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VariousMega Mansions

On 17 August 2009 from Reuver, Netherlands | comments closed

Saturday morning we left Cape Cod at a decent time to drive to Mystic, Connecticut. Since it would only be a short drive, we decided to do some sightseeing in Newport, Rhode Island. This town became the place to summer for rich New Yorkers, and they tried to outdo each other in building the grandest mansion. Obviously, we visited that one that dwarfed them all: the Breakers, an Italian Renaissance megapalace built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II. 70 Rooms would indeed do for a summer residence. After a late lunch at the Elms, another large mansion, we continued on to Mystic. We had dinner and ice-cream in this centuries-old seaport town.

Initially the plan for the last day was to catch a ferry from New London to Long Island, catch two more ferries to get to the Hamptons, have a look around, and drive back to JFK. Since we had already seen the most sumptuous mansion imaginable in Newport, and the waiting time for the ferries as well as the traffic jams on Long Island in the weekend could be long and unpredictable, we decided to forego on the Hamptons, and drive straight to JFK. But even with taking things slowly in the morning, it left plenty of time to make a stop in New Haven, where Yale University is located. Unfortunately the tour times did not match our itinerary, so we wandered around the campus by ourselves. It was very interesting to note the quite distinct architectural styles between Harvard and Yale.

During this entire trip TomTom was a very good companion, aside from not finding the hotel in Cape Cod and sending us to some fields when we wanted to go to the center of Bird-in-Hand (or perhaps that was the center). But other than that, we drove everywhere in one go. The exception being our final destination. According to our companion, the car rental drop-off was in the middle of a not-so-well-to-do residential neighbourhood. Oh well, with about 5 hours to spare before departure, we had plenty of time to get back to the highway and find the real drop-off place. And thus ended a 2-week, 11-state/district (NY,NJ,DE,MD,DC,VA,PA,VT,MA,RI,CT) fly-rail-drive in North-East USA.

VariousBoston & Cape Cod

On 15 August 2009 from Hyannis, MA, USA | comments closed

After our last Miller Inn gourmet breakfast on Wednesday we hit the road for Boston. First decent stop was in Bennington, whose battle monument is the highest structure in Vermont. But the detour here was really made to check another state off the list, and to drive the New England country roads. We got to Boston late afternoon and after dinner Wilbert, Laura and I visited the highly overrated Cheers bar. When you are not from the generation that watched the series, it really is not that interesting.

Thursday morning we walked the famous Freedom Trail, which passes by Boston’s highlights. That went pretty well, I only pissed off a navy officer by making some photos of the USS Constitution from behind the car fence. Of course I had to climb the Bunker Hill Monument for the views, to compensate for not climbing the Washington Monument in D.C. As the climb was at the end of the Freedom Trail, we walked back to downtown Boston to retrieve our minivan from the parking garage and head to Cambridge for some home-made ice-cream and a tour of Harvard. The latter was given for free by a junior student and it was a great way to make some sense of the campus buildings and get some insights into Harvard university life. After the tour we crawled to Cape Cod, as it seemed to be one long traffic jam between Boston and the Cape. We had dinner in Hyannis and went for some grocery shopping in the supermarket, when we heard the message on the intercom that it suddenly started to pour down rain, and the owners of the open convertible should close the top to prevent becoming the owners of a swimming pool on wheels 🙂

Friday morning we drove along the Cape to Provincetown, from where the whale watching cruise departed. Sightings guaranteed, and we were not let down. Afterwards we strolled around gay and touristy Provincetown. I climbed the 76m-high Pilgrim Monument, which was a great excuse to enjoy some ice-cream with hot fudge, marshmallow & M&M’s afterwards. In the late afternoon we drove to the beach for a swim and some relaxing in the sun.

VariousNiagara Falls & Gorges Ithaca

On 12 August 2009 from Ithaca, NY, USA | comments closed

Sunday morning we left early for the long drive (600km) to Niagara Falls. After checking in at the hotel, we crossed the Rainbow Bridge into Canada. It felt good to be back after 8 years. First we got a superior view of the falls from the Skyline Tower and then we walked to the top of the Horseshoe Falls, where the sheer volume of water was even more impressive because of the closeness. We finished the little Canadian detour in an Italian restaurant, before walking back through the hideous downtown area (imagine Las Vegas, but less class, really) and driving back to the USA.

Monday morning our Lady of the Mist boat brought us as close under Horseshoe Falls as possible. I wonder why I took a shower before, because we got effectively showered under Niagara Falls. Then it was time for shopping. We drove to a factory outlet near Waterloo, and spend a few hours buying new shoes and clothes. Late afternoon we arrived in Ithaca during a torrential downpour. It rained so hard we stayed in the minivan on the parking place of the Miller Inn, 10m from the door. The lady from the Inn spotted us, and she came to the car with a huge umbrella to provide safe passage to the entrance. That was already an indication that the level of service (which is generally much better in the USA than in Europe) was in a class of its own. Coffee, tea and cold drinks were always available to enjoy in the dining room, map room or music room. And in the evening freshly baked cake and cookies were provided. But the two exquisite courses of the gourmet breakfast topped it all, one simply could not have a better start of the day.

Tuesday we spent the day around Ithaca: hiking around the gorge of Taughannock Falls, swimming in Cayuga Lake, relaxing and getting sunburned next to Cayuga Lake, eating the best hamburger (a.k.a. Pineburger) in the county and hiking through the gorge of Buttermilk Falls. The weather forecast was terrible, but the actual weather could not have been better. During the research for this trip, I found no itinerary from a tour operator that included Ithaca, but I am really glad I included this relaxed little city in great natural surroundings in our itinerary.

VariousD.C.: No Beer with Obama

On 9 August 2009 from Lancaster, PA, USA | comments closed

Thursday morning we had the usual New York breakfast of a bagel with cream cheese before boarding the Amtrak to Washington D.C. The plan was to have a beer with Mr President in the garden of the White House, but as we lacked an official invitation from Barack and security could not be more tough, we made some photos of the White House instead.

Friday was Mall-day, and I am not referring to shopping. The National Mall is the large green space in Washington D.C. where all the 3 M’s (monuments, museums and memorials) are clustered around. We started at the East end with a tour of the Capitol, where the values of democracy are strongly conveyed. Using the underground tunnel, we walked to the Library of Congress for a brief visit (no time to read). After lunch we spend a few hours in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where (among others) the first Wright brothers’ flyer and Bell X-1 are exhibited. We continued along the Mall to the Washington Monument and the National World War II Memorial. At that spot I just needed to play “Brothers in War” by Dire Straits: back shivers guaranteed even with 30 degree Celcius outside temperatures. The Mall ended at the Lincoln Memorial and so did our sightseeing for the day. After dinner Laura, Wilbert and I went to Improv Comedy Club to see Ian Bagg and hear him make a lot of fun of the audience (good thing we did not get front row seats).

Saturday morning we picked up our rental minivan, a golden Toyota Sienna LE. It fits 8, so 5 adults and luggage was no problem at all. Before driving out of the city, we first visited the Jefferson Memorial and FDR Memorial, and made another stop at the Arlington Cemetery to pay our respects at the grave of the Kennedy’s. We checked into our hotel in Lancaster and went for a drive around Dutch Pennsylvania a.k.a. Amish Country. It is interesting to see how some people can maintain their old-fashioned lifestyle with horse-drawn carriages and plowing the land using horses. The homemade dinner we enjoyed there in the evening was one of the best though.

VariousSummer in New York City

On 6 August 2009 from New York City, NY, USA | comments closed

After having travelled to a decent amount of places, people kind of expect that you have been to certain cities (note: this only applies to cities, not towns, villages, national parks). New York City is one of those cities. And when the plan came up for another family vacation (the last one having been over 5 years ago), only a little persuasion was needed to put the Big Apple on the list. Unfortunately the folks back home decided that the weekend before departure was better spent at home, so I took a flight 2 days earlier to prepare the city for their arrival, and visit some places they did not show interest in.

After the usual pleasant flight with Air Berlin (“we recommend wine with dinner and cognac after dinner, no charge of course”) JFK was the starting point of my North-East USA trip. The Airtrain and metro brought me to my hotel on 47th Street (a block from the Waldorf Astoria), where a pleasant surprise awaited: I got the penthouse suite with private rooftop terrace. Quite a posh start of the trip. First thing I did was taking advantage of the beautiful evening by crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to (surprise, surprise) Brooklyn. Taking photos was obviously the goal, because there are plenty of Starbucks in Manhattan too. After some great shots of the downtown skyline I checked out Times Square for some Las Vegas-style New York. I could not think of a better start in NYC.

Sunday morning the plan was to go to Central Park, but the rain messed that up. When it cleared, I walked across the Queensborough Bridge to (surprise, surprise) Queens, but that was a total waste of time. No decent views and no decent neighbourhood on the other side of the bridge, so I took the metro to B&H – the largest camera store in NYC – to buy a wide-angle lens. Since it was pouring down rain now, I figured it would be a good thing to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was not the only one with this line of thought. Once inside, the crowds were not that bad because of the sheer size of the museum. It would have been easy to spend more than 3 hours, if it were not for closing hours. Luckily the weather had cleared up by then, and Central Park offered some nice walks and great sunset views. In the evening I wandered throught Little Italy and Chinatown, to have some Vietnamese dinner.

After having breakfast on my rooftop terrace Monday morning, unfortunately the time came to switch to another hotel. Having done that, I went to United Nations, but decided to forego the tour, as the next available one was in 2 hours. Instead, I took the free ferry to Staten Island with great views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. I returned back to Manhattan on the same ferry. There I explored Wall Street and the surrounding downtown area, before checking out the shops on 5th Avenue. When the family arrived, I met them at the hotel and we had dinner on Times Square.

For Wednesday morning we had booked a helicopter ride, but as the weather forecast for Wednesday was not too good, we rescheduled it to Tuesday morning. Seeing the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan, the Hudson River and New Jersey from the air was amazing. Too bad the ride only lasted for 15 minutes. (Update 08-08-2009: only 5 days later a similar helicopter crashed above the Hudson :() The boat tour was a little longer with 75 minutes, and offered the closest views of Lady Liberty and the New York harbour. Then we got on the bus to drive from Midtown to Downtown Manhattan, where we checked out Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge, before getting back on at South Street Seaport. In the evening we did a night tour through the city.

Wednesday we walked through the Empire State Building, but got the lift to Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Center. After a Starbucks coffee at the Trump Tower, we walked through Central Park, and joined a bus tour through Harlem. In the evening Laura, Wilbert and I went for some dinner at Union Square and watched the show Fuerza Bruta. It was easily the most unique show I have ever seen, with (amongst other things) female performers moving around in a transparent swimming pool, 20 cm above the audience! After the show we went for some drinks and live music at Cafe Wha in Greenwhich Village.

VariousMy Travel Notebook

On 15 June 2008 from Rotterdam, Netherlands | comments closed

I recently purchased myself an ultra-mobile PC from the company that created the genre. The Asus Eee PC 900 it is. I intend to use it mainly on my travels, when I do not want to carry the sizeable and heavy -albeit solid- company-issued Lenovo. The Eee PC is perfect to carry, and the small size of its keyboard can also be considered an advantage: because it is harder to type, I will actually do less of it, and spend more time watching the world go by.

In this post I would like to elaborate a bit on the software that I installed to use on the road. After all, that is one of the primary reasons to take my own notebook: the frustration of the quality and inability to install software on internet café computers. And the fact that I would spend most of the time in internet cafés simply typing or sorting out photos, activities I prefer to do from a hammock or soft sofa 😉

VariousTo the Top of Europe

On 18 May 2008 from Reuver, Netherlands | comments closed

When the rare opportunity of a 5-day weekend presents itself, I just have to cross some country borders (well, I would already do that with a 4-day 3-day weekend). The succession of Queen’s Day and Ascension Day presented such a weekend. So I hit the Autobahn and drove to Interlaken in Switzerland. Fewer towns are more beautifully located: in between two lakes and surrounded by mountains.

Since Thursday started off as a rainy day, I went to St Beatus Höhlen with some people I met at the hostel. This network of caves leads deep into the mountain. Afterwards we drove to Grindelwald to go for a hike to the Oberer Gletscher and around the Gletscherschlucht. Unfortunately I happened to have picked the time to visit the mountains when almost all the cable cars were in maintenance. Nothing unusual, as they do it every year between the skiing and hiking season. But it was making it next to impossible to do the hike I wanted to do, since there was no way to get to and from the trailheads. Therefore it was over to plan B for Friday: the very touristy train to Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest train station, and therefore dubbed ‘the Top of Europe’.

Jungfrau Railways are not only Europe’s highest railways, but also its most expensive, so any discount was welcome. The Good-Morning Ticket did the trick, even though that meant taking the first train at 6AM. At least it was very uncrowded at the Sphinx, the futuristic observation building. Too bad it was still very cloudy early in the morning, but when the clouds disappeared the view of the Aletsch Glacier – Europe’s longest ice stream – was absolutely amazing. I would have wished to stay longer, but the Good-Morning Ticket required me to go back at noon. On the way back I got out at Lauterbrunnen, where I made a nice hike through the beautiful valley, before taking the train back to Interlaken. There I got back in my car and cruised to Luzern, where the best pizzeria served me dinner. And then it was on to the final destination of my trip: Zürich. After checking in to my hotel, I met up with Michael and we hit the town for some drinks and fun.

Saturday morning I met up with Michael again, and we went up Uetliberg Kulm for a nice view of the city. It was followed by a proper city tour, only to be interrupted by the best foods Switzerland has to offer (Mövenpick is my new favourite). We took a little afternoon rest on the grass of the city park next to the lake. In the evening we had a real Swiss dinner at Crazy Cow before looking at the not-so-impressive city lights from Polyterrasse. Obviously Saturday night was spent drinking and partying in the surprisingly hip and trendy banking capital of Switzerland.

Sunday morning’s only activities in the Swiss Confederation consisted of breakfast and filling up with cheap fuel. But this little 5-day trip definitely marked a renewed interest in the small neutral country in Central Europe. Ich will Zurück nach Zürich 😉

VariousCruisin’ Central Europe

On 2 September 2007 from Reuver, Netherlands | comments closed

What to do when one gets to switch cars and drive a Renault Mégane CC convertible for 4 weeks? A lot of cruising! Whenever I had the chance, I opened the roof on the way to work in Utrecht and Brussels. The only weekend with nice weather we went to the Belgium coast, cruising to Oostende and back to Amsterdam through Zeeland. But the Netherlands and Belgium are not the best cruising countries, with boring straight highways, and generally bad weather, especially this summer.

So I planned a 9-day trip through the foothills of the Alps, all the way to Slovakia. It gave me a chance to explore some of the sights of Central Europe that I had always wanted to visit: Mount Säntis (Switzerland), Neuschwanstein Castle (Germany), Mount Kehlstein in Berchtesgaden (Germany), and Bratislava (Slovakia). On Saturday 11 August I took off on my journey with the drive to Jacobsbad in Switzerland. There I put up my new 3-second tent on a campsite. Next day I drove to Schwägalp, where the funicular railway to the top of Mount Säntis starts. The town was totally overrrun with Swiss watching the Schwägalp Schwinget, a Swiss wrestling competition. I made a 4-hour hike over the rocky top of Mount Säntis before returning down, and watching part of the competition as well.

On Monday I cruised the Swiss country roads to Liechtenstein. When I asked a local girl about the things to see, she answered me it was only the shopping in the capital Vaduz. At that time I understood the reason I had never been to the Principality of Liechtenstein before: there is simply nothing to do and see in this valley between the mountains of Switzerland and Austria. So I continued my cruise, and drove the German country roads to Schwangau, where I put up my tent at the Bannwaldsee.

Tuesday I drove the short distance to Hohenschwangau, where the Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein Castle are located. Neuschwanstein Castle is the major drawing card of this area, a fairytale castle with a superb location in the Bavarian hills. The castle was built by Ludwig II of Bavaria as a retreat and as a homage to Richard Wagner, the King’s inspiring muse. The castle was close to completion when Ludwig died in 1886, shortly after he was declared insane. It is the most photographed building in Germany and is one of Germany’s most popular tourist destinations. Luckily I already reserved my tickets online, so I did not have to queue up there. With the accuracy only found in Germany and Switzerland the tours started exactly on time, and gave a good overview of both castles. After these visits I cruised through the busy tourist town to another tourist town: Berchtesgaden. Since I was only spending one night there I got myself a room in a small pension. In the evening I visited Schönau am Königssee, a small village located next to Germany’s deepest and most scenic lake.

Berchtesgaden is a town with a dark history, since it was home of the Southern Headquarters of the NSDAP, Hitler’s political party. A large mansion (the Berghof) was built for the leader with a huge panorama window offering a great view of the mountainous surroundings. Unfortunately the Berghof was destroyed by the Allies at the end of the second World War. Preserved was the Kehlsteinhaus, also known as Eagle’s Nest, on top of Mount Kehlstein. This tea house with amazing views was constructed for Hitler’s 50th birthday, but he rarely visited it. To get there, a new road was constructed in 13 months, as well as a 124m tunnel in the mountain, leading to an elevator taking the visitor 124m up to the Kehlsteinhaus. The great surroundings would be reason enough to visit Berchtesgaden. However, I also wrote an essay about it in elementary school, and since then I have always wanted to visit the place. That is exactly what I did on Wednesday morning. First I visited part of the Documentation Obersalzberg museum with exhibits on the mountain and the Nazi era. Although interesting, I got anxious to get up to the Kehlsteinhaus. The long queues in front of the ticket office showed I was not the only one. Four buses at a time are going up, and four are going down, crossing halfway where the road is wide enough. From the parking lot at the top I walked through the granite tunnel and got into the brass elevator up to the Kehlsteinhaus. The views were indeed amazing. Afterwards I visited the remainder of Documentation Obersalzberg before cruising through Austria to Bratislava, capital of Slovakia.

After the breakfast buffet at the 4-star hotel (I like some variation in accommodation) on Thursday morning I took the bus to the city centre. There I explored the Castle, Michael Tower, and wandered around the old city centre. The sunny day and the terraces in the streets gave the city a really nice charm. I stayed in the city centre till late, because in the evening there was a festival with bands playing a various locations, giving the city a very lively atmosphere. Friday morning I went to Devín Castle with two Polish friends who just arrived in the city. We wandered around the castle ruins, and enjoyed some demonstrations that were part of a festival at the castle. After I brought them back to Bratislava, I crossed Austria again to return to Berchtesgaden. After all, Berchtesgaden had more to offer than a visit to the Obersalzberg.

Saturday morning I climbed up Mount Jenner, enjoying the views of the Berchtesgadener Land for an hour. To reward my exercise, I went to the Watzmann Thermen, where I relaxed in the thermal pools and saunas. In the evening I enjoyed the German food once more in a beautifully decorated restaurant on the Buchenhöhe. Sunday I spent all day driving back home, completing the 3100km cruise through Central Europe.

VariousEgypt: Life of the Kings

On 21 November 2006 from Reuver, Netherlands | comments closed

It was early in the morning of Friday 10 November 2006 when Arno and I boarded an LTU-flight from Düsseldorf to Sharm el-Sheikh. For both of us it would be the first time in Egypt, and aside from a hostel for the first nights, a trip to Mt Sinai and a 3-day diving liveaboard, nothing was booked. Package tours simply do not accommodate for the combination of Egyptian culture and a diving liveaboard. Backpacking and finding our way ourselves is much more fun anyway, and we are both used to it from our experiences in Australia.

The first Egyptian experience was climbing Mt Sinai, where Moses received the ten commandments. It required another early rise, as we were gonna watch the sunrise from Mt Sinai. Walking uphill (over 1000m altitude difference) for over 2 hours, in the dark, smelling camels: the sacrifices one makes for a good photo. But the views were spectacular, and afterwards we explored St Catherine’s Monastery.

Back in Sharm el-Sheikh, we were the first passengers to arrive for the 3-day diving liveaboard. The 25m yacht was very luxurious, and the 9 crew could cater for the wishes of 12 passengers. But once onboard, we discovered that we were the only passengers! Apparently no one else had booked the trip, and it was guaranteed departure. It truly was the luxury life of Kings: our equipment was taken care of, we could choose the diving spots (not that we had the knowledge, so we let the crew decide), and had a private divemaster on all dives. Altogether we made 10 dives in 3 days at all the great spots of the Northern Red Sea, including the Dunraven and the Thistlegorm.

After the diving trip, we had another day in Sharm el-Sheikh that we spend relaxing on the beach, snorkelling and shopping. After all, diving is quite exhausting. Pretty much all of the next day was spent in the bus to Cairo, that included the tunnel under the Suez Canal. In Cairo we had no problem finding a centrally located, affordable hostel.

In the morning of our first full day in Cairo we visited the pyramids of Giza. Being the only remaining ancient world wonder, their size and construction could not be more impressive. It was good to be on the site when it opened, because the pyramids are completely overrun by tourists. That was not the case for the sites we visited in the afternoon: Saqqara and Dahshur. We hired a taxi to bring us to these destinations, and in Dahshur we almost had the site to ourselves, while the pyramids there were only slightly less impressive than the ones at Giza. Altogether we climbed into the burial chamber of 3 large pyramids. This room deep inside the pyramid is where the mummified Kings enjoyed their afterlife.

The second full day in Cairo we explored the treasures of the Egyptian museum. The amount of ancient items it was stuffed with was simply unbelievable. Our last full day in Cairo was spent in the old Islamic centre of the city. We visited the Citadel and the Mohammed Ali mosque (not related to the fighter). On our way to the next mosque we managed to get lost in the small streets, but found our way eventually. And a visit to Cairo would not be complete without being ripped off at Ibn Tulun mosque, where we paid for the free access to the tower.

We took the night train to Luxor, and after checking in at the centrally located hostel we went to the Amun Temple in Karnak. This impressive site includes a great hall of huge columns, still standing tall. On our second day in Luxor we booked an organized trip to Thebes, visiting the Collossi of Memnon, Valley of the Queens, Valley of the Kings and Deir al-Bahri. Late afternoon we explored Luxor Temple, and returned there in the evening to make some nice night photos.

Because we had another full day in Luxor, and only visited 3 tombs in the Valley of the Kings, we returned to Thebes on our last day in Luxor. There we rented bikes and biked to the Valley of the Kings, Medinat Habu and Old Gurna, where the lesser known tombs of the Nobles are located. In these tombs we got a private tour from the tomb guardians, one even showing how the tombs could be lighted using mirrors reflecting the sunlight. Late afternoon we did a short camel ride along the river, our visit to Egypt would not be complete without one.

Most of the second last day was spent in the bus to Hurghada. This must have been one of the slowest bus trips I ever made. The 280km took over 6 hours! I guess the large number of stops did not help, including a long break in the middle of the desert. At the last day of the trip we spent a few hours on the beach of a Hurghada hotel, where we realized how good it was not to have booked a package trip. It would have been fairly impossible to have a more varied trip.

VariousUkraine 2: L’viv

On 19 April 2006 from L’viv, Ukraine | comments closed

The initial plan of my 1-week trip to Ukraine consisted of Kiev with a daytrip to Chernobyl, and L’viv with a daytrip into the mountains. The first was too popular during the time I was there, the second too unpopular. It was basically too early in the season to go into the mountains, as everything would be too muddy. So I had over 2,5 days to spend in L’viv, which left me enough time to wander aimlessly around the city, and enjoy the nice weather from a park bench. L’viv is a much smaller city than Kiev, but it is loved by Ukrainians for its charm. The comparison with Krakow is pushing it though.

Having enough time to spend, I visited pretty much all interesting places: Rynok Square, Castle Hill, Lychakivsky Cemetery, Museum of Folk Architecture & Life, and of course the obligatory church and cathedral. In terms of nightlife, L’viv is definitely not the place to go (unlike Kiev). It does make for some nice daytime exploring for a day and a half. And having a 30 USD/night room in the beautiful George Hotel in the middle of the city is a luxury not enjoyed for that price in Kiev.

VariousUkraine 1: Kiev

On 16 April 2006 from Kiev, Ukraine | comments closed

Early 2006 I found myself with the luxury problem of having over 15.000 Miles & More frequent flyer miles, the majority of which were expiring 30 April 2006. Not wanting them to go sour, I figured they would be most valuable on the most expensive regular flights. Since Lufthansa does not fly to Reykjavik (Iceland), and both Moscow and Saint Petersburg require expensive and time consuming visa procedures, that only left Ukraine in my opinion. The president of this former Soviet-state has a Dutch wive, and therefore Dutchmen do not require a visa anymore.

That is how I ended up boarding a small plane with mainly business travellers going from Düsseldorf to Kiev. There I managed to find my way with public transport to a small hostel, and needed all my Russian skills to get the right train ticket to L’viv. (Un)fortunately I already found out before the trip that it was not possible to book a daytrip to Chernobyl. Yes, there are daytrips to the radioactive wasteland surrounding the exploded nuclear reactor. It is deemed safe enough for a day, as long as you stay on the roads of the deserted towns and countryside, where the radiation has washed away. Wandering around in the bush is not recommended. However, since the meltdown happened on 26 April 1986, all the daytrips were sold out to journalists wanting to write the story of “Chernobyl, 20 years later”.

Not having my daytrip to Chernobyl left me over 3 full days to explore Kiev, which is more than enough. I went to all the highlights of the city: the large monastery complex of Pecherska Lavra, the tanks and other military equipment of the Great Patriotic War Museum, St Michael’s Monastery, St Sophia’s Cathedral, various city parks, the huge arch of the Friendship of Nations Monument, and Independance Square. The last is the center of the city where the orange revolution took place. It is also the place where I met up with some students and alumni of ESTIEM local group Kiev. That is the good thing about being an member of an European student organisation: knowing people in most major European cities. I went to have a drink with them one evening, and explored Kiev one afternoon together with Lena.

Overall Kiev was a lot more modern than I expected. The Lada’s so commonly seen in Moscow and Saint Petersburg were a rarity (it may also have to do with the fact that the last time I was in Russia was in 2003). Nevertheless, those two cities are the ones that come closest to my impression of Kiev. The metro system is very efficient and very deep (the fast escalators of one metro station needed 5 minutes to bring me up), just like Saint Petersburg. In one thing Kiev seems to beat the Russian cities though: the percentage of women wearing stiletto heels, I have never seen so many as in Kiev.

VariousSightseeing Rush & New Year in Poland

On 4 January 2006 from Reuver, Netherlands | comments closed

On Tuesday 27 December 2005 I drove to Cologne to board my Germanwings flight. A few hours later I arrived in Krakow, where Magda picked me up from the airport. We explored the city and had dinner at a typical Polish restaurant, before driving to Katowice. At Magda’s aunt and uncle’s house we had some more dinner while snow started to fall. Later that evening we joined the birthday party of a Polish girl who set up a language school. Definitely a rushed first day.

Wednesday was a bit more relaxed with sleeping late, having a long breakfast and waiting for a ride to the Katowice bus terminal. There we got in a bus to Oswiecim, better known under the German name of Auschwitz. Since we arrived mid-afternoon, and the museum (the former concentration camp is now a large museum) closed at 3 PM, we only had the chance to see Auschwitz I. This is the oldest and smallest concentration camp with good exhibitions about the atrocities commited. Seeing this historic place with the infamous “arbeit macht frei” gate covered in snow (it was still snowing) was very moving. On one side it became imaginable how cold and hard it must have been in winter, on the other side it was difficult to look beyond the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the present. But as George Santayana once said: “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”

After this moving experience we got a bus back to Krakow, where Magda walked around Wawel Castle, before taking a night train to Gdansk. The 650 km journey took some 9 hours, and we arrived pretty tired in Gdansk. There we explored the city centre with its rebuilt Hanseatic houses for a short time, since the constantly falling snow was not making the sightseeing any easier. Gdansk was not the main destination here, but Malbork, some 40 minutes by train from Gdansk was. Malbork houses Poland’s largest castle, and we spent the entire afternoon sightseeing the place. In the evening we got on a train to Lodz, but it broke down half way. So there we were, in a small Polish village, -15 degrees Celcius, in the dark, waiting besides a broken train. Luckily within the hour another train arrived, and with a stopover we managed to get to Lodz right after midnight. So far for the rushed part of this trip.

Friday I got the chance to sleep late in Lodz, since all we had to do was get to the forest cabin before dark. That turned out to be quite a challenge after all, since road conditions were terrible because of the continuous snowfall (there was now some 30 cm of snow), and the bad connections to the forest cabin. Magda, Ashka, and I travelled together from Lodz to a place where we got into a taxi to the edge of the forest, and from there the forest ranger brought us to our cabin. The cabin “Kobyle Blota” is beautifully located in the middle of the forest, but there is no electricity, gas or running water. So we had to use candles for lighting, cut wood for heating and cooking, and get water from the well. But there was plenty of food, lots of alcohol and a great atmosphere. Altogether there were some 12 people staying in the cabin, and I was the only non-Polish, so I could not always follow the conversations, but enough to join in the fun.

On Saturday 31 December 2005 we prepared for the New Year’s party. We decorated “Kobyle Blota” as well as we could, and cut lots of wood for heating. We also helped the forest ranger with feeding the wild boars. The snow had stopped falling, and the forest was absolutely magical with 40 cm of snow on the ground and all the branches of the trees covered with snow. A great place to start the new year. The party in the evening was a lot of fun, with large amounts of food and alcohol, and even some fireworks at midnight. When it comes to New Year: the most unusual places are definitely the best.

1 January 2006 was a day of resting, packing, cleaning, and leaving. We all helped cleaning the cabin, and clearing snow from the road to the cabin. The drive out of the forest was rather slow, because a Polish father was pulling six kids on sleds with the towball of his car. A lot of fun for the kids, but probably forbidden in Western Europe. At the main road we took a taxi to the nearest train station, where I said my goodbye’s to Magda and Ashka. They were going back to Lodz, and I went on to Warsaw. In Warsaw I checked in at the “Oki Doki” hostel, and walked the city a bit. Especially the largest and tallest building of Poland was pretty impressive: the Palace of Culture and Science. This huge Soviet building was a gift from the Soviet Union and now the Polish do not really know what to do with it, so they light it up like a Christmas tree. It makes for excellent photographs at night.

I spent my last day in Poland exploring the city centre of Warsaw. Unfortunately the Royal Castle (the main attraction) was closed, so I had enough time to get to the airport for my flight. When I returned at Cologne/Bonn airport my car was waiting for me, with only 25 euro in parking charges. After this short and rushed visit of the Polish highlights, I certainly have to return to Poland on a more in-depth trip.