It was time for real holidays to start.
It’s now March 2021, a year after the pandemic started. So much has changed, and yet it hasn’t really at the same time. Nations around the world are still struggling with Covid, vaccines are rolling out but not fast enough, and many people still cannot leave their homes, let alone countries. I’m now thankfully at home in Sydney with my family. Australia, the island nation that closed its borders to everyone weeks after everything started, restricting even Australians coming home. So far, Sydney has managed more than 40 days without a local transmission – the only way to stop this horrible situation is to stop people moving, enforce quarantine and be tough. The nations that have done this, Singapore, Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia just to name a few, have fared well. My heart goes out to everyone affected and hope it will end soon… but I don’t think 2021 will be the year everyone was praying for. We went into lockdown in Spain on Friday the 13th, an ominous day to begin with, thinking that it would only last a week or two. We watched news reports, showing the queues of desperate people out the front of supermarkets in Italy. This isn’t real, this won’t happen to us. But it did. We survived the 3-month lockdown, teaching online, spending the Easter break at home rather than jetting off somewhere, but we survived and carried on. When July came round, things opened up – you can’t stop Summer in Europe! I managed to get in 10 days of hiking, and I was so glad for this too – a chance to really stretch my legs, not just some exercise on the terrace or a walk to the bins. Afterwards, I rested at home for 2 days, enjoying the pure simple pleasures in life, like flushing toilets, (hot) running water, and having a kitchen, sofa and a real bed. It was also nice to be home with my girlfriend again too. With teaching, July is usually summer camp work and August are holidays, so we tried to stick with ‘normal’ as much as possible and so booked tickets to Poland for August. I didn’t know how long we would be able to travel for, there were still some crazy things happening around the world – reserving places on the beach in Benidorm, social distancing on planes and mask wearing still in force. This may be our last chance to see the family, so we took it. We got a direct flight from Barcelona to Poznan, which saved us having to change planes and catch trains, minimising busy areas. We were worried about Covid, but at the same time, you can’t live in fear and so decided to be careful but still go, packing masks and hand sanitiser. The new travel essentials.
The year had been a write-off so far, so it was time to make the most of what we had left. Tickets were booked and 2 days later we were standing in Barcelona airport ready to have some holidays at last. I’ve never seen this airport quiet I have to say, even when catching flights on a Sunday morning or Boxing day, but today was eerily quiet. It was like they were filming 28 days later, without the zombies even… the people in the terminal would probably have fit on one train, it was that quiet. Checking in was a breeze and so was security. We boarded the little Polish LOT plane and were even served some light refreshments – the benefits of non-budget flights. Although I don’t really like flying (airports, waiting, being so close to so many people), I love sitting next to the window and looking out at the ground below. I always try and guess where the plane is, which part of the world it’s passing over. As we headed further North and East, things got a little more mountainous and snowier, so I got my camera out to take a few pics. What I thought to be the Toblerone mountain in Switzerland (real name the Matterhorn, but we all know it as the chocolate), sticking up like a snowy pyramid, turned out to be exactly that as I later confirmed. I’ve never seen it from the ground, but looking at it from 30,000ft was pretty impressive and it didn’t look small either! I was already excited about this holiday and the plane wasn’t even half-way yet! Unfortunately, masks had to be worn for the whole flight due to Covid-19 restrictions. Although I was used to them, having been in lockdown for months in Spain, I’d never actually worn them for anything like this long before, and my ears felt like they were stretching out to resemble a young Prince Charlie. I tried a few things to help with the pain, including pinching the little metal clip on the nasal support of the mask, making it fit tighter, while taking off one strap to free up an ear. I alternated this and also went to the bathroom to take the whole thing off, bend my ears back and rub them a little. All just temporary relief really. As we came into land, the plane flew right over the city of Poznan and I got a great view of it, one that you don’t see every day. We grabbed our bags from the carousel and within 30 minutes we were at home and relaxing. It was time for real holidays to start.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Poznan is a great little city. Situated in the western part of Poland, on the Warta River, Poznan in known for its universities and the beautiful Old Market Square. Although I’d been here before, I was looking forward to heading into the centre and exploring it more. The next day I got up a little late, but considering that for the past 2 weeks I’d been waking up at 5am to start hiking, it was fine. I had breakfast and got ready to go into the city, walking shoes on and camera ready. I hopped on the number 16 tram and hung on, trying not to fall or bump into anyone, for the quick yet slightly jolting 20-minute ride into the centre. Trams here aren’t the smoothest, but frankly, I’d rather speed over a little bit of comfort most of the time, especially when you’re on a timed ticket! I jumped off at the bridge that crosses over the main train lines and heads into the city. I sometimes like to get off before the centre so I can walk a bit more and find things that I’ve never seen before. Also, I love Lodziarnia Kolorowa, the little ice-cream shop – stopping for an ice-cream in Poznan on my first day has now turned into a little tradition. As it was summer, the city was bursting with colour and flowers. In front of the Grand Theatre, a beautiful columned building with a Pegasus on its roof, is a large park with grass and a fountain. Adam Mickiewicz Park is a place that people like to hang out and enjoy the weather, setting up blankets and having picnics or even playing sport. Today is was just perfect for this and the fountain was spraying cool water into the breeze. I walked a little further, down to Fontanna Wolności, which sits in a square of the same name. There is usually something happening here, a festival or some sort, sometimes rides, and there is always quite a few people just walking or sitting on a bench enjoying the view. At Christmas there was a big Ferris wheel, but today there were just some kids splashing around in the fountain, but I still like the square, as the fountain is quite weirdly shaped, and there is a wooden walkway that lets you go right through it. Entering the main square, the Old Market Square, is always something, and it makes me think (and sometimes say aloud), “Ahhh, Poznan!” It wasn’t quiet today either – restaurants and bars had their tables and chairs out, people were eating and drinking. There was also some sort of celebration happening – I guessed it was a traditional Polish wedding, as there was a young couple all dressed up, walking around the square while a band played music and their entourage cheers and followed them. Everyone seemed very happy, even the bride, who also looked a little nervous. The groom on the other hand looked extremely pleased with himself!
While we in Poznan, I had a few places that I wanted to take photos of that were on my list from last time. There was some graffiti that I wanted to find, but more importantly, some buildings that I wanted to get at just the right angle. One of these were the little coloured houses on the Market Square. I know what you’re thinking; I already have a million photos of those buildings. It’s true. But, I wanted one specific angle, a postcard picture of them. I found my spot, a small road just off the square, checked out angles and positions, then got ready to take a few photos. It took a little bit of experimentation, and also patience (waiting for nobody to be in the frame), to get things just right, then as the shutter clicked, a small boy jumped in front of the camera. Arms stretched up, big grin on his face, he knew exactly what he was doing – this wasn’t his first photobomb. A little girl appeared next to him and I knew that this photo wasn’t going to happen, so I decided to talk to them instead. He couldn’t understand English, but I asked if he could count, counting on my fingers, and he could reach 10 no problem! I don’t even know if these kids’ parents were around, and ashamedly part of me worried that they were gypsies distracting me while someone else was picking my pocket, but before this thought had much time to bang around in my head, the kids scarpered, showing off with a quick “bye-bye.” I got my photo eventually, but that was a great little experience. I found my graffiti, including a ‘Poznan pig,’ which appears in numerous places around the city, the famous goats of Poznan on the side of building, and the Charlie Chaplin painting. I still love the big artwork of a dog barking at itself in the mirror – the dog is white and the reflection is black, simple but effective symbolism. After all this walking around, it was time for a Lech; good local Poznan beer. We found a deck chair and chilled with a view of the park just behind the Stary Browar (Old Brewery) shopping centre, sipping on nice cold beer. Summer in Poland had now started!
For a few days we relaxed in Poznan, spending time with family, eating good food and generally not doing much. It wasn’t long before I got itchy feet and wanted to go somewhere, do something, so we booked 2 train tickets for the city of Wrocław. Now, let me get this out of the way – how would you pronounce this word? Polish is notoriously hard to read and pronounce – its not phonetic and it also has its own unique sounds. There is the little ‘l’ with a dash through it (ł – pronounced as ‘w’), letters with accents (ć, ń, ó, ś, ź), overdots (ż), tails (ą, ę) and even some letters only used in foreign words. Wrocław, which I kept pronouncing Rawclaw is in actually said ‘vrohtz-wahv’. Hey, Polish ain’t easy ok! Anyway, everyone that comes to Poland goes there, and everyone that’s been there says it’s probably the most beautiful city in the country. Good enough reason for me! While on the train, I did a little research to see what we could see and do while we’re there. The first thing I noticed were the gnomes. Spread around the city are hundreds of little figures, all about 20cms tall, and made of bronze. Whether you call them gnomes or dwarves (websites vary too), they are cute and they are everywhere. It all started in 2005, but has deeper roots than just art – it goes back to the oppression of the Communist Part back in the 80s. University students fought the government’s censorship of free speech and ban on public gatherings by spraying funny little gnomes all over propaganda posters. It seems such a little thing, but at the time it was dangerous to be out on the streets even. What started out as a bit of fun in 1981 culminated into a huge protest of 10,000 people wearing orange cone-hats and chanting for ‘gnome rights.’ Wow. Although most people don’t know about this dark past, and to be honest neither did I (but I’m not Polish either), but it has now become the biggest tourist attraction for the city. Just how many there are, nobody quite knows, not even the mayor of the city – it is estimated at somewhere over 600 of these little guys (sorry, figure of speech, there are girl gnomes too). My girlfriend are I decided to make a bet – whoever sees the most gnomes in one day gets dinner at their choice of restaurant, bought by the loser. Ok, with our eyes on the prize, we hopped off the train and the hunt began!
Within a minute the first was spotted, and not by me. I called an objection as I was looking at my phone to try and find our accommodation for the night, but it was denied. The rules of the game seemed to be that there were no rules. It was also slightly ironic that the first one we saw was actually on his phone. Eyes and necks straining around corners and along the sides of buildings at low angles, we sought out more. Unfortunately, searching for 20cm tall figures in a city can be a dangerous game, especially with trams whizzing around, so we had to calm down a little and we eventually decided to team up. There were photographer gnomes, magicians, bankers, gnomes eating ice-cream, drunk gnomes and even selfie-taking gnomes! One of my favourites was a little guy who’d fallen asleep after a big meal, his shirt not quite covering his big belly. Another was 3 ‘banker’ gnomes with an ATM - they were inside the machine, making everything work behind the scenes. We started to lose count and tried to just enjoy finding them. We weren’t the only ones either; local tourists were photographing them as well, some adults taking pics of their kids and some adults were even getting selfies with the small stars of the city. Made me feel better every time I cried out ‘another one!’ and rushed over to take photos from multiple angles. I think our count was around 200, which included a full orchestra of gnomes in front of the National Forum of Music, but the very first gnome was the Monument of the Orange Alternative, which is a large Papa Dwarf standing on a human finger. He was quite impressive and was the beginning of the smaller ones. After all this gnome-spotting, our eyeballs were tired and our bellies were starting to rumble, so we stopped off a restaurant to get some hearty Polish lunch to energise ourselves for the rest of the day. After this awesome meal (served with pickles of course!), we were ready to keep walking – and walk we did! I don’t know how many kilometres we did, but we saw most of the centre and crossed quite a few of the city’s 100 bridges (there were 303 pre-WWII). Crossing over the river Oder and onto oldest part of the city, Ostrów Tumski, we visited the cathedral and other heritage buildings, walking along the beautiful cobbled streets. The main bridge was absolutely stunning; a green-painted wrought iron bridge, decorated with street lamps at either end, cobbled walkway and with a car-free view straight down to the towers of the cathedral.
This really was Poland’s most beautiful city and we’d only been exploring for less than a day. I was extremely excited and as much as I wanted to just keep going, we decided to stop at a cool bar, which was actually a barge covered in sand and decorated like a beach, reclining foldable chairs included. We sat and enjoyed our drinks, watching small river craft go by, full of tourists taking photos and loving the city just as much as we were. There is so much to see in this city and so much walking too - but it's easy as the city is flat, you can hop on a tram anywhere you want, or find a nice place to chill and relax, or even have a great meal. In fact, in Poland the choice for food is astounding - from traditional food to Mexican, Thai, Indian and even Vietnamese! Everywhere we walked we smelled food waiting to be tried. This city has so many lovely surprises – so many you can’t cover it all in just 1 blog post!
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. August 2020.