Beyond the Iron Curtain


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London to Vilnius

In June 2016 I hatched a plan to go deeper behind the Iron Curtain than I had ever been before. Since 1991, I have travelled around the Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Poland. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It was time to go further. I scratched Ukraine off the list because of the Russian incursions in Crimea. Russia itself was off the list because of the visa regulations. I had skirted Belarus many years ago on a Baltic trip and felt that the time had come to be brave and go there.

There were obvious obstacles: visa and language. The visa issue was quickly dealt with once I purchased a return flight to Vilnius and an accommodation in Minsk. Flying to Minsk is expensive so it is cheaper to go by bus or train from Vilnius. The language was more of an issue but I created a “cheat sheet” of the alphabet.

The bus journey from Vilnius takes about 3.5 hours and is far from exciting. The motorway is lined with forests broken up by occasional villages. The village houses tend to be brightly painted  and have intricate designs on them. They also seem, from the motorway, to be low and tiny. The big excitement is at the border. Passengers have their passports checked, go on a little way, get out of the coach with every item and take it through the customs control, get back on the coach, go a little way, get off the coach and visit Duty Free then get back on the coach for the rest of the journey.

Coming into Minsk there is a collection of religious buildings and then the housing blocks loom large. Everything in Minsk is larger than life from posters, buildings and statues. This is a country which does not know the word “discrete” apart from when it comes to tourist information where less is really less. The bus pulls into the bus station or the train station and then the tourist is out there on their own.

Around the bus and train stations there are a few signs in English but on the whole the traveller encounters Russian and Belarusian. Little English is spoken outside the hotels but it is possible to find restaurant menus in English and other languages. The Great Patriotic Museum has information in very long-winded English.

It is the size of everything which is striking.

This piece of artwork is opposite the Trinity Suburb and adorns a small shopping centre.

This statue is in a park

Monument to the Heroes of  WW2 (The Great Patriotic War)

And here is our friend Lenin outside the Government Buildings

The trip was, unfortunately, very short but left enough appetite for another visit.

A trip into the unknown


In the middle of June, I was thinking about where to spend the autumn half term and thought of Minsk. As a user of Postcrossing, I had been allocated a member in Minsk, Republic of Belarus, to write to. The person I wrote to, sent a message back with a link to a video. The video was short, a day compressed into a few minutes, but I was hooked. Within minutes, I was booked on a return flight to Vilnius with the prospect of a short land journey to and from Minsk.

People have asked me, incredulously, Why Minsk? Why not? Many of my colleagues and friends seem to think it is a rather dangerous place. They mean the Ukraine. Actually, the mean The Crimea, which is no longer part of Ukraine having been swiped by Putin’s Russia. Someone mentioned a bomb going off in Kiev. This was the week when an Islamic terrorist mowed down innocent people at a street festival in Nice. Wrong capital and wrong country.

I have elected to fly to Vilnius for two reasons: it is cheaper than flying to Minsk and I would like to see Vilnius again. There is also the added bonus of a transfer from Vilnius to Minsk and back.

I have written a short article for the Minsk Gazette on the thorny issue of travel visas. I have never been to Russia because I really cannot be bothered filling in an application form which is even worse than a job application. People have told me that they would be put off by having to apply for a visa. I have warned them that this could be the new travelling reality now the UK has voted for Brexit. The good news is, that the Belarus visa is two sides of A4 and does not demand to know what colour underwear you have. I managed to print it off and fill it in within 10 minutes.

To go with the visa you need travel and health insurance, a receipt from your accommodation to show that all is above board and the renters have the permit to do business, a nice photograph, tickets and the money. I was missing the accommodation coupon the first time but got my visa the second time.

The visa office had a nice stash of tourist information in England which I have added to my collection. What I have learned from this material is: not a lot of English is spoken, there is a lot of the Cyrillic alphabet around in Belarus and there is a lot to see. My trip is for three days so I am already thinking about how much I can fit it if I keep at it from 08:00 to 17:00. I have booked an apartment in the hope of meeting some residents in the corridors and maybe having a chat. This worked in Warsaw.

I have been corresponding with other travellers on Trip Advisor to find out useful information for the trip. We have had a lively discussion on the possibility of travelling from Vilnius by train. Despite over 30 years of independent travelling and as long teaching the English language, I failed to understand the requirements of the Belarus Railway website (http://www.rw.by/en/)and booked myself a ticket on a Eurolines bus from Vilnius to Minsk. I hope I can make myself understood the other end as I would really like to travel back by train.

I have no idea what to expect in terms of weather, food, drink and the feel of the city. All I know is, it will be a great adventure. I expect to come back having met some wonderful people and with some wonderful photographs.

Mapping out a novel


maps

I love maps. Whenever, I decide to visit a place I aim to get a printed map and study it carefully. The map speaks to me of the layout of the place and how it has developed. This helps me to get inside the place a little bit.

On my desk at the moment, are five maps which are connected to my novel, Weaver of Words, which is set partly in Czechia and partly in Poland. When I first arrived in Český Těšín I used the map to orientate myself. I had in my mind the railway station and the border with Poland. Looking at the map, I could see that the whole of the original town centre had two railway stations at opposite ends, with the border in the middle. It gives an understanding of how the modern town developed – one railway line served the Polish side and one the Czech side. Every municipal building of importance was situated with that boundary. The two halves of the town seem, on the map, to mirror each other. The town halls of both sides of the river are on the right hand side of the main street which runs from one railway line to another, straight over the bridge on the Olza. This is clearly visible from the map but might not be so obvious from the ground.When I visited the town, the map gave me a greater understanding of the layout and feel of it. It also allowed me to see how I could have my characters interact with the town.

My three maps of Prague date roughly from the same era – the 1980s. The largest one, gives the layout of the whole city including suburbs. I used it when I went to live in the Czech Republic to help me get around. It still has some of my markings on it. When visitors came, I used the second map, to explain the history of the buildings. This map came with a booklet giving the provenance of all the buildings in the centre of the city.  By looking at these maps it can be seen when the streets were constructed and in which order as the building number and street numbers are both written down. (The building number is the order of construction). This allows observers to locate a building in the archives. The map has the names of streets, buildings and metro stations as they were called in the Communist Era.There are such delights as the Square of Soviet Tanks, which has probably been renamed by now. This is the city as my characters would have experienced it. When I used the maps to walk the city, I photographed the buildings and then located them on the street map. Would my characters have noticed this? Would they have visited the shops? Which pubs would they have sat in? The ones nearest their hostel?

The smallest map, is a tourist street map showing the areas the Communist government thought tourists should be interested in. It is a snapshot of a view of the city at a particular time in it’s history. It has the pubs, cafés and restaurants marked which has helped me to accurately locate places from the time and give buildings the name they would have had in that period.

When I look at the maps I am instantly transported to a different place and a different time. I look at the street names and wonder who are what they celebrate. I look at the buildings and infrastructure to see how the town planners envisioned their town or city. What were the important buildings and places for them? I see the out-of-date names and am reminded of times past. I look at the length and width of streets and wonder at their destinations. In maps, I see a country and I see dreams. When I can, I walk the streets with my map in my hand and experience the place from the ground. Then, I come to know the place.

Urban Walking


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Kings Cross Development

Urban Walking or Urban Hiking is a trend which has spread over here from the States. The idea is that you abandon your car, bus, train or even bicycle and go out for a walk in the city. Obviously, those of us who are Urban Photographers have been doing this for years but any trend which gets people out of cars and walking is good.

A few years ago a friend gave me a book full of London walks which included places like the Regents Canal and the River Lea in East London. It was full of suggestions of things to see and places to stop for a snack. Very useful it was too. The last time I did a proper bicycle trip, I went around the Trent Valley starting off at Gordon Hill in Enfield and was pleasantly pleased to run across a walking couple who had the same book. They were able to point out things I had missed on my ride.

Walking the streets gives us a connection to our urban environment and is particularly useful in these times where we are becoming more isolated from our neighbours. In the part of North London where I live the streets are changing rapidly and by walking them I am able to see how it is changing. Shops open up and then disappear. Buildings are pulled down and become student accommodation. Small shops are amalgamated into bright airy supermarkets.The population is slowly changing and this is evidenced from who is sitting in the new hipster cafés and bars – it is becoming gentrified. I read this morning that the largest Jewish community is moving out to Canvey Island as it is now expensive to live here. That is a decision which will affect the look of the streets if the kosher shops and bakeries follow them.

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If the town planners would get out of their cars and come out of their offices to walk the streets they might have a greater understanding of the layout of this urban jungle. A recent housing development sported a mock direction sign showing the distances to different local services and amenities. The distances and timings they gave were based on paper plans. Anyone who has walked the streets knows that in reality these places are not quite so easily accessible by car. However, if you walk down the small path skirting the waste ground and then along by the terraced houses built for the family of the railway construction workers you can be in the centre in around 15 minutes. The walk, by the way, is much pleasanter than the car journey. On the way, you will see apple trees, imaginative gardens, blackberry bushes and meet your neighbours.

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I recently did an urban walk with a friend. We started out at Kings Cross and went in search of a pub. We strolled along the Regents Canal and ended up in a very nice Victorian pub which still had it’s original fireplace and stained glass windows. We bought a drink, had a friendly chat with the landlady and sat enjoying the summer sun in the yard. Then, we continued walking until Camden Market. We had a look at a second-hand bookshop and moved on. Eventually, we arrived at Primrose Hill. I remembered a pub I had seen at the corner of England’s Lane. We asked directions and we directed to a bus stop. Since the bus stop was on the route we followed the directions. A road sign directed us to Belsize Park and we had a lovely walk up to it and a stroll around the streets looking at the restaurants and pubs on the way. Eventually we came across a delightful tapas bar where we stopped for supper. It was a lovely day and a lovely way to see the city. The tapas bar was a big hit and a wonderful “find.”

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It was a delightful way to connect with the city once again and I strongly urge people to walk their streets to get to know them.

 

Buch am Bord or Additional Free Baggage Allowance for Bookworms


Condor Airlines, the Thomas Cook company, is now giving its German passengers a one kilo allowance extra for their reading materials. This is a great idea. It means the passengers can take along a few hefty books and not have them count as part of their luggage allowance. All passengers have to do is buy a book from a bookshop in the scheme and get their sticker.

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Source: condor.com

I think ALL airlines should adopt such as scheme. I recently travelled Wizz Air and used the Priority Booking system in order to take my laptop on-board as an extra item. In addition, I noted I could also take some reading materials. This is great. Wizz Air are as bad as Ryan Air used to be in weighing and measuring wheelie suitcases, so the fact that you can carry a book or newspaper as an extra can only be a good thing.

Budget Airlines and booksellers should get together to promote such as scheme. I think holidays are a great time to catch up on reading especially as passengers spend a lot of time hanging around airports and sitting in planes. If passengers take printed books they do not necessarily have to bring them back. A bit like bookcrossing this could encourage sharing and reading – passengers could leave their finished books in airport lounges, cafes, hotels etc. What a great boost to reading.

 

Image source: https://www.condor.com/de/entdecken/aktionen-specials/buch-an-bord-aktion.jsp

How to pack for Wizz Air


Choosing to travel Wizz Air unleashes my creativity. Here I show you how to pack for a one-week trip and meet the Wizz Air baggage requirements.

Wizz Air, the Hungarian “budget” airline, has one of the tinniest free baggage allowances of any of the no-frills airline. Their free on-board allowance is one bag measuring 42 x 32 x 25 cms. This is smaller than the smallest wheelie case I have been able to locate. However, if you pay for priority seating at the time of booking you get to take on board another bag such as a small handbag, camera bag or laptop case. In addition, you can take an “airport” carrier bag with your duty free purchases, reading material such as a book and one of those little food bags from the eateries.

Having spent several days measuring up my own collection of rucksacks and those available in local shops, I have finally settled on one. It is a bog standard work or school rucksack which is marginally smaller than the size allowed. I picked it up off Amazon but they have similar ones in supermarkets, sports shops and the like. I like the colour and the three pockets on this one. The straps at the bottom will be ideal for holding my sunhat. There’s also one of those mesh side pockets which will become home to my vacuum flask.

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This bag is not huge, and far smaller than a small suitcase, and so requires clever packing and serious trip planning on my behalf.

The trip is a seven day research trip to the Czech Republic and Poland. I will spend two days in Prague, then take a cross country train over to Poland, spend three days in Silesia, take the train back to Prague  for another 30 hours or so. The bag, therefore, needs to be lightweight, sturdy and easy to pack and unpack. So far, on trial packs, this bag meets the criteria.

As the trip is combining travelling, museum visits and archive research with some sightseeing the packing list includes items suitable for a city visit. In my trial pack, I have squeezed into the main compartment socks, underwear, two pairs of chinos, three light shirts, a tee shirt, a thin sweater, PJs, two exercise books, a camera, tin mug and coffee bags, some charging cables, slippers and some odds and ends such as cotton shopping bag and a bottle opener. In the outside pocket, I am carrying plug converters, a small water heater and all toiletries. All clothing has been rolled up so it will a) fit and b) come out looking reasonably wearable. All the accommodation comes equipped with irons so I can spruce things up on the way. I have gone for a blue and terracotta colour scheme to maximize usage.

I have learnt from previous trips that it is essential to keep key items in large freezer bags so they don’t get mislaid or the bag emptied to find them. I have one freezer bag for chargers and connectors, one for toiletries and one for miscellaneous items. Small clothing items are in nylon bags.

liquids

I have a nice collection of small tubs for aloe vera gel (for rashes and sunburn) and hair gel. The shampoo is made from a shampoo base with a little olive oil and sage essential oil. The blue liquid is laundry detergent. I take a bar of homemade soap to use in the shower and sink. It is stored in an Altoids tin. The toothpaste is low cost supermarket own brand. I decant where possible as small versions of toiletries are very expensive and wasteful.

I always have a stash of useful items in a plastic bag. I always take some spare freezer bags. The roll up sports bottle is both extremely useful and lightweight. I have added a clothes repair kit because accidents do happen.

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I am saving space by taking a bridge camera i.e. a DSLR which has one lens to cover wide angle and zoom. My phone is a back up. I need to take notes so am packing my Samsung Galaxy Note and  a keyboard. They fit in a small shoulder bag. I am also taking a small notebook and some photo mounts to create a kind of journal/safe store for the tickets and receipts I collect on the journey. The small book contains post-it notes in case I want to make a note.

electronics

And finally, coffee. I always take a water heater, a tin mug, coffee bags and some dried milk. I will only take a quarter of the milk in a plastic bag.

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That’s almost it. I have a small nylon rucksack for days out, a travel towel and some plastic cutlery for picnics in the park etc.

Everything fits comfortably in the small rucksack with some wriggle room and space for chocolate while meeting  the WizzAir requirements. I am now ready to travel.

Solo Travel


Sometimes I travel alone and sometimes with friends. It all depends on the reason for the trip. My last few trips over the past 18 months (Copenhagen, Riga, Warsaw and Budapest) have been with friends and I have enjoyed planning the trips and sharing experiences with them. Copenhagen would not have been quite so much fun on my own; Riga I know like the back of my hand and I have set a novel there, so it was good to share; Warsaw was a research trip but the two friends who came with me made it less work-orientated than it would usually be. I certainly spent a lot more time sitting around drinking coffee and having breakfast than I ever do on my own. It was pleasant but I did not do as much work as I would have liked. Now, I have to return to Warsaw to do the research I went to do in the first place, Sigh.

I went to Lublin, Poland, on my own last summer and enjoyed the freedom of going where I wanted but it would have been nice to share the experiences with someone. Even I got tired of sitting in pubs drinking beer on my own. Strangely, it was one of the few trips where I did not get talking to anyone. Maybe it was the weather or the hotel I stayed at (a business-type place).

I have just returned from a weekend in Paignton, Devon, where I got chatting to quite a few people. It made the trip a little more interesting and I learnt something about lives different to my own.

Next month, I am on a research trip to the Czech Republic and Poland – alone. It is part research and part nostalgia as I am researching my new novel and revisited old haunts from 24 years ago. I have created a schedule so that a) I don’t get bored and b) I don’t miss anything. I am looking forward to my action-packed days and mad travel schedule and hoping I will get to talk to some interesting people. That, after all, is the purpose of travel: to have new experiences and widen one’s horizons.

 

train ticket Ostrava to Prerov

Original train ticket April 1991