz music and it looked as if it would be a friendly lively place when it was full.

There was no live football tonight; they were just showing a re-run of the England match, and we sat and enjoyed our drinks and half-heartedly watched the game and passed the time in a laid-back way until we were tired, so off we went to our comfortable bed with its handmade patchwork quilt.

Tomorrow was our last full day in Nepal, so we determined to make the most of it.  We slept well.

 

Chitwan to Kathmandu

We had to get up at 6.00am in order to leave half an hour later for our boat trip before breakfast.  We were pleased to see that it wasn’t raining when we looked out of our window; in fact, the water level seemed to have receded slightly since last night.

Only four of us went (plus our guide): Trevor, John, Julie and me.  We set off in our little open-sided vehicle, driving through the awakening streets, before arriving at the “boatyard”, where a number of the long, hollowed-out boats were lined up, along with their removable seats (we were actually happy that they had seats this time!).

We donned the life-jackets we’d been given, then followed our guide down to the riverside and waited for our boat to be punted down before we could board.  It wasn’t yet 6.45am and the morning air was sweet and fresh and quiet; all we could hear, along with the sound of the water flowing, was the occasional bird call and the drone of flying insects.  It was so peaceful and tranquil.

We all got into the boat and set off, gliding along in the cool green Narayani river.  We soon spotted a mugger crocodile basking on the bankside, ready to slide into the water.  We also saw lots of white egrets and the occasional flash of brilliant blue as a kingfisher flew past.  Sometimes we spotted monkeys in the trees, as well as another crocodile swimming along, with just his head and snout visible.  You had to be sure to look on both sides of the boat and keep your eyes peeled at all times.

Everyone just spoke in whispers and we all enjoyed the silence and the sounds of nature.  Vee and Charles, who opted not to come, didn’t know what they were missing, although they did have the advantage of a lie-in.  🙂

Our boat ride lasted about an hour and our vehicle had gone down the riverside to meet us when we disembarked.  Then we handed our life-jackets in and all piled back on the minibus to arrive back at the Hotel Parkside for about 7.45am, enough time for us to finish the majority of our packing and get ourselves sorted out before breakfast.

We were ready for our breakfast by now, and we enjoyed the usual (sometimes odd!) selection of dishes and accompaniments.  For example, they would sometimes bring out the cooked breakfast before the cereal, and it might contain potatoes and onions (an unusual choice for breakfast) as well as eggs and tomatoes.  The coffee was good, however, and we also quenched our thirst with a refreshing glass of fruit juice.  One thing was for sure, no way had they let us starve at this rustic jungle hotel, even though the electricity supply was intermittent and unreliable at times, a fact of life in some developing countries.

Anal had checked that the road to Kathmandu was clear after yesterday’s rains (no apparent landslides or blockages) so he reckoned it would take about 6-7 hours to get back to the capital, including rest stops and some time out for lunch in a restaurant along the route.

We therefore set off about nine o’clock, after our cases had been loaded into the back of the minibus and we’d given the local guide a tip for his excellent service in the last couple of days.

We left behind the peace and the greenery of the rain forest and ventured once again into the dirty, dusty, crowded, bumpy, disorganised streets.  Lots of cyclists and pedestrians wore protective face-masks, which was perfectly understandable in the almost palpable clouds of dust and exhaust fumes.  Our vehicle rattled, jolted and lurched its way over the uneven road surface, zigzagging round motorcyclists, pedestrians and many stray cows, who would sit placidly in the middle of the road chewing their cud.

We continued back along the winding mountain roads, our vehicle starting, stopping, starting and stopping. We’d been travelling for about an hour when we came to a halt at the back of an enormous queue of stationary traffic, which stretched down along the winding road as far as the eye could see.  Drivers had left their vehicles and were speaking to each other, finding out what was happening; eventually the message reached us from the front of the queue; there had been a landslide and the road was blocked with earth, rocks and rubble, dislodged by the heavy rains.

There was nothing we could do but sit it out.  We got out of the vehicle and walked about at the roadside to stretch our legs a bit.  It was over an hour before we saw the vehicles at the head of the queue finally begin to move, so we all took our seats once again, turned up the air-con in the already-hot bus, and thankfully continued on our way once more.  🙂

We soon came across the “road repair” gang who were shovelling cement into a mixer and appearing to do work of some sort.  There were young ladies as well as men, all of them with an air of importance in their yellow hard-hats, but with their safety flip-flops on and no high-viz vests.  A far cry from the strict H&S rules at home!  🙂

We continued on our merry little way in the usual white-knuckle fashion, until it was time to stop for lunch.  We found a nice little restaurant that offered tables and chairs outside among the trees, so we thankfully ordered ourselves a cold beer each (we were ready for it by now!) and I opted to try a dish of Nepalese thali, which is rice served with a selection of accompaniments.  Dishes served in a Thali vary from region to region in South Asia and are usually served in small brass bowls, called katori. These ‘katoris’ are placed along the edge of the round tray – the actual thali: sometimes a steel tray with multiple compartments is used. Typical dishes include rice, dal, vegetables, roti, papad, dahi (yogurt), small amounts of chutney or pickle, and a sweet dish to top it off.

There was an awful lot of it and, tasty though it was, it was impossible to eat it all.

Afterwards we had a loo stop and then off we went once again, to continue on the road to Kathmandu, passing some of the things, like the cable-car, that we’d experienced previously.

Around 5.00pm the minibus pulled up once again in front of the Hotel Himalaya, where we’d started off a week ago.  We’d done so much in such a short time that it seemed ages ago, a lot longer than a week.  So it was with a grand sense of déjà vu that we walked into the lobby and waited until our cases were brought in, and our rooms allocated.

This time Trevor and I were on the fourth floor, in room 4017, which was more or less the same as the one we’d previously stayed in.  I felt tired and grubby and I was dying for a long shower to wash off the grime of the city, and to wash and blow-dry my hair.  This I did, and we had time to relax for a short while before making our way down to the dining room for the “last supper” with Vee, John, Charles and Julie, as tomorrow we’d all be going our separate ways:  John was going home to Blighty, Vee was off to Bhutan for a further four days, Charles and Julie were staying in Kathmandu for another couple of days, and Trevor and I were spending a couple of days at Bhaktapur, one of the main cultural cities in the Kathmandu valley.

We all met up in the restaurant but, as we appeared to be the only guests remaining in the hotel in this, the low season, there was no buffet tonight, it was the à la carte menu.  When the waiter came over, however, he said there was no pork and no prawns, which immediately meant a number of the dishes were off the menu.  😦

As it transpired, I’m sure the chef and waiters must have trained at Fawlty Towers, because the ordering and the service was a complete fiasco.  I’d ordered minestrone soup and then vegetable biryani, and the others had placed their orders too.  However, when the dishes came, one of them hadn’t been ordered by anyone, and my biryani was delivered to me about five minutes before my soup arrived.  One by one our dishes arrived, until poor Charles was sitting there with nothing and had to ask what had happened to his meal. Eventually they brought it out and we were all eating something, even if it only vaguely resembled what we thought we’d ordered.  🙂

When we’d finally all been fed and watered, Trevor and I gave out our calling cards with my website address and email address on, and I obtained all the others’ email addresses too, so I could send them some photos and let them know when my website and blog had been updated.  Then we all went out to the hotel foyer where we asked the hotel’s manager, who was passing by, to take a group photo of us all for posterity.  🙂

Then we all said our goodnights and our farewells and wished each other a pleasant and safe onward journey, and we all went our separate ways, Trevor and I invariably into the hotel bar where they were showing the highlights of some of the World Cup games.  England were due to play Colombia, but because of the time difference the match wasn’t due to start here until 11.45pm.

After a couple of nice gins and tonics we returned to our room, where I settled down to sleep after reading for a short while.  I put in my ear plugs so Trevor could watch the football without disturbing me, and was asleep a short while later.

Waking up after what seemed like ages, I was surprised to find the football was still on; it had gone into extra time so Trevor was still awake and watching it!  Just as well we didn’t have to leave the hotel until 11.30 tomorrow morning; we could enjoy a lie-in and spent the greater part of the morning relaxing before visiting our final destination this holiday – the historic city of Bhaktapur.