Friday, October 29, 2010

Warsaw, Kracow, and Bratislava

I didn't spend too long in Warsaw. Maybe I was just unlucky but everything seemed difficult - places were hard to find and get to, information hard to come by. I did however go to a football match between Warsaw and Krakow which the home team won 3-0. The city has a beautiful old town (I'm starting to weary of cobbled old towns now, it seems every European city has one) even though it is fake - Warsaw was destroyed during the war so they rebuilt it and made it look old.

Krakow was much easier to get around and find things to do in. I took a couple of walking tours and went into some historic salt mines that are now used for tourism only and they contain salt sculptures, some of them made by the miners who worked there.

I came to Bratislava by a night train, arriving this morning. Another old town with cobble-stones. The Slovaks seem an unpleasant and unhelpful people (or perhaps it's just Bratislavans), so I'm leaving for Vienna tomorrow.

Monument of Warsaw Rising in WW2

Salt Mine sculpture

Clock tower in Kracow's Market Square

Friday, October 22, 2010

Polish history and art

It's very cold and drizzling with rain here in Olsztyn, so perfect weather to visit a museum - the Museum of Warmia and Masuria.

Copernicus lived in Olsztyn - actually in the castle that now houses the museum - for a few years in 1516-20, working in an administrative job. The museum includes paperwork from his work in which he writes about such fascinating things as dividing up some land and setting the price of bread. In his spare time he was the first person to discover the true nature of the universe, figuring out that the Earth was not the centre of the universe and that it and the other planets orbited the Sun.

Not far from Olsztyn, the Battle of Grunwald took place in 1410. This was a defining moment in Polish history, wherein Polish and Lithuanian forces led by King Jagiello defeated the Teutonic Knights. It was one of the largest battles in Europe, involving 70,000 troops. The battle is depicted in a painting by Jan Matejko in 1878 and this painting is regarded as one of the most important in Polish art history. The Museum does not hold that painting - I'll see it in Warsaw - but it is showing an exhibition of other paintings portraying the Battle of Grunwald. Some of these are commentaries on Matejko's painting while others are depict their own version of the battle.

Here is the original painting, 'Battle of Grunwald' (Bitwa pod Grunwaldem) by Jan Matejko which is nearly ten metres wide and over four metres tall:

The exhibition included a replica by Jan Rudolph which was about a quarter of the size of the original and looked to me to be unfinished. Here's a detail of Witold, grand duke of Lithuania from the replica:

Over sixty year's after the Matejko painting, in 1931 Wojciec Kossak painted another version of the battle. In his letters, Kossak explicitly states that he was attempting to surpass Matejko:

For some reason a lot of the paintings seemed to be done in the mid-1980s. Perhaps they were commissioned at that time for an exhibition. This one, 'Gry wojenne' by Elzbieta Subbotko (1985), seems a kind of cubist version of the battle/ Matejko painting:

A favourite of mine was another abstract portrayal, 'Bitwa pod Grunwalden wedlug Jana Matejki' by Tadeusz Burniewicz (1985). It's one of those paintings that when you look close up just looks like a mess but when you step back you can make out the figures. See the horses?:

Here's another asbstract, this one containing almost Pollock-like paint dribbles. 'Bez tytulu' by Marek Wrobel:

The exhibition included several photo montages by a group called Lodz Kalista who in 1999 created a kind of tableau that vaguely resembles the Matejko painting:

One painting seemed to be a mural on the wall, but since this is a traveling exhibition, I'm not sure what happens to it. It was a huge depiction of some kind of battle or crowd scene, again called 'Bitwa pod Grunwaldem' (Battle of Grunwald) by Edward Dwurnik (2010). Here is the whole thing and some details:

So there you have it: different ways artists have portrayed this important moment in Polish history. Hope you enjoyed them.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wolf's Lair

Wolf's Lair is the name of a collection of bunkers in the Polish forest near Ketrzyn built by the Germans during WWII. Hitler spent much of his time here from 1941 to 1944, sometimes staying for up to six months at a time. Here he and his ministers such as Bormann and Goring would plan their military maneuvers and control occupied Europe. The bunkers were built well away from busy roads and were camouflaged from being spotted by airplanes above. The walls of the bunkers were up to eight metres thick and made of solid concrete. The area is the size of a small town and apparently around 2000 soldiers and officials lived here.

In July 1944, an assassination attempt on Hitler was made by some of his officers in one of the bunkers. One officer, von Stauffenberg, planted a bomb in briefcase and left it in the meeting room while he went 'to make a phone call'. The bomb killed four people but Hitler suffered only minor injuries. Today the site is marked by a plaque.

As the Russian army approached the bunkers from the west in 1944, the Germans retreated after exploding many of the bunkers. Today, the crumbling and twisted concrete blocks are what remain. The Germans also left mines around the area and it took ten years to clear all of them. I kept to the path just to be on the safe side.

Hitler's bunker. For an indication of the size, underneath the painted yellow square is the doorway.

Goring's quarters

The remains of a sauna, it says in my guide.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Staying in a Prussian fortress

For the past two nights, I stayed in one of the strangest places in my whole trip: an army barracks in a Prussian fortress built in the 1840s, called Boyen Fortress. It was on the edge of a town called Giżycko in the Masurian Lakes region of northern Poland. In the nineteenth century, the area was part of the Prussian empire close to the border of its rival Russian empire.

The building has been turned into a hostel but all that seems to mean is that they take your money and provide some sheets for the bed and that's all. It's probably popular in summertime but at this time of year I was the only one staying there. At first the idea seemed pretty cool, but when I returned to the barracks on my first night to a completely empty fortress (except for one security guard and a dog) the quiet hallways were eerie. I started wondering if it might be haunted by Prussian soldiers or by Nazi soldiers - it was occupied by the Germans during the second world war. It was also extremely cold, but since I was the only one there I could take a second duvet from one of the other beds. I managed a second night there but am glad to have left and found a nicer hotel to stay in.

Lake Niegocin

Giżycko canal

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Arrived in Poland safely. There's not much to see or do in Suwalki so I'm going to head west to the Great Masurian Lakes.

Friday, October 15, 2010


This town doesn't even warrant a listing in my guidebook so when I arrived I knew nothing about it and had no idea where to stay. A man at the bus station didn't speak English but seemed to understand my 'hotel?' and pointed me towards a place to stay. I seem to be the only guest in the hotel but at least it's clean, quiet, and reasonably priced. I've booked a seat on a bus to Suwalki, Poland that leaves this afternoon. It takes an hour to get there and there is also an hour time difference, so the result is that I will get on the bus at 5.30pm and get off the bus at 5.30pm and be in a different country! Kind of like traveling in Dr Who's tardis or by Star Trek's teleportation.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Plan for getting to Poland

I left Trakai by bus today, heading southwest towards Poland. The easiest way to get to Poland would've been to go back to Vilnius and catch a bus that takes ten hours directly to Warsaw, but I thought it would be more interesting to go from town to town. A complication is that the portal from Lithuania to Poland is a narrow one, with Belarus on east side and Kaliningrad which is part of Russia on the west. Both Belarus and Russia have harsh visa requirements. Of course I found out about Russia's when getting my visa for there in China. I don't want to go through that again, and apparently Belarus's requirements are just the same. So my aim is to cross over where Lithuania borders Poland and avoid Russia and Belarus on either side and head to the Polish town of Suwalki. See the map below - click on the image for a sharper version.


This small town about an hour west of Vilnius is notable for a few reasons. It was once a thriving centre in the middle ages, second in size and importance in Lithuania only to Vilnius. A magnificent castle that was partly destroyed and lay neglected for hundreds of years has been fully restored and now contains a museum. It's on an island in a lake connected to the mainland by a walkway. That's the castle in the photo above.

Trakai is also the home of a Turkic-speaking ethnic group called the Karaims, who were brought here from the Crimea as bodyguards in the fourteenth century. Apparently they've developed their own branch of christianity, one based on the old testament and especially the ten commandments. They spread out a bit through Lithuania but there are only about 250 of them left today and 65 of them are in Trakai. I don't think I met any of them except perhaps for the waitress in the Karaim restaurant I went to but she might've just been wearing a traditional-looking jacket for customers. I went to a museum about Karaim culture and history and was told I could go into their church, called a 'Kenessa', down the road but when I tried I couldn't get in.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


I'm leaving Vilnius today after a few days spent here. I didn't do too much, partly because the dorm room I slept in (I've started sleeping in dorms now that my money is starting to run out) contained a loud snorer which left me tired and lethargic during the day. Last night I moved to a room so finally got a good night's sleep.

Here is some nice singing I heard in a church:

Friday, October 8, 2010


I've visited a few museums here to learn about Latvia's history. It's much like Estonia's in that it has been subject to continual invasions over the centuries by Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Russia and had a brief phase of independence in the 1920s and 30s after the fall of Tsarist Russia. In 1939 it was once again occupied by Russia when Stalin and Hitler made a pact to carve up eastern Europe between them. That only lasted a couple of years before Nazi Germany seized the Baltic countries from the Soviets. My impression is that the Nazi occupation was worse in Latvia than it was in Estonia, partly because Latvia had (though I'm not sure on this) a larger Jewish population, tens of thousands of whom were killed in the Nazi death camps, either ones in Poland or in camps set up in Latvia. After the war, the Soviets took over again and thousands more Latvians were exiled to their death camps (and they were death camps, not labour camps in which a lot people just happened to die). In one big purge in March 1949, over 40,000 Latvians were exiled to Siberia.

Understandably, the push to become independent in the 1980s was strong. The protests in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia played a large part in the downfall of the Soviet regime. That downfall may have happened anyway but when people in those countries formed a human chain on the fiftieth anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin pact, it was a clear sign the people power was on the rise. As the number of people that started protesting at the end of 1990 grew, it became clear that the Soviets didn't have the power to subdue them. When Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia declared their independence at the start of 1991, it was a small but important step in the end of the Soviet regime. The Museum of Barricades of 1991 tells what happened in those few months. After seeing it I wandered around 'dome square', the cobbled area outside the Dome Cathedral. Today there are tour buses and cafes occupying the square. It was amazing to think that in the same place twenty years ago battles were being fought and several people were killed in skirmishes between protesters and soldiers.


I'm in the capital city of Latvia, after spending a couple of days in Valmiera, a small town to the north. I'm staying in the 'Old Town' area which has cobbled streets and some amazing Art Nouveau buildings. I'll spend one more night here and then tomorrow catch the bus to Vilnius in Lithuania.

I know a cappuccino is supposed to have froth on top but this was ridiculous.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Winging it

October 2
Sometimes I like to travel with minimal preparations, just for the challenge of trying to work things out and for the mystery of not knowing where I'm heading. So today I checked out of my hostel in Viljandi and went to the bus station which was just around the corner, with the vague idea of going to Latvia but not knowing how. As I arrived at the station, a bus with 'Valga' as its destination was about to leave. I knew that Valga was a town on the border with Latvia, so got on board. I would've preferred a bus that actually went over the border to Latvia but I didn't have time to check the information board at the bus station to see if there was one because this bus was about to leave. So after about two hours we arrived at Valga. There was a handy information board at the bus and train station there which told me that there would be a five hour wait for a bus into Latvia. But it also said that there was a bus leaving from Valka on the Latvian side of the border heading to Valmiera, a town about halfway between the border and the capital city of Riga. So I took a taxi over the Estonia/Latvia border to Valka. Actually I'm not sure if Valga and Valka are two different towns or just one town with Estonian and Latvian sections. I suspect the latter since it was only a ten minute taxi ride. At the Valka bus station I tried to buy a ticket to Valmiera but I didn't have any Latvian money and was told that that was all they would accept and they wouldn't take Euros. I headed out to find an ATM but the first one I found gave me Estonian money! I'm not sure why, since I was on the Latvian side of the border or so I thought. The border is pretty non-existent (both countries are part of the EU now) so maybe I had walked back into Estonia in my search for an ATM. Anyway, I walked the opposite direction and found another ATM which luckily gave me Latvian money and I headed back to the bus station. The bus arrived and an hour later I got off in Valmiera and then hunted for a place to stay. I think I'll stay a day here - my guidebook lists a few interesting sights - before heading to Riga.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


This is a small town 160km (about two hours by train) south of Tallinn and not too far from the border with Latvia. It's got the ruins of a castle that is supposed to date from the thirteenth century, although some of it looked a lot more recent to me. It also has a beautiful large mirror lake which I got to by taking just a short walk from the town centre.


30 September
I've spent a few days exploring the capital city of Estonia. The highlight is definitely the part of the city known as the Old Town, consisting of cobbled streets and winding alleyways. Its pretty touristy though, with souvenir shops everywhere one looks.

The other highlight was a visit to the Museum of Occupation. Estonia has been invaded many times over its history. Starting in the middle ages, Germans, Dutch, Poles, Swedes, and Russians have taken over the place. It was part of Tsarist Russia when the October Revolution took place in Russia in 1917 and Estonia enjoyed a brief phase of independence in the 1920s. However, in the late thirties the Russians took over again. The museum focuses on this occupation, the one by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944, and then the Russians again from 1945 until Estonia gained independence in 1991.

Judging by the museum, the first Russian occupation was a pretty nasty one with many people being taken away and tortured. Because of this, the Nazis were welcomed as liberators when they arrived. In fact, the museum gives a relatively rosy picture of the Nazi years which made me a bit uncomfortable. I guess its not a very nice position to be in: being ruled by Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. Which is worse? Estonians were hoping the western democracies would come to their aid but that didn't happen. During the second Russian occupation, the policy of the Soviets was to try to 'Russify' the place, sending lots of Russians there and this policy has left its legacy: Russians are today a large minority in Estonia and there seems to be some resentment that they are there.

R.I.P. James Dean 30 September 1955.