Sunday, 29 March 2015

Bulgarian Jottings I: And In The Beginning…

world-map varna


There’s just under three weeks to go until I launch myself into this year’s big trip, so there’s no point starting to post a big long travelogue if it gets interrupted halfway. So instead, I’ve rummaged around into the archives and have pulled out a series of jottings I made on various topics whilst living in Bulgaria 12 years ago. Since I’ve just met up with two old Bulgaria friends in Paris, then when more apt to start posting them. So, here we are, the very first Bulgarian Jotting, a short account of how my fascination with that incredible little Balkan republic began, almost twenty years ago, in the heat of the Israeli desert…

Oh yes, and sorry for the late posting this week. No excuse whatsoever, just crap, that’s all.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all my Bulgarian Jottings

I: In the Beginning…

II: Shumen

III: Nazdravei!

IV: Razgrad and Isperikh

and remember, you can also read about my 2011 travels around Bulgaria!



…there wasn’t a lot. I knew that Bulgaria existed of course. Scouring over maps of Europe as a kid had taught me that much. The same activity had also rendered unto me the fact that he capital was Sofia. Primary School lessons during the Cold War Era added the information that Eastern Europe was Communist, and that all of those countries, (including Bulgaria), were in some shady, threatening group called the Warsaw Pact, (how evil that sounds next to our own benevolent North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), which possessed lots of nuclear weapons, all of them ready to be dropped on us at a moment’s notice. “They could attack us any day,” one class teacher had warned, “ and with nuclear weapons the war and indeed the world, would be over in minutes.” To be fair, the guy was a devoted Quaker who had a penchant for ‘We’re all doomed!’ theories, but nonetheless, these Communists were a people to be feared.

Not that they had it as good as us mind. In fact, in-between forever queuing for bread, waiting for that knock in the middle of the night that would carry away Mum, Dad or Uncle Jack, and working like robots in some vast industrial plant, I was rather surprised they had any time left to blow the world up. And living in fear of the Secret Police all the time, the terror of it all… ah yes, there’s another Bulgaria fact that I knew. Can’t remember where I picked it up exactly, probably my Dad, but I also was aware that the Bulgarians had killed some freedom-loving writer of there’s with a poison-tipped umbrella as he was walking over Westminster Bridge.[1] Urgh! Scary stuff! Straight out of a Bond film.

georgi_markovGeorgi Markov: Bulgarian dissident murdered on Westminster Bridge by a poison-tipped umbrella

From my Stanley Gibbons stamp album, new information was added. Firstly that these Bulgarians wrote in a different alphabet and whenever saw a stamp from there, I had to look up in the index as to which country’s name was spelled out. And also that they produced a hell of a lot of stamps too. Several pages in my album, bettered only by Britain, the USSR and Hungary. “Communist countries usually produce a lot of stamps,” my dad explained. Too little bread yet too many stamps and nuclear weapons. How strange and evil those Bulgarians must be!


Yes indeed, we rejoiced when the Wall fell and then at the, (infinitely more spectacular in my opinion), Coup in Russia when old Yeltsin climbed up on the tanks. And lamented too at Tiananmen Square that the Chinese too could not be freed. But still, the Big Red Menace was gone, well, in our continent at least, and all and sundry could sleep a little easier in our beds.

Quite when Bulgaria changed however, no one seems to remember. As I said before, the USSR and East Germany were far more memorable. The Romanian Revolution too, with that huge building in Bucharest, the killing of Ceaucescu and all those orphanages is also clearly etched in my mind, and I have vague recollections of Solidarity in Poland and the crowds in Wenceslas Square in Czechoslovakia. But Bulgaria? They must have taken a more low-key approach I suppose.

But finally we all, at long last, did notice Bulgaria in spectacular Technicolor, when they burst onto the world stage during the 1994 World Cup Finals in America. With a team consisting entirely of players whose names ended in ‘ov’, they first of all defeated the indomitable newly-united Germany, before going on to reach the semi-finals of the Globe’s biggest sporting event. The arrogant yet brilliant Hristo Stoichkov became a household name and Letchkov and Markov were not far behind either.

So that was it. A former Communist state, peopled by people whose names all ended in ‘ov’ and who produced a hell of a lot of stamps, a deadly secret police and an even deadlier strike force. That was my entire knowledge of Bulgaria.

Hristo-StoichkovHristo Stoichkov: deadly

Until I went to Israel.

Israel might seem like a strange place to discover Bulgaria. Normally people go there and find God, or a bullet where it hurts, but I was an exception. Besides, if one thinks about it, why shouldn’t one learn about Bulgaria in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem? Virtually all of Bulgaria’s Jewish population had been saved from the evil hands of Hitler by the combined actions of the then king, the Church elders and some MPs, thus making it the only European country on the Nazi side where the Jews escaped. It is only natural that many of them emigrated to the Promised Land afterwards, and carried happy memories of their tiny Balkan homeland with them.

Not that I’d gone there to discover all about Eastern Europe though. No, I’d headed to the Holy Land to, err… to, erm… hmm… I can’t quite remember what exactly… Get away from home most likely, and there was a swig of idealism too. Work on a kibbutz, a socialist commune, equality and fraternity, Further the Revolution and all that! Good stuff, count me in.

hashomer-hatzairA Bright Red Dawn: Israel… or Bulgaria?

I was a fortnight or so into that trip when a couple of New Zealanders whom I’d befriended and whom were living up to everyone’s stereotype of an Antipodean abroad by having a big red camper van in which they drove around the Old Continent and beyond, invited me on a day trip in that said motor home to Jerusalem.

“I’d love to come,” said I.

“Great. Oh yeah, and Pippa and Simon are coming along too.”

And that was how I met my first Bulgarians. Pippa and Simon, (or to be more Slavically correct, Pepi and Simeon), were a young married couple from Stara Zagora. She was ravishingly beautiful and spoke good English whilst he was short, pronounced the ‘k’ in ‘know’, was an infectious joker and looked the spitting image of Charlie Chaplin.

The trip to Jerusalem was a success and by chance, the following day was her birthday and we were invited to the party as new-found friends. The Kiwis were indisposed, so I went along with my Dutch roommate[2] for some English-speaking support. It was an experience that I shall never forget. The party, held in the classroom of the Hebrew Language School, turned out to be a gathering of over thirty, of which all attendees, barring the Dutchman and myself, hailed from behind the former Iron Curtain. It sounds naïve looking back now, but I was amazed. All those hard-faced, stern and downtrodden Russians, (aside from Pepi and Simeon, all of the others were from the former USSR), from Cold War TV programmes, turned out to be friendly, normal and as drunk as we were. Why, they were human after all! And that exotic gent from across the North Sea was foreign no longer. We were so similar in outlook and culture that we could have been from the next town!


revivim 2With the Bulgarians on Kibbutz Revivim, 1997

And so it was that on that day my own personal Berlin Wall fell, and the flame of my curiosity for the Eastern Bloc was ignited. If they were all so human, how had they survived, (and indeed, created), a regime that was so inhuman? Or was it actually so bad? Perhaps the propaganda on our side was as misleading as it was on theirs? Only as the victors, we had never realised it. My friendship with the Kovatchevis, (that being Pepi and Simeon), and also some of the Soviets, (particularly a young Ukrainian named Pavel), deepened. By the time that I left Israel by ferry bound for Greece, I knew without a doubt that it wouldn’t be long before I’d be heading for Eastern Europe.

Before I’d have chance to do that however, I had a university to attend. A mere six months after leaving the Holy Land, I was entering the main Sports Hall of the University of Leeds as a fresh-faced Fresher, about to choose the modules of my first year of study, the final aim being a Bachelor’s Degree in Politics and Social Policy.

That however, was at the end. At the beginning, it’s a different story entirely. For the first year of study, grades mattered not so long as one passed, and a third of what you studied was completely up to you, a hundred per cent free choice. That’s why I was stood in the Sports Hall, trying to decide whether to go for Archaeology or Art, Marine Biology or Mechanical Engineering. Lost in a sea of subjects, I was searching for a guiding star to bring me home to an academic port. Then I located not one, but two.

The woman stood in front of the Russian and Bulgarian flags was chirpy, cheerful and seemed surprised that anyone was actually interested in the Slavonic Studies Department.

“You’d like to take Russian as an elective?”

“If I may.”

“Right then. So, to what level have you studied it previously?”

“Erm, well… I haven’t.”
”Ok, hmm… well then, that doesn’t matter. What other language experience do you have then?”

“Oh plenty. I can swear fluently in Greek, and say ‘My mother is a fan heater’ in Hebrew. In fact, I even have the ability to call you a ‘cancer-carrying grave digger’ in Dutch should that be of any help.” (Ok, so I didn’t actually say that, but I might as well have. A GCSE French Grade D qualification was about as much use).

“Oh, hmm… so you’ve no language experience at all. Well then, why do you wish to study Russian?”

“Well to correct that total lack of experience really, plus I met some Russians in Israel and well, I quite fancy going there.”


“So, can I…?”

“Well, I’m sorry but we don’t really allow people onto the Russian course with no previous experience of the language I’m afraid. It’s a shame since you are so enthusiastic, but for an absolute beginner, I’m afraid that all we can really offer is Bulgarian…”


“Yes, would you be interested? It is sort of like Russian, and the class is rather small…”

And so that is how I enrolled as one of the ten university students in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland studying Bulgarian, under the auspices of the excellent Dr. Kalina Filipova who must have been dismayed at having to teach such a blatantly useless student, but stoically persevered nonetheless. And at the end of the year, thanks to her, (and a trip to Israel at Christmas where I had more than a little help with my coursework), I emerged with my first ever foreign language qualifications, (Bulgarian Ii: 55/100; Bulgarian Iii: 43/100, ok, so not quite Berlitz, but considerably better than a D in French), and a much deeper of that tiny Balkan country, plus the knowledge that Bulgaria was definitely going to be my summer travel destination that year.

cyrrilicBulgarian: Not as hard as it looks

I’d done some research in other quarters too. Pepi Kovatcheva’s best friend had visited England and we’d got acquainted, and in an attempt to learn more about the home town of my two comrades in Israel, (which I fully intended visiting, but which was included in no guidebook), I posted a query on the message board of the American University in Bulgaria and as a result, started up an email correspondence with a young lady from that city. And thus it was that armed with a rudimentary knowledge of the tongue, invitations from two locals and a Lonely Planet Eastern Europe on a Shoestring guide, (they didn’t do a separate one for Bulgaria at that stage), I flew out to Bucharest’s Otopeni Airport, (it was cheaper than flying to Sofia), and entered the country via the magnificent Druzhba Most[3] at Ruse.

The two weeks that followed were amongst the most memorable of my life. I visited Stara Zagora, Veliko Turnovo, Plovdiv and the Rodopi Mountains, got on splendidly with my new Bulgarian friends, and got acquainted with the families of both Pepi and Simeon. The following year I was back, this time flying into Thessaloniki in Greece, and visited Blagoevgrad, Melnik, Sofia, Stara Zagora, Pleven, Belogradchik and Vidin. That trip was the most memorable of my life, and by then I had fallen well and truly in love with Bulgaria.

smolyan 2 

smolyanIn Smolyan on my first trip to Bulgaria

Then it started to go wrong. The lady I’d stayed with in Bulgaria, who had by now finished university came to live in Britain for six months and we shared a room together. During that time I discovered that it was not only her country that I’d developed an attachment to. She however, had other priorities. My next visit, in the Spring of 2000 to see the returned and now divorced Pepi from Israel and her family, was a far less happy one, but worthwhile nonetheless. Relationships with one of the daughters might have come to an end, but did I still have place in my heart for the Mother Country? It turned out that I did, and my first trip to what was to become my favourite spot in Bulgaria, Tutrakan, just intensified that. What’s more, a spot of voluntary teaching at the Stara Zagora Language School, (where Pepi, her sister Maria, and Delyana had all been schooled), pointed the way to something far more important. I discovered, to my amazement, that I actually liked teaching almost as much as I enjoyed travelling. My short term future career was decided.

stara zagora Stara Zagora, 1998

It was over two years later however, before I returned. The teaching that I’d trialled in Stara Zagora had led me to the other side of the world, far away from Europe. But memories stayed on in my mind, and when an advert appeared on the internet for teaching positions in Bulgaria, I applied.

And thus it was that I gained a position at the George Byron Private Language School in Varna, commencing in the September, two months after my Japanese contract ended. Those two months I wasted not, travelling with the aforementioned Dutch friend across Asia to Moscow, and then with my brother and another on to Sofia. It was thus a very tired and weary me that arrived that September evening into Varna’s fine red railway station. I was excited about coming but it was not the excitement of the unknown. Indeed, if anything, it felt almost like coming home.


Matthew E. Pointon Copyright © 2004

Next jotting: Shumen

[1] Georgi Markov was his name. Not to be confused with the footballer of the same name.

[2] Although he has no part to play in this book, some readers might be interested to know that he is the same Netherlander as the one who featured in my Trans-Asian travelogue Across Asia With A Lowlander.

[3] Druzhba Most, lit. ‘Friendship Bridge’, the only Trans-Danubian bridge linking Bulgaria and Romania. Completed by the two socialist governments in 1954, it was intended to usher in a new era of fraternity and co-operation between the two countries. That ideal alas, never materialised.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Berlin to Łódź 2013: Day 5

world-map krakow


The weather’s getting better and it’s time to start thinking about going outdoors. This year I’ve got a few camping trips planned, most notably up into the Scottish Highlands in August. Isn’t it daft how we often go so far afield and yet miss the gems nearby? I’d never been to Paris until a few weeks ago and have never been up into the Highlands, into Northern Ireland or Cornwall. Nor too have I ever checked out Stonehenge even though I’ve seen the Armenian Stonehenge which, whilst spectacular, is not quite the same. So, my vow for 2015 is to rectify those omissions a bit, starting with that strange land north of Glasgow.

But for now, here’s the last bit of Poland.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Lodz_PolandI found this amazing hand-drawn map of Łódź by one Madzia Bryll on her website, here. Please visit her site and check out her cool pictures!

germany-poland-map 2


And so it was our last day in Łódź, indeed the last of the entire trip. We had a whole day ahead of us to delve into the depths of Poland's industrial powerhouse before heading off to the airport for our flight home.

We consulted Łódź in your pocket and found a feature on Radogoszcz Prison. Originally built as a factory, at the start of World War II the complex was handed over to the Polish Army and then, of course, to the Germans who transformed it into a prison for Poles. Having checked out some Holocaust sites the year before, and working in a prison ourselves, this seemed like the natural place to head, so we strolled down to the park and hopped on a tram.

But we didn't get to the prison. Well, no immediately. En route we passed an enormous market. With Mike lathering at the mouth, there was no option but to check it out.

And well worth checking out it was too. This was more of the “real” Poland but unlike what we'd seen the night before, it wasn't crap. We bought sausages and cheese, and some excellent gherkins although the pennies that we handed over bought us a carrier bag full that we didn't really know what to do with. More than that though, we saw people going about their daily lives and the things that most Poles buy, (lots and lots of mushrooms for example). We also saw a strange man hawking a single packet of cigarettes with Russian health warnings on the front. However, when we asked if he had more, he merely replied “How many do you want?” The white van parked a way off was full of them.

Radogoszcz Prison was worth heading out to. About 25% of those who passed through it – it was a transit prison – died there, but the most tragic day was January 18th, 1945. with the Red Army approaching, the Germans decided to execute all their prisoners. Realising their fate, the inmates rose in rebellion causing all the guards to flee. In retaliation the prisoners were locked inside and the whole complex razed to the ground. 1,500 souls were incinerated with only thirty living to tell the tale. Whilst no Birkenau, these smaller sites where men and women were senselessly murdered are to be found scattered across Poland and beyond and each one is a tragedy, for even a single wasted life makes it so.

B2L26Radogoszcz Prison: sobering

After seeing the factory that became a prison, we then rode back into the centre to see another very different factory with a very different fate. Manufaktura is Łódź's premier tourist attraction and should not be missed. It began life as the textile mill of Izrael Poznanski, the Jewish oligarch who dominated Łódź during the second half of the 19th century. The first mill opened in 1852 and was expanded 1872-92 by which time more than 80,000 spindles spread over twelve separate factories were in operation. It was a city within a city which continued to churn out cloth until 1997 although by that time it was largely a run-down or derelict eyesore. However, in 2000 a developer bought the site and instead of knocking down the old mills, they were all renovated, new buildings erected alongside them and the whole site reopened as Manukfaktura, an enormous retail and cultural complex with shops, restaurants, an IMAX cinema, a museum, an art gallery and much more.


Both Mike and I were impressed by it all. The restoration was sympathetic yet the whole place also had a vibrant, contemporary feel to it. We engaged in some harmless fun getting ourselves arrested by the cuddly mascot of the Łódź police force and taking photos next to some profound food-based quotes, (in both Polish and English), such as “No man can be wise on an empty stomach”, a maxim that I have always striven to live by.

B2L28Mike gets arrested...

B2L29...and I discover great wisdom!

And then, to finish off our Tour de Łódź, where else but old ulica Piotrkowska? We ventured much further down the record-breaking street than we had the previous night, actually reaching the section that had been beautified including the (locally) famous Hollyłódź Boulevard where the names of prominent Polish film stars and directors are inscribed in the pavement, (the city is the centre of the Polish film industry and the home of Roman Polanski), but Mike was more interested in an exhibition on street art a little further down.

Street art and graffiti had been a recurring feature of the entire trip. Berlin has an incredible mural on the side of one building near to Zoologischer Garten station which depicts members of the government being controlled like puppets on string by an elite group of businessmen and bankers, whilst in Poznań there were several impressive murals including a particularly good one next to the “lock bridge” on Ostrów Tumski. Łódź however, was in a street art league of its own and this exhibition showcased all the murals around the city painted by some of the most famous street artists in the world, several of whom were locals. My own personal favourite though, was a piece on the side of a building near to where we'd waited for the tram home after our drinks the night before. M-City depicted an intense and cluttered mechanical city of fantasy with machinery, steam engines and a whole lot more. It was brilliant and credit must go to the city fathers who, realising that they could never compete with Poland's prettier cities on architectural grounds, have decided to turn their metropolis into a centre of contemporary arts and cheer it up in the process in a similar way to what Eddie Rama did in Tirana at the turn of the century.[1] S would be proud.

B2L30Graffiti by the lock bridge in Poznań


And with that we were done. We took a tram back to our hotel where we ate all the sausage and cheese that we'd bought at the market. We also ate a hell of a lot of gherkins, but seemed to make little impact on the bagful that we'd bought, so we left the rest for the proprietor who was a decent chap. Then we took a taxi to the sparkling new airport, built no doubt to cater for all the emigrants returning home from Manchester, Birmingham and London. That day however, they were all staying well away, as too was everyone else. For the first and only time in our lives, we entered a completely deserted airport terminal and so had some rather juvenile fun playing Come Fly With Me behind the check-in desks before other, more mature passengers and staff began to trickle in and we finally had to draw a close to our trip.

B2L32Would you trust this airline official?

But what kind of trip had it been? Not particularly long nor ambitious, that is true, but a pleasant few days' diversion and education nonetheless. I'd revisited two old friends, (well, three if you count Dzhilbert), and thus linked up our 2012 trip with my other travels, and I'd made two new buddies: Poznań which I really liked and Łódź, less so, but still fascinating, and in doing so I deepened both my understanding of Poland – a country which impacts on my daily life in the form of all the Poles in the UK many of whom I have had the pleasure to work with – and has also been the crucible in which were forged some of the most traumatic and momentous events in the history of my continent.

Written Smallthorne, UK, October 2014

Copyright © 2014, Matthew E. Pointon

[1]See my travelogue 'Albanian Excursions' (Part 3).


Friday, 13 March 2015

Berlin to Łódź 2013: Day 4

world-map krakow


This week’s post sees me visit one of the more unfashionable cities in Poland, Łódź. Not many people make it there and for good reason, as it doesn’t compare with the glories of Poznań or Kraków. However, I recommend going to such places, the Birmingham, Liege or Dusseldorf of Poland. The fact is, whilst not pretty, such cities as Łódź are the ones that helped build the modern world and in them some of our greatest successes – and tragedies – have taken place. For every York, Jerusalem or Kraków, there’s a Stoke-on-Trent, Beersheva and Łódź and what they lack in architectural joys, they also lack in tourists so you, like Mike and I, will have the place to yourself and will doubtless learn more in a few hours about the country you’re in than in several days at the beauty spot. Think about it. As someone from an English Łódź I kind of have to most days.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Lodz_PolandI found this amazing hand-drawn map of Łódź by one Madzia Bryll on her website, here. Please visit her site and check out her cool pictures!

germany-poland-map 2


I like long train journeys which is a good thing since when I woke up early that morning, I knew that I was destined to spend a very large proportion of the coming day riding the rails. For starters, Mike and I had to reach Łódź, the final of our three cities and around a hundred miles from Poznań, a trip that involved changing trains and waiting around at a place called Kutno. But once there, whilst Mike would get off, I was to continue on for another two hours or more to Częstochowa, a place which I would later return from that same evening, back to Łódź, a total of almost ten hours in and around trains. Like I said, it's a good thing that I like them so much.

And the reason for that mammoth bout of rail riding was that I had a duty to fulfil. A month or so before our trip, one of my former students at the institution where Mike and I teach had committed suicide. He was just twenty-four. The reasons behind his decision to take his own life were tragically clear. S was a Polish national with mental health issues whose father he had never known and whose mother had cut all contact with him. He had moved to the UK presumably to escape the thoroughly miserable existence mapped out for him in Łódź. However, soon after his arrival he'd ended up serving a short prison term and then was arrested for a more major offence and handed an indefinite spell in gaol. When he'd arrived with us he was hyperactive, aggressive and badly behaved. But in the ESOL and Art classes – S had a passion for graffiti art – he'd been accepted, valued and included as part of the group and had begun to thrive. He was safe and well. So much did he progress in fact, that he was moved to a Category C prison to further work towards his parole, but there, alas, his support was gone. Sharing a cell with another inmate, they had an altercation and he attacked the other man with a razor. Now S was looking at another, more serious indefinite sentence and his chances of ever leaving gaol must have seemed remote. And even if he did, what did the world outside have to offer him? What chance did he have? So he chose death. At twenty-four.

Understandably I and the lads in the class were all rather upset by this and some suggested raising money in his memory and sending it with a card to his family. But for a man with no family, what can you do? Then, talking with one of the other Polish students, I had an idea: S had no blood mother that wanted him, but he was a Pole and the Mother of Poland is Our Lady of Częstochowa. I'd been to her shrine the year before on our Kraków trip and so why not go again and ask her to look after S? All agreed that it was an excellent idea so we got a rosary from the prison chapel where S had worshipped and the other Poles wrote a message in S's memory and I promised to deliver it as they could not. Whatever the travel time entailed, Częstochowa was the one stop that I could not omit on this trip.

One reason why I so like long train journeys is because they give you a chance to see a country outside of its city centres, to experience how it evolves from region to region. Alas, in those four and a half hours to Łódź and the subsequent two and a half to Częstochowa, I saw very little evolution at all. For the entire journey, Poland remained stubbornly flat, nondescript and scenically dull, as it had done the day before and also, a few minor rolling hills aside, on the previous trip. Historically fascinating the Land of the White Eagle may be, and gorgeous her ancient cities, but rural Poland ranks amongst the blandest places that I've ever travelled through.

We alighted at Kutno where we had to change trains. I decided to wander around a little in the hour or so between them and found myself walking through a rather dilapidated little town with old tramlines embedded in the cobbles before they were obliterated by a layer of tarmac. It could have been anywhere between the Oder and the Lena and its half-forgotten air reminded me of Konotop, Dobrich, Bolgrad and a score of other Post-Soviet provincial towns that I've visited.

An hour or so further down the line and I waved goodbye to Mike on the dreary platform of Łódź Kaliska and then continued on through the featureless countryside alone, using the opportunity to complete my travelogue 'Across the Sound' recounting my walking pilgrimage to Bardsey Island a month or so earlier. Then, after hours of passive inactivity, as we rolled into Częstochowa, I spurred into action, for my time in town was limited and I had a job to do. No leisurely walking up to the monastery today, instead I hailed at taxi which dropped me off at the gates and then made my way in.

The Monastery of Jasna Góra is a magical, powerful place that I was very much taken with the year before. This time though, I had no time to favour its aura but instead made my way straight to the shrine office where, after a degree of difficultly, I managed to explain my unusual pilgrimage to the assistant and I was shown to the shrine itself. And the timing was perfect, for just as we entered, the fanfare sounded and the sacred image was unveiled for daily adoration. I crossed myself but then moved onto the room behind where I donated the prison rosary and message, entrusted S to Our Lady's care and safe-keeping and then watched as the priest entered the proceedings into the shrine's logbook and handed me a card as evidence to show to the class. It was a small gesture perhaps, silly to some no doubt, but for me it made coming to Poland worthwhile and I I knelt before the sacred image of Our Lady afterwards, I was glad. True, this was a rushed pilgrimage, but it had meaning and it gave S that innate respect as a human being made in the image of God that he had rarely been afforded whilst living on this earth.

When I arrived in Łódź evening was beginning to set in and the streets were damp from recent rain. A quick glance at my map informed me that our lodgings for the night, Hotelik Na Zdrowiu (PLN90 p/n) was only just around the corner from the unbelievably dismal Kaliska station.

Only just around the corner on the map that is, but I never looked at the scale. After a trek of almost a mile through one of the dreariest-looking cities in Eastern Europe, (no small achievement that one), I eventually arrived and found Mike who was already happily ensconced therein.

Mike had had a pleasant afternoon wandering the streets of Łódź, (which he had to admit, wasn't really up to the high standards set by Poznań and Kraków), and what was more, he'd worked out the local tram system and picked up a couple of copies of the free and informative Łódź in your pocket guide.[1] So, we strolled across to the tram stop, pleasantly situated in the middle of the park – it was rather strange seeing the trams sneaking through the trees towards us – and then took a ride into the centre of town, alighting at plac Wolności, the square at the head of ulica Piotrkowska.

B2L23Trams in the park

Łódź is a strange place since despite it being home to almost three quarters of a million souls, it is very much a one street town. That street however, is ulica Piotrkowska, a ram-rod straight artery that is almost 5km long and holds the honour of being the longest pedestrianised street in Europe. So, when exploring Łódź, there was only one place to go and so we started at its head and began to walk downhill.

Unlike Poznań or Kraków, Łódź is not an old city. Back in 1793 there were only 190 people listed as living there, (Poznań by contrast had 12,500). Back then, only two hundred years ago, Łódź was hardly even a village. But like Manchester and Birmingham, it mushroomed as a result of the Industrial Revolution, textiles being the industry that caused it to grow with workers flocking in from all over Europe. The first cotton mill was opened in 1825 and in 1839 the first steam-powered factory in all Russia and Poland.[2] By 1850, the population was 15,800 (Poznań 47,000), and less than a century later it had exploded to 338,600 (Poznań now far behind with 220,023). It reached its height in 1990 with a population of 850,000, but since then due to a combination of low birthrates and high emigration – Mike's next-door neighbours hail from Łódź and were the main reason why we chose to check the city out – it has dropped to around 730,000.

Ulica Piotrkowska is evidence written large of Łódź's 19th century development. The city is not historic and so it has no historic core but instead grew up as a linear development along the sides of the main thoroughfare through the area. And all the great millowners competed to build grand residences along that street including one belonging to the greatest entrepreneur of them all, Izrael Poznanski (more on him later).

B2L24Ulica Piotrkowska

Our enjoyment of it all however, was somewhat marred by the fact that the street was being dug up as part of a beautification effort and so we found ourselves trudging through mud and negotiating potholes. Well, that and the fact that we were both by now rather hungry, but this latter problem was solved by turning off ulica Piotrkovska after about half a kilometre and heading into Anatewka.

I am often puzzled and exasperated by the amount of people, (not just Brits, but New Worlders as well as other West Europeans), whose concept of Europe still finishes where the Berlin Wall once stood and who rarely, if ever, consider passing over into that Slavic terra incognita beyond it. “Well, the food's good in France and Italy” they'll say or perhaps, “There's nothing there which you can't find in the West.” Both statements have a degree of truth and falsehood in them, but even if we took both to be gospel, then there is still one crucial factor unconsidered: cost and it astonishes me that folk who, when back at home, watch pennies so carefully, as soon as they cross the national border, seem to leave their financial sense back home with the cat and will pay extravagant amounts for, well, nothing particularly special. Now I am not exactly on the breadline, but conversely, I am not so far from it as I'd like and certainly not a rich man and so Western European levels of expenditure do significantly impact on my enjoyment of a holiday. Take for example my trip to France in 2007 when they were asking €5 for a beer and a main course started at €12, or perhaps Ireland in 2009 when a beer in a cheap pub was a frightening €4 per pint, or, scariest of all, my 2008 weekend in Stockholm when the budget restaurant that the TIC directed me to wanted the equivalent of £13 for a plate of meatballs and mashed potatoes! With prices like those, I have to consider first whether I have the funds or not before going out for a meal or a night's drinking. And it's not just about decisions like those either. In Western Europe one cannot just alter one's plans at the last moment and roll up unexpected in a town because there may well be only one hotel in town and it could quite easily be demanding you fork over €100 for the privilege of a bed, shower and complimentary bar of soap. So you see, one of the reasons why people like Mike and I like Eastern Europe so much is that whilst it has what the West has, and like the West it also has great food and is safe – don't even get me on the common myth that Eastern Europe is some mob-dominated badlands, it was never that bad even in the nineties and it certainly isn't now – it comes at a significantly reduced cost. Ok, so it ain't the absurdly good bargain that it was when the wall fell and you could dine in a five-star hotel for the price of a bag of chips back home, but it is cheap to the extent that you can go there without worrying or feel like you're being robbed every time you buy something. Which brings me back to Anatewka which was the name of the restaurant that Mike and I stepped into that evening. Anatewka is Łódź's Jewish restaurant and arguably the finest eatery in the entire city. Its equivalent in Manchester or Birmingham I could never dream of eating in, instead I'd be stood outside in the rain like the little match girl, but the thing is, the beautiful, glorious thing about that brave new world across the Spree is that there, plebs like Mike and I can just walk right in and order whatever the hell we wanted off the menu without any fear of bankruptcy or re-mortgaging the house.

And it was worth it. Mike and I enjoyed the goose speciality and were amused by the paper bibs with bow-ties on them that we were given as well as the little model Hassidic men that come free with every meal. But I was also a tad confused: Hitler murdered virtually all the Jews of Łódź so did the restaurant represent a rebirth of the community that had in 1913 formed a whopping 34% of the city's population?[3] I asked the waitress but, alas, it seemed, no. all the staff were Poles except the chef who had to be Jewish for the food to be kosher, and of course, the owner was a Jew as well.

B2L25Dining in Anatewka

And then from desirable dining to dive. Mike and I decided that a beer or two was in order on our last night in Poland, so off we went to find a suitable drinking establishment, but unlike Poznań, they were thin on the ground in Łódź. We tried on ulica Piotrkowska but the one place there was terribly noisy and smoky and so we headed away from the main drag and came across a little place on ulica Legionów. It was everything that Anatewka was not: cheap, the décor very early nineties proletarian with mock brick, mirrors aplenty and neon lights, and the clientele were... dubious. Street workers downed a beer between jobs and the local dealer popped outside every ten minutes or so whenever his phone rang. If we wanted the “real” Poland, then, by God, we had found it. Problem was, like “gritty reality” everywhere, it was shit.

We did not stay out for long.

Next part: Day 5

[1]In Your Pocket guides were started in 1991 when some German and Belgian ex-pats produced a guide to Vilnius. They now cover 75 cities across Europe and are distributed locally in shops, hotels and restaurants as well as electronically as webpages and phone apps. The guides often cover off-the-beaten-track destinations (like Łódź) so, for example, in Ireland (London)Derry has a guide but Dublin and Belfast do not. I have used the guides to Shkodra, Pristina, Riga, Poznań and Kraków as well as Łódź and have always found them to be excellent. In Your Pocket represent East European destinations far more comprehensively than those in the west of the continent.

[2]Back then, Łódź was situated in the Russian Empire, (we'd crossed the border from Prussia/Germany in our trip from Poznań), and one of the main reasons cited for the city's industrial success was that it was the first city that one hit in Russia and so benefited from easy access to European technologies and expertise as well as the huge captive market that the Russian Empire could provide.

[3]For the record, the Poles constituted 49.7%, the Germans 14.8% and the other couple of percent a variety of other groups such as Russians and Roma.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Berlin to Łódź 2013: Day 3

world-map berlin



You can’t be into globe trotting for two long before you have to buy one. Over the years I’ve had many, some easy to get hold of, others less so.

But the thing is, logically, what with globalisation and all, surely they should be going out of fashion. After all, what is the purpose of them? Originally to check on who exactly was entering your domain and what exactly they intended to do there. I get that, but these days, what with CCTV, the internet, biometric technology and the rest, there are surely far more effective ways of doing that. But still we have them. Not in Europe of course. Thanks to Schengen, in most of the EU we don’t even need a passport and there are no borders anyway. That’s been the case for decades now and, despite the pronouncements of certain distasteful demagogues on the right, it works. So, you’d have thought the rest of the world would be catching on, right? Not a bit of it!

Two years ago I had to buy a visa to enter India. It cost me £40 and I put down the name of the first hotel on the internet that I could find. I never stayed in it. It was a pure money-making exercise. And remember, the main reason why I chose India was because my first choice, Pakistan, wanted £100 for the same piece of unnecessary bureaucracy.

This year, (and now we get to the reason behind this little rant), I’m needing to buy two. The first was for North Korea. Now, to me or indeed to anyone with a brain, having to get a visa for North Korea should come as no surprise. After all, it’s probably the most tightly-controlled police state on the planet. The £40 or so that I’ve handed over to Kim Jong Un’s enlightened regime will probably prove to be a bargain considering the amount of police resources they’ll spend on watching us and shielding us from the realities of North Korean life. Or at least, that’s what the Western Imperialist propaganda says they’ll do.

The other visa though is for China. I expected that too. Back in 2002 I paid about £30 for a Chinese visa. Now it’s about £40. So what’s the problem? Back in 2002, I paid the fee and that was that, I got the visa and into China I leapt. Fast forward 13 years though and they now need:

  • Entry date and flight number.
  • Full itinerary
  • Hotel bookings for every night in China
  • Proof of all previous visits to China
  • Exit flight and number

None of this was required before, and if it had been I could not have completed the amazing trip that I did back then. So, come on China, (and to a lesser extent India who have put their visas up to a staggering £100 now), what’s this all about? We’re meant to be breaking down the barriers, not putting them up! Globalisation is the glorious name of the game and I want to give you my business! So why are you trying to stop me? You’d almost think China was some old school communist regime that distrusts foreigners.

Wait a minute…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5


germany-poland-map 1


This was the day that we had set aside to explore the second city of our tour of three so we started early as there was a lot to fit in. that said, our first port-of-call hardly counted as a cultural must-see but neither of us could resist walking through the doors of the McDonalds by the railway station, firstly because we both fancied a greasy breakfast but more importantly, because we wished to pay tribute to Healthy Dave.

Healthy Dave is a guy who we work with. He teaches the Healthy Living course and is a highly-qualified gym professional, hence the nickname. However, I also car share with the guy and despite what he preaches, he really struggles to practise it. Everyday he insists on heading towards the Golden Arches and as a result he's perhaps not the hench, six-pack body builder that his nickname and profession might suggest. Indeed, one might describe him as the worst possible influence on me, although to be fair, that probably goes both ways. Anyway, you must understand that it was purely out of respect for a friend who was not with us that we both sampled a Polish Big Mac that morning and then took photos with said source of nutrition and a card declaring 'Dave Wright, we thought of you!' to post on Facebook.

B2L15Respect to the Healthy One!

Thus filled, we went on our way, choosing a different route into town than the night before, this time heading down Święty Marcin which took is to plac Mickiewcza where there was both a rather brutal concrete monument and a museum dedicated to the uprising of 1956.

Now before this trip, if you'd said to me the words “uprising” and “1956” then I'd have assumed that you were talking about Hungary where the whole country rose up against Soviet dominance and Moscow decided to send in the tanks to crush it. However, in June of that year, before the events in Budapest, there was the first mass protest to occur within the Soviet Bloc and it erupted in Poznań and then spread with a crowd of a hundred thousand gathering in plac Stalina (now plac Mickiewcza) demanding “Bread and Freedom!” The city authorities ignored this so the crowd stormed the police headquarters, the communist party building and then the prison, releasing 257 inmates. They then turned their attentions to the secret police headquarters and that's when the guns started to be fired. The army was brought in with tanks rolling down the streets but fighting continued through the night and for most of the following day. By the end 76 lay dead, 900 were wounded and more than 300 protesters were arrested. Although undoubtedly a failure and largely ignored by historians for years, this spontaneous working class uprising only three years after the death of Stalin was a precursor for the ultimately successful strikes and rebellions of the Solidarity movement. However, whilst historians may have ignored the rebellion, the city of Poznań most definitely has not and the little museum in the basement of the Poznań Imperial Castle told its story excellently, with the exhibits well thought-out and all aspects of the story covered from secret radios to propaganda, the role of children to an old Soviet T-34 tank bursting out of one wall.


B2L17The 1956 Uprising Museum

And once done in there, the building that housed it was well worth a look took. A grand Gothic edifice built between 1904 and 1910 as a palace for the man behind Europe's first great conflict of the 20th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II – remember, Poznań was in Germany back then – it was stern and impressive, but interesting too since it was later remodelled by Albert Speer as a palace for the man behind Europe's second great conflict of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler in which he even had his own throne room where he could receive minions and a bunker underneath, (where the museum is now housed), to scuttle into in case the Allies decided to drop a bomb or two.

B2L18Hitler's lair: Poznań Imperial Castle

We continued our walk into the centre and wondered at a very strange and angular metal and glass sculpture in plac Wolności and then ogled Poznań Royal Castle – a fairytale fortress said to date from 1249 but looking very new indeed, in fact some parts still very obviously under construction[1] – before ending up by the scanty remains of the old city walls.

B2L19Crap art in plac Wolności

Having done some of what I wanted to do, it was now Mike's turn and so we headed to plac Wielkopolski where Poznań's main market is held. Mike loves markets you see. He doesn't necessarily buy anything at them, but he likes to sniff out bargains and see what the locals are eating. So we browsed the stalls stacked with cheap perfume and toys, checked out the cheapest prices for cigarettes, (perhaps Mike's main reason for coming and a nice little side-earner for me too), and then moved on to enjoy a coffee on the nearby Stary Rynek where we'd drank the night before.

Poznań's Stary Rynek is beautiful, an almost perfect ensemble of buildings flanked around and inside a large square, with the Rennaissance town hall being the pick of them with its elaborate frieze and clock. The only thing that mars the beauty is the horrendous 1960s addition in the centre – Prince Charle's phrase “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend” comes to mind – but that, I read, is scheduled for demolition, and even now it cannot destroy the ambience of the square which I much prefer to Kraków's Rynek Główny, being more intimate. And so we wiled away an hour or so reading and watching the girls go by – always a pleasant activity in Poland – and regaining our energy before embarking on the next stage of the Tour de Poznań, which involved a lengthy walk eastwards to Ostrów Tumski, an island in the Warta River which is a must-see on any Poznań itinerary.

B2L20Stary Rynek

Ostrów Tumski is today a kilometre from Stary Rynek, the heart of modern Poznań, out in the suburbs and away from the crowds. But in fact, it is far older as a human settlement and much more important in the city's story than anywhere else for it was there that Poznań was originally founded back in the 9th century, (the spot was easily defensible), and the city only moved to its current location in 1252 when a new town was laid out. Although reached by a long concrete bridge these days which would not have looked out of place in Telford or Milton Keynes or indeed any other bland new town, once on the island, the sense of history was palpable.

The island is dominated by the city's cathedral, an enormous brick edifice built in stages since the 9th century when it was founded by Duke Mieszko I, the first-ever ruler of a Polish state, as his capital. As such, Ostrów Tumski can be seen as not only the place where Poznań began but indeed, also the place where Poland itself was born. And more than that, if, as some historians believe, the church on the island was also the place where the duke was baptised in 966, then Poznań Cathedral may also be called the spot where the Poles became Christian.[2]

B2L21Poznań Cathedral

And the cathedral is a building which does justice to its historical significance. The year before in Kraków I'd been none too enamoured with Polish churches, most seemingly suffering from an excess of Counter Reformation Baroque which seemed to me to be out-of-place, an alien intrusion so far north and eat, but Poznań Cathedral is grand yet restrained and its most exuberant section, the Golden Chapel where old Duke Mieszko and his successor Bolesław Chobry are interred, although sumptuous is also tasteful in a Gothic fashion, more Hogwarts than Versailles.

What I found most interesting of all though, was the crypt in which there's an excellent exhibition charting the development of the island and its cathedral and some excavated remains of the foundations of the earliest structure and the decayed relics of some ancient ecclesiastics.

Round the back of the cathedral though, on the bridge over the Cybina River, (the other branch of the Warta), came another astonishing sight: thousands of locks attached to the bridge railings with the names of lovers and a date inscribed on them. Quite why they were there and what they signified neither of us could say, but visually it was a striking sight.[3]

B2L22The lock bridge on Ostrów Tumski

And that done, our grand tour of Poznań was complete and so we dragged our tired feet back into the centre where we dined in Chłopskie Jadło, our favourite Polish restaurant chain, (it specialise in traditional peasant food), before returning to the Stary Rynek that evening for more beers and people-watching, both of us thoroughly impressed with Poland's fifth-largest city and eager to move on and see what Łódź has to offer.

Next part: Day 4

[1]Some research on the internet has revealed what the story is. Yes, there was a mediaeval castle on the site but this, like so much else, was largely destroyed during World War II and it was only partially rebuilt in the 1950s. The “under construction” look was due to the fact that it is now being fully and meticulously rebuilt and it was just a shame that we'd arrived too early to see it finished.

[2]There is another school of thought however which states that Duke Mieszko was baptised at Gniezno, some twenty miles or so to the east.

[3]Later research revealed the following: The bridge is one of a number of “lock bridges” to be found all over the world and the legend behind them is relatively modern. It comes from a 1992 love story by the Italian author Federico Moccia,'Tre metri sopra il cielo' ('You and I are three metres above the sky) which was later made into a film. In it the two young lovers attach a padlock to Rome's Ponte Milvio and then throw the key into the Tiber River, thus binding the couple together for all eternity. Ahh...