Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Gdańsk - Tri-City Capital

Hello Gdańsk!

A model of Poznan's cathedral in the museum.
Me and some sculptures.
It's hard to sum up a city in a few short paragraphs, and I hope I did Poznan justice in my last post. There is much more I could write about this city, but I'm not writing a city guide here (unless there is a vacant position?). My stay there was just over 2 weeks and I loved it. The city, although much quieter than what I'm used to in Spain, had a real Central European feel to it, a relaxed atmosphere during the day and a fun, lively feel to the evenings and nights. Apart from all the bars and restaurants on offer (and there was a lot!), I also went to see a free concert on  Lake Malta and had a great time. The lake, which is over 1km long and about 200m wide, is completely man-made and is a lovely place for cycling and jogging. On one side is the zoo, and on the other side is Malta Ski, a year-round park that offers skiing in Winter and various sports in Summer, and you can easily see this park as it is a big hill right on the lake. Maybe this hill was made from the earth moved for the lake, I'm not sure, but it is very popular and a great place to spend a Sunday. Anyway, this concert was great - there was a decent crowd, no drunk people or any sort of trouble, and kids were also here enjoying the show. It had a real summer-family feel to it without being aimed at kids or families. The band, Rebeka (formed by Iwona Skwarek and Bartosz Szczęsny) actually began their career in Poznan back in 2008 - it's always great to see local talent doing well in their hometown. I really felt that I could live here - the city felt relaxed, cultured and there was plenty to see and do as well as education facilities. The weather plays a big part though I and just don't know if I could take 6 months of cold, grey and cloudy weather. You never know though - if you have a nice home and a decent job and income (and car to move around in during Winter!), you could make your home life much more enjoyable.
Good morning Poznan!
Time to go - thanks for a great visit Poznan!
While here in Poznan, we decided to take advantage of the great weather and head North towards the coast. We bought train tickets and booked a cheap room for the next day in Gdańsk, the capital of the tri-cities of Gdańsk, Sopot and Gadynia. The city sits on the Baltic Sea and is the largest city in the Pomeranian Province (yes, where the dogs come from!) with a population of just over 450,000 and a booming sea trade. The city also hosts St. Dominic's Fair, which dates back to 1260, and is regarded as one of the biggest trade and cultural events in Europe. Gdańsk has also topped rankings for the quality of life, safety and living standards worldwide. Sounds great right? Well, I thought so - that and having seen photos of it, I thought I should see it. I'm glad I did! We caught the train from Poznan in the morning, aiming to make a full-day of sightseeing and walking once we arrived. I always enjoy Polish trains - they are a little on the old side but always clean. We clicked and clacked our way North and arrived in Gdańsk Główny (Central station) about 3 hours later. We got off the train and walked to our accommodation, a short 10 minute walk, checked in and dropped our stuff, ready to hit the city and explore. Gdańsk is part of the Tricity (Trójmiasto), which has a population of 1 million people, and sits on the Motława River which in turn connects the city to Warsaw. The city has a long and interesting history - it's been a Royal City, an independent sate, as well as under control Polish, Prussian and German control. It was important seaport and shipbuilding town and was considered one of the wealthiest cities in Poland until the late 18th century with the growth of Warsaw. The city was also where the first shots were fired in the Polish Invasion in 1939 and later, in the 1980s, it became the birthday place of the Solidarity movement and played a major part in bringing an end to Communist rule, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breaking up of the Soviet Union. Just a little bit of history.
The beauty of this city will hurt your neck!
Look. Enjoy. Repeat. That is Gdańsk.
The Great Armoury.
Gdańsk's beautiful terraces.
From our digs to the centre was a 20 minute walk at most, and not a boring one either. The train station sits across a busy road and tram line from the city centre, but once you have navigated this congested thoroughfare, you see history all around you. We walked right past the Brama Wyżynna, a 16th Century gate to the city, which was the main entrance to the city in its time and now houses the Tourist Information. Here we got some interesting information on things to see and do, everything here was well organised and the staff very polite, even helping with bus and tram timetables. Walking on towards the centre and the river, I couldn't help taking a few photos of the gate, with its symbols of Gdańsk, Prussia & Poland - big stone carvings of shields and creatures; unicorns, angels and lions. It was hard not to look up in this city too, more so than Poznan, as the buildings are truly gorgeous in their colour and architectural styles. The main street through the city, Długi Targ (the Long Market), was once the market area for the city and is now the 'Ramblas' of Gdańsk, running from the Golden Gate to the Green Gate. The Green Gate (Brama Zielona) was built in 1568 and made to resemble the Town Hall of Antwerp, and although it serves as a gate along with the Highland Gate and the Golden Gate, it was originally meant to be the home for Poland's monarchs. The Great Armoury, a beautiful Renaissance building built as part of the Medieval wall, was completed in 1609 and served as (you guessed it) an armoury and munitions dump. It was designed by Flemish architect Anthonis Van Obbergen, who did more work in the city, but it is considered his finest - and let me tell you, the building is stunning and way too beautiful to be used for holding cannons and gunpowder. It suffered a lot of damage in '39 but has been rebuilt to its former glory and is now an art gallery.

I love the red-brick look of some of Gdańsk's buildings.
Bombed but rebuilt - The Greta Armoury.
The Golden Gate.
The Town Hall.
Something that can't be missed is the Gdańsk History Museum. It can't be missed for 2 reasons; 1. it's bloody massive, and 2. it's the Town Hall and the very centre of the city, which offers you a great viewing opportunity from the tower. The build sits pretty much right in the middle of the busy street, between the walls and the river, and also has a large square at its feet which holds Neptune's fountain. I went a little crazy here and I was looking up at the tower and wanted to go in, but then felt pulled by the fountain and the surrounding buildings, all appearing more beautiful and interesting than the last and I was slowly being drawn to the gate and the river. But I managed to restrain myself for now and focus on the museum. We got in for free, as it was Tuesday (and the museum is always free on Tuesday), and climbed the steps to the top (nearly 300 of them!), which I managed without loosing my breath too much, unlike many others who struggled up the stairwell. From the top of the bell tower, you get a magnificent view of the city and the cathedral. The majority of the buildings you see today are not original unfortunately. The city suffered major damage during WWII and was rebuilt during the 50s and 60s after much debate as to how the repairs and building would be done. As soon as the war ended in 1945, the job of cleaning up the rubble and removing the bombs began, and not long after that ideas were put forward on what to do with the damage - to leave the town centre in 'preserved ruin,' start modernist projects to start afresh or to to keep the town historical by building it back to what it was. Thankfully the last option was the one taken by the city, and now people can truly enjoy this breathtaking city for what it was and how it should remain. The museum in the Town Hall has a very good display of photos showing the extend of the damage, which was extensive to say the least, backed up with plenty of information (in English too). Please visit this place when you come here - Tuesday are best if you don't want to pay, even though the normal ticket price is only 12zł (€2.50) for an adult and half-price for kids.
The cathedral from a unique perspective.
Every angle in this city is beautiful!
Look up!
Notice the small things.
Poor Gdańsk had suffered a lot. The city was a free city during the Napoleonic Era, after being part of the Prussan Empire, but was absorbed again after Napoleon's defeat. It became part of the German Empire until 1919 where it gained a short freedom, although plagued with Nazi influence, and invaded in 1939. After the war, there were only 15,000 Poles and 120,000 German residents, but the later quickly moved out of the city and were replaced by Poles who took up the abandoned flats and houses. The city struggled through the Communist Era but lead its downfall and is now very much a bustling, 21st city with plenty of tourists and wealth once again. In October 2019, the City of Gdańsk was awarded the Princess of Asturias Award in the Concord category as a recognition of the fact that "the past and present in Gdańsk are sensitive to solidarity, the defense of freedom and human rights, as well as to the preservation of peace". After taking the tour of the Town Hall and admiring the views as well as the very interesting old photos of the city, it was time for a break. Every street in this city is beautiful and has something about it, some sort of charm or something small that you notice if your're active enough. We sat on the river to have a refreshing beer and glass of wine, relaxing and watching the crowds bustle by. We got back onto the busy streets to look for Fahrenheit's meteorological column, something I'd found on Google Maps and wanted to see. Although not exciting, it is historically interesting (I  prefer Celsius for measuring temperature personally), this antique honours the creation of the first universal temperature scale, created by Daniel Fahrenheit in this very city way back in 1724. I nearly missed it with all the people, but I found it eventually, a pendulum-looking device stored in a steel and glass cabinet on the street. Not much to look at I know, but an interesting piece of history.
Photos from after the war.
The Museum of The Second World War.
The waterfront.
Buildings along the river.
We continued on our way, out through the Green Gate and across the bridge, walking through a newer, more modern neighbourhood, wanting to get a good view of the city from across the river. Walking around this new part of the city now full of flashy restaurants and brand hotels, I could see that they must have been old dockyards and ship building wharves. Some small telltale signs remained and I enjoyed seeing what the city had done, mixing old and new, revamping yet keeping historical importance. From across the river, we got to see the famous Black Pearl Galleon. To be honest, I couldn't find much information on this ship, other than its a restaurant and does cruises up and down the river - I don't know if it's a replica or not, nothing about the history of the real ship, or if it's just named after a famous pirate ship. Either way, it was cool to look at, and where it was moored stood the National Maratime Museum, a huge building with silo-looking structures of either side of a black, wooden structure with a crane at the top. This building served as a water gated as well as port crane for loading and unloading ships in its day - it is now the biggest and oldest of the port cranes in Europe, dating back to at least 1367 (although the building today is from 1444). The museum houses and collects artefacts and documents related to ship transport, international trade, fishing as well as the culture of people working at sea. It also has a lot of the maritime history of Poland. I didn't go in, leaving it for next time, but admiring the building and the other buildings close to it, including the Archaeological Museum of Gdansk and Saint Mary's Gate. Crossing the footbridge (Kładka nad Motławą na Ołowiance) back to the main part of the city took some time, as this bridge raises for tall mast ships to come through and stays open for some time, creating a bit of a people traffic jam. It did give me a chance to photographs ships passing down the river though, and there was also a cool, chill-out area next to a big Ferris wheel.
Beautiful buildings on the river.
The riverfront.
Stunning architecture in this city.
From the tower.
Across and back on the city side, we headed to the The Museum of The Second World War, a highlight for anyone visiting Gdańsk. We wandered around the outside of the building, which is very modern and cool looking, and then went in (again, free on this particular day - what luck!) an enjoyed the main exhibitions, all about the Polish experience in WWII. I studied both World Wars in history at high school and enjoyed learning about both. Names and dates stick in my head when I'm interested and I love reading about things that happened during these troubled times - not for the depressing side, but to learn about interesting facts, stories of human spirit and hope and amazing things that were discovered and done. The exhibition was amazing - it had authentic videos from WWI and II, separate rooms concentrating on different nations and their experiences and involvement in the war, as well as plenty of artefacts, from small medals to huge train carts and machines of war. I'm not sure how long we spent in here, but it must have been at least 2 hours, and it would have been easy to stay longer. But, it was dinner time! What better way to spend the evening after a great day exploring a great city than by having a traditional Polish meal of fish and chips! It was lovely, sitting in a nice restaurant, out on the terrace, watching people walking by seeing the city, while eating a meal. After this, on our way back to our accommodation, we walked up Mariacka Street. This street is famous for cool bars and restaurants, but also for its arts and handcraft shops and stalls. Anything you can imagine was sold here, from paintings to small antiques, all either made by hand or found in someone's attic. It had been a great time in Gdańsk, a colourful, historic city in Poland. But it wasn't over yet, as we had a train to catch, heading a little further North to the next city in the area - Sopot.
Gdańsk through the Green Gate.
Postcard panoramic of Gdańsk.
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. August 2019.

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.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...