Friday, December 23, 2016

Adventures in Public Transport

Now it's winter and we aren't faring places, I've still been lucky enough to do some travelling as readers here will know. At the end of November, we were in Poland and then the weekend before last, I was in England. Since in both places I've made extensive use of public transport, I thought I'd share some anecdotes with you that show (I think) why using buses, trams and trains is such a great way to meet local people when travelling abroad.

In Poland, for instance, public transport is very reasonably priced. I think the Poles must have heart failure when they come to the Netherlands and see how much it is here. Like most places now, the chip card system is replacing tickets in Poland although you can still buy paper tickets if you want. We wanted to pay upfront for our whole seven days in the Katowice area, so a card it had to be. Being dumbwits when it comes to understanding Polish, we had to ask at the office for help and this is where the Poles really shine for us. They are so patient and so helpful. Our lady had very little English, but between us we worked out what we had to do. It took ages: she wrote numbers down that we tried to make sense of; she tried to explain how to use the pin code machine, which I eventually understood; she gave us payment options and told us how to get our deposit back if we wanted it, but she made no complaint about the time any of this took and was as sweet as could be.

We travelled a lot by bus and tram in Poland. The Katowice network area is massive and we did quite a bit of sticking pins on the map and finding a bus going that way or simply looking at the destination and saying 'let's go there.' This led us first to Toszek with its gorgeous castle and then to Mikolow, a surprisingly pretty town with an old German square, both quite random discoveries for us. We also tried to go to a place called Halemba - twice - but didn't make it. We still don't know why, but it might have had something to do with a circular route...ahem.

On another occasion, this time on a tram, we met a man who initially told us he was diabetic and needed help to buy food. At first we were sceptical, I'm ashamed to say, but when he told us his story, I felt deeply for him. He used to work in the Netherlands until he he was diagnosed with diabetes, but he could no longer work because of the severe extent of his condition. We chatted to him for much of our journey and learned how things have perhaps not improved for everyone in Poland since the end of communism. 'Thirty years ago, I would have been looked after,' he said 'but not anymore'.

We also took a couple of train trips and while I was really impressed by the trains, I was even more impressed by the conductors. They were not only very nice, they were incredibly patient and helpful too. We had to buy our tickets on the train rather than on the station. Apparently, this is normal practice and the conductors have these onboard hand-held computers to calculate the prices and print the tickets.  You can only buy one way tickets, oddly, but that's the rule.

On our second train trip, we went to Zwardon, which involved buying a through ticket from Gliwice Labedy to Zwardon involving two changes. The conductor who sold us our ticket had trouble understanding where we wanted to go. I had the feeling she might not even have heard of it as I don't suppose many people from Gliwice ask to go there. In the end, after many attempts at trying to say the name (probably incorrectly) we had to 'spell' it for her on the wall of the carriage. Luckily, that worked, but I was again surprised by her patience.

On our return from chilly, snowy, Zwardon to Katowice, we had the same conductor as on our up trip - the wonderful Tomasz. I've never met a train conductor quite like him before. He told us so much about the history of Silesia and the area. He also showed us the most beautiful book about the Polish railways with its history and extensive maps and old photos. This was his reading material for the erudite conductor indeed.

Then a quick hop in time and over to the UK; to Shepton Mallet and Wells in Somerset at the beginning of December to be precise. Although I was staying at a B&B in Shepton Mallet, I needed to get to Wells every day. I'd hired a car, but for reasons I won't go into here, I cannot drive in the dark, so I had to take the bus on Friday and Saturday. Well, I'm so glad I did. It was such fun. I'd forgotten that people chat at bus stops and on the buses in England. That doesn't happen often here in the Netherlands, but in the UK, it's what you do when you're in the bus queue (innit?). For instance:
'Hallo love, you all right?'
'Yeah, pet, but the lumbago's giving me proper stick this week.'
'Oh no! So sorry you're poorly! It's the damp, love. I was just saying to my girls last week this wet weather's getting us all down.'
And so that's the norm. I'd forgotten this, having lived away from the UK for so long, but I was tickled to find out it's still true. On my first evening at the bus stop, after making friendly small talk with a lady standing in the bus shelter, a very nice gentleman, who reminded me rather forcefully of a garden gnome chatted to me on the bus itself and helped me with directions for when I arrived in Wells. In fact he was so helpful, he even wanted to escort me at the other end, but I told him I was more than grown up enough to find my own way. He wasn't convinced, bless him.

The following day, I was waiting at the bus stop in Wells waiting to return to the B&B and got chatting to a lass who was going to visit her boyfriend in Shepton Mallet. While we were talking, a young man came in looking a bit bemused asking if we knew when the next bus to Bristol was. He told us he'd fallen asleep on the bus and should have got off  some time before reaching Wells. He had a huge problem because his girlfriend was expecting him to collect her from Bristol Airport and his mum was expecting him home before going to fetch the girlfriend. What made matters worse, his phone had run out of battery power so he couldn't contact either of them. Oh dear. He looked very disconsolate and dishevelled. The girl I was talking to offered to let him use her phone to contact his mother. Between the three of us, we composed a text to tell his mum the bus had broken down and to ask her to come and get him from Wells. We all agreed that the truth was not an option and that he had to play the 'parent game' to smoothe things over. I hope everything worked out for him; he certainly looked a bit happier when our own bus departed a few minutes later. When we arrived back in Shepton Mallet, my young friend thanked me for the company and conversation.
'I hope you have a lovely evening,' I smiled at her.
Then she stepped off the bus into the arms of a romantic looking young man with Byronic curls, so I called out to them.
'Ah, I can see you will have a lovely evening.'
The boy looked puzzled, but the girl smiled. She knew what I knew. What a lovely way to end the day. There's nothing like a bit of random conversation with strangers on the buses to lift the spirits.

Have a lovely Christmas everyone xx

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The City of Bells

The title of this post comes from a book written by Elizabeth Goudge. I read it as a teenager and loved it, partly because the setting was (I believe) based on Wells, that beautiful gem of a city on the edge of the Mendip hills in Somerset and where the author was born. I'd been there a few times with my parents and had fallen in love with it.

This last weekend, I went there again for the first time in about thirty five years (yes, really!) and was charmed to see it has changed very little, except of course for the huge shopping malls, which are thankfully on the edge of town, and for once have done little to diminish the heart of this lovely place.

I was there to visit my very dear friend from South Africa, Moira. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will remember I spent time with her over there last year. But this year, she is in the UK, working as an old people's nurse and at the moment, she is living in with a delightful elderly lady in Wells. As an aside, I cannot think of a place where Moi would be better suited. Wells fits her like a handmade glove.

Anyhow, we had a lovely time catching up. Because the nature of her work means that she cannot leave the house, much of this was spent at the kitchen table and often included the old lady too as she had many interesting stories to tell about her own life. But on Saturday, my sister and her daughters also popped down from Bristol. I had lunch with them and a walk round the cathedral. It is breathtaking, so very beautiful with its cruciform arches in the central nave (I think that's what they're called anyway). We were also treated to an informal carol concert by the choir who were practicing for a real concert that evening. I don't know about anyone else, but a good choir singing carols in a setting like that, well, it had me quite choked up. It was just gorgeous and so uplifting.

Cathedral in the mist
The weather was typical of the west country for the time of year: foggy, mild and wet, but that didn't spoil my enjoyment at all. There was a very brief burst of sunshine on Sunday morning and I was lucky enough to catch it while wandering round the Bishop's Palace. Here are a few of the photos I took.

Bishop's Palace walls and moat

The sun bursts through for a minute

The ray that bathed the palace in gold
I had lots of other fun too: rediscovering public transport, learning to drive on the left again and finding random people to chat to, but I'll put all that in another post. I'll also say more about the history of this lovely place. For now, I just want to give a shout out to the lovely Bed and Breakfast I stayed in. It was Middleton House in Shepton Mallet and it was really fantastic. I have rarely been given such a warm and friendly welcome. Gill and Kevin are wonderful hosts; my room was not only beautiful but spotlessly clean as well; the shower was heavenly; the tea, coffee and biccies provided in the room were plentiful and very welcome. I think the views from the house must also be lovely, but the mist fogged my vision, so to speak. So to finish this post, here is a link to their website. If anyone is going that way and needs a (very reasonably priced) place to stay, this is it.

Have any of you been to Wells? If so, I'd love to hear your impressions of it.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Poland revisited

My last post mentioned there would be something of a hiatus in my postings because of the NaNofiWriMo challenge I was undertaking, didn't it? Well, I'm happy to report I kept up the challenge and although I haven't actually finished my travelogue yet, I now have fifty thousand words of it instead of the fifteen I started with. Another week should see the first draft completed, so I'm really happy with the progress I made.

There was another reason for my blogging hiatus though, and that was a visit to Poland that began last Wednesday and finished yesterday. Koos and I had planned it well in advance as it was at a hiatus in my work schedule as well. I must admit, I booked it then because I was worried that any later would be too cold. Well, this last week was already much too cold for me. I love Poland and the Poles, but I've learnt that their winters are just not for me.

That aside, we had a great time and visited some beautiful places. The highlights for me were Toszek and Mikolow, two towns we went to just by sticking a pin on the map and catching buses. Toszek had a magnificent castle on the top of a very high hill, a huge surprise. There has been a fortification or gord there since the tenth century, and today, only parts of the castle are habitable, but I loved the combination of ruins with a fully functional and restored castle building. We spent some time just sitting on a bench there watching the sun go down. A magical interlude.

Toszek Castle from the bottom of the hill

In the grounds of Toszek Castle

The main gateway to Toszek Castle, fully restored

 Mikolow has seven hundred years of history and in one of its guises it had the German name of Nikolai and was home to a huge printing/publishing works. Silesia, the region of Poland where we have spent most of our time, has been a conflicted area for so much of its history, it's hard to know which influences have been the strongest, but German architecture is quite prominent in this area. 

The rynek or main square at Mikolow

We arrived on an icy cold morning and had to dive into a café to warm up quite quickly. All the same it was a lovely place with a pretty square (rynek) and a lively market. Quite a discovery given that we thought we were on the bus to nowhere.

I just loved the colour on these buildings

Street off the main square

The three clocks
Lovely shop fronts in Mikolow

One other special trip we did was into the mountains to Zwardon. Our train took us through Bielsko Biala, meaning white-white (yes, seriously! They are two different dialects and both refer to the White River on which the town was built), a beautiful classical town that has the added attraction of being the starting point for a cable car up into the mountains. We only stopped here on the way back, by which time it was dark, so it's somewhere to revisit, perhaps in the summer when the days are longer. Nevertheless, Zwardon was quite an experience. The further we climbed, the more it snowed, so by the time we arrived three hours after leaving Gliwice, the snow was more than ankle deep.

Zwardon church


We had a wonderful guide in our train conductor who was full of fascinating information and kept us entertained for most of the journey. He even invited Koos into the driver's cabin as a special concession so he could take photos and film a bit of our ascent. Thank you so much, Tomasz!

Our train at Zwardon

Zwardon hillsides. It is only 640 metres altitude
at the station, but the hills rise higher around it

The rest of our trip involved many tram and bus rides courtesy of our seven day travel card that cost the princely sum of about €11 and covered the entire network. We visited the mining museum and the Silesia museum. These were both quite moving experiences because I learnt so much about the struggles the people in this region have been subjected to, during centuries of conflict and even as recently as the 1980s when contamination of the environment by industry was at national disaster levels and then martial law was imposed, followed by mining strikes that cost many lives.

Gliwice town square


Lastly there was the Katowice Christmas Market, a beautiful set up in the centre of this much improved city, and a bief visit to my favourite town of all, Gliwice. But I have to confess, a lot of the time, we were diving into coffee shops just to get out of the cold. I love Poland, but next time I go, it will be in spring again. For me, that is the best time, and then, it might even be by boat....who knows?

Christmas market food

Stalls at the christmas market

Trinkets at the Christmas market