M is for Music

I’ve been looking forward to this post because by golly did I hear some good music while I was frolicking across Europe. And no, I’m not talking the latest pop rocking rapping top 40 hits on the radio. I’m talkin’ the stuff you hear in the streets; local live folk music, buskers and the like.

Get excited.

First stop, Krakow, Poland, where I stumbled across these two amazing fellas playing and singing their little hearts out. Not only are they so adorable in their little outfits, but even though I have no idea what’s they’re singing about, I just want to sing along too. Observe:

Next stop, the streets of Edinburgh.

I swear, my ears are fine-tuned to catch the sound of bagpipes from afar. I liken it to the Sirens of Greek Mythology; the sound lures me closer and closer until I’m practically playing those bagpipes myself. Of course there’s no deadly rocks and imminent death involved, which is certainly a positive, but you get the idea.

I like bagpipes.

It may have something to do with my time at university during my undergraduate degree. Somewhat isolated in the Northern Tablelands, Armidale is the home to the University of New England, a 6 hour drive north of Sydney, its sweeping landscapes and natural beauty are something to behold. While there I lived on campus, which was a 20 minute stroll to the university campus along a quite spectacularly scenic elm-lined road overlooking grass fields. It was during my afternoon walk home that I would often hear the faint sound of bagpipes, which would sound louder with each gust of wind that carried the music close.

It was quite beautiful to see the lone shadow of a student practicing in that far away field by sunset. The poor kid had obviously been banished to the fields, for really, what could be more irritating than trying to study, nap or watch television in your dorm room with the deafening sound of bagpipes next door? I see the dilemma, but it worked out quite well for me. I could almost imagine I was standing in the Scottish Highlands.

In any case, this guy may not be playing in beautiful fields by sunset, but it still had the desired effect. Observe:

Last stop, we remain in Edinburgh but head to a narrow, dimly lit pub one cold winter’s night. My host, Beatrice, tells me I must experience a taste of live Scottish Folk Music before I leave.

On entering the pub, we squeeze through the crowd past the bar and find two rare seats by a table occupied by a group of drinkers, all with instruments. They were chatting away over large mugs of beer and I observed through their conversation that they didn’t all know each other. It all looked very casual, but when the music started it was nothing short of magnificent.

In what seemed to me a mix between wonderful improvisation and perfect synchonisation, this group of mismatched characters played their fiddles and bagpipes and tin whistles, and I could not help but tap my feet and smile.

There was no ceremony or formality. Every now and then one of them would just stop and turn around to chat with a patron or fetch another drink. They each played when and how they pleased and yet somehow managed to sound like a perfectly orchestrated troop of musicians. It was spectacular.

I’m sorry about the poor quality of the video. I was seated behind one of the musicians and was trying to subtly take my video without being the overtly conspicuous tourist that I am.

Enjoy.

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K is for Krakow

When my friend, Hayley, and I, were looking at places to visit during our travels, Krakow was not the first place that came to mind.

I had never been to Poland, and neither had she, but when we realised we were practically on its doorstep in Germany we made a last minute decision to spend a few days there. Our primary point of interest was Auschwitz, but of Krakow – the nearest city to Auschwitz – we had absolutely no idea what to expect.

After boarding the plane in Berlin we spent about half an hour getting over the fact that the woman with garish blue eyeshadow, in jeans, a puffer jacket and wearing a bright hot pink cap, was actually our air hostess. Oh and look, there’s another one. Though we had booked with Air Berlin, we assumed Air Niki and it’s fashion forward hostessed were partner airlines. Gulp.

Welcome to Krakow! We were told that temperatures are known to reach -20, so we considered ourselves lucky

At any rate, after some deliberation we came to the conclusion that yes, we were on the right plane, no, we were not going to die, and holy crap, we’re going to Poland where we don’t speak the language or know anything about the country.

With this in mind, on arrival we found the first strangers that spoke English and, naturally, agreed to walk with them down a deserted unlit road in the middle of the night to find the nearest “train station” (I use air quotes because it wasn’t so much a train station as a bus stop next to what looked like train tracks). Admittedly, this wasn’t the smartest of moves, but fear not. Our new found friends were the loveliest Irish couple you could meet on a deserted road in an unknown country. And really, if you can’t trust an Irishman then surely the world is doomed anyway.

By the looks of the overgrown weeds sneaking over the train tracks and that eery silence you get when you just know there’s no train coming for a good long while, we agreed that we could potentially be waiting for some time. It was at this point that a taxi drove up, assumedly anticipating hopeless travellers such as ourselves, and offered us a lift into town at a very reasonable price. A price that was later revealed to be ridiculously high for Poland, but never mind.

Krakow by night

We arrived in town safe and sound and said farewell to our Irish companions. To get to our hotel we had to walk through the centre of town, and thank goodness we did.

By night it was breathtaking.

The Christmas markets were still out, as were the festive lights that lit the cobbled streets. People were gathered in friendly groups around food stalls and warming themselves with mulled wine. It wasn’t busy, but neither was it empty. The main square felt as if it were a large garden party, where everyone knew each other and all were just casually catching up on the latest gossip or taking pleasure in good food. They walked around serenely, admiring markets and chatting away in Polish. The atmosphere was wonderful.

Most of our time in Krakow was spent wandering around that main square and down the streets that snaked off it. The old town reminded me of Edinburgh, with its beautiful architecture, cobbled streets and historically preserved character. I was enamoured by the statues that stood tall outside churches and was captivated by the legend of the city being built on the ashes of a great dragon.

Grilled cheese at the markets

During one of our trips through the markets we noticed everyone walking around eating these odd little pastry-looking things. Now, I’m willing to admit I’m a fairly fussy eater, which means I’m not one to jump at trying new foods. But Poland had worked its magic on me and I decided to try one, with no way of asking or understanding what it was. It turned out to be grilled cheese. So simple, and so delicious. It came served with cranberry sauce, and I have no idea if it is particular to Krakow or Poland, but it comes highly recommended by this fussy eater.

After that I tried everything, and surprisingly liked everything. It wasn’t difficult to do when prices in Poland are ridiculously cheap. And I mean cheap. One night we ‘splurged’ at a fancy restaurant, buying the most expensive thing on the menu, which also happened to be the best piece of steak I’ve ever had. It still only came to $10.

Schindler's Factory

We also partook in one of the free walking tours of the Jewish Quarter, where we were taken to Schindler’s Factory, places which were used in the film Schindler’s List, as well as to Synagogues and a particularly heartbreaking square, where the Jews had been rounded up before being taken to concentration camps or to be killed.

We were shown a building at the corner of the square that used to be a pharmacy. During WWII the Germans told all the Poles to move from the quarter so they could contain the Jews there. The Pole who owned the pharmacy requested that he stay under the premise that he could help the Germans with medical supplies, but really so he could help the Jews. We were told that he would regularly bare witness from his shop window to Jews being shot in the square, and even more tragically as they were taken away and asked to leave their belongings behind with no idea that they would never be returning to collect them. He wrote a book called Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy, which I have yet to read but which I hear is quite a moving account of one man’s attempt to aid a few.

Empty chairs stand in this square in the Jewish ghetto Podgorze to represent the Jews that once gathered here to be taken either to concentration, working or death camps. They were told to leave all their belongings behind. There are 68 chairs, each representing 1000 Jews. 68000 Jews used to live in Krakow; there are now only 200.

The square is now a memorial to all those who suffered there.

What I found amazing was that the Jews were once treated very well by the King in Poland, before it was infiltrated by the Germans who spread lies and encouraged the Poles to disassociate from them. Of course its proximity to Auschwitz is an unfortunate reminder of what took place there less than 70 years ago, but in a city where 68,000 Jews used to live happily, there are now less than 200. Two hundred! The mind boggles at the ramifications that still echo from the brutality that took place during the Holocaust.

Despite this tainted part of Poland’s history, it far from dampened my visit there. On the contrary, I felt it a very friendly and cheerful place and could have hugged each and every one of them that spoke perfect English, which was practically all of them.

Krakow was definitely the surprise treasure of the trip. It came second only to Edinburgh of my favourite places and I only wish I had spent more time there to discover its secrets. But really, what better excuse than to one day return?

Also on Krakow and Poland:

A is for Auschwitz
C is for Castles

Love padlocks on a bridge in Krakow

You can't see it in the photo, but it was snowing!

Beautiful architecture and statues in Krakow

An angel outside Wawel Castle

More statues in Krakow

Another delicious Polish delicacy. Pancake type ravioli filled with potato and cheese, and served with sour cream and little bits of pork crackling.

More snow that you can't actually see

Streets of Krakow

C is for Castles

Perhaps the highlight of the entire trip was castle spotting.

Whilst I absolutely love living in Australia, the laid back way of life, the climate, the land and the people, it is a sad fact that for all this we, as a relatively ‘new’ country, miss out on the history that countries in Europe have to offer.

One of the perks of said history is the castles.

Standing in front of a Katy sized doorway at Wawel Castle, Krakow

Big or small, new and old, crumbling or unspoiled, extravagant and simple. I don’t care how they come, but boy oh boy do I like a good castle.

The idea of secret passageways, miniature doorways and hidden rooms just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. Of course, this all stems from my love of fantasy stories, naturally. But what amazes me most is that no matter how many castles I see I still feel as if I am being transported back in time to a moment when castles were alive with nobility, scandal and intrigue. The feeling is so overwhelming that I’m certain were I to close my eyes, I could see the nobles wandering the castle grounds and the stable boys attending to the horses.

Like I said, I do love a good castle.

The first castle that caught my eye was in Krakow, Poland. We visited Wawel Castle at night when all was a bit eerie, but it was still perfectly beautiful, made even more so by the fact that it sits on the hill that hosts the Dragon’s Den, a limestone cave said to have been inhabited by the legendary Wawel Dragon.

My Auntie and I with one of the canons my grandfather made

Whilst the cave is closed during the winter months, the appeal of a city and a castle built upon the ashes of a dragon was all quite extraordinary to this impressionable young mind.

Now to England, where we find ourselves in the ancient town of Rye, which happens to be where my father grew up, his father before him and, some many years later, where I also did some growing up of my own. But more about that in another post.

Ypres Castle was built in 1250 and is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Rye. Once used as a prison, it now hosts the Rye town museum.

It’s a small fortress, but I love it all the same, especially after hearing of my grandfather’s part in the making of the canons that now sit outside the castle, as well as my father’s accident falling off one of the castle walls. Boys will be boys.

Ypres Castle, Rye, England

When I was 16, I went on a student exchange to Italy where I stayed with a host family for three months in the small town of Ferrara, about an hour south of Venice. The following year I went back to visit my host family. About three years later I moved there to study for a year. A few years after that I returned again for a visit. And this year, just over a decade after my first visit at the ripe age of 16, I returned once more to my host family, host town and host country.

Castello Estense, Ferrara, Italy

Needless to say, Ferrara and Italy both hold a place close to my heart.

Did I mention Ferrara has a castle? And a moat? AND a drawbridge?

Yep, The Estense Castle is pretty impressive. Smack bang in the centre of the city, this moated medieval fortress has bared witness to every stage of the city’s colourful history since its foundations were laid in 1385. Whilst some amazing stories about the castle have been told to me in Italian over the years, I’d be well pressed to do them justice with a poor translation and my dreadful memory, but I would nonetheless recommend a visit to this beautiful castle if you’re ever on your way North to Venice.

My first view of Edinburgh Castle, from the Grassmarket

The last castle I’d like to share with you is the gem of them all.

Having never before been to Edinburgh, I was absolutely taken aback by its beauty. The streets, the buildings, the architecture – it was all nothing short of amazing. Of course Edinburgh will get its own post, but its castle, well, it made such an impression that it probably deserves its own post too. Alas…

When I first spotted this magnificent structure, I was being taken on a tour through the streets by my dear Italian friend who now studies in Edinburgh. The irony of an Italian showing around the British born Australian was not lost on us, although it was even more prevalent when I found myself cooking her my Italian host-mother’s pasta sauce recipe. But I digress.

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

We were walking down the cobbled stone streets of the Grassmarket, admiring the beautiful bookshops, architecture and quaint little narrow passageways between buildings, when one of the wider side streets opened to reveal a towering rock cliff face, which literally morphed into the castle perched atop it.

I was absolutely speechless. Without getting all melodramatic on you, it was for me so overwhelmingly magnificent that I actually felt a bit choked-up.

Truly, this is the moment and the place that will stick with me as the absolute highlight of the entire trip. I was completely enamoured. I felt like I was standing before a castle from a fantasy story, in Westeros or in Middle Earth.

It made such an impression that I was compelled to write a poem about it. As I’ve said before, poetry is far from my forte and this is certainly no prize winner. But raw as it is, the meaning is clear: I love you Edinburgh Castle!

A Kingly Embrace

I walk cobbled streets
You hide behind stone
But with each passing crossroad
I catch glimpse of your throne

As cliff becomes castle
Turrets touching the skies
All turn to your fortress
With passionate sighs

You observe from above
The tenderness of others
The embrace of a friend
Brushing lips of two lovers

But when friends have long gone
And love starts to wither
The distance between us
Brings a tremble, a shiver

For in heart and in soul
I belong in your towers
Perched upon rock face
Dreaming for hours

And though distance remains
Between me and your grace
Please await my return
To your kingly embrace

Edinburgh Castle emerging from the cliff face

A is for Auschwitz

The spectacles of victims still remain

If there’s one place that words cannot do justice, it’s Auschwitz.

With the horrors of a place so absolutely shocking, it is little wonder so many at the time (less than 70 years ago) and others still today, refuse to believe that such monstrosities could have taken place.

I won’t get into the history of Auschwitz; there’s plenty of information out there for those who want to know more about the camp and its larger sister camp Birkenau. Suffice to say that of the 1, 300 000 people to go to Auschwitz, 1, 100 000 of them died there, 90% of them Jews.

Auschwitz Camp 1

It took about an hour from Krakow by bus to get to the town of Oświęcim where the two camps are located, and that time was spent watching a video on the liberation of Auschwitz and the countless barbarities that took place there. Whilst the video was unsettling to watch (to say the least) it wasn’t until we arrived at Auschwitz that two things became very apparent.

The first, was how recently it all happened. The buildings at Auschwitz camp 1 are are all still in fine condition, the windows intact, the wire fences showing little sign of rust or age. The camp was liberated in 1945 and since 1947 it has been a ‘museum’, which I’m sure has benefited its preservation, but still does not excuse the fact that it all happened in the lifetime of people who still live today.

The second, was the absolute organisation and coordination that took place behind the evil. It was easy for me to believe, before visiting the camps, that whilst the Jews had been so obviously maltreated and abused, that it was by the hand of a few extremists who took pleasure in unsystematic torture and bloodshed. That perhaps the intentions for the camps had been different to what actually took place.

What I saw when looking around the camp, was that I was wholeheartedly and naively mistaken.

This was just one of the many prisoner photos found when the camp was liberated. I found this man's face so interesting. Below the picture is recorded the date he arrived at the camp and the date he died there. He lived only 6 months in Auschwitz.

Every building was built with a purpose, every hole in the ceiling designed to fit the dimensions of a gas canister. Every prisoner was photographed front on, side on, and at an angle, their date of arrival at the camp recorded, as well as the day they died. Documents recorded the names of those who committed the first and every subsequent execution, signed off and stamped as if it were a class role call. There was undeniably no shame in what they were doing, and the evidence of that remains in the documents that have endured.

People were not brought to Auschwitz to be detained or imprisoned.

People were brought to Auschwitz to die.

The lucky ones got to live a little longer when they were deemed fit to work, but even then, they were used until malnutrition, disease or exhaustion killed them or had them executed when found inept.

The belongings of all the victims of Auschwitz remain in the museum. I was utterly astounded and moved by the volume of possessions that still remain, their owners never again returning to claim them. Millions of shoes are stacked high behind glass walls, pots and pans, glasses, brushes and combs, and suitcases named and addressed in anticipation of retrieval pile high.

Those deemed unfit to work were sent immediately to the gas chambers. Crutches, aids and prosthetics of wounded Polish WWI war veterans accounted for most of this particular collection.

The most distressing of these things for me was the narrow corridor lined with glass, which served as a window display to the several tonnes of piled human hair that remains at the camp. When the camp was liberated, the Soviet Army found 7,000 kilograms of human hair packed in paper bags, intended to be used in the war industry for making cloth, ropes, and even socks for the soldiers. For me, that pile of human hair may as well have been the bodies themselves.

One story that stuck with me was from our guide, who said that his grandfather had lived 50 kilometres outside of the Auschwitz Birkenau camp. None were allowed to go near the area, and most claim to not have been at all aware as to what was happening there. But his grandfather said the townspeople had noticed a distinct smell coming from the direction of the camps. It wasn’t until the liberation that they discovered the smell had been the stench of burning bodies.

Millions of shoes taken from victims still remain.

It’s a strange sensation visiting a place such as Auschwitz. Some level of disassociation is necessary to take it all in without losing your mind at the pure evilness of people. That said, there is a peculiar longing to find out more about the victims, how they suffered, how they survived, and what it must have felt like. I think this comes with a desire to make some sort of sense out of what happened, in an attempt to try and understand how such a thing could have occurred, and perhaps even in an effort to make sure it never happens again.

It feels a little crude to say I ‘enjoyed’ my visit to Auschwitz. No one can enjoy a place like that. But I am glad I visited. It’s easy to go through life and forget that bad things happen, to ignore them when they are happening, and be like the townsfolk who smelt burning bodies and were totally unaware of what was taking place on their doorstep.

Philosopher and novelist George Santayana said, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”

I hope that the world forever remembers what happened at Auschwitz.

Barbed wire fences kept the prisoners from escaping, although accounts say that many threw themselves onto the electric fences in an attempt to 'free' themselves from the horrors inside the camp.