Friday, 27 July 2007

Hot, hot Hungary

And it is the weather I am talking about having sweltered through my time in Hungary, except for the last two days. Fortunately after the two trains I arrived on, the rest were air-conditioned.

Started in Sopron, a small town on the Austria-Hungary border, half way between Budapest and Vienna. It was so small I didn't even see a McDonalds there (only place so far I think). It has a beautiful Old Town with still much of the centre surrounded by original Roman walls. Most of the buildings are homes to the local residents with only the odd restaurant and museum here and there. Not many tourists but the highlight for most is to climb up the fire tower that is built above one of the entrances to the Old Town. Nice views but unique because it is built on Roman foundations, then in two different styles as it was made taller at different times. They also had a very interesting archeological museum. Need museums with a difference now as I have seen so many. There is also a Goat Church, presently under renovation, that has a cavorting goat in bas relief above the door. A very quiet, relaxing place to stay and the Pension I stayed in was very nice with a great breakfast.
A local speciality

Then followed the border south east, through agricultural lands very much reminiscent
of the Wimmera or Western District plains in Victoria, to Pecs in the south of the country. The most bizarre building here was the mosque church on the main square. Originally a church was built on the site, then when the Turks invaded they knocked down the church and used the bricks to build a mosque, then when the Turks left it again became a church with the minaret removed. Other sections have since been added. So it still has the painted cupola traditional to mosques, mosque lamps and some other traditional mosque features. Bizarre. Also in Pecs there are a number of Roman ruins visible but unfortunately the museum with the best examples didn't open while I was there and I couldn't find the Porcelain Museum either. The other two interesting things I saw were the synagogue and cathedral.
The Monastery-Church

Then it was on to Budapest, Hungary's capital, with a very attractive location on the Danube River. There is the castle area on one side of the river and the Old Town on the other. Lots and lots of tourists, including tour groups on buses and also groups touring on huge boats along the Danube. A very stunning Basilica, where last night a concert was held in the square in front - a full orchestra playing. With so many museums, the only one I went to was the National Museum where I learnt something about Hungary's history. I didn't realise that Hungary has been a country, and sometimes powerful one at that, since the 9th century. And for trivia - did you know Hungary has used the metric system since 1875? There was also a very attractive synagogue here, one that is more attractive than most. An attractive city, but I think I prefer Prague maybe because I visited it first.
Changing of the guard, Prague Castle

Fisherman's Bastion, Prague Castle

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Slovakia Sample

Had I had better weather in Zakopane, Poland I would have done a day trip into the High Tatras in northern Slovakia but that wasn't to be. So instead I just had 4 days in south west Slovakia, Trencin and Bratislava to be precise.

I decided to stop over in Trencin on my way to Bratislava after reading some good reports about it. A small town, I was struck by the picturesque and commanding and castle that towered over the town as i arrived by train. There was a resemblance to some castles seen in picture books or even fancy decorated cakes. So I trekked up there to have a look after arriving to join a tour in Slovakian - so didn't understand a thing that was said but got to see inside all areas of the castle. lots of art works on display but also history and archaeological relics from digs in the area. There were some English explanations for the displays fortunately so was actually quite interesting. Besides Trencin has an attractive Old Town (as most places in eastern Europe do), relaxed atmosphere, cafes so just wandered around and had a nice meal there.
Trencin Castle

Bratislava is bigger and much more touristy - the highlights there are a 4-poster bed castle, which wasn't that inspiring. I visited a museum of clocks, which had some interesting things especially tiny sundials but lacked specific details and I think the clock museum I saw in New Zealand was better. Spent one day taking a short cruise down the Danube River to Devin Castle, which is still in ruins but such a strategic location. there was walls, some windows, arches and foundations but it was so hot that my exploration was limited. Then took the boat back again. The drama with this was when we lefty and went under a few bridges we turned around, went back to the starting point and changed boats as the motor on ours was broken!!!! Bratislava is not a place I would recommend highly. two days there was plenty.
Bratislava Castle from the Danube
The most photographed sight in Bratislava - a bronze statue

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Last Czech stop - Olomouc

I returned to the Czech Republic for one last stop before heading onto Slovakia and Hungary. Stopped in Olomouc, sometimes called "Little Prague", but attractive in its own right. It does have lots of beautiful old buildings as was capital of Morovia for many years. It has a huge main square with a town hall that has an astronomical clock that has been "communised" - communist workers rather than the apostles parade. Also in the main square is the Holy Trinity Column, which all towns seem to have (but not sure why). What made this one different was that there was a small chapel in the base.

There is also a very good Archdioscean Museum only opened a year which puts together the artworks, ivory sculptures, religious sculptures etc. collected by the Archbishops over time in addition to the archeological remains that have found in excavations there , which show there is actually a castle underneath the present buildings. One of the best is a small piece of tibia bone from an ox there was an engraved warrior drawn on it with eastern features about 1000 years old. Plus a local weaver had done a copy of the Baileau Tapestry and it was on display. Very worthwhile and free on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Then there was a great little cafe that had the most wonderful chocolate pie and white chocolate pie. Still wonderful even though major tram line renovations were going on out the front producing lots of noise and dust. (I forgot to photograph it though it seems!)

Sunday, 15 July 2007


It was good to spend some days in the one place, Krakow. My first shock was all the English I heard while walking around, so many tourists with many English speakers. Krakow is a very pretty town with lots of colourful old buildings that have not been rebuilt like in Warsaw and Wroclaw. It has a great town square with an old hall in the middle plus a bell tower and a cathedral on one corner with outdoor cafes and restaurants encircling the square.

There is also a castle on a hilltop overlooking both the centre of town and the river, what a location. It, as in so much of Poland, has a stunning cathedral which also has a huge bell up the top. I also got to see the state rooms for free, as free on Sunday. I liked the friezes around the ceilings and the wooden ceilings in some of them and the 'framed' ceiling paintings in some of them and huge tapestries including ones featuring the building and loading of the ark. Also visited the Crown Treasury and Weaponry - so many swords, cannons, guns and armour in one place but also some absolutely stunning plates, cups and clocks made from gold. Both the weapons and the riches were decorated with gems and carving and painting. Wow.
Had the confronting and very sobering experience of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenhou concentration and extermination camps. At Auschwitz it was the collection of 43 000 pairs of shoes and false legs and crutches amongst other things that brougt it home. Also the photographs of some interred and the short time they actually survived there, either being sent to the gas chambers or dying of illness or starvation. The film I saw at the start was very confronting, so much so that children under 14 can't watch it. In contrast it was the size of Birkenhau - it is huge, and the chimneys being all that remain of many of the huts plus the size of the partially demolished crematoria and gas chambers. I can see why it will hopefully encourage visitors to do everything in their power to prevent this ever happening again.
Following on from this I visited the Jewish Quarter in Krakow where there was a Krakow-focused Holocaust Museum, particulalry interesting because of the personal stories it told. Some so sad and some with hope and amazing survival.

On the other extreme I also visited the Salt Mines where salt used to be dug from underground. But while mining the salt, the miners also created lots of salt statues of people and scenes as well as a chapel and most amazinglz a church which was entirely made of salt - the altar, bas reliefs on the walls, a statue of Pope John Paul II after his visit and statues. Amazing. What impressed me the most was the fact that miners did it rather than artists.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007


I have now put some photographs back on some of the previous posts if you want to go back and have a look. Here's a few more.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Perusing Poland

Having spent about 5 days in Poland in 3 different cities, here are some impressions.

  • Loved Torun with its 500 year old red brick buildings, castle ruins, fortified walls, attractive city square, lovely location on a river and nice pastries. Could have easily stayed longer there.

  • Tower and old Roman wall

  • Wroclaw did not inspire me at all. Yes it had an attractive old square, but go have a block and there were near-derelict buildings with lots of graffiti. Graffiti is common everywhere in Poland but more so here. It almost seems as though it is like a tourist park. Cynical? Maybe!

  • Wroclaw's main square

  • Warsaw is a cosmopolitan big city which is full of churches, statues and attractive parks and gardens full or roses, marigolds, geraniums and lots of other colourful flowers. Also lots of restaurants with nice food where I've had from gourmet Asian to a Polish salad and Borsch, which was quite tasty. Having spend 2 full days here, I think that is enough. Saw the Marie Curie Museum today which was interesting.

  • Today meet up with one of the Rabat students who is Polish so got some local input.

  • Travelling on trains and buses, Poland looks to have some wonderful mountain scenery - ideal for hiking and camping. Maybe another time.

  • I'm surprised how many people speak English, everyone in restaurants and cafes but not the women who sell the train tickets! I have to write down what I want but hasn't been a problem so far. Also have seen quite a few English language schools, especially in Torun, so seems to be a booming industry as it is in Morocco.

    I leave Warsaw tomorrow, but not Poland, when I head to Zakopane and the mountains near the Slovakia border.