Walking Cities


Over the last few years I have spent a lot of my non-working time wandering around and through picturesque villages, working villages, small towns, large towns, small cities and capital cities around Europe. Getting to the place I want to be wandering  has involved taking planes, or long-distance coaches, regional trains or  long-distance intercity trains depending on my starting point and destination. I have wandered around St Petersburg in Russia, Kiev in Ukraine, Tallinn in Estonia, France, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Poland. 

Each time I set off on my wandering with a small day pack filled with a camera (sometimes film,  sometimes digital and sometimes both), paper maps, notebook, pens, Kindle, passport, hand wipes, a plastic cutlery set and a water bottle. If I have been to a tourist information office I might have some local leaflets and a city guide. I wear good walking boots, comfortable socks, jeans, t-shirts and whatever outwear the weather requires. Sometimes, just sometimes, I take my Nordic Walking sticks but only if I know I am going to be in deep snow. In my head I have lots of ideas of where to go and what to do. In my heart I have a spirit of adventure. 

The current series of city walks began when I left my job in London at the beginning of November 2017 to travel to St Petersburg via Tallinn, Estonia. I had a few days with a friend exploring the newly emerging arty and retro cultural scenes in off beat parts of the city and then set off on the long coach journey across Estonia to St Petersburg. The first snows had started and it was a grand  time to be exploring the most westernised of Russian cities. I had to teach Monday to Friday for the three weeks I was there but on weekends I headed down to the local metro station and set off exploring. I visited metro stations, wandering around housing estates, snuck behind grand buildings and meandered around the city. Just me, my Pentax and Patti Smith’s book M Train.

winter snow in Tallinn

Taken with an old Nikon Coolpix digital camera

Then I took a train back to Tallinn and at the start of winter proper revisited old haunts from earlier visits. I took comfort in places I knew and delighted in the ways they had changed. 

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Tallinn Estonia

After a week, I landed a job in Krakow, Poland. So began the Poland and Ukraine adventures

 

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Krakow, winter 2017

On rare occasions I have a companion for some of the trips but generally I go alone. This seems to bemuse and confuse many Polish people who find wandering around alone a strange thing to do as. they are pack animals. I much prefer to have the sort of companion who will come to a destination and be prepared to go off and do things on their own before meeting up to share discoveries. 

When I set out I just set out. I get off a train and start walking or step out of a hotel and look around to see what catches my eye. I might have a glance at the map to get my bearings but generally I just walk. I can walk in a straight line. I can walk in circles. It doesn’t matter as there is always something interesting to see.

If I end up in a tourist hot spot it is purely by accident. I do not intentionally intend to find myself in such places though they may be a starting point. A highly success wander took place in the Krakow district of Kazimierz, known to tourists who are attracted to the faux hipsterishness of the place. I was there to accompany a student to an exam. I took off for 90 minutes on a day when there were hardly any tour groups about and did a little exploring. I came across some fascinating street art.

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Krakow Street Art 2019

In a country like Poland, which I am currently exploring, the main starting point of my travels is always the Rynek. The old market squares were the centre of trading in olden times and is where the brightest, wealthiest buildings tend to be found. A Polish market square is a fascinating  place – I particularly recommend Poznan, Łodz, Katowice, Warsaw, Wrocław, Lublin and the Cięzkowice. The German cities tended to have merchant’s houses in their squares adding a splash of colour and elegance.

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Wroclaw

In Poznan I was struck by the amazing art works to be found on private and public buildings close to the main market square. Wandering around them gave me an insight into how the modern culture is beginning to take shape there as it moves  out from the galleries, libraries, cultural centres and into the places where young people hang out. In Cięzkowice and Sanok I experienced an older Poland but even there experimentalism is showing its face.

Even in my base of Tarnów (a small city between Kraków and Rzeszów), a new artistic and cultural Poland is emerging. It is obvious in the arrival of the first hipster bar but there is also interesting works to be found in arts galleries and on the walls. This search for a new, vibrant Poland, is the theme of my next set of wanderings.

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Sparking Joy


I have spent a fair amount of my weekend either reading about or watching videos on the KonMari method of keeping clutter down and possessions happy. Why? Because Netflix has a series from the propagator.

Looking at old photos of my previous flat, where I did a lot of crafting, I can see that it was very cluttered. I used everything but a studio apartment is not the place for such activities. Unless you are really organised, that is.

I KonMaried the flat when I moved out. The problem was that everything sparked joy. I just couldn’t take it with me to a shared rental. Then, a few years later, I began crafting again. And cooking. I built up a collection of stuff.

Then I got a job abroad. I could only take a suitcase and my camera bag. I gave away everything. Did it spark joy? No. I just had less stuff but nothing for crafting. I got bored. I traveled but couldn’t make nice travel journals or soaps.

I had over KonMaried out of necessity. Then I acquired a second hand printer. Joy came back into my life as I could print out my photos. I started making a travel journal.

I have realized that I need some stuff in my life. It sparks joy when it helps me to create. My message -keep the joy making stuff and you will find joy.

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Old Film Hack


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I have been messing around with a 1989 Pentax SFXn film camera for some time now. I generally use out of date Ilford film and develop in Caffenol but the results have not been too great lately. I guess the film has got degraded by moving countries and climates.

So, I discovered today that I need to change the exposure of the film from 125 to something like 50 or 25. The problem has been the DX film which has a code written on the cartridge which is read by my camera. I tried stopping down but the camera would not take a snap. So, I had to go back to 125. When I developed the film today the results were poor to say the least.

Therefore, I got on the internet to look for solutions. I had never thought of locating the code and then removing it. Thanks to Dan K in Japan Camera Hunter I learned how to locate and remove the coding. All it took was a few quick scrapes of my penknife and the code was gone. For good measure I also coated that part of the film cartridge with that white eraser stuff school kids use.

The result – the camera no longer reads the code and I can go up or down with the exposure as it suits me.

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A slow train to Kraków


A slow train from Tarnów to Kraków in the company of Patti Smith.

Devotion is Patti’s short book about being a creative writer. It’s a rambling book which takes the reader from New York to Paris and through the many rooms of Patti’s mind. It’s the perfect book for a journey on a train which stops at every hamlet and village as every page visits the hamlets in Patti’s mind.

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The Painted Village of Zalipie


The bus to the painted village of Zalipie goes from the main road which skirts across and around the small town of Tarnów. It is a small minibus which holds maybe 24 people and you pay the driver. It currently costs 6.50 zł one way. The bus destination is Dąbrowska and the stop is just outside at the junction to Zalipie. From there it is a walk – straight up towards the church or leftwards into the small hamlet.

I had been warned at the tourist information office inTarnów that the village museum was closed for renovation and that some of the painted objects were to be found in the house of Felicia Curyło, who was one of the main propagators of the art of house painting in village.

My companion and I headed straight up to the church we could see in the distance. The village is a working one and we were delighted to see apple trees, walnut trees, sweet chestnuts, cabbages and pumpkins all growing in gardens and plots around the village. There were farmers working in the fields gathering their crops as it was the last few days of the glorious summer we had been having.

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Across the street from the church was a crucifix garlanded with brightly coloured ribbons.

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We carried on walking, stopping to take photographs of the wonderfully hand painted houses we found scattered around the village. Pretty much everything in the village is painted including kennels, bee hives, rubbish bins, plant pots, garden tools, tree barks, walls, doors, windows and all manner of kitchen equipment.

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With the museum closed, the place to see how extensive the decorating is requires visiting the house of Felicia Curyło. This is a tiny house with three rooms downstairs all exhibiting examples of the folklore craft. The ceiling is so low that anyone over six feet is going to be touching it with their head. Inside everything is decorated with the local flower design.

We bought some souvenirs and signed the visitors book. A small group had to wait outside until we left as there was not room for more than three people at a time.

The village is spread out over several kilometres and we were anxious to get the bus back to Tarnów so we missed several of the houses and the school. On the way back we came across this farm which has more muted colours than the rest of the village.

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As it was a working day there was nothing actually open in the village apart from the house we visited  but we did come across a few shops and a pub which may be open at weekends. We had gone prepared with snacks and drinks but had to find a wall to sit on as there were no benches. The roads are narrow and we were pushed off into a field by a tour bus and a camper van!

We are very much looking to return when the museum is open.

 

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Solitary Travel


Most of my travelling is done alone. Sometimes I go on a short trip with a friend. Sometimes I go with a friend on a longer trip but take time out to be alone. Sometimes I meet up with a friend to do part of a trip. For the most part I prefer to be alone so that I can go at my own pace, start and finish when I like, see the things which interest me (but not necessarily someone else) and spend ages fiddling with my cameras at my own pace.

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Sometimes travelling alone is a little stressful especially in a place where you do not speak the language and, or, don’t feel particularly safe. I recently experienced this in Ukraine. While I can transliterate the Cyrillic into Latin I do not always understand the word or the particular meaning. Having someone along who knew more would have been beneficial. However, I was forced to try and understand signs and maps which meant that I did learn more about the language and culture.

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Usually, I travel light and carry everything I need in a small backpack. I love the flexibility of being able to throw on the pack and have my hands free for holding a map, or camera, or food. On my last trip I was gone for two weeks so took a wheelie suitcase the experience of hauling it on and off trains and luggage racks got me into conversations with a variety of people. On that trip luggage was an asset.

On my last solo excursion I managed to lock my smartphone at a crucial moment. I was stuck at a tram stop with no idea where the hotel was and I had left my paper map behind. Disaster. Luckily there was a branch of my bank nearby and a customer services assistant was able to help me. I got around for three days with a tourist information map but sorely missed my large map of the whole city. My advice is to always remember the paper map.

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Paper maps help you to evaluate distances, see what is available and give you the information to  go off the beaten track. On my first day into Krakow I got off the tram, unfolded my map and was approached by a local lady eager to help me. A few days ago I was checking my map in Tarnów when two school girls came to help me. It was a nice encounter and they spoke good English. They showed me a quicker way to get to my destination, which also took me through a new area.

Walking around with your paper map helps you to get a feel for a place far more than a tourist bus.  Walking connects you. You have literally walked the streets. When walking I keep my eyes up and try to walk so I can see both sides of the street at once. In my experience, the best decorations on European buildings are above eye level. Being alone allows me to walk at a snails pace, looking at buildings, checking my guide book and map and taking as many photos as I like from different angles until I get “the one.”

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When I am travelling, I start a journal of the journey as it helps me to remember the journey and to save mementoes. I collect memories, photos, guide books, postcards, beer mats, receipts, travel tickets and money to add to my journal. Years later I can look back and remind myself of happy trips gone by.

At the moment I am writing a walking cities journal inspired by The Guardian newspaper cities. It is helping to force me away from my laptop and out onto the streets.  These streets are changing and it is nice to go back and revisit them – where they as interesting as I portray them in my journals?

My favourite solitary trip so far? Paris two summers ago where I tramped the streets alone in my first visit since I was a student. It was a much better experience the last time round and is now documented in a small colourful journal.

The next solitary trip? Possibly Lisbon for the colourful buildings.

 

 

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Read. Learn. Adapt. Survive.


Waterstones, the British bookseller, is buying Foyles, a  London bookseller. Is this a cause for celebration?

I first encounter Foyles as an 18 year preparing for university. In my home town there had been two bookshops but one had closed down and the other was more interested in selling CDs and tat than books. The internet did not exist. There was no Amazon dot com in those days. One had to physically visit a shop to buy a book. So, I went to London with my mother to buy the books on Chinese history I needed for my course.

As a reader of The Times ( I was young ) and The New Yorker I knew that I to go to Charing Cross Road. And to Foyles. This was the biggest bookshop around. Probably the biggest in the UK.

Foyles was an amazing warren. There were floors and half floors all full of books. Books were piled on tables, on the floor, on bookshelves and basically anywhere they could be piled. The trick to finding anything was first to ask a floor manager and then to go searching. The search might be or might not be successful. There seemed to be no real structure to the way the shop was organised. When you had your books there was then the two-tier payment system. First you got an invoice then you went to pay. In the meantime an assistant wrapped the books. On the way out, down endless stairs, you were bound to come across something else which ended up in your book bag.

A few years after university I went teaching abroad. On each of my visits back I went into Foyles to breathe in the atmosphere of the books I had been denied the previous nine months. This was a shop where books lived and breathed. After Foyles I usually wandered into Silver Moon, the feminist bookshop. Here I stocked up on Rita Mae Brown and Alison Bechdel books. Foyles took over Silver Moon but closed it in 2004. That was a loss – they ran a nice book group and some wonderful meetings.

Now Foyles is become part of the Waterstones group in a battle to beat back Amazon. I wish them well and hope they are able to keep afloat so that people can continue to experience the pleasure of finding interesting reads by accident just as I did so many years ago.

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Anticipation


09h50. The shutters are still down on most of the stores in the shopping centre. A cleaner with a red cardigan and yellow bucket is adding the finishing touches to shining the tiled floor. Workers can be seen behind the glass fronts of some of the small shopping units. The snack bars, juice bars and pretzel bars are stocked but their workers are applying the finishing touches to their displays or downing cups of coffee.

The low level wooden benches are slowly occupied by early arrivals. They sit, hunched, anticipating movement, outside their chosen store. One or two get up and wander over to the timetable. They check their phones. A few more minutes to go. One or two bravely try to push open a door. They are firmly locked. It is not you 10h00.

On the dot, employees stir and pull open the doors and switch their electronic registers to go. The waiting crowds alight from their benches on mass as though pushed by unseen air.

Within minutes shoppers start to push their way through the main doors and onto the sales floor. Consumerism marches forward. The silence disperses and is filled with the rising crescendo of requests, conversations and the beep of check outs. It’s shopping time and the mall is open for 11 hours of browsing, shopping, brunches, coffee stops and meetups.

I am here to sort out my phone once and for all. The first mini shop is the Orange shop where an employee calls me over and responds, positively and happily, to my request if she speaks English. Minutes later I have a new account and am sent to the till to buy phone credit. So quick. So easy.

Then to my current provider. It will remain nameless. My request for top of is met with “I don’t speak English.” I repeat the key word “top up”. Top up is top up in Polish, no? I show my fingers. 10 zloty. I need top up for 10 zloty so I can make a phone call. An assistant shouts from the back of the room “How much?” I repeat “Ten zloty.” He tells me to give assistant one my phone number. I find the number in my contacts list, show her the display and push 10 zloty in coins towards her. A grunt. Some keying in of information. A receipt is pushed my way. There is a ping on my phone. I have credit and can make my call.

That’s all I came to do. I walk all the way through the mall, go down the escalator and exit to the bright sunshine. A bus ahead of me disgorges a few dozen passengers who troop across the road towards the entrance.  I wait for my bus. I am moving from the city in a few days. Will consumers in my new town wait in eager anticipation outside the shops as the minutes tick by?

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A job unfinished


I have been spending a week in Kijev, the capital of Ukraine, and what an educational journey it has been.

Did you know that Ukrainian soldiers fought in Cuba, Iran, Afghanistan, Vietnam and other trouble hot spots around the world? Their work and commendations are on display in a museum just outside the city centre (bus 24). The museum is really a place of remembrance full of photos of those who were killed, mementos, pieces of uniform, private possessions and bits of kit. There is no information in any language other than Ukrainian but it is clear what the items are.

I learnt more about the great famine brought about by the farming collectivisation policy under Stalin from the Holodomor memorial centre. The educational film you watch when you enter is harrowing – all those people starved to give grain to the Soviet Union. Shocking.

The Great Patriotic War was fought by the Ukrainians and the Red Army marched in when the struggle against the Nazis was almost done. There is a huge Motherland statue as a reminder and an eternal flame stands in front of the cenotaph. The Nazis shot, imprisoned and tortured millions and sent anyone they didn’t like to concentration camps i Poland and Germany. The Soviets destroyed the main shopping street as the Nazis were headquartered there. They then rebuilt it.

The Orange Revolution gave the country independence and the Maiden revolution got rid of the dictator who took over the country and stopped it joining the EU. All around the centre there are shrines and information boards telling the story. Of course, western TV showed some of the events but there is still a lot which needs to be talked about especially as Russia under Putin is trying to take control of more parts of Ukraine and the Baltics.

How safe is Ukraine? Parts are safe and parts are endangered. Kijev looks a lot more Soviet than Lviv and has a long way to go in its development. It is of course, a lot closer to Russia than Lviv is which makes its situation more precarious. However, there is a strong western presence and conscious attempts to westernise. Many of the big brands are to be found in the shopping districts, there are signs in English on the main government buildings, some street signs have been written in Latin script and people are generally helpful. Unfortunately, Ukraine has developed as much as say Poland and the Czech Republic but that is because they were ruled by a tyrant for years. Maybe now things will move along.

Public transport is shockingly bad – no timetables, hardly any route maps, unreliable buses etc. The wifi coverage is minimal and patchy making it difficult to get around once you are out of Independence Square and the city tour bus needs some competition and to go to some more interesting places than the nine places they have on their route map. Tourism needs to be encouraged because tourists bring money and experience and create a lively atmosphere but for that to happen the train and bus system needs a major overhaul.

I have seen some amazing buildings and I have seen some decrepit ruins. Ordinary people need to have their living conditions improved and this is the job which is unfinished. I have seen lots of expensive real estate aimed at the wealthy minority, and possibly at Americans since there are a lot of shop signs in English and artesanal shops,  in the wealthy districts.  Kijev is cultivating hipsters and the “artistic” and I certainly came across a lot of young American tourists so maybe the plan is working though personally I would prefer them to look to the rest of Europe for culture and innovation and inspiration (the hipster thing is now so passe).

I wish Ukrainians well on their journey and hope that the gains are not reversed. Tomorrow I go south to experience a different kind of Ukraine.

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Travelling light


It’s the season for travelling and the internet is awash with people sharing their tips on how to travel and how to pack for vacations. As a seasoned traveller about to go off travelling around Ukraine for three weeks I thought I’d jump in with my own suggestions. I am travelling by train and self-catering or staying in hostels so my packing list reflects this.

  1. Get a lightweight rolling bag to take the strain. This year I am carrying a grey number from IKEA which has a little backpack attached to the front. The advantages of this ensemble are that they are light, have flexible sides and top, good wheels and the detachable bag is brilliant for carrying on board planes and for essentials when on a train. The shuttle doubles as a day pack at the destination.
  2. Have two pairs of footwear – shoes for formal or rain and trainers for tramping around.
  3.  Five light thin tee shirts which can be rolled up into tiny bundles, a couple of long sleeved shirts for baking hot days and going out to eat or visiting churches.
  4. ¾ length leggings x 2 – they look better than shorts in the city and can be rolled up above the knee when you want to catch some rays. They are lightweight and dry quickly after washing.
  5. 2 x thin trousers for trekking in the heat, dust and visiting more refined places such as churches and nice cafes. They are lightweight and dry quickly after washing.
  6. Lots of undies – it is hot out there and you are going to sweat. There is nothing worse than running out of underwear when you cannot easily dry them.
  7. They protect your feet when you are pounding the cobbles and help keep your trainers smelling ok.
  8. A sweater for the air con and cooler nights by the sea.
  9. A hat and an umbrella to keep the rays off and reduce the chance of headaches. Useful also for rain storms of which we are having plenty out here in the East.
  10. All your meds in your hand luggage.
  11. Basic toiletries as you can buy top ups everywhere. I am travelling by train so am taking the large ones from the bathroom. Normally I take a supply of small shampoo bottles and shower gel I pick up on my travels.
  12. Clothes wash in recyclable plastic containers so you can keep a nice supply of clean clothes.
  13. PJs.
  14. Light weight trousers or jeans for evening and cooler days. I take the ones with a bit of stretch so they don’t need ironing.
  15. Reproofed water proof jacket for rainy days.
  16. Spiral water heater, mug, travel French coffee press, a supply of milk pods, decaf and full strength coffee. I am traveling by train across Ukraine where the Buffet Car consists of a water boiler and a microwave. Also, I like an early morning coffee to get me going so I can make it in my room.
  17. Snacks for travelling plus water because it is hot and I don’t want to get dehydrated.
  18. Sachets of herbs and spices as I am self-catering most of the way and I have these things already.
  19. Cutlery set in a plastic box because it is nicer than plastic stuff.
  20. Charges, cables and adapters.
  21. Cameras and extra memory cards.
  22. Kindle, mini laptop and a couple of books. I download maps etc and turn them into PDF files to store on the Kindle. MP3 player and headphones.
  23. Travel journal, some nice pens, scissors for cutting up maps etc,, glue stick for gluing stuff in the journal.
  24. All tickets printed out and placed in a folder with copies on my mini laptop; photocopy of passport and medical insurance; two debit cards in different places, local currency; a maps of the main cities I am visiting. I keep all these in hidden pockets in the mini back pack.
  25. Cool bag with food for the journey and a food bag to carry drinks etc and which can be folded up at the end of the journey.

All of this goes into a cabin size bag and mini backpack ready for the off.

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