Thursday, 17 November 2016


15th - 16th Oct 2016
Grande Place or Place Charles de Gaulle. Centre of Lille
Only a 35 minute train journey from Brussels to the French border town of Lille for a very brief visit. It was a sunny day and the place looked rather attractive. I took a wander through the town to the tourist information centre passing through the Grande Place (or Place Charles de Gaulle). The Column of the Goddess features at it's centre. As you may know, General Charles de Gaulle was born in Lille.
I must say, these Continental European Tourist Info Offices are a cut above anything we have to offer in UK. They are spacious and smart and the attention you get is very polite, welcoming and informative. I was looking for some cheap accommodation and the charming lady behind the desk suggested a few places, highlighting the 2 star Hotel Premier Classe. She gave me gave me loads of maps and pamphlets and did indeed make me feel very welcome. 

I set off towards the hotel passing the impressive looking St Maurice Cathedral (left). It was back towards and conveniently close to the main Gare Lille Europe. Not far from the ex-'Fan Zone' where crowds gathered to watch some of the Euro footer matches last summer....not sure if it was the site of any Brit v Russian skirmishes.
The Hotel Premier Classe looked cheerful, was relatively cheap (50 Euros) and suited my purpose admirably. There was a spare room and the lady at the desk had a good sense of humour, especially after I regaled her with my horrific Bugs in Brussels story.  OK, they were nearly full up and my room was a floor above where the lift finished, up a little narrow staircase. It was, to say the least, 'compact' but had wifi and 'en-suite' even if a bit of a struggle to fit into the shower/loo space. The receptionist had (jokingly) assured me that "our bugs don't climb up that far".

The town is certainly picturesque with impressive architecture and expensively tasteful shops, hotels and cafés. The only thing that was  noticeably unattractive was the significant number of beggars and young men of middle-eastern appearance who try to confront people with requests for money. Not sure if I feel sorry for them, but they are irritating.

Lille is near what was the front line on the north-western sector in WW1 and close to the battlefields of Ypres. Map (left) gives a basic layout. Tours to the battlefields are organised from here and are probably well worth doing....definitely worth considering but no time on this occasion. 
Right: These soldiers were marching through the town during least I don't think it was anything to do with Euro 2016 football.........
After a good lunch in one of the many splendid restaurants, the afternoon was spent on a cultural tour of the Palais des Beaux Arts (left). I'm not really into 'art', as you may have gathered from previous 'philistine' missives, but this place is one of the biggest art galleries in France and houses many famous works, so I thought I would give it a go.  Actually I had met up with some friends for lunch and they were keen that I should join them, for some unknown reason. It features all sorts of geographical and historic displays and sculptures together with paintings both ancient and modern.

I was rather taken by this chap (or maybe woman?) who was on display. Possibly someone left behind from the Euro 2016 football tournament...stuffed and mounted?

I saw lots of paintings by famous artists but I won't bore you with loads of photos. Left: This strange short-sighted lady seemed more interested in the paint on the wall than by the painting above it.

Right: A little gathering of art connoisseurs relaxing by the pond outside the gallery.

Left: The interior forecourt of the Gare Flanders, presumably Lille's domestic railway station. It was most impressive inside with lots of decent shops and restaurants.

Right: ....and nearby the main Gare Lille Europe where the EuroStar trains, amongst others, arrive and depart. I left here on a EuroStar for London.

So, nothing very exciting to report from Lille and thankfully no further bed bugs.

That was the end of my Baltics journey and very educational and enjoyable it was too (apart from Brussels). Now back to the grot, chaos and dismal weather in autumnal UK. Where next? I am formulating my 'Chrexit' plans.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016


13th - 15th Oct 2016
The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, illuminated
Just as I was leaving Warsaw a watery sun began to peep through the clouds. Pity I had had such a wet time of it. Hey ho. Despite being held up, or I should say delayed, by a gang of wealthy Chinese in my hotel I made it to the central station in good time. Not a long walk.
The train departed at 9.57am and much to my delight the carriages contained comfortable 'compartments' rather than aircraft type seating. Only three others were in my compartment so plenty of room to spread out and relax for the 6 hour journey to Berlin. I was looking forward to watching the scenery go by, fiddling about on my computer and enjoying whatever they had to offer in the buffet or restaurant car. I was let down on all three counts. The scenery, travelling due west through Poznan, was distinctly uninspiring; flat and not even many trees. I have yet to see anything resembling a hill since leaving Tallinn. There was no wifi and, worst of all, there was no buffet or any source of refreshment for the whole journey. I mean, this was 6 hours spent without even being able to get a drink! If I'd known that before I would have plundered the breakfast buffet at the hotel and bought a few bottles of beer in the station. Polish Railways (PKP) definitely gets the thumbs down for that.
Two of my fellow compartmentees got off at Poznan leaving me alone with a German chap, a builder I think, or perhaps a road worker (I never really gathered)  returning to his family in Berlin. He spoke little English, and me barely any useful German but nevertheless he insisted on speaking to me, almost non-stop. I hardly understood a word he was saying and my Deutsche is only what I gleaned as a schoolboy from the War Picture Library comics. Phrases such as "Hande Hoch Fritz!" and "Achtung mein Schmeisser ist kaput" or "Donner und Blitzen wo ist der Flammenwerfer Herr Hauptman" were, I considered, not  appropriate for any sensible conversation. I tried to be polite and nodded and shook my head at what I considered the correct moments. It seemed a long and tiresome journey.
Arrived at the very smart new 4 level Berlin Hauptbahnhof (full of smart shops and restaurants) at about 4.00pm and asked the helpful information desk lady where I could stay for the night, preferably cheaply and nearby. I was directed to a place 10 minutes walk away called the 'AO Hostel'. She also told me that there was to be a 'son et lumiere' show tonight at the Brandenburg my honour of course. The AO was much better than a hostel, cost 70 Euros per night and I got a comfortable room with all mod cons, plus a good bar.
It was a 20 minute walk to the Brandenburg Gate where the show was due to start at 7.00pm, and it did. Quite impressive too with clever changing lights and moving graphics playing on the gates accompanied by loud music. There was a healthy crowd there to greet me, although in true reserved and polite Teutonic fashion they made a point of not overtly recognising me. The photo of this event does not show the crowd because I was at the front of it. It was still going at 8.30pm when I decided I had seen enough.
After a decent supper at a restaurant on Unter den Linden I got a U-Bahn back to the Hauptbahnhof. This was just a brief pit-stop, as was to be my next night spent in Brussels.

The ICE train left Berlin at 1052am bound for Cologne where I had to make a change. It passed through Hannover, Minden, Osnabruck, Munster; place names that were familiar from a previous existence in Germany. I remember the days when the  journey by military train from Hanover to Berlin was through old Soviet controlled East Germany and was quite an elaborate performance.  This train did boast a wifi facility, but you had to pay for it. I duly paid 5 Euros for an hour's connection (what a rip off). It then didn't work! (an even greater rip off). I don't understand why the further west you go the worse the internet/broadband service is. In the Baltics, and indeed in most far eastern countries, wifi connection with fast broadband is as free and available as tap water. Maybe we will catch up one day.
A quick change to another ICE train at Cologne (that didn't even offer wifi, expensive, useless or not) and arrived at Brussels Midi at 1540pm. Another helpful info desk chap directed me to a nearby hotel which, he suggested, was only 7 minutes walk, a couple of Squares, away in the Place de L'Aviation.
On leaving the station, by the back exit, I felt somewhat ill at ease. It is a scruffy and badly lit area. There were several little groups of Afro-Belgians hanging around. They were mostly wearing dark glasses (and it was beginning to get dark by then) and looked vaguely sinister. I really don't know what they were up to and they talked in that strange Afro-French dialect. There were also a few armed-to-the-teeth Belgian soldiers knocking around. I'm not sure which I considered the more dangerous. 
I set off armed with a street map, wishing I was armed with something more lethal, which the station info man had kindly given me, to find the Place de L'Aviation. I then found myself walking down some dimly lit streets in what was clearly a very black 'ethnic' and grotty area. I was stared at, quite disconcertingly, by locals loitering on the street corners and one feels remarkably vulnerable being an obviously touristy white man dragging a suitcase and carrying all one's money and valuables in such a dodgy part of town where one stands out like the proverbial 'dog's bollocks'. Smart, elegant, chic Brussels this definitely was not. Anyway, I eventually found the hotel, Hotel Aviation (what else), without incident. It seemed decent enough and affordable at 50 Euros (cash) for the night. Having dumped my kit, and carefully locked away or hidden all my valuable stuff, I decided to go back to the station to do some shopping for rations because there were no shops nearer to the hotel. I retraced my steps with only the odd look from the corner loiterers. They must be getting used to me. Maybe we'll be on chatting terms before I leave. I did my shopping and set off back again. I had only gone a short distance when, passing a row of taxis, I noticed one of them appeared to have a little fire underneath it. A couple of guys then started setting off hand-held fire extinguishers at what seemed a minor glow. I decided to stay and watch. The flames grew higher despite the efforts of, presumably, the driver and a couple of mates. It soon developed into a mighty conflagration with attendant explosions and billowing black smoke. Interestingly, other than a few taxi drivers, nobody else in the area seemd to be taking much interest. The crowd of gawpers consisted of just me and another couple of guys taking photos with their mobile phones. I had, wisely I thought at the time, left my camera in the hotel, dammit. Sod's Law; you never have it when you need it. I think someone was trying to stop traffic passing by. Perhaps burning cars here is such a regular occurrence that they are of no great interest. Eventually a fire engine could be heard approaching from the distance. The siren grew louder, then grew fainter. It grew louder again and must have come quite close before growing fainter again. I heard it again coming from the opposite direction and again seemed to get close, judging by the noise, but again disappeared. It brought to mind episodes of the Keystone Cops. They were obviously racing around the city, bells ringing and siren blaring, with firemen hanging off the sides, and completely lost.
They did arrive eventually. The car was still ablaze, fortunately for them, with plumes of black smoke and the occasional dying pop, fizz and bang. The firemen, kitted out like spacemen, had a marvellous time dousing it with foam, and it took some dousing, before we could all admire what was left of the smouldering wreck. I felt like giving a little round of applause at the end of this bit of street theatre. I walked back to Place de L'Aviation by a different, longer but better lit and populated, route. Had supper in a cheery little restaurant and went to bed. That was when the trouble started.

My room was basic but seemed clean and tidy with en-suite shower. It was 1.15am when I woke up with an itchy right foot. I tried to disregard it, but woke up again sometime after, thrashing about with a serious itching on my arms, back and neck. I couldn't disregard this. I was being eaten alive! What to do? The bed was obviously infested. I really couldn't be arsed to go all the way down to reception, if indeed anyone was likely to be there, so I took the quilt off the bed, put it on the floor and slept on that hoping the bugs were in the mattress part. It wasn't a comfortable night, and the following morning, my back, arms, neck and feet were still madly itching but, curiously, no sign of bites. They appeared red and glowing later in the day. I rather meekly decided not to press this matter home with a rather surly concierge before I left on the basis that it would probably end up in an argument and I doubted if I would get any money back. Still not sure if it was fleas or bed bugs, but thoroughly unpleasant whichever. The only previous occasion I was bitten by bed bugs was on the Ghan train in Australia, and they left nasty infected very localised bites. Maybe these ones were fleas, not that I saw any or even care what the little bastards were. I suppose the only thing to do is warn any of you reading this, should you be passing through Brussels and looking for accommodation near the Midi station, AVOID THE HOTEL AVIATION at least until it has been fumigated.

I obviously never got to see the smart part of Brussels where the fat-cat over-paid Eurocrats dine out and party in grand style (on our taxpayers' money). I don't suppose they get to see much of the Place de L'Aviation either for that matter.

So, back to the Midi railway station for a short 35 minute trip to the charming French town of Lille.

Thursday, 3 November 2016


11th - 12th Oct 2016

Palace of Culture and Science. Central Warsaw
Having travelled down through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, small nations and rather similar in outlook and history, I couldn't help feel that they might benefit by merging into one stronger entity, perhaps to be called 'Estlatania'. Just a thought.
Anyway, on south-west, by bus again (still no direct rail service), to Warsaw; a seven hour journey departing at 11.00am from Vilnius central bus station. We crossed the border somewhere between Marijampole in Lithuania, where we stopped for a leg-stretch, and Suwalki in Poland. Polish immigration police came on board here. Not sure who or what they were looking for as I never saw any sign of illegal immigrant types in Lithuania (or in Latvia or Estonia for that matter). It was a fairly cursory check. The next notable occurrence was that the previous excellent free bus wifi service packed up. I was told "no bus internet service in Poland".
We were informed that instead of taking us, as per normal schedule, to central Warsaw, we would be be dropped off at some unpronounceable Metro station. We were at least given complimentary Metro tickets. By the way, I have still not seen a proper hill, indeed scarely an undulation, since leaving Tallinn (with the possible exception of Vilnius). The countryside towards Warsaw continues flat and unremarkable.
As advised, we were dropped off at a Metro station called something like Mokozyrwtowski, and it was raining. The bus was going on to Krakow and then Prague.
Anyway, it was a relatively short three-stop underground journey to the centre of town where I was to stay in  (for me ) an over-expensive hotel. Apart from a few rather dodgy sounding hostels, there appears, despite much searching, to be no cheapo hotels here. The currency is the Zloty, of which there are 4.6 to the £. A year ago it was 6.6....
My first impressions of the city were not particularly favourable, not helped perhaps by the dismal weather; if it wasn't raining it was drizzling. As you are no doubt aware Warsaw was practically bombed flat during WW2. The new city, that I saw, and I was only going to be here for a day and a half, contains many high rise hotels, large apartment stores and office blocks. The main city streets are wide and multi-laned with heavy traffic.  There seems to be a surprising lack of small cafés, pubs and bars...I never even saw an Irish bar which is, I thought, a compulsory feature for most cities of the world.
I had limited time to look around on the only full day available to me, so I decided to start, as most tourists do, in the Old Town to the north of the centre and alongside the River Vistula. This did not escape the bombs and shells in WW2 and so most of the Old Town is reconstructed...a New Old Town if you like.

The central feature of which is the massive red brick Royal Castle (left). This was flattened by the Germans during the war, and painstakingly rebuilt subsequently.
It had it's heyday in the 17th century, before becoming a residence for visiting Russian tsars and then, after independence in 1918, the Polish president.
I paid an entrance fee (20 Zloty) and set off around a marked route through innumerable rooms.

Most of the rooms, and I never did complete the whole route, were lavishly decorated and sparsely furnished.

Left: This was the 'royal' bedroom (or one of them). If that thing with the drapes behind it is the Royal Bed, then the royal occupant must have had remarkably short legs.


Right: One of the big halls or assembly rooms. I never did find out what most of these rooms were used for. Ten-pin bowling? 

Left: A room containing several Canaletto paintings. I was told they are originals.

One of the common features of some of these ex-Soviet style museums is the type of sentinel that stands guard over each room. They tend to be female, of a 'certain age' and very bolshy. OK, they don't speak much English (not their fault), but they look at you with grim suspicion. They never smile. One of these harridans insisted that I take off my (dry) waterproof coat and hand it in to a cloakroom, miles away. I never found out why I should. The secret, as I have discovered, with this kind of old dragon  is simply to totally disregard them. They just grumpily shrug their shoulders and let you go on your way or do what you want. They are probably the life and soul of the party on their days off.

Right: Another elaborately and garishly decorated room.

Left: The Throne Room containing a throne, and a few Japanese tourists.

I think that is enough, of many more I took, of the interior of the Royal Castle. It got me out of the rain for a while.

Right: A view of some of the Old Town. 

Left: The Barbican, originally a defensive tower, at the northern end of the Old Town. Another reconstruction after the original fell victim to German bombs. I am told it is a popular spot for buskers and art sellers. Not today it wasn't.

I then decided to walk on to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews on Anielewicza St. A hike of about 2 km. It was a site recommended to me by a Polish friend in UK. I was told it is a most impressive museum and well worth a visit.

Right: As indeed it looked from the outside. 

Disappointingly it was closed due to today being Yom Kippur. Silly me, I had completely forgotten. So the mysteries held within I have yet to discover.

Right: Outside the museum I took a photo of the seated statue of a very famous Polish Jew. Unfortunately I forgot to note who it was.

Then on back towards the centre to the Saxon Gardens, said to be modelled on the French gardens at Versailles. A most pleasant park which, during fine weather, must be a lovely place to stroll around. It once had a grand palace in it, the Saxon Palace, but this too was flattened in WW2. There are, apparently, plans to rebuild it.
Left: A fountain in the Gardens at the end of a long statue lined avenue.

Right: At the eastern side of the gardens is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

This is guarded by two soldiers who stood rigidly to attention for 10 minutes while I hovered about. They then broke into a bit of marching and rifle drill before resuming their pose. I can't think it was to amuse me (the only other person present); probably to restore the circulation and get warm. 

The photo at the top of the Palace of Culture and Science I saw because, being the tallest building in Poland, it is impossible to miss. Built by the Soviets in the early 1950s it is 231 metres high. Unfortunately I didn't have time to go inside. It contains not just a museum but congress halls, cinemas, theatres and presumably shops. It also boasts a fine panoramic view of the city from the observation gallery on the 30th floor. Another reason for not going up it, and normally I would have like a shot, was that the 30th floor was in cloud for most of the  time I was there. I got this pic on my way to the station the following day when the sun began to peek through.

To be honest, I had only the briefest time to see this big city which I'm sure contains many fascinating  and amusing things to see and do and which I did not. Especially when it's not raining. I had intended to go on to Krakow in the south of Poland, certainly worth visiting but, for once, I was on a tightish schedule and had to make headway back to Blighty. Always in a rush to make sure I didn't miss my train onwards I went to check out of the hotel reasonably early the next morning. Just as well, because there was a group of five Chinese guests who were causing mayhem at reception. They insisted of paying everything by cash and each one of them insisted on paying for the others. It must have been a matter of prestige. I've never seen so much cash being bandied about, and total chaos. The hotel receptionist was being most patient.

I made the train with time to spare because, thankfully, reinforcements were called in to hotel reception. The Chinese are probably still there arguing about who should pay.

Right: Inside Warsaw Central Railway Station. Very smart and well organised with, of course, the mandatory MacDonalds (far right) on both floors. 

On next by rail to Berlin, Brussels, Lille (brief overnight stops with a day in Lille) and back to London.