Monday, 23 March 2020

Poznan

New horizons.
The tram into the city.
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After my adventures in Romania, seeing bears and exploring the 'real Romania' that is Maramures, I felt ready to leave. Romania has always been good to me - it is a wonderful country to explore with friendly people and amazing sights to see. I'm sure that I'll go back to Romania soon, but it was time to leave. I made my way back to the airport, returning the rental car and then getting the company's shuttle bus to the terminal. My next stop was Poland, where I'd be spending 2 weeks before going back to Spain. I'd visited Poland before, but never in Summer - it was always cold and dark when I went, in December for Christmas and New Years way back in 2008, as well as last year for a conference in Bydgoszcz and Toruń. What I came to mind when I thought of Poland was that it was cold and dark by 4pm... but the cities I knew had stunning Central European architecture, coloured buildings, huge squares, and was oozing history everywhere. That's not to mention the mountains and the countryside! I was very excited to be seeing Poland in summer for the first time, and I also had a personal tour guide in my girlfriend. I boarded my plane in Bucharest, stopped over very briefly in Warsaw to change plans to Poznan, the city where I'd be staying. The plane that I got was one of the smallest I'd been on in some time - only 2 seats in each row. Although not a turbo-prop as I was expecting, as they sometimes use these little propeller planes for this short route, it was still very small but cute. I got a window seat and was able to watch the sunset over the central part of the country before landing just after sundown. I was picked up by my girlfriend, something that rarely happens to me (being picked up from the airport by anyone!) and driven back home. I'd been a long day but I was already excited to head out and explore Poznan!
Poznan's Old Market Square and the Town Hall.
Old Market Square.
Giovanni Battista di Quadro - The master behind the new Town Hall.
One of many cool, courtyard cafes in the city.
The first day in Poland was meeting the family and settling in. Apart from this, I was tired from my summer camp in Romania, hiking and driving around, as well as the flights, so it was nice doing absolutely nothing for a bit. I was itching to get out and do things, but tiredness won over eagerness. The next day, after a good lie in and hearty Polish breakfast of pickles, ham and sausages, as well as good coffee, it was time to take a leisurely stroll around the centre of the city. Where I was staying with my girlfriend and her parents was a short distance from centre, not walkable really, but very close by car (and Uber rocks in Poland!) and tram. As I was in Poland I decided to get the tram, firstly because I love trams, but also because they are cheap, take you right to the centre and are a good way of seeing the 'lay of the land' as a tourist. The tickets are done a few ways for people buying the occasional one - 10 minute and 45 minute timed tickets are the easiest however, as long as you know how long your trip will be. At 3zł (just less than a Euro or $1 AU) for 10 mintues and 5zł for 45 minutes, it truly was affordable. Although I only got checked once in my whole time in Poland, everyone says that the conductors are really mean and even if you have a ticket in your hand, if you haven't validated it, they will still fine you. Fair enough I say - the ticket is cheap and the service good, so why not pay? When in a city with trams, I love taking the old ones for the experience! In Prague there were still old trams kicking about, and also in other European cities like Bucharest and Krakow, and although the locals always complain about them (like I do about the shitty old trains in Sydney!), I like them as you never know when they will disappear forever. We got into the centre, stopping a little before the main square so we could walk more and take in the sights - this was my first time in Poznan after all! We got off just outside the Grand Theatre, a beautiful columned building made all of stone and adorned by a Pegasus on the roof. Although I didn't go in, I imagined that it must be quite impressive. Opposite is a park with a lovely fountain, with a grassed area around it. The perfect place to chill in the sun and relax, enjoy the sound of splashing water- or jump in for a dip like the dogs were doing!
The Apollo Fountain in the Market Square.
Poznan's main square.
The war memorial in Pozan.
Interesting street art - fear of things different?
Walking down to the main square, we stopped off for an ice-cream at Poznan's best ice-cream spot, the "Lodziarnia Kolorowa." Normally in summer there are large queues out the front, but today we were lucky and didn't have to wait too long. The cool and very tasty snack was a great idea. The main square in Poznan is much like most city squares in Poland (and even the Czech Republic to be honest), but that doesn't make it less impressive! While Kraków sports the largest square in Europe, this one wasn't small - it measures 140m in length. Colourful terraced buildings ring the square and a fountain sits in each corner - the Apollo, Neptune and Mars fountain and the Prozerpiny. The square is all cobbled stone and full of restaurants and bars,  with the City Hall sitting tall and proud in the centre. Also in the centre is the Old Market with stalls and shops, selling the usual tourist rubbish, but the buildings are bar far the most beautiful, each wonderfully colourful and with their own unique design too. This square was laid out in 1253 when Poznan received its original city charter, and is very close to the Royal Castle. From 1253 until 1793 , this part of the Old Town was ringed by city walls and had 4 main gates. In the 17th and 18th century, the walls became less important strategically and were gradually dismantled by the Prussians and only some foundations can be seen today. Many of the buildings here, including the Town Hall, were renovated by Giovanni Battista di Quadro, an Italian Renaissance architect, in the 16th century after a tragic fire that damaged many buildings, and then later nearly completely destroyed in the Battle of Poznan in 1945.  The defeat of the German garrison required almost an entire month of painstaking reduction of fortified positions, intense urban combat, and a final assault on the city's citadel by the Red Army. It must have been a horrible time - more than 10,000 Russians KIA, 6,000 Germans and 90% of the city centre damaged or destroyed by artillery, grenade and mortar explosions as well as small arms fire. Today, after the reconstruction, it is absolutely stunning and you can't tell that it was nearly lost forever.
Poznan Old Market Square.
Beautiful Polish architecture.
Downtown Poznan.
The old walls.
It was hard not to wander around with your head up and feet doing circles, trying to take in the colours. I couldn't help clicking away at everything - I didn't want to miss a square inch of this! Although I missed it the first day, I was here several times and did get to see Poznan's biggest daytime attraction - the goats. At midday every day, when the clock chimes the hour, two little mechanical white goats come out from the clock face and butt heads. Although not a spectacular show, and not as exciting as Prague's Astrological Clock's show every hour, I enjoyed the performance and I think it's something everyone coming to this city should see. The goats are the symbol of the Poznan and have been 'battling' for nearly 500 years on the Town Hall. The legend of these two mad goats goes something like this: back in the mid 1500s, the master chef who was in charge of a feast for the mayor and some important dignitaies, was cooking venison on a spit when they main meal fell off the fire and onto the ground. The man, desperate to keep his job (and his head!), ran around town trying to find replacement venison, but there was none left in the whole city. Quick thinking made him grab 2 goats which were grazing in a field nearby - but goats being goats, didn't want any part of this and ran off. They fled (with the chef chasing them) towards to the Town Hall and got up to the tower and started fighting. This amused the mayor so much that the chef was forgiven and the goats took their place in history. Tourists now gather around the clock just before midday, looking up and preparing phones and cameras, waiting for the show. The goats came out and did their little dance, but what a lot of people don't see is the trumpeter giving a live performance just before the clock strikes 12.
When the clock strikes 12... fight!
The butting goats - the symbol of the city.

"The Unrecognized Ones."
Interesting buildings are everywhere here.
Something else really worth seeing in the city is the Park Cytadela, just north of the centre. Originally a 19th century fortification, is is now a large park complex which also contains a military museum, military cemeteries, and the remains of some of the fortifications. There are plenty of paths to walk around, small shops selling refreshments, ponds to relax next to as well as some interesting sculptures. The park covers more than 100 hectares and you could easily spend all day here (or even get lost!), but I had picked out what I wanted to see and made for those. I saw the museum and some tanks sitting outside, real WWII monsters of German and Russian make, as well as some planes and helicopters. The Soviet cemetery is a quiet part of the park and is quite eerie. I walked around in silence, taking a few photos and also reading the inscriptions. There must have been so much fighting here in Poznan, it would have been a terrible thing to experience. Along the way we came across a very interesting sculpture by Magdalena Abakanowicz called "The Unrecognized Ones." This installation was big bodies that looked like they were walking around, or being marched about, but without heads. They were also larger than life-size, big and heavy, made of rusted iron, and kind of empty so you could stand in the 'mold.' The park is listed as one of Poland's official national Historic Monuments and is worth coming to see, even if you're not interested in war or museums, as the park and green areas are beautiful, especially in the warm Polish summer. We also made a trip to the Poznan zoo, by getting a ride from the Maltanka Park Railway on a small-scale electric train. I'm sure it was meant for kids and their parents, but we hopped on and enjoyed the bumpy ride which took us along the lake and up the main gates. Although I have no idea how big the zoo is, I know that we spent most of the day walking around in the heat seeing most of the animals and enclosures that we could. A very pleasant day it was, so the walking didn't bother us, and there was plenty to see and quite a few places to stop for refreshments in the shade. There was so much to see that I'm sure I missed a lot, but I did see the cute grizzly bears swimming and playing, and the new and very large elephant complex, complete with an indoor viewing area and bridges over the outside enclosure. I'm not sure if it had something to do with the time of year either, but there seemed to be a lot of baby animals around - cute, long-legged giraffes and even a baby zebra!
Park Cytadela's Soviet cemetery.
Red Panda taking a nap.
Bear bath time.
In bloom in Poznan.
I tried to do as much as I could here - I only had 2 weeks but there was a lot to see. Also, some of this time would be spent travelling other parts of the country. One thing I needed to do here was visit the cathedral. The cathedral was originally built in the second half of the 10th century within the fortified settlement of Gród (the old name for Poznań). The original city was on an island now called Ostrów Tumski ("Cathedral Island"), and moved in the 13th Century to be built around the castle, separating state and religion. The cathedral was the seat of the first Christian ruler of Poland, Mieszko I, who played a large part in the creation of the Polish State, continuing the work done by his father and grandfather. We walked across the bridge which spans the Warta river, and from here you get the best view of the cathedral. To be brutally honest, the inside was no comparison to the outside. Red-brick interior in churches aren't my favourite - I much prefer bare stone like in Spanish Gothic churches. Inside though, they have some famous Poles, including the Mieszko I. Outside the red bricks fit with the green hue of the bronze roof and towers, statues around the roof and a very large gold crown. We continued on, across a red iron arched bridge, crossing the island and getting back onto the 'mainland' to visit the museum of Poznan. This modern building houses a very interesting display of the early history of the city, including an audio-visual self-tour that is worth doing. Everything inside was newly renovated, clean and well-organised - well done Poznan!
WWII tanks at the war museum.
The Soviet cemetery in Park Cytadela - Lest We Forget.


Marjan Rejewski - cracker of the code.
Poznan University.
There was actually a lot to see and do here in Poznan! Although not a big European capital (it has a population of just over 500,000), it had the feeling of a modern, cosmopolitan city combined with a smaller town. The centre is old, historic and full of bars and restaurants, little shops and eateries, and on the edge of the city, apart from being where most people live in tall apartment blocks, forest covers much of the landscape. Trams run everywhere in the city, there are plenty of bicycles and ways of getting around too. I loved using Uber here - apart from being very cheap, the drivers were always very friendly and most spoke English too. One driver said to me "Matthew, where are you from?" I told him I was from Australia and we immediately asked about the bushfires. This was my most recent trip to Poznan in December 2019 for Christmas, but my experience back in August was just as friendly. You might not have heard of Poznan before, but some of it's past residents are famous; Marian Rejewski, a Polish mathematician, was studying at Poznan University when he made a huge discovery that helped crack the Enigma Code. Another man, Maciej Henneberg, who also studied in Poznan, discovered (while living and working in Adelaide) that koalas have nearly identical fingerprints to humans - who even knew that koalas had fingerprints to begin with! So, Poznan is a great place to live it seems - plenty of parks, cheap and efficient public transport, flight connections to many places in Europe, beautiful city centre, history, culture and education... what more could you want? I feel that the weather could be the only thing that is lacking, but weather isn't everything. Thank you Poznan for your hospitality - I'll be back!
Poznan Cathedral, situated on the original site of the city, Ostrów Tumski.
The cathedral from across the river.
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. August 2019.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Bears and The Transfăgărășan

Thanks for a good time Bucharest... but it's time to head for the mountains!
Bucharest at night.
Enjoying the warm summer evenings in the capital.
I had just returned to Bucharest after an amazing few days up north in Maramureș county. I'd used overnight trains, caught irregular local buses, walked miles along country roads and even did a spot of hitchhiking. I never felt in danger with any of these things as the people are genuinely extremely friendly and open, even when they didn't speak English. I ad the chance to discover this part of Romania in a relaxed and carefree way, finding accommodation where and when I wanted without a hitch, and moved I even around quite freely considering I didn't have a car. I would have loved to have had a car, as it is pure freedom in cases like this - but I felt very proud of myself, how I was able to get around and work everything out, and do it alone. So, after waiting nearly 4 hours for the night train by hanging out and sharing beers and stories with a few locals, I was very tired and ready to sleep. There were no bunks available for the trip back, but I was so weary that it really didn't matter and before long I was waking up as the train pulled back into the capital. I grabbed the metro back to the centre and had some breakfast, then a much needed shower and load of washing. I had 3 more days left in Romania before and so my mind was already at work, trying to figure out where I could go. I'm sorry to say that staying in the city wasn't really an option for me - after the beautiful countryside of Maramureș, staying in a big, bustling (and dirty) city, it would have just depressed me. I needed something different, something new, something with adventure. Ideas were coming to me, plans being formulated and searches on Google made.
To the mountains!
Curtea de Argeș.
Curtea de Argeș.
The cathedral in Curtea de Argeș.
By lunchtime, a decision had been made. The plan was to rent a car, head out of the city tonight, Friday, be back late Saturday night and ready to leave for the airport on Sunday. I asked a few friends and locals about places to go, and one place kept coming up - Curtea de Argeș. The County of Argeș isn't far from Bucharest, a drive of an hour and a half (with good traffic), and I was told it is very beautiful, with a lake and lots of mountains and forests. I was heading off with my Summer Camp colleague (and good buddy) Glenn, but as he was working till 5 it was my job to get the car. There is also the fact that he doesn't drive. Fine by me - I love driving, and in a foreign country makes it a little more exciting! I got the airport bus from the centre, which is very cheap (less than 2 euros!) and efficient, jumped off at the airport and got a lift from the car rental place to get my car. For some reason these guy's don't have an office at the airport, they just stand near the florist with a sign, which may seem a little strange but that's how it works here. The company, Klass Wagen, was fantastic - they spoke English, had good prices and their services was great. I don't normally plug companies like this but these guys deserve it! So before I knew it, I was in my ride for the weekend (a white Dacia something or other) and driving back to the city to get my travel buddy for the road trip. It was much easier, faster and safer with the airport bus to be honest - Romanian drivers are mad! Bucharest drivers even worse - madmen on a mission! As I excited the road and slipped onto the highway, I realised that I wasn't heading back to the city and so pulled over at a petrol station to check. It was true, I was continuing north and there was no sign of a way to go back. I did what anyone else would have done - I followed the locals. We queued in the middle of the road, facing the oncoming speeding cars, waiting for a break in the river of vehicles to do a U-turn! 5 minutes and a bucket of sweat and a few swear words later, I was heading back to the city centre.
Poenari Castle.
Lake Vidrau.
Castle closed due to bears. Excellent!
Castles and clouds in the moutains.
Things were quickly packed, and we got in the car and were ready to head off. It was around 6pm and we looked at the GPS - it had been a 1.5 hour trip, but now we were told more than 2.5 hours! Looks like everyone was leaving the city tonight as well. We chose to relax and have dinner before we left, hoping that the traffic would settle down. We chose a little neighbourhood restaurant, away from the busy, tourist centre, and weren't disappointed - local food at local prices! Romanian Mici, grilled, spicy pork sausages and chips with a beer (0.0% for the driver of course) was just what was needed. We got back in the car and the traffic had died down to normal standards, so we set off for the weekend road trip north! Driving was ok, mainly highway driving, and we cruised along, stopping once for a bathroom break about half-way. Of all the times and places to stop, we ran into 2 friends who were also getting out of the city for the weekend! Small world! Along the way, Glenn was on navigator duty, as well as being in charge of finding accommodation. With a few wrong turns in the dark and late 'turn left NOW' directions, we made it to where we would be sleeping for the night. That part he did fantastically well and we scored a nice little hotel in the mountains at a bargain price too. We enjoyed a beer on our balcony while playing our favourite card game "loser," before retiring for the night very excited about the day ahead. Just before sleeping, we read some reviews of a castle just down the road from us - bears had been spotted and was closed until further notice! This is exactly what we wanted to hear - wild bears on the lose! What a way to top off a great time in Romania by seeing some furry little creatures in a real wild environment.
A shepherd and his dog.
The flock grazing on a mountainside.
Selfies on the dam.
More selfies.
The weather wasn't great as we set off, following the windy little road through villages towards Lake Vidrau. It was cloudy and a little grizzly, but we had expected this and chose to bear with it... with the hope of seeing bears too! That's all we could think of to be honest - we could bearly contain our excitement! I step too fur with the bear puns? We stopped for  abreak at Poenari Castle, a ruin at the top of a misty mountain, and were greeted by a sign stating what we'd read before - closed due to dangerous wildife. Excellent! Bears we actually in the area! The pressure to see one was bearing down on us quite heavily (last one, I promise!). We continued up the road, zig-zagging back and forth to reach the top of the dam for a look and some photos. By this time, the weather was clearing up and we could see the blue sky. Even the temperature was warming up a little. It was a nice walk across the dam, apart from way too many tourists driving and taking selfies, some driving and taking selfies at the same time. The police were patrolling the road but without much success in stopping people being idiots. The Vidraru Dam was built in 1966 on the Argeş River and is quite impressive - 166 metres tall and arching around for 305 metres, giving you a great view of the lake on one side, and a stomach churning drop on the other. If you're a fan of the BBC show Top Gear, you'll remember one episode filmed here, when the boys drove an Aston Martin, Farrari and a Lambo in search of the unpronounceable road that is the Transfăgărăşan Highway. Glenn and I realised at this time that this famous road, considered one of the most beautiful roads anywhere in the world, was only about 50kms away. This wasn't far considering how far we'd already driven... and the fact that he's a Kiwi who lives in Poland and I'm an Aussie who lives in Spain. There was no choice really! A quick early lunch break just across the dam and then we hit the road to see that view and that famous road! We climbed the winding road, forever heading up and up, round and round, pushing the little Dacia to it's 4-cylinder pertrol engine to the limits. Not a bad excuse to stop occasionally for photos, so we did, and it was beautiful. I saw a shepherd standing on the edge of the road, wrapped up in a big raincoat, wearing a strange, peaked cap and holding a crook. This was something that I couldn't miss photo-wise - I got out of the car, walked up to him and asked him for a photo. Let me just say - if you don't ask, you'll never know... I got a few great photos there! There were also waterfalls along the way, the narrow roads parked out on both sides with people walking there too, all to get photos. This was dangerous enough, but some people went the extra mile and crossed the barriers to that Instagram moment.
Clouds and disappointing views.
The Transfăgărăşan Highway.
The Shepherd.
The Bear.
As we neared the top, the clouds and rain set in again, and we started to have doubts. Would we see this road? Was this drive worth it? Where are the bears? At the top, we parked on the side of the road and battled the hordes of people, tack shops and weather to get inside a restaurant for a beer. We couldn't see much, it was cold and we were wet. Slightly disappointed, we headed back to the car, but then the clouds just started to open up for a minute - enough to get a couple of shots off. It wasn't the amazing view that I had expected to see - but then again, it was a road in cold, rainy weather. Happy with the fact that was probably the best we'd get, we turned the heating up to dry out and de-fog, and headed down. Did I mention that we wanted to see bears? Well, no more talk about wanting to see bears... we saw out first one just around the corner. We were confused at first as all the cars in front of us stopped, then people starting leaning out of windows and screaming. We had no idea what was happening at first, but then the penny dropped as we heard them yelling 'urs!' The bear was hiding in the bushes and we could only just see it and it's head. It was bigger than I'd expected! I managed to take a few photos and after driving past, we stopped to enjoy the fact that we'd seen a bear in the wild! We were quickly on Whatsapp and social media, telling everyone we knew what we'd just witnessed. The modern age! After about 2 minutes of further driving, we came across 2 more bears. This one was eating something on the side of the road while cars stopped very close to it, all full of people hanging out the windows with phones. This bear seemed quite upset and even swiped the lead car. The third was a very close encounter - the bear was out in the open, sitting in front of his 'audience' of paparazzi iPhoneographers, clearly distressed by the attention. Glenn and I saw this clearly, but the other people either had no idea or just didn't care - they got out of their cars and got closer and closer, throwing bread towards the bear even, trying to get it to 'do something.' I did take photos, but from a respectable distance and without making noise or trying to feed it. We moved on, parked and got out for a breather - we had just seen 3 wild brown bears in Romania within 5 minutes! As much as I hated missing out on a good view of the Transfăgărăşan, that weather made the bears come out I think and we were both happier to have experienced that.
Very cute... and very dangerous! Never get out of your car!
Looking right down the lens.
An incredible sight. Bears truly are beautiful.
I could barely drive for the adrenaline that was pumping its way around my body. There is no way I will ever forget this day. Nothing else could top this for today or this trip. Seeing an animal in the wild like this is something incredible. I've been to South Africa and on a few safaris, and that was amazing - seeing animals from a David Attenborough documentary up close, including a leopard. This will remain on that same list of things that I have seen and will always remember in my life. I was very fortunate and am very thankful to the bear gods that made them come out that day. We stopped off in the city in the area, Curtea de Argeas, without much excitement to see it, even though it is a lovely place. We walked around the Curtea de Argeas Cathedral, a beautiful 19th century building, but all we could think of were the bears. We had dinner and then drove home, still thinking of the bears. I was flying home to next day, completely satisfied with my time in Romania this year - it had been busy and very fulfilling indeed. Thanks for being a great travel buddy Glenn - we make a good team, me driving, you on social media and directions... who knows who brought the bears, but it doesn't matter, they were there. Until next time Romania!
Goodbye and thank you for the bears.
Until next time Romania.


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MyUncleTravellingMatt. August 2019.

Poznan

New horizons. The tram into the city. Add caption After my adventures in Romania, seeing bears and exploring the 'real Rom...