Thursday, 30 August 2012

Warsaw and Vilnius

Warsaw is a beautiful city.  However, we should warn you at this stage that if you are looking for a visitor’s guide to any places we visit, you may have to look elsewhere (we recommended Lonely Planet – other guide books are available). 

We are terrible tourists.  We will of course take in those tourist attractions that particularly interest us, but we much prefer to wander around a place and get a feel for it.  We find this is generally best done by finding a pavement cafĂ© and spending some time watching the world go by.   However, if it’s after about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and we can’t find coffee then we will settle for a bar.  If we absolutely have to.  It’s just such a lovely way to spend a couple of hours, in the sunshine, watching a strange city go about it’s business.

Warsaw Old Town Main Square
Anyway, as I said Warsaw was surprising lovely.  I was expecting to be disappointed – most people will recommend Krakow or Gdansk as having more history or better architecture and I was expecting a city with a decidedly Soviet feel to it (with the exception of the medieval Old Town which was rebuilt after it was flattened by the Germans in WWII, so technically it’s only 40 years old but who's quibbling).  The Old Town itself is very small and full of bars and restaurants and a perfect place to mooch about, but the rest of the city is really quite elegant, with wide boulevard type thoroughfares, hardly any traffic for a capital city, and lots of side roads to wander along.
The Ghetto Wall is marked in parts on the border of the Old Town and the New Town and that is quite moving.   Not only was the Jewish population (which made up a little under 25% of the whole population  of Warsaw) slaughtered by the Nazis but the whole of Warsaw fought for their city before the Nazis finally razed it to the ground and decimated the population irrespective of race or religion.

And the Polish are very friendly and forgiving.  We have made such an effort to try to learn Russian and Mandarin, we hadn’t given a thought to learn even just the basic words in Polish (or Lithuanian).  I normally try for “hello”, “goodbye”, “please”, “thank you”, and (last but not least) “two large beers” to which you can add the Polish/Lithuanuan for “please” that you’ve already memorised and you’re practically fluent.  We are ashamed of our ignorance but impressed with our hosts' patience (and fluency in English for the most part).
Travelling on a Shoestring

I also feel that I should add something here about our attitude to our budget.  We obviously have a limited amount of cash and we could probably stretch it out over two years if we slept in flea ridden dorms, ate leftovers, shared buses with chickens and refused to visit sights costing more than 75 pence.  Many, much younger travellers do this and I salute them, however, we are not, by any stretch of the imagination, young any more.  Neither do we have the desire to prove that something can be done for a pittance, at the cost of it no longer being enjoyable to actually do, and at the risk of insulting our various hosts by trying to get everything for nothing.  We are not rich, but we have a lot more money than many of the people we shall be meeting along the way and neither of us can be arsed to haggle over tuppence.
We are staying in budget hotels and hostels and so far have no complaints whatsoever.  Indeed, the first hotel in Koln had shared bathroom facilities which I quickly discovered meant that you were likely to see a random German male bottom wandering around the corridors which is not altogether unpleasant.

In terms of food, we have so far made no attempt whatsoever to curb our spending habits (which must and will change as we don’t intend eating out in restaurants all the time).  However, luxury is relative.  We had an amazing meal in the main Old Town square in Warsaw (knuckle of pork and roast duck), with beer (of course) and side dishes – for less than £50 (including a rather large tip – I will expand on this subject later).
When we arrived in Vilnius last night and were both starving after the long train journey (a separate post on train journeys is warranted!) and after checking into our hotel we went to the first decent restaurant we could find.  We had the most expensive items on the menu - scallops and beef medallions (and again, lots of lovely Lithuanian beer) all for £40 (including a 20% tip).  The standard of the cooking was amazing and the service excellent, and while it would have been relatively easy to find somewhere much cheaper, it is not often we can justify eating such lovely food as it would cost at least 2 or 3 times more in the UK. 

We now have the best part of 2 days to wander around Vilnius before we catch our train to St Petersburg on the overnight sleeper tomorrow night.  It’s quite chilly this morning but by the time we’ve had breakfast and the sun has had the chance to heat the air we will set off on a mooch and explore the town a bit.
Oh, and I should mention here that an unreasonably high proportion or Lithuanian women are stunningly beautiful.  Paul has been looking forward to revisiting Vilnius since he was last here in 2008 for a friend’s wedding.  It is blindingly obvious why he loves the place so much and getting a conversation out of him is proving a challenge but understandably so.  The men, on the other hand, not so good.  To be honest, I’m surprised he’s not champing at the bit to have breakfast and then get out and “explore” Vilnius some more.

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