Europe. Portsmouth to Warsaw by train: Part 2.

The rain had stopped by morning but there was still solid cloud above. It might be low enough to get above it by cablecar in which case the results would be literally brilliant.

What I remember is the result at the top being like the Stephen King horror film ‘The Mist.’ The cloud looked as thick as that fog! Bad enough to enforce an hours waste of time in the restaurant under seige by the weather though at least there weren’t giant spiders and wasps. The only photos I got were a few of cablecar apparatus rendered into alien shapes by the murk I’d ascended into. 

 cloudy mountain_8412

The silver lining to all this cloud was what was under it. Fewer though the photo opportunities were those that did occur were opportunities to capture the awe and mystery of these places. Less jagged perhaps than the French and Swiss Alps these mountains were still soaring with great sweeps of scree and dark forest. They probably hinted more at Castle Dracula and Middle Earth than picture postcard stuff, a potential weakness of brilliantly sunny images. Misty Mountains indeed.

 Cablecar view_8420_edited-1

Then there was the valley below. One could see how a chasm of a gorge at the edge of town dwarfed it in a way one couldn’t when down there. I’d seen this landform further west: how rivers in upper valleys could erode like a knife through a cake to lower areas on the other side of high ground.

Zams was of course laid out like a model village and one oddity I’d noticed in the Alps was graveyards not being grassy areas but paved over. There was one of those here.

The train onwards went all the way to Vienna and sitting opposite me was a young Austrian who spoke some English and was returning there from a wedding he’d attended in Zams. It was a weekend break for him. We chatted about travel and photography and how I could get the odd good shot from a train window if I was lucky.

There was no lack of good shots of mountainsides dissapearing into ragged swathes of cloud anyway. Moody and atmospheric. All the way to the other side of Innsbruck.

Beyond there the valley and route swung north into Bavaria and crossed part of southern Germany before going back into Austria at Salzburg. Again – like at Lake Lucerne – I was getting close to personal history. Munich was just to the north and that was the furthest point I’d reached by BSA Bantam motorbike when I was 21 after an epic ride across France from Le Havre through Paris, Nancy, Strasbourg, the Black Forest and down the Autobahn. It was that trip that made up my mind that I should lead a life of travel.

Stormcloud over hill_8503_edited-1 

The clouds were breaking up. Into lighter and darker clouds. Actually it was more the kind of sky I wanted; stormy and dramatic. Especially at one place where a dark cloud reached down to a hill in a sychronicity of shapes, looking like a tornado forming up. Salzburg too had a dramatic sky with a hint of something similar.

The countryside meadows were enclosed by woods rather than hedgerows as in England, now and then opening up to a vista of hills or in one place another lake set in country like a huge park. Houses were all detached and bigger than those in the UK, apart from villages where there was a cosy huddle seemingly unnaffected by the cancer of housing estates.

That was the way it was across the rest of Austria too. We’d seen the last of the Alps at Innsbruck.

Austrian church_8501_edited-1

One other thing. Once in awhile a church sported a domed spire structure like the top of a queen chess piece. Like the churches I’d seen in Kiev. Less colourful here but the link was definitely there.

We were approaching Vienna. I’d made a difficult choice having a day to play with. Vienna is one of those cities that one should see but I was going on to Brno in the Czech republic. Why? What used to be Czeckoslovakia was a part of the world that intrigued me and it wasn’t just because there were new countries there.

An invalid friend in London had a pen friend living in Bratislava who’d sent him a box of presents. It wasn’t only the quantity but the quality. Each one was wrapped in such a way that the care and artistry taken was utterly extraordinary. All this although they never met!

Also In London I’d found a natural friendliness in a beautiful Czech girl (spoken for) that was somehow hard to find in Britain these days.

Then there were the ‘love trains’ of Prague: carriages designated for single people to link up if they liked. This to me was not only a creative interesting idea but a dam sight more preferable to the swarm of computer dating agencies making a nice living out of loneliness in the UK.

What the hell was going on there in the positive sense? It all hinted at something more, something cultural that could be well worth exploring, not far in global terms from Britain.

Of course you need more than a day, much more maybe; but I’d only been in Normandy for a day and learned while still on the boat getting there that French house prices are cheaper than British because there’s a tax on house price increases. So maybe I could pick up a clue.

That meant snubbing Vienna even though it was so close. That’s the trouble with the blitzkreig I’d planned across Europe to Warsaw: hard choices and not enough time anyway.

 Vienna station_8508 

Vienna seemed to take it to heart. The cloud had degenerated back into the uniform grey gloom as I emerged from the main station only to descend into its underground system to get to the terminus I needed to continue, seeing precious little of the city. The grey gloom was with me for the long wait at the other station.

As for the blue Danube it was dismal with what passed for the evening light under all this crap cloud. The name of a suburb nearby probably summed up the mood Vienna seemed to have for me: ‘Simmering.’ That’s what the name was and I think I deserved it, having only myself to blame.

Night had fallen by the time I reached Brno. I had to cross a major thoroughfare then navigate a maze of minor streets to get to the hostel. I was taking a chance coming this far. Finding ones way after a journey through an unknown city in an unknown land after nightfall demands ones reserves of alertness despite travel fatigue. It’s potentially a time when things can go wrong. Besides, I could also have the added hurdle of finding somewhere if the hostel is full.

A subway led under the thoroughfare. On the other side was a flight of steps going uphill. The street map had hinted at higher ground. I hesitated because a gang of young guys were ascending the steps, one of whom incongruously had what looked like Muslim headgear. They were most likely harmless but there had been tales of robbery in these parts. Then a girl with a dog as big as she was started doing likewise so I decided to tag along near her. She went a different way to the one I wanted at the top of the steps, while the gang seemed undecided about which way to go, while I stayed out of sight around a corner.

It all reminded me of ‘The 3rd Man.’ I could hear that zither playing while I was avoiding potential trouble in a muddle of rain glistened streets and cobbles amongst ornate architecture silver in lamplight, like the Vienna of that film. Like the lead character in that film I was on a difficult mission in a place I’d never been to before. The gang moved on and I was able to take a stab at navigating the streets in a zigzag fashion, the zither staying with me. This theme music to ‘The 3rd Man’ had topped the international music charts the year I was born.

I reached the hostel almost by accident and felt surprised it was as easy as it was. There was also room at this inn. I’d drawn the short straw here though. The place was tiny compared to the others: a hole in the wall with a mini bar thrown in and sleeping quarters stacked above. It looked like a firetrap and there were notices threatening people smoking with 1.000 Euro fines; so maybe the management felt the risk was real. Only a dormitory was available for me on the 2nd floor up a narrow staircase. And only a top bunk at that in what looked like a large den of down and outs. The tallest down and out being in the bunk below me. The guarded welcome I got reminded me of the hostel in Alice Springs where I’d had my camera and mobile phone stolen.

It was going to be a hard night. Without washing or undressing I arranged my backpack and boots in my line of sight from above where no one could make off with it without everyone else knowing and took the Nikon up to bunk with me, guarding it with my body.

 

 

In the morning everybody seemed to get up and go but the guy below me. I tried waiting until he’d done likewise but he seemed a permanent resident so I gave up and got up.

Once I’d sorted myself out – managing to book a single room and having something to eat – life seemed easier, although there was still a variety of cloud to chose from, which would remain for the day. At least there wasn’t much rain and I was going to get some good shots of this town.

I tried to text Jocelyn on the mobile. I was very hit and miss when it came to gadgets and tech but she’d been nervous about linking up with me and nothing ventured nothing gained, so let’s see if I’m capable of being a cool texter and if ‘r u getting this’ gets a result?

The descriptions of some of the clubs here were interesting but later I found similarly entertaining descriptions in Poland so it could have been a translation thing. The youth who ran the hostel were open enough but didn’t seem that different from youth anywhere. That was about all regarding clues as to the state of hospitality and creativity here but Brno was an interesting enough place anyway.

The hostel was more or less at the geographical centre of Brno. Apart from the capital Prague to the north west Brno seemed the only other city of any size in the country. I’d known of its existence since learning that the name ‘Bren’ was derived from Brno. The Bren gun with its distinctive curved magazine was originally manufactured here. Adopted by Britain in the 1930’s it became the standard British light machine gun through World War 2 and continued to be used until 1991.

Brno itself is a centre of judicial authority and administration reflected in 2 of it’s main sights: the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the Spilberk castle.

The cathedral I could spot from the castle. A black looking Gothic mass of a building dwarfing neighbouring ones, sinister with dark stone and spires looking as sharp as needles.

The castle was of lighter stone up a nearby hill through a park. Built in the 13th century as a royal castle it became into a citadel. A fortress which together other city fortifications withstood 5 sieges. If the other fortifications were like the Spilberk castle I’m not surprised: ramparts which looked as massive as a geological formation, arrowhead fortifications to give enfilade fire, an interior moat for a fortress within a fortress. Above were chambers fit for royalty. Below were dark passages, prison quarters and torture chambers brought back to life with authentic equipment and mannequins.

Predictably, the Nazis took it over when they invaded Czechoslovakia. To continue this honourable tradition.

Brno from Stara Radnice_8550 

It was a good place for photographs of the city. Another good place though was actually in the same block the hostel was in: the StaraRadnice tower, which was part of the old city hall, over the gate. There was a legend of a dragon there and there really was a stuffed crocodile over the gate passageway, to back up the legend it seems. The staircase up the interior? If you could get up that you’d knew you’d passed the test for the able bodied. And for not being overweight if you could get round the narrow balcony around the top of the tower when others were there. One could see the Spilberk from up there and also the compact nature of Brno despite its size.

I could see the tower from the single room I’d booked. After dark it would be lit up. The room was really snug with a drop on to another roof that might be survivable – as opposed to certain death in that dormitory – should I have to jump out of the window to escape a fire.

I was failing in my original social objective though. Maybe I was being feeble for not visiting a club and lacking in energy after last night but if I wasn’t staying for longer anything I’d learn would be limited in value and probably drowned out in the music anyway; so I caught up on my sleep. Unlike the last few days there would be no margin for error tomorrow which was crucial.

 

 

The final day of the journey from Portsmouth to Warsaw by rail. A packed breakfast was supposed to be ready in the dining room at the top of the hostel but I couldn’t find it. Didn’t care anyway. What mattered was to crack on down to the station in plenty of time for the train, depositing my key in the hostel box outside because it was too early for anyone to be at work.

Down at the station there was enough time for something to eat but there was a complication I knew I was trusting to some luck to overcome. I’d learned coming up to Brno that this city was actually on a branch line to the one I wanted for Warsaw. So I had to get back to a place called Breclav on the Austrian border to get the right train. I’d checked the train times. Hopefully the train getting me there wouldn’t be late.

Needless to say that train was late.

How late? There was some nail biting but thank God it wasn’t a repetition of that waiting game I’d been obliged to play with that detestable woman back in France. The train arrived in time for the short journey back to Breclav. Not that there was much time to spare I thought staring out at countryside immersed in early morning gloom. Another cloudy day.

But the train reached the station in time, there was a smooth changeover and I was on track and on time for Warsaw. It headed up through the fields and villages of the Czech Republic towards the Carpathians and Poland amidst weather that was clearing more than it had at any time since mid Switzerland.

The Carpathians actually began to the east with the high lump of mountains known as the Tatras. There was a something of a gap between there and the hills surrounding the Czech republic. All the same I expected hillier terrain, maybe verging on mountainous. All there was though was country closed in with fields, villages and more woods maybe, with a hint of more hills.

I realised we were in Poland when we got to Katowice near the border. Katowice was the centre of a heavy industrial region and this place looked as though it wanted to become like Chernobyl. Some spectacular dereliction was near the railway along with a lot of graffiti. I’d seen a bit a month ago in the Ruhr but it seemed more the thing here.

North of there was a line that seemed as straight as an arrow across the Polish plain all the way up to Warsaw, up which the train headed at speed.

I forget whether it was here or further south I checked the mobile. My text had got through to Joceyln! She was asking if things were going according to plan? They sure were, was the spirit of my next text: A OK and All Systems Go: my plan was a winner! This text might or might not reach her before she got to Poland. Either way though I felt not only flushed with success but relieved and it was time for a celebratory beer. Even the weather was behaving itself.

Warsaw graffiti from train_8592_edited-1 

A graffiti creation spelling Warsaw the Polish way announced the approach to the capital.

Then it was all change at Warsaw’s modern central station. The suburban train to Warsaw’s ‘Frederick Chopin Airport’ was going back the way I’d come but it wasn’t far. Once there I found myself ascending to the far corner of a car park. Once I’d got out of that it looked like this airport was very much part of the new Poland, half of it looked as though it was being built. There was a wait of course but her flight came in and I was able to position myself well, where the passengers came out.

A good hug when she arrived. She was relieved to see me.

Coming out of the airport she found a closer entrance to the station that had been hidden from me by a column. After that though we had a run of dodgy luck. Jocelyn had trouble with a ticket machine on the train back and there were warnings of a fine for not using it, so she couldn’t relax until we’d sorted that.

Then we found that the map was deceptive and the hotel that looked as though it was across the street from the central station was in fact several blocks away. I knew we were in for an adventure when we ascended from the station to see a great open space overlooked by a towering palacial pile, that reminded me of the University of Moscow. It was indeed the Palace of Culture and Science, a building decreed by Stalin to be a gift from him to Poland in the early 1950’s. Many Poles didn’t like it. It was still the tallest building in Poland and didn’t look like our hotel.

Our adventure took us west through the gathering dusk along a major main road across another major thoroughfare with the railway partially submerged to the right.

When we got to the hotel it wasn’t our hotel. After much wandering about and questions in the wrong hotel we eventually found it tucked around the rear of its bigger brother.

When I got to my room I found the key didn’t work and descended to the lobby to be told it might be something to do with the new computer system. Computers.

Meanwhile Jocelyn found herself in the lift from Hell. It looked half built and was actually being refurbished. She’d overlooked the notice asking her to use the other one.

Meanwhile I was offered a new room just around the corner from Jocelyn. When I got there I encountered a coloured gentleman with the problem I’d just had but this time my key worked. My troubles were over.

Or so I thought when we met up and went to a classy restaurant in the next hotel. I had a tall glass of beer and – as is my wont with alcohol in the early stages – became animated. Too animated for one of my hands caught the glass and SMASH it shattered on the table and shot out on to the floor, along with the beer! And Jocelyn happens to be a lady who hates food or drink getting on to her – I was to find out the hard way later – though it more or less missed her this time. And of course it just happened to be one of those restaurants which is big and open and echoing with stone floors, so that everyone far and wide could experience what sort of cock up I was perpetrating. “I’ve travelled for most of my life and that is the first time I have ever smashed a beer glass,” I kept repeating to Jocelyn and the waiters ushuring us to another table.

Get a grip. We’re up before dawn tomorrow on a mission which in its own way would be as challenging as Chernobyl.

© D Angus 12 13

 

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