Monday, 12 August 2019

The Nuria Valley

Hot Air Balloons over Vic.
The hike to Nuria.
The mountains are calling!
Christmas in Sydney was lovely, a chance to go home after nearly 4 years. I visited a few beaches, drove around old suburbs of Sydney were I lived and had many memories, as well as catch with some old friends and family. The weather had been hot too, some days tipping the scales at 45c in the city, driving people to flock to the beaches or stay indoors with their air-con on high. I had also visited a few beaches, some of my old favourites and places where I spent many hours lying in the sun, dipping in the water to cool off and rinse the sweat off being laying back in the sun to warm up again - nothing like Summer in Sydney. I'd ticked all the boxes of things that I wanted to do once getting home, most of these things were food that I had to eat - Vietnamese Pho, Thai Laksa, good old Aussie meat pies and sausages rolls, as well as a hot Indian curry. I spent one of my last nights chilling on a rooftop terrace bar in Newtown, having a few beers and talking dreams and aspirations with my best friend who I went to school with. This friend (she knows who she is), is one of the hardest-working, dedicated, smartest and interesting people you will ever meet and I am very happy we got to hang out while I was back. It doesn't matter how long between visits and chats, even if it's 4 years, it seems like yesterday - that's friendship. But not, it was time to make the 24 hours flight back to Barcelona, battle with jetlag and go back to work within a few days and teach 3 year olds. Bring it!
Anyone else see a baby? Looking at the clouds and seeing shapes - Pareidolia.
End of the ski season.

This way!

Nuria is also a ski resort.
The Winter in Spain and Barcelona hadn't been too cold and snowy so far, last year was much worse. I say worse, as I don't really like the dark, cold and wet days of Winter, but in Barcelona it isn't that bad at all. Also, I like a good winter hike if there's a bit of snow around! Since getting back here and going back to work, I was far busier at work and seemed not to have much time for day trips or any mountain trips at all, and it was starting to show. I was feeling the need for Nature, the call of the wild, to stretch my legs and hike. Luckily, many of my friends here feel the same, and so a trip was planned. Already it was March, and I'd been back since mid-January after Australia, and not really done anything, let alone in the mountains. We decided to head up to the Vall de Nuria (Nuria Valley), a Ski resort and monastery in a valley in the Pyrenees. There are 2 ways of getting there - walking from the town of Queralbs (or from France on the other side of the range) or via a rack railway. There are no roads, no short-cuts apart from the train but it isn't cheap to do it that way - unless your name is 'Nuria' then the ticket is free! It's actually a very popular name in Catalonia, but I'm sure not just for the free ride up here. I've caught the little train once as well as walk, and this time we would be walking as well, starting from the village of Queralbs and walking for just under 3 hours. It's fairly close to Sabadell, just over 1 hour and 30 mins on a good run and along the C-17, a road that runs through small mountains, past towns like Aigufreda, Centelles and past Vic. To make things easier, I had dinner at my friend's place, with their 2 kids, and slept on the sofa, ready to make an early start in the morning.

Mountain cabin with a view.
The start of the hike to Nuria.
The hike up.
Frozen water at the dam.
With a little napping and no traffic, the ride went by quickly, even the kids were quiet! Being a Sunday, you usually get to see balloons setting up in the area around Vic, and today we saw lots of them, all floating just off the ground, making their quiet ascent into the big blue sky. If you've never been on a balloon trip, I highly recommend it - it's peaceful, relaxing and you get amazing view straight down onto houses, roads and fields, and also a unique view of mountains. The landing isn't always quite so tranquil - it;s usually a bumpy affair and you rarely land exactly where you want either! We parked the car at the rack railway station, had a quick bathroom break and leg stretch, then slowly walked up to the starting point of the hike. Already at this time, around 8:30, there were people waiting for the train to Nuria, but not as many as you'd get in Summer or Winter. In summer, loads of people come up here to go hiking in the Pyrenees and sometimes right over the border to France. In Winter, it's busy because it's also a ski resort. Luckily for us, it wasn't peak season and there weren't that many people going either way, train or trail. We stopped at the entrance to the village, filled up water bottles from the mountain spring fountain and also had a small snack of croissants and pastries to get some energy and motivation to start. We had 3 kids with us and with kids, you need to stop and feed them, rest them a little, every 45 mins to an hour to get to the finish line - they can do it, kids have an uncanny ability to always have a secret reserve of energy which they let lose at the wrong time, usually in the car on the way home, but they need stops and encouragement to hold their interest. Adults either need to be in shape or be mentally tough (sometimes both) to keep going, relying on muscle and training - kids just need to be kids.

The Rack Railway train making its way through the mountains.
As cool as the train is, you don't get these views without walking!
The Rack Railway.
The steel 'teeth' that help the train up the slopes.

We hiked up, stopping a few times for snacks and water, as well as photos. It didn't quite take up 3 hours, although it's quicker without kids. The view gets better and better, the higher up you get and further along the path. You cross small rivers, go under the railway bridge, and wind your way up and through the mountains, occasionally getting a brief view of the rack railway train steaming up and through the tunnels, cutting out all the twists and turns we had to do. The Vall de Núria Rack Railway, or the 'Cremallera de Núria' in Catalan, was originally opened in 1931 as an all-electric train to access the ski resorts which up to this point was only accessible via footpath and donkey. The train operates normally for some of the way, snaking up the railways, through tunnels, but the last part, the steepest part, it goes up via a strange rack system. This part of the track looks like big metal teeth in the middle between the normal rails, and this links with the train and it gets pulled up the slope, even in snowy weather. The walk is a pleasant one, with great views behind you of where you started from, the green trees that change colour in autumn and even in Winter, blue skies and interesting clouds. The best part is when you finally reach the end of the hike, walking over a crest and you get a view of the valley and the resort. There is a small lookout point, where everyone goes to take photos and get selfies taken, but it's a must. From here you get a great view, and today we got exactly what we were hoping for - the was dam partially frozen over, as well as some remaining snow on the slopes and higher mountains. Beautiful! We walked down, alongside the water and over to the resort for a well-deserved beer and some hot food.

All aboard to Nuria!
The best view of Nuria.
Frozen lake.
The Vall de Nuria!
It's not just the ski slopes here that attract tourists, but the monastery as well. According to legend, Saint Giles came to the valley and lived here for 4 years during the 8th Century, but had to flee from persecution. He left a carved image of the Virgin, along with a cooking pot, a cross and a bell for calling shepherds to meals. A pilgrim called Amadéu began searching for the image in 1072 after having a dream. He built a small chapel for pilgrims, and eventually found the items left by the Saint and kept them in church as holy objects. The image is regarded as the patron saint of fertility by shepherds and the Sanctuary here is named after Saint Nuria. Inside the chapel, you can ring the bell while holding your head in a confession style booth, and the saying goes that  if you do this, you'll become very fertile and have many kids. I've done this a few times and thankfully no kids yet! We sat on the lawn in front of the monastery and ate our packed lunches, enjoyed the warmth of the Winter sun on our legs, and chilled out, not really wanting to leave. After a decent amount of time, and just when the sun started to lose its potency, we got up and started the journey back down to the cars. We had our last snack at the bottom along with more spring water, then a quick walk around the village of Queralbs, before jumping in the cars and heading for home. It was a good day - I love the Nuria Valley and love the hike there. Next time, I will not just hike there but further afield, through the Pyrenees, maybe even into France! Who knows! Adventure is just there on the horizon, take it and live it!

Rooftops in Queralbs.
The little streets of Queralbs.
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UncleTravellingMatt. March 2019.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Christmas in Sydney

Time to go home... for a little while.
My first A380.
Amazing how these huge planes move so silently!
Winter was here in Europe and I'd just got back from a very cold time in Poland. Although there wasn't any snow, it was icy and cold, but the weather here in Barcelona wasn't a lot warmer to be honest! Christmas was just around the corner, and as much as I love the idea of a 'white' Christmas, I also miss the baking hot weather of Sydney at this time. It had been nearly 4 years since I'd last been home, I left in February 2015 and moved to Chile. I decided that it was about time, to see the family, see a bit of Sydney, and maybe even get a bit of a cheeky Winter tan for when I get back. I spoke to my family to line up days and make sure I could be picked up from the airport, as nobody likes walking through those doors, seeing the smiling faces and excited cheers of people meeting up with their friends and family after so long, and you're there alone and have to get the train. Tickets were next on the agenda, and although I'd been looking for a while, the prices hadn't gone down any, so I just had to bite the bullet and book. With everything done, packed, booked and ready, there was only one more thing to do - get to the airport and board that plane! I left straight after work and made it with plenty of time (leaving time for Spanish trains), managed to chill a bit at the airport and see and photograph the plane I was getting on (a little tradition of mine), before I was finally on my first A380 back to Australia! I'd never been on one of these 'behemoths of the sky,' even thought they'd been around for year, and I was excited. When I saw it through the airport windows, it looked huge! This plane was a like a 747 on steroids, or a over-sized beluga whale with wings. To get on, there are 5 different doors, top floor for first and business-class, 3 entry points for the rest of us, and it was a bit of a maze of corridors getting on. Once on, I realised just how big they are - people everywhere as well as an army of flight attendants! Sadly, the service was a little slow, even though the crew did their best, there were just too many people to make it any faster. The bathrooms were nice and there were plenty of them (at least no waiting there), and the seats comfortable. I had a window seat, so I put on my travel music that I listen to at the start of journeys (my little routine), looked out the window, looked out the window, over the massive wingspan and watched Barcelona get further and further away... and Sydney getting closer.
Flying out of Barcelona.
Merry Christmas Sydney!
The beautiful Queen Victoria Building in Sydney's centre.
Clovelly beach.
The journey went by quickly and painlessly, which is always a blessing for a flight from Europe to Australia, nearly 24 hours and multiple time-zones. Movies on the go, food and drink, trying not to think about the fact that you're 30,000 feet in the air in something that weighs too much to be cruising through the skies. Even though landing and take-offs are the dangerous parts, I don't like the long part in the middle - I hate not being able to move around much, having to ask for anything that I need rather than doing it myself, and being so close to other people for so long. Landing in Sydney is always exciting though - I love looking out the window and seeing the suburbs go by, seeing the ocean, and trying to pick out specific beaches and landmarks. I always get tears in my eyes when I come back to Sydney - it's my city, where I was born and grew up and lived for the first 24 years of my life. A lot has happened in this city with me. Even though it's just an airport, there is something about it that I love - hearing Australian accents again, walking out into the sun, or meeting family at the gates, I'm not sure. This time I landed as although I wasn't greeted at the gates (this, sadly, rarely happens with me), but I was picked up by my sister just outside, with her husband and young daughter who I was meeting for the first time. We went to have lunch together, sitting in a nice restaurant in one of Sydney's leafy, southern suburbs near the river, and had a few beers and caught up. Unfortunately, between me getting on the plan in Barcelona on Thursday and me landing on Saturday morning, my dad had been checked into hospital and was seriously ill. Not the news you expect or want when you just get back home after being away for 4 years. I won't get into the details, but it was a near miss. He spent 3 weeks in Intensive Care and nearly died from a disease that has a mortality rate of more than 50%, but has now recovered thanks to good health and fitness (he's a young, strong 70), family support as well as the great medical staff at Bankstown Hospital.
Hot summer in Sydney.
Gordon's bay - my favourite beach in Sydney.
Sydney's rocky cliffs.
Beach time.
So I was back in Sydney for 3 weeks, including Christmas and New Years - the first thing that needed to be done though was head to the beach. Bondi Beach is Sydney, and even Australia's, iconic beach. Tourists flock here to swim in the blue waters, surf the waves, soak up the sun and just enjoy the Aussie Lifestyle. It's been made famous my tourism ads featuring actors and singers, TV shows about vets, and by word of mouth - everyone knows about it and everyone who comes to Sydney spends at least a day here. Although it's not my favourite beach, it's worth a visit simply because it's a beautiful stretch of city beach, even if you don't swim. Like any busy tourist spot, there are loads of cars and people everywhere, and of course, high prices. I don't usually swim here, as the beach is too full, but I enjoy a walk along the promenade and over the rocks at the North end. As a kid I used to clamber over these rocks, picking up little starfish, collecting shells and enjoying the sight of the Pacific Ocean rolling in, and I still enjoy it now. Here you can see the huge boulder that washed up way back in 1912 during a storm, which weighs 235 tones - it still amazes me how the ocean here can be that fierce and powerful, but this is something every coastal Australian is taught, a real respect for the ocean and nature. Back over the South side, there is the famous Bondi Icebergs club, established in 1929, and is now one of many ocean baths in the city. The first day of Winter, the members get in their swimmers and all jump into the cold water, made even colder with chunks of ice added - no place for wimps here! My family took me here when I was a kid, when it used to cost 20c to get in. Back then it was old and run-down, but I didn't mind as a kid as you could still walk out on the sea-edge of the pool, hold onto the chain and wait for a freak wave to come in and sweep past you. You can still do that today and it's still just as much fun now as when you were a kid! Nowadays the club is fully renovated, there is a bar and fancy restaurant, and the entrance fee is slightly higher, but on the up-side, it's no longer an eye sore on the landscape. Everything changes.
Sydney Harbour.
The rock at North Bondi.

The Bondi Beach Icebergs.
Chilling at the Icebergs.
My favourite beach in Sydney is called Gordon's Bay. Back in the 90s and early 2000s, it used to be a quiet, unofficial nudist beach not well known to many people. Everything changes, the beaches become busier and busier and Sydney's population skyrockets, and now every beach in the city is packed on the weekends, and still busy during the week. Something I have noticed is the amount of people in Sydney and how busy it is getting. I thought that maybe this was part of getting older, or just that I'm not living here day to day anymore and notice it more when I come back every 3 years. I have since checked the numbers and it's staggering - when I was born, in 1980, Sydney had a respectable population of 3.2 million, and has since blown out to just over 5.5 million. This to me is staggering! No wonder you can't find a parking spot in front of your favourite little cafe anymore, or a spot at the beach. World population has nearly doubled since I was born 39 years ago. This is scary and really makes me want to run away to the mountains and live a semi-hermit life... but I'm worried there'll be no parking spaces left! Anyway, back to the beach! The bay itself isn't the easiest to get to and you probably wouldn't know where it was if you weren't a true local or had someone tell you. There's a small path leading down the hill to the little patch of beach, which has old boats mored up on sun-worn wooden planks. The beach itself isn't fantastic - not terrible just not spectacular - but that's not what makes this place special. Here, you find a nice, sunny spot on the rocks that surround the bay, then jump straight into the blue-green waters of the Pacific Ocean! There aren't many waves as the bay is fairly protected, there is always sunshine, but now sadly it is a real struggle to find a place for your towel with any privacy as there are so many people, their dogs, snorkelers and tourists. Everything changes.
The good life - in Australia, it's just called Life.
Bondi Beach.
A cheetah within reaching.
Have you ever touched an alligator?

Sydney isn't all about beaches and sunshine though! Even though there are amazing beaches to be had - in fact, in the city alone there are well over 100 beaches to be enjoyed! Yes, 100! Another amazing fact is that if you went to beach for 1 day, every day of the year, around Australia, the trip would take you 24 years! Just after Christmas Day I decided to take my two nephews to a wildlife park to see some of Australia's amazing creatures, something else Sydney has in abundance! Walking the streets of Sydney you will come across all sorts of wildlife, something that surprises people from other cities. There are possums, a cat-sized animal with little hands as paws, tails that they use like a monkey, and they are often found in roofs and raiding rubbish bins. You won't see koalas in the city, other than in zoos, but you may stumble across the odd kangaroo on a golf course or maybe even on a quiet street close to a national park (of which there are 4 in the city itself!). Birds are abundant, none more so than the Rainbow Lorikeet and the Cockatoo - both beautiful, cheeky birds that are often very friendly with people, if you're feeding them. The city is full of parks and green spaces - more than 400 parks keep Sydney green, along with her tree-lined streets in every suburb, totalling 188 hectres of recreation areas, barbecue cooking spots and places to relax on the weekend. The Symbio Wildlife park is a great place to take the kids as well yourself, located on the outskirts of the city in the suburb of Helensburgh which backs onto the Royal National Park. Although a little pricey to get in, which is the case of most things in Australia unfortunately, it is worth it and you get to see many animals up close and sometimes very personal. We got in at the right time as the reptile show was just starting, so we moved right away and grabbed a seat in the amphitheater. A talk was given about different reptiles by a very lively keep, giving information to the kids about the Blue Tongue Lizard, a large Boa Constrictor and an American Alligator. While he was talking, his assistant brought each animal held in her arms, allowing the audience a chance to see the animal up close and even have a touch. At one point the snake was even allowed to go free on the sand arena, and although it was watched and controlled, it was still a little nervous as the snake was nearly bigger than some of the kids in the crowd! We also got to see the beautiful (in an ugly way) Tasmanian Devil, some Red Panda and plenty of other animals, including kangaroos and a few wallaby that you could pat. A new animal at the park was a cheetah - a creature I've never actually seen before apart from on TV. I was unlucky to have missed them in South Africa, and it was great seeing this powerful, majestic cat so close!
Christmas time in the city.
Stained glass windows in the QVB building.
Kangaroos chilling.
Hot days in Sydney.
My time in Australia was already running out - 3 weeks go by very quickly! It was New Years Eve though and a party had to be had. I was invited to a friend's place in the lovely suburb of Erskinville, deep in the heart of the Inner West, for a barbecue party. I don't place a lot of emphasis on NYE like most people do, they try and make it the biggest night of the year. It's always great when you can be with friends, have some good food, conversation and enjoy the night in a relaxed and civil way, rather than forcing your way into the city with millions of other revelers, then the nightmare of getting transport home. This is something I've done far too many times in the past and now I'm completely over it. We had a great night, a small amount of people made for a more intimate ambiance, we ate and drank and watched the famous Sydney firework show at midnight. It was a great night and was fantastic to see my best friend after so many years. We don't see each other every year, nor talk that often, but when we do catch up somewhere in the world, it's like time hasn't passed at all. This is how it is with great friends.
The Sydney CBD.
A little devil from Tasmania.
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I had time for a trip to the CDB and walk around, getting in my last little bit of my city before I left. I always love seeing art galleries and I like visiting the State Gallery of New South Wales. Although not as large as anything in London, it does have some great paintings and sculptures there, and is free - like all good museums should be. I spent the last few days seeing my Dad in hospital, making sure that he was recovering before I left. My boss was very understanding and gave me another week off. Although it wasn't the Christmas and family reunion I'd expected or wanted, it was something, and I was able to see my Dad alive and on the mend, as well as family and friends that I haven't seen for ages. The weather was also amazing, very hot, reaching 38c some days, but I love the heat and the sunshine and it was a nice Winter break. You can't ask for much more in life - thing may not turn out as planned, but take what you get and see the positive side in it. Be thankful for what you have and treasure the important things in your life - people over possessions. Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2019!

Thank you Sydney.
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UncleTravellingMatt. January2019.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

A Trip To Poland

Flying over the mountains and into Poland,
Flying over the Polish countryside.
Quick fly-by over Vienna.
December had come around, the weather turning colder and colder each day. Christmas was nearly upon us and the end of 2019. It's been a busy year but a good one. I was happy, having worked and travelled around, visited new countries and revisited old ones. I'd climbed and hiked, flown and driven around this year - but it wasn't over yet! An opportunity come up and work to travel to a sister school in Poland to give and talk at a teacher's conference, one that I was happy to take. The conference at IH Bydgoszcz takes place every year, where teachers from the surrounding school also gather and take part in the talks. It's a great way for teachers to share new ideas, re-hash and refresh older ones, and also to meet people from different school and make new contacts. I was very lucky being able to go  - a big thank you to my boss for letting me take the time off, as well as the people in Poland for the invitation. Now that I was going, getting there was next on the agenda. Not such an easy thing, even though I'm based in Barcelona, a very well-connected city, I was still flying to Poland, a country not known for it's reliable transport system, and to an out-of-the-way city as far as tourists are concerned on top of that. The last time I'd been to Poland was actually by accident - I was visiting Berlin in my van, driving down to Italy, and was heading for Prague and the Czech Republic. Somewhere, somehow, I must have taken a wrong turn and crossed into Poland - I knew this had happened as soon as the smooth, 120kph drive turned into a very bumpy and much slower and uncomfortable 70kph ride, the change happening so suddenly that I thought my teeth might rattle out of my skull. It was as if the Germans maintained their highways right up to the actual border line and not an inch further. I was greeted shortly after by the "Welcome To Poland' sign which confirmed my suspicions. Saying this, I hold nothing against Poland and actually found it a great place when I visited in 2009. I just knew it would make an interesting journey, with a few stories along the way!
Getting the train in Warsaw.
Hello Toruń!
Toruń at sunset.
Not sure what he was advertising but he posed!
The first leg of the journey was the train from Sabadell, just outside greater Barcelona, to the airport. This is normally a journey of around an hour, if the train connections are good - unfortunately the train company, Renfe, are know for their bad service and late trains. The train ride was looking good, I had a seat and everything was going smoothly, until the change of trains in the main station in Barcelona to get the airport train. It seems that every time I need this train, it runs late. I got on the train, which had already pulled up to the platform, found a seat and sat down. The train didn't move for some time and I could see people getting nervous - this was the airport train after all and it was already 10 minutes late. I few people got off, some got on, a few tourists asked me if this train was going to the airport and I told them that it was supposed to be but had been sitting here for some time. Being Spain, someone went to the front of the train to talk to (or yell at) the driver, but he wasn't even there. Nobody knew where he was and started discussing it amongst themselves - to this day, I swear the poor guy had run to the toilet for a quick break, but we'll never know. He eventually came back, jumped in and we took off. Unfortunately a few of the tourists had decided to leave just before the train left to get a taxi, but I'm sure they got there ok. Some guy banged on the driver's compartment window telling the guy to hurry it up as he was late. Spain. You have to laugh sometimes as this would never happen in the UK or Australia even. I got to the airport ok, but not a lot of time to spare, but then again, I'd left with plenty of time and didn't have a check-in bag either. If you need to get tot airport, leave yourself lots of time people! You don't want to miss that plane - trust me, I have missed a couple, some my fault, others not, but either way, it isn't what you want! I flew with Austrian Airways for a short shop over in Vienna before changing to Lufthansa for the second leg to Warsaw. These 2 companies are amazing - for a short flight (1.5 hours each), they the service was commendable and I was also served a snack and a beer. Wunderbar! I'd only visited Poland once before, and that was in Krakov, so the airport was completely unfamiliar to me, but without too much trouble I was on the train to the centre of the city, ticketless as the machine wasn't working (or I couldn't understand it...), but confident I could play 'dumb tourist' and blag my way out of a fine, given I was ready to pay for it in the first place. This was the easy part and everything was going according to plan, until I got to to the station in Warsaw for my next train to Torun, where I'd be staying with my friend.

Beautiful Toruń.
Toruń - birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus.
Brick Gothic architecture.
Where to start the tour?
I don't want to say bad things about Poland and it's transport system, but I know and every Polish person knows that it's terrible. It's not an opinion, more a fact really. Trains are consistently late, so much so that you would think it's a timetable. When I mean late, I don't mean 10 or even 20 minutes... I'm talking hours. Sometimes they are just cancelled, the train 'disappearing' without a trace. By the time I arrived at the station, I was a little hungry and thirsty, so I grabbed some refreshments then rushed to my platform. There was no need to rush to be honest - my train would be 3 hours late. Yes, I waited on that platform for nearly 3 hours before one arrived to take me to my destination. I stood there for over 2 hours, with many other people, all huddled up in far more layers and bigger jackets than I could manage, and they didn't seem too bothered - this delay was clearly normal. As it turned out, the train I got wasn't even the one I was supposed to get, but it still got me there. Who knows where my train disappeared to! I squeezed on the train like one more sardine into an already over-packed can, glad to be off the freezing cold platform. The sun had set around 3pm and the temperature dropped even more, to just below 0c. I knew it would be cold, and had bough extra clothes for just this occasion, but it was bitterly cold and dark. On my train (I hoped at the time), I stood with 1 arm holding onto a door frame, the other squished by my side, holding my bag. When I talk about being a sardine, I dreamt of being squeezed into a sardine can, craved it, longed for it! I wasn't even standing up on my own half the time it was that full! I was struggling to breath and was starting to sweat and overheat, but with not an inch to spare there was nothing I could do. The guy who was pushed right up against me told me that most people will get off at the next stop - 45 minutes away. I saw people at the door, sitting down on the steps, seemingly with enough space to stretch their legs even and began to hate. I made the 45 minutes, just, and managed to grab a seat and relax. Jackets were off, legs stretched out, music on and eyes closed, I slowly became human again. My friend Glenn, who was picking me up in Torun, texted me to make sure I was ok and on the right train. I told him the story, and he wasn't shocked at all. Anyway, this train was moving and would stop in the right place, so he told me to head to the "Wars" at the end of the train. Not knowing what this was, but intrigued by the name, I left my comfy seat and wandered to the end of the train and found nothing short of heaven - a stand up bar with full food service as well as beer, wine and snacks. The whole journey was forgotten and before long I was being picked up at Toruń and whisked away to a cosy restaurant for a beer or two and some great traditional food.

Toruń's city walls
Beautiful brick buildings are everywhere in this city.

Good food can be had here!
Toruń is famous for its Gingerbread and sweets.
Toruń is one of the oldest cities in the country with the first settlement dating back to the 8th century. Starting from small beginnings, like all places, it was expanded in the early 13th Century by the Teutonic Knight,  which gave much of the look and feel of the city today, with it's medieval fortress look. During the 17th century, the city became a very important trading hub , becoming home to many and varied people from all over Europe, making its architecture really beautiful, from Brick Gothic (very popular and still easily seen in Central European countries such as Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany), to Baroque, responsible for the Roman revival of architecture and religious buildings. The city is now home to just over 200,000 people and is twinned with the nearby city of  Bydgoszcz, and although 'small' by comparison with some other places, is still very beautiful and very much worth a visit. There are many things to see as well - the town centre of Toruń is UNESCO listed. Although it was very, very cold, I would say bitterly cold, the sky was blue and it was a great day to walk around the see the city. I also only had 1 full day after arriving and going to the conference, so today was the day - and I also had limited amount of daylight too as it's dark here by early afternoon in Winter. Glenn, my buddy who lives here, was more than happy to give me a 'free walking tour' style walking tour, in that it was free and we'd be walking. I was very happy for this as not only does he know a fair bit about Toruń, but I knew there would be beer stops along the way! We started the tour at the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus, who was actually born in the city. The statue is right in front of the City Hall and used by most people as a meeting place. This great man, born in 1473 in then Prussia, formulated the model for our universe that states that the Earth isn't the centre but rather the Sun - a huge leap in Science at the time, even though the Greek astronomer, Aristarchus of Samos, in all likelihood identifies the Sun as the centre of our universe 1,800 years earlier. Copernicus wasn't only an astronomer, but a mathematician, physician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, and economist. In those days you could do and be so many things, and many great people were self taught too. His house, where he was born, is now a museum located in two Gothic tenement houses on Kopernika Street. Although I didn't go on, the outside of the building is a gorgeous Gothic tenement building, brick facade and stained glass windows, that looks nearly like a church. It's considered one of the most beautiful examples of this type of architecture in Poland.

Pure 'Brick Gothic' architecture is just beautiful.
The house of Nicolaus Copernicus.
The Leaning Tower of Toruń.
The city owes its beauty to the Order of the Teutonic Knights, who arrived in the city and started large-scale building projects, including Toruń Castle. Construction on the castle, by the Teutonic Order of knights, started in the mid-Thirteenth Century and went on for 100 years, fortifying the city and allowing the city to grow and prosper. The castle, often called a palace due to the fact that was the residence of the Teutonic commander, served as a base for knights who were intent on converting Prussia, at that time still mostly pagan. Sadly, little of the castle remains today due to a town rebellion in 1454. During the uprising, a small garrison of knights were holed up behind the walls but negotiated a surrender with the townsfolk, allowed to leave in peace, but the castle was shortly ordered to be dismantled by the City Hall, preventing any Teutonic forces in the city again. This uprising signified the start of the Thirteen Years' War (1454-1466), the Prussians fighting against the Knights and Poland, aiming for independence. Toruń also has a leaning tower, built in the 13th Century in the orange-brick design so common in the city, which was linked to the city walls and built for defence. The tower started leaning due to the soft, loamy ground it was build on, and now the top of the tower is 1.5m out from the bottom. Its purpose changed over the years after it ceased being a defensive structure, and was turned into a female prison, then a blacksmith's shop and apartment for a gunsmith in the 1800s. In the 1970s and 90s a cafe used to occupy the building, but is now houses the Toruń Cultural Department and the 'Krzywa Caffe' cafe. The story behind the tower are interesting too - one is about a monk of The Teutonic Order who fell in love with a merchant's daughter and started meeting her in secret, breaking the chastity oath of the Order. They were caught, fined, she was flogged 25 times and the knight ordered to build a tower - but the tower had to be tilted just like his conduct. Now, the tale goes that if you can't keep your balance at the bottom of the tower, heels against the wall and arms out, for 10 seconds, your partner is cheating on you. Hardly fair as it's an impossible task - What does this say about Polish lovers? I tried it and only managed it by cheating and raising my toes. The other legend is the that the tower was a friend of the river and loved listening to the river's stories. Over time, the river got closer and closer, and the earth round the tower started to erode. The tower pleaded with the river to not come so close or it might fall, but the river (being a river) said "So fall down then!"The cry was heard by wanderers in the area and saw the walled city in the distance and decided to call the town Toruń (which means "So fall down, then!", in Polish).
The fiddler peasant who saves the city from a plague of frogs.
Little statutes are everywhere here - you have to keep both eyes open though!

Once a medieval torture device, now a photo opportunity.
Look up you'll miss some very interesting things.
There are a few other tales from around the city, one being the story of the frogs. This is basically Poland's equivalent of the Pied Pier tale, where a witch was denied entry into the city and so to exact revenge on the populous, she called upon a plague of frogs to invade the city. The Mayor of the town offered sack of gold to anyone who could solve the problem and a poor peasant boy came to the rescue, bringing his fiddle and playing for the frogs, leading them out of the city. and into the nearby forest. The donkey statue in the centre of the city, in the same square as the Town Hall, also has an interesting story. Back in medieval times, there used to be a wooden donkey here, on which people would be strapped to and publicly flogged for committing certain crimes. Nowadays the donkey is bronze and most tourists that visit like to jump up on his back and have their photos taken, most likely not realising the sinister history behind it. I did have a ride and a photo too, but it wasn't very uncomfortable as it modelled on a torture device basically, and have a large and uncomfortable band running right up the donkey's back and into your behind. I'm sure there are many others, as the city is old and full of history. Walking around the streets though, you have to look up or you'll miss little statues everywhere, some of cats on roofs, little men or gnomes in windows and even left-over odds and ends from medieval times. Sadly the weather was too cold and wintry to cross the river and see the city from a distance, but it is beautiful nonetheless and I hadn't even scratched the surface really.

Riverside buildings.
Everyone has to try the leaning test against the wall.
The City Hall of Toruń.
Goodbye Toruń, thanks for a great weekend!
The Town Hall is also worth mentioning. Not only is it the centre of the city, in the Old City Market Square, but it is beautiful as well as very interesting. It was built under the privilege of the Teutonic Grand Master Conrad von Wallenrode in the late 14th century, and was used for 2 purposes. The ground floor was for the merchants, called The Merchant Halls, and contained the Cloth Hall, the bread benches, City Scales, and the Judicial Hall), and the second floor was for the municipal authorities and the running of the city, called the Senate Hall. The tower is the oldest part of the building, and is said to present 1 for the Year, the small corner turrets the 4 seasons of the year and there are also supposed to be 365 windows for each day of the year. There is also supposed to be a window that is open for one day, changed daily, like a really big, real-life advent calendar! The building is now the District Museum in Toruń, and is one of the oldest and largest museums in Poland. Inside there are wonderful works of art and pieces of history, including 14th Century stained glass, portraits of the town's famous son Copernicus, and even a gingerbread baking mould from the 1300s which has the city's coat of arms on it. I didn't go and see these, as my time was limited (as always!), and I wanted to use the precious time I had to see the city itself rather than wander a museum - it's on the list for next time though. I decided to climb right up to the top of the tower, to get a view of the city before the sun set (at 3pm!). Right at the top, after hiking up loads of stairs and past the huge bell, it was a little cold and windy, but you did get some great views. Although the city isn't noisy, you always find it far more quiet and serene at the top of a tower. People look like ants, buildings are put into another perspective, the sky seems bigger and my smile gets wider at all of this.

Even I had a go!
Part of the Teutonic castle.
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The light was fading so it was time to snap a few more pics just to make sure, then head for an early evening beer and Pierogi, Polish dumplings. I didn't get much of a chance to get into Polish food on my trip, but my favourite is Pierogi, a crispy pastry that wraps around meat and vegetables, often served with various sauces - the perfect food for home or while walking! Sadly by Poland trip had some to and end as well - It started with a mammoth 13 hour journey by train, 2 planes then more trains, a day at the conference and a day walking around the city, now the long journey back home would be another long one taking all day. Thank you to my buddy Glenn for having me, showing me around, and just being a great guy to hang out with - looking forward to seeing you next time... maybe in Barcelona?
Goodbye Toruń - thanks for the great time!
Toruń on the river Vistula.

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UncleTravellingMatt. December 2018.

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